“The Military-Industrial Complex” — Who Said That?

I like ike

On Jan.17,1961, three days before giving way to his successor in the Oval Office (JFK), President Eisenhower delivered a farewell speech.

The Cold War was underway, and the Soviet Union had gotten a leg up — this is from the NASA History Office:

“History changed on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I.

“That launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the space age and the U.S.-U.S.S.R space race.

“As a technical achievement, Sputnik caught the world’s attention and the American public off-guard… the public feared that the Soviets’ ability to launch satellites also translated into the capability to launch ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons from Europe to the U.S.”

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson compared Sputnik’s impact to the furor that ensured when, on January 11, 2007, China blasted one of its own weather satellites out of the sky:

“The hit put tens of thousands of long-lived fragments into high Earth orbit, adding to the already considerable dangers posed by debris previously generated by other countries, notably ours. China was roundly criticized by other spacefaring nations for making such a mess:  twelve days later, its foreign ministry declared that the action ‘was not directed at any country and does not constitute a threat to any country.’

“Hmm. That’s a little like saying the Soviet Union’s launch of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, in October 1957 was not a threat — even though Sputnik’s booster rocket was an intercontinental ballistic missile, even though Cold Warriors had been thirsting for a space-based reconnaissance vehicle since the end of World War II, even though postwar Soviet rocket research had been focusing on the delivery of a nuclear bomb across the Pacific, and even though Sputnik’s peacefully pulsing radio transmitter was sitting where a nuclear warhead would otherwise have been.”

Accessory to War:  The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang

In his farewell address, the former Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces — the man who had given the go-ahead for the D-Day invasion — described the U.S. response to what he described as “a hostile ideology — global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method.” (Click below for the relevant portion of the speech. Click here for the full text.)

Eisenhower

The U.S. would no longer improvise its mobilization to war case by case, Eisenhower said, but instead would maintain a standing military:

“Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.

“Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.”

The times required it, Eisenhower said, but he also issued a sober warning:

“We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex.

“The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Thus the phrase  “military industrial complex” entered both the USA’s national lexicon and culture:

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. … Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.”

Because this new cultural institution of “vast proportions” was in direct opposition to “our peaceful methods and goals,” Eisenhower urged “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” to vigilance, believing it had the power to prevent the military from becoming disproportionately powerful.

How well has the USA heeded this warning? We’ll talk about that next time.

It’s a MAD MAD MAD MAD World

Mad,_Mad,_Mad,_Mad_World_(1963)_theatrical_poster

MAD — Mutually Assured Destruction — might be the most ironic policy acronym ever. The theory behind it seems reasonable:  if everybody knows that nuclear war will end in total destruction no matter who starts it, then nobody will start it.

The theory holds if both sides have sufficient fire power and neither has a foolproof defense or survival strategy. President Reagan tried to one-up the latter with his Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative, but it didn’t last. President Putin has made similar claims recently, but nobody seems to be taking him seriously. Thus MAD lives on. But if it’s so airtight, then why aren’t we relieved? Why do we still feel the “assured destruction” shadow?

Well for one thing, MAD can’t deter everybody. It only takes one nutcase with access to the button, and there’s always been one of those somewhere, either in charge of a nation that has the bomb or a religion, revolution, or other powerful institution that might get its hands on it.

“What we can say is that, as of this morning, those with the power to exterminate life have not done so. But this is not altogether comforting, and history is no more reassuring.”

The Deterrence Myth Aeon Magazine (Jan. 9, 2018) (Except where otherwise noted, the following quotes are also from this source.)

For another thing, “it is not legitimate to argue that nuclear weapons have deterred any sort of war, or that they will do so in the future” — even when there is an imbalance of power:

“Even when possessed by just one side, nuclear weapons have not deterred other forms of war. The Chinese, Cuban, Iranian and Nicaraguan revolutions all took place even though a nuclear-armed US backed the overthrown governments. Similarly, the US lost the Vietnam War, just as the Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan, despite both countries not only possessing nuclear weapons, but also more and better conventional arms than their adversaries. Nor did nuclear weapons aid Russia in its unsuccessful war against Chechen rebels in 1994-96, or in 1999-2000, when Russia’s conventional weapons devastated the suffering Chechen Republic. Nuclear weapons did not help the US achieve its goals in Iraq or Afghanistan, which have become expensive catastrophic failures for the country with the world’s most advanced nuclear weapons. Moreover, despite its nuclear arsenal, the US remains fearful of domestic terrorist attacks, which are more likely to be made with nuclear weapons than be deterred by them.”

Plus, however rational MAD may be in theory, it ignores the impetuous aspects of human nature:

“Deterrence theory assumes optimal rationality on the part of decision-makers. It presumes that those with their fingers on the nuclear triggers are rational actors who will also remain calm and cognitively unimpaired under extremely stressful conditions. It also presumes that leaders will always retain control over their forces and that, moreover, they will always retain control over their emotions as well, making decisions based solely on a cool calculation of strategic costs and benefits.

