Cultural Psychology

Archive for December 2009

The Obsolescence of War and its Implications for Countering Terrorism

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The Obsolescence of War and its Implications for Countering Terrorism

A point emphasized in several Nobel Peace Prize Lectures of the 1950´s and 60´s (e.g., those of Albert Schweitzer and Martin Luther King Jr) is the obsolescence of war.  It was noted that modern technology had produced weapons of awesome power.  This meant we had no choice but to evolve beyond war, because, with such weapons, the prospect of war was no longer thinkable — too much harm would be done.  For those too young to remember, this was a widely held view in the years following the development of nuclear weapons.

However this reasoning does not just apply to nuclear weapons.  As the 9/11 attacks illustrate, technology had made it  possible to easily inflict massive harm in other ways.  A few extremists were able to get control of huge jets and fly them into buildings, killing thousands.  It could have been even worse.  The jets could have been flown into nuclear reactor power plants, potentially producing much greater devastation and loss of life.  Other realistic scenarios we must contend with are use of biological weapons on civilians, attacks to the electrical power infrastructure, poisoning of water supplies, or even things like computer viruses.  Any of these could be used by a few terrorists or a small country to inflict great harm.  Coupled with the continued threat of nuclear proliferation, the potential threats are so many, and so easily accessible, that, we are more vulnerable than ever.

Fifty years ago,  the consensus was that our only choice was to evolve ourselves — by dint of sheer will, if necessary — out of the mentality that begets war and violence.  If that was so then, how much more true it is now.  Further, the very fact that people are not saying such things today is itself extremely serious and revealing.  It means we are collectively less wise and more confused than people were then.  In this atmosphere of confusion, desperation, and loss of vision, people are even more likely to lapse in their judgment and make use of such weapons.

This pertains directly to the US involvement in Afghanistan, and the stance of modern governments towards terrorism.  Yes, terrorism is a terrible thing, and we must be prepared to work with intense dedication to prevent terrorist attacks.  But in today’s technologically advanced world we must ask more than ever:  can terrorism be effectively prevented by pre-emptive aggression or a just war?   And yet, not only is the US now falling back on the notion of a just war, one is astonished to see that no public officials are questioning it.

Even if the war in Afghanistan is ‘just’ – and there is genuine doubt as to that – two other questions must also be asked.  First, is the war winnable?  Events so far would suggest that it is not.  We are not countering a conventional army of hundreds of thousands of soldiers.  The nature of terrorism in the age of modern technology is precisely that a group of dedicated extremists, few in number and extremely mobile, may hold at bay even a great military superpower.  We cannot spend $1 trillion retaliating every time there is a terrorist attack — especially if the retaliation is ineffective.

Second, we must ask: does a large military response to terrorism cause more harm than potential good by affirming the principle of aggression as a way to solve problems?

Third, we should ask why governments are so chronically unable to work for peace pro-actively.

Fourth, what has happened to the moral and ethical fabric of society?  Fifty years ago the view expressed by socially-minded intellectuals was that the moral evolution of humankind was not keeping pace with technological progress.  But at least there was a sense of there being some progress.   Now there is considerable evidence (and one need only turn on television any given evening to confirm this) that we are going rapidly going backwards.

We cannot lay blame on President Obama so much as on the failure of the intellectual community to question the continued dominance of war as a strategy for countering terrorism.



Cultural Attention Deficit Disorder and the ‘Cup of Stupor’

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Cultural Attention Deficit Disorder and the ‘Cup of Stupor’

For several months I’ve been thinking about making a post on what could be called ‘cultural attention deficit disorder’.

Lately it seems that people in the US are suffering from widespread malaise, confusion, worry and demoralization.  At times it seems like a complete loss of focus — disorientation.

If you’ve ever visited some really devastated area — a war zone or ghetto somewhere — you might have seen the kind of thing I mean.  People acquire a general loss of focus.  They walk around dazed.  This even shows in the expression of their faces and eyes. I’ve seen this in poorer areas of the US, but what’s strange now is that one finds it increasingly everywhere.

A recent pop-up comment on CNN news, which was displayed while callers discussed contentious US Senate debates, asked “Is the government dysfunctional?”  That’s a valid question — but an even more appropriate one would be, “Is American society dysfunctional?”   If the government is out of control, isn’t the real problem is that we, as citizens, have let that happen?

The idea of a society becoming confused and dysfunctional is scarcely new.  Read these verses from the Old Testament (Isaiah, 51:17-18):

Awake, awake!
To your feet, Jerusalem!
You who from the Lord’s hand have drunk
the cup of his wrath.
The chalice of stupor
you have drained to the dregs.
She has not one to guide her
of all the sons she has borne,
not one to take her by the hand
of all the sons she has reared.

