State of Plague, Part 4:Disease-Mongering as Militarized Trojan Horse for Globalization and Surveillance
It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: `Exterminate all the brutes!'
By Adriana Gamondes
We are republishing Adriana Gamondes' scathing and prescient series from 2015 while Kim takes a few days off.
Totem Theory—The Virus of Nationalism
If the cult of state science or “scientism” is the ultimate earmark of 20th century totalitarianism, it’s a cult founded in analogies that grew “fungus-like” from the discovery of infectious pathogens. It’s a form of tribalism that represents itself with a totem of the viral theory of politics and the orgy of disease metaphors arising from the militarization of science, including the disastrous view of human beings, other cultures and ideas as forms of “contagion” that must be “cured.”
On the literal end of the viral theory, Pacific Standard, a magazine “created for opinion leaders, policymakers, and concerned citizens who are interested in developing solutions to some of the world’s toughest social and environmental problems,” published an article titled The Germ Theory of Democracy, Dictatorship and All Your Most Cherished Beliefs. The article concludes that managing disease is the key to spreading democracy throughout the world:
According to the “pathogen stress theory of values,” the evolutionary case that [Randy] Thornhill and his colleagues have put forward, our behavioral immune systems—our group responses to local disease threats—play a decisive role in shaping our various political systems, religions, and shared moral views.
If they are right, Thornhill and his colleagues may be on their way to unlocking some of the most stubborn mysteries of human behavior. Their theory may help explain why authoritarian governments tend to persist in certain latitudes while democracies rise in others; why some cultures are xenophobic and others are relatively open to strangers; why certain peoples value equality and individuality while others prize hierarchical structures and strict adherence to tradition. What’s more, their work may offer a clear insight into how societies change. According to Thornhill’s findings, striking at the root of infectious disease threats is by far the most effective form of social engineering available to any would-be reformer…
Thornhill points out that this rise [in modern democratic states] coincided with an era in which major health interventions, including vaccine programs, the chlorination of drinking water, and efforts to reduce food-borne disease, became commonplace in many parts of the world. Thornhill is not shy about the implications. If promoting democracy and other liberal values is on your agenda, he says, health care and disease abatement should be your main concern.
No one would disagree that managing disease could potentially make societies more stable. But even aside from the issue that, for better or worse, there are various ways of doing this, the argument that democracy hinges on disease management doesn’t pan out historically. For instance, Murdoch-held Vox magazine featured an article titled Even ISIS Supports Kids Getting Vaccinated that was dubbed “the weirdest appeal to authority ever.” And in Nazi Germany, the head of the SS once threatened to shoot any German official who criticized vaccination. Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was so enthusiastic about Western medicine that he lifted a blockade solely for vaccines and ordered children in orphanages to be inoculated for Hepatitis B which had been spread by repeat blood transfusions. Unfortunately the needles used for both transfusions and inoculations were shared and the children were vaccinated several times a year for the same disease, spreading both AIDS and arguably autism.
Randy Thornhill, the evolutionary psychologist who coined the germ theory of democracy, also authored a related theory arguing that societal violence ties directly to the prevalence of disease, therefore implying that social engineering through public health interventions may pave the way to a less violent future for mankind.
If the name rings a bell, Thornhill came to fame more than a decade ago after co-authoring The Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases for Sexual Coercion, in which authors recommend that women stop dressing provocatively in order to avoid men’s inherant evolutionary impulses to commit sexual assault. Apparently Thornhill’s contagion theory of violence encompasses every form of aggression except rape, since he also once theorized that the individuals who are the most disease-resistant tend to be the most sexually attractive, implying that rates of rape would only increase in societies which more successfully control communicable disease. In Thornhill’s brave new disease-resistant utopia, all women might have to take to the veil to defend themselves against the one violent impulse that survives the public health revolution.
Thornhill’s pathogen theory of violence falls apart further when considering how wars of aggression can be waged by societies with relatively low communicable disease rates, not to mention how these wars spread both disease and further violence. An obvious illustration of this is the US invasions of Iraq—a case of a developed country with a lower domestic communicable disease rate attacking a developing country with far higher disease mortality. In the Desert Shield/Desert Storm period, an estimated 1.7 million deaths, half among children from diseases including cholera and diarrheal illness, were largely caused by embargoed water purification chemicals (a deliberate strategy according to leaked documents). Then the more recent war in Iraq and the war on terror have led to an estimated 1.3 million deaths and have conceivably triggered blowback in the form of ISIS, a militant movement that multiple political analysts have called the “Frankenstein” of Western expansionism.
