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Monthly Archives: September 2017

You think 2017 is politically polarised? Try 1968

Protests outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968


This week I finished watching the new PBS documentary series, The Vietnam War, made by Ken Burns and Lynne Novick. It’s a massive piece of work – 18 hours of footage from the last war when American journalists were allowed to roam pretty much wherever they wanted on the battlefield, and when presidents recorded their private conversations. You’ve never seen a war so close.

And it’s a shock. I knew a bit about the Vietnam War, mainly from movies like Platoon and Apocalypse Now. But I was still shocked by the atrocities committed by the American army, by the futility of so many of the battles – hills taken at huge cost and then immediately abandoned – and by the awful suffering of the Vietnamese people, who were at war continuously, from the war with France in 1945 to 1954, to the civil war (also involving the US) from 1955 to 1975, to the war with Cambodia from 1975 to 1989.

The US involvement in Vietnam’s civil war looks, from the perspective of history, like a monumental error. It arose from a fundamental misreading of the conflict. Successive US presidents, from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson, thought that if the communist North Vietnamese succeeded in their war with South Vietnam, South Asia would turn communist, and eventually Europe would topple too. 

The domino theory turned out to be wrong. In fact, it was a domestic civil war, and the US picked the wrong side – the South Vietnamese government, nominally democratic, was deeply corrupt, authoritarian, and unpopular. The US thought, when it intervened, that the Vietnamese would see them as liberating heroes. In fact, many saw them as racist imperialist invaders, just like the French before them. 

The US initially sent in ground troops to Vietnam when it thought its ships had been attacked by North Vietnamese forces, in the Gulf of Tonkin incident. This too was an error – the supposed torpedo was a blip on the radar. But, as defence secretary Robert McNamara said years later: ‘We saw what we wanted to believe’.

What’s truly shocking is that as early as 1963 the American government knew the war was going badly and was unlikely to end in victory. Yet the war lasted another decade, costing the US around 60,000 lives, several million Vietnamese lives, and poisoning the political culture of both countries for decades. 

You think American politics is polarised now? Look at 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive, when it became horribly obvious to Americans watching the TV news that they were losing the war; a year of race riots, of the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, a year of police brutality and domestic terrorism by radical leftist groups, a year when protests outside the Democratic National Convention were so violent, the convention had to be carried out in an improvised security bunker.

The Baltimore riot of 1968

It was a clash of ethics, as much as anything else. Thousands of young Americans were going through hell to honour the ethic of serving their country. Back in America, other young Americans were choosing a different ethic of personal development and authenticity. Or they were deciding that the best way to serve their country was to protest against an immoral and futile war. 

The ideological clash between liberals and conservatives became ever more bitter. The liberals, in many ways, were right. The war was futile. But the tactics of anti-war protestors were often misguided and self-defeating.

Hippies screamed abuse at returning vets as they arrived home at airports, calling them baby-killers; they burned American flags, and waved the flag of North Vietnam; they called the police ‘pigs’, and America a Nazi police-state. Liberal Hollywood icon Jane Fonda travelled to North Vietnam and denounced American prisoners of war as criminals who deserved to be executed, then let herself be photographed laughing on a North Vietnam anti-war gun used to shoot them down. And groups like the Weathermen and the Black Panthers declared that best form of resistance was violence. No wonder Robert Kennedy said, a few weeks before his assassination, ‘the centre cannot hold, and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’.

Jane Fonda larking around on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun

The consequence of these radical tactics was to hand Republican candidate Richard Nixon a landslide victory in the 1968 election, in which he won every state except two. He won by appealing to the ‘silent moral majority’ who didn’t want to see America over-run by hippy terrorists – even though, by that point, most Americans actually opposed the war. It took the left over a decade to recover, and Nixon only lost power when his own paranoia led to Watergate.

There are lessons here for the left today, and how it opposes President Trump and other nationalist parties across the west.

This decade is a time of comparable polarisation in western politics. There are protests, riots and police shootings on the streets, and angry clashes on campuses. There is fear and loathing on both sides. The left labels the right as Nazi, while the right labels the left as totalitarian. Violence and hate speech are gradually normalized as political tactics. The intense complexity of global politics is reduced to simple black-and-white narratives of noble heroes and evil sick villains. The centre-ground of politics diminishes. Which side are you on?

