Sheep thinking and the push for war

We like to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals with opinions formed on the basis of independent decisions. But the reality may be that we are little more than products of our culture, with our genetic differences thrown in to mix.

Certainly, we all think a little differently. I do not agree with anyone about everything, and I do not know anyone who does. Nevertheless, when we watch television, or read newspapers, or read books, we absorb the patterns of thought that unite us in belief and separate us from ourselves. A simple test:

Name the hero:
a) Your friend Johnny. b) me. c) The Dalai Lama.

Name the villain:
a) The baker on the corner. b) Peter from Family Guy. c) Osama bin Laden.

Almost everyone in our culture would get the same answers to both questions. We seem to succumb to a kind of cultural groupthink: agreeing without considering why. We hold up the Dalai Lama and other people as paragons of perfection in an imperfect world, while bin Laden (or perhaps Hitler) is the ultimate evil in the universe. Can one truly be an individual when one thinks the same as everyone else?

In teaching the method of “crap detecting” or “resistance to enculturation”, author Karl Albrecht says the following.

“It’s easy to become hypnotized by the swirl of messages that surround us: do this but don’t do that; buy this, own that, wear this, drive that; eat this, drink that, smoke this; don’t believe them–believe us; don’t side with them–side with us; demonize this person and idolize that person; worship this or that celebrity. We’re much more the products of our cultural environment than we want to believe.” (Karl Albrecht, Practical Intelligence, p139; italics in original.)

He also says that every society has a few “deep thinkers” and a large number of “sheep thinkers”. Sheep thinking not only limits our imagination, it could have enormous consequences. In Nuremberg Diary, Gustave Gilbert recounts a conversation he had with Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second in command, who revealed a deep understanding of the ability of the elites to control the sheeplike masses.

“Why, of course the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece?…But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship…. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

History shows innumerable examples of the public’s approval of or even pushing for war. So often the elites throw the war into the open because of some high political squabble and make everyone think they need to go to war. As the idea of war mixes and churns in political discourse, in the media and in the minds of the people, it soon becomes a given that we must go to war. After all, we are being attacked.

Culture can be a kind of voluntary cult. Admittedly, we are not cut off from all opposing opinions; however, we do cut ourselves off from them by refusing to seek them out or denying them when they find us. People like clear and simple answers, emphasised repeatedly, which means their problems should have simple, explicable causes. Yesterday, it was, “the Jews are responsible for all our problems”; today, “Iran is developing nuclear weapons to destroy the world”. Such answers are inevitably framed in “us vs. them” terms, reinforcing divisive collectivist labels, as these are the most powerful of identities. Furthermore, the people need to believe they are thinking for themselves, that all their firmly-grasped ideas came to them in a fit of intelligence, not while absorbing propaganda. When one watches political debates, for instance, one assumes that the panel consists of the entire spectrum of thinkers on the subject, when generally there are only two or three perspectives out of a possible infinite number. Seeking out only opinions we agree with, favouring simple explanations and the erroneous belief that we think for ourselves lead us to shut off our capacity to reason. Instead, we become sheep and we follow the shepherds to war.

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War crimes in Sri Lanka, but does it matter?

International law exists partly to deter the worst actions by governments. But so many violations of international law go unpunished. Much has been done by international actors such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) and its sponsors, and national courts invoking universal jurisdiction such as Spain’s and Britain’s to end impunity. But in general, international law is very hard to enforce and impunity is the rule, not the exception.

That is why the opening of a new chapter in the debate about war crimes committed by Sri Lanka’s government against the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) might be pointless. Several groups, including Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group, accuse the Sri Lankan government of war crimes. But while these groups can investigate, put together reports, publish findings and so on, they have no power to bring criminals to justice.

Leaving aside the fact that both the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tigers probably violated international law, the remaining question is, does it matter? Will anyone be brought to justice over it? The ICC has done a reasonably good job so far, with the help of national authorities, in prosecuting the most egregious offenders, but the fact that many of its indictees, such as Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, run free, is testament to the challenges the system has yet to overcome. But the progress made since World War Two has been impressive. It should continue. All Sri Lankan leaders, Tamil and Sinhalese, who violated human rights should be held accountable.

Hezbollah is the greatest threat to peace in Lebanon

UN special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said recently that the continued existence of armed militias in Lebanon were a threat to regional peace. What he meant was that Hezbollah’s continued presence in Lebanon was a threat to Lebanon’s fragile peace and stability.

In 1989, to end the 15 year civil war that tore Lebanon apart, the ethno-religious militias agreed to disarm under the Taif Agreement. Most or all did so, except Hezbollah, which called itself a “resistance force” whose job it was to end Israeli occupation and all the rest of it. Hezbollah has remained armed and popular, particularly in southern Lebanon, where it is seen as the only competent defender of Shii Muslims against Israeli aggression. But it is precisely this popularity that imperils Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s boldness stems partly from its popularity. When Israeli forces attacked in 1982 and occupied parts of Lebanon after that until 2000, returning six years later to punish southern Lebanon in a devastating counter-attack, Hezbollah was the resister. Israeli commanders believed in 2006 that punishing Lebanese for supporting Hezbollah would turn them against the organisation, which was a serious miscalculation. From then till now, Hezbollah has been the hero of the people of southern Lebanon. It not only opposes Israel, it builds houses, provides health care and does everything Muslim charity (zakat) requires.

