Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Threats and War

One of my greatest passions might be best described as "what makes otherwise reasonable people go do stupid things". There is a keen personal stake in this as I, myself, have done some very stupid things along the road to middle age.

There was the time I painted my the headlights on my Mom's Chevrolet blue just to see whether they would project blue light at night. My delusion-filled, pre-adolescent mind which could not quite fathom how the world worked even anticipated praise for having been so clever. Wrong! On another occasion I was caught with evidence of recording the swear words on my fathers dictating machine that I'd learned from older boys at little league. Then there was the time I attached a sheet to a box using safety pins, perched it on top of a ladder, climbed inside and proceeded to shake the ladder until it fell--all to see whether or not the jury-rigged parachute would deposit me gently on the ground. Needless to say, I was lucky to survive my assolescence at my own hands or those of others.

With years came wisdom derived from the failed physics experiments of my youth and I began to focus on more serious matters such as zigzag vs. marfil and other pertinent questions of the day. Wait...scratch that, fast forward 20 years...ok, thats better...to focus on more serious matters such as politics and other unnatural acts.

I became perplexed by the susceptibility of so many to being manipulated since 9-11. Not quite satisfied with the answers, I was eager to learn more about how people are motivated by their recognition of things of which they have no direct personal experience. I stumbled onto a book, Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti, touted by some to be the seminal work in the area of mass psychology. He won the 1981 Nobel Prize in Literature for this work.

I love his style which leads him to pose questions without imposing answers, leaving it to the reader to follow by virtue of their own conclusions. Canetti has much to say about war and it is consistently thought provoking. But on the other hand, maybe I'm just easily impressed, particulary on days when contemplating the lint in my navel is an uphill climb.

Among the kudos given Canetti are:

  • Crowds and Power is a revoutionary work in which Elias Canetti finds a new way of looking at human history and psychology.

  • In this study of the interplay of crowds Canetti offers one of the most profound and startling portraits of the human condition.

  • Canetti dissolves politics into pathology, treating society as a mental activity-- a barbaric one, of course-- that must be decoded.


His thoughts on war are not so much a value judgment but rather descriptions of how and why people perceive threat and line up for war. He surveys at length various types of crowds and reasons why humans gather in various cultures. He delves into questions of national identity and the compelling forces that bind individuals to their culture. He asks questions and much of my affinity for him owes to that, leaving me wondering whether his wife every asked him to just shut up and chill.

Canetti describes war as two rapidly forming "belligerent crowds" replete with characteristic dynamics. On the formation of a belligerent crowd Canetti asks:

What, from one moment to another creates the uncanny coherence? What is it that suddenly moves men to risk their all? The phenomenon is so mysterious that it must be approached with a measure of caution.

WTF***? "...must be approached with a measure of caution"??? Howzit that almost everyone I know at work has all the answers on almost every topic imaginable and a Nobel Prize winner, A NOBEL PRIZE WINNER is saying that he needs to be careful and approach a topic with caution?

Damned refreshing, this guy. He continues:

War is an astonishing business. People decide that they are threatened with physical destruction and proclaim the fact publicly to the whole world. They say "I can be killed" and secretly add "because I myself want to kill this or that man." The stress properly belongs on the second half of this sentence. It should run: "I want to kill this or that man, therefore I can be killed myself." But when it is a question of war starting, of its eruption and the awakening of a bellicose spirit within the nation, the first version will be the only one openly admitted. Even if in fact the aggressor, each side will always attempt to prove that it is threatened.

On both sides those involved usually come together very quickly, whether in physical actuality of in imagination and feeling. The outbreak of a war is primarily an eruption of two crowds. As soon as these crowds have formed, the supreme purpose of each is to preserve its existence through both belief and action. A belligerent crowd always acts as if everything outside it were death. The individual may have survived many wars but, with each new war, he surrenders himself afresh to the same illusion.