As in the Gulf of Tonkin incident, people see what they want to believe. This is true of both sides.

I’ve been following a psychology professor called Jordan Peterson on Twitter. He’s a well-known evolutionary psychologist, but more famous as an outspoken critic of political correctness on campuses, which he sees as a totalitarian threat to western civilization. He’s so terrified of this existential threat, he sees it everywhere.

This week, for example, Nassim Nicholas Taleb tweeted about how political correctness was destroying western education. The British right-wing commentator Katie Hopkins tweeted him a flyer in which she offers free classes to schools, where she offers her unique take on subjects like Black Lives Matter or transgender rights. Jordan Peterson seized on this, and retweeted it as an example of ‘radical leftist indoctrination’. When one bemused follower asked him what his problem was with Katie Hopkins’ classes, he said ‘If you can’t see the difference, then you’ve already been indoctrinated.’

That’s political culture in the West in the early 21st century  – people scanning the net, looking for things to be outraged about, torpedoes to be repelled and revenged, without taking the time to investigate. People seeing their own side as heroes and the other side as evil. Complexity and nuance are the first casualties of this toxic climate.

Ken Burns says he hopes his documentary can act like a vaccination against the virus of the Vietnam War, and the distrust, alienation and polarisation it engendered. You see the suffering of all sides in the war, you see their honourable intentions, and their moral doubts. You see a protestor who fled to Canada, deeply regretting renouncing his American citizenship; you see a soldier who accepted the draft, who feels his acceptance was a defining moment of moral cowardice; you see a former protestor tearfully apologising for the insults they hurled at traumatized veterans as they came home. You see the wounds people have carried for decades.

Both the left and the right today need to try and understand each other’s reasons – the noble intentions and basic emotions driving their calls for social justice or economic freedom or controlled borders or human rights. They need to make the effort to see the other side as humans, rather than Nazis, hippies, SJWs, snowflakes, Remoaners, gooks, cuks etc.

There’s a pragmatic reason for being able to take the other side’s perspective – it makes it more likely you win over public opinion, more likely you achieve your political goals, and less likely that your campaigns backfire and empower your opponents, as they did in 1968. And there’s a moral reason too –  being able to see the other side’s perspective makes it more likely that democracy will survive.

The best of times, the worst of times

This is the best time ever to be alive and human. Global life expectancy has doubled in the last century, from 31 to 71. A century ago, 20% of babies died in childbirth, now it’s less than 7%. You’re far, far less likely to die violently than in the Middle Ages, the 19th century, or even in the 1960s. In the last 30 years, the percentage of the world living in abject poverty has fallen from 37% to below 10%. Global literacy has risen from 40% in 1950 to 86%. In 1900, girls in Sub-Saharan Africareceived 7% of the education (in years) that boys’ received, now they receive 82% – and its close to 100% in Latin America and Eastern Europe.

The world is better off in terms of health, education, wealth, gender equality, democracy, and peace, than it was 50 years ago, and far, far better off than it was 200 years ago.

Yet if you ask people in the UK, Germany, the US, France and elsewhere if they think the world is getting better, only around 4% of people think it is. 

Why has the west got the blues? Why aren’t we celebrating the incredible progress we have made? Why do we say things like ‘2016 was the worst year ever’, based on two right-wing election victories and the death of some celebrities?

Firstly, I think it’s fair to say we are spoilt. We have been spoilt by 50 years of peace and affluence. We thought the 90s were normal, when the biggest problem the US faced was Bill Clinton’s zip, rather than a decade unusual for its lack of serious crises or major wars. When we returned to the historical norm of crisis and war, we were bewildered, and we wailed.

Secondly, while the world is doing better, the West, by some measures, is doing worse. Western countries are seeing less dramatic gains in measures like literacy or life expectancy, a relative decline in our global share of GDP versus emerging markets, and actual declines in domestic measures like real income, living standards, home-owning and inequality. The 2008 financial crisis eroded our faith in democracy and capitalism. Liberal capitalist democracy is less obviously the globally triumphant system it was in 2000. It doesn’t seem to be working very well in the US and elsewhere, and the percentage of those in the West who support the idea of military dictatorships is rising, particularly among millennials.

