Peace, Politicians, PR & Promises
By Charles Moran
In this Age of Promise and Fulfilment, it seems more can be consumed in return for less effort than at any time in recorded history. In making that statement, let me add at the outset that I don't make the common error of applying it willy-nilly to the entire world, the majority of which gets most of the Promise but precious little of the Fulfilment. It is true for the West, by which I mean chiefly Western Europe and North America - a small but influential fraction of the whole.
Here, it is an easy option for any would-be vendor to present consumption as the catch-all solution to their every prospective customer's every need, even when it isn't. The fact is, although the terms "consumer" and "customer" might be virtually interchangeable when referring to, for instance, a grocery store, a human being's needs do not all comprise substances to be assimilated or absorbed, in some fashion, into body or mind.
The need to be useful, for instance, is a genuine one. One example of how it is provided for, is the type of organised charitable projects in which people enrol for a small fee, plus a required level of donations pledged by sponsors. Proving oneself valuable in this way gives participants a sense of satisfaction which is different from pride in a job well done since, in a regular job, there is always some expectation or guarantee of reward. Sometimes people need to give in return for nothing whatsoever: that's what could be called an instinct for altruism.
Some of the most gentrified western folk would pay and, in some remote swampy quarter, probably do pay handsomely, to be deprived and driven to extremes under a boot-camp style training regime. Having come from a life where practically everything is sacrificed for their sake, they feel the urge to redress the balance with an otherwise purposeless self-sacrifice.
In the world from which they seek respite, the relentless battering-ram of western commercialism never ceases to drive home The Message, which is the same in many guises. "Look at this new gadget /new deal /new package /new experience. Touch /taste /feel /try /have it. Appreciate its colour /curves /sheen /texture. Simply assimilate it into your body /mind /lifestyle. It will make your life happy /perfect /problem/stress-free."
Anyone subjected to its urgency on a daily basis knows, deep down, that this is false: that acquisitions may facilitate change, but only if the acquirer decides to use them - and, moreover, to accept any change that results. Nevertheless, The Message is effective. It can be found in the media of every age, but two factors make it perhaps more potent now than at any time in the past.
Firstly, light-speed advances in electronics constantly give rise to new gadgetry which is a sales department's dream: devices that can fabricate so much out of so little, that a market with scant technical knowhow - i.e. almost the entire population of Earth - can be persuaded to view them as little short of magical, and thus capable of solving most human problems at a stroke.
Secondly, similarly rapid developments in Information Technology now spreads The Message far, far beyond the former limits of its reach. The USA always seems to have been the prime source for contemporary, brash, but methodically targeted, product promotion: until the latter half of the 20th century, this barrage of advertising was aimed chiefly at their home market - presumably, this was due to the difficulty of long-distance communication, rather than preference. With digital telecommunications and, of course, the internet, this problem has been swept aside.
The Lure of the West
The populations that are most open to the utopian promise of cutting-edge technology are the impoverished and dispossessed of the Third World, who yearn to have all the perceived advantages of the most affluent societies - never having been shown their darker flip-side. I have a personal familiarity with one of these countries in particular, and regularly see how exposure to the full blast of commercial propaganda along modern, high-speed, high-volume channels since the late 1900s has affected its people. I'm speaking of the Philippines.
I had considered leaving the country nameless, in case I appeared to single it out from its neighbours for special criticism. However, that is not the case: even without detailed facts, I don't doubt that the reaction to the same influences from other countries in the Far East, Indonesia and Malaysia, for example - not to mention regions of South America, Africa and southern Asia - is comparable. Like them, the Filipino population has bought into the dream with zeal; they have picked up the ball and are running with it as if for their collective life. Unfortunately, they may be running their culture, and collective future, up a big cul-de-sac.
Now, this isn't about to be a rant against owning new or nice things, or even against selling them wherever they can be sold, which has always happened and always will. It is a lament for a people who are not unintelligent but, through missing or misleading information, remain perilously naive about western culture. They believe that devotion to the very latest technology and best-known brands, which is a fashion-led and superficial feature of western societies, will somehow grant them passage from the Third World, with its ever-present insecurities and risk of deprivation and destitution, to the "safety" of the West.
Despite numerous invasions and colonisations by the opportunistic forces of more technologically advanced societies, the Philippines still belongs perhaps as much as 95% to the Third World. I can say this because the gap between Third World countries and their western counterparts takes a much more basic evolution to bridge than simply having the latest western imports. It isn't even about copying a European political model. It is about retaining or regaining a robust collective cultural identity and memory; a strong social infrastructure; government at local level serving the people; equality under the law; and, in general, everyone treated with fairness and compassion. (Of course, this is the ideal, not reality: no nation on Earth truly lives up to it - but, for many, it remains a standard to aim for.)
