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In Defying Hitler, Sebastion Haffner’s disturbing 1939 memoir chronicling the rise of Nazism, the author, a law candidate, describes the insidious day-to-day changes in attitudes, beliefs, politics, and prejudices that began, for Germans, the slow descent into a “trap of comradeship” in which this culture of cruelty flourished as many of them become “owned by it”.  “Comradeship” as the Nazis meant it, became a “narcotic” that the people were introduced to from the earliest age, through the Hitler Youth movement (Hitlerjugend), the SA, military service, and involvement with thousand of camps and clubs. In this way, it destroyed their sense of personal responsibility and became a means for the process of dehumanization:

‘It is even worse that comradeship relieves men of responsibility for their actions, before themselves, before God, before their conscience.  They do what their comrades do.  They have no choice.  They have no time for thought (except when they unfortunately wake up at night).  Their comrades are their conscience and give absolution for everything, provided that do what everybody else does.’

Haffner goes on to describe how this comradeship, in just a few weeks at camp, molded a group of intellectual, educated men into an “unthinking, indifferent, irresponsible mass” in which bigoted, derogatory, and hateful comments “were commonplace, went unanswered and set the intellectual tone.”  The Nazis used a variety of psychological stimulations and manipulations to this end, such as slogans, flags, uniforms, Sieg Heils, marching columns, banners, and songs, to help create a dangerous, mindless “group think.”  One of the most disturbing aspects of this comradeship was how the men in the camp began to behave as a collective entity, who “instinctively ignored or belittled anything that could disturb our collective self-satisfaction.  A German Reich in microcosm.”  This collectivity is the “and” in Arthur Eddington’s mathematical formula.  The bullies and the bystanders become a deadly combination that is more than the sum of its parts.

[…]

 

In all three genocides [Armenian, Jewish, Tutsi], it was found that if one person (or small group of dedicated people) refused to go along with the genocidaires, some others who were potential witnesses actually became witnesses, defenders, and/or resisters themselves.  This group readily admitted that if it were not for those who took the lead in desisting, they probably not would have had the courage to do so themselves.  In his research in “atrocity producing situations,” Robert J. Lifton came to the conclusion, “There’s no inherent human nature that requires us to kill or maim…  We have the potential for precisely that behaviour of the Nazis …or of some kind of more altruistic or cooperative behaviour,  We can go either way.  And I think that confronting these extreme situations is itself an act of hope because in doing that, we are implying and saying that there is an alternative.  We can do better. ”

 

‘It is immensely moving when a mature man [or woman] – no matter whether young or old in years- is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul.  He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere reaches a point where he says: “Here I stand; I can do no other.”  That is something genuinely human and moving.   [Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation]

-Barbara Coloroso.  Extraordinary Evil – A Brief History of Genocide.   pp. 85 – 87

 

Long read, the rest is under the fold.

 

“I would like to explain to you the method that the Black Panther Party used to arrive at our ideological position, and more than that, I would like to give to you a framework or a process of thinking that might help us solve the problems and the contradictions that exist today. Before we approach the problem we must get a clear picture of what is really going on; a clear image divorced from the attitudes and emotions that we usually project into a situation. We must be as objective as possible without accepting dogma, letting the facts speak for themselves. But we will not remain totally objective; we will become subjective in the application of the knowledge received from the external world. We will use the scientific method to acquire this knowledge, but we will openly acknowledge our ultimately subjectivity. Once we apply knowledge in order to will a certain outcome our objectivity ends and our subjectivity begins. We call this integrating theory with practice, and this is what the Black Panther Party is all about.

In order to understand a group of forces operating at the same time, science developed what is called the scientific method. One of the characteristics or properties of this method is disinterest. Not uninterest, but disinterest: no special interest in the outcome. In other words, the scientist does not promote an outcome, he just collects the facts. Nevertheless, in acquiring the facts he must begin with a basic premise. Most basic premises stem from a set of assumptions because it is very difficult to test a first premise without these assumptions. After an agreement is reached on certain assumptions, an intelligent argument can follow, for then logic and consistency are all that is required to reach a valid conclusion.

