Thursday, June 23, 2011

More Notes on Collectives

I noted the other day: “Human collectives behave quite unlike rational individuals.” This, for me, is perhaps the most valuable lesson of history. If the lesson is not internalized, temptations arise to make mistakes in other realms of reality. One is the belief that inorganic matter can yield life or that collectives of conscious beings are in some way superior to individuals.

I think it is wise to view public events as if they were natural events, thus to ignore the fact that rational individuals make decisions and thus shape history. Those are invariably collective decisions, thus a fusion of contradictions. The individuals who make them almost never have adequate knowledge to foresee or the power to shape the outcomes, and the greater the scope of the events, thus the more “collective” they are, the less predictable.

Here Secretary Gates’ muted remark the other day about the differences between wars of necessity and wars of choice is a good illustration. Wars of necessity may be defined as wars imposed on us as organized, large-scale physical attacks on our territories intended minimally to seize them, maximally to take control of the entire collective that we represent. If the aggressor is not a state, with a definable territory of its own, going to war makes no sense. After the 9/11 attacks, a full-scale war on Afghanistan was an overreaction. Afghanistan was the hiding place of a terrorist group—not the attacker. And once the Taliban government had been replaced by another, that over-reaction should have ended—in 2004. Indeed Al Qaida had intended neither to seize our territory nor to replace our government when it destroyed the towers and damaged the Pentagon. The War on Terror that mushroomed out of this was thus irrational, a natural event, in other words—although its raw materials were the collective emotions of a public that, at election time, might have displaced the Bush administration if that administration had merely reacted to 9/11 as it should have—by narrowly-shaped raids on Al Qaida’s camp. It was precisely such raids that President Clinton had staged in 1998, using cruise missiles, when he retaliated for embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

Writing this, and remembering Clinton’s limited actions, it occurs to me that irrationality in public life is not necessary. Not necessary but certainly likely—and likely roughly in proportion to the emotional turmoil an event produces in the public as a whole. Now, let us note, irrational impulses in the public can be exploited or tamped down by the administration in power. And the temptation to exploit them will in some way be stimulated by the needs and ambitions of those in power.

Once irrationality takes over—once the horse has the bit in its teeth—it is difficult to bring it under control again. In an open society, rational reasons must be trotted out to explain and justify actions that were, on second thought, altogether wrong. The new product, the new narrative, will then be, again, an incoherent fusion of contradictions, producing yet other irrational decisions.

Yesterday’s presidential announcement to the effect that we’ve now pretty much accomplished our goals in Afghanistan is a consequence of an irrational process, introducing further irrationalities. In wars of necessity, things are simple. In World War II Germany invaded France; Germany had to be pushed out of France. The “goal” was simple, measurable. The German government had to be removed. It was removed. No ambiguities. What our “goals” in Afghanistan might be is as much of a mystery as the location of the territorial lines of “Terror,” whatever terror is. It has no place, it has no organization, no reality, as such—no tangible, visible reality at a scale any great Collective can see. Sad business, listening to the President. He too is reacting to collective emotion; this time the collective emotion is disgust with war. And so he is cooking up a brew of contradictory confusions. He means well. He is a rational being—caught in a kind of storm produced decades ago, because the TV screens in 2001 brought us clouds of smoke surrounding two towers in New York. We barely noted the deaths of 224 people in the embassy bombings of 1998; and only 12 of them had been Americans…

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