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.
A few points on the Vietnam issue. But before I start, please allow me to say I enjoyed your well written, and thought out, piece. I do have some different takes than you do on Vietnam.
First, if it was failure to grasp the complexities of different country than ours, some of the origins of this failure have to be laid at the door of McCarthyism. Gutting the Asian Section of our intelligence/diplomatic apparatus in the early 50s over the ‘who lost China” debacle had to send lots of messages. i.e. ‘keep your mouth shut. Especially if you have news your superiors will not want to hear.
That is not my major point of contention with your essay. I take issue with your comments regarding the possible motives for supporting Diem. You insinuate that we supported him because of ignorance regarding the political and cultural dynamics of the then South Vietnam. You wrote “…. 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”.
Maybe. Maybe. But I think we did “bother” and I think we did “find out”. We did not like the answers we found out. What if our desired end, in SV, was not in the interests of the SV people? It might have been that; while all and all we wished them no particular harm perhaps, we had interests that deviated from theirs. If that was the case then it would make sense to back Diem. Since, for the sake of accumulating power he was more than willing to sell out the majority of his people. He was a perfect stooge.
What good would it have been to support the Buddhists if they were not going to help us accomplish our goals? They had popular support but would, rightly, not risk this support for our sakes. Diem had no popular support (indeed just the opposite) but would advance our interests.
Sure…it was a gamble that eventually Diem would anger and alienate himself from the people. But it was a gamble that the powers that be felt had to be taken. If there was an intelligence gap it was in failing to understand just how big of a gamble it was.. There is always a risk when a colonial or occupying power backs a Quisling type.
Finally, I do not buy for a second that the powers that be in the United States were ignorant of the historical relationship between China and Vietnam. They knew. Or had sound reason to know. But to acknowledge such would smash the ‘monolithic monster on the march’ hype that did so much to fuel the creation of the military-industrial complex, (and the never ending war mentality) that went with it.
In others words, in both cases above, ignorance is bliss if knowledge contradicts desired ends. The people that were truly ignorant of these historical facts and complexities were the people in the United States. And as such…they were able to be fooled by people who DID know better. But who would write in memoirs years later “who know then?” “you did ya bastards” the people should shout in unison!
Funny, the names and places change but the dynamics stay the same.
Richard and Jonst,
Thanks to both for your provocative thinking, as always. I hadn’t thought of Montesquieu since college. I tend to lean more towards Jonst’s reasoning – so many of the foolish and truly counterproductive policies that have been foisted upon other cultures by the U.S. are known to be flawed from the get-go. They find their real root and sustenance in the omnivorous beast standing silently behind its invisibility-cloak in the center of the room: defense spending. I would argue further that much of Israeli policy shares the same feature.
Thank you Mr. Sale and Jonst for wisdom, two true facets of its many sides.
The laying aside of bias and preconception is the rarest act I have witnessed in my time on this earth. I am far more experienced with the powers of self-delusion and her exquisite lady in waiting, Convenience, on the most vulgar terms. Along with me, most other individuals and organizations are equally prone before them. Wizards set out to harness their great powers and weave them into cunning spells, yet in the end, they always seem to become the spells’ last true believers.
That is to say: leaders may have set out with full knowledge to manufacture threats to stimulate popular support for self-serving positions regarding Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba, or for that matter Grenada. They fabricated threats either in pursuit of things they wanted to protect or things they wanted to steal.
The wanting is the important thing, it is pre-eminent. Wanting’s strength quickly obscures and then suffocates all fact, no more so than in the minds of those who crafted the justification in the first place. It is more than possible to both cynically engineer and then sincerely believe: among humans, it’s business as usual.
Great post Richard. I have enjoyed the intellectual content of your post and the other comments around your post.
I have a much simpler take. Throughout history those that perceived they were stronger always tried to take advantage of those perceived weaker. We have had conquests, wars, subjugation, resource plundering for millenia. The motives have varied from ego to more power.
In more modern times where the acquiescence or support of the public have become more important real motives are obscured and propaganda to rally the masses have become more sophisticated.
The ostensible motive for the Vietnam invasion was to prevent the communist dominoes. As the aftermath has shown there were no dominoes to fall. So, what was the real motive?
In Iraq the motive originally provided was to remove a dictator who had WMD and was supporting terrorists. When those reasons were debunked another plausible motive was trotted out to bring democracy to the Islamic masses in Arabia. And again what was the real motive? Here it is a bit easier – personal profit (Cheney’s stock option values rose 8 fold) and add to that as PL states utopian visions of grandeur.