Canetti speaks to what he calls "first death":

It is the first death that infects everyone with the feeling of being threatened. It is impossible to overrate the part played by the first dead man in the kindling of wars. Rulers who want to unleash war know that they must procure or invent a first victim. It need not be anyone of particular importance, and can even be someone quite unknown. Nothing matters except his death; and it must be believed that the enemy is responsible for this. Every possible cause of his death is suppressed except one: his membership of the group to which one belongs oneself.

(c) 2001 The Record, (Bergen County, NJ).

This brings to mind the recent conservative anger (well...OK, Bill Maher's slutty girlfriend, Ann Coulter) aroused by 9-11 widows declaring their opposition to Bush policies and actions ostensibly made on behalf of their deceased husbands. The virulence of the ensuing personal attacks was all at once disgusting and expected since, after all, these widows were debauching the efficacy of what Canetti calls "first death" and diluting its potential to serve as a "crystal" around which belligerent crowds are always formed and maintained. That offense that incurred the momentary attention of the entire conservative matrix and subsequent, nauseatingly dreadful "echo chamber effect."

I cannot believe that this would have happened had 9-11 not been justification for much of the Bush administration policies since, those within the law and those outside of it, including war with a nation not involved as well as his reelection.

I was also impressed by the line:

A belligerent crowd always acts as if everything outside it were death.

This is an apt characterization of the mind-sets of those saying "How could you possibly cut and run or dishonor our troops by ending the war short of complete and total victory." To some, anyone who would suggest that there was a leap to war without due diligence is as bad as the 9-11 terrorists themselves, despite our knowing more of the facts now. Nobody ever said that war was a rational business.

And all we get from our President is that we were "misled by intelligence" just as he was. I'm not quite sure what to feel about that. Am I to consider myself an unindicted co-conspirator for having been fooled right along with Bush and unca Dickey?

I trace my thinking back to a day marked by a discussion with a liberal friend and unabashed cynic a week after the yellowcake and aluminum rod stories were included in a presidential address.

"They must have something" I said, making my best trusting case.

The cynic replied, "Don't believe a word these liars say."

"But they surely have other information they cannot tell us because of things like protecting sources and covert operatives" I replied.

So it went. I wanted to believe and did not want to believe I was lied to, even if I did not vote for Bush and most likely would have voted for Attila the Hun and Boris Badenoff had they been on the Democratic ticket.

A month later I called my friend to apologize for doubting him as the picture became much more clear. Bush and Cheney had not recanted but enough related information had leaked to cast doubt on their assertions. Even more telling was that they did not offer proof in defense of their positions. I remember thinking to myself that they either did not feel they had to explain further or they had very little else that they could explain.

Well, you know what they say, "Fool me once..." So I understand wanting to believe and wanting a higher power to trust so I am not without sympathy for even the few remaining holdouts today who cling to what might be their only link to the goodness of others or perhaps even of themselves.

I also understand being on the receiving end of some slick manipulative lies. The month or so that I believed and the month I struggled are as vivid to me as my embarassment over having been duped remains. I lived the Viet Nam war era as a politically aware post-assolescent, preparing to receive a lottery number as the war ended. I had seen our government lie before, but still I wanted to believe.

Perhaps I should have known better. I am less innocent now but strangely enough, less cynical than in my youth. Does everyone seek the comfort of illusion with age? Is that the process I am undergoing?

Now I know who misled me and who continues to do that almost daily with Orwellian catch-phrases like "Healthy Forests" and "Clean Air Initiative".

So there it is...black and white, for the war 100% or traitors to the cause, in the circle of trust or outide it where Canetti suggests is the belligerent crowd perception of death. Don't these folks seem terrified? This all seems more like an underlying sickness that does hardly constitutes compelling proof that we are a good, God-fearing people.

I'm hoping that we can prove we really are good by what we have to choose from and what we choose in the upcoming elections. Be gentle with those who cannot admit to the fear that drives them and you just might help them.

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