Monday, November 16, 2015

Fixing our gaze on calamity - and hurting ourselves in the process

"The gaze fixed on calamity has an element of fascination. But therefore of secret complicity. So strong are the social bad conscience[s] of all who have a part in injustice, and the hatred of fulfilled life, that in critical situations they turn directly against self-interest as an immanent revenge."

- "Vain Terror," Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (Edmund Jephcott translation; 2002)

Horkheimer and Adorno were looking intensely in Dialectic of Enlightenment at the lessons of the Third Reich and how it represented a catastrophically bad development of the instrumental reason stemming from the Enlightenment tradition. They continue directly from the above lines to say:

There was in the French bourgeois a fatal agency which ironically resembled the heroic ideal of the fascists: they rejoiced in the triumph of their likeness, as expressed in Hitler's rise, even though it threatened them with ruin; indeed, they took their own ruin as evidence of the justice of the order they represented.
This probably strikes most American readers today as more enigmatic than it did at the time, though they use an aphoristic style in that book that at times is reminiscent of Nietzsche.

But when it was first published in 1944, the reference would have been more obvious. The conservatives who saw themselves as representing the interests of German capitalism invited Hitler to become Chancellor of Germany in January, 1933. Not because they had signed own to the National Socialist program, but because they thought they could use Hitler to create a stable authoritarian order more along conservative, Bismarckian lines. They thought they could control him, as it is sometimes said.

The previous Chancellor Franz von Papen (1879–1969) was one of the leading political players who brought Hitler into the government. Hitler's Thirty Days to Power: January 1933 (1996) by Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., gives a detailed and very readable account of those events. But Hitler made intensive use of the politics of calamity, using the Reichstag Fire as a pretext to gain emergency powers from Parliament that allowed him to rule as a dictator. After the Night of the Long Knives, aka, the Röhm Putsch, in which Hitler suppressed the followers of SA leader Ernst Röhm and killed many of them including Röhm himself, Von Papen was sidelined and the old conservatives were largely squeezed out of power.

So, Van Papen and the conservative capitalists of Germany were "fixed on calamity" in the form of their fears of Communist revolution, and they were willing to roll the dice on Hitler and the Nazis. The result within a few years was a disastrous war and the devastation of Germany.

But Horkheimer and Adorno argue that such conservatives were perversely led by the "social bad conscience" that went along with their fear of revolution, which psychologically represented to them "hatred of fulfilled life" in addition to more pragmatic concerns. Driven by irrational fears, they made a short-term choice according to instrumental rationality that was ultimately self-destructive in violation of a broader application of Reason.

It was also widely understood in 1944 that the fall of France had been facilitated by Fifth Column subversion and a spirit of less than steadfast resistance to Hitler on the part of the respectable classes of France. Even when they had been conquered and occupied, many of them were willing to go along to get along by supporting the pro-Hitler Vichy traitor regime: "they rejoiced in the triumph of their likeness, as expressed in Hitler's rise, even though it threatened them with ruin; indeed, they took their own ruin as evidence of the justice of the order they represented."

At the risk of running afoul of Godwin's Law, the psychological dynamic there struck me as having relevance to the kind of sky-is-falling warmongering that happens every time there is a dramatic terrorist attack involving Muslims ever since 9/11. The latest of course being last week's Paris attack.

As the (still) global hegemon, US politics is far, far more focused on the danger of underreacting rather than overreacting. But the US should have learned long ago, including in the period since 2001, that overreacting can also badly damage our national interest.

Paul "the Shrill One" Krugman makes a decidedly non-shrill and sensible plea for measured and considered reactions to the Paris attacks (Fearing Fear Itself New York Times 11/16/2015):

Like millions of people, I’ve been obsessively following the news from Paris, putting aside other things to focus on the horror. It’s the natural human reaction. But let’s be clear: it’s also the reaction the terrorists want. And that’s something not everyone seems to understand.

Take, for example, Jeb Bush’s declaration that “this is an organized attempt to destroy Western civilization.” No, it isn’t. It’s an organized attempt to sow panic, which isn’t at all the same thing. And remarks like that, which blur that distinction and make terrorists seem more powerful than they are, just help the jihadists’ cause.

... France is not going to be conquered by ISIS, now or ever. Destroy Western civilization? Not a chance.
How can we, the West, NATO, "turn directly against self-interest" in this situation and bring "an immanent revenge" on ourselves? Pretty much the way we did after the 9/11 attacks, especially with the invasion of Iraq. Krugman:

A much bigger risk [than "appeasement"], in practice, is that the targets of terrorism will try to achieve perfect security by eliminating every conceivable threat — a response that inevitably makes things worse, because it’s a big, complicated world, and even superpowers can’t set everything right. On 9/11 Donald Rumsfeld told his aides: “Sweep it up. Related and not,” and immediately suggested using the attack as an excuse to invade Iraq. The result was a disastrous war that actually empowered terrorists, and set the stage for the rise of ISIS.

And let’s be clear: this wasn’t just a matter of bad judgment. Yes, Virginia, people can and do exploit terrorism for political gain, including using it to justify what they imagine will be a splendid, politically beneficial little war.

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