The Philippines has endured all the problems associated with the intervention of foreign powers who have had scant concern for the welfare or traditions of the indigenous people. It has been exploited for whatever its colonial masters, in particular the Spanish, could take from it. They also imported their culture, architecture and social hierarchy, becoming a mini-aristocracy in their own right. On the other hand, much wealth was created as result of the interaction between the native and incoming societies, which might not have existed otherwise. The Americans fought the Spanish for "possession" of the islands in the 19th century and maintained a naval base there throughout the two World Wars. Although that is now gone, the U.S. still has interests in the region and the power of the dollar is all-pervasive.
The colonial aristocracy has of course also gone, its governance replaced by self-rule along western democratic lines. Those whom the people elect, however - often through open offers of money for votes - are enamoured with the West and court it at the expense of caring for the slice of humanity on their own doorstep. Just as, in colonial days there was no shortage of local wealth, so nowadays there is still plenty of cash to be had from foreign investment and tourism.
The problem, now as then, is that the money, perks and privileges stay at the top of the tree. The politicians take their cut of everything: what remains in the public purse is lavished on grandiose and monumental developments, contracted out to relatives, pals and sponsors in the building trade, which benefit the ordinary person not one jot. Hence, cities with a concrete heart of towering, air-conditioned blocks ringed by a sprawl of tin-roofed shanties with open sewers. Unless carefully managed, overseas aid passes through numerous "agents", each taking a percentage, so that little or nothing reaches the people for whom its idealistic but naive donors intended it.
How the enslaved locals of earlier times must have envied their milk-skinned, proud-nosed Spanish masters! How, even then, they must have begun to despise the wide-nosed, dark "negrito" looks which condemned pure-blood native Filipinos to unremitting subjugation! How they now idolise their own elite: the political dynasties and the whitened, airbrushed, surgically-altered celebrities - with PR and media coverage blurring the distinction between them - while carefully distancing themselves from anyone considered of lower status.
The general public see those at the top positioning themselves more closely with the West than with them, and consequently (it seems) living a life of rare comfort and privilege. They also see themselves through their idols' eyes: as a faceless, anonymous, inconsequential mass. No wonder they fall over themselves to buy whatever the New World has to offer.
In western societies, The Message has been pumped out for so long that a healthy vein of skepticism runs through the bedrock of market apathy and passive compliance. Here, it is the very young, the poorly educated and very old who accept The Message without question - that is, those who have nothing to remember, or have forgotten what they knew, or knew nothing all along.
Perspective is the preserve of the perceptive, who also happen to have memories long enough to realise that consumerism has never delivered on the promise of Utopia used to sell it, and that the overriding purpose of that promise was to close the deal. However, the want that The Message addresses, for security and happiness, is timeless and fundamental. As a result, echoes of The Message and its implementation can, as I hinted earlier, be found in many more areas of life than Commerce alone, even where it may not be at all appropriate. Education, for instance.
In my article "Education, Motivation & ADHD", I examined how attention is viewed by psychologists as a sort of mystic fluid which can be depleted (i.e. attention deficit) and also, presumably, topped up. Education itself, at Primary level especially, is traditionally seen as a process of introducing information into students' heads by the most direct means, i.e. bypassing their conscious minds as effectively as possible. This, by the way, only works in rigidly stratified societies with preordained certainties and assumptions, where the answers to all questions are "already known" and no fresh thinking is required. Thankfully, the education system seems of late to have recognised the fluidity of modern society and the need for its members to think with data. Nevertheless, these are both examples of the consumerist Message in a non-commercial field.
Another involves the idea of confidence, a concept which is little understood and open to all kinds of misuse. When people refer to their confidence level, they normally mean self-confidence - also much misunderstood. People in general want confidence, and want whatever or whoever can provide it. People who are free and easy with promises, such as politicians, and the promises themselves, are seen as sources of confidence and sought after for that reason, if no other.
Motivationalists and their kind profess to somehow instill or inject confidence into their clients: another mysterious fluid then, like attention in the eyes of the educational psychologist. Here is the first misconception: lack of confidence being treated as an internal, subjective condition, treatable with some form of consumption, while disregarding certain external, objective factors that affect it significantly.
The word "confidence" has its roots in Latin. "Fid-" is about trust or faith, as in "fidelity". Take a look at this for a working definition:
Confidence is the persistent idea that a standard will be met or a promise fulfilled.