“Deterrence theory maintains, in short, that each side will scare the pants off the other with the prospect of the most hideous, unimaginable consequences, and will then conduct itself with the utmost deliberate and precise rationality. Virtually everything known about human psychology suggests that this is absurd.

“It requires no arcane wisdom to know that people often act out of misperceptions, anger, despair, insanity, stubbornness, revenge, pride and/or dogmatic conviction. Moreover, in certain situations – as when either side is convinced that war is inevitable, or when the pressures to avoid losing face are especially intense – an irrational act, including a lethal one, can appear appropriate, even unavoidable.”

Further, deterrence requires readiness — another rational-sounding ideal, but where to draw the line between self-defense and aggression is anybody’s guess.

“The military knows its purpose, and that purpose does not end with awareness and deterrence. The commander of Air Force Space Command is clear about the mandate. ‘Our job is to prepare for conflict. We hope this preparation will deter potential adversaries…, but our job is to be ready when and if that day comes.’”

Accessory to War:  The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang

That said, MAD’s fatal flaw might be that it promotes militarism as a shared cultural belief,[1] which feeds the beast known as the “military-industrial complex” — a term usually associated with dissent, which belies its origins. More on that next time.

[1] The author of The Deterrence Myth is David P. Barash, who has written about demilitarization as a preferable strategy. See Strength Through Peace:  How Demilitarization Led to Peace and Happiness in Costa Rica, and What the Rest of the World can Learn From a Tiny, Tropical Nation. See also Through a Glass Brightly: Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are. 

 

Sex and the Neutron Bomb

neutron bomb

Remember the neutron bomb? I do — this new kind of nuke that would kill people but leave structures intact. It’s odd how, when you put it so starkly, a common reaction is revulsion — there seems to be something particularly ghastly about the thought of a sudden mushroom cloud, then everybody drops dead while the material world stays intact.

Physicist Samuel Cohen was known as the “Father of the Neutron Bomb.” His feelings about it were far from revulsion:

“Until the day he died, physicist Samuel Cohen declared that his invention, the neutron bomb, was a “moral” and “sane” weapon that would kill enemy combatants, while sparing civilians and cities.

“According to his memoirShame: Confessions of the Father of the Neutron Bomb[1], he hit upon his idea during a 1951 visit to Seoul, where he witnessed the devastation of the Korean War: ‘The question I asked of myself was something like: If we’re going to go on fighting these damned fool wars in the future, shelling and bombing cities to smithereens and wrecking the lives of their surviving inhabitants, might there be some kind of nuclear weapon that could avoid all this?’”

Though it Seems Crazy Now, the Neutron Bomb Was Intended to be Humane, Gizmodo (Sept. 19, 2014). (This piece provides a great history of the bomb.)

Presidents Nixon and Ford had the neutron bomb on the political agenda, Carter tanked it, Reagan revived it, and Pres. Bush Sr.finally dumped it for good. Along the way, it provoked massive public protests in the USA and especially in Europe.

“This, then, was the final insult. After the neutron bomb had been maligned and misunderstood, it was misapplied, and became just another profligate military boondoggle. Cohen made no secret of his dissatisfaction. His rants were not calculated to make friends or influence people, and he was forced into an early retirement in 1985.

“Stocks of American neutron bombs were retained for a couple more years, but George Bush Senior finally made a policy decision to eliminate all battlefield nuclear weapons, and thus “the most moral weapon ever invented” was scrapped without benefiting anyone other than the defense contractors who built it.

“Cohen was left wondering about the real motives of people who mold military policy. He ran across a book from the Pentagon library titled The Sexual Cycle of Human Warfare by a former British colonel named Normal Walter. Although Walter was not trained as a scientist, his view of warfare was basically sociobiological. He argued that in our evolutionary past, inter-tribal conflicts enabled elders to discipline younger, competitive males and reduce their numbers. According to this theory, war became institutionalized by older males who wanted to maximize the number of single females by culling the number of younger males.

“The hypothesis was unprovable, but Cohen certainly saw that warfare satisfied an emotional need. In his words, ‘We just plain like to fight wars. We adore the military, and over the decades countless millions of young Americans have entered the services to fight. They were more than willing, and their parents accepted it. It’s in the genes.’”

From Charles Platt’s The Profits of Fear – an Overview and Postscript to Shame.

Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, wrote this:

“The Sexual Cycle of Human Warfare by Major Norman Walter … is shamefully neglected. Indeed, I doubt if more than a handful of people know it or know of it. And yet its thesis is original and highly suggestive. It is, briefly, that war is a psychobiological phenomenon, not a political one, and that it can best be studied in terms of such genetic phenomena as hybridization, exogamy and the like. Nature explodes the human group with the aim of genetic recombination. Soldiers never know why they’re fighting (‘We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here’ was a song of the First World War) and politicians think they know. But the real motives for war lie at the biological level. War, like sex, is ineradicable from human society because is very close to sex.”

