May 24, 2007

The Wrong Lessons Of Iraq





Don't ask me about Iraq.

But I do know something about our collective response to the Iraq war, to the Bush presidency, and to our times, and it says a lot about our cultural psychology.  And it helps predict the future.

It's sometimes easier to evaluate one's personality, and thus make predictions about it, by examining the defense mechanisms the person uses.  In difficult situations, specific people will use a small set of specific defenses over and over; so much so that we often describe people  exclusively by that defense, e.g. "she's passive aggressive."

Taking Iraq and President Bush as starting points, and examining the defense mechanisms we use to cope with both, yields the unsurprising conclusion that we are  a society of narcissists.

While this discovery is familiar to readers of my blog, what might be a surprise is what this heralds for our society politically and economically.  It isn't socialism, or even communism, as I had feared.  It's feudalism.  It's not 2007. It's 1066.

Let's begin. 




Splitting-- reducing the other person to a binary abstraction of all good or all bad, is a primitive, or regressive, defense mechanism used when the emotional level and complexity is greater than a person's capacity to interpret it.  For example, once your boyfriend cheats on you, he becomes a jerk, completely.  Even things he had done that were good-- like give money to the poor-- are reinterpreted in this light ("he only did that to get people to like him.") Who splits?  Someone with a lot of unfocused rage and frustration, i.e. the "primitive" emotions.

Currently, our social psyche has three main targets of splitting: President Bush, terrorists, and liberals.  Depending on your political bent, two of those are often conflated.

Splitting says: Bush is all bad, period.  Nothing he does is good, and if it is good, it is from some malicious of selfish motivation, or an accident related to his incompetence to even be self-serving.  Similarly on the other side, liberals are weak, corruptible, treasonous. 

Splitting is always polar; once something is declared "all bad," an opposite is necessarily declared all good.  Importantly, this isn't a comparison between the two-- he is bad, but she is better; it's perceived to be two independent, unconnected, assessments, even though to anyone else looking from the outside, they are so obviously linked.  So hatred of, say, liberals is thought to be independent of your preference for Bush, but in reality it is only because you hate liberals that you like Bush.  The hate comes first.  And this splitting makes it nearly impossible to acknowledge any of Bush's faults.    It is a fair guess that many people voted for either Bush or Kerry not because they liked their candidate, but because they hated the other candidate.   This is the important part:  that made them think that they liked their own candidate objectively. Not, "Kerry is better than Bush," but "Kerry is a great candidate." Period.  That's the illusion of splitting.

(Further evidence of the relatedness of splitting: once it's gone, it's gone.  Anyone voting for Kerry in 2008?) 

But splitting is rarely about the target, it's a convenient heuristic to get the subject out of having to accept the complexity and totality of the other, and of their own emotions about their environment.  In short, when things get heavy, it's easier to just label black and white and work from there. 

Splitting is the reaction to intense anger and frustration in those people who discover themselves to be powerless.

Inherent in the act of splitting is apathy.  You don't try to find a solution to the problem person, the split is the solution.  It allows you not to have to deal with the other, because you've decided that the other is irredeemable.

Our apathy is everywhere. There's a war on, and, except for the TV news, you'd never know it.  No one talks about it (except in brief, obvious, "knowing" soundbites, cribbed from the Daily Show.)  No one protests.   The emotional focus is on Bush, not on a solution to the war, or anything else.

Here's an example:  If, in the midst of no-liquids-on-airplanes Orange Alert, Cho was able to kill 30 students at Virginia Tech using two Glocks, how many students could a band of better armed jihadists kill?  A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation provides a reasonable estimate: all of them.  We're not ready, but, more importantly, we are not trying to be ready.  Not because we don't think it could happen, in fact we're all pretty sure it is going to happen-- but because our entire emotional energy is diverted to the "all bad" other, be it Bush, liberals, or terrorists.  "Terrorists-- but I thought you just said...?"  Yes, because that's what splitting is, emotion directed at an abstraction of someone.  We may hate "terrorists," just not those 6 terrorists right there.  Real terrorists pass under our noses without even a sneer.  Can anyone name one, just one, of the NJ terrorists alleged to have been planning an attack on Ft. Dix?  We're too busy hating terrorists.

The problem wasn't that people thought Saddam helped the 9/11 hijackers; the problem is that no one can name any of the 9/11 hijackers.  That would require work, emotional commitment, an  understanding of the complexity of the Other.  Much easier to say, "Saddam is evil..." 

