Daniel Ellsberg

Carl H. Flygt

October, 2005

 

The political mind is the product of men in public life who have been twice spoiled. They have been spoiled with praise and they have been spoiled with abuse. With them, nothing is natural, everything is artificial.

-Calvin Coolidge, after his Presidency

 

The Saybrook Institute recently honored Daniel Ellsberg with its Rollo May Award for distinction in Third School Psychology, the 20th century alternative to Freudianism and behaviorism. It would be hard to imagine a finer exemplar of humanitarian and moral conscience than Daniel Ellsberg, who at considerable personal and professional risk exposed a decision-making process at the highest levels of American government in the 60s and early 70s that was seemingly irresponsible, opportunistic and self-serving, as well as unwise in the extreme. Speaking without notes and for over an hour, Ellsberg proceeded to describe the Maysian/Buberian thesis that man is essentially a mixed package of good and evil together, and how individual conscience is as apt to be led into evil actions as it is into good ones.

 

The human capacity for evil, according to Ellsberg, appears to arise as a feature of human individuals in human groups. Thus the American military generals responsible for planning and implementing the Cold War Doomsday Machine, a gigantic nuclear mousetrap set to deliver a devastating first strike against almost any strategic Soviet aggression or tactical slip-up anywhere in the world, each infallibly went home each night to his wife and family with a clear conscience, but privy to the knowledge that around 600 million people would die or be condemned to die on ten minutes notice if the conditions of their plan were satisfied by certain events in the world. To this apparent fact about human nature and the human potential for complicity in actions that can only be adjudged as downright evil, Ellsberg offered no remedy except to point to the need somehow to transcend it. Short of that transcendence, it appears, we will always bear within ourselves the inclination and the power to destroy or to ruin the lives of untold other human souls, and even of our own, if events conspire to invite justice upon us.

 

What is it about the human individual participating in a peer group that gives rise to this liability? I do not think the answer is particularly hard to discover, although it is complex in its ramifications. It has to do with the individual’s capacity, such as it is, for objective assessment and objective judgment of circumstances which lie in an important way beyond his purview, but over which he (she), usually for rather poor reasons, feels compelled to exercise a degree of control. All power relations and subhuman politics are like this. People find themselves participating in circumstances that define them, rather than the other way around, and they instinctively identify with a familiar and comfortable “self” or “us” over and against an unknown, demonized and altogether alien “other” or “them.” This sort of abstraction and facile stereotyping of the unfamiliar other, which is a degenerate form of the objective and clairvoyant intuition that is possible for human intelligence, is a more or less direct consequence of human socialization practices, in particular of language use in conversation and in other day to day applications, such as advertising and propaganda.

 

To transcend the human capacity for evil, we need to institutionalize a form of judgment and intelligence that makes of the individual a cosmic and clairvoyant form of nature and natural law, at peace in himself (herself) and in the profundity and awe of cosmic experience. We need cultural practices that conduce not to the privacy and emotional opacity of individual experience, but to its cosmic transparency, and to the transparency of all human actions and motives in the world and even of all nature under the stars and circling planets. Under such conditions, the abstracting and death-dealing objectification of the living reality of the apparent other will be displaced from human nature simply because there will be no room for it there. It may continue to live in other forms of consciousness, but not in the universal and universalized individual.

 

The key to conscious conversation, on my theory, is universalization and universalizability in language and language use. When an individual decides, all things considered, that the best thing for him (for her) to do is to join the Nazi party and to get with the program as an enthusiast, he (she) needs a cognitive warrant that all things really have been considered. If my theory of language is right, that guarantee devolves from the cognitive requirements of pure or self-conscious conversation. Under social conditions established by pure conversation, it would become quite impossible to subscribe to something like material anti-Semitism, and in our place and time, probably equally impossible to enter state or national politics. One would simply be too preoccupied learning to fathom oneself as a cosmic consciousness, in which all things knowingly or unknowingly participate as a matter of objective law. The transcendence of evil is a fairly simple proposition in logical essence -  learn to function as an angel, and allow all of nature to follow in turn.