The Bible offers its own war and sex story — a kind of backdoor validation of this sociobiological theory of war. It begins with a matter-of-fact, “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle” — as if that’s the most natural thing:  hey it’s Spring, the sap is rising, let’s go to war! Only this time, the king didn’t go with his troops. Instead,

“David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel. And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.”

2 Samuel 11: 1 ESV

And thus began not only a war, but the whole Bathsheba affair, by which David committed himself and his descendants to perpetual war:

“Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.”

2 Samuel 12:10 ESV

War forever — because “We just plain like to fight wars… It’s in the genes.”

[1] Cohen put Shame in the public domain. A search will turn up a free copy — such as this source.

The Strangest Dream

johnny cash last night I had the strangest dream

Last night I had the strangest dream
I ever dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war

Ed Curdy — folksinger, songwriter, Vaudevillian, disc jockey, radio and TV personality — is best remembered for a song he wrote in 1950 that The Weavers recorded ten years later. It was a song for the times, and the Chad Mitchell Trio, Simon &Garfunkel, and many more followed suit. Click here or on the image above for the Johnny Cash version.

The song’s portrayal of how war ends is a period piece:

I dreamed I saw a mighty room
The room was filled with men
And the paper they were signing said
They’d never fight again

And when the papers all were signed
And a million copies made
They all joined hands end bowed their heads
And grateful prayers were prayed

A much earlier version of the dream goes back a few thousand years:

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.

Isaiah 2: 4 NKJV

The prophecy was given for “the latter days.” Until then, it seems that war — like the poor[1] — will always be with us. Like a lot of people, I wish it weren’t so. When Ed Curdy’s song was making the rounds, I sang along — we really believed it was possible. Now, I’m convinced it’s impossible. It’s just something we seem wired to do. (More on that next time.)

Not everyone agrees — for example the folks at World Beyond War. This is from Myth, War is Inevitable, on their website:

“Even violence on a small scale is not inevitable, but the incredibly difficult task of ending violence is a million miles past the simpler, if still challenging, task of ending organized mass slaughter. War is not something created by the heat of passion. It takes years of preparation and indoctrination, weapons production and training.

 “Developing ways to avoid generating conflicts is part of the answer, but some occurrence of conflict (or major disagreement) is inevitable, which is why we must use more effective and less destructive tools to resolve conflicts and to achieve security.”

According to cultural critic Chris Hedges, people like those at World Beyond War are beset by a fatal blind spot that prevents them from seeing the dark side of human nature that makes utopian visions run off the rails.[2]

“If we see ourselves as the culmination of a long, historical process toward perfectibility, rather than a tragic reflection of what went before, then we are likely to think the ends justify the means. … Fascists and communists combined violent, revolutionary fervor with the Christian millenarian dream of a heaven on earth. They adopted the pseudoscientific doctrine that it was possible to have complete knowledge and complete mastery of the human species. It was that fusion of utopian violence and industrial and bureaucratic power that marked the birth of totalitarianism.

“The totalitarians were aided by the well-meaning but naïve pacifists who appeared in large numbers throughout Europe and the United States following the First World War. The pacifists argued that human beings could be educated and molded to reject war and live in universal harmony. These pacifists, while not succumbing to the disease of militarism, were just as deluded as the militarists were by a utopian belief in human perfectibility. They failed to build an ethic from the stark limitations of human nature. In the ensuing crisis and war they became ineffectual and impotent. These pacifists rejected all acts of violence, even those that could have stopped a resurgent Nazi Germany. They kept their hands clean. This was moral abdication. They, too, divided the world into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ those who were pure and those who were impure. They, too, sought to convert others to their higher moral state. And by their passivity they aided the forces they hoped to defeat.

“Pacifism, in times of war, falls swiftly out of favor — indeed, it is often branded as a form or treason — but the central myth championed by the pacifists, the myth of human advancement, remains the dominant ideology. Pacifists, although they do not fuel the lust for violence, keep alive the myth that the human species can attain a state of moral perfection. This myth feeds the aggressiveness and cruelty of those who demand the use of violence to cleanse the world

“The danger is not pacifism or militarism. It is the poisonous belief in human perfectibility and the failure to accept our own sinfulness, our own limitations and moral corruption. This belief in our innate goodness becomes dangerous in a crisis, a moment when human beings feel threatened. It enlarges our capacity for aggression, violence, and mass slaughter.”

I Don’t Believe in Atheists:  The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist, Chris Hedges (2008)

Interesting that both Hedges and the World Beyond War website use the term “mass slaughter” for war — which is what it is, despite the ways we try to clean it up. More on that coming up.

[1] Matthew 26: 11

[2] Click here to view this blog’s series on utopia/dystopia.

War – What is it Good For?

War what is it good for.PNG

War what is it good for - Springsteen

War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing

You might know the song — either the original Edwin Starr 1970 version or the Springsteen cover — so good it made the infamous Clear Channel post-9-11 no play list. You might click the images or the links and have a listen — put you in the mood.

