Beauty of Gray

Thursday, September 25, 2003

Crowds, power, totalitarianism, and death

Here I talked about Paul Berman’s excellent intellectual history of terrorism, and here I discussed what I think are some of the details of historical context that are important to understanding our current fight. In this last piece I wasn’t to go back to a dark area of human psychology which Berman, like most writers, skated over. While not critical to planning a strategy in the war on terror, it is nonetheless important, in my opinion, and also gives me the chance to promote one of my favorite authors, who I think is terribly under-read and underappreciated.

When Berman talked about the transition from various forms of idealistic totalitarianism (be it Nazism, communism, or Islamism) to a murderous cult of death, while he recognized the near commonality of this transition, he didn’t go beyond pointing it out. Rather than ask why this seemed to happen, he simply labeled it as insanity and passed on. And that seems a little too easy and glib, to me. There is clearly some deep connection here between the pursuit of power in totalitarianism and the pursuit of death in its manifestations. No writer has unblinkingly examined this dark corner of the human mind with as much insight and erudition as Elias Canetti, in his monumental work Crowds and Power.

I can’t really even begin to summarize it here, as it is a long book full of telling details and fascinating insights. Canetti pulls in examples from throughout history, anthropology, psychology, and other areas to support his argument. From everywhere, in fact, except from the mid-20th century experience that hangs like a shadow over the book, and in fact is the real question Canetti was trying to understand. And even if you don’t end up agreeing with his opinions, the fascinating examples make the book worth reading.

At the risk of so oversimplifying his argument as to make it seem absurd: Canetti starts with an examination of the nature of the Crowd experience, which he finds satisfies a particular psychological need of humans. Humans gain a release from being immersed in a crowd. It is a felling both of absolute equality and unity, a loss of self, and also of being a part of a powerful organism. So there is an intoxication that comes from being in a crowd. He then spends a large part of the book simply looking at the nature of various crowds, how they come about, how they disperse, what they do. When he started, this was all he wanted to do—explain crowd psychology. Then came the Nazis, and his work led him in a darker direction.

With an understanding of how a demagogue could manipulate crowds, Canetti then looked into the nature of command and of power. He finds the ultimate root of power in the ability to deal out death, both to enemies and even to your own subordinates. Commands have this power lurking in the background, and in hierarchies, each link in the chain is able to pass the command on down, to avoid the sting. It is only at the bottom that the imposition cannot be avoided, which is one root cause of the need for crowds—it provides a release.

Going further, the ability to deal death, when actually invoked, verifies the power and gives and immediate and powerful satisfaction to the leader. He has survived his opponent, and in standing over his corpse gains a brief moment of immortality. But there are always more outsiders, each of whom is a rival and whose life constitutes a challenge. Killing one is not enough, you want to kill many, create crowds of the dead that you have survived. But there always remain others who live, and so are a challenge to your power and your life. Canetti recalls a case of an Indian (I think) tyrant who emptied his capital city, slaughtering many, and then enjoyed staying there in solitude by himself, the last survivor.

Canetti then goes on and identifies the nature of the tyrant, and how he wields power, with the paranoiac, the mental patient. In a detailed case study of Max Schreber (again, I’m working on memory here since my books are in storage), he shows how the symptoms of his mental disease quite closely parallel the habits of mind of the leader.

As I’ve said, I’m afraid in this brief presentation of what seem somewhat fantastic ideas, I may have driven you away from the book rather than attracted you to it. As I said, Canetti amasses a huge corpus of evidence from all areas of human knowledge, and at the end had convinced me, at least, that his arguments had an important element of truth to them. It’s the flip side of the coin to the evolutionary psychology argument. The pursuit of power is both about the pursuit of sex, and through it life and generation, and also about the pursuit of death and destruction. It’s a grim view, but one that’s hard to avoid for anyone who has seen what Hitler did, Stalin, Mao, Hussein, bin Laden.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 6:21 PM

The NCAA is a joke

So, a ruling has come down, and the NCAA has accepted the appeal of the University of Michigan to overturn their initial sanctions and allow their basketball team to participate in the postseason this year. This is a travesty, a deepening of an already grave miscarriage of justice.

