The Long View 2005-07-15: People's War; Strange Delusions

People's war now means war on the people

People's war now means war on the people

As we move away from the peak of nationalism in the mid-twentieth century, the ties that bound the People together and made them a terrible force are dissolving. Accordingly, politics is again becoming a matter for enthusiasts, and the People are often just an inconvenient obstacle. The enthusiasts have started to treat the People accordingly.

People's War; Strange Delusions


This story from the New York Times, Iraqis Stunned by the Violence of a Bombing, sums up pretty well the strategy and the tactics of the homicide campaign in Iraq:

Nabeel Muhammad, senior lecturer in international relations at Baghdad University, said in a telephone interview on Sunday that the insurgency was "desperate to start a sectarian unrest in the country."

"They keep looking for new methods to attack, and the Iraqi people are the only victim."

We should note how the Jihad turns on its head the thesis of Jonathan Schell's Unconquerable World, which argues that the totalization of military power in the 20th century was paralleled by a corresponding perfection of People Power. To quote my own review:

Much the same happened on the conventional level, with the development of People's War and, most perfectly, of nonviolent resistance. Oddly, the author never cites another old military dictum (attributed to Bismarck, among others) that the one thing you can't do with bayonets is sit on them, but that is pretty much what he is talking about. Essentially, insurgents around the world, peaceful and violent, found that they could overcome overwhelming military force by patient erosion of the oppressor's will to coerce. The author tells us that this antithesis of conventional war achieved universal success by the end of the 20th century...

What actually seems to have happened is that the People, however defined, has not become a historical actor, but a uniquely and temptingly indefensible target. This is particularly the case in connection with the Jihad, whose perpetrators are often only loosely connected with the populations they attack. As we saw on 911, People's War, meaning antipopulation campaigns, can reach across continents. Thus we see how thoroughly these remarks by Richard Clarke in the New York Times Magazine misconstrued the situation:

When President Bush sought recently to reassure Americans about his Iraq policy, he emphasized that we are fighting terrorists in Iraq so that we do not have to fight them here at home. Unfortunately for Britain and Spain, fighting terrorists in Iraq did not immunize them from attacks at home.

I am not aware that the US government ever claimed that the war in Iraq would confer "immunity" to attacks in the West, though there is a general consensus that it diverts Al Qaeda's own resources to Iraq: unlike 911, the recent London bombings were carried out with local personnel and resources. The vital point about Iraq, however, is that if antipopulation People's War is defeated there, it will not be tried elsewhere, because it will have been proven not to work.

* * *

Here's a bit of good news from Iraq from legal expert, Alexander Thier, though the title of his New York Times Op Ed, Iraq's Rush to Failure, suggests that he did not mean it that way:

If the nascent government is able to devise a constitution by mid-next month, then they're probably missing the point. A constitution cannot be written in a few weeks by a handful of politicians at a conference table; creating a founding document requires the long ordeal of reaching political compromise and building trust...

[T]he Iraqis must reshape their constitutional process to make it more inclusive. A first step would be for the Parliament's constitutional committee to hold forums with political leaders, tribal chiefs and average Iraqis around the country. The views of these outsiders should be documented and shared with the entire committee, and also made available to the public. The hard work of compromise must stand on a platform of mutual understanding.

"A constitution cannot be written in a few weeks by a handful of politicians at a conference table"? That is exactly how the American Constitution was written; the process that produced it remains to this day the most successful exercise of its kind. It worked precisely because it was not submerged by listening-sessions and technical experts. I am starting to think that the best way to write a constitution is to isolate 12 people in a locked room with some pencils and just 20 sheets of paper. They get out as soon as they finish. Penmanship counts.

* * *

This is not to say that the American political process goes unambiguously well. The political class is subject to enthusiasms. This year's political analogue to the latest Harry Potter book is George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate--The Essential Guide for Progressives. As Matt Bai explains:

That word was ''framing.''...The father of framing is a man named George Lakoff, and his spectacular ascent over the last eight months in many ways tells the story of where Democrats have been since the election. A year ago, Lakoff was an obscure linguistics professor at Berkeley...

Exactly what it means to ''frame'' issues seems to depend on which Democrat you are talking to, but everyone agrees that it has to do with choosing the language to define a debate and, more important, with fitting individual issues into the contexts of broader story lines...

If Democrats start to talk about their own ''tax relief'' plan, Lakoff says, they have conceded the point that taxes are somehow an unfair burden rather than making the case that they are an investment in the common good. The argument is lost before it begins.

Having lost the presidential election, the Democrats did manage some negative legislative successes, such as the scuttling of President Bush's Social Security plan. However, it is not clear that "framing" is not just another example of reinventing the wheel:

You might say that Lakoff and the others managed to give the old concept of message discipline a new, more persuasive frame -- and that frame was called ''framing.'' ''The framing validates what we're trying to say to them,'' Pelosi said. ''You have a Berkeley professor saying, 'This is how the mind works; this is how people perceive language; this is how you have to be organized in your presentation.' It gives me much more leverage with my members.''

I have not read Don't Think of an Elephant, but I suspect it bears comparison with Blink, that other recent example of pop cognitive science. Again, it seems to me that we are just talking about Gestalt psychology, phrased in a mystifying vocabulary.

* * *

Finally, let me take back some of the hard words I wrote in March about the FOX series, Point Pleasant. The premise was that a magical teenage girl had to decide whether she wanted to play a sinister role in the coming apocalypse. The series really was dismal, but I find now that the eschatological model it employed was not clueless, but derivative. At any rate, it chimes with the theory behind the "Babalon Working" discussed in Strange Angel, the biography of rocket scientist John Whiteside Parsons.

This mythology has been presented to the public again and again, but it seems to have little hold on the popular imagination. Framing does not seem to help.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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