Owlcation provides the textbook explanation that wars are fought for economic or territorial gain; to further religious or nationalist interests; for self-defense or revenge; because of civil strife; or to bring about revolution. Those are rationalizations — things politicians and academicians say after the fact — but whether war is good for any of that is another issue. And it takes rare honesty to say we need war because it’s good for medicine, science, technology innovation, the economy, and the advance of civilization generally — all of which has been said.

Medicine

“For some historians, the Great War and the Second World War together form an ‘age of catastrophe’ or even one single war with a long break. The First World War also inaugurated a profound change beneath politics, in a realm largely hidden from journalism or military and political history. The Great War remade the human body itself.

“The doctors who identified this new human body saw an organism that organises itself, regulates itself, integrates itself, yet was extremely brittle. It was marked by fragility buried under the skin. It shattered easily, even worked against itself. The great number of injured and maimed bodies enabled doctors to create new kinds of medicine, physiology and psychiatry.

“Hints of this new conception of the body were present before the war, but when tens of thousands of soldiers returned with visible and invisible injuries, disordered hearts and broken psyches, it forced medicine to change too. Triage efforts on the battlefield had been sped up and regularised, and the entire front had become something of a giant medical laboratory for testing ideas and therapies. Many soldiers who, just a few decades earlier, would have died of their wounds now survived them. All of this changed the nature of the relationship between surgeons, physicians and psychiatrists, and patients. With survival, previously unknown pathologies emerged. The way in which medical scientists talked about the patient changed: they now described the patient’s body as an integral whole….”

The Maimed And The Healing:  The Casualties Of The First World War Brought A New Understanding Of Human Fragility And Wholeness Aeon Magazine (Dec. 13, 2018)

Science, Innovation, And The Advancement Of Civilization

“Were he alive today, the seventeenth-century Dutch astronomer and mathematician Christiaan Huygens might tell us we’d be fools to think that ambitious undertakings in space can be achieved without massive military support. Back in the 1690s, as Huygens thought about life on Mars and the other planets then know to populate the night sky, he pondered how best to foster inventiveness. For him and his era, profit was a powerful incentive (capitalism was as yet unnamed) and conflict was a divinely endorsed stimulation of creativity:

It has so pleased God to order the Earth… that this mixture of bad Men with good, and Consequences of such a mixture as Misfortunes, Wars, Afflictions, Poverty, and the like, were given us for this very good end, viz. the exercising our Wits and Sharpening our Inventions, by forcing us to provide for our own necessary defenses against our Enemies.

“Yes, waging war requires clever thinking and promotes technical innovation. Not controversial. But Huygens can’t resist linking the absence of armed conflict with intellectual stagnation:

And if Men were to lead their whole Lives in an undisturbed continual Peace, in no fear of Poverty, no danger of War, I don’t doubt they would live little better than Brutes, without all knowledge and enjoyment of those Advantages that make our Lives pass on with pleasure and profit. We should want the wonderful Art of Writing if its great use and necessity in Commerce and war had not forc’d our the Invention. ‘Tis to these we owe our Art of Sailing, our Art of Sowing, and most of those Discoveries of which we are Masters; and almost all the secrets in experimental Knowledge.

“So it’s simple:  no war equals no intellectual ferment. Arm in arm with trade, says Huygens, war has served as the catalyst for literacy, exploration, agriculture, and science.”

Accessory to War:  The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang (2018)

The Economy

“[In February 2009, just after the Great Recession of 2007-2008,] an international group of economists, officials, and academics met under the auspices of Columbia University’s Center on Capitalism and Society to discuss how the world might manage to emerge from its worse-than-usual financial crisis. The Center’s director, Nobel Laureate in economics Edmund Phelps, argued that some financial regulation was called for but stressed that it must “discourage[e] finding for investment in innovation in the non-financial business sector, which has been the main source of dynamism in the U.S. economy.” What’s the non-financial business sector? Military spending, medical equipment, aerospace, computers, Hollywood films, music, and more military spending. For Phelps, dynamism and innovation hand in hand with capitalism — and with war. Asked by a BBC interviewer for a “big thought” on the crisis and whether it constituted “a permanent indictment of capitalism,” he responded, “My big thought is, we desperately need capitalism in order to create interesting work to be done, for ordinary people — unless maybe we can go to war against Mars or something as an alternative.”

“A vibrant economy, in other words, depends on at least one of the following:  the profit motive, war on the ground, or war in space.”

Accessory to War, Tyson and Lang

Personally, I’m with the song’s last stanza —

Oh no, there’s got to be a better way
Say it again, there’s got to be a better way.

More coming up.

Selling Utopia

for sale sign

We’ve been looking at journalist and social commentator Chris Hedges’ belief that secular and religious fundamentalists are out of touch with “sin that clings so closely” (Hebrews 12: 1), which explains why their utopian visions sour into dystopias. The same dynamic infects how they evangelize their utopias:  the pitch starts out hopeful and uplifting, but their missionary methods inevitably degenerate.

