The Bliss of Ignorance
It has been my good fortune to finally be reading The Spirit of the Laws by Montesquieu. (It was a book I was to have read in college, but I was evasive and lazy, and dishonest, and am finally realizing the degree to which I picked my own pocket.
Of course when you mention M’s book, every student of U.S. history goes into convulsions of rapture over Chapter 11, used as a model by the Founding Fathers, where M merely restates, amplifies and makes clearer the doctrine of the Roman historian Polybius pertaining to the separation of powers. But ignore Chapter 11 for the moment. For me, it is the early part of M’s book that struck me most hard because I felt it to be the most relevant to explaining the stupidities of our policies not only in Iraq, but our past policies in Vietnam or Iran, for example.
Let me explain.
On page 8 of his work, Montesquieu makes clear that every human society is unique, individual, and unrepeatable, and that it is therefore not to be understood in any vague or colorless or generalized terms. Mont. says that laws of countries “should be adopted to the people by which they were created, and that it should be a great coincidence that the laws of one nation suit another….(The laws) should be fitted to the physical conditions (Mont.’s italics) of the country, to its climate, whether cold, hot or temperate; to the nature of its soil, to its nature and extent and the way of life of its people whether it is agricultural, pastoral or that of hunters; they ought to be adapted to the degree of liberty which the constitution can bear, to the religion of the inhabitants, to their disposition, their wealth, their numbers, their commerce, and to their habits and manners.”
He then says that the laws have to be studied as to the source of their origins, the design of the lawgiver, and the (social or political) order in which the laws were meant to operate.
Why this fascinated me derives from my entirely unvalidated guess that the members of the Bush administration are, perhaps unconsciously, big, obtuse, sincere disciples of The Enlightenment of the 18th Century whose major thinkers kept trying to banish or at least subjugate and control the quirks, discrepancies, the eccentricities, the anomalies, the indigestible differences to be observed in the behavior of human beings by discovering general laws that would cover any and all instances, variations, and occasions. This is the typical “one size should fit all,” approach to human experience that has so marred our own national life in the United States. We in America think it a triumph when human beings begin to think in unison. Montesquieu thought it a disaster. That’s a starting point.
In any case, Mont. makes clear that he believes that no society became what it finds itself being by adopting in the beginning by adapting a deliberate or abstract plan of some sort. A society evolves, he felt. In other words, a society becomes what it does because of the very individual variants of belief and behavior on the part of its members combined with the way those beliefs and actions have modified the human enviroment and have been modified by the environment in turn. A society doesn’t develop from a blue print — it evolves and not in any prescribed or definite direction or for any specific end. It evolves in one way in this area of the world, and evolves quite differently in another. And Mont. says that because the two societies evolve differently does not mean the one is right and the other wrong, or that one is superior and the other inferior but simply that they are different and must be looked at as being different and that those differences are not only legitimate but natural and must be understood by means of study and hard work. Which means of course, the laying aside of bias and preconception. In other words, there are differences in the mental, moral and physical characteristics at work in the forming of a society. It is the sum of those that result in different institutions, outlooks, religions and other forms of collective belief, myths, and peculiarities of action.
You are saying to yourselves by now, please come back to earth.
I will. My point is that we usually know nothing or next to nothing of the cultures we insist on invading, saving, or intervening in for the sake of securing our own welfare or our own freedom from fear. Vietnam is a good example. When we got involved in saving it from communism, etc, Vietnam was a Buddhist country. The Buddhist monks there were a powerful if not always obvious political and social influence who enjoyed widespread popular support. So what did we, the United States, do? We go in there the 1950s and support what? Buddhists? No. We supported a Catholic government, Diem’s. Now had we bothered, we might have found out that the Catholics were viewed generally by the very Vietnamese population whose support we were courting as being corrupt collaborators with the detested French, that vile bully of a colonial power. By supporting Diem, who was mad with a desire to hang on to power at all costs and whose politics were entirely those of self (like Milosevic’s), we might have thought differently and more subtly and more accurately. In other words, we would have perceived our situation more rightly and acted more wisely.
In fact, had we really known Communism as thoroughly as we pretended to, and had we really known Russian history thoroughly and understood how much Stalin was essentially not an ideologue, but an old Russian imperialist after the manner of Peter the Great, we might have perceived that national, not ideological animosities drove a wedge between Peking and Moscow and that, at the time, China feared Stalin more than the United States. In fact, grasping the nature of those national and cultural rivalries would have destroyed the fictional evil communist monolith U.S. policymakers kept claiming was attempting to devour all of Asia. Remember that the Russians had stolen thousands of miles of land from China back in the 1800s (I think) and resentment of that theft would flower into a bloody border war in 1969.
Also think of our policy-makers flaccidly accepting the myth of Vietnam as a cat’s paw of China. The fact was that those two countries hated each other the way the Israelis and Palestinians hate each other or the Serbs and Croatians detested each other. China had occupied Vietnam on and off for centuries and the mutual animosity of Hanoi and Peking stretched back for hundreds of years. Yes, China supplied weapons to the North Vietnamese, of course, just as Wellington supported the guerrillas in Spain or we the mujahideen in Afghanistan.
I am ending.
If Pat gives me permission I would, however, like to go on, and again talk about differences of countries, their contrasting outlooks, social and economic organizations, and political structures that seem to me to apply to our own predicaments today. Knowing how highly Pat thinks of his readers, I hope this will arouse interest and be discussed among you. I am offering this in good will.