Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Prisons We Choose To Live Inside

Book cover photo: Prisons We Choose To Live Inside.Prisons We Choose To Live Inside
By Doris Lessing
Anansi , 1991, c1986.

Review by Stephen Downes, July 11, 2006

We live, we are told, in a time of war, and so there are those of us who are wondering once again, as such will do in times of war, how the population was able to rouse itself not only to support the war, but to actually re-elect the government that launched the war on tansparently false pretexts.

Doris Lessing's book, Prisons We Choose To Live Inside, asks just this question, though as it was written in 1986, has different wars in mind, different times. "Before the First World War, the socialist movements of all Europe and America met to agree that capitalism was fomenting war, and that the working classes of all those countries would have nothing to do with it. But the moment war was actually there, and the poisonous, fascinating, elation had begun, all those decent, rational honourable resolutions about keeping out of the war were forgotten." (pp. 16-17)

What strikes Lessing - and this reviewer - as odd is the willingness with which we were willing to entertain such irrational beliefs. And make no mistake, they were irrational. The truths that sweep through a country in one moment are false the next. "To have lived through such a reversal once is enough to make you critical for ever afterwards of current popular attitudes." But still we cling to beliefs that would lead a generation after asking, "How could they have believed that?"

Is there no way out of this prison? Lessing writes that we have been dominated by savage societies and savage leaders since the dawn of time, and she tells us that what she wants to describe in this book is how our savage past dominates us to this day. But there is a another aspect, and that is our ability to look at ourseleves, as individuals and society, from a detached point of view, to see the absurdities and the irrationality.

The irrationality of polarization, for example. The idea that "I am right and you are wrong." It is an instinct it seems that we are doomed to repeat time after time. Lessing describes a psychology test group that, on the basis of no pretext at all, split into two camps and was in the process of having vehement arguments when the professor - several hours late - arrived. And so it is with political and religious groups. "Nosing out and extirpating heresy is the first concern." (p. 31)

In an analysis that will sound very familar to today's readers, Lessing analyses the ways political leaders manipulate this instinct. "It seems to me, more and more, that we are being governed by waves of mass emption, and while they last it is not possible to ask cool, serious questions... 'These slogans, or these accustaions, these claims, these trumpetings, quite soon they will seem to everyone ridiculous and even shameful.' Meanwhile, it is not possible to say so." (p. 45)

It is as though the group mind cannot be resisted, writes Lessing. After all, we all live in groups, we obtain our livlihood, our meanings, our identities, from groups. And when we're in a group we tend to think as the group does; we may even , she notes, have deliberately sought out a group of "like-minded" people. People know how hard it is to stand against the group, and they often recollect, to their shame, having said something simply because other members of the group said it.

And the mechanics of this are interesting. "This mnechanism, of obedience to the group, does not only mean obedience or submission to a small group, or one that is sharply determined, like a religion or political party. It means, too, conforming to those large lague, ill-defined collections of people who may never think of themselves as having a collective mind..." (p. 51)

The thing is, political leaders - and guards at prison camps - know this. They know that, if they eliminate the leaders, the mass of people will follow like sheep, adhereing to what they believe is the group mind, or to whatever has been substituted in place of the group mind. If they are lulled into believing that the group expects this or that they are capable of the most heinous atrocities.

Wouldn't we then want to teach children: "If you are in this or that type of situation, you will find yourself, if you are not careful, behaving like a brute and a savage if you are ordered to do it. Watch out for these situations. You must be on your guard against your own most primitive reactions and instincts." (p. 58)

But Lessing is not hopeful. "I cannot imagine any nation - or not for long - teaching its citizens to become individuals able to resist group pressures. And no political party, either." (p. 61) Political parties use propaganda and manipulation, and the people who say they are in support of democracy, liberty and freedom don't want to talk about it. They don't want to know, and goodness, they don't want to enable people to resist instruction - for then the people might be wrong.

We need, argues Lessing, to learn from this; we need especially to learn from the last two and a half centuries (since the French revolution) of "laboratories of social change." We have to move beyond the picture of society as "insisting on orthodox, simple-minded slogan thinking" (p, 71) as we have seen in the communist world, the Islamic world and - dare I say? - today in the pro-war western world.

If it is society that oppresses us, writes Lessing, it is the individual who stands against it. "It is always the individual, in the long run, who will det the tone, provide the real development in a society."

You cannot expect a government - or, I would add, a political party or a corporation - to teach, "no matter how much you have to conform outwardly - because the world you are going to live in often punishes unconformity with death - keep your own being alive inwardly, your own judgement, your own thought." (p. 74) No, governments cannot talk like this, but individuals can.

Lessing's book is a slim volume of essays, only 76 pages long, a lightness that belies its depth. Much of its substance - for critics could easily point out that she does not back her opinions with empirical data, merely anecdotes and common sense - will be found in other works (one would want to read Marshall McLuhan, for example, or Naomi Klein, or Noam Chomsky).

But perhaps the best evidence, as Lessing herself notes, lies in reflective self-awareness. When we look at the roles we play in society, when we examine our own beliefs, when we ask ourselves, "How did I come to behave thus," or "why was I afraid to do that?" When we look at the forces that oppress us, we find, in so many instances, that they are of our own creation, an internalization of the external, to which we need only respond, "this far, and no further."