Lack of confidence is an anxiety over the future, i.e. what changes will occur and whether they are the ones we anticipated or were led to expect, but to treat the anxiety in isolation is to miss the point. It's clear from the definition that confidence may be bolstered by promises made and destroyed by promises withdrawn or broken - but that's not the end of it.
I mentioned other, more influential factors, usually ignored, perhaps because, for everyone concerned, they could be quite difficult to front up to. Bluntly, confidence is part of a broader subject, that of integrity: standards attained or compromised - which is itself entirely bound up with promises in general, whether kept or broken - and who among us has not committed a few of the latter at some time in life?
While the relationship between a person's confidence in others and the breaking of promises made to that person by others is clear, there are actually three interrelated types of social transaction which operate on confidence, and self-confidence, as a package. Apart from promises made by other people to you, there are those made by you to others and also, crucially, promises made by you to yourself.
You're maybe now beginning to see how many different aspects there could be to this subject, once opened up, but let's first establish some basics: what exactly is a promise? Looking back to Latin once again for the word's origins, we find its literal meaning "to send forward"; in other words, to put something into the future. And yes, the act of promising always involves the future tense. I will... [repay you Thursday]; We will... [cut taxes if elected]. So here's a very pithy definition:
A promise is a gift of prediction.
We could say that to make someone a promise, which they accept - and promises can be, by nature, hard to resist - is to empower them to plan their future on the strength of it. This insight illuminates, not only the gravity of breaking a promise, but also how the making of promises can be abused. There are five ways:
Very straightforward. Promises made for personal gain, never intended to be kept.
This type of promise is not made with the conscious intention of being broken, but uttered with an ease which indicates the lack of commitment behind it. It could be said, as a rule of thumb, that the more difficult the gestation of a promise, the more likely it is to be kept.
These are promises, often made under duress, for the purpose of appeasement. I promise I'll never do it again!
4) Public Relations
Often associated with Glib and heavily used by politicians, these promises are made solely to promote a person, group or idea. Marxism will usher in a new Golden Age for Humanity; If you sleep with me I'll take care of you forever!
This type is related to Glib and Public Relations and, although not as damaging as Deceptive, is perhaps the most distasteful: using promises only to sell something. For example: Invest in this scheme and you'll see a return of 40% in six months!
All five types distort the ideal of a promise, yet they can be so habitual and so much part of a person's normal operating procedure that - except for Deceptive - the offender may be genuinely oblivious of how they offend. In short, it may simply be ignorance of the concept of a promise in its purity which governs their behaviour. This is, of course, especially true of Type 2, Glib.
Of course, even the most outlandish, most unlikely promises can come true. However, the serendipity of those occasions does not excuse the neglect of the promise-maker to take responsibility for the outcome, because it is incidental to their purpose. In fact, there is probably a slippery slope from Type 2, 3, 4 or 5 to Type 1, down which a person who habitually spreads their promises out thinly, will slide from relatively unpremeditated misguidance to calculated deception.
The principal common factor in all types of false promise seems to be that they are made, at worst, solely to obtain something in return and, at best, with the focus of attention on the promise-maker's interests rather than the recipient's. The most deceptive members of humankind may be incapable of making a genuine promise, defined as a gift of prediction, simply because they cannot or will not make a true gift. So what do I mean by this?
In the everyday world, it could be said that trade was the most reliable of social interactions: a contract of exchange; something for something else; a package of being familiar with, and expecting to receive, something in return for that which is offered - which is also known and expected by the other party. A gift is something else.
Although similarly based on transfer of ownership, a gift has something rather mystical and paradoxical about it. At the moment of a true gift, there is no knowledge or expectation of anything in return. Or perhaps I should say: nothing defined or openly expressed. There may however be a faith, or confidence - that word again - of returns in the longer term. All religions seem to agree that giving is somehow better than receiving. In Christianity, "as ye sow, so shall ye reap", while in Buddhism and Hinduism, the law of karma holds that the quality of future reincarnations depends on behaviour in the present life.
So, genuine giving - and, needless to say in the case of promises, we're talking about something beneficial, not a viper or a bullet - can be seen to be related to a belief in the honour of others. This, the serial false-promiser lost long ago and, by his deception, discredits in others' minds also. He or she justifies never making them a true gift of prediction by his or her despair (expressed as cynicism) of ever receiving the same from them.
We could, however, take the analysis up another notch and say that to give something to someone else, that they need and can use, is a fractional but instant improvement in the life of Humankind as a whole - including, as a member of the race, the giver. From that angle, it's an instant return.
