Thursday, 7 December 2017

Freedom or Stability: Terministic Screens of World Politics and Their Rhetorics

"When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

In his book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, presidential candidate Mitt Romney looks at the main state actors on the world stage and compares them to businesses with different business models. He sees the American leadership of the world weakening because "nothing is as vulnerable as entrenched success," a proverb he learned from his father's business experience. At the time, some criticized his assessment of Russia and China as being too "Cold War-ish," although many of his critics have later apologized and said "Romney Was Right About Russia." It may be a part of an occupational psychosis for a business man to see everything as likened to a business model, but that perspective also gave some interesting insights into the strengths and weaknesses of each nation's plan for success.

Today I'd like to do something similar, based on my occupational psychosis as a rhetorician, and give a brief overview of some of the main perspectives on world politics that the major actors use to make sense of things. These are different lenses or screens through which world events can be viewed, and it can help us to make sense of the logic that dictates or at least guides their actions, their moves and countermoves. As Kenneth Burke wrote, these different screens each turn our attention to different things and shows different meaningful relationships. He writes in Language as Symbolic Action: "Even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality" (45). So here are a two of the screens and some feature of reality that they reflect, select, and deflect.

Though this has often been a smokescreen to hide the real motivation (selfish national interest) it is also true that many choices have been made in US foreign policy that were not based on the goal of getting any immediate gain, but rather serving the long term benefit and freedom of a large group of people.

Following WWII, it would have been possible for the US to maintain their world leadership and keep all the other nations, who were all broken from WWII, in subjugation and disorder. Instead, they instituted the United Nations, The World Bank, The International Monetary Fund, and offered the Marshall Plan to rebuild the economies of Europe. They even offered, with the Baruch Plan, to share their knowledge of the atomic bomb and allow the United Nations to control all the uranium in America and in the world in general. As the world's only functioning economy, the world's only nuclear power at the time, and the largest and most advanced military in the world, the US could easily have become oppressive world masters, but they chose instead a course that led to unprecedented freedoms and wealth for millions of people around the world.

The seeds for this way of thinking goes back to the American revolution, where the greatest thing to be feared was the tyrant, and the greatest thing to be preserved for all was liberty. As Kenneth Burke writes in A Grammar of Motives:

"Considering the Constitution, then, as an enactment arising in history, hence a dialectic act, we find something like this: Thrust A (the will of the monarch) had called forth a parry A1 (the 'rights' of the people). A document is formed that memorializes and perpetuates this parry. And it survives, in its memorialization, after the role of the opponent, whose thrust called forth this parry has been removed" (365).

We find this anti-tyrannical attitude in Thomas Jefferson's quote about too much and too little law:

" … were it made a question, whether no law, as among the savage Americans, or too much law, as among the civilized Europeans, submits man to the greatest evil, one who has seen both conditions of existence would pronounce it to be the last; and that the sheep are happier of themselves, than under care of the wolves. It will be said, the great societies cannot exist without government. The savages, therefore, break them into small ones."

With this frame of mind, one looks over the world and wants to see liberty. When one sees what resembles "the tyrant" and an absence of the rights set down in the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution as universal rights and self-evident truths, one immediately looks at how one can relieve and free the oppressed from the burdens of a tyrant. The assumption is, as Winston Churchill states, that when the people of the Earth are free they will move into "broad, sunlit uplands."

This sentiment is well and alive today, most notably in the US and Europe, with some very recent "converts" to this perspective in former Soviet Union states like Georgia and the Baltics. Here is a passionate defense of that perspective by the former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, denouncing Russia and envisioning a future of free nation states, without empires.

Though it has recently suffered a set-back in the US, with the "America First" policy of Donald Trump, John McCain and others both on the left and right side of the aisle still speak in defense of freedom and denounce tyranny and oppression in all its forms. Here as recently as in November.

Reflection of Reality
This terministic screen really does reflect an important reality in the world: There is a real difference between freedom and oppression. There is a difference in terms of which governments kill huge swaths of their citizens. Communist regimes have killed a total of between 83 and 100 million of their own citizens, with just the administrations of Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Khmer Rouge alone killing between 21 and 70 million. In general, there is also a difference long-term in economic development and prosperity, and innovation (though Russia and China so far have been able to introduce market reforms without allowing for full democratic freedoms). Freedom vs. oppression also seems to have a rather universal appeal, with people all over the world willing to dedicate their lives to be able to live in freedom.

Selection and Deflection of Reality
What does this perspective miss? Why doesn't freedom flourish as soon as dictators are killed and regimes are toppled? Why is there a current movement even in free nation state democracies to elect parties and implement policies that are antithetical to this dedication to freedom? Well, a few things:

1. Freedom isn't easy.
Freedom can be great, but it can also be a huge burden. For people who were used to be told what to do and what to think, freedom can be disorienting, leading many to feel lost, abandoned, and alienated. Suzanne Langer claims that many Germans, growing up with an authoritarian system, felt disoriented in the modernistic Weimar Republic, and this made them easy prey for the collectivized lures of Nazism and Communism. Except for the absence of tyranny, what does freedom even mean for the average person? What does freedom mean to you if there is nothing you want to be free to do? In some ways, it can be a bit like what Ryan Hamilton says about freedom and being single (starting at 2 minutes.

