Everyone I know is brokenhearted by Josh Ellis

Everyone I know is brokenhearted.

All the genuinely smart, talented, funny people I know seem to be miserable these days. You feel it on Twitter more than Facebook, because Facebook is where you go to do your performance art where you pretend to be a hip, urbane person with the most awesomest friends and the best relationships and the very best lunches ever. Facebook is surface; Twitter is subtext, and judging by what I’ve seen, the subtext is aching sadness.

I’m not immune to this. I don’t remember ever feeling this miserable and depressed in my life, this sense of futility that makes you wish you’d simply go numb and not care anymore. I think a lot about killing myself these days. Don’t worry, I’m not going to do it and this isn’t a cry for help. But I wake up and think: fuck, more of this? Really? How much more? And is it really worth it?

In my case, much of it stems from my divorce and the collapse of the next relationship I had. But that’s not really the cause. I think that those relationships were bulwarks, charms against the dark I’ve felt growing in this world for a long time now. When I was in love, the world outside didn’t matter so much. But without it, there is nothing keeping the wolf from the door.

It didn’t used to be like this when I was a kid. I’m not getting nostalgic here, or pretending that my adolescence and my twenties were some kind of soft-focused Golden Age. Life sucked when I was young. I was unhappy then too. But there was always the sense that it was just a temporary thing, that if I stuck it out eventually the world was going to get better — become awesome, in fact.

But the reality is that the three generations who ended the 20th century, the Boomers, their Generation X children, and Generation Y, have architected a Western civilization that’s kind of a shit show. Being born in 1978, I fall at either the tail end of Gen X or the beginning of Gen Y, depending on how you look at it. I became an adolescent at the time Nirvana was ushering in a decade of “slacker” ideology, as the pundits liked to put it. But the reality is that I didn’t know a whole lot of actual slackers in the 1990s. I did know a lot of people who found themselves disillusioned with the materialism of the 1980s and what we saw as the failed rhetoric of the Sixties generation, who were all about peace and love right until the time they put on suits and ties and figured out how to divide up the world. I knew a lot of people who weren’t very interested in that path.

The joke, of course, is that every generation kills the thing they love. The hippies became yuppies; Gen X talked a lot about the revolution, and then went and got themselves some venture capital and started laying into place the oversaturated, paranoid world we live in now. A lot of them tried to tell themselves they were still punk as fuck, but it’s hard to morally reconcile the thing where you listen to Fugazi on the way to your job where you help find new ways to trick people into giving up their data to advertisers. Most people don’t even bother. They just compartmentalize.

And I’m not blaming them. The world came apart at the end of the 90s, when the World Trade Center did. My buddy Brent and I were talking about this one night last year — about how the end of the 90s looked like revolution. Everybody was talking about Naomi Klein and anti-consumerism and people in Seattle were rioting over the WTO. Hell, a major motion picture company put out Fight Club, which is about as unsubtle an attack on consumer corporate capitalism as you can get. We were poised on the brink of something. You could feel it.

And then the World Trade Center went down. And all of a sudden calling yourself an “anticapitalist terrorist” was no longer a cool posture to psych yourself up for protest. It became something you might go to jail for — or worse, to one of the Black Camps on some shithole island somewhere. Corporate capitalism became conflated somehow with patriotism. And the idea that the things you own end up defining you became quaint, as ridiculous spoken aloud as “tune in, turn on, drop out”. In fact, it became a positive: if you bought the right laptop, the right smartphone, the right backpack, exciting strangers would want to have sex with you!

It’s no wonder that Gen X began seeking the largely mythological stability of their forebearers; to stop fucking around and eating mushrooms at the Rage Against The Machine show, and to try and root yourself. Get a decent car — something you can pass off as utilitarian — and a solid career. Put your babies in Black Flag onesies, but make sure their stroller is more high tech than anything mankind ever took to the Moon, because that wolf is always at the door. And buy yourself a house, because property is always valuable. Even if you don’t have the credit, because there’s this thing called a “subprime mortgage” you can get now!

But the world changed again. And kept changing. So now you’ve got this degree that’s worth fuck-all, a house that’s worth more as scrap lumber than as a substantial investment, and you’re either going to lose your job or have to do the work of two people, because there’s a recession on. Except they keep saying the recession ended, so why are you still working twice as hard for the same amount of money?

We started two wars, only one of them even marginally justifiable, and thousands and thousands of people died. Some of them were Americans, most of them weren’t. The world hated us again. It’s psychically oppressive to realize you’re the bad guy.

Of course, for a lot of the world, America had always been the bad guy…but we didn’t really know that before, because we didn’t have the Internet in our pocket, to be pulled out at every lunch break and before the meal came and when the episode of Scrubs on TV dragged a little, and before bed. We were encouraged to immerse ourselves in the endless flow of information, to become better informed, because knowing more about the world made us better people.

And maybe it did, but it also made us haunted people.

Yesterday morning, when I woke up, I clicked on a video in my Twitter feed that showed mutilated children being dragged from the streets of Gaza. And I started sobbing — just sobbing, sitting there in my bed with the covers around my waist, saying “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” over and over to the empty room. Dead children, torn to bits. And then it was time for…what? Get up, eat my cereal, go about my day? Every day?

So you’re haunted, and you’re outraged, and you go on Twitter and you go on Facebook and you change your avatar or your profile picture to a slogan somebody thoughtfully made for you, so that you can show the world that you’re watching, that you care, that it matters. But if you’re at all observant, you begin to realize after a while that it doesn’t matter; that your opinion matters for very little in the world. You voted for Obama, because Obama was about hope and change; except he seems to be mostly about hope and change for rich people, and not about hope at all for the people who are killed by American drones or who are locked away without trial in American internment camps or who are prosecuted because they stand up and tell the truth about their employers. There does seem to be a lot of hope and change in Fort Meade and Langley, though, where the NSA and CIA are given more and more leeway to spy on everyone in the world, including American citizens, not for what they’ve done but what they might do.

And the rest of the world? They keep making more dead children. They slaughter each other in the streets of Baghdad and Libya and Gaza and Tel Aviv; they slaughter each other in the hills of Syria; and, increasingly, they slaughter each other in American schools and movie theaters and college campuses.

And when you speak up about that — when you write to your Congressperson to say that you believe in, say, stricter control on the purchase of assault weapons, or limiting the rights of corporations to do astonishing environmental damage, or not sending billions of dollars to the kind of people who think it’s funny to launch missiles filled with flechette rounds into the middle of schools where children huddle together — you’re told that, no, you’re the fascist: that people have the right to defend themselves and make money, and that those rights trump your right to not be killed by some fucking lunatic when you’re waiting in line at Chipotle to grab a chicken burrito, and your right to not be able to light your tapwater on fire with a Zippo because of the chemicals in it, or not to end up in a grainy YouTube video while some demented religious fanatic hacks your head off with a rusty bayonet because your country — not you, but who’s counting — is the Great Satan.

And the music sucks. Dear God, the music sucks. Witless, vapid bullshit that makes the worst airheaded wannabe profundities of the grunge era look like the collected works of Thomas Locke. Half the songs on the radio aren’t anything more than a looped 808 beat and some dude grunting and occasionally talking about how he likes to fuck bitches in the ass. The other half are grown-ass adults singing about their stunted, adolescent romantic ideals and playing a goddamn washtub while dressed like extras from The Waltons.

The music sucks. The movies suck — I mean, they didn’t suck the first time they came out, in the 1980s, but the remakes and gritty reboots and decades-past-their-sell-by-date sequels suck. Indiana Jones is awesome, but nobody needs to see a geriatric Harrison Ford, lured out of retirement by the promise of building another mansion onto his mansion, running around with fucking Shia LeBeouf in the jungle. And besides, we’re all media experts now; we can spot the merchandising nods from the trailer all the way to the final credits. There’s no magic left. It’s just another company figuring out a way to suck the very last molecules of profit out of the things we cherish, because that’s what corporations do.

Everything is branded. Even people. People are “personal brands”, despite the fact that, by and large, you can’t figure out what most of them are actually even good for. They just exist to be snarky and post selfies and demand that you buy something, anything, with their picture on it.

You actually know who Kim Kardashian is. In an ideal world, you’d be as unaware of her existence as you are of the names of the Chinese kids who made the futurephone or featherweight laptop you’re almost certainly reading this on. In an ideal world, Kim Kardashian would have spent her life getting sport-fucked anonymously by hip-hop stars in some Bel Air mansion, ran a salon, and either died of a coke overdose or Botox poisoning. There is no reason that her face and her life and her tits and her deathless thoughts needed to be foisted upon the world outside of the 90210 ZIP code. Except that somebody figured out that you could make money off showing people the car accident in slow motion, that people would watch that. Sure they will. People love to watch stupid people do stupid things. It makes them feel less stupid.

And the Internet.

We built this thing — I include myself in that because I started doing HTML in 1994 and was part of the generation who took to the new medium like water and have made the majority of our adult lives creating it, to a greater or lesser degree — because we believed it would make things better for everyone. We believed it would give voice to the voiceless, hope to the hopeless, bring us all together, help us to understand and empathize and share with one another. We believed it could tear down the walls.

And in a lot of ways it has. But in just as many ways, it has driven us all insane. There’s an old story — I have no idea if it’s true — about monkeys who had the pleasure centers of their brains wired up to a button. Push it, Mr. Monkey, and you have an orgasm. And the monkeys did. They pushed the button and they pushed the button, until they forgot about eating and they forgot about drinking and sleeping and simply fell down and died.

What do you do when you first wake up? What do you do as soon as you get into work? After work? Before bed? Hell, some of us wake up in the night and check our feeds, terrified that we’ve missed out on something.

