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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 7/1/21

Chris Hedges Speaks on "American Sadism"

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From Scheerpost

Sadism defines nearly every cultural, social, and political experience in the United States. It is expressed in the unchecked greed of an oligarchic elite that has seen its wealth increase during the pandemic by $1.1 trillion while the country has suffered the sharpest rise in its poverty rate in more than 50 years. It is expressed in the wanton killings by police of unarmed citizens in cities such as Minneapolis. It is expressed in the "enhanced interrogation techniques" used by the CIA at secret black sites, Guanta'namo Bay, and our prisons at home. It is expressed in the separation of children from their undocumented parents, where they are held as if they were dogs in a kennel.

It is expressed in the pornification of American society, where women are tortured, beaten, degraded, and sexually violated, often by numerous men, in porn films, and then discarded after a few weeks or months with severe trauma, along with sexually transmitted diseases and vaginal and anal tears that must be repaired surgically. It is expressed in the "incel" movement that perpetrates violent assaults against women by men who say they have been spurned or ignored by women.

It is expressed in the predatory health care system where, as Steven Brill writes, a trip to the emergency room for chest pains that turn out to be indigestion can exceed the cost of a semester of college, simple lab work done during a few days in a hospital can be more expensive than a new car, and a drug that requires $300 to make and that the manufacturer sells to a hospital for $3,000 to 3,500 can cost the patient to whom it is prescribed $13,702. It is legally permissible in the United States for corporations to hold sick children hostage while their parents bankrupt themselves to save their sons or daughters.

This sadism is expressed in payday loans, for-profit prisons, the privatization of public education and public utilities and the rise of for-profit mercenary armies. It is expressed in the cultural glorification of violence by mass media, the state and the entertainment and the gaming industries. It is expressed in the nihilistic mass shootings at schools, including elementary schools, and workplaces. And it is expressed in the murderous and futile wars we prosecute or support in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen.

The historian Johan Huizinga, writing about the twilight of the Middle Ages, argued that as things fall apart sadism is embraced to cope with the hostility of an indifferent universe. No longer bound to a common purpose, a ruptured society retreats into hedonism and the cult of the self. It celebrates, as do corporations on Wall Street or popular reality television shows, the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity, and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation; a penchant for lying, deception and manipulation; and the incapacity for remorse or guilt. Get what you can, as fast as you can, before someone else gets it. This is the state of nature, the "war of all against all," Thomas Hobbes saw as the consequence of social disintegration, a world in which life becomes "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." It is a world in which the powerful, men like Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein, reduce the bodies and selfhoods of their victims to nothing.

We know what this sadism looks like. It looks like Derek Chauvin nonchalantly choking to death George Floyd as his police colleagues watch impassively. It looks like Andrew Brown Jr. shot five times by police in North Carolina, including once in the back of the head. It looks like Abner Louima, who had a broomstick pushed up his rectum by police in a bathroom at the 70th Precinct station house in Brooklyn, requiring three major operations to repair the internal injuries. It looks like Navy Seal Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher randomly shooting to death unarmed civilians and using a hunting knife to repeatedly stab to death an injured, sedated 17-year-old Iraqi prisoner and then photographing himself with the corpse. It looks like Iraqi civilians, few of whom had anything to do with the insurgency, naked, bound, beaten and sexually humiliated and raped, and at times murdered, by army guards and private contractors in Abu Ghraib. It looks like the prisoners in Abu Ghraib who were routinely dragged across the prison floor by a rope tied to their penises and were sodomized by chemical lights or had the lights snapped open so the phosphoric liquid could be poured over their naked bodies. The leaked pictures from Abu Ghraib are the true face of America, the hooded Man, a dark-caped figure standing on a box, arms outstretched, wires attached to his fingers or the naked leashed man lying at the feet of the female American soldier in camouflage pants who holds his leash, one end wrapped around his neck, in her hand.

