Charlottesville and the Eclipse of American Morality

In an op-ed appearing originally in the Los Angeles Times, and subsequently syndicated in such local rags as the Leesburg Daily Commercial, Stanford University neuroscientist Professor Robert M. Sapolsky urges “the left” (of which he seems to consider himself a part) to “readjust our brains” and focus on the “the real enemy.” Apparently, good folks like the professor have been consumed by petty squabbles, commonly referred to on the “right” as political correctness, but excused by the professor as both a natural trap set by the range-finding human brain and as evidence of “the left’s admirable ability to be introspective.” (Whether blaming Vladimir Putin for the electoral failure of Hillary Clinton constitutes “introspection,” he does not venture to say.) Obsessed by the difference between 1 and 1.00001, says the professor, they have forgotten what real evil looks like, and consequently lost the ability to fight it. Before we get excited about the prospect of a Great Awakening that will restore the gleam to our Shining City, let’s take a look at the way in which the moral combat mission is defined:

And then along comes Charlottesville, and we are reminded about just how contrasting contrasts really can be, how vast the difference between 1 and 100 is, or in this case, 1 and negative infinity. We are reminded what it is like when KKK garb, swastikas and torches are marched through our streets. What it is like when one of the marchers floors a car’s accelerator to hurtle into a crowd, leaving Heather Heyer dead. What it is like when, 70 years after 407,000 Americans died fighting Nazism, fascism and racial supremacy, we have a president who gives comfort to those malignancies. We are reminded what evil actually looks like.

It is time to readjust our brains to focus on the biggest of contrasts, to remember who [sic.] the real enemy is, to use our intellect and passion to destroy it. [Emphasis added.]

If Charlottesville represents negative infinity for Professor Sapolsky, then the poor chap – if, of course, he is sincere, which must never be taken for granted – has led a very sheltered life. To be charitable, we could say that his brain has not been allowed to perceive real evil in its totality. The sphere of his moral concern has been carefully circumscribed by the American information complex, which predictably occludes facts and perspectives that might cause human brains to readjust to an even wider range of evil. His morality has been partially eclipsed. After so many years in the shadows, full exposure to the truth would probably fry every neuron between his retina and hypothalamus. Still, in the interests of using our intellects to destroy evil, let us take the good professor by the hand, and coax him out into the light.

Some Inconvenient Truths About America and Nazism

Professor Sapolsky’s stunted, mainstream morality features the familiar juxtaposition of Nazism as the ultimate evil, and America – by implication as its vanquisher – the ultimate good. There are a few problems with this narrative, not the least of which is that Hitler’s forces were defeated primarily by the Soviet Union, not by the Americans. Outside the American cognitive shadows, this fact of military history is common knowledge, and the sacrifice of the Soviet peoples is greatly respected. American losses, and even (dare we say it?) Jewish losses, pale in comparison to Soviet losses: 27 million dead, and much of the country west of Moscow shattered by the most colossal conflict in human history. If the good professor finds this hard to swallow – especially in this era of anti-Russian hysteria, much of which has been deliberately fomented by what passes for “the left” – perhaps he should ponder these words from President John F. Kennedy, a man who, by the year of his death, knew better than almost anyone on earth where hysteria can lead:

Let us reexamine our attitude toward the Soviet Union…. [N]o nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union in the Second World War. At least 20 million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes and farms were burned or sacked. A third of the nation’s territory, including two thirds of its industrial base, was turned into a wasteland – a loss equivalent to the destruction of this country east of Chicago.1

While Kennedy’s words further enraged those within the Pentagon and CIA who had come to see him as a liability, he could have gone much further in setting the record straight. Those Soviet losses would not have been inflicted had Hitler’s forces not possessed a formidable advantage – at least initially – in machinery and materiel. And this is where Professor Sapolsky’s assumption that America was on the right side of the conflict between good and evil encounters its next, formidable challenge. For, as historians like Charles Higham and Jacques Pauwels have documented, corporate America played an essential role in the rise of German Nazism and continued to support it even after the United States had entered the war. General Motors and Ford built tanks and trucks for Hitler, making Operation Barbarossa possible while they pocketed higher profits than they could “earn” in a depressed domestic market. (Ford’s massive plant at Cologne was used by the locals as a bomb shelter because they knew it was not going to be struck. Ford successfully sued the U.S. government after the war for compensation for the limited damage that did occur.) IBM provided the computing equipment used to control operations at the concentration camps. Standard Oil (the forerunner to Exxon) supplied fuel via neutral Spain, keeping the U-boats humming. Wall Street bankers and lawyers, including such notables as the Dulles brothers and Prescott Bush, channeled American finance capital to Germany.