What do we have so far? Anyone can be at the sharp end of broken promises but, more importantly, probability dictates that they themselves will occasionally make promises to others which for whatever reason they fail to keep. In either case, confidence is built up only to be demolished; the edifice, apparently on firm foundations, is seen to collapse. Experiences like these have a cumulative effect: enough disappointments will bring a person to conclude that no promise can be relied on, not one person trusted.
As with the external social, so with the inner, personal world. The individual ceases to trust him- or herself, to fulfil his or her own "promise" (i.e. what achievements the early signs of talent augured for them), develop to their own full potential, or attain the standards that they set for themselves. In short, broken promises are both the cause and substance of cynicism and insecurity. And cynicism, in particular, is the logic of the confidence trickster for wreaking revenge on the perfidious human race generally.
Are there any clues in this analysis, as to how self-confidence can be restored? The worst abusers of trust may disqualify themselves from sympathy or any kind of help, but what about the disillusioned who have not yet sunk so low? Well, what doesn't work is recriminations against others for their broken promises. Calm but persistent reminders that their irresponsibility had been noted perhaps but, ultimately, intervention of that sort would be, not so much a means of improving self-confidence, as a by-product of self-confidence restored.
No. Where others' behaviour is concerned, prevention of future disappointments is a more practical strategy. After all, people generally prefer not to have traumatic events continually happen to them. Avoiding the effects of broken promises entails a policy of not getting into situations where your own success depends entirely on the word of someone whose bona fides (towards you, specifically) is untested. This is a question of personal awareness and judgement. No amount of caution will guarantee never being let down at least once. In which case, firm policy should not to return for more. If the well yields brackish water, do not draw from it a second time. This is not true friendship!
In most cases though, a little objectivity and canny observation will filter out who can from who cannot be trusted before the untrustworthy have a chance to do harm. For instance, does the subject (the individual under scrutiny), having promised to be somewhere at a stated time, actually arrive on time? And, if they're late or a no-show, do they mention their promise and apologise, or act as if the agreement had never existed? It may not be appropriate to treat such incidents - singly, at least - as make-or-break for a relationship, but they should certainly not be dismissed out of forbearance or kindness; they form a body of evidence.
The biblical saying: By their fruits you shall know them has never been more apt than in this context. The product of their efforts, the actual effect of their actions - observed as a pattern of behaviour over an extended period, always - are the surest indicator of an individual's honesty and integrity. The value and importance of such checks and balances notwithstanding, there are obstacles to their application. Human ones.
There does exist a small, but highly destructive, number of what may justly be called professional con-men (and no doubt a few con-women also): career confidence tricksters. They exploit the need of others for confidence - that is, for security - promising "the Earth" in exchange for money and other valuables entrusted to them, but delivering only misery and loss. In order to continue to ply their trade, the confidence trickster must be expert at creating an illusion of plausibility which allays suspicion and deflects scrutiny, often using the ancient conjuring trick of misdirection: attracting the observer's attention away from any subtle manoeuvres that might threaten the illusion.
We can all possibly think of at least one recent case of major devastation wreaked by this personality type: the fraud perpetrated by the Wall Street broker Bernard Madoff, for instance. However, there are big- and small-time players in this, as in any, game, and they turn up in all areas of life, from the street hustler tricking passers-by out of a few pounds, to national politicians manipulating a poorly regulated expenses system to scam tens of thousands out of State coffers, as happened in the UK.
Personal relationships present a abundance of opportunity for the confidence trickster. It is almost a universal tradition of, particularly, male behaviour to cajole the opposite sex into sexual relationships using false promises, and a sad fact that women are especially prone to being tricked - not just once but repeatedly, even by the same man. This can be explained at least partly by the fact that, for women, the romantic ideal of true love is an extraordinarily compelling image. The serial sexual con-artist sells it with utmost credibility but, often, what he actually delivers is unfulfilling sex, labour pains and single motherhood. His target may find herself robbed, not only of independence and her dream, but also of money and possessions: it is an easy step for dreamsnatcher to become pursesnatcher.
As part of constructing the illusion that they fit the description of the "perfect partner", such men have a talent for pressing the appropriate psychological buttons: using words, gestures, facial expressions, details of appearance to produce an involuntary response. Not all succeed, but any that do, expose a point of emotional sensitivity, of vulnerability, which can be exploited. Ironically, the visceral reaction resulting purely from practised technique on the predator's part is rationalised by his prey as a potent physical sign that the relationship is real - perhaps "true love"!