We do it because we are given that reward, that stimulus that tells us oooh, a new shiny! It’s the fourteenth Guardians Of The Galaxy trailer, with 200% more Rocket Raccoon! Some fucking null node in Portland made a portrait of every single character from Adventure Time out of bacon and Legos! And, maybe most poisonous, maybe most soul-crushing: somebody said something I don’t like that makes me feel frightened and threatened! It’s time to put on my superhero costume and forward unto battle!

Except it doesn’t matter. Because you’re not really changing anybody’s mind. How often does that little skirmish end with anybody changing their mind at all, even a little bit? Or does it just end with one of you invariably either blocking the other or saying something like “You know what, I’m going to stop now, because this is getting out of hand.”

Getting out of hand?

Everything they told you about how to live in the world when you were a kid is a lie. Education doesn’t matter, not even on paper. Being ethical doesn’t matter. Being a good person doesn’t matter. What matters now is that you’re endlessly capable of the hustle, of bringing in that long green, of being entertaining to enough people that somebody will want to give you money or fuck you or fund your startup. We’re all sharks now; if we stop swimming for just a little too long, we die. We lose followers. We’re lame. We’re not worth funding, or fucking. Because all that matters is the endless churn, the endless parade, the endless cycle of buying and trying to sell and being bought and sold by people who tell you that they’re your friends, man, not like those others. Microsoft is evil and Google is not evil, except when they are, but that’s not really important, and if you decide that maybe you’re tired of being reduced to nothing more than a potential lead for a sales pitch, like something out of a fucking David Mamet play, then you’re a hater and irrelevant and a Luddite. And besides, what would you do with yourself if you weren’t checking Facebook or playing Candy Crush Saga or watching some teenage dumbass smash his genitals on the side of a pool on YouTube? What the fuck would you even do, bro?

The comedian Bill Hicks used to do a bit where he invited the advertisers and marketers in his audience to kill themselves. He imagined them turning it into an ad campaign: “Oh, the righteous indignation dollar, that’s a good dollar, Bill’s smart to do that.” He laid out the futility of trying to escape: “I’m just caught in a fucking web,” he’d say.

And that’s where we are. You, me, we’re trapped, between being nothing more than consumers, every aspect of our lives quantified and turned into demographic data, or being fucking Amish cavemen drifting into increasing irrelevancy. Because it really does feel like there’s no middle ground anymore, doesn’t it? There’s no way to stay an active, informed citizen of the world without some motherfucker figuring out a way to squirm into your life to try and get a dollar out of you. Only fools expect something for free, and only bigger fools believe they’re anything other than a consumable or a consumer.

We didn’t get the William Gibson future where you can live like a stainless steel rat in the walls between the corporate enclaves, tearing at the system from within with your anarchy and your superior knowledge of Unix command lines. Now it’s just pissed off teenagers who blame you because their lives are going to suck a cock and billionaire thugs trying to sell you headphones and handbags, all to a soundtrack of some waterhead muttering “Bubble butt, bubble bubble bubble butt” over and over while a shite beat thumps in the background.

I know a lot of people who privately long for an apocalypse of some kind, a breakdown of the ancient Western code, because then they’d either be dead or free. How fucking horrifying is that?

But nobody pulls that trigger, because now we’ve all seen what apocalypses look like. We saw Manhattan in 2001 and New Orleans in 2005 and Thailand in 2004 and the Middle East pretty much any given day. Nobody wants to hate, because we’re pummeled with hate every day, by people who are too fucking stupid to understand that the world has passed them by as much as it’s passed by the dude in the Soundgarden t-shirt who still drives around singing along to “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” on his way to his dead-end job. The best lack all conviction, and the people who are full of passionate intensity? Fuck them. We’re all sick of their shit anyway.

And that’s where we are, and is it any goddamn wonder at all that the most profitable drugs sold in America for like a decade running have been antipsychotics? The world seems psychotic.

I feel like I need to figure this out, like figuring all of this out and finding new ways to live has become the most important thing I could possibly do, not just for myself and the people I love but for the entire human race. I don’t mean me alone — I’m far too self-loathing to have a messiah complex — but I feel like, for me, this is the best use of my time. Because the world is making me crazy and sad and wanting to just put a gun in my mouth, and it’s doing the same thing to a lot of people who shouldn’t have to feel this way.

I don’t believe anymore that the answer lies in more or better tech, or even awareness. I think the only thing that can save us is us. I think we need to find ways to tribe up again, to find each other and put our arms around each other and make that charm against the dark. I don’t mean in any hateful or exclusionary way, of course. But I think like minds need to pull together and pool our resources and rage against the dying of the light. And I do think rage is a component that’s necessary here: a final fundamental fed-up-ness with the bullshit and an unwillingness to give any more ground to the things that are doing us in. To stop being reasonable. To stop being well-behaved. Not to hate those who are hurting us with their greed and psychopathic self-interest, but to simply stop letting them do it. The best way to defeat an enemy is not to destroy them, but to make them irrelevant.

I don’t have the answers. I don’t know some truth that I can reveal to everyone. All I can do is hurt, and try to stop hurting, and try to help other people stop hurting. Maybe that’s all any of us can do. But isn’t that something worth devoting yourself to, more than building another retarded app that just puts more nonsense and bullshit into the world? Just finding people to love, and healing each other? I think it is.

Until I know more, I’ll just keep holding on. I won’t put the gun in my mouth. Because all of this sadness is worth it if there’s still hope. And I want to still have hope so badly. I still want to believe, in myself, and in you.

- See more at: http://zenarchery.com/2014/08/everyone-i-know-is-brokenhearted/#sthash.B4z9ObVE.D6JRWHho.dpuf

America’s Stupid and Self-Obsessed Capitalist Culture, Perfectly Lampooned by … Weird Al?

 



Why the nerd comic might be the most relevant artist of the moment.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

Remember Weird Al Yankovic? That geekmeister from the ’80s who did hilarious parodies of pop hits? He’s back, and critics are calling him the most relevant comedian of the moment, one going so far as to pronounce him “America’s greatest living artist.” His new album, “Mandatory Fun,” just rocketed to the top of the Billboard 200 on its debut week — the first parodic album ever to do so.

Looks like something’s percolating in pop culture, revealing our growing discontent with America’s twisted brand of capitalism. Is it any wonder? We know we’re lied to. We know we’re manipulated. We get that the country is stuck in airtight self-obsession. So we’re starting to gravitate toward artists who confront our slow-boiling anxiety. If death-obsessed pop siren Lana Del Rey (whose “Ultraviolence” album topped the charts earlier in July) is the zombie bride of capitalism, Weird Al is the court jester.

Right sorely do we need him just now.

Who is this guy, anyway?

Raised on Mad Magazine and encouraged by his parents to learn the accordion, Weird Al cut his comedic teeth on Dr. Demento’s radio show in the late ’70s and early ’80s, where he began to conjure catchy parodies of songs like “My Sharona” (“My Bologna”) and “Another One Bites the Dust” (“Another One Rides the Bus”). If you’re Gen X, you remember gleefully sharing these tunes along with your Cheetos during lunchtime.

Eventually he grabbed the national spotlight with his 1984 monster hit “Eat It,” a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”  A hero to sci-fi nerds and to every kid burdened with an inner bullshit detector on high alert, Weird Al became a crusader against clichés and an antidote to the toxic inanities of pop culture. Somewhere along the way, he started moving beyond simply goofy and spoofy to something deeper. Obesity, grunge rock, the Amish — there was no sacred cow he would not poke. He held up a funhouse mirror to our foibles.

By 2006, he was introducing a younger generation to his comedic gifts with the hit “White and Nerdy,” a send-up of the hip-hop song “Ridin,’” in which Weird Al portrays a Dungeons & Dragons-playing science nerd who yearns to hang with the gangstas.

Off the Charts

Comedians typically get less cred than other artists, but they are no less essential to society. With “Mandatory Fun,” Weird Al takes his rightful place among those who have explored our strained relationship with the American dream, forcing us to grapple with it. From Charlie Chaplin up through the Yes Men, Russell Brand and Stephen Colbert, these tricksters have connected us to our pain and channeled our collective revulsion.

Why does Weird Al stick to comedy? His answer, in typical fashion, mocks the question. “There’s enough people that do unfunny music,” Weird Al once said. “I’ll leave the serious stuff to Paris Hilton and Kevin Federline.”

For his most recent blockbuster album, Weird Al cleverly used social media to market and grab viral attention, releasing eight videos on YouTube one at a time. More than 46 million people watched. Album sales surged.

In “First World Problems,” done in the style of the Pixies, Weird Al takes on our bourgeois obsession with comfort and consumption, while simultaneously poking fun at the indie rock preoccupations of suburban white kids who complain about their cushy lives: “My house is so big I can’t get wi-fi in the kitchen,” whines the douchey blonde kid Al plays in the video.

Tacky,” set to the tune of Pharrell’s overplayed hit “Happy,” skewers not only the tackiness of dressing cluelessly, but wandering the Earth in a solipsistic bubble: “Nothing wrong with wearin’ stripes and plaid/I Instagram every meal I’ve had…Can’t nothin’ bring me shame.” The brilliance lies in Weird Al’s intimation that the happiness sold by slick pop icons like Pharrell is predicated on a state of oblivious solipsism that cuts us off from the plight of our fellow humans.

Perhaps the best song of all is the Crosby, Stills & Nash-inspired “Mission Statement,” made for everyone who has found herself sinking in the mire of meaningless gibberish that flows through the modern corporate office. In the video, which features that annoyingly overused trope of a hand scribbling illustrations, the despair of office alienation is juxtaposed with the relentlessly upbeat buzzwords and conventions taught in MBA schools. What’s particularly resonant about this song is how Weird Al skewers the corporate capitalism which promised us all the wonders of efficiency, harmony and prosperity, only to deliver us to Dilbert’s cubicle of despair.