Would I be the first person to suggest that drinking from the “chalice of stupor” is a good image for what’s going on in the country lately?  Christians and Jews would regard these verses as divinely inspired, but even an agnostic or atheist should take them seriously.  Even if one views the Bible as literature, it is literature that has stood the test of time, and so must be deeply revealing of human nature.

How, then, might this Biblical image apply to modern Americans?  Understood literally, Isaiah is saying that the cup of stupor is a punishment for the moral transgressions of society.  Could we not interpret this passage allegorically, and suggest that, when people turn sufficiently far from right ways of living, their consciences punishes them with impaired attention, a ‘stupor’?  It seems evident that we have fallen slack as a society in the pursuit of virtue and higher aims.  We have not only failed to produce a culture of peace and prosperity, we have even stopped trying to do so.  To the extent that we are organized at all (which seems considerably in doubt), we have rallied our energies around the two themes of (1) war, and (2) economic growth.   An exaggerated emphasis on these two things is not far removed from being a society directed by aggression (or fear) and greed, respectively.

Now the concept of ‘sin’ is central to all this.  The word “sin” arguably carries many  obsolete and inappropriate negative connotations.  But that doesn’t make the entire concept irrelevant.  Could it just be that when our ancestors came up with the notion of sin they were onto something?

I suspect so.  Indeed, while we might not like to call it “sin”, certainly the idea of moral error is present in virtually all religions, as well as in modern theories of psychology.   At its most basic level, sin, in a psychological sense, corresponds to some flaw or habit which prevents or obstructs natural happiness, mental health, and self-actualization.

The noted American scholar and critic, Paul Elmer More, suggested that at the root of what we call sin is what the Greeks termed rhathymia, mental laziness or a slackness of the intellect.  Understanding this concept of rhathymia might go a long ways toward explaining what cultural attention deficit disorder is all about.

This is, admittedly, a very sketchy post, but I hope the main point comes across:  (1) we do seem to be experiencing something like a pervasive cultural attention deficit disorder; and (2)  we should be willing to consider the possibility that this relates to moral failing.   Have things like greed, fear, materialism and egoism taken over our culture?  And if so, what can be done about it?

I hasten to add that, while people must always take primary responsibility for their own mental state, certainly we can see many social institutions that seemingly wish to promote or exacerbate widespread attention deficit.  Governments and corporations are of course delighted to see citizens turned into ineffectual consuming units, without the confidence or mental coherence to challenge the status quo.  Television and mass entertainment obviously feed the trend.

I believe, though, there is one sure-fire answer to counter this:  that is for people to READ.  Nothing strengthens the mind and attention more than reading.  And not trash novels:  read the classics.  What’s a classic?  See my Thomas Jefferson Reading List page for examples.

The strengthening of the attention by reading solid material, in turn, leads to greater inward attention and self-awareness, and from that to better moral choices, and greater moral integrity.

I close with the feeling that this post is only half-completed, and may return to it again.

Written by John Uebersax

December 24, 2009 at 10:44 pm

Americans do not exclude the possibility of forgiving Osama bin Laden

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Letter to US Senator Barbara Boxer

December 24, 2009

Dear Senator Boxer,

Please be apprised that, I, as a US citizen, do not exclude the possibility of forgiving Osama bin Laden for the terrorist attacks of 9/11, or of some form of general diplomatic discussions. I believe many Americans feel likewise. Neither will I hesitate to mention that ‘forgiveness of enemies’ is a central ethical principle of Christianity.

I therefore wish that the US government not proceed unquestioningly under the assumption that all or even most citizens are intent on revenge, or see no possibility of peaceful resolution of current conflicts.

Nor do I simply take it for granted that bin Laden and Al-Queda are inherently ‘evil’ and hold positions inherently and irrevocably inimical, hostile, and dangerous to the welfare of the citizens of the United States.

Further, I perceive a tendency of the government to actively shape — though perhaps unintentionally — public opinion in the direction of revenge and violence. The president’s recent remarks on Afghanistan, for example, nowhere seem to acknowledge that many Americans are hesitant about continued military involvement in Afghanistan. In effect, a false consensus on this issue is presented to the American public. The government is not making a sincere attempt to determine the true sentiments and beliefs of the people.

Indeed, if we are concerned about the events 9/11, should not our first priority be to take better care of the survivors and their families? Imagine how much more we could help these people were even a small fraction of the $1 trillion spent on Iraq and Afghanistan devoted to assisting them.