It’s also questionable whether an advanced public health system has actually created a healthier society considering the predicted reversal of American longevity and the fact that infant mortality in the US is the worst in the developed world. Maybe Thornhill is suggesting that western war profiteers are immune compromised.
This leads back to the main problem with Thornhill’s theory that public health measures to control disease promote democracy. Even if the theory had some basis in fact, schemes based on it would still fail the reality test. If the West is the “doctor” and the goal to spread the healthy state of democracy, it’s been mostly quackery and malpractice. As the Monaco letter illustrates, a state’s officially stated aims of spreading democracy and individualism frequently don’t conform with actual agendas or end results involved with supposedly democratizing interventions. It presupposes that the US is even a democracy at this point, when researchers from Princeton recently concluded that we are now an oligopoly and pointed out the obvious problem this poses for “spreading democracy”:
“Making the world safe for democracy” was President Woodrow Wilson’s rationale for World War I, and it has been used to justify American military intervention ever since. Can we justify sending troops into other countries to spread a political system we cannot maintain at home?
The failed reality test of social engineering via disease management is a place where more literal and starry-eyed germ theories in social science like Randy Thornhill’s interplay with more proverbial viral theory of political ideology and panoticism, each serving as a potential Trojan horse for the other.
Foucault viewed the effect of panopticism somewhat neutrally and, for better or worse, as an inevitable component of civilized culture. Foucault’s moral relativism on the issue might explain how the social theorist eventually became publicly sympathetic to neoliberalism that, ironically, happens to find its best points of entry in what are definably panoptic disaster-and-rescue scenarios ( as Naomi Klein documents, Iraq War leading to Shell and BP’s claim of Iraq’s oil reserves, post-Katrina sale of public housing, hospitals and schools to private investors, etc.).
But to political analyst and linguist Noam Chomsky, who debated Foucault on human nature and the nature of power in 1971, there’s nothing morally ambiguous about the viral concept of political ideology and how it relates to the authoritarian view of threats to state security that were purposefully characterized by Henry Kissinger as a “contagion” in order to justify wars of aggression.
In Kissinger’s analysis, a politically contagious threat is the development of independent nationalism in other countries that somehow presents either ideological or economic competition—or anything else that stands in the way of, as Dr. Chomsky also put it, “securing state power from the domestic population and securing concentrated private power”:
To borrow Henry Kissinger’s terminology, independent nationalism is a “virus” that might “spread contagion.” Kissinger was referring to Salvador Allende’s Chile. The virus was the idea that there might be a parliamentary path towards some kind of socialist democracy. The way to deal with such a threat is to destroy the virus and to inoculate those who might be infected, typically by imposing murderous national security states. That was achieved in the case of Chile, but it is important to recognize that the thinking holds worldwide.
It was, for example, the reasoning behind the decision to oppose Vietnamese nationalism in the early 1950s and support France’s effort to reconquer its former colony. It was feared that independent Vietnamese nationalism might be a virus that would spread contagion to the surrounding regions, including resource-rich Indonesia. That might even have led Japan — called the “superdomino” by Asia scholar John Dower — to become the industrial and commercial center of an independent new order of the kind imperial Japan had so recently fought to establish. That, in turn, would have meant that the U.S. had lost the Pacific war, not an option to be considered in 1950. The remedy was clear — and largely achieved. Vietnam was virtually destroyed and ringed by military dictatorships that kept the “virus” from spreading contagion.
Up until Edward Snowden’s divulgences in 2013 that the NSA has been domestically engaged in mass data collection, most Americans had at least an illusion of relative freedom compared to the many countries that have been “inoculated” against democratically elected leadership in the transnational corporate push for globalization and US expansionism for resources. But as further Snowden leaks illustrate, terrorist watchlisting has expanded to include assorted domestic and foreign nonviolent activists and political groups, aiming the panoptic lens squarely at citizens and civil rights activists. Americans and their own “nationalist” conceptions of constitutionally protected rights and freedoms are treated as enemies and monitored as potential vectors of ideological infection.