In “Mission Statement,” the dreams of love and peace echoed in ’60s folk tunes have congealed into a nightmare in which we can’t escape capitalism’s relentless propaganda, brought to a kind of posthuman wretchedness in which we are forced to speak in the tongues of abstract gods of the market.

As students of the human psyche know, the line between humor and horror is often thin. Weird Al gets us to laugh when we might ordinarily scream. Lighthearted though Weird Al may seem, there’s a deeply moral theme in “Mandatory Fun,” about how capitalism’s servants — narcissism, greed, vulgarity, and all-around douchiness — have to carry out its orders to beat us into a pulverized pulp of compliance.

Weird Al gets our number because he does what we all yearn to do: He bites back.

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of “Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.” She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU. She is the director of AlterNet’s New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.

 

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Recuperating Marcuse against a culture of cruelty

by James Anderson on July 29, 2014

Post image for Recuperating Marcuse against a culture of crueltyCan an affective politics based on Marcuse’s pleasure principle help us overcome our culture of violence and prefigure relations of love and pleasure?

Image: Students look through a window marked with bullet holes in Isla Vista, California, on May 24, 2014, after 22-year-old Elliot Rodgers shot, stabbed and killed multiple victims at the University of California Santa Barbara campus.

Herbert Marcuse, the Berlin-born theorist who started teaching at the University of California San Diego in 1965, and who died exactly 35 years ago today, provided a critique of modern domination that inspired student-worker uprisings in May 1968 and influenced the New Left, including students at the University of California.

His work also inspired counter-revolution.

As governor of California, intent on privatizing the state’s university system, Ronald Reagan referenced in disgust the “sexual orgies so vile that I cannot describe them to you,” referring to the free love counter-culture ethos elaborated early on in Eros and Civilization, Marcuse’s first major anti-capitalist critique, published in 1955, synthesizing Freudian and Marxian theory. Reagan reaffirmed the “naturalness and rightness of a vertical structuring of society,” and “the right of man to achieve above the capacity of his fellows” — a reactionary defense of existing order and hierarchy.

In a 1971 memo authored two months before his nomination for the Supreme Court, Lewis F. Powell echoed Reagan’s reactionary sentiments and told the US Chamber of Commerce that there must “be no hesitation to attack … the Marcuses and others who openly seek destruction of the enterprise system” — a system Marcuse understood as one of un-freedom.

In light of the counter-revolutionary successes after Reagan and Powell, Marcuse’s “philosophy of psychoanalysis” in Eros and Civilization must be repurposed to go beyond the new system of violence so as to prefigure relations of love and pleasure, not domination.

Neoliberalism and our “Culture of Cruelty”

Violence, a pain-causing process present whenever there is a difference between the actual and potential for a person or people, pervades the social fabric in insidious ways now made apparent when relations of repression result in outbursts, with root causes rarely understood.

The killings in Isla Vista, near the University of California Santa Barbara campus, where 22-year-old Elliot Rodgers stabbed to death three people and shot two women on May 23 in a “day of retribution” after being — or feeling — sexually rejected by the opposite sex, are repudiated as emblematic of gun violence or denounced as exemplars of misogynist culture.

However, analysis seldom digs deeper to unearth the violence embedded in the way we organize ourselves, our production and reproduction as a species. Commentary fails to engage with the repression induced by those oppressive social relations.

Marcuse termed this “surplus-repression,” referring to the organized domination in modern society over and above the basic level repression of instincts psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud believed necessary for civilization. That “surplus-repression” exists now in a more extreme form.

Neoliberalism, the contemporary form of capitalism, structures this “surplus-repression” and engenders what Henry Giroux suggested is a widespread “culture of cruelty,” which normalizes violence to such a degree that mass shootings recur regularly. Analyses of individual psychopathy and of real cultural problems abound, but the inquiries cut those acts “off from any larger systemic forces at work in society.”

Shootings like the one in Isla Vista are products of our “culture of cruelty,” but the insidious causes demand critique of “larger systemic forces at work,” as Giroux argued. This has to go beyond commentary calling for tighter gun laws and beyond feminist responses throwing light on the endemic misogyny that systematically dehumanize women. Those analyses are apt but also insufficient, as is criticism without consideration for conditions of possibility.

To go beyond the “culture of cruelty” characteristic of neoliberalism requires organizing social movements in ways that reflect — or prefigure — the more just society we would like to see. A prefigurative political project, where the ends are in many ways immanent in the means, must cultivate política afectiva, an affective politics based on forging bonds of love and trust. This is the only way to break through the hegemony of neoliberal relations that forcefully binds us together while simultaneously wrenching us apart.

Systemic Neoliberal Domination and Alienation

Neoliberalism is a class project, advanced since the early 1970s, to consolidate wealth and social power. Money, Marxist analyst David Harvey argued, is a representation of the value of exploited social labor given greater priority under neoliberalism. It can be accumulated potentially ad infinitum, as opposed to other commodities like yachts — although a select few certainly try to acquire a lot of those too! Money, or capital generally, is essentially our own alienated labor power in symbolic form, which comes to exert a tremendous material power over that which it is supposed to represent. And it functions as a weapon enabling some to exert power over others.

As Marcuse averred, “domination is exercised by a particular group or individual in order to sustain and enhance itself in a privileged position.” But domination does not just happen. Its roots are in the social relations central to the current reproduction of our everyday lives.

Marx wrote more than a century ago that once a certain stage of capitalist production is reached, a capitalist must function “as capital personified,” as a slave to a system of violence, in control of the labor of others but also controlled by the prerogatives of capital, “value which can perform its own valorization process, an animated monster which begins to ‘work … as if its body were by love possessed.’”

The capitalist is beholden to the “performance principle,” “the prevailing historical form of the reality principle,” per Marcuse. Freud had earlier coined the concept of the “reality principle,” to refer the repressive organization of sexuality that subjects or sublimates our innate sexual instincts to “the primacy of genitality,” at the expense of powerful Eros that could allow for a radically different society. The “performance principle” presupposes particular forms of rationality for domination, and it stratifies society, Marcuse wrote, “according to the competitive economic performances of its members.”

Neoliberalism, a market rationality and “mode of public pedagogy,” represses Eros by reducing human relations to exchange. Neoliberal pedagogy posits us as self-interested individual actors out for our own self-aggrandizement through the ubiquity of market relations. Covert privatization, like increasing tuition and fees for higher education, reifies the neoliberal ethic in ways that make it appear natural. Use values must be converted into exchange values, and everything has a price, in this arrest of human potentials. The enforcement of what can be called the neoliberal performance principle teaches us to conceive of social problems as personal problems, either focusing on market-based solutions to systemic ills, or emphasizing individual responsibility while erasing the violence inscribed in the relations that result in transgressions like the Isla Vista murders.

Marcuse described repression in an age where “all domination assumes the form of administration,” and “sadistic principles, the capitalist exploiters, have been transformed into salaried members of a bureaucracy,” producing “pain, frustration [and] impotence of the individual” in the face of an immense apparatus.

To be sure, “structural violence,” or the “pervasive social inequality” defining the neoliberal age, “ultimately backed up by the threat of physical harm,” create bureaucratic modes of managing social situations that, as David Graeber has pointed out, tend to negate the need to empathize with other people. Bureaucratic norms legitimate the “culture of cruelty” through the enforcement of administrative control and the negation of alternatives. “There is no alternative” to the new historical form of the reality principle, former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously proclaimed.

Bureaucratic administration also reflects the restraints placed on Eros, the life instincts. Likewise, it exacerbates the effects of abstract labor, where people’s “labor is work for an apparatus which they do not control, which operates as an independent power to which the individual must submit if they want to live,” Marcuse proffered. This is “painful time, for alienated labor is absence of gratification, negation of the pleasure principle.”

As David Harvey recently argued in his presentation at the Crisis-Scapes conference in Athens, alienation is intrinsic in capitalist relations because workers “are alienated from the surplus value they produce,” while capitalists construct alienating, competitive relations among fellow workers. The workers remain estranged from the products of their labor, from nature and from the rest of social life. The processes are violent insofar as feelings “of deprivation and dispossession” are “internalized as a sense of loss and frustration of creative alternatives foregone,” Harvey theorized.

Of the multiple varieties of alienation, its active form “means to be overtly angry and hostile, to act out at being deprived or dispossessed of value and of the capacity to pursue valued ends,” Harvey explained. “Alienated beings vent their anger and hostility towards those identified as the enemy, sometimes without any clear definitive or rational reason,” or they sometimes may “seek to build a world in which alienation has either been abolished or rendered redeemable or reciprocal.”

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have theorized the alienating effects of “affective labor,” the “labor that produces or manipulates affects such as a feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement or passion,” practiced in increasingly common service work, from fast food to retail sales. When the most intimate human doing must be performed for a (low) wage under coerced conditions, extreme alienation ensues. The hegemonic position of this form of labor becomes violent and volatile as a result.

Finance capital assumes added importance under neoliberalism, Hardt and Negri add. It is defined by “its high level of abstraction,” allowing it “to represent vast realms of labor” as it represses present and future Eros by commanding “the new forms of labor and their productivity” with contradictory effects.

Effects of Repressive Neoliberal Violence

Elliot Rodgers, a young adult male from an affluent family, murdered six people in an attempt to exact revenge on women for not being attracted to him — what he said in a video was “an injustice, a crime,” which is why he would “take great pleasure in slaughtering” women, so that they would “finally see’ that he was “the superior one, the true alpha male.”