That we do not do so calls into question the sincerity of our expressed motives in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Sincerely yours,

John S. Uebersax PhD

Written by John Uebersax

December 24, 2009 at 9:44 pm

The Essay, “I Pencil”: Why the Government Cannot Run Healthcare

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The Essay, “I, Pencil”:  Why the Government Cannot Run Healthcare

Would you like to read a compelling argument against government-managed healthcare?  It is this found in the simple, charming, famous (but not famous enough) essay by the economist Leonard Read, called “I, Pencil“.

Here is a paragraph to whet your appetite:

I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me—no, that’s too much to ask of anyone—if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach.

With some reluctance I refrain from talking more about it — you’ll just have to read the essay yourself:

Written by John Uebersax

December 22, 2009 at 7:31 am

Liberals, Conservatives, Joan Baez and Ending the Nation-State

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Liberals, Conservatives, Joan Baez and the Nation-State

The other night I saw a reprise performance of the recent American Masters episode on the life of folksinger and political activist, Joan Baez.

It was a good program and showed what a remarkable person Joan Baez is.    She walked the walk, even to the point of voluntarily accepting incarceration several times because of her (nonviolent) opposition to the Vietnam War.

But one detail that caught my attention was a brief remark by Joan in a film clip from an early 1970’s protest:  she was  exhorting people to “end the nation-state”.

End the nation-state?  Sounds like a good idea to me — where do I sign up?

And here was Joan Baez, one of most visible “liberals” of the second half of the 20th century, saying something I agree with, even though I am a political libertarian — which most people consider a conservative position.

But there was no mistake.  Joan Baez wanted to end the nation-state.   That was the wish of liberals in the 1960’s (as with John Lennon’s song, “Imagine there’s no countries; it’s easy to do….”).  It seemed obvious to anyone with good sense that governments were the cause of wars, and that governments served generally to suppress what is best in human nature.

To liberals, the government was the problem, not the solution.  The government was causing the war in Viet Nam, and hurting everyone.  Liberals wanted to reduce government power and to end the cultic worship of governments.

But roll things forward 35 years.  Now so-called liberals are supporting massive government-run healthcare.
They’re militant about it, insisting that “poor people have a right to healthcare, and the government
should supply it, whatever the cost.”  This is not only different from the liberalism of the 60’s,  it’s really the complete opposite.

In the 60’s and 70’s, the view was that if governments would get out of the way, people could sort out their own problems.  I can say that for sure, because, at least in the 70’s, I was there marching and singing “give peace a chance.”  People were thinking, “Life is good.  If governments would get out of our lives the natural impulse to enjoy life and to love and help others would manifest itself spontaneously.”

That’s still my view.  If John Lennon were alive today, I’d like to think that would be his view, too. Somehow I just can’t imagine him singing, “Hooray for government!  Let’s give them more power!  Let them pick our pockets and design aversive, government health programs, so we can all stand in line, put up with terrible service, and be at the mercy of arrogant public officials.”  No, that’s not how a working class hero would see things.

So the great irony is that true conservatives and true liberals are on the same side:  both groups want a world which affirms human values, welfare and happiness.  And opposed to these things is an ever expanding “statism” — a vast, inhuman, oppressive machine.

This is a rather important idea, and bears further thought.  Consider how much the media makes of the supposed opposition between “conservatives” and “liberals.”  What if this turned out to be all bunk!  Could it be that human beings are in basic agreement about core values — and in an instinctive aversion to abusive government power?  And could it be that the dominant economic institutions try to invent a false conflict in order to divide and conquer the population?

Critique of President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech

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The world must remain a place where citizens read the comments of political leaders and subject them to common sense analysis. Let us avoid the alternative: a world where we become dulled by the drone of meaningless speeches and the profusion of political nonsense — until we are no longer able to think critically about issues ourselves.

Following are short excerpts from Mr. Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, each followed by my comments.

Now these questions are not new. War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man. At the dawn of history, its morality was not questioned; it was simply a fact, like drought or disease — the manner in which tribes and then civilizations sought power and settled their differences.

Atop his many other accomplishments, it now seems Mr. Obama is an anthropologist, too. Why is he certain that war “appeared with the first man”? Is it possible that early humans were peaceful? Why assume that the human love for peace, deep and untaught, is a recent development, or something less basic to our nature than war?

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.

Well not if we don’t try. But make the effort and we might be surprised.

Why doesn’t the president stand at the podium, the world as his audience, and say, “I present to you, citizens of the world, a bold challenge: let us seek to end war in our lifetimes.” Wouldn’t that be more worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize winner?

