Obedience is the True Character Flaw

If you publicly dissent from and act against prevailing United States orthodoxies and the reigning US power structure, chances are good you will face personal and/or professional defamation and the charge of psychological unreliability and instability. It will be said that there’s something wrong and untrustworthy about you.  You will be demonized, dismissed, and demeaned as a marginal, inappropriate, and hyper-alienated oddball, a maladjusted eccentric no one should take seriously.

Kill the Messenger

Just ask the great whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.  He committed a great public service by releasing the Pentagon Papers, thousands of pages of Pentagon documents showing that the murderous US policies and practices in Vietnam had nothing to do with Washington’s officially stated noble goals behind the “Vietnam War.” US President Richard Nixon responded by having the FBI break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to release embarrassing information about Ellsberg’s personal life. The media took the bait, throwing a shadow of suspicion on the whistleblower’s sanity even as it published the documents he released.

Gary Webb

Consider also the smaller and more depressing story of Gary Webb, recently told in the movie Kill The Messenger. Webb was the San Jose Mercury News journalist who discovered and in 1996 reported CIA involvement in the selling of crack cocaine in Los Angeles to help finance the US-backed right-wing terrorists knows as the Contras in their bloody war on the popular-revolutionary Sandinista government of Nicaragua during the 1980s. After initially reporting Webb’s findings, the nation’s leading media organizations (including the Washington Post and the New York Times) attacked Webb professionally. They questioned his journalistic integrity. The assault led to Webb’s shunning, demotion, resignation, and, in 2004, his suicide.

In 1998, an internal CIA report found that Webb’s carefully gathered findings were accurate. The Justice Department also conducted an internal investigation that vindicated Webb’s findings, long after anyone seemed to care. As Michael Parenti noted, “Webb’s real mistake was not that he wrote falsehoods, but that he ventured too far into the truth.” [1]

Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning

Then there’s the case of Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks.  Four years ago, the New York Times published what it designated as “The Iraq War Logs,” a massive collection of Pentagon documents detailing war crimes and other abuses committed by the US and its proxies during the arch-criminal US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Obtained from the whistleblowing US Army Private Chelsea Manning, the documents were made available to the Times and other media outlets by Assange and WikiLeaks. It was not the first time that the Times and other leading papers had collaborated with Assange and gained from Manning’s disclosures.

At the very same time, however, the Times published with equal prominence a front-page report attacking Assange’s character and personality.  Penned by leading Times correspondent John Burns, this article portrayed Assange as grandiose, delusional, paranoid, and irrationally hateful of the US. [2]

The Times and other media outlets following its lead soon depicted Manning in an equally unfavorable light, attributing her whistleblowing to personality disorders, not to any genuine concern with state crimes. Reporters did not seem remotely impressed by the remarkable courage of Manning, who faced life in prison and torture and humiliation at the hands of her US military captors.

Edward Snowden and Glen Greenwald

The pattern was repeated in the early summer of 2013, when the greatest US whistleblower to date, Edward Snowden, a former private security contractor, came out with his remarkable, massively documented revelations about the US National Security Agency’s far-reaching programs (“beyond Orwellian” according to the ACLU) for total global Internet surveillance and disruption – programs undertaken with the cooperation of the nation’s leading Internet, software, and telecommunications corporations. The US corporate mass media initially ate up the Snowden revelations in a competitive news feeding frenzy.  The Snowden leak, transmitted though the reporting of leading civil-libertarian journalist Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian, became the nation’s top media story for considerably longer than the usual news cycle.

Soon, however, the personal assassinations and discrediting began, as mass media operatives returned to their normative pattern: reflexive service to state power. From the Times on down (the usual pattern), Snowden was accused of “fame-seeking narcissism,” cynical arrogance, nihilistic individualism, treason, criminal deviance, and cowardice.  He was called a “loner” and a “loser.” Times columnist David Brooks (an obsequious boot-licker of the power elite) said that Snowden represented “the rise of people so individualistic…that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.”

Greenwald was attacked as an “unreasonable” and anti-American “activist” and “blogger” who was not a real “journalist” – this despite his many years of reporting and commentary at a leading British newspaper (The Guardian). Beyond serious charges of criminality, the assaults on Greenwald became laughably petty and personal, including “revelations” about past tax debt, alleged investment in a pornographic film company, and purported bad behavior as a tenant in an apartment building. [3]

Three Imperatives 

Why these attacks on whistleblowers’ and journalists’ professional and personal integrity and character?  It comes down to three basic power imperatives.  The first priority is to undermine the effectiveness of those who challenge the received doctrine on the supposed benevolence of US policy by depicting them as people with whom no regular and sane folks would want to be associated.