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Future: Tense

Book cover photo: Future: Tense, The Coming World Order. Future: Tense
The Coming World Order

By Gwynne Dyer
McClelland & Stewart, 2004

Review by Stephen Downes, July 5, 2006

In his column in today's local newspaper author Gwynne Dyer looks at the recently signed deal between the United States and India to assign the latter 'exception' status regarding the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. This will allow the greatly increased sale of arms to India, including 'dual purpose' arms, which could be used to support nuclear proliferation. This despite India's continued failure to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

What does Pakistan think, one might wonder. The erstwhile ally in the War on Terror seems particularly left out by the deal. But as Dyer comments, the value of the Pakistan alliance is long past. The Islamic terrorists are, if not caught, at least contained. And in any case, the real question is, what does China think? Because the purpose of the deal with India is not to contain Pakistan or even the Islamic world as a whole; it is to contain China.

This strategy may make no sense when viewed against the War on Terror, but as Dyer aregues in his book Future: Tense it was never about the War on Terror. As has been pointed out by numerous commentators, plans for an invasion such as that of Iraq were in place well before September, 2001. He devotes a full chapter to the Pax Americana project - readers will recognize the Project for a New American Century - and offers this as an explanation for the invasion and America's global stance since the turn of the century.

According to Dyer, Tom Friedman - yes, that Tom Friedman - "one of the head cheerleaders for the invasion of Iraq at the New York Times, wrote in October 2003 that "this is the most radical-liberal revolutionary war that the U.S. has ever launched - a war of choice to install some democracy in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world." (p. 114) Maybe so, writes Dyer, but it is also doomed to fail - no colonial power has ever won a war against a colony, if only because the locals have nowehere else to go - and the sooner the U.S. loses the war and goes home, the better for everyone.

To explain why this is the case, Dyer explores the original role of the United Nations and examines why it failed to, say, depose obvious dictators such as Saddam Hussein. "The United Nations as constituted in 1945 was a profoundly cynical organization, more explicitly so even than the League of Nations." Its purpose was not to instill democracy - how could it be, when half its members were dictatorships? Rather, it was established solely to assert that territorial gains achieved by conquest would not be recognized by the other nations of the world. "The U.N. was not about love, or justice, or freedom, although words of that sort are sprinkled freely through the preample to the U.N. Charter; it was about avoiding another world war." (pp. 207-208)

What the great powers recognized, writes Dyer, is that the expercise of war could backfire, even against themselves. So the U.N. has become in effect a hundred year project to get nations, and especially the great powers, out of the habit of resolving their differences by means of armed conflict. The problem, he argues, is that the great powers, more than fifty years later, don't always see it this way.

The Americans, in particular, felt that they had brought down the Soviet Union and won the Cold War. "It was not too long a journey from that belief to the conclusion that the United States could and should use these same assets to remake the whole world in its own image - a transformation that would, in the eyes of most Americans, simultaneously do everybody else a favour and make the world a safer place for Americans." (pp. 119-120)

The problem, notes Dyer, is that this puts the great powers of the world in the same position shared by the other great powers prior to the start of the last war - a carefully balanced networked of alliances in which differences of opinion can be - and will be - solved by "pre-emptive war." The invasion of Iraq was supposed to be a lesson to the other nations - and especially China - that America was now in charge. It has instead started to shift these nations into this uneasy set of alliances.

What is the saving grace in all this? That the other democracies of the world - and in particular, Canada, Germany and France - did not take part in the Iraq war. That the other nations of the world, either via their governments or their people, expressed genuine disapproval of American conduct. And with good reason. Consider the position of New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark. "The day will come when the United States is no longer the superpower bestriding the world, but New Zealand's geography will always be the same as it is now, so it needs a global system that will protect it from harm even when China is the greatest power: a system based on law and multilateral consensus." (p. 243)

Everybody understands this, it seems, except the Americans. The "ridiculous" scolding Condoleezza Rice gave America's allies at the G8 summit after the invasion of Iraq illustrates this. "It suggested an almost total inability to see the administration she served and its policies as others saw them." (p. 247) Moreover, "Nobody in Washington in 2001 could have imagined that only two years later half of the European Union's citizens would see the United States as a danger to world peace rather than a force for good." (p. 248)

This is why the United States needs to lose the war in Iraq sooner rather than later, argues Dyer. It needs to get past the idea that it can impose its will by force and return to the project of creating a habit of diplomacy and negotiation. "Either we get back to building the international institutions we started working on sixty years ago, or we get used to the idea that we are working our way up to the Third World War." (p. 246)

It is unfortunate that Dyer, while widely syndicated in Canada, is not more widely read in the United States. He brings with his analysis an easy familiarity with world issues, including the history and culture of diverse peoples. He also brings with him a pragmatism born of a lifelong study of the subject of war and a compelling writing style nourished through hundreds of weekly columns.

If Dyer's analysis is incorrect, it is only incorrect around the edges. The current American government, for example, could have been more aware of that nations weakening economic situation than Dyer imagines, allowing self-interest, along with hubris, to be motivating factors in the Iraq war. But the over-riding cause of the war, the idea that there is a pas Americana rather than a diplomatic global order, is almost certainly correct, and his projections of the difficulties that may arise as a result well supported in history.