President Obama is participating in the peculiar form of schizophrenia that is modern government. As individuals we know that war is wrong and in almost every case unnecessary. He stands there there telling us something we don’t believe, pretending that he doesn’t know we disbelieve it, and expecting that we’re going to play along.

For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

This is the low point in his speech, and reveals the absurdity or irony his receiving the award. Evil does indeed exist. But the reason war continues as an institution is precisely because people persist in the illusion that whoever opposes them, or simply dislikes them, is not just acting badly, or influenced by evil, but is Evil itself. Obama is here equating al Queda with Evil incarnate. This simplistic, black-or-white thinking is the problem. Hitler, perhaps it could be said, was as close to pure Evil as one can imagine; he institutionalized genocide – an utterly terrible, horrific thing.

But usually things are more complex: Evil – whatever that may be precisely – affects the judgment of basically good people. Evil sets us against one another. Evil is the true enemy. Our human opponents are still God’s children, made in His image and likeness. They are tricked by Evil. So are we.  If we wish to fight our true opponent, Evil, let us end war.

From one point of view, the terrorists seem motivated only by the urge to destroy and hurt. But perhaps their own view is that they are fighting a war against a giant, oppressive, military super-power, by the only means they have available. Of course I don’t condone terrorism – far from it! But I am not unable to see even terrorsts as human beings with positive and negative traits not so different from mine.

What we must beware, as Carl Jung and other psychologists inform us, is the human tendency to project one’s own unacceptable dark side onto others. We fight with our own demons by projecting them on other people. The sign of such projection is when we see or respond to events with greater irrationality than circumstances would warrant. War will continue as long as people and political leaders lack the sophistication to understand this.

It is undoubtedly true that development rarely takes root without security; it is also true that security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine and shelter they need to survive. It does not exist where children can’t aspire to a decent education or a job that supports a family. The absence of hope can rot a society from within. And that’s why helping farmers feed their own people — or nations educate their children and care for the sick — is not mere charity.

Alas, he is here only paying lip service to these principles. Where does he suggest that America will take on these challenges?

Perhaps there is such a thing as a just war, a war of self defense. Perhaps sometimes a war is necessary to achieve peace. But how much more often is peace necessary to achieve peace! The US spends hundreds of billions of dollars trying to gain peace through war. What if we spent even one tenth that amount on tangible gestures of friendship and assistance?

What, for example, is the United States doing to assist Latin America economically or culturally? At least John F. Kennedy (to whom Obama alluded more than once) promised this in his inaugural address. Kennedy didn’t follow up on his promises, but at least he kept the vision of the country pointed in the right direction.

And yet, I do not believe that we will have the will, the determination, the staying power, to complete this work without something more — and that’s the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there’s something irreducible that we all share.

Mr. Obama fails to recognize that religious institutions already demonstrate this moral imagination. I wonder if he has ever heard of the 1967 encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples), or the encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, penned 20 years later by Pope John Paul II. Such works constitute the true state-of-the-art of enlightened people to grapple, in a sincere, loving, and ethical way, with the social needs of the world. The principles by which the human race may proceed on the paths of peace and justice are already outlined, yet arrogant civil officials ignore them.

The one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature.

But this is not true! That this is a common mistake does not excuse Mr. Obama here. If there is indeed one rule at the heart of religion, it is not love of other people, but the love of God!  This is an incredible error on Obama’s part.  (And an illustration of his arrogance, that he considers him an expert in everything — in this case, religion!)

To love other human beings is, in itself, no outstanding virtue. Even bad people love their family and friends. What sets a religious person apart is love of God. From this loves springs a deeper and more meaningful love of other human beings. For one thing, this form of love for others is free from self-interest.

The expressed sentiment of “love for all men” without love for God has no more substance than a Coca Cola commercial. Obama here is repeating the mantra of European Liberalism, which has tried to make a secular religion – one based on human instincts, including a bland appeal to “love for all” – in place of a solid, genuine one based on God.

The purely human form of “love for all” is egoistic. You love those you like, who are nice to you, who benefit you – if only because you feel “warm cuddlies” by helping them. What is needed is the kind of love that that extends to enemies as well as friends.

So there you have it in a nutshell. Mr. Obama seems to fancy himself walking in the shoes of Dr. King. But Dr. King was a Christian; he knew the meaning, importance, and necessity of loving ones enemies. There is not the slightest trace in Obama’s speech of his understanding or believing this principle.

Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace.