According to his website, high-tech superstar Guy Kawasaki “did not invent secular evangelism, but he popularized it.” Robert Katai has also made a career of brand evangelism. He describes what he does by quoting a seminal Bible passage re: Christian evangelism:

And He said to them,
“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.”

Mark 16:15

But it’s not just about getting out there and telling people, he says:

“For some people ‘evangelism marketing’ means a combination of jobs from marketing, social media, PR, customer service, sales, etc. Of course, they could be right, but the reality is that having a role of ‘evangelist’ doesn’t stop at 8-10-12 hours of work. We could instead say that ‘Evangelist’ is more than a job, it’s simply a lifestyle.”

I.e., you don’t peddle utopia, you own it, become it, make it your lifestyle, your world. As a new recruit, you take your cues from your beatified leader — the utopia’s original evangelist. And why wouldn’t you become an evangelist for the cause? Utopia is good news, so why not share it? Besides, neuro-psychological research says sharing good news is good for you. [1]

The pitch for both secular and religious utopia is remarkably the same. Here’s a distillation:

We’ve lost our way. Things used to be perfect, but right now they aren’t, and neither are we. Something happened to us. We fell. We lost our way. We were duped. We’re falling short, missing the mark.

BUT the good news is, we can get it back. We can reclaim and restore what we’ve lost. We need to stop doing what we’ve been doing and go back to our origins — where we came from, what we began with, the ideals we were divinely endowed with, what we were destined for before we lost our way and let THEM take it away from us.

None of us can do this alone. It takes commitment, loyalty, and faith. We need to believe, we need to band together, and we need to get to work. There is a way back, things can get better — like they used to be, like they were intended to be — and we can get there together.

And so it goes. Any of that sound familiar?

What the pitch doesn’t mention is that the path to restoring perfection is backed up by a human institution seeded with the flaws of human nature. To join the cause means to become part of a community of like-minded believers and a supportive leadership and social structure designed to keep members in step and on track. As an institution grows, leadership power and the mandate of conformity increase as individual self-efficacy decreases. The institution and its ideals sweep along, gathering momentum through the sheer weight and inertia of neuro-cultural evolution. The institution’s cultural icons become sacred as the individual becomes more subservient and duty-bound. Authority figures at first offer mostly the carrot — incentivize, encourage, reward — but increasingly use the stick as well — chastise, shame, punish. Zeal that’s out of touch with its own fallibility is a set up for a slide down moral failure, bureaucratic corruption, abuse and brutality, until war — terror, torturing, maiming, murdering — is part of the package and the transition into dystopia is complete.

These dynamics apply to any offered utopia, whether secular or religious, and to the institutions that support it, whether religious, political, national, or otherwise. None of that makes it into the evangelizing sales pitch. And despite encyclopedic historical evidence and first-hand eyewitness experience, we keep responding to evangelists’ utopian altar calls:

We are like sheep without a shepherd
We don’t know how to be alone
So we wander ’round this desert
And wind up following the wrong gods home
But the flock cries out for another
And they keep answering that bell
And one more starry-eyed messiah
Meets a violent farewell-.

The Eagles

Coming upWe talked about cultural conflict before. The ultimate cultural conflict is war. Now that the topic has come up again in the context of this examination of fundamentalism, we’ll look next at war as a cultural institution..

[1] See this article about sharing good grades, and this one, about sharing on social media.

The Dark Side of Perfection

dark side

Photo by Krzysztof Niewolny on Unsplash

“The Enlightenment was a curse and a blessing.” Chris Hedges writes in  I Don’t Believe in Atheists,

“Its proponents championed human dignity and condemned tyranny, superstition, ignorance and injustice.

“But there was a dark side to the Enlightenment. Philosophers insisted that the universe and human nature could be understood and controlled by the rational mind. The human species, elevated above animals because it  possessed the capacity to reason, would break free of its animal nature and, through reason, understand itself and the world. It would make wise and informed decisions for the betterment of humanity.

“The disparity between the rational person  and the instinctive, irrational person, these philosophers argued, would be solved through education and knowledge.”

Sounds exalted, but we know better. Neuro-psychology — including Nobel-prize winning research in behavioral economics[1] –shows that we rarely reason our way to informed decisions. Instead, we rationalize our choices and behaviors after the fact to ensure that they line up with what we were individually and culturally predisposed to decide and do in the first place.

“Rationalization happens in two steps: A decision, action, judgement is made for a given reason, or no (known) reason at all. A rationalization is performed, constructing a seemingly good or logical reason, as an attempt to justify the act after the fact (for oneself or others).”

Then, once we are full of rationalized belief in the rightness, truthfulness, fate, destiny, inevitability, divine initiation  of our belief and actions — and therefore ourselves and our place in the world and in history —  we believe what we believe to a fault, which makes us capable of all sorts of evil in the name of good.

“If we see ourselves as the culmination of a long, historical process toward perfectibility, rather than a tragic reflection of what went before, then we are likely to think the ends justify the means. …

“Fascists and communists combined violent, revolutionary fervor with the Christian millenarian dream of a heaven on earth. They adopted the pseudoscientific doctrine that it was possible to have complete knowledge and complete mastery of the human species. It was that fusion of utopian violence and industrial and bureaucratic power that marked the birth of totalitarianism.”