Tonight I ask you to assume that an external world exists. An external world that exists independently of us. The second assumption i would like for you to make is that things are in a constant state of change, transformation, or flux. With agreement on these two assumption we can go on with our discussion.

The scientific method relies heavily on empiricism. But the problem with empiricism is that it tells you very little about the future; it tells you only about the past, about information which you have already discovered through observation and experience. It always refers to past experience.

Long after the rules of empirical knowledge had been ascertained, a man by the name of Karl Marx integrated these rules with a theory developed by Immanuel Kant called rationale. Kant called his process of reasoning pure reason because it did not depend on the external world. Instead it only depended on consistency in manipulating symbols in order to come up with a conclusion based upon reason. For example, in this sentence “If the sky is above my head when I turn my head upwards, I will see the sky” there is nothing wrong with the conclusion. As a matter of fact, it is accurate. But I haven’t said anything about the existence of the sky. I said “if.” With rationale we are not dependent upon the external world. With empiricism we can tell very little about the future. So what will we do? What Marx did. In order to understand what was happening in the world Marx found it necessary to integrate rationale with empiricism. He called his concept dialectical materialism. If, like Marx, we integrate these two concepts or these two ways of thinking, not only are we in touch with the world outside us but we can also explain the constant state of transformation. Therefore, we can also make some predictions about the outcome of certain social phenomena that is not only in constant change but also in conflict.

Marx, as a social scientist, criticized other social scientists for attempting to explain phenomena, or one phenomenon, by taking it out of its environment, isolating it, putting it into a category, and not acknowledging the fact that once it was taken out of its environment the phenomenon was transformed. For example, if in a discipline such as sociology we study the activity of groups–how they hold together and why they fell apart–without understanding everything else related to that group, we may arrive at a false conclusion about the nature of the group. What Marx attempted to do was to develop a way of thinking that would explain phenomena realistically.

In the physical world, when forces collide they are transformed. When atoms collide, in physics, they divide into electrons, protons, and neutrons, if I remember correctly. What happened to the atom? It was transformed. In the social world a similar thing happens. We can apply the same principle. When two cultures collide a process or condition occurs which the sociologists call acculturation: the modification of cultures as a result of their contact with each other. Marx called the collision of social forces or classes a contradiction. In the physical world, when forces collide we sometimes call it just that–a collision. For example, when two cars meet head on, trying to occupy the same space at the same time, both are transformed. Sometimes other things happen. Had those two cars been turned back to back and sped off in opposite directions they would not be a contradiction; they would be contrary, covering different spaces at different times. Sometimes when people meet they argue and misunderstand each other because they think they are having a contradiction when they are only being contrary. For example, I can say the wall is ten feet tall and you can say the wall is red, and we can argue all day thinking we are having a contradiction when actually we are only being contrary. When people argue, when one offers a thesis and the other offers an anti-thesis, we say there is a contradiction and hope that if we argue long enough, provided that we agree on one premise, we can have some kind of synthesis. Tonight, I hope I can have some form of agreement or synthesis with those who have criticized the Black Panther Party.

I think that the mistake is either that some people have taken the apparent as the actual fact in spite of their claims of scholarly research and following the discipline of dialectical materialism. They fail to search deeper, as the scientist is required to do, to get beyond the apparent and come up with the more significant. Let me explain how this relates to the Black Panther Party. The Black Panther Party is a Marxist-Leninist party because we follow the dialectical method and we also integrate theory with practice. We are not mechanical Marxists and we are not historical materialists. Some people think they are Marxists when actually they are following the thoughts of Hegel. Some people think they are Marxist-Leninists but they refuse to be creative, and are, therefore, tied to the past. They are tied to a rhetoric that does not apply to the present set of conditions. They are tied to a set of thoughts that approaches dogma–what we call flunkyism.

Marx attempted to set up a framework which could be applied to a number of conditions. And in applying this framework we cannot be afraid of the outcome because things change and we must be willing to acknowledge that change because we are objective. If we are using the method of dialectical materialism we don’t expect to find anything the same even one minute later because “one minute later” is history. If things are in a constant state of change, we cannot expect them to be the same. Words used to describe old phenomena may be useless to describe the new. And if we use the old words to describe then new events we run the risk of confusing people and misleading them into thinking that things are static.

