Pessimists and Optimists
March 27, 2015 Filed in: History | Culture
Killing people is easy. Killing an idea is much much harder.
Killing people is easy. Killing an idea is much much harder. If I could, then I would kill many many ideas. Of course, the first idea that I would like to kill is the idea that killing people is a good idea. I am certainly not the first one to voice that idea. Pacifists are generally derided as impractical, utopian idiots. Imagine what would happen if everyone thought like them! (um.…no killing). But it's not realistic! We need to be practical! Lethal force is the only way to be safe from lethal force! As Orrin Hatch put it, "Capital punishment is our society's recognition of the sanctity of human life."
This circular logic is pretty common. At one of the many war memorials here in Auburn, one of the plaques quotes Orwell: "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf." It is Orwellian to put that on a memorial, because Orwell was criticizing the thinking, not praising the behavior. Unfortunately, that is how things go. People create their own interpretations. God writes ten simple commandments. "Do not Kill" is one of them. That gets reinterpreted as 'Do not murder.' It is a rule that the state is obliged to enforce by committing the same act. Huh? The logic here is that the state can kill as many people as it wants, as long as it is a group decision. Of course, if a group of citizens make the same decision, then it is an illegal conspiracy. If an individual does it on his own, the he must be punished for violating someones rights. I have often wondered how it is possible for the state to have rights that an individual does not have. Using purely legal reasoning, capital punishment is absurd. War even more so, since it is the failure of public administration, not its purpose. Call me crazy, but I think peace and prosperity are the purpose of government. Otherwise, why bother?
George Orwell was a soldier, but like all of us, had to shed some of the cobwebs in his head. It is not unusual for people to participate in something and then reject the experience. The woman in the landmark decision Roe v Wade eventually became part of the pro-life movement. Our Secretary of State, and former Senator, John Kerry was a decorated Vietnam War veteran. He returned home and opposed the war that made him a hero. Epiphanies are how we grow. The killing of bad ideas is central to being alive. That was why Socrates said, 'the unexamined life is not worth living.' Of course, I realize that I am preaching to the choir. Anyone who would bother to read this blog has already proven themselves to be intellectually curious. We may disagree on some point, but the willingness to think has already set you apart.
It's not hard to see why the idea that killing people is a good idea endures. Every year we celebrate the 4th of July. At Bunker Hill, the display proudly remembers the chant of the day: "Don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes." The battle at Lexington and Concord is fondly recalled as 'The shot heard around the world.' Every nation has a bloody beginning to celebrate. National pride automatically, even if inadvertently, celebrates killing as a good and necessary solution.
In this context, The Boston Marathon Bombing becomes a painful reminder that we reap what we sow. In Chechnya, where the Tsarnaev brothers hail from, there has been a long running battle against the established powers. Russia overthrew the Tsar, much like we overthrew the King, but power becomes its own justification for governments. Rebellions, to the powers that be, provide proof of the need for order, rather than proof as a failure of their governmental skills. Have you ever wondered why tyrants don't want to step down? They honestly think they are holding the world together, and preventing chaos from spreading. They want peace, but must make an example of those who question their decisions. They persecute/prosecute fellow citizens for their mistaken thinking, what Orwell called thoughtcrimes.
Regrettably, every nation will teach and preach revolution, but then want no part of it except painless victory. When Bush-Cheney marched on Iraq, they thought they would be greeted as liberators. It is amazing that they had no sense that they were walking into a hornet's nest. Did junior learn nothing from his father? Yet, the cast was set by General Norman Schwarzkopf in the first Gulf War. Dead civilians were described as 'collateral damage.' Like most Americans, I heard those words many times and never realized that he was talking about dead civilians. Orwell described this deception as newspeak. Linguistic deception is nothing new.
What is missing from all the general discussion and strategy regarding war and peace is that every war is a civil war. It only becomes a general war after it spreads beyond its borders. Foreign powers enter the fray and take sides. Alliances quickly and constantly shift disrupting the status quo. That is also discussed in Orwell's 1984. The person who was previously vilified becomes an ally, and the old ally newly vilified. Internal players seek outside justification, like Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to Congress. Elections are a kinder, gentler civil war, but as our history attests, the cycle returns to its start. There are many progressive and tea party activists, the two extreme ends of our political spectrum, that see fighting the government as a positive course of action. Amazingly, both use same colonial history as their justification. Same father, but different sons, like Cain and Abel. Of course, they would push government in completely opposite directions, providing the 'proof' that the other fears.
Remember when Russia was our enemy, and they were the villain invading Afghanistan? It was where Osama bin Laden got his training, fighting on our side. After 9/11, we were allied with Russia, fighting in Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden was now the enemy. Like John Kerry, he questioned our policy, but not being a citizen, had no ability to engage in the democratic process. Ayman al-Zawahiri had the same issue in Egypt, where he trained to be a doctor. He was involved in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. So much for the oath 'do no harm.' Egypt even now is barely a democracy. Like our Congress, there are generations of people who do not know how to communicate, and seemingly never understood the heavy lifting that preserving a democracy requires.
People are easily self-righteous, and that is democracy's weakest spot. They are knowledgeable about their alleged grievances, but are deaf to the complaints of others about themselves. Like pacifists, moderates are generally an anathema in both parties. True believers are fueled by antagonist purity. The baseline belief that violence is a necessary tool of progress is ingrained into our education system, and in a contradictory manner. The American Revolution provides proof that the rebels had no choice but to resort to violence. And similarly, violence by the government was necessary to end slavery. No wonder Americans are so confused, as our perpetual 50/50 elections demonstrate. We take the side of the rebel and the tyrant simultaneously. The only consistent message is that violence works. But we also believe that violence is bad. Orwell called this doublethink; holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. "War is peace."
How do we untangle these knots of contradictions? I have come to realize that the issues and the individuals are not the problem, but the division between pessimists and optimists.
Pessimists engage in a type of self-fulfilling prophesy. They see people as obstinate, evil, stupid, immoral, reckless and unchangeable. Thus, the use of force is both necessary and the only way to 'fix the problem.' They are similarly wary of any reforms that are merciful, sharing, complicated or simple. They do not believe that anything will actually work, but if anything might work, it is the use of violence, fear and punishment. The superior can intimidate the inferior, and while they cannot improve them, they can at least control them. They see human nature as unchangeable. Of course, in all these things that they project, they are actually describing themselves. They do not want to change or listen to their better angels. "Life is nasty, brutish and short."
The reality is that life is what you make it. If you reflect the light, then there will be more light. If you choose optimism, then we will all improve. If you set high standards and high expectations for behavior, including your own, then people will follow and rise to the example you make. My advice is to purge the pessimism within yourself. Follow the self-fulfilling prophesy of optimism. Be kind, merciful, smart and courageous. Whatever you sow, you will reap.