Hezbollah was required to destroy its weapons by UN Security Council Resolution 1559, but instead it waged a propaganda campaign against it. Terje Roed-Larsen said that, as long as Hezbollah retained its weapons, “there will always be tension”. Leaving aside Lebanon’s chronic instability and perennial conflict, as if that could be separated from wider regional issues, Hezbollah is always one move away from provoking another attack by Israel. Israeli raids on southern Lebanon have been a recurring feature of life there since violent resistance to Israel by Palestinian commandos began after the formation of the state of Israel. The Israeli government has always made it clear that it held the Lebanese state responsible for attacks from Lebanon on Israel, and in January it reiterated its policy. Yes, Israel shares the blame for the thousands it has killed; but Hezbollah usually throws the first punch. Hezbollah knows Israel will mount a huge offensive at small provocation like kidnapping and cardboard rockets, so they continue to poke the IDF. Other Palestinian militias exist in Lebanon but they do not cause a fraction of the trouble Hezbollah does. If it disarmed and renounced violence (which it will not as long as it exists), Israel would have no reason to invade Lebanon again.

But Hezbollah refuses to disarm. What is to be done? Disarm the group by force? Though this course is suggested by some, it would almost certainly provoke another major regional conflagration. Of course, failing to do so could mean little more than a delay of the same. Besides, given Hezbollah’s size, strength and support from Iran and Syria, it is unlikely that the Lebanese Armed Forces could disarm them. Could Hezbollah be given the incentive to accept a permanent peace?

Iran is Nazi Germany and other fairy tales

Benny Morris is one of Israel’s so-called “new historians”, a group of relative misfits in Israeli academia who dared, in the 1980s, to contradict the traditional narratives about the birth of Israel. He was one of the first to shatter the once widely accepted belief in Israel that hundreds of thousands Palestinians had left their homes in 1948 (the Nakba) because invading Arab armies told them to (when in fact, it was because of Zionist violence). He has written several books since then and generally stuck to the facts. He has been considered pro-Palestinian and left-wing (refusing to serve in the West Bank during the first Intifada), but for the past decade or so he has become more of an ideologue, showing his true nationalist credentials.

Most recently, Morris wrote an opinion piece for the LA Times called “When Armageddon lives next door“. In it, he argues that President Barack is turning his back on Israel at a time when it is in mortal danger from Iran. Because Iran’s president has announced publicly that he wants to wipe Israel off the map, and because Iran seems to be building a nuclear bomb, Morris concludes that the US and Israel must attack Iran.

As with many like-minded people, Morris likens Iran with Nazi Germany. He reminds us that the international community did not take Hitler’s threats seriously until it was too late. Barack is too busy “obsessing over the fate of the ever-aggrieved Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip” and not spending enough time threatening Iran with military force. He says that Iran’s primary goal with its nuclear weapon is to destroy Israel. Engagement with Iran has failed and the US must either attack Iran itself or at least give Israel the green light to do so. “[T]he clock,” Morris warns us, “is ticking.”

Unfortunately, Benny Morris has been spending too much time reading Israeli newspapers and not enough time studying Iran. Morris’s article was written not by a historian but by an ideologue attempting to scare Americans into favouring war on Iran. His first mistake is his belief that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has the power to fire nuclear weapons at Israel. As Reza Aslan, who does study Iran, asserts, the president of Iran is effectively powerless. It is not the president but the mullahs who will decide on the use of Iran’s nuclear weapons, or any weapons. The president talks tough about Israel, but given the menacing climate among the Israeli press, Israeli public opinion and Israeli government statements, he would look cowardly not to. Iranians presumably voted for him (at least the first time) because hardliners are the choice of people who feel under threat of war. Moreover, Morris has committed the Poli Sci 101 fallacy in believing that, because a politician says something he is bound to put it into action.

Second, comparing Iran with Nazi Germany is slimy, populist rhetoric with no basis in fact. Nazi Germany was a racist regime that continuously fed its people with anti-Jewish, anti-communist, anti-everyone propaganda. Iran is multicultural, and has no record of turning on its ethnic minorities. There are over 10,000 Jews in Iran, and they are allocated one seat in the Iranian parliament. Nazi Germany was, at its height, one of the major military powers of the world. Iran will probably never be one. It is relatively small, a middle-income country, a third-rate military power that has never expressed irredentist territorial ambitions. It is rife with internal dissent and any major actions that would lead to war would be unpopular enough at least to unseat the government.

Third, Morris claims that Barack’s attempts at engagement with Iran have failed. However, the Barack administration has not tried to appeal to Iran. Barack has generally kept Iran in a headlock and called it reaching out. I think we can forgive Iranians for not taking, say, a flurry of effort to impose sanctions on Iran as engagement. Real diplomacy is not all sticks.

Fourth, Iran is trying to position itself as a protector of Muslims in the Middle East. Given that 16% of Israeli citizens are Muslims, and that a nuclear bomb would almost inevitably strike Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest city, how could Iran attack Israel with indiscriminate weapons and continue to hope for support from coreligionists?

Finally, as I have said repeatedly, Iran poses little military threat to Israel. All the people worrying about one or two bombs that could be fired at Israel ignore the fact that Israel has a large nuclear arsenal, most of which is likely aimed at various Iranian hotspots. Israel has one of the best trained and equipped militaries in the world. And it is close partners with the preeminent military superpower of our time. A nuclear strike on Israel would be justification enough for the US to join in Israel in attacking Iran, which would soon be reduced to rubble.

Alarmist rhetoric like Morris’s shows that he has strayed from a critically thinking and sober historian to a media hack that advocates the worst policies for Israel and the world. One thing he does know, however, is that fear is a powerful lever under the feet of those unacquainted with the facts.