Again, we’ve become the disease and, for that analogy, the NSA is the Center for Ideological Disease Control. As Wikileaks’ Julian Assange describes it, the surveillance agency is a “state within a state” comprised of 6 million individuals, a shocking proportion of whom—reportedly 1.4 million, a third of them contractors for private corporations with overlapping ties to some of the world’s worst industrial offenders—with Snowden-level security clearance.
The “security state” has a population larger than Denmark. It is its own country and one hostile to the privacy of average citizen and plausibly hostile to consumer activists. And the snooping and surveillance once presumably reserved for foreign foes appears to be one of the US’s current remedies to guard against domestic ideological shifts—i.e., activism— that threaten institutional and corporate power. In fact, another leak by Snowden showed that, nine times out of ten, ordinary people—about half American citizens— have been the subject of mass email collection rather than actual foreign targets.
The advantage of a conceptional and not literal contagion is obviously that the crisis justifying incursions on rights and privacy never ends. But a cover of managing actual contagion would still appear to be the most effective means to instill a state of plague. As the interrupted vaccine series in Neptune Spear illustrated, the fact that children’s health was not apparently the central point of certain philanthropic campaigns has merely heightened suspicion of western intent around the world because the suspicion was already long-standing.
In Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, “enlightened” and “progressive” European prescriptions on the “jolly march to progress” for curing so-called savagery in the Congo are a panoptic cover for “rapacious greed, exploitation and barbarity,” as journalist Chris Hedges summarized. In the Western “scramble for Africa” which took place in the late 19th and early 20th century, the cure was far worse than the supposed ailment, leading to the first genocide of the 20th century, one that would be followed by many others.
Panoticism is even more literally applied in Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s modern adaptation of Conrad. Setting Conrad’s story in Vietnam, the film illustrates the US mission to “inoculate” the region against communism and independent nationalism, and Captain Willard’s individual mission to quarantine Colonel Kurtz’s contagious psychopathic excesses. The panoptic disease-as-Trojan-horse-for-occupation model is illustrated blatantly in the film when Colonel Kurtz’s pinpoints the particular moment he went mad— the time he served in Special Forces and was providing vaccinations to children in a village camp in Vietnam.
Kurtz: Horror has a face... and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies! I remember when I was with Special Forces... seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate some children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn't see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember... I... I... I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out; I didn't know what I wanted to do! And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it... I never want to forget. And then I realized... like I was shot... like I was shot with a diamond... a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God... the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand that these were not monsters, these were men... trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love... but they had the strength... the strength... to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral... and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling... without passion... without judgment... without judgment! Because it's judgment that defeats us.
Because of the nature of US Army Special Forces—which have been engaged for unconventional warfare and psychological operations since 1952, often to covertly train and lead guerillas in occupied countries—Kurtz’s speech in Coppola’s retelling implies the vaccine campaign was part of a CIA joint mission.
The Kurtz character was apparently based on several real life military figures and the film’s vaccination vignette was apparently borrowed directly from the experience of a gungho Vietnam veteran named Fred Rexer. The time frame of Kurtz’s enlistment with Special Forces in the film—1964— would explain use of an injectable Salk polio vaccine and Kurtz’s initial contact with the Montagnard tribe.
The real life historical model under which Kurtz’s vaccination campaign took place would have been something along the lines of the expansion of the “Buon Enao Experiment” that began in Vietnam and extended into Cambodia.
The Buon Enao operation involved teams led by medical personnel from Special Forces cultivating various sects of the Montagnards—the indigenous warriors depicted in Kurtz’s Cambodian camp in the film— to get them to declare for the South Vietnamese government and cooperate with US forces. In Vietnam, this was done in part through a program to train village medics to work in projects intended to replace South Vietnamese government healthcare and assistance programs that had been discontinued due to conflicts with the Viet Cong. Villages were thereby turned into “camps” for the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG) or Montagnard guerrilla troops.
In short, the cover for Kurtz’s mission in the film— the Trojan horse of medical philanthropy in exchange for political conversion—is blown and unleashes the merciless wrath of the enemy—the amputation of children’s inoculated arms. Medicine was the key entry point for control, to turn a country against itself, and the violent act was a rejection of a ploy.