In his 140-page manifesto, entitled “My Twisted World: The Story of Elliot Rodgers,” he recounts a time in Seventh Grade when a girl he thought was pretty teased him. “I hated her so much,” and “I started to hate all girls because of this.” Toward the end of the diatribe Rodgers declares there to be “no creature more evil and depraved than the human female,” he equates women with “a plague,” and he calls women “vicious, evil, barbaric animals” that “need to be treated as such” and “eradicated.”

Despite early humanizing accounts — like when he was still a child, first crying and then later trying to console after discovering his friend’s mother died of breast cancer — Rodgers ends the manifesto by describing a recipe for a “pure world” to advance human civilization: women are to be killed in concentration camps — save for a few necessary to artificially inseminate for reproduction — while, “Sexuality will cease to exist. Love will cease to exist.”

Laurie Penny, arguing in the New Statesman that “Mental illness does not excuse misogyny,” assayed Rodgers’ manifesto. She emphasized agency and argued popular discussion about mental health “has resisted any analysis of social issues,” which might be “convenient for those in power keen to overlook the structural causes of mental health problems such as alienation, prejudice, poverty and isolation.” However, Penny failed to explain the processes undergirding the “structural oppression” that produced a person — Rodgers — who came to loathe women, express racist sentiments and desire the abolition of Eros.

It is not that “we should pity him” because he suffered from insanity, as Penny suggested the errant popular reaction has it. Rather, we should recognize that while we all have agency, we are also all mutilated by the extant reality. This new historical mode of the reality principle — the neoliberal performance principle — so violently represses the life instincts that it intensifies to an unprecedented degree the destructive forces initially conjured up to prevent full eroticization and gratification, which Freud believed would be at the expense of human survival.

Myriad popular examples of “surplus-repression” in the neoliberal era exist. It is evident in the conception of intercourse as just “a piece of body touching another piece of body — just as existentially meaningless as kissing,” as one young adult, part of the so-called “Millenials” generation, put it. The complete absorption of the sexual revolution by the powers of neoliberalism turned into a commodity what Marcuse considered an emergent movement for greater “self-sublimation of sexuality,” to constitute “highly civilized human relations” without the “repressive organization” of hitherto civilization.

The connections between commodification and the violence at Isla Vista have not been made explicit enough by most writers, even those aware of how neoliberal “surplus-repression” permits and promotes a “culture of cruelty,” replete with misogyny, predicated on domination.

Rebecca Solnit identified a “toxic brew in our culture right now that includes modeling masculinity and maleness … as violence, as domination, as entitlement, as control, and women as worthless, as disposable, as things men have the right to control, etc.”

Dexter Thomas, a scholar of hip-hop at Cornell University, assayed debates about gun control and mental health services that swirled around media outlets after the Isla Vista attacks, and argued that while those topics are worth discussing, letting “our anger culminate” in those arguments alone amounts to a “cop-out.” Thomas entreats us to confront the fear within ourselves and others and “talk about why we are so afraid to talk about race and gender.”

Attention to intersectionality, or rather, viewing “race, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression,” within an overarching “matrix of domination” as Patricia Hill Collins put it, marked a major advance in critical theory. But neoliberalism, as a rationality reflecting the violence embedded in the contradictory relationships of domination — humans dominating each other and resources — cannot be undone with discussion of gender, race or class alone.

The historically specific, repressive modification of instinctual drives through alienated labor, bureaucratic procedures and the “culture of cruelty” educating us all to amass “wealth, forgetting all but self,” in accord with prevailing principles, augments domination. It is more often than not directed against women, experienced disproportionately by people of color, felt differentially along frequently ignored (and nuanced) class lines, exacted on satellite nations subjected to the “underdevelopment of development” as their surplus is sucked up by wealthier states, and now lived by new peripheral populations in the world system as it morphs under neoliberalism.

Warfare championed by nations no longer able to dominate any way but militarily evinces the inevitable reliance on force to sustain endemic violence. That violence also animates the resurgence of xenophobic right-wing nationalists who demonize oppressed populations. From anti-immigrant protesters in California scaring buses of children fleeing areas in Central America decimated by decades of US policies, to Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party murdering leftists, to Israeli demonstrators defending the shelling of concentrated civilian areas in Gaza and pelting peace activists with rocks, the brutalization of others in turn dehumanizes them, just as capitalists and financiers who derive profits from others’ labor do violence to themselves when they exploit those they expropriate.

What Marcuse, following Freud, saw as “the progressive weakening of Eros” — even and especially now with a culture so obsessed with such an impoverished mode of sexuality — leads to “the growth of aggressiveness,” evidenced everywhere. Individualization of problems pits all but the most powerful against each other. The sublimation of sexuality, extolled only in superficial forms amenable to capital, further militates against fuller eroticization that would betoken a world without repressive hierarchies.

In his manifesto, Rodgers observed the ways hierarchies shaped — and distorted — his worldview. “As my fourth grade year approached its end, my little nine-year old self had another revelation about how the world works,” he wrote. “I realized that there were hierarchies, that some people were better than others.”

Reflecting on the “common social structure” at his school, those hierarchical divisions, Rodgers’ admitted his self-esteem decreased because of his “mixed race” — his mother was Asian — and, he concluded: “Life is a competition and a struggle,” empowering some at the expense of others.

Those hierarchies are not necessary, nor are they necessarily everlasting. Hierarchical divisions of labor — indeed, all alienated labor as we know it — perpetuates a power-over others, sacrificing human potentials. That violence gives way to insecurity-fuelled internalized oppression and the extroverted frustration, witnessed when Rodgers carried out his hate-fuelled homicide in Southern California.

Prefigurative Politics and Erotic Recuperation

Important for our purposes, Marcuse noted emerging preconditions for “a qualitatively different, non-repressive reality principle” — intimating a project for societal self-realization of the “pleasure principle,” the instinctual drive for gratification bound up with erotogenic activity and libidinal desire.

Sublimation, Marcuse asserted, occurs only after repression of the pleasure principle by the reality principle. Following initial repressive modification, sublimation restrains sexuality while desexualizing most of the body, save for specific areas we commonly associate with sex. The neoliberal performance principle now enacts even tighter restriction of sexuality while amplifying “the primacy of genitality.”

The process has been intensified today to ensure the reproduction of labor power and a surplus population to repress wages — Marx’s “industrial reserve army” of the unemployed, conscripted today by “free trade” agreements facilitating the movement of capital across borders while restraining populations around the world put into greater competition with each other. With surplus destruction and hardship the world is made into an alienated object for domination, which in turn leads to domination over us all.

Prospects exist, however, for a “non-repressive sublimation,” according to Marcuse, through the “self-sublimation of sexuality,” presupposing “historical progress beyond the institutions of the performance principle, which in turn would release instinctual regression.” The process entails, for Marcuse, a re-sexualization of the entire organism, “the conceptual transformation of sexuality into Eros,” extending into relations with others throughout the entire social body.

Despite the seeming omnipresence of the libido in society, its modification by the neoliberal performance principle — the existing condition wherein our increasingly alienated labor (capital) comes to exert greater power over people — connotes a possible project for liberation through eroticization.

Asking us to “Think Hope, Think Crisis,” John Holloway recently explained how capitalism is imbued with its own instinctual drive for endless growth. Its immanent instability lies in the “inadequacy of its own domination,” because to continually reproduce itself, capital has to intensify its domination and exploitation of humanity, which inevitably results in resistance to constant aggression and “easily overflows into rebellion.”

Under the neoliberal performance principle, capital’s drive — our own alienated life instincts, our abstracted Eros turned against us — for domination increases, causing crisis. Holloway reminds us, however, that “we are the crisis of capital.” Our crisis-causing power-to points to possibilities for a liberating erotic project.

Recuperation of our instincts by cultivating the kinds of non-hierarchical and non-exploitative relations we would like to see throughout a society without “surplus-repression,” requires prefigurative and affective politics — a movement of movements of people looking to each other. This can be accomplished through mutual aid, by collective decision-making where people have a say in decisions being made in proportion to the degree they are impacted, and with conscious effort directed toward everyone’s gratification.

The “affective labor” Hardt and Negri averred as hegemonic sets the conditions for a new pleasure principle, but it also shows how capital “seeks increasingly to intervene directly into social reproduction and the way we communicate and commune,” as Max Haiven has explained. Although the importance of “affective labor” to today’s economy illustrates the inverted erotic urge — or simply the death drive — of neoliberalism intent on marketizing human relations for ceaseless capital accumulation, the increased emphasis on affective work intimates greater possibilities for a project aimed at recuperating libidinous, loving desires.

This project does not dispense entirely with Marcuse’s notion of the pleasure principle. It is rather an attempt to re-articulate it in such a way that promotes deeper social eroticization, taking that to encompass feelings of care, concern and a way of seeing oneself in the other — the way Marcuse understood narcissistic Eros and sexuality.

The reactivation of “narcissistic sexuality,” Marcuse maintained, “ceases to be a threat to culture and can itself lead to culture-building if the organism exists not as an instrument of alienated labor but as a subject of self-realization,” through “lasting and expanding libidinal relations because this expansion increases and intensifies the instinct’s gratification.”

After the shooting in a Colorado movie theater by a young man during the summer of 2012, Giroux noted that the “issue of violence in America goes far beyond the issue of gun control, and in actuality, when removed from a broader narrative about violence in the United States,” it deflects from raising key questions and elides reasons why “violence weaves through the culture like a highly charged electric current burning everything in its path.” Elsewhere, Giroux analyzed how “spectacles of consumerism, celebrity culture, hyped-up violence and a market-driven obsession with the self” have led to “the absence” — or evisceration — “of a formative culture necessary to construct questioning agents who are capable of dissent and collective action in an increasingly imperiled democracy.”

