Friday, May 30, 2008

Now is the winter of our discontent, or: Friday Morning Document Dump

Thers got me started on this train of thought, when he managed to get quite a few people worked into a lather over the question of ideology and its discontents. But that led me to the far more interesting question, the one that underlies the assumption of the importance assigned to this topic by the participants. It seems to me the real question is this: are people motivated by ideologies? Or are ideologies motivated by people?

And yes, this does tie in with the zeitgeist, of only because of Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, which is probably a fascinating book, although my first response to Mr. Perlstein's comments is to remind him that the more things change, the more they remain the same. So that, when he writes:

In 1966, when Ronald Reagan began surging toward the GOP gubernatorial nomination in California, Esquire, the leading edge of a certain smug center of liberal opinion, graciously allowed that the "Republican Party isn't bankrupt, or isn't that bankrupt that it has to turn to Liberace for leadership."

That was stupid. No one would do that any more.

In 1969, when Richard Nixon gave perhaps the most politically successful speech in the history of the presidency, an Ivy League anti-war leader responded, "What Nixon has tried to show is that there is a silent majority behind him. We know better."

That was stupid. No one would do that any more--for, without bothering to consult the Harvard New Left, the American people had just bounced the president's approval rating from 52 to 68 percent practically overnight.

Once I was reading old New Republics from early 1980, and, though I can't just now pin down the citations, recall some of the liberals there taking Ronald Reagan's presidential prospects about as seriously as, well, Liberace's.

That was stupid. No one would do that any more.
I'm tempted to say: well, okay, maybe "liberals" wouldn't do that anymore. Today. Because conservatives like Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity are certainly doing it today; indeed, they make their careers on it. And if anyone doubts the 'liberals' of the future, should their ascendancy put them atop the heap those conservative pundits, wouldn't do the same, well...I have some land in southern Louisiana to sell you. But his overall point is probably a valid one, and his book probably a good one. Still, it all begs the question: does ideology drive people, or do people drive ideology?

And, of course, Athenae gives me this, which is thinking that goes back at least to Reconstruction days (when you don't have immigrants to blame for your troubles, blame the people even poorer and more powerless than you are!):

The women and the blacks and the Mexicans took the jobs away, and the hippies lost us Vietnam and are even now making us feel bad about waving our big foam finger around, and the liberals keep harshing our buzz by reminding us we still have poor people, and bloggers are swearing on the Internets in order to make us feel bad about our lives. It's all somebody else's fault you're not successful, you're not strong, you're not the person you want to be, the person you know deep down you should be. It's all someone else's fault, so don't get off the couch, don't pick up a sign, don't sign a petition. Just vote for me, and be pissed off, and mutter darkly about the borders and the chicks. Just vote for me, and you won't be any better off, but at least you'll know you can blame somebody else for it. At least you'll have that.
But Athenae begs the question I'm asking: does ideology motivate people, or do people motivate ideology? The answer, I think, is obvious.

First: yes, it is always somebody else's fault, because that's one of the first reinforcers of community. One of the best ways to establish a group identity is to establish group boundaries; and boundaries are not all about what is inside the group, but rather what is outside. Boundaries are all about who we are not, and how that makes us who we are. Some churches, for example, actually define themselves denominationally by having no contact with other denominations, and especially non-Christian religious groups, and go so far as to describe themselves as the "true" version of another, historically dominant, denomination. But is that driven by ideology; or by people?

When it comes to reinforcing boundaries, the Bush Administration does it better, or at least more ferociously, than anybody. Consider the current uproar over Scott McClellan's memoir. They don't even deny the allegations (well, pathetically, Condi Rice does); they just circle the wagons and shoot the messenger; while the MSM examines itself (cursorily) and declares itself free of any taint or error!

Examples of people driving ideology abound. Here is one, courtesy of the current US Attorney General:

Besides defending overly aggressive DOJ attorneys, Mukasey's second lesson for our graduates was more subtle but just as distressing. The task of a government lawyer, indeed any lawyer, is to "do law." Lawyers must give a "close reading" and "critical analysis" of text, and to "tune out" the "white noise" of criticism and second-guessing. He urged our graduates to learn to filter out their own moral and political views when they "do law," so they can "advise clients that the law permits them to take actions that you may find imprudent, or even wrong."

So the message of the Attorney General of the United States to the law graduates of today: be a technocrat. Once the law is articulated, your job is done.
This followed upon "a full-throated defense of those government lawyers who 'provided legal advice supporting the nation's most important counterterrorism policies' after 9/11." Gen. Mukasey "gets it," you see. People drive ideology; and only people can stop ideology.