Bush is fascist and stupid, and that's it.  Case closed.  Now who wants pizza?



Projection (scapegoating) and some Displacement:

Placing all the blame on Bush gets us out of the hard work of introspection: why did they attack us in the first place?   What do we do when Bush leaves?  What should we do now

Blaming Bush for being an incompetent anti-Muslim warmonger purposely avoids the question of why 50% of the country was in favor of the invasion of Iraq.  And some of the dissenters were against it only because they thought the costs were too high.  Bush didn't attack Iraq: we all did.  Right or wrong, we have been headed for a military clash with the Middle East for at least 34 years.  And we are on schedule to have another in two or three years.  Are we going to ask why that is, or are we going to look to CNN for an analysis of the Gulf of Tonkin?

Scapegoating also legitimizes apathy-- we can start 2009 fresh.  "Sorry world-- it wasn't us, it was Bush."  The trouble is, only our allies believe this.  The scapegoating is really a defense; those beliefs and emotions we attribute to that "cowboy Bush" are really our own.  Ask our enemies, who are certain that it's America that's the problem, not just Bush, because our enemies have a larger historical view.    Last time Iran challenged us was Carter.  Was he a Halliburton warmonger?   Did China/Korea prefer Truman?  Putin wants Reagan back?

There isn't really an easier way to say this: that cavalier, simplistic attitude towards history; myopic beliefs which bypass logic or reason, supported only by intuition and faith; and a hatred of others who have a radically different perspective on humanity-- that's not Bush, that's us.  I'm not even saying this perspective doesn't have some merit; but know thyself, yo. 

Most of our enemies share a common social philosophy that, at its core, is psychic: don't trust any country where women are regularly more powerful than men; where individuals are more important than a collective; and where personal beliefs and freedoms trump historical identity.  Because that means that its men are weak, its individuals are selfish, and they cannot be trusted to act in the long term interests of their own people.  Rather than responding seriously to this insane worldview, with equal fervor-- and it's so easy to do it-- the country has instead chosen to release this press statement: "Bush lied."



Since it's all Bush's fault, there isn't actually any underlying problem to deal with. 

A football analogy is perfect: once you know your team isn't going to the Superbowl, the mindset and the focus changes to next season's draft, even while the current season is still on.   No more sadness, no more heartache.  Focus on the future frees you from the pain of the present (though you pay lip service to it with inanities ("if the Colts are going to make it next year, they're going to have to run the ball and put some points on the board."))  Meanwhile, you're still losing this season.    

We simply hold our collective breath and wait for 2008, when the "problem" (Bush) will go away. 



Trouble is, the rest of the world isn't waiting, and the real problem isn't going away, it's going to get much worse.

One might make the argument that the only reason we haven't been attacked again is that everyone "knows" Bush is "insane" and would invade them. Whatever.  Point is, we are in denial about much larger political problems than George Bush.

I'm only using terrorism as a convenient example, though larger political realities are in play.  Chavez, Hu Jintao, Putin-- they're not reacting to Bush, they are preparing for his departure. 

"If only Al Gore had won..."  Then what? 


Here's an example I fear no one will understand.  The Iranians took 15 British soldiers hostage.  I don't know what constitutes an act of war, but I figure this is pretty much it.   The soldiers surrendered without a fight (ironically, so as not to start an international incident), and then pretended to go along with the Iranians.  They did the song and dance "we are bad, we are imperialists, Ahmadinejad is good, we're sorry, thanks for being so nice to us" and were eventually released.


Ahm and soldier 


 iran pic









So I'm sure those soldiers were thinking, "look, I know who I am, I know I'm not a coward, I'm not helping the Iranians, but I have to do whatever is necessary to get out of this mess."  What they are saying is that they can declare who they are, and what they do has no impact on it.  "I am a hero, regardless of how I act."  That's the narcissist fallacy.  Whatever they may think about themselves, the fact is that they did help the Iranians, and they are not heroes.  But I can see that it is ego protective, I can see why they might take this perspective.  There are few things in life worse than being taken hostage by the Iranians,  so I understand why they would choose this type of self-deception, why they would turn to narcissism for defense.  Bottom line is, I guess you can't fault them for playing along.

But here's the thing: when they returned home to Britain, they were heralded as heroes by other people.  Including the British government.   Based on what?  They didn't actually do anything; heroism isn't simply living through a bad experience.  Well, of course: based on the fact that they are heroes who had to pretend to be something else.