Once we get rolling on the path to perfection, we can pick up unlikely allies along the way, as has been the case with the radical secular and religious fundamentalists:

“The liberal church also usually buys into the myth that we can morally progress as a species.

“It is this naïve belief in our goodness and decency — this inability to face the dark reality of human nature, our capacity for evil and the morally neutral universe we inhabit — that is the most disturbing aspect of all these belief systems.

“There is nothing in human nature or human history to support the idea that we are morally advancing as a species or that we will overcome the flaws of human nature.

“We are not advancing toward a glorious utopia.”

After his unrelenting excoriation of rational and religious fundamentalists and their allies, Hedges identifies one kind of belief system that seems to have opted out of the rush to dystopia.

“An atheist who accepts an irredeemable and flawed human nature, as well as a morally neutral universe, who does not think the world can be perfected by human beings, who is not steeped in cultural arrogance and feelings of superiority … is intellectually honest. These atheists may not like the word sin, but they have accepted its reality. They hold an honored place in a pluralistic and diverse human community.

“Atheists, including those wo brought us the Enlightenment, have often been a beneficial force in the history of human thought and religion. They have forced societies to examine empty religions platitudes and hollow religious concepts. They have courageously challenged the moral hypocrisy of religious institutions. The humanistic values of the Enlightenment were a response to the abuses of organized religion, including the attempts by religious authorities to stifle intellectual and scientific freedom. Religious authorities, bought off by the elite, championed a dogmatism that sanctified the privileges and power of the ruling class. But there were always religious figures who defied their own. Many, such as the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, were branded as heretics and atheists.

“The pain of living has also turned honest and compassionate men and women against God. These atheists do not believe in collective moral progress or science and reason as our ticket to salvation. They are not trying to perfect the human race. Rather, they cannot reconcile human suffering with the concept of God. This is an honest struggle. This disbelief is a form of despair, not self-exaltation.”

I found this short and surprising passage the most hopeful and personally affirming in the book.

[1] Richard H. Thaler is an economist at the University of Chicago, and Cass R. Sunstein is a Harvard Law School Professor. Together, they wrote Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2009). See also The Nobel In Economics Rewards A Pioneer Of “Nudges” — Richard Thaler becomes one of very few behavioural economists to receive the discipline’s highest honour, The Economist, October 9, 2017 and This Headline Is A Nudge To Get You To Read About Nobel Economist Richard Thaler — Okay, it’s not a very good nudge, but his work is really important! Vox, October 9, 2017.

Life in Paradise (You Don’t Want It)

commune family

It’s just another day in paradise 
As you stumble to your bed 
You’d give anything to silence 
Those voices ringing in your head 
You thought you could find happiness 
Just over that green hill 
You thought you would be satisfied 
But you never will- 

The Eagles

A couple posts back, we heard award-winning journalist and ex-war correspondence Chris Hedges say that,

“The utopian dream of a perfect society and a perfect human being, the idea that we are moving toward collective salvation, is one of the most dangerous legacies of the Christian faith and the Enlightenment.”

Belief in the perfectibility of human beings and human society, he says, turns religious zealots and rationalist diehards alike into fundamentalists — a mindset that spawns all kinds of evils. The problem isn’t that one believes in God but the other doesn’t, but that neither of them actually believes in sin:

“We have nothing to fear from those who do or do not believe in God; we have much to fear from those who do not believe in sin. The concept of sin is a stark acknowledgement that we can never be omnipotent, that we are bound and limited by human flaws and self-interest. The concept of sin is a check on the utopian dreams of a perfect world. It prevents us from believing in our own perfectibility or the illusion that the material advances of science and technology equal an intrinsic moral improvement in our species. To turn away from God is harmless. Saints have been trying to do it for centuries. To turn away from sin is catastrophic. Religious fundamentalists, who believe they know and can carry out the will of God, disregard their severe human limitations. They act as if they are free from sin. The secular utopians of the twenty-first century have also forgotten they are human. These two groups peddle absolutes. Those who do not see as they see, speak as they speak, and act as they act are worthy only of conversion or eradication.

“We discard the wisdom of sin at our peril. Sin reminds us that all human beings are flawed — though not equally flawed. Sin is the acceptance that there will never be  a final victory over evil, that the struggle for amorality is a battle that will always have to be fought. Studies in cognitive behavior illustrate the accuracy and wisdom of this Biblical concept. Human beings are frequently irrational. They are governed by unconscious forces, many of them self-destructive. This understanding of innate human corruptibility and human limitations, whether explained by the theologian Augustine or the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, has been humankind’s most potent check on utopian visions. It has forced human beings to accept their own myopia and irrationality, to acknowledge that no act, even one defined as moral or virtuous, is free from the taint of self-interest and corruption. We are bound by our animal nature.”