Michigan was proved to be guilty of paying a series of star basketball players, starting with Chris Webber and the Fab Five and continuing on for 4 or 5 years thereafter, upwards of half a million dollars to play for them. This is the worst pay for play scandal in the history of college sports. Furthermore, the booster who was funneling the cash to them was a convicted gambler, a number runner. And although nothing’s been proven, such a connection certainly raises the sort of questions that college hoops and the NCAA don’t want asked. It does make you go “hmmm” when remembering Chris Webber’s bizarre timeout call in the NCAA finals.

Then, after all this started to come to light, Michigan stonewalled and covered it up, denying knowledge of anything, carrying out self-investigations that somehow didn’t manage to find any evidence of wrongdoing. It was only after the feds came in and indicted Ed Martin (the number runner) and subpoenaed Chris Webber, that the truth came out. Then, forced by circumstance, the NCAA finally decided to investigate. And what was their decision? A measly 1 scholarship lost for 4 years, when many basketball programs don’t even use all their scholarships in the first place. And 2 years of no post season, one of which had already been self-inflcited by UM on a team that they knew was unlikely to make it anyway. And now, the NCAA has eliminated that second year, for no discernable reason. Even with it, the penalty was laughably light. And now they’ve removed even that. If this is all they do for the worst money scandal in the history of the sport, then they might as well just save everyone a lot of time, money, and hassle, and just close the doors on their enforcement arm.

Of course, they won’t, and are still busy handing punitive penalties down onto schools like Utah, for much, much, much, much more minor offenses. But this is nothing new. The NCAA has always had two systems of justice, one for the haves and one for the have nots. And UM is too big, has too much exposure, and generates too much revenue for them to ever give them a serious penalty that might eat into the bottom line. And the joke that is the NCAA continues.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 4:59 PM

By their fears you shall know them

Well, at this point it should be fairly obvious which Democratic candidate the Bush team doesn’t want to face. The past few days have seen a remarkable outpouring of critical pieces on him from the right. For the most part, I think these pieces have missed more than they’ve hit, but after this week, if Clark can get weather this storm and the Democratic debate, he’ll certainly have been through a baptism of fire.

As a moderate liberal hawk with DNC type inclinations, I’m certainly intrigued by Clark, especially since he is a candidate who represents my views on foreign policy almost exactly. And the big issue of the day is foreign policy. However, there are a few areas where questions still remain.

The first and most important is also the simplest—how good of a candidate is Clark? Is he charismatic on television, in debate settings, in interviews, and on the campaign trail? Being able to inspire, to connect, to lead the public is a central part of being an effective president, over and above any policy proposals. And it’s in this intangible area that I feel the existing Democratic candidates are lacking.

Second, there’s the issue of why he was removed from his command in Europe early, after the Kosovo war. Was it simply a matter of stepping on too many superiors’ toes, being too outspoken in opposition to them? Jealousy from others in the Army due to his quick rise and that he wasn’t one of the club? Or was there some deeper issue, which Gen. Shelton hinted in his comments? His actual actions during the Kosovo conflict will also be put under the microscope, and rightly so.

Finally, there’s the issue of temperament. Clark was a golden boy in the Army, a brilliant man who was first in his class, Rhodes scholar, and who rose through the ranks with extreme rapidity. He’s a hard charger with strong opinions who has sometimes been a bit high handed with those who disagreed with him, or at least not handled it in the best way, as witness his disagreements with Shelton. In this, he’s a bit lie Rumsfeld—a bright man who is very aware both of how bright he is and, often, others aren’t. Can he lead effectively, make the compromises necessary, interact with those who aren’t quite as quick as he is, deal with subordinates in a way that inspires loyalty as well as respect? Rumsfeld has struggled with this at Defense, and has alienated large segments of the Armed Forces in the process. Will Clark take after him, or will he be able to reign himself in in order to lead others, rather than simply demanding they follow?

Whatever the answers, his presence has immediately made the race more interesting, and given me a candidate that at least has the potential to excite me. The next threat, after the first surge of attacks from the right subsides, will be to see if Clark can capture the media. Front-runner status can lead to laudatory pieces, or it can lead to a reaction by journalists looking to tear you down. Clinton and Bush both charmed the media, which was a large part of their electoral success. Which will it be for Clark?

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 4:50 PM

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