Friday, October 21, 2005

Getting to the bottom of my Idealism

In the CHICAGO-KENT LAW REVIEW is a long and scholarly article on the way emotion drowns out reason in the process by which nations choose to go to war. Academic writing appropriate to the publication in which it appears and daunting length promise an arduous read but its worth a look. A quote on the title page sounds like Einstein's prescient assessment of the Bush/Cheney/Wolfowitz play book:

Man has within him a lust for hatred and destruction. In normal times this passion exists in a latent state, it emerges only in unusual circumstances; but it is a comparatively easy task to call it into play and raise it to the power of a collective psychosis.

Albert Einstein in undated letter to Sigmund Freud

The work is a write-up of a study by professors from CMU and University of Pittsburgh Law School. A bit of a long dry read but despite the fact the handful of readers of this blog have far more juicy news to digest these days, I make no apology for seeking your attention. My demanding day job and family, all far from the seat of power, and my willful dissociation from any politician guarantee there will be no inside scoops of what fear, power lust and greed have produced in Washington or Iraq, not in my little blog. But while you are all buying tickets and setting up bleachers to watch the shit hit the fan, give a thought to where shit comes from. Not all shit just "happens". On the eve of the pathetically stupid invasion of Iraq, many progressives marched in protest. It was a fine gesture and at that moment, the best you could do. But it was too late. The process, moving pretty much according to the scheme of things laid out in this paper, had already skidded past the point where one could mount effective rational opposition. The point, if there were only one point, to all my blogging is to ask that we discern the roots of mass stupidity in our own psyche the better to be able to head off that stupidity when it first begins to gather momentum.

The authors begin:

Intense emotions can undermine a person's capacity for rational decision-making, even when the individual is aware of the need to make careful decisions. With regard to public policy, when people are angry, afraid or in other elevated emotional states, they tend to favor symbolic, viscerally satisfying solutions to problems over more substantive, complex, but ultimately more effective policies. Over the past 40 years, this has led the United States into two costly and controversial wars, in Vietnam and Iraq, when members of Congress gave the president broad powers in response to a perceived crisis that did not leave sufficient time for deliberation.

I would hope that progressives, even those who initially accepted the fabrications about the cause for the war, were more practical and rational than the majority of our stampeding congressmen, thinking "This is half-baked and it just isn't going to work." The truly practical arguments will often have the same effect and greater force than the moral arguments. The truly practical arguments come more transparently from the same place: a concern for the ultimate consequences to all involved. We never know everything and we rarely know enough but in such circumstances it is our rationality, our capacity to consider and balance long term consequences, that might save us so much grief. It is that capacity, the authors argue, that turns to putty for the politicians to shape. One thing I hope distinguishes the progressives from the warmongers is progressives will see there is more safety FOR ALL in admitting we are afraid than in exclaiming through gritted teeth that we are tough and dangerous. We all see clearly now there was not anything to be afraid of in Iraq but that a cheap manipulation of news sufficed to provoke the fear that drove us in there anyway.

The author's finally call for mild structural change to government and I agree with them because human nature and our culture are NOT changing:

Yet political leaders can exploit emotions for their own ends, so as a society, we must recognize the havoc that emotions can play on public policy, and government should adopt legal safeguards that slow the pace of decision-making so that lawmakers have time to weigh the consequences of their choices.
Human psychology hasn't changed much, but politicians and marketers have become ever more sophisticated when it comes to manipulating people by manipulating their emotions. One of the functions of law should be to keep deliberative control in the picture, especially at times of high emotion when it is needed the most.

I don't want to make news. I don't want to break news. I want people to be wise enough that there will be no news.

[article discovered via eurekalert]


Laurie said...

But while you are all buying tickets and setting up bleachers to watch the shit hit the fan, give a thought to where shit comes from. Not all shit just "happens".

Good point, and well said.

Davo said...
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