The New York Times published an op-ed on May 7th by a professor here in Charlottesville, Va., arguing that celebrating the killing of Osama bin Laden is actually a good thing, because in so celebrating we are building solidarity with those we view as part of our exclusive group. Implicit in this argument is that we can do no better. Bonding over our common hatred of an outsider is better than no bonding at all, and therefore we should rebrand such hatred as altruism. Or so says psychology professor Jonathan Haidt.
And why? Why was putting the Nazis on trial rather than simply putting bullets in their heads not just an unusual occurrence but a physiological impossibility, something that did not occur because it could not have? Why? Because professor Haidt has read some research on ants, bees, and termites.
Now, you may object that most nations don’t make war, that millions of Americans donate to foreign aid, that even our wars have to be sold to us as humanitarian campaigns for the good of the people we’re bombing, and that — in fact — millions of us were disgusted by the sadistic pleasure taken in killing bin Laden. None of that will prove that bees and termites can care about other bees and termites that they’ve never heard of who live on the other side of the earth. And there you have it. Science substitutes for stupidity as the basis for fatalism.
Would religion serve us better here than science? After all, Jesus recommended loving foreigners and enemies. Would his followers declare such things impossible, just as a psychology professor wishing he could be a physicist would? I’m afraid so.
I spoke on a panel on April 30th with, among other wonderful speakers, two authors I’ve known and greatly admired for some time, Chris Hedges and Paul Chappell. We spoke in favor of peace to a church full of mostly religious peace activists, but lurking beneath our broad agreement was a point of philosophical difference. Hedges believes that eradicating war is a pipe dream and that, in fact, some wars are worth supporting. Chappell believes that we can make warfare a thing of the past — not that we necessarily will, but that we can if we choose to and work for it. Chappell sees no wars worthy of support.
Hedges writes with unusual honesty, directness, passion, and erudition. In disagreeing with anything in his books I’m uncomfortably aware of messing around with masterpieces. We all need Hedges’ willingness to push us face-to-face with the horrors we try to look away from. If we do not radically alter the behavior of our governments and large institutions and corporations, our poisoning of the natural environment will make human civilization impossible and human life unlikely. It is too late to avoid a major shift in that direction, and there is no indication we are about to do what would be necessary to avert complete destruction. The U.S. empire is beyond any control through the usual channels of voting and lobbying, and appears bent on following its path of mass murder and exploitation until it collapses.
It is decidedly more useful to hear these well established but generally avoided facts than to hear that we need to buy efficient light bulbs and vote for Democrats.
But Hedges argues for more than uncomfortable facts. He guarantees doom: “The economy and the inability to stop the wars will alone be enough to bring us down. There is no escape now from our imperial overstretch.” Hedges argues for a view of human nature, for a depiction of humanity that honestly faces some people’s ugliness and then declares that ugliness universal and irremovable. Hedges approvingly quotes Primo Levi writing about a Nazi collaborator: “[W]e are all mirrored in Rumkowski, his ambiguity is ours, it is our second nature, we hybrids molded from clay and spirit.” There are themes here that Hedges returns to time and again. Evil and cowardly behavior that is uncomfortable to face is part of our “nature,” unavoidably a permanent part of all of us; and the other part is not goodness or courage, but absolute perfection, here rendered as “spirit.” Hedges quotes Joseph Conrad as well.
“Conrad saw enough of the world as a sea captain to know the irredeemable corruption of humanity . . . . Conrad rejected all formulas or schemes for the moral improvement of the human condition. Political institutions, he said, ‘whether contrived by the wisdom of the few or the ignorance of the many, are incapable of securing the happiness of mankind.’ He wrote that ‘international fraternity may be an object to strive for . . . but that illusion imposes by its size alone. Franchement, what would you think of an attempt to promote fraternity amongst people living in the same street, I don’t even mention two neighboring streets?’ He bluntly told the pacifist Bertrand Russell, who saw humankind’s future in the rise of international socialism, that it was ‘the sort of thing to which I cannot attach any definite meaning. I have never been able to find in any man’s book or any man’s talk anything convincing enough to stand up for a moment against my deep-seated sense of fatality governing this man-inhabited world.'”
