Monday, October 16, 2006

Thomas Sowell

As part of our continuing program of Covenant Zone interventions in our public life, this article by Thomas Sowell was handed out at the Vancouver Public Library on the occasion of the
UBC Humanities 101: Undercurrents Public Forum on The West and the Middle East
A program for Adults

A wide ranging discussion on the west and the middle east. Speakers: Hadani Ditmars, journalist and author; Deborah Campbell, writer and UBC adjunct professor; Michael Byers, UBC professor; Hila Russ-Woodland, artist and educator.
Speakers will be:

* Hadani Ditmars, journalist and author
* Deborah Campbell, writer and UBC adjunct professor
* Michael Byers, UBC professor
* Hila Russ-Woodland, artist and educator.

The discussion will be moderated by Am Johal, Director of Public Programs and Outreach, UBC Humanities 101.
Since we are led to believe, by a poster publicizing this event, that this will be a forum that will promote "pacifist" and anti-Israel opinions, we felt a need for someone to show up in support of an alternative point of view. Immediately below, I reproduce the Sowell article, and then I'll add some comments of my own. When I return from the public forum tonight, I'll add some thoughts in the comments. (UPDATE: see my comments here.)
July 21, 2006
Pacifists versus Peace
By Thomas Sowell

One of the many failings of our educational system is that it sends out into the world people who cannot tell rhetoric from reality. They have learned no systematic way to analyze ideas, derive their implications and test those implications against hard facts.

"Peace" movements are among those who take advantage of this widespread inability to see beyond rhetoric to realities. Few people even seem interested in the actual track record of so-called "peace" movements -- that is, whether such movements actually produce peace or war.

Take the Middle East. People are calling for a cease-fire in the interests of peace. But there have been more cease-fires in the Middle East than anywhere else. If cease-fires actually promoted peace, the Middle East would be the most peaceful region on the face of the earth instead of the most violent.

Was World War II ended by cease-fires or by annihilating much of Germany and Japan? Make no mistake about it, innocent civilians died in the process. Indeed, American prisoners of war died when we bombed Germany.

There is a reason why General Sherman said "war is hell" more than a century ago. But he helped end the Civil War with his devastating march through Georgia -- not by cease fires or bowing to "world opinion" and there were no corrupt busybodies like the United Nations to demand replacing military force with diplomacy.

There was a time when it would have been suicidal to threaten, much less attack, a nation with much stronger military power because one of the dangers to the attacker would be the prospect of being annihilated.

"World opinion," the U.N. and "peace movements" have eliminated that deterrent. An aggressor today knows that if his aggression fails, he will still be protected from the full retaliatory power and fury of those he attacked because there will be hand-wringers demanding a cease fire, negotiations and concessions.

That has been a formula for never-ending attacks on Israel in the Middle East. The disastrous track record of that approach extends to other times and places -- but who looks at track records?

Remember the Falkland Islands war, when Argentina sent troops into the Falklands to capture this little British colony in the South Atlantic?

Argentina had been claiming to be the rightful owner of those islands for more than a century. Why didn't it attack these little islands before? At no time did the British have enough troops there to defend them.

Before there were "peace" movements and the U.N., sending troops into those islands could easily have meant finding British troops or bombs in Buenos Aires. Now "world opinion" condemned the British just for sending armed forces into the South Atlantic to take back their islands.

Shamefully, our own government was one of those that opposed the British use of force. But fortunately British prime minister Margaret Thatcher ignored "world opinion" and took back the Falklands.

The most catastrophic result of "peace" movements was World War II. While Hitler was arming Germany to the teeth, "peace" movements in Britain were advocating that their own country disarm "as an example to others."

British Labor Party Members of Parliament voted consistently against military spending and British college students publicly pledged never to fight for their country. If "peace" movements brought peace, there would never have been World War II.

Not only did that war lead to tens of millions of deaths, it came dangerously close to a crushing victory for the Nazis in Europe and the Japanese empire in Asia. And we now know that the United States was on Hitler's timetable after that.

For the first two years of that war, the Western democracies lost virtually every battle, all over the world, because pre-war "peace" movements had left them with inadequate military equipment and much of it obsolete. The Nazis and the Japanese knew that. That is why they launched the war.

"Peace" movements don't bring peace but war.

