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Thu

10

May

2007

The Limits of Outrage: Part I
Thursday, 10 May 2007 20:27
by Andrew Bard Schmookler

SETTING THE STAGE

On a previous, little-attended thread, an interesting conversation took place. It began with Cliff lamenting this from a news article:

“In his speech, Obama called for an increase in defence spending and an extra 65,000 soldiers and 27,000 marines to “stay on the offense” against terrorism and ensure America had “the strongest, best-equipped military in the world.”
Cliff took from such remarks that Obama was really no different from Lieberman or the Republicans.

I replied that I doubted that these statements warranted drawing such dire conclusions about Obama:

My bet it that his political advisors have made the judgment – not at all implausible – that Obama is vulnerable on the “macho” posture requirement.

To be elected president in this country, they assume (again, not without reason), a candidate has to show the electorate that he’s “tough” enough to duke it out with our enemies (real or imagined).

Meanwhile, Obama has come across as an optimist and a uniter and a fellow who has vision for the “audacity of hope.” Those can be strengths (voters in the latest poll see him as the most “optimistic” of all the candidates).

But the weakness that goes with his strengths is that Americans will think him incapable of dealing with the dark side of the world. And so I imagine Obama’s political advisors told him something like:

“If you want to get elected, you’re going to have to make some tough-sounding noises.”

 
This elicited from another read, Steve, the complaint:
I don’t see how you (Andy) are not outraged over the fact that these are the requirements to be elected President.
About my saying that to be elected president, a candidate has to demonstrate that he or she is “tough,” Steve replied, “I don’t think we can afford to placate this fact any longer.” In response, I asked:
Just what is the alternative to accepting this fact? Do you have some nifty way of transforming this fundamental aspect of the American (and of course it’s not just American) consciousness?
And Steve, in response, asserted:
Consciousness is the way it is because of people in government and journalism. These people in government and journalism participate in a charade. They don’t need fundamental transformation.
That led me to embark on a somewhat longer, more complex excursion into the nature and sources of this macho dimension of the American consciousness, and on the limits of outrage as a constructive response to it. It delves into a variety of fundamental issues. It bears upon two subjects that have been at the core of my work for almost forty years – the problem of power in social evolution, and the damage wrought upon human consciousness by the dangers of a world ruled by power – as well as on on how best to deal with the sicknesses of the world.

It’s an exploration I thought worth presenting here as an essay on its own.

********************

OF LEADERS AND PEOPLES AND THE WARRIOR VIRTUES

I think maybe I can see the problem here.

When you write, “Consciousness is the way it is because of people in government and journalism. These people in government and journalism participate in a charade,” it would appear that you believe this aspect of American consciousness is something new, something created by a couple of powerful institutions, and inculcated into a manipulable public. Maybe that’s why you think it suitable for us to respond with outrage to the way American people look for such signs of toughness in their leaders.

Actually, there’s an aspect of this that IS, as you suspect, a recent thing fostered by propagandists. There is, in other words, a Bushite element in this macho political requirement whereby the forces of evil have deliberately accentuated and distorted that aspect of the American consciousness, fostering in the American people fear on the one hand and a bullying attitude toward the world on the other.

But there’s another, bigger piece of this that has been part of American civilization all the way from its beginnings. We Americans are a people who came into being admiring – more than anyone else – our great general, George Washington. Not just for his nobility and self-restraint and trustworthiness but also because he had the guts to get through Valley Forge and go on to defeat the British Empire.

And, as that example suggests, there are among the REASONS for a nation to value the virtues of a warrior in their leaders SOME that are actually appropriate and adaptive. Throughout history, societies in a danger world have needed to have, among their leaders qualities, some spine. Those led by wimps did not last very long, or at least did not fare very well.

But reason and adaptation are not the whole of the picture.

My book OUT OF WEAKNESS is about what I call “the EXCESS of the warrior spirit,” i.e about that component of the warrior nature that derives from trauma, and denial, and overcompensation, and fear. Nonetheless, that book begins by acknowleding that there are good reasons why societies have, throughout history, found many of their heroes among their warriors. In a dangerous world, people have understood, it is important that one should understand and be skilled in the wielding of power, including the raw power of military force.

The challenge is to separate the wise elements from the crazy ones in this ethic. Too often, in our polarized society, neither the right nor the left meet this challenge.

The problem with the people of the right is that they are not sensitized to the ways in which this warrior business can be taken to excess. That’s part of why they fall for Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” Top Gun posturing. That’s part of why they do not notice when their leader is a bully.

But there’s a problem with many on the left, too. I’m speaking of those who do not recognize the sad but true reality that in this world there is a need for certain warrior virtues.

The proof of this can be found in recent American history.

I liked President Carter, and thought him a genuinely good man, albeit in a rigid and humorless way. But Carter did not understand the game of hard-ball and America paid the price for his lack of certain warrior virtues. With Carter, it seems to me, his failure to wield his power effectively was not because he’s a wimp but because he maintained a certain naivete that made it easier for him to square his Christian values with the ways of the world.