So in essence its not so much we do not understand other cultures or respect the differences that devolve from others social experiences but in the current context we are the mightiest nation economically and militarily and we can chose to do whatever we please. The flip side is that history has shown that no one remains top dog forever. And ususally at the apex the dominant society over extends itself militarily and more competitive societies take advantage of that bleeding. The economics of 9/11 is quite startling. AQ spent less than $1 million and our retaliation in my simplistic back of the envelope calculation has cost us $1 trillion. I would believe our enemies have achieved an important objective. The only “entity” that has profited from this in our society are the few that have significant ownership in the corporations that received the bulk of those expenditures.
The average Joe has always been expendable and can be brought to heel at the bidding of the few either through propaganda or bribes. Societies have always been hierarchical and egalitarianism is new and America epitomizes it. Regardless America too is highly stratified with the top 0.5% of our society garnering over 50% of the national income. My conclusion is that even modern societies are pawns in the wealth and power accumulation of the top 0.5%.
I enjoyed Sales’ seemingly liberal diatribe and would welcome more. But . . .
The historical events which gave rise to these cultural differences and uniquenesses inevitably involved disagreements and the shedding of blood before they become embodied.
The British and American models using democratic principles haven’t been entirely pain-free. For that matter, the only cultures I can recall with less bloodshed have been small ones in isolation as in the South Pacific. And who actually can say they were painless?
Is this the cost of an evolving culture? A lack of tolerance and a need for suppression of dissent? How depressing.
I don’t think we can assume that the right wants to defeat our enemies or solve or problems. Their goal tends to be to use fear and to enrich various interests.
Look how cleverly this administration has added to the effects of the C;inton administration to create a hostle Russia unified with China while we have Nato treaty obligations to some questionable regimes at the Russian border.
10% of GNP for defence is the logical response along with laws of draconian nature.a
On the issue of motives for war, let us turn to the Immortal Bard.
In Henry IV (Part II), the ailing king advises his son to keep domestic rivals busy with foreign adventures:
Yet, though thou stand’st more sure than I could do,
Thou art not firm enough, since griefs are green;
And all my friends, which thou must make thy friends,
Have but their stings and teeth newly ta’en out;
By whose fell working I was first advanced
And by whose power I well might lodge a fear
To be again displaced: which to avoid,
I cut them off; and had a purpose now
To lead out many to the Holy Land,
Lest rest and lying still might make them look
Too near unto my state. Therefore, my Harry,
Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out,
May waste the memory of the former days.
Here is an appropriate quote:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, From a speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, April 16, 1963
And of course the Supreme Court voice itself. (which is the VERY point of what’s going on right now)
How come I got the feeling people at the Pentagon is thinking “F” the Supreme court. We got the gun. (highly predictable. All that BS about “carrying the law and protecting constitution. …. haa haa haa… )
When, however, neither the elements of the offense nor the range of permissible punishments is defined by statute or treaty, the precedent must be plain and unambiguous. To demand any less would be to risk concentrating in military hands a degree of adjudicative and punitive powers in excess of that contemplated either by statues or by the Constitution….
The Federalist No. 47, p. 324 (J. Cooke ed. 1961)(J. Madison)(“The accumulation of all powers legislative, executive and judiciary in the same hands…may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny…”)
Before you came “back to earth” in your essay you hit on an important, in my opinion, aspect of the Bush administration and his adherents: how they view the world. The Enlightenment introduced many new social and political concepts into the public realm. Perhaps none is more germane to the Bush administration’s world view than how it sees causality. The twofold axiom of the principle holds that whatever is has a cause, and that cause is more perfect than its most perfect effect. Essentially, the creator is more perfect than the creation. During the Enlightenment the principle was upended setting the stage for “evolution”–your attribution to Montesquieu about evolving societies or Hegel’s Idea (These opposing views of causality are present in the current debate over evolution versus intelligent design.). The Bush administration seems to follow the earlier conception of causality, hence, its attempts to roll the New Deal, labor law, and environmental conservation back to a more perfect condition–none. This reactionary tendency, a disposition to look back for the ideal society (also an underpinning of the neoconservative movement), also explains why Mr. Bush feels so compelled to define in universal terms of his choosing the innermost desires of other peoples. Indeed, it allows him to wax poetic over Man’s desire for freedom and democracy (as understood in Western society) without giving due diligence to other cultures, religions, or societies. Thus, the perfect pretext and execution of the invasion of Iraq overshadow its not-so-perfect effect, the occupation. In other words, stay the course, the cause is just and the intention is pure. Surely, Mr. Bush and his true believers refer to his infallibility as the perfect creator of Iraq policy. (The mismatch of the Bush administration’s rhetoric with deed makes for a long list.) As you suggest and jonst asserts, the information is there, the area specialists offer experience, it is the will to listen and consider that is not. Certainly, President Bush and his administration are not unique in this regard as this thread indicates.