tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
[personal profile] tim
I went to hear Rebecca Solnit speak tonight at the First UU Church in Portland. The topic was "Altruism in the Face of Disaster"; an ill-timed bridge lift meant I missed the beginning, but what I did catch made me regret having been late. Her overall message is that as a general rule, people behave very well during disasters; not only do they seem to have an innate idea of what needs to be done on a practical level to tend to the sick and keep kids safe, they also have all the right underlying motivations. Yes, she said, sometimes people do behave badly, but most of those people are the elites: she described a phenomenon of "elite panic" where people in power withhold information (as was done during the Virginia Tech shootings and after the Three Mile Island disaster) because they're afraid that others -- you know, those poor, uneducated, un-elite others -- will panic if given that information. It turns out that average people don't panic, and the information-hiding practiced by elites is, itself, worse than the effects of what those elites fear. She talked about the "Hobbesian" inclinations of those in power and how their belief that the public will instantly flip out and do horrible things to each other (but probably, particularly, to those in power) can be, to put it mildly, counterproductive.

Disasters, then, suggest what human nature essentially is: it's good. I can't do justice to her recounting of the kinds of community feeling that sprung up in areas affected by Katrina, but suffice it to say that while it is in some people's interests for you to believe that your fellow humans are essentially shitty (not you, of course, you're a great person, and should reward yourself for being great by purchasing a new 2011 model SUV) it's not in your interests to believe that. I liked the connections that she drew between the form of humanity that is revealed in disasters -- what she described as the re-awakening of civil society -- and the despair that capitalism and its accompanying privatization of every aspect of human life induce. People, she said, long for things beyond what capitalism has proven good at providing (at least to a few people) -- comfort, ease, safety. Those things are good up to a point, but what people really want is to be part of something beyond themselves, to be citizens, to participate in the lives of their communities. Those aspects of life have been nearly erased for a lot of Americans in the day-to-day, working meaningless jobs and being told there are no structures for you to find a place in other than family and romantic life -- the despair is so thick that a disaster, with its restoration of meaningful work and purpose, becomes welcome.

Another interesting point she made was that on 9/11/2001, the military proved itself to be completely useless; all of the military infrastructure, the supposedly highly trained experts at protecting US national security were completely unable to protect the country from attack. The only people who did prove themselves useful were the passengers on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. It made me think about how even self-professed liberals pay lots of lip service to the idea that of course we need armed forces to protect the country's security -- do they do anything that couldn't apparently be done by a bunch of out-of-shape, untrained random people on an airplane?

On the Internet I've run into a few survivalists -- folks who were convinced that as peak oil approached, it was important to get your shit (and more importantly, your guns) together as the era of scarce resources advanced and as other people would be lining up to fight you and take all your things. Solnit talked about how in the '60s, suburban Americans were encouraged to build private bomb shelters (along with the despair of privatization that went along with top-down-driven flight to the suburbs came a privatization of survival), and there were all these popular media images asking whether you would allow the neighbors into your bomb shelter, and nervous jokes about fighting it out with your friends for the last can of food. She said that most people who had the means to do it actually declined to build those bomb shelters, because most people didn't want to survive a nuclear war just to enjoy that kind of survival -- just to be forced into the position of having to deny sustenance or shelter to your friends and neighbors in order to preserve your own life. Most people quietly decided that survival wouldn't be worth it. Given a few people I've encountered who were really, really attached to the idea of surviving a disaster with their own lives and those of their family intact, but while actively maintaining the ability to fend off anyone else who tried to encroach (violently, if necessary), it makes me wonder just what is sensible.

Finally, in response to a question where she was asked "how do we access these hidden reserves of strength that humans have without a disaster having to happen?", she pointed out that people volunteer to do altruistic things all the time -- it's the shitty things that you have to pay them to do. "There are no volunteer programs to destroy the environment. Nobody goes to war for free. Nobody builds nuclear weapons out of charity," she said. I thought that was a strong point. Among my peer group, it seems pretty popular to believe that the masses of people are stupid, inconsiderate, potentially violent, and destructive. Not us, of course, we're cool. Politically, wars get justified by appealing to humanity's inherently violent nature. But (as Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out), if war is so ingrained into the essential nature of humans, why has conscription ever been necessary? Why would people try so hard to get out of serving in a war if bloodthirstiness is a defining quality of being human? What Solnit pointed out is that the things people choose to do for free, for the sake of satisfaction, are overwhelmingly, good, pro-social things; people do fucked-up things like building nuclear weapons because they're getting a paycheck.

