Melville wrote books that could be said to be about: Christian hypocrisy in the Marquesas, authoritarian coercion, military rule, torture, the Leviathan state, labor and brotherhood, wanton slaughter for the benefit of human “profit and progress,” the fraudulence of democratic institutions, the manipulative mysteries of the priestly caste, the politics of the confidence scam, the religion of the confidence scam, the impossibility of settled meaning.
You can make your own list that might have some “positive” insights into human culture and social systems, but I kinda doubt it. Still, give it a try.
I also read this nifty bit from that oft-quoted “most insightful” study of American democracy ever written (and ever to be written apparently–look no further!):
I am, however, persuaded that anarchy is not the principal evil which democratic ages have to fear, but the least. For the principle of equality begets two tendencies; the one leads men straight to independence, and may suddenly drive them into anarchy; the other conducts them by a longer, more secret, but more certain road, to servitude. Nations readily discern the former tendency, and are prepared to resist it; they are led away by the latter, without perceiving its drift; hence it is peculiarly important to point it out. For myself, I am so far from urging as a reproach to the principle of equality that it renders men untractable, that this very circumstance principally calls forth my approbation. I admire to see how it deposits in the mind and heart of man the dim conception and instinctive love of political independence, thus preparing the remedy for the evil which it engenders; it is on this very account that I am attached to it.
I had to read those last two sentences a few times.
In a nutshell, the principal of equality creates in humans the idea that one should never be under the yoke of another. However, the wish to “secure” that equality creates a need for a protective structure to ensure that equality and this in turn creates a limitation on equality and a hierarchy of controlling devices. I think Tocqueville says in those last two sentences that the tendency to anarchy is the remedy for this “longer, more secret” evil.
Here is an example of how far America has traveled that longer, more secret and more certain road to servitude.
Today I read, again, about the United States Military Penal Colony (formerly Land of the Free), and one outpost in the cheery Indiana town of Terre Haute that houses a Communications Management Unit (CMU). Which means prisoners are cut off from all outside contact (that’s the management part).
You can read about it here, The United States Wants the World to Forget These Prisoners.
The part that affected me more than usual but was still not news to me was this:
CMU prisoner Shahawar Matin Siraj had no explosives or concrete plan of attack, but that did not prevent a judge from sentencing him to 30 years for plotting to bomb New York’s Herald Square. The informant who befriended him, and then goaded him into the plan, was paid $100,000 by the NYPD.
Imprisonment is erasure. The state locks a person in a cage—without context, without community, without love. He becomes not human but a widget passing through a system of absolute control. The CMU enacts a double erasure: it represents the ultimate scission of the prisoner from his non-prison self. You are in a box. You are no one. You belong to us.
(Question: What does Melville’s “Bartleby” tell us? And Billy Budd?)
Now, think about that manipulative creation of dangerous situation–100k to create terrorists. That’s a high-paying gig. I mean you could live comfortably by betraying your fellow human only once a year! And then pray forgiveness if you find that necessary.
If you can make a person an agent of aggressive antagonism so readily should there be funding to do the opposite? (Hearts and Minds right?)
Anyway, I’d prefer to not be coerced…but I’m not sure that’s even possible. Not to be coerced that is. Though SCOTUS thinks it’s really quite difficult to coerce folks, even with violent speech and threats (see McCullen v. Coakley).
Still, if it’s possible to make people into dangerous actors against state interests doesn’t that mean we all are likely susceptible; and if we’re susceptible doesn’t that mean that we’re already guilty?
Here is Henry Thoreau from what I would argue is the single most insightful piece of writing on Americans and the American government, shorter category, “Resistance to Civil Government.”
Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents on injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for the law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts — a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniment..
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The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens.
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation AND they serve the state as machines. Or perhaps for “wooden men” read “lethal autonomous weapons systems” (or LAWS, can you believe that shit?).
Rough place to be free, this land of liberty, where we imagine there is a principle followed called “equality.”