The problem for Conrad is not that the world is inhabited by humans rather than chimps or dolphins or lions or squirrels, or even ants, bees, and termites. The problem is that the world is inhabited by humans rather than by God. Because humans are not perfect, they are doomed to be imperfect, and they are doomed to be permanently approximately as imperfect as the worst humans you happen to have come into contact with. This style of thought appears to have roots in religion, but Jesus’ proposal that we love our enemies, including foreigners like the Good Samaritan, seems to carry no weight. We should try to follow Jesus’ proposal, but the idea that we might actually be capable of it is apparently viewed as a pretty fantasy. The fact that Europe — the source of a world war that Conrad lived to see and an even worse one that he didn’t — has now united to the point where a war within Europe is unthinkable is presumably outweighed by the fact that Europeans still make war on non-Europeans.
Hedges has more bad news: “The historian Will Durant calculated that there have been only twenty-nine years in all of human history during which a war was not underway somewhere. Rather than being aberrations, war and tyranny expose a side of human nature masked by the often unacknowledged constraints that glue society together. Our cultivated conventions and little lies of civility lull us into a refined and idealistic view of ourselves.”
A Christmas Eve truce along the front of World War I is not our true inner nature breaking free from the constraints that governments have imposed on us. Rather, our participation in war (whether by traditional or poverty draft) reveals our true selves and exposes as fraudulent all that time and effort we spend being nice to and loving each other. Never mind that there have been zero years in all of human history during which peace was not underway in numerous places, and zero years in most of human prehistory during which peace was not underway everywhere. Never mind how new and unusual war is. Never mind that our vision imposes warlikeness on others, that the walls of Jericho were actually built for flooding, that the alleged war wounds of prehistoric humans are actually the marks of the teeth that preyed on them, that we have prevented conflicts becoming wars, banned weapons, and been obliged to threaten and bribe nations into “coalitions of the willing” to wage wars. Billions of humans have lived their lives from birth to old age without war. Societies have lived for generation after generation without war. But the important thing is that wars happen, wars can be thrilling, and as non-angels we are all potentially susceptible to that call of the wild. That we are all potentially susceptible to the allures of peace too is much less important.
Or so this line of thinking seems to go. By proving that some people do evil things and that all people could do them, it is imagined we have proved that people cannot grow progressively kinder, more generous, or more courageous than they are right now. That societies have made such progress and then reversed it again, that history is not a steady upward climb but a constant bettering and worsening of patterns of human behavior, does not in reality prove that a particular problem we have in this time and place, or even one that all humans have suffered from in all known times and places, cannot be solved.
This question is not just academic. Once you accept that war is inevitable, you eliminate the possibility of working to end it. You can work only to end particular wars. You also weaken the argument for using nonviolence in actual defense. If you are doomed to make war by your nature, then defensive wars are the ones to make, and when an occasion arises for a defensive war, talk of nonviolent alternatives is simply misguided.
Here’s Hedges: “Wars may have to be fought to ensure survival, but they are always tragic.” And again: “There are times — World War II and the Serb assault on Bosnia would be examples — when a population is pushed into a war.” Hedges also includes on that list, Libya, where he supported “intervention.” The response to claims of humanitarian war, such as in my response to the Libya war, often comes in two parts. One involves all the things we could have done differently in the weeks, months, years, and decades preceding a war. The other involves alternative actions in the moment of crisis. Believers in the inevitability of war are generally resistant to both. Ultimately, Nazi Germany was not the result of bad decisions made for decades, including the collective punishment that ended the previous war, foreign investment in the Nazis as preferable to the communists, and so forth. Ultimately, for believers in human-war-nature, the Nazis were a bursting forth of a permanent part of our true selves, and sooner or later the truth will out.
Hedges acknowledges that the United States and Europe have done everything wrong in North Africa for years. And he now opposes the continuation of the war in Libya that he supported the launch of. But the fact that our governments are now bombing schools for disabled children, brushing off truce offers, and dishonestly telling diplomats that the Libyan army uses Viagra for mass rape were, in rough form, predictable developments. That the Libya war will likely cost more lives in the end than its most fervent initial supporters claimed it would save just carries less force in a worldview that holds war to be something we will never shake free from. And that worldview helps to maintain our massive militaries even if some of its adherents favor military reductions.
Paul Chappell takes a different view of things. He’s a U.S. veteran of the current Iraq War. But he believes war can be made archaic. Chappell thinks the fact that wars are now marketed as humanitarian is a sign of significant progress. The wars are still waged, but they are not sold as purely attacks on evil others. Chappell cites the erosion of racism as another sign of serious progress in our culture. He points to the fact that women now do what men used to claim was not in women’s “nature.” Half our species has radically changed its “nature,” as of course our whole species changes all the time. Chappell sees no reason we cannot choose to do away with war.