Third, migration has rapidly reshaped the demographics of western countries, with the share of immigrants in some populations almost doubling in the last 20 years. This has changed the look and feel of many European cities – they have become far more multicultural or, sometimes, more segregated. Unfortunately, this sharp rise in immigration in the last 20 years has come at the same time as a period of war and international terrorism in the history of Islam. Every terrorist attack in the West emboldens and amplifies far-right voices saying Western civilization is heading for Islamic destruction. 

Fourth, we’re growing up with the prospect of species-threatening climate change in the next few decades, and we don’t know what to do about it. Some scientists, including James Lovelock, tell us there’s nothing we can do – the world will, in the next 30-50 years, become largely uninhabitable, much of humanity will become refugees, and the human population will be literally decimated. It’s such a dark prospect, and we’re so obviously failing to deal with it, that we don’t really talk about it. But I think it profoundly shapes our emotional and psychic reality.

Finally, there may be an emotional crisis in the West – a rise in loneliness, and in emotional problems like depression and anxiety. I’m not entirely sure on this – I think the rise in those seeking treatment is probably because of greater awareness and access to treatment. Nonetheless, George Monbiot may be right, in his new book Out of the Wreckage, when he argues we’re facing a crisis in meaning brought about by a lack of an over-arching narrative or myth.

Instead, we look to social media for meaning and narrative. We out-source our thinking to pundits like Owen Jones or Glenn Beck, or to a handful of trusted Twitter heroes like Gary Lineker and JK Rowling, who never disturb us with new or contrary ideas, but instead comfort us by articulating what we already feel, and shape the incredibly complex world of global politics into simple narratives of good versus bad, heroes versus villains. This is a perfect recipe for emotional disturbance, social division and political disfunction. Twitter is making us stupid, and sick.

Such is the complexity of the ‘wicked problems’ we face, a part of me feels the allure of unplugging and dropping out. The public space has become too noisy, too bitter. We feel we must have an opinion on everything, yet much of what is happening is beyond our individual or collective control. Perhaps now is the time for a tactical Daoist retreat – the wise man ascends the mountain, and lets nature take its course. 

But I think a better response than Daoist retreat is Stoic engagement: you accept that much of the situation is beyond your control, you accept that some fairly dreadful things are going to happen this century, but you engage politically anyway, with firm resolve, and a hope and faith in the long arc of the cosmos towards wisdom and justice.

We must keep hope, and remind ourselves of humans’ natural bias to negativity. We must remember how often, over the last 2000 years, humans thought the end of the world was nigh, and were proved wrong.We must remind ourselves loudly of the victories we have achieved and are achieving, even if these victories happen thousands of miles away. We must remind ourselves how sudden technological innovations have utterly transformed human existence in the past, and are likely to do so in the future. We must consider the ‘long now’, and plan not just for five years in the future, or 50, but 500.

I think my country – the United Kingdom – needs a ‘Doomsday Trust’, like the Rand Corporation, to go away into a farmhouse in the countryside for five years and think deeply about the challenges our country faces from climate change – to face difficult questions about arable land, dependency on food exports, mass migration, relations with the EU, the possibility of social breakdown – and find a way to help our nation survive this century. That thinking can’t be done on Twitter.

We must re-learn to engage not just through social media, but through face-to-face neighbourliness – speaking personally, I must shake myself out of a period of withdrawal from community organizing and start to organize again, for the common good and my own good.

Finally, what about the crisis of meaning in western culture, and the need for a new narrative? I can only repeat my brother, Alex Evans, whose book The Myth Gap earlier this year called for a new myth to change our relationship to nature and each other.

I also think the new narrative will be a shift from the Cartesian / Hobbesian narrative of the individual rational ego competing with other humans and exploiting a world of inanimate matter and soulless animals, towards a narrative where our consciousness is extended and deeply connected to each other, to other species, and to all of nature and all matter. 

When I develop my consciousness into wisdom and love, you benefit, even if we never meet. When you suffer, I suffer, even if we never meet. When the corals bleach in Australia, I am poorer. When literacy rises in Nigeria, I am richer. We are literally one organism, one consciousness, one interlocking eco-system, one vast I AM. That, I think, is the astonishing and in some ways terrifying truth that humans have been groping towards for millennia.

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