Lawyers who shut down their inquiries by disavowing their responsibilities as professionals, and as persons, you see, are people who are exerting every effort to stop being people. The ideology will not act on its own, so in order to help it, you have to avoid it. Less thinking is good, no thinking is better. And the result should look something like Reinhold Niebuhr's remarks as he stared down the long, grim tunnel of World War II:

...the way is open for simple interpretations of history, which relate historical process as closely as possible to biological process and which fail to do justice either to the unique freedom of man or to the daemonic misuse which he may make of that freedom.
Leave us free, says Mukasey, to do what needs to be done. If that message does not abuse both the unique freedom of humanity and represent the daemonic misuse of that freedom, I don't know what does. And it isn't driven by ideology; it's driven by people. It's driven by people who have one interest, as Scott McClellan has said: to gain and hold power. They are the ones constantly afraid of those who might take their position, because their position is all they have, and all they want. They are not driven by ideology. What they are driven by is much more basic, much more emotional, much more visceral.

Which means what, ultimately? It means people will not change because you reason them to; people will not change because you educate them into it. People will not begin to think like you because you eradicate their ideology, destroy their arguments, eviscerate the foundations of their thoughts. As Chris Hedges understands, what drives people is far more visceral than that:

Robert Pape in Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, found that most suicide bombers are members of communities that feel humiliated by genuine or perceived occupation. Almost every major suicide-terror campaign--over 95 percent--carried out attacks to drive out an occupying power. This was true in Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Kashmir, as well as Israel and the Palestinian territories. The large number of Saudis among the 9/11 hijackers appears to support this finding. Many Saudis, including bin Laden, view the presence of American soldiers and military bases in Saudi Arabia as an occupation of Muslim land. (Chris Hedges, I Don't Believe In Atheists (New York: Free Press 2008).
Hedges also points out how deeply humiliation can go, how it can color a culture. The Serbian "ethnic cleansing" of the former Yugoslavia, he writes, gained:

...moral justification in distant and often mythic humiliations suffered by the Serbs, especially the 1396 defeat of Serbian forces by Ottoman Turks at the Field of Blackbirds in the province of Kosovo....It was at a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the battle that Slobodan Milosevic, playing to the anger of the Serbs in the crowd, found the psychological tool that would propel him to power. He promised vengeance. (p. 132-33)
Osama bin Laden, Hedges points out, "cites the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which led to the carving up of the Ottoman Empire, as the beginning of Arab degradation. He attacks the agreement for dismembering the Ottoman Empire and dividing the Muslim world into 'fragments.'" (p. 136)

And, of course, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and later of Iraq, was a response to the humiliation of 9/11. No, it isn't ideology that drives us. But we excuse our actions in the name of ideology; and we sometimes even imagine simply a change in ideology, will make all the difference.

It's a bit tricky, folding talk of terrorist violence and campaigns of wholesale slaughter into a conversation that began with examples of what people will post on blogs for others to read (no, I don't mean Thers, but the posts he was responding to). That tends to lead people to think you conflate the two. Well, I'll make it trickier, by including this quote from Niebuhr, via Hedges. Niebuhr here is arguing against a pacifist response to the threat of Nazi Germany:

Yet most modern forms of Christian pacifism are heretical. Presumably inspired by the Christian Gospel, they have really absorbed the Renaissance faith in the goodness of man, rejected the Christian doctrine of original sin as an outmoded bit of pessimism, have reinterpreted the Cross so that is is made to stand for the absurd idea that perfect love is guaranteed a simple victory over the world, and have rejected all other profound elements of the Christian Gospel....This form of pacifism is not only heretical when judged by the standards of the total Gospel. It is equally heretical when judged by the facts of human existence. There are no historical realities which remotely conform to it. It is important to recognize this lack of conformity to the facts of experience as a criterion of heresy.
I would grasp Neibuhr precisely at the point he says the reinterpretation of the Cross means perfect love is guaranteed a simply victory over the world, because that reinterpretation is the crux of the problem. People are not driven by ideology; they are driven by something much more basic, more visceral. But they will employ ideology as a great simplifier, as a way of guaranteeing a simple victory, whether it's over paisley scarves or political opponents. The battle is all that matters; and it is usually the validity of the battle that Christian pacificism is aimed at.

But Niebuhr aimed his fire at the assumption of Christian pacifism in the face of Nazi aggression: that the battle is always and only what matters, that human beings matter less than ideologies. Ay, there's the rub. "And it's 1-2-3, what are we fightin' for? Don't ask me, I don't give a damn!" But the question is still worth asking. Are we fighting for people? Or are we fighting for ideology? If there is a valid and compelling distinction between World War II, when American soldiers truly liberated France and much of Europe, and Iraq, perhaps its this: we were fighting for people in World War II.

In Iraq, we are told we're fighting for democracy. We are told the battle is all that matters, because the battle is eternal; because the battle is between good and evil. But is it? Are we really driven by ideology? Or is ideology driven by people? And which should be more important: ideology? or people?

No comments:

Post a Comment