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News ::
Building a Global Grassroots Infrastructure-9, Out of the Prison! (english)
25 Mar 2003
Modified: 06:23:36 PM
On the mental prison that constrains our conception of the kind of world we could have, and that we wish for, government lies to reinforce the prison, basic human decency, and the horrors of our social lives.
This is the text part of an article with several graphics. The full version is at


This essay was inspired by Edward Said's article of April 7, 2002, "Thinking ahead: After survival, what happens"?, available at His article began, "Anyone with any connection at all to Palestine is today in a state of stunned outrage and shock. While almost a repeat of what happened in 1982, Israel's current all-out colonial assault on the Palestinian people (with George Bush's astoundingly ignorant and grotesque support) is indeed worse than Sharon's two previous mass forays in 1971 and 1982 against the Palestinian people."

My effort to respond was largely drafted by April 12, 2002, then set aside by the pressure of other work until I mostly completed it on February 22, 2003, and the final bit a month later -- a stressful month under enormous pressure trying to prevent the attack on Iraq. Thus the context changes slightly from the earlier to the latter part of the article.

This is N° 9 of a series of notes on Building a Global Grassroots Infrastructure. The earlier notes are available through links at


A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as some-thing separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty . . . We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.
--Albert Einstein

Like every compassionate and adequately-conscious human being, I am tortured by knowing that the butchery of innocent, ordinary people is unceasing. The Vietnamese in My Lai were guilty, but only of being who they were and living in that fated village. Longer ago than that sordid episode in U.S. history, the genocide of Armenians in Turkey at the start of the last century was focused against people likewise guilty only of being who they were and living where they lived. And so it goes, apparently without end in the history of what is erroneously called civilization.

Of course one can go back in time to seek out example after example, like that 'famed' Indian fighter Andrew Jackson (honored on the U.S. $20 bill) and his savage hunting of the peaceful Seminoles, Indians guilty only of being who they were and living on land in Florida coveted by those self-anointed conveyors of civilization to the new world. A history of El Mozotes! The nefarious clients of the U.S., heirs of the butchers of that ill-fated highland town in El Salvador, who still torture and assassinate poor Salvadorans, remain in the saddle as that nation's farcical "peace process" supposedly provides hope for the future. Hope only for those still naive enough to swallow the Orwellian term "peace process", a scheme, in every instance, for continued domination and injustice. We must free ourselves from Einstein's "prison" of the mind, from the delusion that if in our neighborhood of space and time things seem to be going along tolerably, not well but not intolerably badly, then that is enough with which to concern ourselves.

I am caught in a torrent of anger, not against individual people but against a system of human society which causes unspeakable tragedy after unspeakable tragedy to unfold. At the moment, at this terrifying moment it is the Palestinian Arabs who are being savaged by the government of the heirs of the survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. They, those Arabs, are guilty of being who they are and of living, like the Seminoles, those peaceful savages, on land coveted by the Israeli government, which pretends to act on behalf of Jewish Israelis. Just as the Bush gang pretends to act on behalf of Americans. As Einstein warned, we must break out of the prison or else we are all doomed, Jews and Arabs, Turks, Greeks, Egyptians, Catholics, Episcopalians, Serbs, Croats, Hindus, Muslims, . . . everyone!

Invariably the argument is thrown at me: "It has always been so with human beings: murder, hatred, wars, and it will not change because that is human nature." "How", I am challenged, "can you blame the social system and not human beings who, after all, are the creators of society?" This 'human-nature-at-the-root-of-it-all argument' of the social Darwinists may seem to be correct. It appears, superficially, to be based on pretty solid deductive logic. Certainly it's indisputable that human society is a creation of human beings. Of course any society must be consistent with basic laws of science: of biology, chemistry, physics, and so on. It is impossible, for example, to create a social order in which people can live without food, water, or air, or in which, for example, the law of conservation of energy is violated. Human society must be sustained by the biological infrastructure, the so-called ecosphere or biosphere that comprises the living and inanimate surface of the earth. And it will not be possible for any human society to survive on the earth when the sun evolves into its red-giant stage, in a few billion years. But within those constraints imposed by inviolable scientific laws, there remain many possibilities for the kinds of human societies that can be formed, as historical evidence shows.