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate
Page Printed from: at October 16, 2006 - 03:30:56 PM CDT
Sowell begins with the distinction between rhetoric and reality because he belongs to a school of thought that believes much of what passes for public debate in the west is today the product of fantasy ideologies (about, e.g., "Global Peace") that would bring violent conflicts to an end by outlawing war and ruling the world through some articulation of "international law". These are fantasy ideologies because they pay little attention to the causes of war in the existential struggles of humanity, and to the hard but realistic means by which these struggles can actually be mediated and deferred.

For example, the need of warring parties to impose and enforce laws of moral reciprocity on each other is often undermined by claims that violence, when performed by leading nations in attempts to impose some order of moral reciprocity on their rivals, violence however rationally measured and focussed as a deterrent to those threatening disorderly violence, only begets an endless cycle of violence. Thus, for example, the violence meted out by the Canadian troops in Afghanistan cannot possibly have the effect of one day, if all goes well, defeating the Taliban's will to fight; it can only have the effect of increasing resentment and hatred and further violence in that country. And to the extent we and other nations that could get involved are thus encouraged to be careful and deny our troops the full support, logistics, and manpower they need to defeat an enemy, we increase the likelihood that the Taliban will again become the only possible source of order in Afghanistan, and that their brutal methods will return to power - ironically, all in the name of "peace" and "stopping the cycle of violence".

The fantasy ideologies that reject the idea that the world's leading nations might impose their power and sense of moral reciprocity on the world is rooted in an equalitarian notion that to do so only victimizes the Other. In the name of victims, the large majority of the "intelligentsia" of the West today deny the need for some nations to be firsts among equals, to take a lead in showing the way to membership in a world governed by the leadership and reciprocity required for free economic and political markets, as an alternative to the will to power of political tyrannies and their strong men. A regionally strong and successful nation like Israel might attempt to impose on its violent rivals and enemies (especially on their leaders) a measure of violence, and a corresponding rule of realistic, "tit for tat", reciprocity that will act as a deterrent to further violence and a reminder of hard existential realities - Israel's insistence on preserving its existence. But today any such violence is only likely to engage the cry of "disproportionate use of violence" from the morally righteous promoters of fantasy ideologies; hence, Israel is likely to back down in face of a global opinion it cannot cross, and nothing is settled.

Terrorist groups like Hezbollah are rewarded for their violent provocations - raids, murders, bombings - against Israel by becoming "partners in peace". The message is clear to the world's "subaltern" peoples: disorderly resentful violence pays, at least as long as there remains some kind of international order that is willing to appease your violence. Of course, in the long term, this refusal of the right of the strong and free to impose order on the world's tyrannies, will not actually promote peace but will encourage chaos and disorder, an endless war that will result from the fantasy ideology that would outlaw war and promote international law, but without respect for the realities by which a law among nations, that are in many respects not the equals of each other, could be realized.

We live in fear of the Other's resentment and do not stand up to it and tell it that it is deluded, and that moral reciprocity requires of it a different tack. No, when the Other shows us resentment we accord him victim status and attempt to appease his anger. The delusions inherent to all resentments only grow and we fall deeper into the fantasy by which the "tools of Peace" become the antecedents to more chaos and war.

As a final note, let me quote how a colleague responded to the Thomas Sowell article:
pacifism (commonly confused with Christianity) seems to be the desire to prolong the phase of peaceful contemplation of the divine/sign forever, and to carry the state of immobility outside the circle [of western liberals contemplating their cultural centrality] to the [global] periphery. All well and good, but it ends up denying the moral law of reciprocity and in fact promoting its violation, as discussed in the column. (That relates to the feeling of godlike omnipotence some westerners feel with respect to violence and claims emanating from the Other. Nothing They do can really hurt us.) Pacifism also tends to erase the difference between the infinite degrees
of violence, which also thwarts the law of reciprocity. Retribution is seen as inevitably leading to a cycle of violence, instead of a deterrent.

