Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

76. Oil and Exclusiveness

Note: This post is the seventy-sixth in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

This week's post was going to be part 2 about the book, "The Strategy of Conflict" by Thomas Schelling but I read the second half of the book and, while it was interesting, I didn't see anything too relevant to our purpose here.

So instead, I'm going to talk about a post from Daniel Little that I came across today over at Mark Thoma's 'Economist's View'.

From Daniel's post:

"Hate as a social demographic : Every democracy I can think of has a meaningful (though usually small) proportion of citizens who fall on the extreme right by any standard: racist, White supremacist, hateful, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, nativist, nationalist, or violently anti-government individuals and groups. In the United States we have many, many organizations that are basically racist and potentially violent hate groups. They provide a basis for cultivating, recruiting and mobilizing like-minded followers, and they are sometimes co-opted by opportunistic politicians for their own narrow purposes. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League do a great job and a needed service in tracking many of these organizations. (For example, SPL monitors 26 hate groups in the state of Michigan.) The umbrella term for these organizations and individuals is "hate groups" -- individuals and organizations who organize their views of the social world around intolerance of other groups and a motivation to harm or subordinate those other people.

A recent report by the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights provides a detailed snapshot of how some of these racist groups have shown up in the Tea Party movement. The NAACP made a very careful statement about racist statements and provocations that had occurred at Tea Party protests in 2009 and 2010, including the egregious incident that occurred in Washington in which Representatives Emanuel Cleaver, John Lewis, and Barney Frank were showered with vitriol. And this temperate and careful statement was derided by Tea Party leaders. The IREHR study goes a long way to document the concerns raised in the NAACP statement.

Here is a summary finding from the IREHR report:

Tea Party organizations have given platforms to anti-Semites, racists, and bigots. Further, hard-core white nationalists have been attracted to these protests, looking for potential recruits and hoping to push these (white) protestors towards a more self-conscious and ideological white supremacy. One temperature gauge of these events is the fact that longtime national socialist David Duke is hoping to find money and support enough in the Tea Party ranks to launch yet another electoral campaign in the 2012 Republican primaries. (7)

What I find really worth considering is the question of the fact of the very existence of these pockets of virulent racists and anti-semites in our society. I'm not thinking here of garden-variety racial stereotyping and prejudice, which is surely much more widespread, but of a kind of racism that extends to overt hostility and sometimes violence against the other group. It is hard to estimate the percentage of our society that falls in this category, though there are some public opinion surveys that help us make a crude estimate (Howard Schuman, Charlotte Steeh, Lawrence Bobo, Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations, Revised Edition and Schuman and Bobo, "Survey-Based Experiments on White Racial Attitudes towards Residential Integration" (link); Pew Research Center, "Race, Ethnicity & Campaign '08" (link)).

But here is the important question: why do a certain number of people in modern societies have these attitudes in the first place? Is it just a sort of basic fact about our population that a certain percentage of us fall in this mindset? Are there specific features of our informal system of acculturation that creates this minority of hate-disposed people? Are these the result of a sort of sub-culture of militia encampments, prison gangs, and biker groups who are somehow able to promulgate their hatred to new recruits? Is it ignorance, disaffection, and economic uncertainty that brings out these qualities in otherwise decent people? In short -- is it the organizations that produce the hate in some people, or is it the hateful individuals who create the organizations?

Michael Mann's The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing is one kind of empirical study of a related question, the occurrence of murderous ethnic cleansing. Here are a few of his hypotheses.

Murderous cleansing is modern, because it is the dark side of democracy. Let me make clear at the outset that I do not claim that democracies routinely commit murderous cleansing. Very few have done so. Nor do I reject democracy as an ideal – I endorse that ideal.Yet democracy has always carried with it the possibility that the majority might tyrannize minorities, and this possibility carries more ominous consequences in certain types of multiethnic environments. (2)

Ethnic hostility rises where ethnicity trumps class as the main form of social stratification, in the process capturing and channeling class-like sentiments toward ethnonationalism.

The danger zone of murderous cleansing is reached when (a) movements claiming to represent two fairly old ethnic groups both lay claim to their own state over all or part of the same territory and (b) this claim seems to them to have substantial legitimacy and some plausible chance of being implemented. (2-9)

These are political-structural theories of the conditions that stimulate outbreaks of hate-based mobilization and murderous ethnic cleansing. But actually, Mann never addresses my question head-on: what accounts for the existence of a certain small percentage of haters in a given society. Mann is interested rather in the behavior and the occurrence of mass mobilization for ethnic violence in certain times and places -- the involvement of thousands of citizens in acts of violence and murder against their fellow citizens. And he doesn't believe that the actors are exceptional; rather, the circumstances elicit the terrible violence from people much like all of us. Here is how he categorizes the perpetrators:

There are three main levels of perpetrator: (a) radical elites running party-states; (b) bands of militants forming violent paramilitaries; and (c) core constituencies providing mass though not majority popular support. (9)

And he doesn't think there is anything distinctive about the third group:

