09 February 2010

Intolerable Cruelty: Cover Stories and a Culture of Lies

There was this boy I sent to the 'lectric chair at Huntsville Hill here a while back. My arrest and my testimony. He killt a fourteen-year-old girl. Papers said it was a crime of passion but he told me there wasn't any passion to it. Told me that he'd been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him out he'd do it again. Said he knew he was going to hell. "Be there in about fifteen minutes". I don't know what to make of that. I sure don't. The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure. It's not that I'm afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, "O.K., I'll be part of this world."
--Sheriff Bell in No Country for Old Men
Intolerable Cruelty: Cover Stories and a Culture of Lies by Harrison Koehli

Over the last decades the Coen brothers have repeatedly proven themselves to be masters of portraying the tragicomic realities of American life. From the quirky and trivial to the depths of moral failings and utter depravity, their films often focus on the criminal mind and its varied psychological roots. They get to the heart of human weakness, the tempting lure of a "free lunch", and the inscrutable darkness of the psychopathic mind. Most notable of recent years was Javier Bardem's rendition of Anton Chigurh, the psychopathic killer from the Coens' Academy Award-winning adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel, No Country for Old Men. In many ways recalling the Coens' earlier work, Fargo, the audience experiences the film's drama through the eyes and conscience of a county Sheriff in West Texas, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). We share his confusion and pained desire to understand the senseless violence against which he struggles every day.

As I mentioned in my last piece, Pathocracy: Brave New World or 1984, "while the creation of a literary world (or a film one, in this case) can teach us many things, it cannot provide a way out. For that we need accurate knowledge." Because if we go out in this world without that knowledge, as Tommy Lee Jones' character says above, we put our souls at hazard. We must have at least some understanding of what we are to face. That said, the main inspiration for this piece comes from what is probably the Coens' worst movie, Intolerable Cruelty, starring George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a pair of shallow, greedy shells of human beings in a comedy of Hollywood infidelity and monetarily inspired marital maneuverings. Clooney plays a highly successful divorce lawyer, schooled in the practice of winning arguments by any means necessary. Zeta-Jones plays a conniving, cold-hearted seductress out to catch, and then divorce, a rich husband for half his money. Both show a stunning facility to lie about anything. Naturally, they end up together, and while the film itself is unremarkable it does have something to say about the highly ponerized qualities of Western culture.

Take this line from Clooney's character, Miles Massey, delivered to a cheating wife whose husband caught her in the act, and who, of course wants "fair" representation:

Hmm... Hmm... Yes, your husband did show remarkable foresight in taking those pictures. And, yes, absent a swimming pool, the presence of a pool man would appear to be suspicious. But, Madam, who is the real victim here? Let me suggest to you the following. Your husband, who on a prior occasion had slapped you, beat you...
While the Coens humorously push this tendency to create one's reality out of thin air throughout the movie, sometimes to a ridiculous degree, the line pretty much captures the modus operandi of the film's characters, and of the entire Western legal system, incidentally, thus brining me to my point. A culture without a popular understanding of psychopathy face a very real danger from the very thing of which they are unaware. A culture without a popular understanding of psychopathy and whose citizens demonstrate an almost inborn tendency to lie, to create personal fictions and to even come to believe those fictions, all to present themselves in a better light, are hurtling so fast towards a self-destruction that is perhaps unavoidable at this point.

There is a phrase to describe the fictions that people like Miles Massey are so adept at conjuring. They are called cover stories, plausible stories made to put the facts in a light completely at odds with the reality of a situation. The motivations are simple. In a legal system it goes as follows: how can I put my client, who is undoubtedly guilty, in a good enough light that the judge or jury will be convinced that they are innocent? How can I lie well enough to convince them that it is my opponent that is lying? How can I make my client's victim look like the guilty party? In other words, it's all about perception-management, creating a version of the "truth" that benefits the client, and playing with "facts" in such a way that the word loses all meaning.