But whatever the reason for Carter’s failure to understand the arena of power and conflict, the consequences of that failure were significant.

For one thing, it contributed – I believe – to an intensification of the cold war.

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Carter admitted that he’d misread the Russians. Carter’s naivete, I believe, had emboldened the Soviets to make that very fateful move into Afghanistan. And that invasion was a major reason why the superpowers then descended into the very dangerous neo-cold war period of the end of the 70s and into the middle of the 80s.

Had Carter handled “détente” with the Soviets better, bringing more toughness into the mix along with goodwill and a readiness to cooperate, perhaps the superpower relationship could have continued in the direction of greater relaxation of tensions, greater superpower cooperation.

The Soviets got bolder, and then there was what happened on the American side: Let’s not forget that another part of how Carter helped to create greater world tension and danger was that his weakness made it possible for Ronald Reagan – who played the gunfighter well – to become president. And we paid a lot of different kinds of prices for the Reagan presidency.

The Cold War ended well, but that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t have gone down the road to catastrophe. Carter did not manage it well. And he failed in large measure because he lacked some of the warrior virtues of knowing how to stand and how to move in matters of potential conflict.

This failing was clearly on display also in the crisis with Iran.

In the hostage crisis of 1979, Carter’s incapacity to deal effectively in the arena of power made the world a more dangerous place. One thing I DO know: Carter’s cluelessness was so extreme that one watched as his way of handling the crisis – essentially curtailing all normal life, all normal presidential functioning, so long as the crisis went on; essentially doing everything possible to increase the value and salience of the hostages that the Iranians had taken – gave the Iranians more and more power in the situation.

American-Iranian relations still have not recovered from what happened in 1979-80, and it is possible that a president better at wielding power might have navigated that crisis in a way that left things in better condition. We don’t know what other bad things – like a US-Iran war – might yet occur because of the repercussions of this badly handled situation.

Once again, one of the bad results of Carter’s ineptitude at dealing with conflict in the arena of power was Ronald Reagan’s winning the presidency. If it were not for Iran, I would wager, Carter would have been re-elected. But the American people saw Carter’s weakness, and didn’t like what they saw happening because of it. It was for that reason that the American electorate was willing to turn toward the seemingly impressively tough Ronald Reagan to make America “stand tall” again. Reagan won because Carter was discredited in Americans’ eyes, not because a Reagan presidency was one that the American people found irresistible.

Part of that is a deep cultural sickness of America: there is something quite excessive about the extent that we Americans are into male fantasies of dominance and conquest and winning the fist fight. (One can see this fixation in tons and tons of movies, and other aspects of the American imagination; think Arnold Schwarzenegger movies). But part of it also represents the wisdom learned from history and embedded in culture.

So, in my view, it is not wise to be altogether contemptuous of the American desire to have a leader who can successfully play the game of power. There’s that element of wisdom in it.

But then there’s also that element of folly, on display by those tens of millions of Americans who could see a man like GW Bush as embodying those warrior virtues. Only “Out of Weakness” would people see a man like GW Bush as a man of strength.

FDR was a true war leader, and he was not a man who went looking for a fight, nor one that thought that warfare was the best thing there is in life. George Washington, too, was a reluctant warrior – he was constantly likened in his time (if I recall my history) to Cincinnatus, the character from the classical world who (again, if I recall) really loves his farming, and his running of a thriving homestead, but who is willing to sacrifice that fulfillment and lead his country when unfortunate necessity and patriotic duty requires it.

So, in view of this, my attitude toward the excesses of the warrior spirit in American consciousness – the aspect of American culture that would reasonably make Barack Obama make some martial noises like most of those mentioned above, as part of being serious about trying to become president – is such that OUTRAGE is not what I think should be the essential emotional or spiritual component of one’s reaction.

There are two good reasons for getting beyond mere outrage here.

For one thing, as I’ve been arguing, we should acknowledge the wise as well as the crazy aspects of America’s caring about such strength in their leaders. If one insists on seeing only one side of a double-sided truth, one can simply applaud (like some on the right) or simply be outraged (like some on the left). Half-truths are not wisdom, however.

But beyond that, even with the crazy part, I do not think that outrage is the emotional stance well-tuned to the problem. Most of this “excess of the warrior spirit” is NOT new, but is deeply woven into the very texture – culturally, emotionally, spiritually – of the world. The disease that afflicts America is a world-wide disease. It is written across the face of human history through the millennia. This pattern of excess macho is what OUT OF WEAKNESS is about, and it is about the pattern of trauma and denial of vulnerability and acting out of fear and pain that are not acknowledged, and about how that pattern has helped feed the traumatic nature of human history.

With a problem so deep-seated in the emotional fiber of the world’s peoples and cultures, the compassion in our response is more valuable than our outrage. One could as well be outraged at cancer, or at the vagaries of the climate. The world is not going to change very much in these respects during our life-time. Such things change slowly.