Things that traditionally press those buttons include: a smile; a wink; a twinkle in the eye; aftershave; poetry; flattery; flowers; and so on. These are all signs of affection which can of course equally be employed with good intent, out of sheer enthusiasm or, at least, without guile. The clever sexual con-artist uses them selectively and purposefully. His cleverness lies in his ability to make them seem genuine.
There may be considerable effort involved in maintaining the illusion however, especially if he is not totally sure of his tools. In that case - in most cases - he will not target women whom he judges to be his intellectual equals or superiors. He will seek out those with an apparent need for someone in whom, or from whom, they can have confidence, but with (he estimates) frail powers of reasoning. However, even given the whole gamut of male machinations, women are not totally without responsibility for the outcome. The success of the trick invariably requires a degree of complicity. So, what can a girl do about this?
By Their Fruits
Firstly, understand that there are mechanisms involved, and what they are. Secondly, remain alert and observant. Thirdly, as far as possible try to ascertain the underlying intentions of the other person, stripped of any social gloss. Finally and most importantly, look at the evidence: like ships, all of us progress through life leaving a "wake" behind us but, instead of waves, the human wake consists of our effect on the lives of others, their communities and environment. Does this soul's passage through relationships leave a trail of wreckage or gratitude?
It's not easy to maintain a critical attitude or continue this process of scrutiny when, militating against it, is the knowledge that excessive caution always carries the risk of missing out on a genuine opportunity, the chance to trust and be trusted, love and be loved. But here's the bottom line: the only true, reliable guide to a person's character is what they do, not what they say or even how they look - the "fruits" by which "you shall know them".
On a broader note, there are many ways and circumstances in which the subtle, complex system of non-verbal social signals may be pressed into the service of pure self-interest. There is some irony in the fact that this language - which it fully is - developed to enhance the social life of humanity in general should be employed almost in reverse. Perhaps it is this conflict of purpose which makes a hustler's illusion such hard work to maintain. Take a smile, for instance. Despite the social injunctions against indiscriminate smiling in public, someone caught up in a moment of joyfulness could scarcely hold back from it, as an expression of their desire - their need - to share the experience.
A smile can have other more complex origins and meanings, however. In times of stress - i.e. for most of us, most of the time - worried parents search the faces of their children for a sign that their own anxieties aren't contagious. Seeing a smile in answer to their inquiry allays their fears. Relief naturally wells over into an urge to give, to reward its source. Children quickly learn that that single hoped-for response will get them what they want, whether or not it represents a genuine emotion. Their smiles are for themselves, in anticipation of presents or treats.
The purest form of smile is the first kind, given out by someone who can do nothing other than give it - and "give" is the key word, for, like a genuine promise, a true smile is a gift, of joy, humanity, optimism. Smiles and promises are also open to the same sorts of abuse. Such close parallels are hardly surprising, though, when you consider how often, in the normal course of events, a promise is accompanied by a smile. The serious confidence trickster can no more produce a sincere smile than he or she can an honest promise. Speaking of which, have you seen any politicians' smiles recently?
Back on the subject of confidence, if the honouring of promises is crucial to avoid a descent into total cynicism and retain some trust in ourselves and the rest of Humanity, it cannot be enough just to shield ourselves from the dishonesty of others. How - if this were even possible - should we guard against breaking promises of our own?
Peering into a future stretching blindly ahead of us, it would be a bold, impetuous resolution for anyone, never to break a promise once made. A safer policy - unless you thrive on risk - would be never to make a promise unless your commitment is freely given and you're satisfied, within reason, that you'll be able to fulfil it. "Freely given", because you're bound to meet people who will attempt to extract promises from you which you doubt your ability to keep. If you've decided on caution then hold your ground: your refusal now would probably hurt them less than an eventual disappointment. A general policy of prudence should not impede you, though, from occasionally (if it feels right) jumping in at the deep end!
Of course, it goes unsaid that any future promise, while still on the tip of the tongue, should be put to the test for its underlying motivation: it is a gift of prediction, or designed to win friends or support, to sell or promote yourself or something you represent? Clearly, the answer is crucial. And, as mentioned earlier, the more genuine the intention behind a promise, the more realistic - more firmly based - it's likely to be, and therefore the more chance it has of being kept.
As for the "professional" con-artist, caught in a loop of continual promise-making and -breaking: they would have to break the cycle in order to change career. Delving into the "how" of this, is a dive too deep for this article, but probably the smallest step to take - which might be unexpectedly effortful, but surprisingly effective - would be simply to recognise and acknowledge that a promise was broken. After all, perhaps the cruelest twist in the tail of a confidence trick, on top of the disappointment and loss, is the silence.