Reinhard Gehlen

Reinhard Gehlen, Hitler’s leading spy against the Soviet Union, instead of being prosecuted at Nuremberg for war crimes, was installed as the intelligence chief of West Germany thanks to Allen Dulles.

Many members of the ruling class in the United States, Britain, and other western countries were infatuated with Hitler in the 1930s. While Henry Ford was notorious for his antisemitism, the main attraction was the potential Hitler offered to undo the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The U.S. and its allies had attempted, in an unsuccessful and largely unknown military operation, to strangle the communist revolution in its cradle at the end of World War One. The threat it posed to capitalism was (and, in its few remaining forms, still is) unacceptable to those who end up accumulating the lion’s share of the profits. Lost in the constant reminders not to allow another (anti-Jewish) Holocaust is the fact that Hitler’s ultimate target was Soviet Bolshevism. For the American corporate elite, doing business with Hitler offered short-term profits and the longer-term prospect of the removal of communism. Had Hitler prevailed in the east, there can be no doubt that corporate America would have found a way to make money from his 1,000-year Reich. When Hitler declared war on the United States, in the vain hope that Japan would reciprocate and fight the Soviet Union in the east, enormous new profit opportunities arose (finally) in the domestic market. The long-run fight against communism was placed on the back burner, whence it could be retrieved in the guise of the Cold War after 1945, and used both to justify (despite the actual threat posed by an exhausted Soviet Union) the continuation of massive military spending and a long series of interventions in foreign countries alleged to be “going communist.” And in that noble cause, many former Nazis, from rocket scientists to Ukrainian SS veterans, would be welcome to apply their finely-honed talents.

Thus, giving comfort to malignancies is nothing new, and it certainly didn’t start with Donald J. Trump. If Professor Sapolsky is going to invoke 70-year-old history to make his case for American goodness, then he must also allow the use of 70-year-old history to provide evidence of American evil. He is required, intellectually, to recognize that the members of the ruling class who “gave comfort” to German Nazism went on to shape American policy for many decades thereafter, operating from the most senior leadership positions. And his passions ought to be inflamed by cognizance of the manner in which those policies imposed the supremacy of (white) corporate capitalism on (non-white) peoples who thought they might finally be free from the shackles of western colonialism. But, clearly, the professor needs a little more help readjusting his brain to these hitherto unseen realities. Let us take him further out into the light.

“Our” Bastards: From the Thousand-Year Reich to the American Century

When the Dulles brothers found themselves in charge of American foreign policy, as CIA director (Allen) and Secretary of State (John Foster), they enshrined a vicious new form of imperialism in the interests not of morality or even of the American people as a whole, but of the private, corporate powers they had already served so faithfully. For most Americans, born and raised in a moral penumbra, the sordidness of this American foreign policy has generally been buried under the Manichean mantras of the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union, notwithstanding its heroic defeat of Nazi Germany, was presented as the new face of evil menacing the planet. We shall limit the following counterpoint to just a few cases with ongoing relevance today, in the hope of helping “liberals” like Professor Sapolsky to discern a few more pixels of the face of evil.

President Carter with the Shah of Iran

All smiles: President Carter with the Shah of Iran

As Andre Vltchek, the tireless, globe-trotting chronicler of imperialism, recently reminded us, it has been 64 years since the United States and Great Britain colluded to overthrow the democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh. In his place, the Americans installed a right-wing dictator who would cooperate with their pillage of the country’s natural resources, which are to be used for the benefit of western corporations, not for the benefit of the people who actually own them by dint of geography and apparent sovereignty. In what would become a familiar pattern in America’s client states, its hand-picked puppet presided over grotesque levels of inequality and illiteracy, indulged in scandalous corruption and drug trafficking, and ruthlessly suppressed all forms of internal opposition. (He also enthusiastically pursued nuclear power, ironically with American help.) Eventually, the Iranian people overthrew the U.S.-backed Shah, but their memory of his rule colors their attitude toward the United States to this day. (In his generally sympathetic and useful video travelogue on Iran, Rick Steves describes being offended by anti-American murals. He does not seem to have fully digested the reasons for their creation.) To be sure, the Revolution of 1979 degenerated into a new kind of tyranny, but it is an act of supreme hypocrisy for the United States to claim that it cares about democracy and human rights in Iran (or elsewhere) after so many years of propping up a dictator and his secret police force, the Savak.