That's the narcissist's tautology: you are what you say you are because you said you are.  What makes it an example of our collective narcissism is that we agree--  we want it to be true that they, and we, can declare an identity. 

This is further evidenced by the British public's outrage-- not that they were being called heroes, but that they were allowed to sell their stories to the media.   Not that they received false honor-- who cares about that nowadays?-- but that they received legitimate money.

Here's the part Americans can't get: why would Iran put them on TV when everyone is going to know it was forced?  Unless you are saying that the Iranians, and only the Iranians, are so completely delusional that they actually believe the servicemen were thankful and apologetic, then this show had to appeal to some broader audience.   Other people had to believe this was the real thing.   Is it possible-- and I'm just asking here-- that we are the only ones who don't believe these statements were meaningful? 

In other words, is it possible that our enemies judge us by our actions, regardless of intent-- and if you support Ahmadenijad on TV, then that counts-- while we retreat into the narcissists' hideout of identity-as-declared, where any actions can be disavowed as "not who we are?"

Reaction Formation: Sorry, Everybody; We're Closed

Reaction formation is an ego defense against id; when you want something that violates your identity, you shift violently to the opposite.  The secretly gay man who is loudly anti-gay. It's "going overboard."

Have the interventionist Bush years taught us that we need to be more involved with the world, and work with our allies and enemies to reach a common ground?  No: it's that everyone else is nuts, and the less direct contact we have with them, the better. 

I find it fascinating that the key lament against Bush is not ideological, but "realist."   You might think that women's rights, civil wars, and pending genocides might be the pet issues of the Left, but increasingly Americans-- right and left-- feel that many people are simply not worth saving.  That certain people aren't ready for democracy.  Women's rights, while ideal, can only come after "they"  (it's always they) make some necessary preliminary steps.  And that, no matter what, it's never worth a ground assault if they don't really want us involved. 

Not even on principle.  Genocide in Darfur?  Forget about sending troops to Darfur-- we don't even want to talk about Darfur.  Any of the candidates mention Darfur? It's only used as a comparator: since we haven't/shouldn't send troops to Darfur where things are worse, we shouldn't have sent them to Iraq.

Isolationism is the easy defense because we can pretend no one hates us.  Good luck with that.


No More Foreign Adventures 

What are the political ramifications of this defensive posture?  Here's an example: what happens if we are ever attacked again?  It puts the nuclear option higher on the list of responses.  Maybe not at the top, sure, but  no way will we tolerate the costs of invading another country, no matter how well planned. 

The nuclear weapons are no longer the last resort.  Think about this.


Count Up Your Defenses: We're Narcissists 

The primary sustenance of narcissism is control. 

Why did the gods punish Prometheus?    It wasn't just stealing fire: "I gave humans the illusion they weren't doomed."  You think you're in control of your destiny, because you can smoke cigarettes. Well, you're not.

Narcissism is identification without identity.  It's making something up and then fighting to the death to maintain it.  It's "the zeal of a convert."  It's not really you, but boy oh boy don't let anyone tell you that.  You'll sacrifice anything-- happiness, money, comfort-- in order to maintain control, to get people to think you are who you say you are.  All that matters is people see you how you want to be seen-- even if you're really something else.

There are three ways to protect an empty identity: violence, power, and money.

Enter Feudalism

Lord, vassal and fief.  The lord owns the capital; the vassal gets to use it, and profit from it, but he doesn't actually own it-- the "it" being the fief.  In return for the profits, the vassal agrees to fight for the lord. 

How does a man get his woman to act the way he wants, dress the way he wants, be the way he wants-- so that he can be seen the way he wants?  He allows her to live in his world and profit from the splendor of it in exchange for her allegiance and deference.  What if his world actually sucks?  Then he just beats her.

What do we want, now?  Identity-products.  Things which signal to others who we want to be.  IPod, Aeropostale, blogs.  "This is me."   We want brands.  Coke vs. Pepsi may not be relevant, but you can start a civil war by saying  "Apple sucks, Microsoft is way better." 

You don't realize it, but blindly identifying yourself with externalities negates your significance in the world.  You're not a person, you're a block.  I don't know you,  but I know if you own a Mac, you voted for Kerry.   Guess what?  That means that Apple carries a lot of power with Kerry.  But you don't, not once you fell into this branded trap.