So why is the dominant global social order one in which millions of humans suffer such terrible fates? The social Darwinists, starting from the correct premise that human societies are created by human beings, then make the supposedly deductive but false argument that therefore, if human society is in many ways deplorably inhumane, this must be due to terrible flaws inherent in human beings, flaws in our very nature. Why do I claim this conclusion is false? Simply because it is refuted by our everyday experience, as a straightforward look at even a few facts clearly shows. Let's look at a little of the evidence.

Why does the Israeli government do its utmost to prevent accurate news of its attacks in the occupied territories from being disseminated? Barring reporters, destroying cameras and electronic communications equipment, threatening and shooting cameramen, imposing military censorship on news networks, and so on, are all part of its strategic plan. Why? To prevent, as much as possible, accurate information getting out to the world. Why? The answer stares us in the face. Because the Israeli government knows, correctly, that the overwhelming majority of ordinary human beings would be appalled, outraged at what it is doing. So they try to hide most of it. And they do their utmost to disseminate lies to justify those of their actions that can't be hidden.

The same is true of every government. Whether it is the Indonesian government and its East Timorese victims, the Turkish government and its Kurdish victims, the Iraqi government and its Kurdish victims, the Mexican government and its indigenous victims, the Colombian government and its victimized rebelling citizens, the U.S. government and its Iraqi victims, its Yugoslav victims, its Afghani victims (the U.S. government is Number One in victim count), the story is always the same. Every government engaging in inhumane actions knows, without needing rocket scientists to advise it, that ordinary people would be horrified to learn of the extent and brutality of its behavior. And that abhorrance of the destruction of other people is independent of the ethnicity of the target group. It is a deeply human reaction. The surge of compassion for all suffering people is spontaneous, based not on dry logic but inherent in our deepest emotions. Our everyday experience shows that human beings are not by nature brutal and given to harming other people. One could write an entire book setting forth the evidence that human beings are not inherently evil. Such a book, heavily documented, is Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, by Peter Kropotkin.

We are left with an urgent question. How can it be that human society is so terrible if that is not due to inherent flaws in human nature? I think a hint to the answer lies in Einstein's notion of the mental cage, the prison of our minds from which he says we must free ourselves if we are to survive. Each of us lives in a mental cage, a conceptual framework through which we try to understand the world. That framework limits our thinking. To expand the limits we must enlarge the framework. For example, almost all of us accept as valid the idea that it is meaningful to categorize groups of people with labels such as Vietnamese, Armenians, Seminoles, Salvadorans, Palestinian Arabs, and so on. I could not even have begun this discussion without using such concepts, unless I were to have written so-called Vietnamese, so-called Armenians, etc. But had I done that, put in that cumbersome qualifier, you would have wondered, What kind of nut is this guy? And stopped reading. The trouble is that without the qualifier the labels are just conceptual abstractions. What does it signify to say that someone is a Jew, or a Palestinian Arab? In fact it tells practically nothing about the individual, the living breathing, thinking human being. And the abstractions can be, and often are, blinders to our vision, parts of the mental prison. Let me give an example.

In his eloquent, passionate essay, "Thinking ahead: After survival, what happens?",[1] Edward Said frames his discussion of the Israeli government's assault against Palestinian Arabs as though it makes sense to think of Israeli's and Palestinian Arabs as different peoples. He criticizes Israeli Prime Minister "Sharon's homicidal instincts", saying "Conflicts between peoples such as this contain more elements than can be eliminated by tanks and air power . . ." By accepting the abstractions, Israelis and Palestinian Arabs, as do most of the inhabitants of the region, one is encouraged to see the conflict as being fundamentally "between peoples"; in short one is steered away, by the mental framework, the prison of the mind, from seeing the conflict as what it really is: a conflict between the rich and the poor.
[1] Edward W. Said, "Thinking ahead: After survival, what happens? April 7, 2002. Available at