So I'll be thinking about resistance: about resisting the Hobbesian characterization of human nature that gets sold to us by both liberals and conservatives, and about resisting the despair arising from privatization. I would also like to figure out how to resurrect public life without a disaster happening first. One thing I don't know the answer to is, given that people respond so well to disasters, and given that America is an ongoing disaster of poverty, racism, and structural violence, why so few people seem to be responding to that one.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-10-29 07:34 am (UTC)
luinied: I've been told that the title of that book could be read as "How to Win Friends and Influence People", which amuses me. (curious)
From: [personal profile] luinied
When talking about Katrina, did she say anything about the violent confrontations on bridges into other communities? (I don't ask this to be snarky; I really do want to know how to counter the "hey, keep those poor suffering people from elsewhere away from where I live" impulse in people.)

(no subject)

Date: 2010-10-29 01:27 pm (UTC)
sofiaviolet: drawing of three violets and three leaves (Default)
From: [personal profile] sofiaviolet
One thing I don't know the answer to is, given that people respond so well to disasters, and given that America is an ongoing disaster of poverty, racism, and structural violence, why so few people seem to be responding to that one.

Perhaps because it's an ongoing disaster and not a single incident or cluster of incidents - the disaster state has become the new normal state and it doesn't bring about a disaster response in people.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-10-29 03:09 pm (UTC)
talia_et_alia: Photo of my short blue hair. (Default)
From: [personal profile] talia_et_alia
Hm. In one paragraph you describe "survivalists" who focus on guns and preparedness to do violence on others in the case of the apocalypse, but in the next suggest (in agreement with Solnit) that "no one goes to war for free." Do you take the survivalists as the exception that proves the rule, or just symptoms of a twisted society, or...? (D and I arguably engage in a lot of "survivalist" activities, but we're not into guns, to say the least. And while I would cope, I am not super-keen on surviving the apocalypse, for mostly the reasons you outline.)

The typical answer to why people commit violence is 'because they perceive a threat and/or a reward', which strikes me as quite similar to why people volunteer to save the world, except that society actually often does reward oppressive acts. (I would like to expand on this in non-capitalist terms, but I can't.) I'm also not sure there is a single "human nature", or rather, I think it's on a continuum, so even if most people aren't inclined to go to war, enough are that they end up dragging lots of other people in anyway.

I would be highly baffled by a self-professed liberal defending the US military/security infrastructure, which is patently absurd and ineffective at protecting America; I'm under the impression that they mostly go to the mat for Israel, though.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-10-29 04:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] anemone.livejournal.com
I'll believe that people are fundamentally good, though I think it's more complicated than that.

The problem is that there are those who are not. Enough that if you don't have enforcement mechanisms (by which I mean something broader that laws), then those people trample on the fundamentally good ones, with varying degrees of harm. This is true on with individuals (ie, people who take food from the honor system concession stands) as well as globally.

Isn't it at least plausible that the the UK may have been governed by Nazis if not for our military intervention in WWII? If we had had no Navy, would Japan be eyeing Seattle as a possible colony? Would they treat us better than they treated the Chinese? If we had no nukes (and Russia still did), would it be unthinkable that Russia would demand Alaska or they'll shoot?

(no subject)

Date: 2010-10-29 08:21 pm (UTC)
winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)
From: [personal profile] winterkoninkje
Isn't it at least plausible that

It is well documented that the primary cause of WWII was excessive economic punishment of Germany for WW1. Were not for the rest of Europe deciding that Germans needed to live in abject poverty to atone for a war brought on by mass elite fear which resulted in the Great War, Germany would never have been in a position to want to elect someone like Adolf Hitler because they never would have been so desperate for the basic necessities of life. The webwork of fearful alliances that led to the Great War were clearly the result of elite fear, and taking Germany as a scapegoat for the problem afterwards is quite arguably also the result of elite fear.

Is your question that we should currently spend half of the government's funding on maintaining a war machine because in the past our war machine helped protect the UK from suffering for the result of their involvement in willfully dispiriting Germany due of the UK's inability to accept their own involvement in the crisis that ended Victoriana with mustard gas and trenches?