The second obligation is to deter others from challenging authority by demonstrating that one becomes a dissident only at the strong risk of being socially shamed and shunned: “you don’t want to go there; look what happened to that dissident.”

The third imperative is a matter of logical and doctrinal necessity. “For guardians of the status quo,” Greenwald notes in his recent book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State, “there is nothing genuinely or fundamentally wrong with the prevailing order and its dominant institutions, which are viewed as just.  Therefore, anyone claiming otherwise – especially someone sufficiently motivated by that belief to take radical action – must, by definition, be emotionally unstable and psychologically disabled… Radical dissent is evidence, even proof, of a severe personality disorder.” [4]

Submission as a Moral Choice

The problem is that, by any reasonable standard, “the prevailing order and its dominant institutions” are anything but just. Quite to the contrary, the United States’ ever more openly plutocratic and wantonly murderous so-called capitalist democracy seems dedicated not merely to the endless upward and antidemocratic concentration of wealth and power but also to an endless, self-fulfilling global war of/on terror, the marginalization of the “homeland” citizenry (particularly through infantilizing and atomizing corporate-owned media and electoral spectacles), the expansion of corporate and state surveillance to the point where the right to privacy becomes a distant memory, and the ruination of livable ecology (and thus of prospects for a decent future) through the relentless extraction and burning of fossil fuels. [5] Justice and democracy are the last things one can reasonably expect from the reigning US order, which Peter McLaren rightly calls “the most powerful conglomeration of cultural, political, and economic oppression ever assembled in history.” [6]

Given the severe threats posed by US empire, inequality, and “capitalist democracy” at home and abroad, one could ask what kind of pathology lays behind the decision of most US citizens NOT to openly challenge and resist the status quo. Might there be something psychologically wrong with this mass obedience?  The question is beyond consideration for champions of the established order – that is, for the preponderant majority of the nation’s heavily indoctrinated and mind-disciplined media personnel and other “intellectuals.” [7] As Greenwald explains, the reigning conventional wisdom on the maladjustment of dissenters rests on “an essential deceit: that dissent from institutional authority involves a moral or ideological choice, while obedience does not.  With that false premise in place, society pays great attention to the motives of dissenters, but none to those who submit to our institutions.” In reality, however, “both observing and breaking the rules involve moral choices and both courses of action reveal something important about the individual involved.  Contrary to accepted premise – that radical dissent demonstrates a personality disorder – the opposite could be true: in the face of severe injustice a refusal to dissent is the sign of a character flaw or moral failure.” [8]

A Social Disease: The Logic of Individual Obedience

Obedience may arise from any number of motivations.  The possible driving forces include an irrational trust in authority, insufficient confidence in one’s own opinion or in one’s ability to develop an informed opinion, or a fear of repercussions likely to follow from questioning and challenging authority.  The last motive (fear) likely makes no small sense for many given the nasty treatment dissenters quite visibly receive from government and media powers. Jobs, homes, health/health coverage, family relationships and more are all stake once one is marked as a dissident.  The silencing power of this fear is heightened significantly by the pervasiveness of surveillance

Lack of confidence in one’s opinion or understanding on and of current events also makes a significant amount of sense in a political environment shaped by power-serving and power-reflecting corporate mass media.  That media is institutionally mandated to give a strictly stunted presentation and interpretation of current events in accord with the narrow confines of corporate and imperial neoliberal ideology.  It’s not merely that US “mainstream” media is beholden to corporate America for advertising dollars or to the imperial state for access to information.  That media is itself a deeply entrenched institutional component of the corporate structure and indeed of the imperial state.  Asking it to substantively engage the leading issues of our time from anything but a highly constricted, power-serving perspective is like asking the editors’ of General Motors’ company newspaper to publish hard-hitting exposes on the exploitation of labor in GM’s assembly plants or on GM environmental crimes.