The “narcissistic sexuality” Marcuse theorized differs appreciably from the market-induced narcissistic subjectivities Giroux assailed. Those subjectivities are manufactured and controlled via “biopolitical production,” which Hardt and Negri explain encompasses added emphasis on “affective labor” as well as the new ways capital produces subjects. Our alienated subjectivities are thus dialectical insofar as we embody capital’s violence yet utilize our affective and communicative powers, if primarily in alienated and expropriated ways under subjugation by the neoliberal performance principle.

The dialectic demonstrates desires for recuperation — within, against and beyond the “culture of cruelty” that dominates today. Marcuse celebrated the “culture-building power of Eros” as “non-repressive sublimation: sexuality is neither deflected from nor blocked in its objective; rather, in attaining its objective, it transcends it to others, searching for fuller gratification.”

Creating New Subjectivities

To construct a formative democratic culture in and against neoliberalism means also “creating new subjectivities,” as Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini write in They Can’t Represent Us! — that is, transforming relationships based on “trust and a growing feeling of care and mutual responsibility, with the goal of building a movement and society based in a relationship of mutual trust and concern for the other and the collective.” Sitrin and Azzellini explain that “responsibility for the other and solidarity are basic conditions of a future society not grounded in capitalist principles” — and, of course, not subordinated to the affect-incarcerating neoliberal performance principle.

In an interview with Bryan Magee on “Modern Philosophy” years ago, Marcuse mentioned the primacy of patriarchal domination throughout history, and said that deployment of “socially conditioned” so-called “feminine qualities,” like care, receptivity and tenderness, “could be the beginning of a qualitatively different society, the very antithesis to male domination with its violent and brutal character.”

To be sure, Sitrin and Azzellini rightly stress that “relegating affective politics to the feminine realm” — as is often the case — “simply reinforces gendered roles in patriarchal societies.” In fact, “affective politics is not an expression of ‘maternal responsibility’ but a social responsibility to build a new society based on cooperation and mutual aid rather than competition.”

Contrary to the critique of Marcuse for his downplaying revolutionary potentials of the working class, a re-articulation of his theory is also relevant for workers’ control initiatives, in which affective politics are challenging capitalist domination by altering existing relations.

These ongoing processes of people taking over their workplaces to run them in common, Sitrin and Azzelini explain, include recuperated workplaces like Hotel Bauen, a former four-star hotel in Buenos Aires that employees took collective control over after owners laid off workers and tried to shut the place down following the 2001 economic crisis. Similarly, workers at Republic Windows and Doors recuperated their factory when similar events unfolded in Chicago, reopening the place under democratic control in 2013, around the time the recuperated factory in Thessaloniki — Vio.Me — began production in Greece. Vio.Me now produces environmentally-friendly cleaning products made with local, natural ingredients distributed through the solidarity economy — but it also produces new subjectivities with renewed agency and revitalized affects.

Recuperation compliments autogestión, the process of “collective democratic self-management, especially within local communities, workplaces, cultural projects, and many other entities,” Sitrin and Azzelini averred. Examples of autogestión abound, from Zapatista Councils of Good Government in Chiapas to Communes for community-based organization and local control of production in Venezuela.

The formation of an alternative justice system “based on re-socialization, and not on retribution and vengeance,” in the San Luis Acatlán municipality in “Guerrero, one of the poorest, most violent, and most repressive states in Mexico,” constitutes another recuperative effort, as Sitrin and Azzellini describe it. These recuperative movements are inextricably bound with building affective bonds. They tend to promote relations otherwise suppressed or repressively modified by a performance principle designed to enlarge profits, not Eros.

In part interstitial, the movements illustrate prefigurative politics — “the end as process,” Sitrin and Azzelini termed it — consonant with Marcuse’s description of the pleasure principle dialectic, enriching the social organism over time by focusing on gratification now. Marcuse underscored “sustaining the entire body as subject-object of pleasure,” yet the robust construction of Eros through horizontalidad and política afectiva “calls for the refinement of the organism, the intensification of its receptivity, the growth of its sensuousness,” in more meaningful, humanizing ways. This refined “aim generates its own projects of realization,” including freedom from toil and violence, as Marcuse suggested, and this non-repressive “sublimation proceeds in a system of expanding and enduring libidinal relations, which are in themselves work relations.”

Often intended “to foster horizontal processes and subvert the boundaries of capitalist value-exchange,” Sitrin and Azzellini suggest that such recuperation, which frequently refers to reclaiming of common space and recovering historical memory, does not refer to “a nostalgic turn to an idealized past,” but “the recuperation of memory and history is,” rather, “a collective process meant to enrich the present and build a common future.”

Recuperation of the erotic and an expanded conception of the pleasure principle attuned to the richness of the life instincts, including our under-tapped affective capacities, must undergird any prefigurative politics aimed at dethroning neoliberalism as the reigning reality principle. This would address violence, and allow healthy sexuality to flourish.

Far from eliminating sexuality as we know it, such a project would allow for greater, meaningful love-making, in myriad ways. The underlying violence that drove Elliot Rodgers to seek vengeance would cease to rule, as would the general condition that, in Rodgers’ case, and as in the case of countless others, precludes loving relationships and maims us all.

This project cannot be divorced from recuperation of doing through direct democratic control over production of the pleasurable things we collectively want or need. It should foster enjoyable exercise of our creative faculties through non-alienating work-as-play, part of broader “transformation of sexuality into Eros, and its extension to lasting libidinal work relations,” as Marcuse advanced.

Cruelty and domination in the present imply the opposite, love and liberation, which must be achieved — not by enduring the violence of the day while holding out for a better future, but through a prefigurative revolution that must be pleasurable now in every, expanded sense.

James Anderson is a doctoral candidate in the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis. He writes for Truthout, among other publications.

http://roarmag.org/2014/07/marcuse-neoliberalism-culture-violence/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

Relevance of Hannah Arendt’s “A Report On The Banality Of Evil” To Gaza

 

Self-Deception, Lies And Stupidity
 http://mantlethought.org/sites/default/files/hannaarendtsudomenica16ye8.jpg
by HAMMAD SAID

 

“We want the nations of the world to know…….and they should be ashamed”   Ben Gurion explaining rationale for Eichmann’s trial [i]

“The triumph of the S.S demands that the tortured victim allow himself to be led to the noose without protesting, that he renounce and abandon himself to the point of ceasing to affirm his identity. They know that the system which succeeds in destroying its victim before he mounts the scaffold…..is incomparably the better for keeping the whole people in slavery”[ii]  

Hannah Arendt (henceforth HA), philosopher, writer, academic of Jewish heritage, who studied under such luminaries as Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger in pre-war Germany, went to Jerusalem in 1961 to cover the trial of Eichmann, one of the actors in the Final Solution, for the New Yorker magazine. Her account of the trial regularly published in the magazine at the time, later became a basis for the book, “Eichmann In Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil”.

It is obvious from reading the book that HA’s account of the trial in the book transcended the culpability of the single individual, and in fact implicated the whole of western society in the crimes committed.

HA’s penetrating analysis in the book furnishes insights both into the mind of the perpetrators, and the overall societal mindset they were embedded in, which made these horrendous acts possible without any weight on their conscience.  It provides a template for studying all such acts of barbarity by the organized and brute force of the state, with full complicity of the overwhelming population, against people who are made stateless either in the sense of being deprived of the state they had hitherto lived in or are forced to live as stateless wards of occupying power.

It is precisely the later scenario that we are confronted with in Gaza, where an occupying power is conducting a pogrom and slaughter of the stateless, defenseless and caged population under its occupation. It is true that the scale of murder in Gaza is not comparable to the manufacturing of death on industrial scale and with industrial efficiency as happened during Holocaust, the period dealt in the book, nevertheless there are certain elements of the current situation and wider Palestinian suppression which make the comparisons, and hence the insights, not totally irrelevant. This is borne out by none other than the granddaughter of Holocaust survivor herself, when protesting against FIDF (Friends Of IDF), she remarked in a choked voice that the reason she was there was that her grandparents taught her that “this should never happen to any other people again, whether Jews or not”.

The elements of relevance are not only the unequal nature of the contest – with the most powerful army of the Middle East, backed to the hilt by the most sophisticated military might the world has ever seen (USA) arrayed against mainly defenseless population in congested urban setting, with all paths of exit and ingress shut , hence unsuitable for protracted guerilla warfare) – but also the apparent complicity and almost cheerleading attitude of the populace of the oppressor and the invader in the conflict and its powerful backers and abettors in the western media and government. The fact that all this is happening in this age of global information, and it is almost impossible to avoid images of innocent children and women being blown to smithereens, hospitals and even morgues and graveyards bombed and destroyed, makes the complicity of the population or their indifferent silence, both in Israel and its main supporter United States and to lesser extent Western Europe, all the more criminal and callous. For one who has read HA’s work, it is impossible not to see in this almost ubiquitous silence and complicity of the western seats of political and media power, echoes of what HA characterized as the “moral collapse of the respectable western society” in the face of irrefutable and hard to ignore evidence about mass murders happening close by. In Nazi Germany and its occupied and allied countries, the collapse manifested as “hear no evil, see no evil”, averting of the face from the horror if it all, if you will, and here in the US in the Israeli-Palestinian context it manifests as knowingly arming the murderer to its teeth, and then providing the fig leaf of diplomatic support and biased media coverage to hide and obfuscate the deed both from the domestic and international audience.