Hedges, I Don’t Believe in Atheists

“Sin” in this context is not a doctrinal concept, it’s an acceptance that human beliefs and institutions are all imperiled because… well, because they’re human:  we’re not perfect; our belief systems and the institutions aren’t either. Sin means our utopian visions blind us to our shadow side:

“James Luther Adams, my ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, spoke of the “old triumvirate of tyrants of the human soul, the libido sciendi, the libido sentiendi, and the libido dominandi. [The lust of the mind, the lust of the flesh, and the lush for power.] Adams, who worked with the anti-Nazi church leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1935 and 1936 in Germany, warned us that these lusts are universal and intractable. They lurk beneath the surface of the most refined cultures and civilizations. ‘We may call these tendencies by any name we wish,’ he said, ‘but we do not escape their destructive influence by a conspiracy of silence concerning them.’

“The belief that science or religion can eradicate these lusts leads to the worship of human potential and human power. These lusts are woven into our genetic map. We can ameliorate them, but they are always with us’ we will never ultimately defeat them. The attempt to deny the lusts within us empowers this triumvirate. They surface, unexamined and unheeded, to commit evil in the name of good. We are not saved by reason. We are not saved by religion. We are saved by turning away from projects that tempt us to become God, and by accepting our own contamination and the limitations of being human.”

Hedges, I Don’t Believe in Atheists

Sin explains why so communes and other “intentional communities” usually fail:  they begin with visions of utopia, but end up “reproduc[ing] many of the same tyrannies that people were trying to escape: egoism, power struggles, envy, mistrust and fear.” “Utopia, Inc.,”. Aeon Magazine (Feb. 28, 2017)

Sin also explains cognitive neuroscientist turned science writer Christian Jarrett’s “evidence-based … 10 dispiriting findings that reveal the darker and less impressive aspects of human nature.” The Bad News On Human Nature, In 10 Findings From Psychology,” Aeon Magazine (Dec. 5, 2018).

More coming up on the dangers of the perfection myth.

Dying To Win and the United States of Jihad

This week’s post is a digression from this blog’s main focus, but I stumbled across two books on terrorism and suicide bombing that expand on some of the themes we looked at last time, and decided to share them for anyone who wants to dig further. Both books are written by authors with impressive credentials, and are spaced a decade apart, which offers a useful comparison of what we knew then and what we know now. Next week we’ll return to our discussion of religious and secular fundamentalism and its dangerous roots in utopian visions.

Dyiing to WinDying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, by Robert Pape (2006). This is from the book blurb:

“One of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject, Professor Pape has created the first comprehensive database of every suicide terrorist attack in the world from 1980 until today. With striking clarity and precision, Professor Pape uses this unprecedented research to debunk widely held misconceptions about the nature of suicide terrorism and provide a new lens that makes sense of the threat we face.

“FACT: Suicide terrorism is not primarily a product of Islamic fundamentalism.

“FACT: The world’s leading practitioners of suicide terrorism are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka–a secular, Marxist-Leninist group drawn from Hindu families.

“FACT: Ninety-five percent of suicide terrorist attacks occur as part of coherent campaigns organized by large militant organizations with significant public support.

“FACT: Every suicide terrorist campaign has had a clear goal that is secular and political: to compel a modern democracy to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland.

“In this wide-ranging analysis, Professor Pape offers the essential tools to forecast when some groups are likely to resort to suicide terrorism and when they are not. He also provides the first comprehensive demographic profile of modern suicide terrorist attackers. With data from more than 460 such attackers–including the names of 333–we now know that these individuals are not mainly poor, desperate criminals or uneducated religious fanatics but are often well-educated, middle-class political activists.

“More than simply advancing new theory and facts, these pages also answer key questions about the war on terror:

  • Are we safer now than we were before September 11?
  • Was the invasion of Iraq a good counterterrorist move?
  • Is al-Qaeda stronger now than it was before September 11?

“For both policy makers and the general public, Dying to Win transcends speculation with systematic scholarship, making it one of the most important political studies of recent time.”

The United States of JihadUnited States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists, by Peter Bergen ( 2016). Again, from the book blurb:

“Since 9/11, more than three hundred Americans—born and raised in Minnesota, Alabama, New Jersey, and elsewhere—have been indicted or convicted of terrorism charges. Some have taken the fight abroad: an American was among those who planned the attacks in Mumbai, and more than eighty U.S. citizens have been charged with ISIS-related crimes. Others have acted on American soil, as with the attacks at Fort Hood, the Boston Marathon, and in San Bernardino. What motivates them, how are they trained, and what do we sacrifice in our efforts to track them?

“Paced like a detective story, United States of Jihad tells the entwined stories of the key actors on the American front. Among the perpetrators are Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico-born radical cleric who became the first American citizen killed by a CIA drone and who mentored the Charlie Hebdo shooters; Samir Khan, whose Inspire webzine has rallied terrorists around the world, including the Tsarnaev brothers; and Omar Hammami, an Alabama native and hip hop fan who became a fixture in al Shabaab’s propaganda videos until fatally displeasing his superiors.