To paraphrase George Washington, the way to have peace is to prepare for war. The Greeks and the Romans knew what we have forgotten; that one cannot have peace until one has destroyed one's enemy's desire to fight. In the Middle East, as in other places, malevolent parties take advantage of the current pacifist zeitgeist. They wantonly attack their enemies, then sue for peace as soon as the retaliation begins. By this method, they can do damage to their enemies while mitigating the damage done to them in return. One has only to look at Darfur to realize the fruitlessness of relying on international bodies like the UN to ensure peace.
Much of the intellectual basis for these arguments of Sowell, myself, and my colleague is to be found, I suspect, in the work of Eric Voegelin. See especially The New Science of Politics, chapter six, section two:
The identification of dream and reality as a matter of [idealistic, pacifist, liberal] pinciple has practical results which may appear strange but can hardly be considered surprising. The critical exploration of cause and effect in history is prohibited; and consequently the rational co-ordination of means and ends in politics is impossible. Gnostic societies and their leaders will recognize dangers to their existence when they develop, but such dangers will not be met by appropriate actions in the world of reality. They will rather be met by magic operations in the dream world, such as disapproval, moral condemnation, declarations of intention, resolutions, appeals to the opinion of mankind, branding of enemies as aggressors, outlawing of war, propaganda for world peace and world government, etc. The intellectual and moral corruptions which expresses itself in the aggregate of such magic operations may pervade a society with the weird, ghostly atmosphere of a lunatic asylum, as we experience it in our time in the Western crisis.
[...we must note] the self-defeating character of Gnostic politics, that is, the oddity of continuous warfare in a time when every political society, through its representatives, professes its ardent desire for peace... an age when war is peace, and peace is war...
Get the book and read the whole thing.


Anonymous said...

Try reading some of the classical realists. Sort of like Sowell.

I have to say though, this mystifies me:
"The critical exploration of cause and effect in history is prohibited; and consequently the rational co-ordination of means and ends in politics is impossible."

What is his target? Gnostic socieities? Is that another word for post-modernism?

truepeers said...

Hi, just back from the Humanities 101 event; I'll write up my thoughts and post them tonight or probably tomorrow. In the meantime, anyone who is here because of my hand-out, please feel free to leave your thoughts on Sowell or the panelists at the library.

Anonymous, What I quoted from Voegelin is only a teaser, to encourage people to give him a go. It's not going to be easy to give you a quick summary of the idea of Gnosticism. Though Voegelin is not the easiest person to read, he is certainly profound so a name worth Googling and learning more about.

His target, broadly speaking, is Gnosticism. Gnosticism is something that has been around for at least two thousand years in different forms. While there are certainly posmodern forms of it, that is not primarily what Voegelin - he was writing this book in 1952 at the very start of the postmodern era - was thinking about, though he was certainly critical, in this book of lectures, of the way the US liberal elites (who he viewed as one kind of Gnostic) ended World War II. Instead of the victor - and the US was clearly the dominant world power at the end of the war - imposing coherent terms of peace on the world, terms that recognized American interests (western values) and existential strength, the US was the leading advocate for the United Nations and was full of well-meaning rhetoric about a new kind of internationalism leading to world peace. In the meantime, the liberal Gnostics allowed the communist Gnostics (led by the USSR) to occupy a major chunk of the world, from Eastern Germany to the Pacific; and instead of confronting "communism" which doesn't really and cannot really exist - the idea of communism is a fantasy, the indulgence of which leads to the worst kinds of tyranny not peace and harmony among men - the US created a power vacuum by disarming its new postwar allies, Japan and West Germany. Instead of pursuing a peace that suited itself as the leading power and free nation, it allowed for the fantasy of the UN as guarantor of peace and goodwill to become established, only to give way to a "peace" that was actually a cold war and a series of hot wars, fought over control of the power vaccuum that the end of World War II brought about.

Why did the US allow this power vaccuum? Because just as the "communists" were guided by a fantasy vision of human nature, so were many Americans who thought that some kind of internationalism could bring an end to war. Instead of avoiding war by preparing for war and acting to deter aggression, the US disarmed itself, and when the Korean war soon followed in one part of the resulting power vaccuum, it had to re-arm itself - a result of the post-war, disengaging, US leaving its Chinese nationalist allies to lose their civil war and allowing the Communists to come to power in China. This was what was going on when Voegelin was writing those words.

I think Voegelin would agree that a critical exploration of cause and effect in history would require an understanding of the basis of conflict in human society and the means by which this unavoidable conflict is deferred or transcended, in other words, the means by which change in history is brought about through conflict and its only ever temporary deferral.