It is remarkable that in spite of the huge difference in scale, the psychological and societal factors underlying the brutal onslaught of these declared racist regimes against their captive and largely defenseless populations bears close resemblance. Not only that, USA, without whose total and unconditional support Israel cannot carry out any of its criminal acts, bears many marks of institutional mind control and propaganda so eloquently exposed by HA in her book.

So here are the those elements delineated clearly in HA’s expose of Nazi regime and its murderous acts that one finds reflected in the murderous acts of Israel and its main supporter, United States.

Self-Deception, Lies And Stupidity

“The German society of eighty million people had been shielded against reality and factuality by exactly the same means, the same self-deception, lies and stupidity that had now become ingrained in Eichmann’s mentality”  [iii]

“He was incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché”..HA on Eichmann [iv]

It has almost become a cliché to say that in this age of mass communication and social media, winning the media battle is almost as important as winning the actual, physical one. Nazis were the first to realize the importance of mass propaganda in a modern state, and created one of the most effective propaganda machines the world had ever seen, which presided over a campaign of self-deception, lies, distortions, mind control of unprecedented effectiveness and magnitude. The underlying philosophy was to sway the people through grandiose lies and distortions, making them feel as part of something grand and big. Hence, they were told that it was a struggle for the “destiny of the German people”, such as would pave the way for a thousand years Reich. As Himmler said that they were fighting a battle, which the future generations did not have to fight for another thousand years. For Hitler it was a struggle for the very soul of European civilization against the eastern barbarism, exemplified by Bolshevism. One finds almost parallel distortions and propaganda in Israeli official mythology of the “Promised Land”, and they, Jews, being the rightful heirs of the land of Israel in spite of their almost two thousand years sojourn in the west. All this self-elevating and grandiose mythology goes hand in hand with demeaning Palestinian people as a historical fiction – for instance, when Netanyahu said that there had never been a Palestinian state, never been a Palestinian nation and they were just migrants from neighboring Arab countries. Both the mythology and distortion are critical to Zionist project, as one cannot be carried one without the other. And both require erecting a virtual, alternate reality, based on massive dismissal of actual history. But it must be admitted that there is crucial difference between totalitarian Nazi ideology and official Zionist one, at least in the way they operated in their respective bases. The Nazi totalitarianism obliterated all opposition to it and became the only acceptable narrative in the state, the Zionist narrative could never achieve that monopoly in Israel, and thanks to the courage and integrity of people like Uri Avenry and Levy Gideon, there is a counter narrative, not confined to some nooks or banished to concentration camps, but is expressed through very mainstream organs like Haaretz and other Jewish progressive groups.

But one of the greatest ironies of the whole conflict is that it is not in Israel, one of the main protagonists pf the conflict, but in USA, its distant and arch supporter, that this propaganda based on lies, distortions and self-deception has met its total and unchallenged triumph yet. The success of this campaign is such that no less a person than the former President of the United States is forced to admit publicly that, “it is easier to criticize Israel in Israel than in the United States”.

From Alan Dershowitz’s fabrication of alternate history of Palestine (debunked by all serious scholarship on the subject) as an apology and defense of Israel and its peddling on all respectable US channels to the latest abominable rant “Israel has a right to defend herself” on Fox Channel, it is hard to imagine where to start when one considers the total complicity of US media in Israeli crimes. Just a recent episode in ABC’s coverage of the Gaza bombing highlighted both distortion and stupidity. It was a clear distortion when a Palestinian home, with Palestinian woman clad in traditional Muslim head gear in front wailing, was shown as an Israeli woman whose home was destroyed by Hamas’s rockets. But it also relies on the egregious ignorance and stupidity of the audience to mistake an obviously Palestinian woman for an Israeli one!

As far as the self-deception goes, it ranges from the ludicrous, “they hate us because of our liberties”, to the insidious, as in the recent column in NY Times[v] where the writers have turned the logic on its head, making this preposterous claim that the reason US public supports Israel is because of the failure of Arab spring! Not because of what NY Times writes and CNN, FOX spews day in and day out, but because of the failure of Arab spring! In the annals of self- deception by the so called literati of any society, this has to have the pride of place!

It is not an understatement to say that all mainstream media channels in USA are reduced to a point where they have become mere conduits for the continuous regurgitating of official Israeli talking points, without taking Israeli apologists and official up on even the most obviously absurd ones. It seems that like Eichmann, they are incapable of thinking except in official clichés! Take for example, this oft repeated Israeli assertion, blurring the boundaries between sane and insane, that Hamas is using civilians as human shields or putting their rockets near the civilian places, as justification for the high civilian casualties. Forget the obvious fact of Gaza being one of the most densely populated areas in the world, forget even that the so called warning to crammed homes and shelters is  given minutes before the real lethality if at all and there is neither place or time to run to, forget all that, and still should not a fair journalist challenge the Israeli position on the ground that the targeted population has no army , air force and navy to fight the mightiest army of the Middle East, and it is Israel which makes sure that not only they don’t get any comparable weapons , but even the basic weapons to fight so that Israel does not have to find itself in this, in their own words, unenviable position of fighting an enemy indistinguishable from the civilians? Does any journalist try to raise the question as to what desperation the people would be reduced to, if they could be killed with almost impunity from thousands of feet above the ground, and they had no means of hitting back?  It is morally bankrupt to even raise the question of Hamas using civilians without first asking how come they can’t put tank against tank, a helicopter against helicopter and an aircraft against aircraft, and a uniformed soldier, armed to the hilt with modern gadgetry, against uniformed soldier. The reality and logic of the situation, obvious to any astute observer, is that it is not Hamas but on the contrary Israel which is using civilians, its own, for a human shield. It is so because with all the sophisticated weaponry that Israel possesses its soldiers can kill from a distance with almost no fear of being hit back except in very close combat situations that Israel religiously avoids, but the only way Palestinians in Gaza can retaliate is by firing inaccurate and primitive and almost toy like rockets indiscriminately into Israel, that has the probability of hitting only civilians, if at all, not soldiers. Hence the very nature of this asymmetric power equation dictates that when Hamas retaliates it can only do so by hitting the civilians, and Israel does everything in its power to maintain that asymmetry, depriving Hamas the capability of fighting on equal terms. It is like one party to a duel stealing the other party’s pistols and then complaining that instead of firing shots they are throwing stones that can hit the bystanders!

The impact of all this media blitz in favor of Israel is that you can never ask an average American, who probably has a hard time recognizing Gaza on the map, about the current conflict without getting an automatic, almost knee jerk clichés about terrorism, destruction of Israel and her right to defend herself. The proof is in the pudding, and even Dr. Goebbels would have been envious of this efficacy of US media propaganda for Israel! It is after all he who famously said that a lie should be repeated often and with confidence and from the higher pulpit for it to be accepted as the truth. He has found the most loyal disciples of his craft in mainstream US media.

Dostoevsky, as HA pointed out in her book, recalled from his experience in Siberia that he never met a criminal there who was repentant of his crimes. HA offered an explanation for this in the self-re-enforcing closed environment of the gang the criminals were embedded in, which shielded them from contact with the reality. The American media is playing the same role of shielding American public from its culpability in Israelis crimes by embedding them in this reality created out of lies, half-truths, fabrications, and distortions.

Blaming The Victim

“Fuhrer as promised the Jews a new homeland……..if you build there will be a roof over your heads. There is no water, the wells all around carry disease……If you bore and find water, you will have water”[vi]

HA in her book tells the story of a German literary critic, Heinz Beckmann, who blamed a certain Jewish intellectual for deserting them at “the outbreak of barbarism”, conveniently forgetting that he was expelled by the Nazis, and did not desert. From this minor example of self-serving and self-righteous attitude of Nazis to their more fictional characterizations of Jews as responsible for Germany’s defeat in the Great war to their delusional beliefs of actually helping the Jews with forced emigrations, at least the Zionists, in their project of “finding the ground under their feet”, as Eichamann puts it, it was always the victim who has brought it upon himself. In a similar vein, in the eyes of Israelis it is always the Palestinians who were responsible for their ghetto like existence in Gaza, and for the bombs killing their babies. Just a sample of it was presented the other day, when an Isareli Ambassador to US, Mr. Ron Dermer, was talking to a radio show host and claimed that the reason for shortages in Gaza was that Palestinians used all the resources – millions of dollars – for building tunnels! Given that Mr. Dermer’s government was involved in preventing through violence even a peaceful flotilla carrying food and medicines to Gazans let alone the brutal siege, it requires monumental audacity of shamelessness to make such an assertion. But he was assured that even if he had asserted that Palestinians were directly getting aid from Martians and Anti-Christ in league to destroy Israel, he would not be called upon by the interviewer! So, it is the victim, it is the Palestinians who are offering their children as sacrifices so that they could “enjoy” the sight of Israelis being humiliated in the court of world opinion in the comfort of their tunnels!

It is the psychological and logical compulsion of a society based on notions of racial exclusivity and superiority to regard the other, especially if the others are the inhabitants of the land they want to grab, as untermensch, as lesser humans. Nazis’s policy of lebensraum, the land in the east, had to regard Slavs as untermensch as the Zionist policy of land grab and theft from Palestinians has to regard them as not “people like us”!