At some point, the real life Buon Enao experiment began to go badly even according to official military history. In the less “official” but still documented history of the war recounted by political analysts like Chomsky, disaster resulted from a schizophrenic American pretense of preparations for withdrawal coupled with secret escalation of the war, including the US enactment of a coup against the Diem regime after the regime threatened to make a truce with North Vietnam—an unwelcome outcome since it would have ended the war without a US victory over the “contagion” of states in the region escaping Western influence.
The narrators of both the Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now (“Willard” in the film or “Marlow” in the novel) could be said to represent blind indoctrination struggling to retain civilized illusion. This is exposed when Willard/Marlow initially can’t believe that a man of such learned credentials as Kurtz could become so “savage.”
But Conrad’s overall thrust is that the very idea that level of savagery of any individual or group has anything to do with level of education is an artifact of the western cult of progress which mistakes status, social training and its own advanced technological juju for morality. As Elie Wiesel wrote in the foreword to Annas’ and Grodin’s The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code:
It is not only medicine and human experimentation which is called into question: The areas of scholarship, learning, education and culture must also be reexamined in the light of what happened. That doctors participated in the planning, execution and justification of the concentration camp massacres is bad enough, but it went beyond medicine. Like a cancer of immorality, it spread into every area of spiritual, cultural, intellectual endeavor. Thus, the meaning of what happened transcended its own immediate limits…I couldn’t understand these men who had, after all, studied for 8,10,12 or 14 years in German universities, which then were the best on the Continent, if not in the world. Why did their education not shield them from evil? This question haunted me.
Conrad seems to argue that, rather than being implanted from outside, any developing savagery in the well-bred metastacizes from already established flaws in thinking and character that are then nurtured to psychopathic extremes in the darkness of self deception.
The self deception in Kurtz’s case—the same that’s exposed in Willard’s/Marlow’s—is that they have come to help.
In the end, both Marlow and Willard wearily recognize that Kurtz’s death was necessary to remove a threat against western mythology, not because Kurz was in any way a genuine anomaly to the West’s “jolly pioneers of progress.” What drives Kurtz mad in both versions of the story is a shocking glimpse in the mirror.
Kurtz’s heart is initially broken because he enters the jungle filled with noble ideals as the “emissary of pity, and science, and progress.” He had begun to believe in the civilizing cure of western magic—the Trojan horse he had brought to confound the intended targets. When the intent is seen through and the offering rejected in the most blunt way, rather than rethinking the cause and shedding his paternalist delusions, he snaps and simply adjusts his delusions to the failure of the cover, pledges greater loyalty to the cause and fully transforms into the genocidal Second Coming of the technological Apocalypse. In the final analysis, Kurtz has not “gone native” but is simply struck with the diabolical “diamond bullet” of a scheme to more quickly advance Western ends: to engage the targets in their own extermination. He concedes that this had always been the point. He simply dispenses with the hypocrisy.
The declassification of the CIA’s Phoenix Assassination program which was officially launched in 1968 and amassed a “kill list” of tens of thousands of civilians suspected of supporting the North Vietnamese regime lends credence to the entry in Kurtz’s taped diary in Apocalypse Now:
What do you call it, when the assassins accuse the assassin? They lie. They lie and we have to be merciful, for those who lie. Those nabobs. I hate them. I really hate them."
A “nabob” is a mogul or a Westerner who enriches themselves through foreign expedition. Willard, the film’s protagonist, also begins to contract the same cynicism towards his commanders’ hypocrisy:
It was a way we had over here of living with ourselves. We'd cut them in half with a machine gun and give them a Band-Aid. It was a lie. And the more I saw of them, the more I hated liars. Those boys were never gonna look at me the same way again, but I felt like I knew one or two things about Kurtz that weren't in the dossier.
What is not in the fictional dossier is that Kurtz is a perfectly representative emissary of civilization, albeit one stripped of humanitarian cover.
Part 5 looks into some of the combined stakes of the Gates Foundation’s emissaries of progress, science and pity and whether they’ve really come to help.
Adriana Gamondes is a Contributing Editor to Age of Autism and one of the blog’s Facebook administrators.