The phrase, "Sharon's homicidal instincts" is also misleading. It suggests that the calculated use, by Sharon, of state terror is not really rational but rather springs from a psychological drive, from some deep inherent urge within the man. He berates Sharon for "lumberingly and mindlessly trumpet[ing] his stupid mantras about terror." Here too Said is not framing the tragedy in its true context. Sharon, willing puppet of the U.S. rulers, is doing precisely what he must do to try to cover his actions with a facade of legitimacy, taking his cue from, and imitating, Bush. Fighting so-called terror is the war cry, under whose banner every atrocity against a so-called enemy (preferably innocent victims who can't fight back) is supposedly acceptable, if not outright laudable. Sharon knows this. What he is doing is unspeakably evil, but to write, as Said does, of Sharon's "enraged fixation on Arafat and terror" and of his "blind monomania" is misleading. Not just Said but each of us lives in a private mental cage. It was true of course of Einstein too, although he tried mightily to enlarge it, with unusual and notable success.[2]
[2] Part of Einstein's mental cage was his belief, evidentally held until the end of his life, that a unified field theory could be formulated without quantization, i.e. based, as was his general theory of relativity, on a system of non-linear differential equations, from which all basic field theory could in principle be derived, a task to which he devoted, unfruitfully, the latter decades of his life.

The notion of a mental cage, a prison of the mind is itself a bit misleading. For, without a conceptual framework with which to think we would be lacking an essential part of what makes us human. From the moment that we come into the world and begin to gain consciousness we begin to build our framework. Without it we could not think. Einstein is conscious of the dual role. First he uses the phrase "a kind of prison", with its restrictive overtone, and then by speaking of "free[ing] ourselves from the prison" in order to widen our compassion, to gain a new manner of thinking, implying that we can enlarge our conceptual framework. The crucial question then becomes, How does an individual acquire a conceptual framework that enables him or her to carry out terrible acts in spite of the fact that he or she is not inherently, that is genetically, a terrible person? Once again, the evidence is easily available. Most of the direct brutal acts -- beatings, torture, murder -- are committed by military, paramilitary, and allied forces, primarily by young men.

As is well-documented and thoroughly understood, practically all such young men in the military are not initially suited to act without compassion towards their victims. They have to be conditioned, trained to be capable of doing the abominable things which "their" governments try so strenuously to hide and deny. We don't have to go far afield for the evidence. We Americans know very well that ordinary young Americans, when they enter military duty, are not given to perform the murderous activities committed in Vietnam. Part and parcel of their military training, when a war is under way or imminent, is to indoctrinate them with the belief that the "enemy" is terrible, inhumane, bereft of inherent value as a fellow human being. I know this from my experience in the U.S. Army during the Second World War, when I was being trained for deployment to the Pacific. The Japanese ("Japs", so-called) were portrayed as ferocious animals. I recall the beastly-looking straw-stuffed mannequins used for teaching us the "proper" use of our bayonets.

Were the young Americans who mercilessly slaughtered the My Lai villagers pathological killers? Of course not. They were subjected, knowingly and deliberately, to social conditioning that enabled them to act that way. All deliberate actions by one person intended to hurt another person are the result of social conditioning. They are a consequence of the "mental cage" in which that person is living, a cage formed both by the forces of society -- the conditioning it seeks to impose -- and the efforts of the individual to expand it -- to not be so constrained.

Along with many others, Edward Said proposed in one of his essays a two-state solution as the best way to resolve the conflict in Israel/Palestine. I believe that at the present time that is the best option. However, I see it as only a temporary resolution. In the long run there is no possibility that a world organized as a collection of nation-states within the economy of global capitalism will allow for peace, dignity, and security for all peoples. On the contrary, it will ensure continual deadly struggles, ever more deadly as the stakes rise and the technology of destruction becomes more and more sophisticated.

The belief that nation-states constitute the only rationally conceivable form of political organization, which is widely accepted, and is of course promoted as forcefully as possible by the governments, is a key part of the "mental cage" in which most of us live. However, we are already seeing the loss of so-called "national sovereignty" by many nations as the more powerful nations encroach on the weaker ones. That is flagrantly evident throughout Latin America, where popular bitterness towards the United States is perhaps at an all time high. And not surprisingly. The Unites States has earned it by its unrelenting drive to dominate and control the entire western hemisphere. Popular understanding of the U.S. government's oppressive role is pervasive throughout Latin America, unlike in the United States.