Moral Collapse Of The Respectable Society

“Dr. Servatius, I assume you made a slip of the tongue when you said that killing by gas was a medical matter”[vii]

“The net effect of this language system was not to keep these people ignorant of what they were doing, but to prevent them from equating it with their old, normal knowledge of murder and lies”[viii]

“Yes, he had a conscience, and his conscience functioned in the expected way for about four weeks, whereupon it began to function the other way around”[ix]

“From the accumulated evidence one can only conclude that conscience as such has apparently got lost in Germany”[x]

For me the most telling image of the current Gaza massacre is not one of death and destruction, of carnage, and torn limbs, and mutilated bodies of children. It is one of the regular Israeli onslaughts in last few years, and we have become numbed to these sights and they are telling us the same tragic story with only faces changed.  For me the most telling image is a peaceful, quiet image, almost serene, but containing within it the bottomless depths of the “heart of darkness”. It is an image of Israelis, men, children and even toddlers, in an almost picnic like atmosphere with drinks and barbecue watching the carnage unfolding before their eyes from the safety of their perch on the mountaintop. One Israeli critic of Zionism in a remarkable address called the last invasion of Gaza by Israel at the peak time of children’s getting out of their schools in the streets as the darkest day in the history of Judaism. No sir, I respectfully disagree. The darkest day in the history of Judaism was the day when a few people, no matter the numbers, flaunted their inhumanity in broad daylight, and were accepted by the majority either tacitly by staying quiet about it, or out rightly condoning it. This is the dangerous moral collapse which HA was alluding to, which Nazism, because of its creed of racism and naked power, brought about in the “respectable European society”. And God knows what monstrosities it led to. In HA’s incisive analysis, Eichmann was not a monster, neither was he legally insane, nor he was oblivious of the consequences of his actions. He was quite ordinary and commonplace, and hence the banality of it all. But he was caught in an ideology and the system that made him accept and commit those unspeakable horrors with relative equanimity. The respectable opinion, according to his testimony, never questioned or challenged his conscience. It was normally human to be inhuman in that atmosphere. He was embedded in a system which made such humanity almost seemed normal; in fact, alleviated it to the level of duty. That is what HA meant by the moral collapse of the “respectable western society”. It is a version of this moral collapse that was on display on that mountain top the other day: the moral collapse of “respectable Israeli “society.

Equally telling and matching the moral collapse of the ones doing the killings and their immediate cheerleaders was the moral collapse of the distant ones giving them the weapons and all the support of “soft power” they required. The moral bankruptcy on the top of hill in Israel was matched by moral bankruptcy on top of another hill, Capitol hill, namely, the shameless unanimous passing of resolution 480 by Senate, giving unconditional and full support to Israel’s Gaza offensive and yes, believe it or not, calling upon Hamas to separate itself from the unity government! Those who always blamed Hamas for its violence and non-acceptance of Israel, were baying for its blood when it officially , albeit in an indirect way, it did renounce violence by joining and accepting PA’s leadership which has recognized Israel’s right to exist! All those senators, without exception, with all their pretensions and protestations of peace were at that moment of endorsement of naked aggression were standing there themselves naked, without clothes, in their obeisance to the amoral God of power. Those champions of fairness and fair play and justice, Elizabeth Warrens, Al Frankens, Bernie Sanders of the world, totally exposed, with the whole world knowing, if they cared to look, that the only difference between them and John Boehners , Lindsy Grahams, Sarah Palins of the world is only in the choice of which Gods they prostrate themselves to. It is a difference of calculation not of principles. So much for the moral left in the US political system!

Influential media and government, there is nowhere one can turn to for any justice or even fair hearing in the case. Is this the moral collapse of the society we are witnessing here? Yes, there is , God bless her, Amy Goodman, there is this towering figure of Noam Chomsky, almost like an old Testament prophet, there is Chris Hedges and so on. Yes, there is a growing BDS movement and increasing awareness of Palestinian cause in Europe, and there is a strong anti-Zionist strand within Israel, and these are signs that prevent one from total despair or do they? Probably no society ever in history has totally collapsed morally, since even in the depths of it there is a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, there is a Lichentberg (a Catholic priest who joined the Jews in their journey east and perished with them). Perhaps, the moral collapse of the greatest supporter and abettor of the crimes of Israel is not that deep or total. Perhaps!

Moral Collapse of  the Victim

“Jewish Council Of Elders were informed by Eichman or his men of how many Jews were need to fill each train, and they made out the list of dportees” [xi]

“There can be no doubt that without the cooperation of the victims, it would hardly have been possible for a few thousand people ..to liquidate many hundreds of thousands of people”[xii]

 “And the acceptance of privileged categories…..had been the beginning of the moral collapse of respectable Jewish society”[xiii]

“It was a general practice to allow certain exceptions in order to be able to main general rule all the more easily” [xiv]

 “Theresienstadt, from the beginning , we designed by Heydrich to serve as a special ghetto for certain privileged categories of Jews”[xv]

One of the lesser talked and known aspect of Eichmann’s trial is how it reveals quiet poignantly the victims of the Holcaust turning, by the force of circumstances, into the willing instruments of their own mass execution. Nazis cleverly and quite cynically orchestrated what HA calls the “moral collapse of respectable Jewish” society, by holding out some avenues of escape in an otherwise hopeless situation. In the early phases before the unleashing of Final Solution, it was a policy of favoring one Jewish group over the other.  For example, Nazis support for Zionism chimed, at this early, with their method of seeking the solution to Jewish problem through forced emigration. They isolated and look down on the assimilationists and praised Zionists, as Eichmann puts it, as idealists.  They also created a special camp at Theresienstadt for the “privileged” category of Jews as a showcase to the world where Red Cross inspections could take place. In the later stages of mass executions, when the situation has become desperate, it is the pure animal instinct for survival and hope of saving some at the cost of many that led Jewish elders and councils to co-operate with the Nazis. For Nazis, it was much economical and convenient for the victims to handle the dirty police work themselves. Also, by creating categories for respectable Jews – those who fought in the previous war, for example – they soothed the conscience of folks at home who knew at least one “decent Jew”.

The moral of all this is to show that the people living under conditions of hopelessness and despair and made to fight for their survival and identity could be easily manipulated by the controlling authority holding power of life and death over them, into a seemingly self-destructive behavior and betraying their own people. It is exactly the same calculus that is at work in cynical Israeli policy of bringing about the moral bankruptcy of occupied Palestinian society by reducing sections of it to be willing policemen of their own captivity. The role of Palestinian authority and the corruption of its leadership must be seen in the light of this Israeli policy of finding venal partners for its illegal enterprise. The example of Jewish Council of Elders, and the co-operative police work in rounding up of Jews and policing the ghettos provides a template for this kind of control.

By  reducing Palestinian authority to a glorified police force in the west Bank tasked with ensuring control and peace as Israel never ceased building illegal settlements on their land, and reducing Gaza to an open air prison a la Warsaw ghetto , Israel wanted to divide and conquer the Palestinian opposition to it. Not only that, by arranging things so that only the most rabid, and extreme opposition remains as the only viable opposition to Israel, which can then be castigated as fanatic and bundled with other radical muslim jihadi outfits, it wanted to control the narrative and tone of opposition to its oppression. Hence the rage of Israeli Prime Minister, when Hamas joined the Palestinian authority and began to take steps to undercut this narrative! How dare Hamas relinquished the armed struggle and vows to destroy Israel for the peaceful struggle and co-existence! That is not what is in the script, and hence Hamas must be punished for it. This is and only this explains the latest flare up in Gaza!

There is one more aspect to this moral collapse of the victim as it relates to the surrounding Arab states. It is not an accident that I am using the word victim for the surrounding Arab states, and not what comes obviously to mind, especially as regards Saudi Arabia and Egypt, accomplices in the crime. They are victims in so far as their situation is analogous to the Nazi occupied countries of Europe such as Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and so on. Here the occupation is not a direct one by Israel, but indirect one by its biggest supporter United States, and not through direct occupation, but by supporting and installing the puppet, corrupt and tyrannical regimes. It is through these regimes that massive resources and policies of these regimes are controlled, and their populations kept educationally, culturally, and technologically backward. The moral collapse is reflected in the decadence of the ruling class and their conspicuous consumption and apathy of the masses to this situation. Even when attempts are made to rectify, they run up against the stone wall of US supported entrenched opposition. To this monarchical and tyrannical petro dollar driven regimes and consumption, is now deliberately added the lethal dimension of sectarian hatred in order to always keep the pot boiling and to provide channels for frittering away radical tendencies into self-destructive and divisive endeavors. All this is heaven sent for Israel, which not only sees in it an almost endless gold mine of propaganda to taint the opposition in the most unflattering and now the almost universal bogey of political or radical Islam, but also an enemy self- immolating in the fires of old, atavistic, sectarian hatreds. The upshot of all this is that both the sectarian battles, the fears of sundry caliphates and petro-dollar driven tyrannies are going to stay there for a while, since they suite both Israel and its arch supporter United States, in the wider scheme of things. But for the middle eastern Muslim society, they are the most potent expression of  their “moral collapse”.

Hammad Said is an IT consultant and lives in Portland, Oregon, and can be reached at hammad_said@hotmail.

Notes.


[i] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 10, penguin addition

[ii] David Russet, a former inmate of Buchenwald quoted by Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 11, penguin addition

[iii] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 52, penguin addition

[iv] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil

[vi] Eric Rajakowitsch, in charge of deportation of Dutch Jews: Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 75, penguin addition

[vii] ”Judge Halevi, asking the defense counsel of Eichmann to clarify his shocking statement about gasing: Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil:  penguin addition

[viii] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 86, penguin addition

[ix] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 95, penguin addition

[x] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 103, penguin addition

[xi] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 115, penguin addition

[xii] R. Pendorf, quoted by Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 117, penguin addition

[xiii] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 131, penguin addition

[xiv] Louis De Jong , quoted by Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 132, penguin addition

[xv] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 80, penguin addition

 

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/07/28/relevance-of-hannah-arendts-a-report-on-the-banality-of-evil-to-gaza/

What we do better without other people around

The power of lonely

(Tim Gabor for The Boston Globe)
By Leon Neyfakh

March 6, 2011

You hear it all the time: We humans are social animals. We need to spend time together to be happy and functional, and we extract a vast array of benefits from maintaining intimate relationships and associating with groups. Collaborating on projects at work makes us smarter and more creative. Hanging out with friends makes us more emotionally mature and better able to deal with grief and stress.