“Drawing on his extensive network of intelligence contacts, from the National Counterterrorism Center and the FBI to the NYPD, Peter Bergen also offers an inside look at the controversial tactics of the agencies tracking potential terrorists—from infiltrating mosques to massive surveillance; at the bias experienced by innocent observant Muslims at the hands of law enforcement; at the critics and defenders of U.S. policies on terrorism; and at how social media has revolutionized terrorism.

“Lucid and rigorously researched, United States of Jihad is an essential new analysis of the Americans who have embraced militant Islam both here and abroad.”

Next week we’ll be looking at the fatal flaw that turns utopian dreams into dystopian nightmares.

The Price of Paradise

The Price of Paradise

We looked last week at war correspondent and journalist Chris Hedges’ book I Don’t Believe in Atheists, in which he argues that the “new atheists” and religious believers share the same flawed fundamentalist zeal for utopia that leads inevitably to dystopia.

That post enjoyed some prescient timing — a new book taking the same position came out about the time I was writing it:   The Price of Paradise by Iain Overton, scholar, journalist, Executive Director of Action On Armed Violence, and Expert Member of the Forum on Arms Trade. The latter published a book release interview entitled “Understanding and Beginning to Address Suicide Bombing– An Interview With Iain Overton on “the Price of Paradise,” (Apr. 8, 2019) in which Mr. Overton said this:

“The most notable fact – and the reason I wrote the book – has been that of a major shift towards suicide bombing use, especially in the last decade both in terms of attacks and casualties. More than 40% of all people killed by suicide bombers since their first use against the Tsar of Russia in 1881 have happened in the last five years.

“This is in large part because of a major spike in attacks by Salafist jihadists. Such a dark trend has, though, deep historical roots.  In the book I argue that ISIS is, effectively, the sum of the parts of previous suicide bomb campaigns.  It has elements of the utopianism of the Russia revolutionaries of the 19th century; the militarism of the Japanese kamikaze; the Islamic notion of sacrifice as developed in Iran under the Ayatollah Khomenei; the strategic logic of Lebanese terror groups; the targeting of civilians as seen by Hamas; the cult of the leadership as seen under the Tamil Tigers; and the millenarianism and global conflict as summed up by Al Qaeda.

“In addition to this, though, modern day Salafist jihadist suicide bombers have a profound sense of ‘end of days’ – a millenarian logic that means, to those bombers, death is loved more than life and their sacrifice is integral to the creation of a glittering Islamic future.

A review in the Evening Standard said this:

“In his sweeping survey of suicide bombings — from the first documented modern suicide bomber, Ignaty Grinevitsky, a revolutionary who murdered Tsar Alexandar II in St Petersburg in 1881, to today’s jihadists — veteran journalist and human rights activist Iain Overton sees a vision of utopia as a common thread.

“Despite the different national, ideological and historical contexts of suicide bombers in countries as disparate as Russia, Japan, Iran, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, America, Europe and beyond, all are driven, we are told, by religious messianism and zealotry. A wish for paradise and an all-consuming religious sentiment unites nearly all of them, including secular revolutionaries, Marxists, insurrectionists and jihadis.

The reviewer wasn’t convinced:

“Overton’s overarching and parsimonious argument erases core differences in motivation and ideologies between suicide bombers across time and space. Surely, the drivers behind their actions are more complex and multi-varied than a single cause?”

On the other hand, the reviewer commended the book’s analysis of what happens when one utopian vision clashes with another — in this case, the impact of the USA’s War on Terror:

“Where Overton’s book excels is in explaining the consequences of the US’s (and Europe’s) overreaction to suicide bombers, particularly after 9/11. America’s global war on terror was costly in blood and treasure, as well as counterproductive.

“In November 2018 Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs released the Costs of War study in which it was calculated that the US will have spent $5.9 trillion on activities related to the global war on terror from 2001 until October 2019.

“Despite this staggering sum, not to mention that incalculable human cost, the number of jihadist fighters only multiplied in the same period from about 37,000 to 66,000 fighters in 2001 to about 100,000 to 230,000 in 2018 (according to a report by the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies).

“Overton also underscores the corrosive effects of the global counter-terrorism campaign on the rule of law and open society in Western democracies.”

Hedges made a similar point in I Don’t Believe in Atheists:

“Terrorists support acts of indiscriminate violence not because of direct, personal affronts to their dignity, but more often for lofty, abstract ideas of national, ethnic, or religious pride, with the goal of a utopian, harmonious world purged of evil. The longer the United States occupies Afghanistan and Iraq, the more these feelings of collective humiliation are aggravated, the greater the number of jihadists willing to attack American targets. The strident support of some of the new atheists for a worldwide war against “Islamofascism” is a public relations bonanza and potent recruiting tool for Islamic terrorists. It fuels the collective humiliation and rage we should be trying to thwart.”

I.e., utopian visions are fatally flawed, and so is fighting one utopian vision with another.

More to come..