Unless we are honest about the inevitability of conflict, uncertainty, and our own mortality - not just our personal but perhaps more importantly our society's mortality - and don't try to escape coming face to face with the spiritual tasks of human existence, we risk indulging in gnostic fantasy ideologies that help mediate the existential fears we all have in a world where everything must die and come to an end. Rather than come to terms with existential struggle we indulge in gnostic ideologies (like communism or liberal moral relativism) that allow us to think we and the kind of society we favor, or of which we are a part, are somehow on the right side of history and eternal Being, and are thus sure to survive long into the future. Seeking such guarantees in the world of ideas and in fantasies of future utopias, we are prone to ignore pressing realities that demand actions in the present if we are to help keep order and peace by demanding parties in conflict face up to and negotiate their existential realities and not their gnostic fantasy visions of their position and human existence in general.

Gnosticism is essentially men trying to access the divine because they think they know the solution (Communism, the utopian visions of the United Nations) to what is wrong with the worldly creation and when their special vision achieves power the Gnostic elect will save us from our fallen selves. The alternative to Gnosticism is humility and a frank acknowledgment that human conflict must be faced, perhaps engaged, whatever it takes to impose reciprocity on parties in conflict, according to realistic understadings of the existential balance of powers.

Anonymous said...

Inevitability of war. Balance of power. These sound like pretty standard realist assumptions. I appreciate the breakdown but I'm not sure about the value-added of 'gnosticism' as a concept. This guy comes across as a traditional conservative, skeptical about progressive ideologies, Realist in foreign policy outlook.

On timing, I'll also note 'X' Article was published in 1947. I'm not convinced that the American liberal elite were as naive as Voegelin might suggest.

truepeers said...

I have posted my impressions on the UBC Humanities 101 panel in a seperate blog post

Anonymous, I think you're right to question the value of the concept of Gnosticism. Voegelin attempts to explain so much by it; I have questioned it myself, but come to the conclusion that it does point to a pervasive but not ubiquitous habit of thought, and in a way that usefully ties together related phenomena over time.

I'm not sure what you mean by 1947 - the Voegelin lectures I quoted were given in the Winter of 1951 and published in 1952.

truepeers said...

"separate" - I need to get a little sleep

Anonymous said...

X Article lays out the policy of containment. I question the extent to which liberal policy making elite were ignoring political threats at the time of Voegelin's writing.

truepeers said...

I see, and no doubt you could make a good argument along those lines. When I look again at what Voegelin wrote - "Gnostic societies and their leaders will recognize dangers to their existence when they develop, but such dangers will not be met by appropriate actions in the world of reality. They will rather be met by magic operations in the dream world, such as disapproval, moral condemnation, declarations of intention, resolutions, appeals to the opinion of mankind, branding of enemies as aggressors, outlawing of war, propaganda for world peace and world government, etc." - it's clear that he would allow that the Americans would recognize the Soviet threat. But did they deal with it in a realistic way? Obviously to some degree yes, some no.

A couple of quick considerations here: 1) Voegelin also argued that America and Britain were the western societies most resistant to corruption by gnosticism because their modern national cultures stem in large part from the revolution(s) of the 17th century a time when Christian culture remained relatively strong vis a vis the gnostic corruption. So, I imagine he would not allow us to take his argument to mean that American culture was ever completely corrupted by gnostic fantasies in response to existential insecurities.

2) Quite aside from what he thought of Kennan's containment strategy - I don't know - it is hardly the be all and end all of post-WWII American politics. To judge Voegelin's ideas about Gnosticism we would have to consider much more and judge whether there has been a relative decline or ascent in fantasy ideologies. Just off the top of my head, would Voegelin have taken someone like Ronald Reagan standing up to the "evil empire" to be a sign that V. misjudged the strength of realistic spirituality and policy possible in the White House? Or would he look at Nancy Reagan's consultations with astrologers for an alternative indication? - we can only really begin to weigh the relative importance of such questions after we have heard a lot of good arguments pushing one theme or another. If you are interested in some recent essays using Voegelin, and notions about the intelligentsia's loyalty to fantasy and its faith in discursive magic, I recommend those of Tom Bertonneau in the online journal Anthropoetics, especially the three most recent ones.