(no subject)

Date: 2010-10-29 08:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] anemone.livejournal.com
Is your question that we should currently spend half of the government's funding on maintaining a war machine...

Absolutely not. I can't really defend the current size of our military as the minimum prudent size. I suspect we could get by equally well with a much smaller force. But it seems to me that you do need to look to defense, as there will always be bullies who would wreck stuff otherwise.

(Also, why do you say "half our government funding", anyway--last I looked it was a pretty hefty 19%, but that's far from half.)

(no subject)

Date: 2010-10-30 12:55 am (UTC)
winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)
From: [personal profile] winterkoninkje
(Also, why do you say "half our government funding", anyway--last I looked it was a pretty hefty 19%, but that's far from half.)

The most recent numbers I've seen suggest that the total allocated to the pentagon is approximately half. I don't recall the exact reference, though the first hit on google agrees with the assessment (as well as suggesting that the 20% numbers come from deceptive representation).

The exact numbers are beside the point. The point is you Godwined the discussion but your analogy does not stand up to scrutiny, for precisely the reasons Rebecca Solnit suggests as one of the underlying causes of social injustice. Other than the "OMG Nazis" factor, so what if Germany took over the UK? What justified and rational conclusions can we reach about the quality of life for those who would today be living on those isles (or elsewhere in the world)? Yes, war is evil. But I do not think that we must unequivocally conclude that any time land exchanges hands in war that this is the worst thing and that future wars would be justified in returning the land to the former nation. Nobody owns the earth. And by and large the locals of any region tend not to care overmuch about what nation claims to own them today. The only things people care about are the laws, rights, and injustices that affect them and those they care about.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-10-31 10:24 pm (UTC)
winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)
From: [personal profile] winterkoninkje
I didn't say it wouldn't be bad, my point was that one should ask truly: would it be? Personally I'm quite glad they didn't. But the reason isn't because Nazis=Evil. Any time someone equates a group of people with being Evil, they stop thinking because clearly Evil is Evil; and if they do stop to think, they are cowed with threats of "You're with us, or you're Evil!". This mentality has been the source of countless acts of violence and injustice, often against people whose only crime was being a minority. Yes, the Nazis committed heinous acts and we should hold them accountable for them and, I think, we were right in using the force necessary to stop those crimes. But that does not make Nazis into Evil beings undeserving the honor and respect we accord to other living beings. Many of the soldiers in Germany's army were not acting out of their own beliefs, but were often themselves the victim of mob mentality. The environment leading to complicit involvement with brutality is well documented by studies like the Stanford prison experiment, and the ways that people can become wrapped up in fervor is discussed in books like The Logic of Evil (documenting the uprising of the Nazi party) and Underground (documenting the sarin gas attacks by religious terrorists in Tokyo). And all too often we overlook our own brutality because we're too busy pointing fingers. Is our torture of Arabs and our complicity in a form of genocide any less despicable because we are the aggressors? Was the Oklahoma bombing any less of a terrorist act because McVeigh and Nichols did it for a militant Christianity? Was the American roundup and internment of the Japanese during WWII any more justified than the Germans' internment camps? We are no saints. While I believe that the Allies winning WWII has resulted in less suffering than were the Axis to have won, and therefore it is best that we won, this belief is not axiomatic and is not posited without reservations.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-10-31 11:01 pm (UTC)
winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)
From: [personal profile] winterkoninkje
Having visited Hirosima and seeing not only the destruction wrought by the US, from the first Western-style building in Japan that served as the city centre, to the numerous school children who died of radiation after helping rescue survivors of the initial blast--- but also the ways in which the Japanese have chosen to respond to it, not with resentment nor hatred but with a vibrant spirit devoted to nuclear disarmament and worldwide peace--- that changes your perspective on a few things.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-11-01 06:43 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] anemone.livejournal.com
That's dubious accounting.

I thought Godwin's law was only invoked when you compared something to the Nazis. I was talking about the actual Nazis, so I figured it as okay, but I guess I should have stuck with my other examples.

But I do not think that we must unequivocally conclude that any time land exchanges hands in war that this is the worst thing and that future wars would be justified in returning the land to the former nation.

I never said this, and certainly would not agree to such a statement.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-11-01 08:26 pm (UTC)
etb: (peace)
From: [personal profile] etb
Yeah, IMO, invoking Godwin only really works as a tactic when someone has made a bad comparison to Nazis, and while there are a lot of bad comparisons there are also many apt ones, including many involving actual Nazis.