 

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The lives of the common people seem to always come last when it comes to geopolitical considerations.

Why do people commit evil?  How does one get from being an ordinary citizen to someone who oversees the genocide of their neighbours?   What are the psychological states that premeditate acts of violence on the personal and societal level?  Noga Arikha is a historian who has looked into the research on how we foment and propagate evil institutions and evil acts.

 

“This is what the neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried at the University of California, Los Angeles did with his article ‘Syndrome E’ (1997) in The Lancet. A syndrome is a group of biological symptoms that together constitute a clinical picture. And E stands for evil. With Syndrome E, Fried identified a cluster of 10 neuropsychological symptoms that are often present when evil acts are committed – when, as he puts it, ‘groups of previously nonviolent individuals’ turn ‘into repetitive killers of defenceless members of society’. The 10 neuropsychological symptoms are:

1. Repetition: the aggression is repeated compulsively.
2. Obsessive ideation: the perpetrators are obsessed with ideas that justify their aggression and underlie missions of ethnic cleansing, for instance that all Westerners, or all Muslims, or all Jews, or all Tutsis are evil.
3. Perseveration: circumstances have no impact on the perpetrator’s behaviour, who perseveres even if the action is self-destructive.
4. Diminished affective reactivity: the perpetrator has no emotional affect.
5. Hyperarousal: the elation experienced by the perpetrator is a high induced by repetition, and a function of the number of victims.
6. Intact language, memory and problem-solving skills: the syndrome has no impact on higher cognitive abilities.
7. Rapid habituation: the perpetrator becomes desensitised to the violence.
8. Compartmentalisation: the violence can take place in parallel to an ordinary, affectionate family life.
9. Environmental dependency: the context, especially identification with a group and obedience to an authority, determines what actions are possible.
10. Group contagion: belonging to the group enables the action, each member mapping his behaviour on the other. Fried’s assumption was that all these ways of behaving had underlying neurophysiological causes that were worth investigating.Note that the syndrome applies to those previously normal individuals who become able to kill. It excludes the wartime, sanctioned killing by and of military recruits that leads many soldiers to return home (if they ever do) with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); recognised psychopathologies such as sociopathic personality disorder that can lead someone to shoot schoolchildren; and crimes of passion or the sadistic pleasure in inflicting pain. When Hannah Arendt coined her expression ‘the banality of evil’ in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), she meant that the people responsible for actions that led to mass murder can be ordinary, obeying orders for banal reasons, such as not losing their jobs. The very notion of ordinariness was tested by social psychologists. In 1971, the prison experiment by the psychologist Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University played with this notion that ‘ordinary students’ could turn into abusive mock ‘prison guards’ – though it was largely unfounded, given evidence of flaws in the never-replicated experiment. Still, those afflicted with Syndrome E are indeed ordinary insofar as that they are not affected by any evident psychopathology. The historian Christopher Browning wrote of equally ‘ordinary men’ in the 1992 book of that name (referenced by Fried) who became Nazi soldiers. The soldier who killed my grandfather was very probably an ordinary man too.

Today, biology is a powerful explanatory force for much human behaviour, though it alone cannot account for horror. Much as the neurosciences are an exciting new tool for human self-understanding, they will not explain away our brutishness. Causal accounts of the destruction that humans inflict on each other are best provided by political history – not science, nor metaphysics. The past century alone is heavy with atrocities of unfathomable scale, albeit fathomable political genesis.”

I pondered the conclusions of this essay and am reminded of the work “Ordinary Men” by (also referenced in the essay) by Christopher R. Browning that describes the psychological and sociological contagions that bring out the evil that exists in all of us.  I’m struck by, even as I write, the tendency to pathologize evil as if it were disease that somehow takes root and manifests itself on ‘good people’.  This socially sanctioned frame, looking at the literature, is shockingly incorrect as the data points to the fact that we all possess the capacity to commit heinous acts of violence, even genocide, if the conditions are right.