Thanks to these and other harsh realities of class rule and institutional authority, the deadly pathology that is mass obedience to unjust power is a societal sickness imposed from the top down by those atop elite-controlled institutions – including above all the handful of corporate media conglomerates that together own “most of the nation’s newspapers, magazines, book publishing houses, movie studios, cable channels, record labels, broadcast networks and channels, and radio and television programming in the US.”[9]

“Humanity Will Reemerge”

Given all this and much more that could be said about why “free” US citizens submit to maddeningly unjust and deadly power, the remarkable thing is that large numbers of Americans do still recurrently form and join great demonstrations and movements of popular protest and resistance.  Citing Snowden as an example of “the extraordinary ability of any human being to change the world,” Greenwald reminds us that “it is human beings collectively, not a small number of elites working in secret, who can decide what kind of world we live in.”[10] From confronting the nation and globe’s currently savage levels of economic disparity and (intimately related) plutocracy to resisting racist police violence (i.e., the remarkable Ferguson protest campaign) to challenging the deadly plagues of global militarism and climate change, masses of “ordinary” people can and will assemble and mobilize in extraordinary ways to create a just, peaceful, democratic, and sustainable world.  “Today….whe[n] we have seen our humanity swept away like a child’s sigh in a tornado,” McLaren writes, “we – as humans – will  reemerge.  We will reappear…in the smoldering haze of tear gas and demands for democracy…seek[ing] a world founded on dignity, economic equality, creativity, peace, cooperation, love, and justice for our fellow human beings and for the planet that sustains us.”[11] Along the way, we can and must reverse the prevalent establishment psychological messaging on radical dissent and mass obedience, enshrining the former as the healthy norm – the real sign of individual and social character.

Paul Street is a writer and author in the US. 


1. Michael Parenti, Contrary Notions (San Francisco: City Lights, 2007), 20.

2. John Burns, “WikiLeaks Founder on the Run, Trailed by Notoriety,” New York Times, October 23, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/24/world/24assange.html?hp&_r=0

3. Greg Greenwald, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State (New York: Metropolitan, 2014), 210-225.

4. Greenwald, No Place to Hide, 227.

5.  For my take on these and related problems, see Paul Street, They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2014).

6.  Peter McLaren, Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy and the Founda tions of Education (Paradigm, 2015), xxi.

7. Jeff Schmidt, Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System That Shapes Their Lives (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000)

8. Greenwald, No Place to Hide, 227-28.

9.  Parenti, Contrary Notions, 11.

10. Greenwald, No Place to Hide, 253.

11. McLaren, Life in Schools, xxi.


  1. avatar
    Francis Yellow December 22, 2014 2:19 am 

    Hau mitakuye, Greetings my relative, Paul, Pilamaya, I thank you for sharing your awareness. Speaking as an Indian Children’s Torture Camp Survivor (a.k.a.Indian Boarding School Survivor), I can say that obedience is established in any group through methods of torture, both physical and mental/psychic. Acts of torture serve to shock and threaten witnesses –Obedience reigns supreme! Russell Means said it well, addressing mainstream America, “Welcome to the Reservation!” meaning, what was done –what’s being done– to Original Peoples is now being inflicted on the common American citizen. What we Original Peoples have experienced is called euphemistically called Federal Indian Law and Policy. In plain words it is Genocidal! Genocide is set in motion through Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes. We are in an Age of Multidimensional Long War aren’t we? Started out with, it’s ok to kill/torture savages, so it’s ok to…whatever. Speaking from a non-western perspective, Dehumanization is directly related to Speciesism (really, all kinds of “isms) which leads to the ultimate setup –Omnicide. I know what it means to be tortured. I recognize the pathology all around and above me. Fearful, Ashamed, Obedient, Paranoid, Anxious, Rageful, and behind it all, is Greed. My ancestors had to battle Greed once, that’s why it can’t bother us anymore!

  2. avatar
    Sanda Aronson November 23, 2014 9:35 pm 

    Really nice article, Paul Street. May I dig into history and add I.F. Stone? I.F. Stone’s Weekly was a fun, if hard to read, tiny print, when I had a sub in the mid1960s when “stranded” in NOLA (I knew I was still in the U.S. from the mailboxes and mail trucks which had “U.S. Mail” on them – no longer.)
    He scoured the U.S. gov’t, documents for all kinds of tidbits, showing the lies, etc etc. I was always impressed by him. I know that he was dissed and Redbaited which I didn’t know until later. Also impressed that in his mid70s (like me) with really severe myopia (like me), he taught himself Greek
    (not like me, chuckle).

  3. avatar
    John Andrews November 23, 2014 10:00 am 

    Thanks for another great article, Paul

    In the UK, The Guardian behaved disgracefully towards Julian Assange. They ‘got the story,’ by selectively publishing Wikileaks logs, from the blood, sweat and tears of others and then undertook a viscious character assasination of Julian Assange. The Oxford and Cambridge Educated Elite at the Guardian sat on their fat arses well pleased with themselves and their cutting edge stories whilst destroying the hero who put it all together in the first instance.