The Politician's Promise
There is, in my view, sound justification for branding most, if not all, politicians as confidence tricksters. Some more than others, but it seems that the more political power they crave, the more personal ability and competence they will lay claim to as justification for their aspirations. With their marketing consultants keeping them abreast of what the voters want, it seems they can rarely resist the temptation to model their manifesto, and themselves, on the collective public vision of a long-awaited saviour and miracle-worker. It's understated here, of course, in the British manner, but strongly suggested in the USA, where they stop short only of proclaiming The Second Coming.
Having made a Devil's pact with Public Relations, they can only push onward and upward to ever dizzier heights of unreality, the end consequence of which must be that they become either supremely cynical or gravely delusional. The former US President Tricky Dick Nixon appears to have ended his days believing himself to be the great statesman he wished he had been. Back this side of The Pond, ex-1960s Prime Minister Harold, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, is said to have died in the grip of Alzheimer's, but I prefer to think he was finally broken by the discrepancy between his true character, as he saw it, and his projected image. Or, crushed by the weight of his former authority, at odds with the degree of personal responsibility that he was prepared to accept.
As for cynicism, what better example could there be than the covert, systematic embezzlement of public funds by British parliamentarians, by means of outrageous expense claims? Public servant, serve thyself! And the theft would still be happening at the same pace today, had it not been exposed by a national newspaper.
On taking office, the leaders of national governments - and I take as examples those of the UK and USA - speak of... guess what? All the things their people dream of in some far, imagined paradise: world peace; security, education, healthcare, employment and opportunity for all; the preservation of traditional values while embracing the new; and so on. Would it be too cynical to suggest that they say only what we want to hear, or that they're sure we'll agree with? When Margaret Thatcher led the Conservatives to power in 1979 after what felt like an eternity of economic misery, even I was encouraged by her inspirational words. Even I half-expected a future of peace and reconciliation, but what actually transpired was the Falklands War with Argentina. And it is with shame, that I now recall actually being mildly impressed by George W Bush's inaugural address.
The Politician's Lie
There are in fact two lies, lies, that permeate the relationship between nationhood, politics and war. First, there is the Great Lie. You see, Great Britain did not fight a war with Germany from 1939 to 1945 - or even 1914 to '18; there was no Cold War between America and the Soviet Union in the late 20th century. In fact, no nation in recorded history has ever fought another nation. What, you say, are you mad? No, the truth is, that politicians make war against politicians, and use the Great Lie - politician = nation - to involve everyone else.
What argument would, let's say, a Lincolnshire coalminer have with a Dresden lace-maker in 1939? None, but for the manipulation, by our leaders, of his natural and proper patriotism, to condition him (with the support of a jingoistic Press) to believe he and the lace-maker were avowed and implacable enemies. In truth, only a tiny minority of humankind, now as in 1939, would be unable to find a friend anywhere on Earth, given the means and opportunity. Unhappily for the rest, politicians seem to be among those very few.
In taking office, they are instantly overwhelmed by history and surrender to their duty and destiny, which is to follow a path trodden by millennia of warrior-kings and queens, emperors, princes, barons and warlords. It is - and it may even feel to them - as if certain measures or responses, a certain look, attitude - way of holding themselves even - is integral to the position they now hold. As if suddenly possessed by the ghosts of past incumbents, they face the possibility of a terrible doom: the legacy of having ordered their homeland up to the front line.
The second lie, grave enough in itself but a minor one relative to the first, is that the death of another human being, by fire, bullet, sabre, explosive, or one of the many other ways devised for warfare, is fine, so long as they are in a specified foreign military uniform. Okay (because there were no civilian losses) that the 20-year-old conscript was dismembered and disemboweled on the field of battle, leaving a young, pregnant wife and family in mourning. Fine, that the tank crew were incinerated in the furnace of their own vehicle, their brief agony hidden from camcorder view by red-hot armour-plate. Does anyone really believe that our collective despair at the steady flow of coffins returned from war is not echoed on the opposing side? Their soldiers were loved, too - and, ironically, by those same civilians who, supposedly, are not being made to suffer.
The Dilution of Distance
War, the inevitability (how unfortunate!) and rationale of it, the "historic perspective" on it, its "global context", could easily be topics of discussion for western dinner-guests seated in air-conditioned Chesterfields, swirling air-conditioned wine around the bowl of their tulip glasses. They will never bear a Lee Enfield on a charge against machine guns. Or, for that matter, a spear against rifles or musket against cannon-fire. They will probably never come home from the fields to dig through the rubble of their houses for the bodies of their children. Nor, certainly, lie through the long night in a makeshift hospital bed, orphaned, homeless and in pain from untreated wounds.