Chappell argues that cooperation, love, and sacrifice for friends and loved ones were more necessary for human survival as our species evolved than hatred or violence, that the flight instinct is much stronger in us than the fight instinct, and that human courage — even courage in wars — is based on love. In defensive wars, protection of loved ones motivates warriors. In aggressive wars, it’s love of one’s fellow soldiers. But the common desire of soldiers, Chappell writes, is to frighten off the enemy rather than kill. As bears roar to avoid a fight, soldiers intimidate in any way they can. At the time of Napoleon, arrows killed far more effectively than guns, but the noise of guns made them the weapon of choice. Hatred, Chappell argues, is unpleasant, albeit sometimes less unpleasant than other undesirable frames of mind. And because it is unpleasant, it is not “human nature.”
Of course, as humans evolved they were necessarily violent, at least toward other animals, even if that violence was organized cooperatively with other humans. In fact, that organization provides the basic structure for war. And, while love is more pleasant than hatred, so is gorging more pleasant than rationing, napping more pleasant than working, and so on. That something is unpleasant does not guarantee that it is undesirable. In the end, appeals to “human nature” as inherently peaceful won’t persuade anyone who’s read enough Jean-Paul Sartre or Richard Rorty to conclude that “human nature” is simply whatever humans choose to make it, for better or worse. While Hedges’ notion of human nature includes war and Chappell’s doesn’t, Chappell would be well served by dropping such talk. It is when we admit that there is no “human nature” that we will be best able to resist claims that various undesirable features of our culture are simply here to stay.
Chappell does not believe that peace is inevitable, only possible. He offers examples from the past of states of affairs that, like war, seemed permanent and unavoidable, focusing above all on slavery. Chappell argues, accurately I think, that the end of slavery began with the spread of the idea that it was “human nature” to be free. This being the case, the beginning of the end of war can be the proliferation of the idea that humans are essentially peaceful. This strikes me as quite plausible, and as a course of education that probably cannot hurt, even if dropping the belief in the “essential nature” of us would be wiser. If we do not soon begin thinking more creatively and independently we will cease to have a “nature” by ceasing to exist. On that point at least, Chris Hedges may agree.
When I do a google news search for “humanize,” I find “Quilt helps humanize toll of AIDS,” and “Harborcreek man’s web show aims to humanize NFL players,” and “Google Hires CNET Reporter to ‘Humanize’ Trends Data,” and “At U-M commencement, Rick Snyder tries to humanize his cause, but protesters do the same,” and so forth. But did anyone, even the scientists, even the psychology professors, even the theologian commentators, believe that AIDS victims were not human, or that NFL players were not human, that data about humans was not data about humans? Here’s how that Snyder article begins:
“In politically polarizing environments, if you can humanize yourself, you’ve got the upper hand. That’s what Gov. Rick Snyder — who is facing a wave of criticism over his proposed budget cuts, education policies and government reform — tried to accomplish this morning when he delivered the University of Michigan’s spring commencement address. But Snyder’s opponents are trying to do the same thing for their cause — and it’s unclear which side will carry more credibility in the eyes of voters.”
But did anyone really believe that Snyder was an alien or a machine or a bee or a termite? Did anyone doubt that he’d had a mommy and a daddy and a childhood? And if we suddenly realize that Snyder is a human being, should we then favor slashing education spending because he tells us to? Does anyone doubt that Iraqis and Afghans are human beings? Is there any dispute that Osama bin Laden was a human being?
We’re not idiots. We’re just being trained to act like we are.
We’re conditioned by our society to imagine that some people are not people at all. Thus, Iraqi refugees do not make good human interest stories. We treat some people with total indifference. Others we are trained to treat with vengeance. Doing so may not be ideal, we are told, but it is at the very least “understandable.” It’s “natural.” It’s a part of our “nature.”
This is pure nonsense. Vengeance is taught, just as kindness is taught. And we are perfectly capable of acting against undesirable emotions when we choose to.
Choosing to satisfy every lustful, greedy, or hateful desire is not generally condoned as “understandable.” Our culture preaches against careless sex, not to mention robbery and murder. But when it comes to our biggest collective policy decisions, we claim that destroying the natural environment or celebrating the extrajudicial killing of an alleged mass murderer is “understandable” or even “altruistic.” We’re almost forbidden to think a quite obvious truth:
We can do better.