The US entering World War II is a good example if you're arguing for the proposition that not every decision to enter a war is wrong. It's not a good example for the necessity of maintaining a powerful military when there are no serious military threats, and the uses to which the US has put its postwar military are a good argument for why maintaining a powerful military is bad for everyone.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-11-01 08:45 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] anemone.livejournal.com
I wasn't arguing that the US needs a strong military. I was trying to provide a counterexample to the "no good comes of military force."

One thing that surprises me is that no one has yet pointed out that our economic power (via things like the Cash and Carry Act) was also key to defeating the Germans in WWII, so it's questionable how much the military mattered even then. It's also worth noting that we pretty much forced Japan to go to war with us via some economic moves.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-10-30 10:45 am (UTC)
etb: upside-down US flag (distress)
From: [personal profile] etb
It seems a bit trivializing to call countries that start wars "bullies who wreck stuff". I'm typically American in having no direct experience of war, but—atypically—half of the city I live in was destroyed in the war that you're trying to use to justify mainstream views about the military.

There's also the problem that, in recent history, the US has been a major aggressor; both the US and the world would get by much better—not "equally well"—with a much smaller US military. Imagine if the US military had been too small to even think of invading Iraq. It's conceivable that there is a size for the US military that would really be too small, but we're so far from that point, it doesn't seem worth considering.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-11-01 07:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] anemone.livejournal.com
I wasn't trying to trivialize war, and I'm sorry if I caused offense. I see war as the result of human nature, and that's what I was trying to express.

I just don't understand when people seem to be saying that if you are peaceful, you'll have no need to defend yourself. There's always cheaters; there are always people who are violent to cheat whatever system you have. The more cheating and violence, and the more people who are willing to cross that line.

Maybe the US has been the bullying cheater on the international stage in the last several decades, but if anything, that supports my point that bullies & cheaters are going to be there, and whatever solution one proposes had better keep that in mind.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-11-01 08:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] anemone.livejournal.com
War isn't the result of human nature (whatever "human nature" is); it's the result of elites who don't fight sending everyone else to fight in order to advance their economic interests.

I think, perhaps, we are actually in more agreement than it might appear. When I was war was the result of human nature, I was thinking of the human nature of the elites, not the human nature of the soldiers. If you're saying if we get rid of elites, we get rid of war, then I might agree with you, more or less. But I'm not sure we can get rid of elites.

I think the reason why reasoning like this has gotten us nowhere, historically, is that violence and dishonesty are qualities that exist in everyone; when we see the world in terms of "bullies" and "good people", we ignore negative tendencies in ourselves.

I agree that any dichotomy is problematic, partly because there's a sort of spectrum, and partly because how people behave depends on the circumstances. But I'm not sure what you're getting at here.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-11-01 08:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] anemone.livejournal.com
So even if we recognize that we have been the biggest bully and cheater in the world in modern times, the solution is still for us to prepare for war (i.e. to make ourselves better at bullying and cheating)? That just doesn't make sense to me.

No, no. Obviously, if we're bullies, we need to stop it. Perhaps it'd be prudent to make a tiny military so we won't even be tempted no matter how "good" the cause. (And given our geography and neighbors, actual invasion seem impossible without some serious political shifts.)

What I meant was that for the countries we've bullied, they would have been less bullied if they had a bigger army or with friendly countries with a bigger army. (Obviously, the best is no one with any army, but then someone will be tempted, build an army, and start causing trouble.)

(no subject)

Date: 2010-11-02 07:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] anemone.livejournal.com
The point is that the US could only control countries because those countries could not effectively strike back at the US, so doing whatever had no downsides in the US. The US overthrowing a leader is potentially an act of war. The US couldn't do that to a country like Russia without risking war and loss of US life, so they are unlikely to do so.

It's probably not the case that Haiti could have had a big enough military to scare off the US, but if they were allied with a country who could have gone to war on Haiti's behalf, then that might have deterred the US. (Though the downside for Haiti's elites and general public in such an arrangement is that if the deterrent part doesn't work, the consequences of action--war, as opposed to a coup--are worse.)

It's not just about the military, though, as there are other ways of enforcing a code of behavior besides the explicit threat of force.

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