Speaking to (and of) the Palestinian Arabs in his essay cited above, Said writes of the need for them to gain the high moral ground. He says,

"We have friends and we have possible friends. We can cultivate, mobilise, and use our communities and their affiliated communities here as an integral part of our politics of liberation, just as the South Africans did, or as the Algerians did in France during their struggle for liberation. Planning, discipline, coordination. We have not at all understood the politics of non-violence. Moreover, neither have we understood the power of trying to address Israelis directly, the way the ANC addressed the white South Africans, as part of a politics of inclusion and mutual respect. Coexistence is our answer to Israeli exclusivism and belligerence. This is not conceding: it is creating solidarity, and therefore isolating the exclusivists, the racists, the fundamentalists."

I believe he is correct in advocating the practice of non-violent resistence. As long as the Israeli government seeks to maintain the myth that Israel is a civilized nation in the eyes of the rest of the world, the most effective way to win the Palestinian struggle for liberation is to deprive Israel of its propaganda benefit from Palestinian armed struggle, including the suicide bombings, which, although understandable, are truly horrendous. The deliberate killing and mutilating of innocent people, as well as the deaths of the volunteer bombers, ought to be unacceptable on moral grounds, whether or not they are an effective tactic, which I don't thnk they are.

I'm confident that if I write about Israelis and Palestinians what I wrote about Americans, it would be equally true, namely[3]

"Their ambitions, like those of ordinary people everywhere in the world, are to manage somehow to live decent honest lives, to see their children and grandchildren able to thrive, to be respected for what they are, and to live ordinary lives of dignity -- with their normal joys and inevitable sorrows -- among their families, neighbors and acquaintances, lives of peace, friendship, and self-respect."
[3] See my call for a campaign of tough international sanctions against the United States, aimed at forcing the U.S. government to abandon its attempt to gain global military and economic dominance, at

Whenever it is possible to struggle for liberation without recourse to armed violence, that is preferable. As George Lakey argued quite persuasively in Strategy for a Living Revolution (1973 edition, Institute For World Order), although there will invariably be casualties suffered by those in struggle, they will suffer less damage than they would in an armed struggle. A more recent essay by Lakey, "Strategizing for a Living Revolution", is available on this website, at

This is not to say I condemn armed struggle. What I condemn unequivocally is the existence of systems of oppression that lead people to struggle for their liberation. Explicitly, I do not condemn the struggles of the Chinese Communists against the Kwomintang Dynasty, of the Vietnamese against French colonial status, and subsequently against the U.S., of any of the insurgencies in Latin America against the U.S.-allied comprador regimes, including the Castro-led fight against Fugelnico Batista and the armed insurgencies in Colombia, nor the armed struggle of the Palestinians against the Israeli military enforcing the occupation and domination of their cities, towns, and communications infrastructure. It is always the decision of the oppressed how they want to struggle. Their mode of struggle may be criticized, but their choice should be respected.


Recognition of the right of any oppressed people to determine how they seek to liberate themselves seems to me fundamental. Despite my belief in anarchism, my scorn for hierarchical institutions and the coercive power relationships that always characterize them, I think struggles such as that of the Zapatistas in Mexico (who detest all political party maneuvering for power, and avoid electoral politics like the plague that it truly is), of the Brazilian people to seek a just society through an honest electoral path towards true democracy, of the Venezuelan popular majority which is guarding its democratic regime with the support of the army, and of other Latin American populations seeking to gain honest democratic governments without violent struggle, all should be respected and supported by those of us on the left of the political spectrum, in particular by those of anarchist persuasion.

Put simply, none of these situations aims towards the kind of social structure that anarchists see as ideal. However, as long as we live in a world dominated by nation-states we must, if we are to have any impact on developments, be prepared to work with the structural elements that exist right now.


Monday, March 24, 2003. It is now the fifth day since the U.S. government launched the horrific aerial bombardment against Baghdad and other Iraqi cites. Worldwide popular opposition is unprecedented in its geographical scope and strength, with massive anti-war demonstrations on every continent, and not least in the United States. But the popular opposition has not halted the assault. And thus far the United Nations has not taken actions to end the carnage.

I believe that what is needed are massive tough international sanctions against the U.S. government, such as I proposed last September. The General Assembly of the United Nations ought to issue a call for totally isolating the United States government. The nations of the world must unite in forcing the U.S. to stop its campaign for global military and economic domination. The United States should be expelled from the United Nations.
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