His speech at this point has degenerated into nonsense. The absurdity of his nomination has led to the absurdity of this speech – it could do nothing else. His vision as expressed here is the opposite of clear-eyed. Nothing he has said has demonstrated the necessity of war. And even if war is necessary, to wage peace – in the form of energetic initiatives aimed at promoting justice and welfare around the world — is much more needed. On this he is silent.

Written by John Uebersax

December 15, 2009 at 4:15 am

Correct transcript of Ambassador Bolton’s remarks on Obama’s Nobel Prize speech

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On December 10, in Oslo, Norway, President Obama gave his acceptance speech for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.

Fox News host Greta van Susteren later asked the former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, John R. Bolton, for his analysis.  The careless transcript of Bolton’s remarks currently found online at several blogs is very rough and filled with errors.  I’ve made and supply below a more accurate transcript, taken directly from the video:

Greta van Susteren, Fox News:  Good evening, ambassador.

Former US Ambassador to United Nations, John R. Bolton: Good evening.

Greta: So what do you think of the speech?

Bolton:  I thought it was a pretty bad speech.  I thought it was turgid, repetitive.  I thought it was analytically weak, sort of at a high school level.  It’s like he didn’t have any lead in his pencil left after his speeches at the UN and the speech on Afghanistan.  So all in all a pretty surprisingly disappointing performance.

Greta:  What would you have expected him to say?  Because it’s rather awkward for a couple reasons.  Number one is he was nominated just a few days into his presidency and there’s been a lot of controversy over whether or not that he’d achieved — and even he says his accomplishments at this point are slight compared to others who’ve received it.  Secondly, he had just called up more troops to go to Afghanistan.  So it’s a completely awkward situation for the man.

Bolton:  Well, in circumstances like that, one alternative is not to say very much, is to thank the Nobel Committee for the honor of the award and accept it in humility and then sit down. Sometimes when people don’t have much to say, they don’t say very much.  Other people say it four times as long, which seemed to be the way he did it.

Greta:  Why do you think he was awarded this prize.

Bolton: I think that this was a conscious effort by the Nobel Committee, which has been over the years a very highly politicized body, to try and affect the American political environment, to try and send a signal of what they wanted from the Obama presidency.  I think that it’s a big mistake on their part.  I think our own political polls show that.  And I think that it will turn out to be a millstone around the president’s neck, but that’s obviously not the way the Nobel Committee saw it.

Greta:  How do you compare and contrast the speech that he gave about a week or two ago at West Point, the one when he announced to the nation that he was calling up troops.  Because a lot of the same sorts of themes about Al Qaeda and about Evil in the world.  But, still, very different speeches.

Bolton: Well I think you have to look, as I said, back as well to the speeches at the United Nations.  And what was striking was how little new there was in this speech.  But I think it’s important in looking at how Obama addresses national security, not to try and parse his speeches too carefully, not to say, “well I like this paragraph, but I don’t like this paragraph.”  You have to look at the speech whole, just as you have to look at the man behind the speech whole, and I think that’s where he runs into difficulty.

This speech today in Oslo is filled with some of the most amazing misconceptions about everything from human nature to the role of the United States in the world.

Greta: So, I’ll bite.  What are the amazing misconceptions that you say?

Bolton:  Let’s start near the beginning of the speech.  He says, that “We have to acknowledge the hard truth we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.”  Well, no kidding.  You know, homo sapiens is hardwired for violent conflict and we’re not going to eliminate violent conflict until homo sapiens ceases to exist as a separate species.  And the whole notion you could even think about eliminating it, not just in our lifetime but soon thereafter, I think reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature.  And when you start from that kind of position it only gets worse from there.  And I’ve got other examples, too.

Greta:  Go ahead.

Bolton:  Okay, then, just a few paragraphs later, he says, talking about the setting up the role of the United States, which many people said was a positive to the speech, he gets to it by saying that stability after World War II was brought about, quote “Not just treaties and declarations that brought stability, but the fact that the United States helped underwrite global security.”  As if to say it’s the treaties and the declarations that were the centerpiece and that the United States made a small contribution here or there.  In fact, it was the American nuclear capability after World War II and the strength of the military alliances, led and dominated by the United States, that brought stability and defeated the Soviets in the Cold War.  That didn’t seem to make it into this speech.

Greta:  Ambassador, thank you, sir.  Always nice to see you.

Bolton:  Okay, thank you.

Personally, I found the first half of Bolton’s remarks accurate, but the second half strangely peevish.  I think he should have stuck with what he initially said:  that you shouldn’t try to parse Obama’s speeches too closely, but rather should look for what they reveal overall.

Written by John Uebersax

December 14, 2009 at 5:10 am