Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Politicized Mind

It is a rather interesting trait that appears to exist solely in our time, that being the mind which has become entirely politicized. We see it in those who cannot mention the 1950's, even to praise automobiles or music, without adding a reflexive disclaimer about racial discrimination, or mentioning that the "Leave it to Beaver" image hid many social ills. Or, to bring in the Amazon.com comment which inspired this, we cannot criticize the abhorrent behavior of the Iranian Revolutionaries of the late 1970's without someone worrying they are supporting "neocon propaganda". nor is it a trait entirely on the left, many on the right feel unable to mention a movie or television show without a reflexive denunciation of their political orthodoxies, or mention higher education without a passing criticism. It seems, for better or worse, and most it is worse, our time is populated by a surprising number of people who cannot look at anything without seeing it through a highly politicized lens*.

I mention this because it has many unfortunate results, many of which help explain the peculiar political environment of the modern world. For example, going back to the birth of this politicized mindset, we can look at the "peace tourists" of the pre-war era, mostly Quakers and northeastern liberals, who felt Communism was a noble experiment, and thus felt obligated to say nothing of the many ills of Stalinist Russia, as to do so would be to cast aspersions on their political fellow travelers. Or their kindred spirits in the 1960s who became volunteer workers in Cuba, and intentionally distorted their experiences to avoid saying anything which might reflect negatively upon the communist regime**.

Many will argue that members of political factions have always distorted the truth in a self serving manner, but that is an anachronism, a projection of our modern cynicism upon a past which had a different set of values***. Yes, it is human nature to minimize the errors made by one's side, but the modern tendency to try to hide those errors, or to lie about them, was not as commonplace in the past as many believe. It is a modern trait, this outright and open acceptance of dishonesty, as well as a cynical expectation that everyone lies, something that was not accepted in past generations. Of course, in every era there are liars and cynics and deceivers, but the fact that those caught lying in the past were treated with such severity, where the present dismisses them with a knowing shrug, shows how different were the expectations, and the behavioral norms, of the past compared to the present.

 If you doubt this, think of how many events in the past puzzle moderns, such as the supposed "absurdity" of cease fires for holidays. Or, the ability of many generals in the past to meet under a flag of truce without any additional safeguards. To a modern cynic, these are unthinkable, which only shows how differently the world was viewed in the past.

Which brings me to my point, a point I seem to be making more and more, the importance of social controls. What made such things possible in the past, what forced many to be honest about things they would rather not, what forced men to act in honest and honorable ways even when against their self interest, was the social assumptions that that was how adults behaved. Granted, many were simply honest and honorable men, but even in the past, that degree of honesty and honor was probably uncommon. No, men in the past were just as self-serving and self absorbed as men now, but they lived in a different social climate. Where, today we calmly accept deception, trickery and self-serving behavior, in the past, men feared being seen to do those things and so, for the most part, behaved well for fear of social disapprobation. And thus, yet again, we see the degree to which a simple change of societal expectations can change behavior.

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* I know it is somewhat amusing for me to say this, given how I find political and economic lessons in a wide variety of unrelated materials, but there is a difference. From time to time, I find the implications of some event relates to a political or economic message I want to deliver, while those I am describing simply see everything in terms of politics. While I may, at times, find oddly unrelated matters provide a useful way of interpreting a political lesson, these people simply cannot divorce politics from everything else in their lives. So, while it may seem a bit hypocritical of me to criticize those who see everything as politicized, the truth is, I do not see everything through a political lens, I just sometimes see events as a lens which allows us to better understand politics. The two are quite different beasts.

** It is telling how many of these same individuals later became sources for Cuban intelligence, and through them the KGB. Many Russian intelligence officers admitted that their knowledge of American culture was terribly deficient until the late 1960s, when these Venceremos brigade volunteers and others began to provide them with useful intelligence.

*** It is similar to Quentin Tarantino's treatment of World War 2 in Inglourious Basterds. Taking popular perceptions of Vietnam (which were still distorted) as a model, he imagined World War 2 was populated with numerous troops who could be asked to casual commit atrocities without question. Which is highly amusing for those of us who know how hard it was even to find troops to serve as snipers, as shooting enemies at long distance from hiding was seen as cowardly and dishonorable. Does anyone think men with that mindset would be happy to go scalp enemy soldiers? Or if the military somehow found one or two who would, that any others would choose to serve with them?

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POSTSCRIPT

Of course there are many other factors in modern politicization of everything. For example, there is the degree to which many moderns derive their identity from their politics, or, if not that, then the similar situation where they derive their sense of self worth from fulfilling the requirements of their political philosophy. (And this is true on right and left.) In many ways politics has become a substitute religion. Men who would be convincing their fellows the need to go to church and repent are, today, instead spouting off about 9-11 being an inside job or telling us how neocons and Israel are destroying the US. Likewise, those who would have been missionaries or monks or nuns, doing good works in the name of God, now become perennial volunteers, serving among the poor or the veterans, depending on their political slant, and feeling a sense of political rather than divine grace. Still, I think for the most part, the tendency to warp ones mind until everything becomes political would be largely impossible in a more healthy social environment. Not only does this sort of politicization require a degree of dishonesty unthinkable in the past, but we need only recall the not so long forgotten maxim of "never discuss politics or religion" to see how simple rules of politeness would once have made such monomania unthinkable.

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