The notion of the cover story maps our reality so well that if we trace its roots we are led directly to the roots of the human condition, that murky territory plumbed with such insight by the best philosophers, mystics, novelists, and poets. From the self-deceptions of everyday life to the "big lies" told scammers who call themselves leaders, most of our notions about life are often little more than cover stories to hide a truth we refuse to see, and often a reality that is too scary to imagine.

So what is the root of the cover story? First and foremost, it has to do with the universal human capacity to dissociate. Not necessarily a bad thing, it is because of this special quality of consciousness that we are even able to function as living, thinking, feeling beings in the world of experience. Dissociation allows us to regulate reality, to focus attention, to not be distracted by the endless expanse of sensory signals barraging our awareness at any given moment. Dissociation is also what makes a harsh reality bearable. We dissociate consciousness during abuse to mute the pain of the ultimate betrayal. We shunt away unnecessary data in a situation where our lives are threatened and narrow focus is essential to our very survival. But this tendency is easily misused. When we become to used to its calming effects, we run the risk of self-deception that places us in danger of even greater harms.

Psychologist and author John F. Schumaker lists the types of dissociative processes in his book The Corruption of Reality:

This evolutionary strategy [i.e. preserving the many advantages of elevated consciousness while simultaneously reducing the emotional impact of that same adaptation] came in the form of the capacity of the brain to dissociate itself from its own data. More specifically, the human brain gained the ability to (a) selectively perceive its environment, (b) selectively process information, (c) selectively store memories, (d) selectively disengage from already stored memories, and (e) selectively replace dissociated data with more "user-friendly" data.
Lobaczewski called these processes subconscious selection and substitution of information, examples of which are easily furnished by playing variations on the theme of the suave divorce lawyer's client. Here's the scenario: the woman's husband comes home early, and is somewhat perplexed to see a pool man's van parked on the driveway of his spacious West Hollywood home, a home by they way, without the pool required to make such services required in the first place. But, the anticipation of "the big game" he's five minutes late for, or perhaps the succulent appeal of the buckwheat sandwich awaiting him in the fridge, causes him to push this paradoxical perception from the purview of his mind's eye. He's got more important things to focus on, after all. He grabs the sandwich, watches the game, and the pool guy slips out on sock-footed feet. That's (a) selective perception. It's not quite denial because the relevant information hasn't been processed well enough to even lead to a conclusion worth denying.

Selective processing (b) is a bit more involved, one example of which is denial, the subconscious blocking of uncomfortable conclusions. In this scenario our unlucky protagonist may arrive home just in time to see the pool guy get in his van and drive away. He manages to free up enough brain power to say to himself, "Wait a minute..." upon seeing the incongruously placed van. For a moment he recalls past instances of the lingering smell of unfamiliar men's cologne on his wife, but he simply shakes his head, "That's ridiculous." On the threshold of entering through the door of truth, he backs away at the last second. And while he blocks the pain of the truth temporarily, he also blocks the benefits gained from passing through that door and the temporary pain it brings.

Subconscious selection of premises occurs a bit earlier in the chain of reasoning. If our minds were police officers, subconscious selection would be like tampering with evidence, that evidence being the data, perceptions, and memories we use to come to logical conclusions about the world, others, and ourselves. It occurs when our mind deletes and represses just that piece of information which was responsible for arriving at the uncomfortable conclusion. We come to a conclusion which is ostensibly and logically correct, but it's "not even wrong" because the premises we use are garbage. In (c) and (d) our memories are simply the data we manipulate. Some memories don't get stored in the first place, others are blocked via trauma, and some simply don't come to mind because otherwise we might be forced to face an uncomfortable truth.

Now, let's say our hypothetical husband enters his home, after seeing the parked van, to find his wife and the much younger pool guy emerge from upstairs with nervous glances and quick breath. They're surprised, but quick on their feet, with a cover story ready, to boot. "Bob, have you met Pool Guy Jim? He's an old friend, and was going door-to-door offering his services when he serendipitously came to our door! We were just catching up."