A harsh truth. Much as those urbane partygoers would wish to believe otherwise, the experience of pain and the loss of loved ones, property and possessions is no less intense because it happens at a distance. Our relief that it is not happening closer, or to us, cannot be balanced against it. Nor can the fact that its victims are not our personal friends or blood relatives. It is not alleviated by only affecting someone of different colour, language, culture or creed than ours. Not even the opposing truth that pleasure, equally, is not diminished by distance or any other factor, can dull its razor-edge. Yet it's not beyond the realm of imagination that one of our dinner-guests, in order to feel less uneasy about the topic of conversation, might make the claim in all seriousness that "the Arabic peoples don't feel pain in the same way we do"!
In saying this, I'm not proposing that we would be able - or should even try - to feel the pain of war victims as acutely as they do. Only recognise that, where other human beings suffer, they do so with the same intensity as would we, our friends, relatives or loved ones, under the same conditions. Imagine arriving home one evening to find your home demolished by a stray missile, with your family inside it. This is a regular event in theatres of conflict - although even calling it "regular" somehow makes it seem not quite so bad. Of course, both the USA and UK have had a comparable experience - in New York on 11th September 2001 and in London on 7th July 2005 - and few of us who remember those dates will ever forget them.
Politicians routinely turn the apparent dilution of the effects of war by the factors of distance, cultural differences, etc. to their advantage. The Afghan and Iraqi wars have each involved an armed invasion which, by its nature, locates the killings, maimings and devastation "somewhere else". This is fortuitous for the invading countries' leaders, who use the fact that most of their people do not, and indeed cannot bear to, recognise the full intensity of suffering in a war, to make it "acceptable" and gain public backing for it. To the same end, they place great store on their war being declared "legal" by the UN, as if "legal" signified "moral" or "ethical". They also claim that they had been left with no alternative.
Perhaps there are global situations to which a declaration of war is the only possible response, but perhaps, for our common sanity, we should choose to believe that there is always an alternative - but that it just hasn't been explored yet. No politician who truly empathised with Humanity or truly understood the experience of war could bear to think otherwise. Yet they clearly do. They speak of military action as a last resort yet, after a respectable pause for peace, it is with unseemly haste and barely-disguised zeal that they yet again commit their nations to armed conflict. There is one ray of hope, though. Once, the leaders of the USA and Soviet Union wrestled each other to the brink of a war in which the push of a button alone could decimate the populations of entire continents: a nuclear war. Known as the Cuban Crisis, the incident is now approaching its 50th anniversary, happily without repetition.
That fact should not give rise to complacency. I have a hunch that politicians, as a species, harbour a secret yearning to experience power at a time of war, paralleling their blatantly obvious craving for glory and a place among the immortals. British leaders, for example, inspired by the near-deification of Churchill in World War II, must surely dream of the special relationship that appears to exist between a wartime Prime Minister and his or her people. Now, if they were offered the opportunity of an overseas war, they too could dazzle with decisiveness and competence, brightly enough to blind the voters to their peacetime domestic dithering and weakness. They could be triumphant heroes - especially if the outcome was a no-contest, sure thing, such as an allied victory in the two Iraq wars (the combined might of America, Britain and others against an ill-prepared, ill-armed and ill-equipped Iraqi army), or an Argentinian defeat in the Falklands. This was what became of Mrs. Thatcher and her fine sentiments: a trans-gender caricature of Winston Churchill for the 1980s.
Of course, no politician, even of the stature of Sir Winston, holds as much power as they would like the public to believe. On being appointed to office, they mesh gears with a bureaucratic machine for which personal accountability has been denied for so many decades, that it runs almost on its own. High ideals notwithstanding, they find themselves, as the human cogs of government, in bed with the military, the industrial giants and the financial institutions in an exclusive, mutually beneficial relationship which no one individual (therefore no-one) would dare to disturb.
Because it is an environment in which armaments manufacture thrives, war is big business and big money. The arms industry worldwide has many thousands of employees dependant upon it for their livelihoods. Helping businesses to prosper, maintaining levels of employment is - and must be - core government policy. What chance then, of any government abandoning its defence modernisation programmes? What chance peace? On the back of the Harrier Jump Jet's Falklands success, its maker, British Aerospace, saw a sharp rise in orders for the aircraft.