Finally, ordinary people are brought by normal social structures into committing murderous ethnic cleansing, and their motives are much more mundane. To understand ethnic cleansing, we need a sociology of power more than a special psychology of perpetrators as disturbed or psychotic people – though some may be. (9)

This "ordinary people as killers" theory (c) doesn't really seem to do justice to the problem at issue here. And the political opportunists who play the hate card aren't too hard to understand (a). It's really the people Mann includes under (b) that are of concern to me -- the true believers, the extremist White supremacists or virulent anti-Semites who become the local activists and paramilitaries that I'd like to understand better. And this population seems to be defined by the attitudes, motives, and ideologies that they bring with them, rather than the inter-group dynamics and political opportunism that Mann focuses on. So, once again, where does this mentality or psychology of activist hatred come from in our society (or in other contemporary societies)?

The easy answers are ready to hand. We might postulate a strand of political culture and thought in American society that reproduces hate and racism in some of the young people who are exposed to it. (Hate on the Internet falls in this category.) Or we might postulate a recessive "racist personality" type that is a portion of the human psyche (along the lines of the theory of the authoritarian personality). Or we might postulate that lack of opportunity and an enduring situation of defeated expectations pushes some young people into hate (skinheads in Britain or Germany).

But I don't find any of the theories very convincing by itself. So we seem to have an important theoretical issue here that is unresolved: where does "hate" come from?"

My own reaction to this was quite similar to that of 'grumpy curmudgeon' who commented at Economist's View,

"I'd turn the question on its head. How is it that modern societies have managed to create a sense of tolerance in the majority of the population. It seems wonderful (in both senses of the term) compared to the majority of human history when people have feared and hated anyone who looked, worshipped, spoke, etc. differently - that seems more the natural state of humanity. Think of children and their readiness to tease or bully anyone who is different.

When we can understand whence the West's success in building a sense of acceptance and tolerance of others in the majority of the population, maybe we can understand why people remain in the natural state."

To me, the xenophobic behaviour that Daniel described in his post is reminiscent of the Guardian precept 'Be Exclusive' which Jane Jacobs contrasted with the Commercial precept of 'Collaborate Easily with Strangers and Aliens' in 'Systems of Survival'

So I think the response to the curmudgeon's comment is that what makes the West different in the last few hundred years is the spread of the commercial syndrome which is based on win-win transactions, where the more transactions you make, the better you are, so artificially restricting yourself to a certain skin colour or religion or orientation just hurts you.

People tend to try and fit this progression of the commercial syndrome into a left-right or progressive-conservative frame, but I'm not sure that makes a lot of sense. I read lots of books where people try to balance the good of recent decades against the bad, but what they end up listing is a list where every element represents the expansion of the commercial syndrome. So the good of equal rights and women voting, is cast against the bad of expanding corporate power, inequality, advertising overload and loss of community spirit.

How often have you head people say things like 'Who could have imagined that [X] years ago [formerly discriminated against group] [y] would now be treated in an equal manner.' And then they treat this is a sign that if this victory could be achieved, then surely other victories such as ending poverty or restraining plutocracy can also be achieved, not seeming to realize that the same force that brought victory in one instance is what brings defeat in another - that the growing recognition of equal rights for various groups is a sign that we are less likely to solve problems caused by over-reliance on the commercial syndrome, not more.

Take recent events in the U.S., for instance. On the one hand, the country faces a massive deficit, is fighting multiple wars, faces record high inequality, has record low tax rates on the wealthy, is in the middle of a financial crisis largely caused by the actions of wealthy people and large corporations, is led by a Democratic president, and had a situation where tax cuts for the wealthy were set to expire. It's hard to imagine circumstances more favourable to a tax increase (restoration to previous levels) on the wealthy and yet, wouldn't you know it, the tax cuts for the wealthy were extended.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate strikes down the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military. Many will see this as one step forward one step back in the U.S., but it's really two steps in the same direction.

What I wonder, and this is pure speculation here, is how much of this spread of commercial morality and it's ascendancy over guardian exclusiveness, is dependent on an economy that is continually in rapid expansion mode (by pre-industrial revolution standards) due to the ever increasing population and ever increasing use of energy, first from trees and whales and later from coal, gas and oil.

If we reach a point where we are unable to continue simultaneously increasing both world population and per capita energy consumption1 then will the commercial syndrome be forced into retreat? And what would such a retreat mean in places like North America where many identifiably different groups of people currently live in relative harmony?

1 Reaching such a point seems more and more plausible with each passing year - where once we replaced an old fuel source with a better one (coalwood, oil>whales, etc.) now we replace an old fuel source with a worse one (crude oil > oil sands) - not a good sign.

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  • Hello Declan

    That some people see the renewal of tax cuts and anti-discrimination laws as one step back and one step forward -and that some people probably think the same thing with which is which reversed- itself shows that many people see public choices in different frames than those of the guardian and commercial syndromes.

    Best Wishes,


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:46 PM  

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