What a relief! Gone are the slight recollections of manly fragrances (that's selection of premises), now but wisps in the air of the husband's comforted mental landscape. Ignored is the fact that they emerged from what was undoubtedly the bedroom upstairs, an odd place to catch up with a casual acquaintance. It's a plausible story after all, especially in their neighborhood, and Sue was always popular. And, most importantly, it's much more comfortable to believe than the alternative.

The cover story was a success, and the conclusion (she's not cheating) was made possible thanks to the bogus data his wife provided, backed up by Bob's own spurious thinking processes. That's substitution of premises, the most complex process of the bunch, or as Schumaker puts it (e) selectively replacing dissociated data with more "user-friendly" data. Lobaczewski notes that substitution is actually a semi-conscious process, most often helped along collectively, in conversation. It may even occur in one's mental dialogue, "What? Is she cheating? That might explain that cologne... What's that? An old friend? What a relief!" And practiced with enough dedication to cheap imitations of truth, it can become a nasty habit.

And by this vicious cycle of deception we are led back to our main point. When a society develops the habit of twisting the truth, malicious abuse of the truth becomes easy and prevalent. Western culture is asphyxiated by it. What starts as an evolutionarily adaptive brain mechanism becomes a shortcut by which we avoid facing uncomfortable views of ourselves and others. And as the process moves from more automatic and unconscious (denial) to more increasingly conscious (substitution), our thinking becomes increasingly pathological and downright wrong, making us vulnerable to those who take advantage of this face-saving tendency. Lobaczewski writes:

Those people who use conversive operations too often for the purpose of finding convenient conclusions, or constructing some cunning paralogistic or paramoralistic statements, eventually begin to undertake such behavior for ever more trivial reasons, losing the capacity for conscious control over their thought process altogether. This necessarily leads to behavior errors which must be paid for by others as well as themselves.

People who have lost their psychological hygiene and capacity of proper thought along this road also lose their natural critical faculties with regard to the statements and behavior of individuals whose abnormal thought processes were formed on a substratum of pathological anomalies, whether inherited or acquired. Hypocrites stop differentiating between pathological and normal individuals, thus opening an “infection entry” for the ponerologic role of pathological factors. (Political Ponerology, p. 108)

In other words, when we lie to ourselves, we're easy prey for psychopaths who lie to us. We may identify with our nationality to the extent that we filter out negative thoughts about our leaders and our conduct with other countries. We may ignore the atrocities committed in our names. Even worse, we may take the bait offered by our leaders and substitute important data, reaching pseudo-logical and pseudo-moral opinions. "They deserve it, because they hate us." "That massacre wasn't actually a massacre. They fired first after all, and we were only defending ourselves." "The guy had weapons of mass destruction." "They're the ones that want to kill us, we're just making sure they'll never get the chance."

We buy the cover story, hook, line, and sinker. On a cultural level, the process is called myth-making. We create grand histories, semi-mythical founders of nations, charter documents that sustain the false belief that we are something we are not. The process is described at length in several books. Burton Mack's latest, Myth and the Christian Nation, is a good start and Shlomo Sand's bestseller The Invention of the Jewish People, is a great case study of these processes in action. It is by the cultural substitution of data that we come to see ourselves as a people at odds with another people. We twist the facts available to come to mistaken conclusions about who the real enemy of humanity is, and who is responsible for the propagation and manipulation of myths in the first place: psychopaths.

Take the Underwear Bomber. The available facts make it screamingly clear that the kid was a patsy of Western Intelligence Agencies (ahem! Mossad!), but even with most of the pertinent facts and clues published in the mainstream news, it is only the alternative news websites, like sott.net, who come to the logical conclusion: . Everyone else blindly promotes the ludicrous cover story. As the Detroit News reported:

Allowing Adbulmutallab to keep the visa increased chances federal investigators would be able to get closer to apprehending the terror network he is accused of working with, "rather than simply knocking out one soldier in that effort."
Oh, really. And Mossad just happened to have unchecked access and control over security at the airport in question. And the well dressed American with some major pull, who the FBI denied existed for weeks, was just a rich uncle! A quote from Dr. Sidney MacDonald Baker is fitting here:
Empiricists are those of us who believe what we see and rationalists are those who see what we believe. (Detoxification and Healing, p. 50)
An empiricist looks at the data and sees that Adbulmutallab had help, most likely from the very intelligence agencies tasked with "preventing" terrorism. A rationalist operates with several beliefs that distort logical thought processes. "This must be because of this." Or "This must be the explanation." Once this limited thinking becomes habitual, it's common to hear, "I simply don't believe it." "I just can't believe that our government and military would do something like that." But with the proper framework, with accurate data about psychopathology and human psychology, harsh realities are not rejected offhand. Watch this video on the Israeli assault on Gaza in January of 2009 for one such unveiling of truth. It is stark, horrifying, and free of the convoluted mental manuevers used to reject harsh realities.

Last year's critically acclaimed movie about the Iraq war, The Hurt Locker, provides good material for testing these thought processes. The film follows the operations of an elite U.S. army bomb squad as they handle IEDs, car bombs, "body bombs", and investigate the scenes of exploded materials. Its fairly realistic look and narrative (no mention of Blackwater or its antics, however) is probably because it was written and produced by Mark Boal, who spent time embedded with a real bomb squad in Iraq.

The script reveals only what the characters see and experience and for those who are paying attention, the absence of any real explanation for the violence throughout the film is telling. Bombs are discovered, but never their creators. Stashes are found, but never their owners. A young boy is found murdered, a bomb sewn into his abdomen. In fact, except for a sole sniper and his companions, the so-called "enemy" is never seen, only assumed to be real. This is understandable, given the fact that armed resistance is a given in any occupied territory. In fact, the only villains seen in the film are Americans, like the commander who suggestively orders the murder of an Iraqi man with a survivable wound, or the British (SAS?) bounty hunters dressed in Arab clothing who the main characters encounter in the desert.

The noticeable absence of any real "terrorist network" is particularly evident in two scenes. In the first, the bomb squad is called to investigate a suicide bombing in the Green Zone. The team Sergeant is the only one to point out that it was probably a remote detonation. In the second scene, some soldiers encounter a "suicide bomber" with a bomb vest. While the majority of the near-hysterical soldiers want to shoot the man, it's revealed that he was forced against his will, by parties unknown, to wear the vest and approach the soldiers.

In fact, while the film doesn't reveal it, the truth is that the vast majority, if not all, of the "suicide bombings" in Iraq are orchestrated and engineered by U.S., U.K., and Israeli intelligence to give the illusion of a real enemy, thus justifying an extended occupation and a profitable War Without End against a fabled enemy. The thought patterns concerning the war in Iraq, whether of the soldiers themselves or the American and world public, are built on the false premise that there is an enemy. We naturally "fill in the blanks", but only after the key pieces of data have been provided to complete our collective substitution of data. As a result, the absence of a real enemy isn't noticed.

For those readers used to being fed on the unwholesome chaff of the mainstream media rags, these statements may come as a shock. Scoffs of disbelief and the occasional outburst of "Ridiculous!" accompanied by frantic gesticulations are to be expected. But in a society where entire professions rely on people deliberately manipulating the truth in order to "win" an argument, where policing serves politics and quotas and not care and protection of citizens, where people are so used to lying that it is considered normal and perfectly acceptable, is such a reality really so hard to believe?

When we consider some facts that, taken separately, are relatively easy to believe, the situation becomes clearer. Psychopaths thrive in corporations and politics (witness Madoff and Blagojevich), and the violent ones are considered the worst of the worst criminals (most serial killers are psychopaths). And with unlimited black budgets, cannon fodder soldiers, crafty intelligence agencies with generations of experience making murder look like an accident, political psychopaths, simply by virtue of the scope of their influence, are potentially the most dangerous. When you combine these facts with the existence of a public that has lost its ability to think, patently false cover stories find fertile ground in the whitewashed pastures of the Western mind, where truth is buried and artifice taken for authenticity.

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