    The Guardian is an insidious part of the British Establishment and is best avoided at all costs.

    Best wishes

    John Andrews

  4. avatar
    David Jones November 23, 2014 4:50 am 

    I respectfully disagree. The failure of anti-globalization or anti-war movements or Occupy was not that people sat fearfully inside their houses. I believe it was a deeper, more complicated combination of “reflexive impotence” and ideological hegemony well articulated by Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism.
    I think it would be beneficial to this theorizing to explore the concept of pathology a little deeper. This “culture as propaganda analysis” only operates on the rational, conscious level when we need to be thinking of the unconscious and the symbolic order. George Lakoff makes a simplistic attempt with his Don’t Think of an Elephant work, looking at authority and psychological structure.

    People are not so much afraid of the government as they are the rapidly changing digital world they have no way to comprehend, where “everything solid, melts into air”. IMO

    • avatar
      James Wilson November 23, 2014 10:11 am 

      Fisher also talks of the lack of any real alternative to capitalism. Alternative vision. So we can find unity fighting against but none fighting for. So actions fail and don’t last. A bit like life. Death plays its part here. Life is short and at times can appear absurd and pointless. What are we fighting FOR. If there is nothing concrete to fight for, just stuff that melts away, amorphous ambiguous notions and ideas, the spectacle will always be more attractive. And fun.

  5. Kelly Gerling November 22, 2014 10:24 pm 

    Thanks for the great article Paul.

    I’d add to the list of tyrannical, totalitarian pillars of obedience, obedience to constitutional procedures, no matter how undemocratic they are. Prime among such procedures are the official, formal means to make constitutional amendments within the text of Article 5. Despite the invocation to the right of the people to “alter or abolish” their government in The Declaration; despite the language of “we the people . . . do ordain and establish” in the Preamble; despite Lincoln’s Gettysburg statement about preserving a government “of the people, by the people and for the people”; despite the fact that the Constitution nowhere states that Article 5 is THE exclusive means of amending; Americans, unique in the world of older, “democratic” nations, do not discuss, let along insist on amending our Constitution to reverse the coup of the rich via the obvious and often-practiced procedures of direct democracy, arguably the most democratic of unalienable rights, the one on which all other rights depend. Daniel Lazare, Sanford Levinson, Akhil Reed Amar and several other constitutional scholars regularly propose to amend the constitution by the usual direct democracy methods of convention-and-referendum or initiative-and-referendum, which is a good thing. But, so far, their calls to direct democracy to fix our national government have gone unanswered. Obedience reigns. Thinking prevented. The militaristic, plutocracy continues.

  6. avatar
    Paul Street November 22, 2014 5:51 pm 

    I’m not sure corporate media doesn’t deserve “totalitarian pillar” status. It shapes mass perceptions of reality (and it does just as powerfully if not more powerfully in its “entertainment” wings as in its news and public affairs wings). Good to note errors as writers have capacity for corrections now.

  7. John Goodr November 22, 2014 5:37 pm 

    The usual superb analysis of socio-political realities in the USA.

    Blind obedience to authority lies at the heart of the problem and can be accurately viewed as a desire to be told what to do and an aversion to democratic decision making because of that desire to be told what to .

    The lives of the vast majority of people in the U.S are predicated upon the four totalitarian pillars of the society:
    1) the “unelected dictatorship of money”: the oligarchy which is the corporately controlled government
    2) the absolute dictatorship of religion and especially the immoral and false premises of Christianity which a large percentage of U.S. citizens ascribe to and under which failure to believe results in an everlasting Hell.
    3) Capitalism: your boss holds your fate in his hands : you have no say in how your work will be done or remunerated.
    4) the normally and historically male-dominated nuclear family structure .

    In each of the first three cases the U.S.public has no say in how those groups will be run and in the third , it is most common for the wife to have less say based on male physical and financial superiority .

    With the media , the public has lived so long with the lies that telling them the truth now would seem like lies to them , so disparate are the histories.
    So too it is with democracy .
    The U.S. public has never experienced it and being totalitarian minded and having lived their entire lives under that combination of four dictatorships is not only apathetic about democracy but quite averse to it.
    For them it is easier and better to just do what they are told rather than have to do the hard work that a functioning democracy entails.


    TYPO alert: I believe the spelling is Ellsberg and not Ellsburg

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