Why is the malaise of a dying civilization expressed through sadism rather than a kind of righteous anger? Here we must turn to Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche warned that those who are humiliated and disempowered are poisoned by ressentiment. Because they have been stripped of agency, they lack the power to harm those who they believe harmed them. In short, there is no cathartic release. Ressentiment is bred from damaged self-esteem. It festers and corrodes the soul. The powerless, and here Nietzsche is writing about Christianity as a slave religion, must expresses their ressentiment obliquely and surreptitiously, hence the coded racism, Islamophobia and supposed yearning for a return of the traditional family and "Christian" values. Ressentiment is produced by feelings of inferiority, failure, and worthlessness. And this ressentiment, fueled by self-loathing, expresses itself through sadism, what Nietzsche calls "wrecking the will" of those who are weaker or more vulnerable. Nietzsche understood that this "wrecking the will" of others imparts a perverted, sadistic pleasure. He writes in On the Genealogy of Morals, that "to see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more. ... Without cruelty there is no festival ... and in punishment there is so much that is festive!"

The ressentiment in American society, the political scientist Wendy Brown writes, is born not only from feelings of powerlessness and worthlessness, but feelings of dethronement and lost entitlement. It explains what she calls the "permanent politics of revenge, of attacking those blamed for the dethronement white maleness-feminists, multiculturalists, globalists, who both unseat and disdain them." For this reason, the rage cannot, as it could be in Christian theology, sublimated into self-abnegation and a call to love of thy neighbor. There is, in short, nothing to mitigate or redirect this ressentiment. It's pure expression is nihilism and sadism. Trump embodied this dark ethic. Revenge is his sole philosophy of life. Those gripped by ressentiment no longer able to create. They can only destroy. They gleefully ignite their own funeral pyre.

Laws, institutions, and bureaucratic structures are deformed to serve the interests of a tiny cabal, a rapacious elite, which enriches itself at the expense of everyone else. All are made to bow before the dictates of what Max Weber called the "inanimate machine." The inanimate machine forces the vast majority into the mass, but it allows a selected few, willing to do its dirty work, to rise above the multitude. These privileged few are given the license and authority to carry out the acts of sadism that have become the primary forms of social control. These enforcers do this work vigorously, for their greatest fear is being pushed back into the mass. The more these foot soldiers for the elite insult, persecute, torture, humiliate and kill, the more they seem to magically widen the divide between themselves and their victims. This is why Black police and corrections officers can be as cruel, and sometimes crueler, than their white counterparts.

The sadism eradicates, at least momentarily, the sadist's feelings of worthlessness, vulnerability and susceptibility to pain and death. It imparts feelings of omnipotence. It is pleasurable. I was beaten by Saudi military police and later by Saddam Hussein's secret police when I was taken prisoner in Basra shortly after the first Gulf War. Those who beat me enjoyed their work. I could see it on their faces. Israel's abuse of the Palestinians, the assaults of Muslims and girls and women in India and the denigration of Muslims in the countries we occupy are part of the scourge of sadism in service to an "inanimate machine" that has become global.

Feminists have long understood that sadism runs like an electric current through male sexual desire. Pornography is about the fantasy of men who are omnipotent, who have the power to torture and physically abuse girls and women who in porn beg to be degraded. "Sexual fun and sexual passion in the privacy of the male imagination are inseparable from the brutality of male history," Andrea Dworkin writes. "The private world of sexual dominance that men demand as their right and their freedom is the mirror image of the public world of sadism and atrocity that men consistently and self-righteously deplore. It is in the male experience of pleasure that one finds the meaning of male history."

Women, of course, are not immune from acts of sadism. Ilse Koch, known as the "b*tch of Buchenwald," with her husband, the commandant of the death camp, used to throw prisoners into bears' cages to watch them get ripped apart and devoured. The Chilean Adriana Rivas, facing extradition to Chile from Australia, reportedly tortured prisoners by strapping them to metal bunk beds rigged with electrical current and sending shocks throughout their bodies or suffocated them to death with plastic bags during the regime of August Pinochet. But Dworkin is right to highlight sadism as inherent in male expressions of total and unaccountable power, which is why sadism is the chief characteristic of imperialism.

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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