The joke is that Halliburton controls the government.  What saves this from actually being true is that Halliburton is a public company-- anyone can buy into it.  Even if they did control the government, you control them-- it nets out.  And if you don't like the way they do business (or if you do,) the shareholders, or at least the biggest shareholders, can do something about it.   But if Halliburton were not public, then all that power would be concentrated in the owners.  You could work for Halliburton and profit that way, but you don't share any of the power.

But now things are different.  Not since the 1980s, and before that never, has there been this much  M&A activity, share buybacks and privatization.   While this boosts share prices in the short term, as privateers bid up the price in a takeover, there's a huge downstream cost:  the company is no longer public.  You don't get to profit from it unless you work for it.  Each privatized company, or the private equity firm who owns it, becomes a little lord.  You want money?  They demand your service.  It is the opposite of owning a stock, where you demand their service.  It's more than just a concentration of wealth among the few. It is also a concentration of control, and, more importantly, risk.  You may not be able to profit from it, but if something goes bad, for sure you'll be asked to pay for it. 

If you think Halliburton is unaccountable to the public now, imagine when it goes private.  And it will go private.

Furthermore, as these companies become (more) multinational-- as they derive less of their profits from the fertile soil of the U.S. economy, they will be less beholden to its government.  In fact, they will have more control over the government. 

I think it's stupendous that there is an individual campaign contributions limit of $2000, equalizing the effect among rich and poor.  But this actually promotes feudalism: instead of rich donors buying some access to a future official, several rich donors get together to form a PAC to influence your vote.  That gets them much more power than they had as individuals.  In effect, they become the lord, and the candidate the vassal.  And your $2000 vote is next to worthless.

I won't be the last to make this universally horrifying observation: if Hillary Clinton wins the 2008 election, then an entire generation of people-- 24 years-- will have been ruled by either a Bush or a Clinton.  Why do we keep picking them?  Because they're the best?  No-- because they're a brand.  That saves us from thinking.  And, conveniently, it gives us a scapegoat: the system is stacked against us, for them.  Feudal.

Remember, the defining emotion in narcissism is rage, frustration.  Collective narcissism comes from collective rage, frustration.  So Marx was wrong (yes, again.)  Feudalism doesn't precede capitalism, it follows inevitably, logically, after capitalism--if something, anything-- goes wrong.   In capitalism, not everyone succeeds, but everyone feels like they could.  In a working capitalist model, class divisions would be fluid, people could go up and down based on their intelligence or work ethic. The mail boy could become the CEO.  But if the classes become fixed, such that a mail boy could never become CEO-- only other CEOs can become CEO-- you get, well, feudalism.

When that happens-- when your future is limited, the tendency is to withdraw, get control over your local environment (family, friends, blogs, etc) and create an identity where you do have value above mail boy, even though in reality you are the mail boy.  You get angry, frustrated, resentful-- at "them," the people who have more power than you.

Here's an example.  On Thursday 5/10 I was listening to NPR, and the NPR interviewer said, oil companies are making huge profits, shouldn't they have to eat into those profits to lower the price?  And the interviewee responded that he'd prefer the prices to be higher, or even there to be a tax, which would result in less gas consumed, which would be better for the environment, etc.  And the NPR interviewer responded something like, and I'm quoting from memory, "so if you need to hit them [oil companies] in the pocket, reduced demand would be another way of doing it."

Wow.  WOW.  The psychological pivot point for her wasn't lower prices for the consumer, but hurting the oil companies.  That's where her head was at.  And she's a reporter!   You see that anger, resentment, that powerlessness, disenfranchisement not in working capitalism, but in feudalism.

There's a hint of feudalism in the air already; universal healthcare, better, broader social security-- this is the lord taking responsibility for the economic well being of its people, in exchange for "service."  It's not socialism because there isn't a redistribution of wealth-- the wealth and power are actually more concentrated-- it's a lease of wealth.

We are much more interested in how we will brand ourselves than in what we will do. We'll sell out our votes, our safety, our liberties and general freedoms in exchange for a safe, mostly hands-off environment where we are free to pretend to be someone.  Yes to isolationism.  Yes to expediency, yes to individualism.  Just give me a little space.  And don't tell me what I can and can't wear.  My clothes are who I am.

It's not a clash of ideas, USSR vs. US; it's more visceral, personal.  People hate us for us, we hate Bush for Bush, there's plenty of hate all around, so we retreat inside ourselves and our denial.  We're leveraging the future for short term control of our micro-environments, selling ourselves in exchange for a 25 year lease.  We want to be renters, not owners, so we don't have to fix the toilet.   Meanwhile, the world trudges on.