Spending time alone, by contrast, can look a little suspect. In a world gone wild for wikis and interdisciplinary collaboration, those who prefer solitude and private noodling are seen as eccentric at best and defective at worst, and are often presumed to be suffering from social anxiety, boredom, and alienation.

But an emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us — that certain tasks and thought processes are best carried out without anyone else around, and that even the most socially motivated among us should regularly be taking time to ourselves if we want to have fully developed personalities, and be capable of focus and creative thinking. There is even research to suggest that blocking off enough alone time is an important component of a well-functioning social life — that if we want to get the most out of the time we spend with people, we should make sure we’re spending enough of it away from them. Just as regular exercise and healthy eating make our minds and bodies work better, solitude experts say, so can being alone.

One ongoing Harvard study indicates that people form more lasting and accurate memories if they believe they’re experiencing something alone. Another indicates that a certain amount of solitude can make a person more capable of empathy towards others. And while no one would dispute that too much isolation early in life can be unhealthy, a certain amount of solitude has been shown to help teenagers improve their moods and earn good grades in school.

“There’s so much cultural anxiety about isolation in our country that we often fail to appreciate the benefits of solitude,” said Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University whose book “Alone in America,” in which he argues for a reevaluation of solitude, will be published next year. “There is something very liberating for people about being on their own. They’re able to establish some control over the way they spend their time. They’re able to decompress at the end of a busy day in a city…and experience a feeling of freedom.”

Figuring out what solitude is and how it affects our thoughts and feelings has never been more crucial. The latest Census figures indicate there are some 31 million Americans living alone, which accounts for more than a quarter of all US households. And at the same time, the experience of being alone is being transformed dramatically, as more and more people spend their days and nights permanently connected to the outside world through cellphones and computers. In an age when no one is ever more than a text message or an e-mail away from other people, the distinction between “alone” and “together” has become hopelessly blurry, even as the potential benefits of true solitude are starting to become clearer.

Solitude has long been linked with creativity, spirituality, and intellectual might. The leaders of the world’s great religions — Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Moses — all had crucial revelations during periods of solitude. The poet James Russell Lowell identified solitude as “needful to the imagination;” in the 1988 book “Solitude: A Return to the Self,” the British psychiatrist Anthony Storr invoked Beethoven, Kafka, and Newton as examples of solitary genius.

But what actually happens to people’s minds when they are alone? As much as it’s been exalted, our understanding of how solitude actually works has remained rather abstract, and modern psychology — where you might expect the answers to lie — has tended to treat aloneness more as a problem than a solution. That was what Christopher Long found back in 1999, when as a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst he started working on a project to precisely define solitude and isolate ways in which it could be experienced constructively. The project’s funding came from, of all places, the US Forest Service, an agency with a deep interest in figuring out once and for all what is meant by “solitude” and how the concept could be used to promote America’s wilderness preserves.

With his graduate adviser and a researcher from the Forest Service at his side, Long identified a number of different ways a person might experience solitude and undertook a series of studies to measure how common they were and how much people valued them. A 2003 survey of 320 UMass undergraduates led Long and his coauthors to conclude that people felt good about being alone more often than they felt bad about it, and that psychology’s conventional approach to solitude — an “almost exclusive emphasis on loneliness” — represented an artificially narrow view of what being alone was all about.

“Aloneness doesn’t have to be bad,” Long said by phone recently from Ouachita Baptist University, where he is an assistant professor. “There’s all this research on solitary confinement and sensory deprivation and astronauts and people in Antarctica — and we wanted to say, look, it’s not just about loneliness!”

Today other researchers are eagerly diving into that gap. Robert Coplan of Carleton University, who studies children who play alone, is so bullish on the emergence of solitude studies that he’s hoping to collect the best contemporary research into a book. Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, a leader in the world of positive psychology, has recently overseen an intriguing study that suggests memories are formed more effectively when people think they’re experiencing something individually.

That study, led by graduate student Bethany Burum, started with a simple experiment: Burum placed two individuals in a room and had them spend a few minutes getting to know each other. They then sat back to back, each facing a computer screen the other could not see. In some cases they were told they’d both be doing the same task, in other cases they were told they’d be doing different things. The computer screen scrolled through a set of drawings of common objects, such as a guitar, a clock, and a log. A few days later the participants returned and were asked to recall which drawings they’d been shown. Burum found that the participants who had been told the person behind them was doing a different task — namely, identifying sounds rather than looking at pictures — did a better job of remembering the pictures. In other words, they formed more solid memories when they believed they were the only ones doing the task.

The results, which Burum cautions are preliminary, are now part of a paper on “the coexperiencing mind” that was recently presented at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference. In the paper, Burum offers two possible theories to explain what she and Gilbert found in the study. The first invokes a well-known concept from social psychology called “social loafing,” which says that people tend not to try as hard if they think they can rely on others to pick up their slack. (If two people are pulling a rope, for example, neither will pull quite as hard as they would if they were pulling it alone.) But Burum leans toward a different explanation, which is that sharing an experience with someone is inherently distracting, because it compels us to expend energy on imagining what the other person is going through and how they’re reacting to it.

“People tend to engage quite automatically with thinking about the minds of other people,” Burum said in an interview. “We’re multitasking when we’re with other people in a way that we’re not when we just have an experience by ourselves.”

Perhaps this explains why seeing a movie alone feels so radically different than seeing it with friends: Sitting there in the theater with nobody next to you, you’re not wondering what anyone else thinks of it; you’re not anticipating the discussion that you’ll be having about it on the way home. All your mental energy can be directed at what’s happening on the screen. According to Greg Feist, an associate professor of psychology at the San Jose State University who has written about the connection between creativity and solitude, some version of that principle may also be at work when we simply let our minds wander: When we let our focus shift away from the people and things around us, we are better able to engage in what’s called meta-cognition, or the process of thinking critically and reflectively about our own thoughts.

Other psychologists have looked at what happens when other people’s minds don’t just take up our bandwidth, but actually influence our judgment. It’s well known that we’re prone to absorb or mimic the opinions and body language of others in all sorts of situations, including those that might seem the most intensely individual, such as who we’re attracted to. While psychologists don’t necessarily think of that sort of influence as “clouding” one’s judgment — most would say it’s a mechanism for learning, allowing us to benefit from information other people have access to that we don’t — it’s easy to see how being surrounded by other people could hamper a person’s efforts to figure out what he or she really thinks of something.

Teenagers, especially, whose personalities have not yet fully formed, have been shown to benefit from time spent apart from others, in part because it allows for a kind of introspection — and freedom from self-consciousness — that strengthens their sense of identity. Reed Larson, a professor of human development at the University of Illinois, conducted a study in the 1990s in which adolescents outfitted with beepers were prompted at irregular intervals to write down answers to questions about who they were with, what they were doing, and how they were feeling. Perhaps not surprisingly, he found that when the teens in his sample were alone, they reported feeling a lot less self-conscious. “They want to be in their bedrooms because they want to get away from the gaze of other people,” he said.

The teenagers weren’t necessarily happier when they were alone; adolescence, after all, can be a particularly tough time to be separated from the group. But Larson found something interesting: On average, the kids in his sample felt better after they spent some time alone than they did before. Furthermore, he found that kids who spent between 25 and 45 percent of their nonclass time alone tended to have more positive emotions over the course of the weeklong study than their more socially active peers, were more successful in school and were less likely to self-report depression.

“The paradox was that being alone was not a particularly happy state,” Larson said. “But there seemed to be kind of a rebound effect. It’s kind of like a bitter medicine.”

The nice thing about medicine is it comes with instructions. Not so with solitude, which may be tremendously good for one’s health when taken in the right doses, but is about as user-friendly as an unmarked white pill. Too much solitude is unequivocally harmful and broadly debilitating, decades of research show. But one person’s “too much” might be someone else’s “just enough,” and eyeballing the difference with any precision is next to impossible.

Research is still far from offering any concrete guidelines. Insofar as there is a consensus among solitude researchers, it’s that in order to get anything positive out of spending time alone, solitude should be a choice: People must feel like they’ve actively decided to take time apart from people, rather than being forced into it against their will.

Overextended parents might not need any encouragement to see time alone as a desirable luxury; the question for them is only how to build it into their frenzied lives. But for the millions of people living by themselves, making time spent alone time productive may require a different kind of effort. Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, argues in her new book, “Alone, Together,” that people should be mindfully setting aside chunks of every day when they are not engaged in so-called social snacking activities like texting, g-chatting, and talking on the phone. For teenagers, it may help to understand that feeling a little lonely at times may simply be the price of forging a clearer identity.

John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, whose 2008 book “Loneliness” with William Patrick summarized a career’s worth of research on all the negative things that happen to people who can’t establish connections with others, said recently that as long as it’s not motivated by fear or social anxiety, then spending time alone can be a crucially nourishing component of life. And it can have some counterintuitive effects: Adam Waytz in the Harvard psychology department, one of Cacioppo’s former students, recently completed a study indicating that people who are socially connected with others can have a hard time identifying with people who are more distant from them. Spending a certain amount of time alone, the study suggests, can make us less closed off from others and more capable of empathy — in other words, better social animals.

“People make this error, thinking that being alone means being lonely, and not being alone means being with other people,” Cacioppo said. “You need to be able to recharge on your own sometimes. Part of being able to connect is being available to other people, and no one can do that without a break.”

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail lneyfakh@globe.com.