Arikha states that “empathy is rarely universal” and that “Family belonging and social belonging are separate. When they meet, as happened in Bosnia and Rwanda when families turned on each other, the group identity prevails”.   Chilling statements such as these implode the ideas we carry around about common human decency and common human morality and empathy.  The story we tell ourselves, about ourselves, is bullshite and these bullshit assumptions are what we run ‘civilized’ society on.  I think this false narrative allows people to be repeated shocked and horrified when tales of wanton bloodshed and genocide hit the news – it is seen as a huge deviation from the norm.  Yet, if we look at humans, it isn’t a particular large leap from our observable behaviours.

We – ‘the good guys’ – ran a government sanctioned torture program.  Oh, certainly we had our legal pretzelese to mask and make torture palatable for the general public. Never the less, dodgy legal justifications do not nullify the social and psychological ramifications of one’s nation endorsing the institutional infliction of pain on others.  I think we are still seeing the negative effects of the torture revelations running through our western societies .

Essay’s like Arikha’s make me contemplate how much projection we engage in as a society to protect ourselves from the rather brutish reality of our societal and geo-poltical existence.

(*edited for early morning writing)

 

We’re playing with nuclear fire.  Hell, we’re doing a fire dance with twirling batons ablaze in a fireworks factory.  This all started after the US nuked Japan in 1945.  Since then, we’ve just been piling more fireworks around the fire dancers and giving the dancers bigger batons to twirl.  There is no logic to this death dance we inflict on ourselves and the world.

Noam Chomsky takes a historical look at the post 1945 nuclear world.

“That conclusion [USSR could not compete with the US] was underscored repeatedly in the years that followed. When Nikita Khrushchev took control in Russia in 1953 after Stalin’s death, he recognized that the USSR could not compete militarily with the U.S., the richest and most powerful country in history, with incomparable advantages. If it ever hoped to escape its economic backwardness and the devastating effect of the last world war, it would need to reverse the arms race.

Accordingly, Khrushchev proposed sharp mutual reductions in offensive weapons. The incoming Kennedy administration considered the offer and rejected it, instead turning to rapid military expansion, even though it was already far in the lead. The late Kenneth Waltz, supported by other strategic analysts with close connections to U.S. intelligence, wrote then that the Kennedy administration “undertook the largest strategic and conventional peace-time military build-up the world has yet seen… even as Khrushchev was trying at once to carry through a major reduction in the conventional forces and to follow a strategy of minimum deterrence, and we did so even though the balance of strategic weapons greatly favored the United States.” Again, harming national security while enhancing state power.

U.S. intelligence verified that huge cuts had indeed been made in active Soviet military forces, both in terms of aircraft and manpower. In 1963, Khrushchev again called for new reductions. As a gesture, he withdrew troops from East Germany and called on Washington to reciprocate. That call, too, was rejected. William Kaufmann, a former top Pentagon aide and leading analyst of security issues, described the U.S. failure to respond to Khrushchev’s initiatives as, in career terms, “the one regret I have.”

The Soviet reaction to the U.S. build-up of those years was to place nuclear missiles in Cuba in October 1962 to try to redress the balance at least slightly. The move was also motivated in part by Kennedy’s terrorist campaign against Fidel Castro’s Cuba, which was scheduled to lead to invasion that very month, as Russia and Cuba may have known. The ensuing “missile crisis” was “the most dangerous moment in history,” in the words of historian Arthur Schlesinger, Kennedy’s adviser and confidant.

As the crisis peaked in late October, Kennedy received a secret letter from Khrushchev offering to end it by simultaneous public withdrawal of Russian missiles from Cuba and U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey. The latter were obsolete missiles, already ordered withdrawn by the Kennedy administration because they were being replaced by far more lethal Polaris submarines to be stationed in the Mediterranean.

Kennedy’s subjective estimate at that moment was that if he refused the Soviet premier’s offer, there was a 33% to 50% probability of nuclear war — a war that, as President Eisenhower had warned, would have destroyed the northern hemisphere. Kennedy nonetheless refused Khrushchev’s proposal for public withdrawal of the missiles from Cuba and Turkey; only the withdrawal from Cuba could be public, so as to protect the U.S. right to place missiles on Russia’s borders or anywhere else it chose.

It is hard to think of a more horrendous decision in history — and for this, he is still highly praised for his cool courage and statesmanship.”

I’d hate to see what incensed, insane leadership looks like…

 

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