Saturday, March 14, 2009

Drowning in Niceness: The Lesson of Elizabeth Smart

This is probably my most famous essay. I wrote it five days after the invasion of Iraq, when we peaceniks were feeling pretty raw. It was posted on CounterPunch, and went viral across the Internet to some extent. I received an amazing number of comments, pro and con.

When Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her home last June, she was taken to a camp only 3 miles from her home, from which she evidently made no attempt to escape. When she was apprehended 9 months later, she had taken a new name and a new identity. Her relatives say she was brainwashed by her kidnapper. I say it’s obvious that she was already brainwashed by the "nice" culture she grew up in, which allowed her to be easily controlled. She was already programmed to be a "good girl," to be nice to everybody, to get along, to obey authority. When she was kidnapped, her pre-existing programming merely transferred her loyalty to her new authority figure, the kidnapper.

Elizabeth Smart cannot be blamed in any way for her actions, since she did not make a conscious decision to obey her kidnapper, or to transfer her loyalty to him. If there is any blame to be cast, we need to look at the nature of the conventionally "nice," fundamentalist culture she grew up in.

There is a lot of security, and often a very comfortable living, to be had from following "the path most traveled." This path can be called "the lifestyle freeway" -- it’s a broad, easy highway (the path Jesus said leads to destruction, but that’s another essay). Everybody seems to be doing it, so why not you? It’s simple -- just follow the guidelines that have already been laid out for you to follow. There’s no need to invent anything, or make any difficult decisions. One merely has to accept the traditional religious beliefs (fundamentalist Christian), the traditional lifestyle (high impact consumer), and traditional politics (conservative, almost always Republican). At all times, get along. Be nice. Don’t make waves.

There is no need for overt coercion within this culture. Everybody is always so upbeat and friendly. Elizabeth Smart’s programming boiled down to, "be a good girl." This meant always being polite, always being helpful, and always doing what you are told. Of course, everybody is always very polite whenever they ask you to do anything. And when you do it, they say "Thank you; you are a good girl." It’s easy to feel secure and well-loved within this insular little world.

There is no room for doubt or skepticism here. Life is good, and a good life is guaranteed for all who truly believe. There will always be plenty to eat, nice clothes, a safe bed to sleep in, good friends at school and church, the friendly neighborhood policeman to lock up criminals. Jesus died for our sins, so the afterlife is already taken care of. What a blessing our life is. America is the best of all possible worlds -- isn't America nice, and aren’t we Americans nice people.

Some children, upon reaching adolescence, rebel against their childhood programming. When this happens, the coercion of the "nice culture" becomes explicit. If children refuse to behave, then they will be argued with, and pressured to conform. Those who persist in their rebellion become the prodigals, the black sheep. Every family seems to have a black sheep or two. Often, these black sheep seem to have traded a certain amount of conventional happiness for a certain amount of authenticity. Many peaceniks are black sheep.

When the children who didn’t reject their programming become parents, they automatically replicate their programming with the next generation, and so the cycle continues -- an entire culture of "nice" people who profess the expected dogma, follow the expected leaders, and tune out whatever external events make them feel uncomfortable.

Consider the "pro-life" "Christians for war." Whenever I remind them of all those poor, unborn fetuses destroyed by Bush’s "shock and awe" massacre, they go into disconnect mode. George W. Bush would never destroy fetuses, therefore fetuses are not being destroyed (along with infants, toddlers, preschoolers, preteens, adolescents, young adults, adults in their prime, older adults, the elderly, and those on their deathbeds who would have died soon anyway). Nice Americans don’t want to think about all those fetuses being denied their right to life by George W. Bush. He is, after all, our president, and he would never do anything like that.

This ability to disconnect at the slightest provocation is what makes nice Americans so dangerous, because this allows our government to get away with any outrage. Our planes bombed a wedding party? Never heard about it. Our country supports ruthless dictators except when they control vast amounts of oil? I never read that anywhere. The entire world opposes Bush’s massacre? That’s not what CNN says.