Would it be too grotesque to suggest that a major - if not the main - purpose of that war was to demonstrate the capabilities of British-made weaponry? Without venturing so far as to suggest a real conference table, or a conclave of highly-placed representatives, or an agreed plan to "generate business", it's beyond question that, by declaring war, Thatcher's government played its part in boosting the turnover of the arms companies. Even without extra orders, they naturally find themselves, at times of conflict, having to step up production to match demand.
So. Making an effort to give them some benefit of doubt, it may well be that, taking office, politicians are drafted into a pre-established economic network in which their role is to assume a belligerent stance, or at least a steely attitude, towards a select number of foreign states, designated as potential enemies - i.e. potential war zones. It may be that they have serious personal reservations about this. However, since "having no alternative" has always been used to excuse decisions and actions that fell short of The Right Thing (including war), it does not exonerate them. Precisely what they are elected to do, surely, is The Right Thing.
War taints all aspects of a nation's life; its effects ripple out darkly from the zone of conflict. Historically, English kings routinely brought their country to the edge of bankruptcy in pursuit of military glory. In modern Britain, the obsessive focus on making savings and cutbacks in administration and services looks suspiciously as if related to the punitive cost of Afghanistan and Iraq. But the price we pay isn't just financial. We pay with our image in the estimation of others - by which I don't just mean foreign politicians or the angry protesters of "hostile" countries, but ordinary people of all kinds in various places, when they learn that we are a nation with troops fighting, killing and dying abroad.
I am of a generation which recalls the 1960s-'70s carnage of Vietnam: Americans endlessly battling an alien culture in a distant land, with great loss of life, just as they had in 1950s Korea and were to do again in the Middle East under the two Bush presidencies. In the eyes of the young of many nations - including America itself - who protested in droves, Vietnam in particular seemed to spread like a bloody stain across the face of the invader.
More serious perhaps, but less measurable, is the effect of an ongoing conflict on the politicians themselves. I remarked earlier on how little in their election manifestos and victory speeches ever becomes reality. Maybe that is, strange to say, an effect of war, for how would they be capable of effective action to provide security and prosperity for one people (their own), while simultaneously taking measures that inflict fear and loss upon another, who are their enemies purely by accident of birth? The George W Bush administration in the US was, in a sense, more honest. In the 2005 disaster of Hurricane Katrina, they demonstrated almost as little empathy for their own (mostly poor, black) people as they felt for ordinary Iraqis or Iranians.
When Weapons Backfire
The armed forces are promoted as a wonderful organisation to be a part of, but they are like heavy cannon: when fired, there is a violent recoil. Consider this: the State takes men and women and trains them, both physically to a peak of fitness and stamina, but also mentally, to risk death and use deadly force without question on the order of a senior rank - that means, with no personal moral judgement. This conditioning is vital in battle - how many of us would step into the line of fire otherwise? - but is it the right preparation for civilian life? It might be interesting to have the statistics (I don't) for the proportion of murderers and serial killers who have personal or family connections to the Forces or, at least, a gun-fetish or fanatical interest in all things military.
Over The Pond, the gun culture still thrives as it did in the Wild West, with all attempts at tighter control vigorously resisted by the Gun Lobby (courtesy of Smith & Weston, Colt, Walther and the rest). There, the attitude demanded of a soldier towards his designated foe seems regularly to spill over from the weapons-range into everyday life: supermarket shopper felled by sniper-fire, and so on. The only saving grace for Great Britain, by comparison, is stricter regulations on gun ownership. However, at the time of writing, we've seen some notable examples where they have failed, of individuals legally in possession of weapons who should not have been. We can only hope that this isn't a trend.
So, there are the problems as I see them, but what's the solution? The question is one that I ask myself also as, in this rare case, I have no ready-made answers. War and the politics of confrontation are ingrained in the global culture - although perhaps it is more pertinent in practice that they are embedded in the global economy. So much would have to change - actually, so many changes in diverse areas of life and thought. All I can do is what I've done: lay out my own observations on where we are, on the off-chance that some of them might actually be accurate and ring true with you, the reader. Perhaps, one day, The Solution will turn on in my head like the hackneyed metaphor of a lightbulb, and I'll feel sufficiently confident of its validity to write: "Politicians, The Sequel: What To Do About Them" - but no promises!
Copyright (c) Charles Moran 2010
If you've found this article interesting or useful, please see my other written work:
Budgeting For Everyone. This is an piece on running a domestic budget, which may be of use to anyone having money problems.
Education, Motivation & ADHD. This piece concerns the problem of getting education to impinge on students who have disassociated themselves from it.
Clutter! This article suggests a practical solution to the problem of a disorganised household.
This page uploaded on: 18th September 2010
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