Change is possible, and we should work for it. I expect such change will happen, though not as quickly as I envisioned it might when I wrote THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES in my twenties and thirties.

At that time, I was filled with a vision of the markedly better civilization of which humankind is ultimately capable. And, when I was younger, I imagined that the world might speedily turn its sails to head toward that destination. It might take a century, I thought, but by now that progress would already be well along.

But, I have observed since, the world is more resistant to change than I imagined.

True, if we had better luck with our leadership, we might have done a whole lot better than we have. An FDR or a Lincoln, not a Bush I, or a Clinton, and even much more so a Bush II. I do regard the present world situation is a profound failure for humankind.

But even with decent leadership, the world was going to be a very difficult place to change. The forces that make the world what it is are deeply ingrained and persistent, and can be overcome and directed toward a better destination only across stretches of time. Most of the change has to be organic in nature, and it takes generations.

Take a look at the process that the Germans went through – and there’s is one of the most dramatic transformations I’m aware of – from strutting, jack-booted goose-steppers in the 1930s through to humbled but in some ways unrepentant or at least unwilling to confront the full truth of their past, to the more recent generation that seem to have a kind of basic sweetness in them (take a look at the Israeli film WALK ON WATER, and I also had an exchange student with the same quality that one sees in the young Germans in the film).

They traveled a very long way in a comparatively short time – because of the very profound nature of the national trauma, and the insistence of the whole world on speaking about it – but even that short time was a matter of at least two generations.

Why be outraged about things that are millennia old, and that in any case cannot change at a rate that would be satisfying to us?

Why not accept certain basic truths about the world, such as that the struggle for power over the past 10,000 years has made people pretty screwed up (for reasons and in ways described in my book THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES).

I believe that a compassionate and caring and healing approach to a wounded humanity is more likely to get us from here to there on a problem of this sort than is anything we’re likely to say or do out of OUTRAGE.

When it comes to the localizable and the specific and the worst – like Bush and Rove and Cheney – I am in favor of outrage. That’s because this is a kind of change that is best made by destroying, by defeating an identifiable enemy. We are not interested in healing these foci of the disease, the tumours on the American body politic. We are interested in surgically removing them.

That’s where our outrage should be focused – on immediate and localized evils that drag the system downward. But, where the problems are so ingrained that you would have to amputate the whole body to get rid of it, outrage is not the most useful posture.

(Part II, briefer than Part I, will consist of a bit more of the exchange.)
 
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martin cadwell said:

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The War Party
The lesson of the Democrats refusal to vote to end funding for all offensive/occupation operations in Iraq is simple. They support the same goal of US-Israeli-UK regional hegemony in the Middle East---as the lynchpin of achieving world domination and hegemony as the Republicans do. The US spends more on warmaking and war preparations (euphemistically deemed "defense spending") than the entire rest of the world combined, despite its phemonenal federal deficits. Anyone who reflects on this fact and believes this is to insure the peace and security of the US is a candidate for buying a January only time share for beachfront property on the beautiful Alaskan coast. The US gives Israel more foreign aid---most of it top drawer military aid---than it gives to the entire rest of the world to insure that Israel remains a regional superpower vastly more powerful than any other state in the Middle East. The US also turns a blind eye to Israel's nuclear arsenal of between 200 and 400 nuclear weapons with cruise missiles, bombers, and German made submarines capable of launching them, and refuses to reduce its own massive nuclear warhead stockpile and plans on developing new, "tactical" first use nuclear weapons, while threatening Iran with nuclear war because it dares to assert its rights under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to develop a peaceful nuclear electric energy production. All of these expenditures and policies are bi-partisan. There are no significant differences between the Republicans and Democrats in any of these areas. The reason is that they both are unconditionally committed to the quest for a hegemonic American World Empire. Readers might recall, or learn now if they are too young to recall, that the US's last great losing war of neo-colonialist empire---the VietNam-Southeast Asian war in which the US slaughtered over 2 million people--- was waged on a bipartisan basis. Started by the Democrat Kennedy, escalated by the Democrat Johnson (who campaigned as the "peace" candidate), escalated by air while "Vietnamized" on the ground by the Republican Nixon. It only ended when decisively defeated on the ground in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and thorougly isolated at home. We need a new party which can break the stranglehold on American electoral politics of the Republicrat War Party. Democrats like Dennis Kucinich and Republicans like Ron Paul are no answer. While of some use as critics within the two wings of the War Party who expose some of the hypocrisies of their parties, their strategic function is to keep independant thinkers who might break with the War Party in the fold. (Apparently to be delivered to the winning War Party candidate, in the case of Kucinich, if his 2004 endorsement of Kerry is repeated, as it likely will be). The problem with the lesser of the two evils is that it isn't. If the Democrats win the 2008 presidential election, they won't waste much time proving it, whether Clinton, Obama, or someone else carries the day.
 
May 11, 2007
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