General Suharto with President Clinton

Indonesian dictator General Suharto with President Clinton

The corporate sensibilities of the Dulles brothers were particularly offended by the countries of the Non-Aligned Movement, which refused to “take sides” in the Cold War, seeking only to chart their own course toward post-colonial freedom. One of the brothers’ greatest “successes” came after their formal departure from the stage, in 1965, when the CIA orchestrated a coup against Indonesia’s Ahmed Sukarno, a leading figure in the Movement. Taking his place was General Mohammad Suharto, who promptly set about ridding the country of “leftists.” The exact death toll is unknown, but considered to be in the range of 1-3 million, with many of the victims specifically identified on hit lists delivered by the CIA. (Since “the left” was targeted, one wonders if Professor Sapolsky’s brain might be able to readjust to this particular range.) Further massacres followed, in East Timor and Papua, with the regime enjoying unabashed American support step by bloody step. Flinging his country open to western corporate exploitation (and taking a multi-billion-dollar piece of the action), Suharto was the darling of the West. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gushed that he was “one of our very best and most valuable friends.” John Pilger explains why:

The deal was that Indonesia under Suharto would offer up what Richard Nixon had called “the richest hoard of natural resources, the greatest prize in south-east Asia”. In November 1967 the greatest prize was handed out at a remarkable three-day conference sponsored by the Time-Life Corporation in Geneva. Led by David Rockefeller, all the corporate giants were represented: the major oil companies and banks, General Motors, Imperial Chemical Industries, British American Tobacco, Siemens, US Steel and many others. Across the table sat Suharto’s US-trained economists who agreed to the corporate takeover of their country, sector by sector. The Freeport company got a mountain of copper in West Papua. A US/European consortium got the nickel. The giant Alcoa company got the biggest slice of Indonesia’s bauxite. America, Japanese and French companies got the tropical forests of Sumatra. When the plunder was complete, President Lyndon Johnson sent his congratulations on “a magnificent story of opportunity seen and promise awakened”. Thirty years later, with the genocide in East Timor also complete, the World Bank described the Suharto dictatorship as a “model pupil”.

Today, as Andre Vltchek’s courageous reporting has documented, Indonesia is a ravaged country, its culture reduced to immoral backwardness, and its once magnificent rainforests, with all their biological diversity, almost completely destroyed. For those who have dared to look, it has long served as an abject lesson of what corporate capitalism brings to the people of the Global South. And for some of America’s other victims, it was an ominous portent of the hell that would be visited upon them.

Henry Kissinger and Augusto Pinochet

U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and General Augusto Pinochet.

As the Trump administration warns that “all options are on the table” with regard to what it describes as threats to democracy in Venezuela, students of real evil remember how much respect the United States showed for democracy in Chile in 1973. A military coup, once again with the CIA’s fingerprints all over it, violently removed the left-leaning, democratically elected Salvador Allende, and replaced him with one of Latin America’s most infamous dictators, General Augusto Pinochet. Had Professor Sapolsky found himself, like so many of Chile’s “disappeared” left, being pushed out of a plane over the Pacific Ocean by Pinochet’s thugs – many of whom were trained by the United States at the School of the Americas –  perhaps his range-finding brain would have mulled over the location of American complicity on his scale from one to negative infinity. Perhaps, on the way down, he would have wondered whether ITT’s interests in copper resources should have been so important to the CIA, and whether the world really would have come to an end had Allende been able to set the example of success that Henry Kissinger desperately wanted to prevent. And should Professor Sapolsky, with his feet firmly on the ground in today’s sunny California, merely imagine himself in such a situation, perhaps he would see a parallel to Venezuela, a country that happens to command the largest proven oil reserves on the planet, but which has had the temerity to attempt to distribute some of its oil wealth to its own, poor people. Perhaps he would question the corporate-media narrative that has been so uniformly hostile to the legitimate, elected government of Venezuela, and remember how the United States tried – but failed, due to massive popular resistance – to remove the country’s elected leader in 2002. Perhaps his brain would readjust, and perceive a certain pattern.

Or not. Professor Sapolsky has allowed himself to fall into the very trap he exhorts his liberal colleagues to escape. He has become outraged by the version of evil spoon-fed to him by the mainstream, corporate media, but remains oblivious to far greater evils kept out of sight and out of mind. When even a neuroscientist can’t figure that out, we know we’re dealing with a highly effective cognitive filtration system, designed to protect us from painful perceptions that might permanently damage our ability to see the United States as a Shining City on a Hill. As if by immutable physical laws, the eclipse of our morality caused by this system traverses our land every single day of the year. Its progress may be anticipated. Soon, as in the model corporate state of Indonesia, it will be total.

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  1. Commencement Speech at American University, June 10th, 1963.

2 Comments

  1. Joan Davis

    Bravo! Thank you. A powerful and relevant reminder of just how horrific American imperialism has been in the past and continues to be. Scary how dominant mainstream media is so lacking and culpable. I always enjoy your writing and perspective. Thanks again.

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