Needless to say, this conventional culture of nice Americans is what the peace movement has been up against all along. I don’t know about where you live, but in my little city, it has been very difficult to get anybody to wake up to the extent of actually doing anything. Making a very generous estimate, maybe 1% of the population (750 out of 75,000) has participated in local peace activities. Hopefully, more than that have contacted their "representatives," but who’s to know? I am going through life feeling like I’ve got not just an albatross hanging around my neck, but 10 very nice Americans as well, pulling me back and dragging me down.

I’m not sure what to do about all these nice, suffocating Americans I’m surrounded with. There’s just no reasoning with them. If I could emigrate to another planet, I would have done so 30 years ago. I feel trapped. America is strangling me. Nice Americans think they’re immortal; they think Jesus will rescue them soon; I think they’re deluded. They think "One Nation Under God" is just dandy as long as they get to define what "God" is; I think they’re theocratic fascists. I try to keep a positive attitude for pragmatic purposes. No sense further demoralizing people -- including myself -- who are half scared to death already. I try to remember the words of French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, "One does not have the right to be discouraged." I try to remember my own words, "Never back down, and never shut up." I bootstrap myself into thinking that hopefully somehow, surely somehow, we will tough our way through this and will emerge victorious. But in the meantime I feel like I’m drowning in niceness that’s really not very nice at all, is it?

Turning back to Elizabeth Smart, people are speculating, "did she or didn’t she?" Well, of course she did. She had no choice. She was his "wife," wasn’t she? But you know what? No matter how "nice" he may have been to her, and no matter how thoroughly she bought into his reality, it was still rape. Coercion is coercion. Surely there is a lesson here for Americans regarding the Bush administration’s relationship with the rest of the world, especially when you consider that our government doesn’t even make the pretense of being nice anymore.

March 25, 2003


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Elizabeth's kidnapper was NOT "nice" to her. He kidnapped her with a knife at her throat, took her to his camp & raped her. She was 3 1/2 miles from home from June 2002 to October 2002, tied to a tree with a wire cable for the first 2 months of her captivity being raped & abused. THAT is why she couldn't escape. She DID try to escape one time, when he let her off the cable for some reason, but he chased he down & caught her before she got very far & tied her to the tree again. He was armed & he constantly threatened to kill her & her family if she ever tried ANYthing. After being neglected, & repeatedly threatened with death & repeatedly abused sexually, verbally, emotionally, mentally, & psychologically, she was obviously too scared of her kidnappers to try anything that she felt would get her & her family killed. Have you heard of Stockholm Syndrome? A psychological leash? You need to look at her situation from a victims POV. What about Steven Staynor? Shawn Hornbeck? Jessyca Mullenburg? That girl from Austria(Natasha something)? Patty Hearst? None of them were/are Mormon. What's the excuse there?

8:20 AM  
Anonymous Jacques Conejo said...

I think that your observations of our complacency is clear and accurate.

I don't know the whole story on Elizabeth Smart. The depiction of her experience by "Anonymous" was pretty disturbing.

I see a pretty disturbing parallel in the way she was treated, and the way the American public is treated.

Coercion of the individual and subsequently the nation; forced compliance by those who prey upon the complacent, who choose to through intimidation, threats to self and family, fear, physical and psychological abuse and language/meaning distortion (propaganda)is a long standing "leadership" protocol.

With that form of leadership "stick" at work, the "carrot" of reward for compliance, the security and certainty are ever more desirable. "Newspeak" closes the manipulative loop - for a society or an individual being held captive.

War is Peace
Freedom is Slavery
Ignorance is Strength

As you might imagine, I agree with your observations of a society that refuses to acknowledge, let alone "rise up" against, a corrupt, paradoxical leadership that can tout Pro Life while bombing people... When I say we're a pretty sorry lot, I refer not to those who are intimidated and terrified, but to those among us who prey on the human desire to be free and safe (or believe we are) and to protect ourselves and the ones we love from harm.

We're a pretty sorry lot.

People have always been manipulated as deftly as Elizabeth Smart was manipulated. The techniques have proven effective for all tyrants through history.

What you've written prompts thought, dialogue and action. This is the gift of the writer.

Thanks for exercising your gift.


8:12 AM  

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