16 August, 2008

What the Fuck Can I Possibly Say?

I work with a wonderful young woman from Serbia. She's one of the most competent people I've ever met: practical, insightful, and wise. She frequently leaves me tongue-tied, but never more than when we were on a break the other day, when she asked me, "What do you think should be done about what's happening in Georgia?"

How the fuck can I answer that? I'm standing with a woman who went through war. She keeps her important documents packed in easily portable containers because she knows safety can crumble in an instant. Americans talk about natural disasters tearing their homes down around them: she watched homes get bombed into oblivion. And she's been on the receiving end of large countries playing deadly political games with small ones.

I got the sense she expects America to do the right thing. How? I told her what I honestly believe to be true: the European Union is going to have to step up and take the lead on this one, because our credibility is shattered. How can America condemn Russia for expansionist, regime-changing belligerence when we've engaged in the same bad behavior? We have no diplomatic capital left. We've spent our moral authority. And our military readiness is a fucking joke. We can't afford to kick Iran around, much less start a brawl with fucking Russia. And the Russians know it. We can't bluff 'em: the bluff's already been called.

I wish we could stop this. We can't - not alone.

And I don't know enough about the history and politics of the region to answer the whys. I don't know exactly why Russia's flexing its muscles, or why it chose Georgia to kick around. I don't know what the people over there want. I don't know what the separatists want from Russia, Georgia, or America. I don't know what they expect us to do. I don't know how they can expect us to do anything. I got the sense that some people are still looking to America to lead the way into peace and democracy. They don't understand that our current regime has no comprehension of either.

"I just want leaders to stop invading countries and killing people," I finally said. To which she laughed, and agreed: this is exactly what we all want, an end to the politics of the big guns and the military jack boot. We just want leaders who are willing to settle things with diplomacy and civility rather than reaching for bombs, without a single fucking care in the world as to the ordinary people who will die for their ambitions.

I wish America could lead on that front. I wish America had the diplomatic and moral might to say, with authority, without hypocrisy, that the killing needs to stop. We'll help you stop it, and we'll help you find solutions that work.

It's sad how Pollyanna that sounds. Working together to negotiate the best possible outcome for all is the tough, strong way to handle international relations. It's just the warmongers who have made "negotiation" a synonym for "weakness." It's the warmongers who have so squandered our political capital that we don't have a penny to spare.


Woozle said...

Yes! This is exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about. We as individuals, possibly even as a species, are not warlike -- but the tools we have invented allow a (comparatively) few powerholic individuals to run the game.

The science on this seems pretty clear now. There is some fairly small portion of the population whose bread-and-butter is power, and who will do whatever it takes to get even a small increase: cheat, lie, start wars -- whatever it takes.

Research shows that authoritarian leaders are the people you do not want in charge of your civilization - but they pretty much are. I highly recommend reading The Authoritarians (full content available online, HTML or PDF), especially Chapter 1, especially pages 30-34 about the Global Change Game.

We need a system which lets the cooperative, empathic types work together to keep the powermongers away from the dangerous toys.

Cujo359 said...

I disagree with that, Woozle. We've been hunter-gatherers for most of our time as a species. Our nearest relatives in the animal world, chimpanzees, exhibit the same sort of territorial nature we do. When you're a small bunch of apes in the middle of the wilderness, that sort of belligerence is a survival trait. In the modern world, it's not.

That's the problem. In order to live together in the modern world, we need to learn to master, or at least minimize, one of the fundamental aspects of our nature.

Anyway, I don't think we could ever have handled this without Europe's help. Russia's too big and this is happening on their home turf. The difference is that now we don't have the moral authority to lead that charge. Europe may not be able to do it, either. As much as I'm sure they don't like what's going on for both altruistic and economic reasons, they are really just a bunch of countries that barely agree on a monetary system.

Woozle said...

Cujo: If I'm hearing you right, you're arguing that we're inherently violent as a species, and violence is an essential part of our make-up as individuals -- it's "in the genes".

This is a very popular meme, but apparently it's something of an urban myth because the data say something quite different. I don't have any links to the actual research, but it's cited by Dennett in Darwin's Dangerous Idea so I have to think it's generally accepted in biological circles:

"in all the mammalian species that have so far been carefully studied, the rate at which their members engage in the killing of conspecifics is several thousand times greater than the highest homicide rate measured in any American city." (p.478)

So, no -- I think you'll be happy to discover that this "essential truth" about humanity's violent tendencies is quite wrong. We have violence in our ancestry, but have already purged 99.9% of it.

Furthermore, the overall rate of violence in the world has been decreasing (who knew?) since the early 1990s, apparently as a result of international activism:

"[A]fter five decades of inexorable increase, the number of armed conflicts started to fall worldwide in the early 1990s. The decline has continued.

"By 2003, there were 40 percent fewer conflicts than in 1992. The deadliest conflicts -- those with 1,000 or more battle-deaths -- fell by some 80 percent. The number of genocides and other mass slaughters of civilians also dropped by 80 percent [between 1988 and 2001], while core human rights abuses have declined in five out of six regions of the developing world since the mid-1990s.

"International terrorism is the only type of political violence that has increased. Although the death toll has jumped sharply over the past three years, terrorists kill only a fraction of the number who die in wars."

We're winning, folks, thanks to improved global communication -- but the battle is young yet, and the other side is only just now learning how to use these new tools for their own destructive ends. If we don't get our heads together about this stuff in a more organized way than blogging back and forth (which, even as scattered and disorganized as it is, has already done tremendous good), they'll clobber us in the long run.

We now have the tools to build something approaching a sane civilization, perhaps for the first time in history; we need to use those tools before they get taken away.

We can do much better than we've been doing.

Cujo359 said...

Another rather famous biologist, Jared Diamond remarked on the behavior of hunter-gatherers quite a bit in his books The Third Chimpanzee, and Guns, Germs, And Steel. Perhaps his most startling revelation was that among the H-Gs of New Guinea, murder is the leading cause of death. Not at all what I would have expected from people living in the wilderness.

The history of the human race is one long tale of populations pushing others out of an area or otherwise displacing them. This didn't just start with the Industrial Revolution. It's what we've done.

We're also social creatures, of course (so are chimpanzees). We do have social and altruistic impulses, also. That shouldn't blind us to the fact of how we got here. We got here by being both the smartest form of life as well as one of the most ruthless.

Woozle said...

I strongly resist the idea that ruthlessness played any significant part in our ascendancy over other species (we got where we are now -- civilization -- by building stuff, communicating, sharing) -- but if there's evidence, bring it on.

One small outlier culture does not define human nature.

Your point about displacement is perhaps more salient, but is it falsifiable? That is, if history was not full of cultures displacing each other, what would we see? What if it was a rare event, happening only every few centuries? ...hmm, and how often has this happened, in our actual history?

And what percentage of the invading population was involved in making the decision to displace rather than cooperate? Was it more than the 5% or so whom I am suggesting are prone to this sort of behavior?

If we blame all of humanity for the crimes of a few, then we not only falsely accuse the innocent, we also allow the true perpetrators to get off with no more than vague collective guilt (which they probably don't feel anyway).

I think we really need to get our facts right on this. If we're all just as prone to violence, in a pinch, as any rabid Conquistador, then yes -- we should all accept responsibility for overcoming those tendencies.

I find this idea quite unbelievable, however, given the behavior of people I've known and given my own behavior under duress... and given that the science seems to agree with me.

Why do you find it credible?