For many people from the former Soviet Union, who were used to having the state plan and provide for them, freedom soon seemed more like abandonment. It may be similar for some Muslims who transition from rigid moral codes to countries where you can pretty much "do whatever you want" and react by seeking fundamentalist clerics online and become radicalized. Though economic aid, meaningful work, idealistic social projects, a strong social bond, and friendships can ease these plagues of modernity and transitions from authoritarianism, the hard truth may be that some will in the end still reject this because they simply don't want freedom.

2. Tyranny can be better than anarachy
Though state actors have been responsible for mass killings on a large scale, most people in the world are not killed by their own governments, for the simple fact that it is not in their interest. If nothing else, governments need people for tax revenue, recruits for the military, and to provide a labor force, so even the worst governments in the world provide some benefits to their populations. As long as you are not a threat to the government and control your tongue you can usually do your work and go about your everyday life without too much interference. People can live in the most oppressive conditions as long as there is some degree of predictability. Anarchy, on the other hand, can lead to a brutal war of everyone against everyone, with constantly shifting power structures, uncontrolled violence, and where what is praised one day can be punished the next day. That is a situation that is truly intolerable for people to live in. There is nothing as uncivil as a civil war, with neighbor fighting against neighbor. In comparison to this, even the most oppressive regime becomes tolerable and preferable. Which brings me to my next perspective.

For a while in college, I for some reason found myself listening quite a bit to an English-speaking Chinese radio station, and it was so interesting to observe how world events and news were covered on that station. The overwhelming term around which all evaluations of the world swirled was  "stability". Whenever a protest, a war, an election, or anything else was covered, it was all seen through the prism of stability: "X country has returned to stability, Y country has recently been destabilized, the destabilization was caused by Z. Prospects are not good for having the country make a quick return to stability." It struck me that they reported the world news somewhat the way I am used to hearing reporting about the financial markets and stock exchanges. At some level, I am wondering whether this goes back to the Confucian focus on harmony, with harmony being a greater and more important virtue than truth. Another word for harmony is balance, and balance is a manifestation of stability.

Incidentally, this is a view shared with Vito Corleone (The Godfather) and Donald Trump. Vito Corleone observes that a gang war between the crime families is "bad for business" and therefore seeks harmony rather than vengeance (at least in the short term). Perhaps for similar reasons, Donald Trump thought Michael Gorbachev was a bad leader and praised the Communist regime in China based on their ability to maintain stability. This is from an interview he gave in 1990:

"Russia is out of control and the leadership knows it. That's my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand. [...] Yet Gorbachev is getting credit for being a wonderful leader - and we should continue giving him credit, because he's destroying the Soviet Union."

"When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength."

The promise of stability has always been the lure of authoritarianism in its different forms, and the prism of stability makes you see a well-functioning democracy and a stable dictatorship as almost equivalent. With this perspective, it makes sense to knock down popular protests as though they were insurgent groups or foreign agents: after all, they are agents of instability, the devil in this moral hierarchy. Here is Vladimir Putin using that argument for all it is worth to defend supporting the Syrian regime, despite the fact that Assad's regime has killed most of the 250,000 killed in the Syrian Civil War.

Of course, even he speaks of democratization as being the ideal (though he actively undermines that same process for his own citizens in Russia). This just shows how prevalent the "freedom" lens is still in the world. He is arguing for stability, but needs to do so in the language of freedom.

Reflection of Reality
As I said, the yearning for stability is deeply ingrained in the human mind. With stability comes a measure of predictability, and with predictability comes a measure of safety. In some areas and countries, regimes focused on stability have been able to more effectively provide for the safety of the inhabitants than regimes focused on freedom. Even in democracies there is a provision called "martial law" where normal rights and procedures are abandoned in order to deal more effectively with an emergency or a crisis. In some ways, this is an admission that freedom is a burden and a luxury which can be put to the side in times of great need. The "stability" perspective maintains the importance of an aspect of reality that is essential. Even for the American military a "failed state" or "power vacuum" is the nightmare scenario. As far as it goes, modern world politics disprove or at least does not agree with Jefferson that no law is better than too much law.

Selection and Deflection of Reality
So what does this perspective miss? Why have so many people in past and modern times rebelled against and toppled regimes that were very adept at providing the basic needs of stability and predictability?

1. Freedom and stability are not mutually exclusive
You have to be a pretty bad leader to lose in a contest between your selfish but stable leadership and anarchy, but these are not the only options on the table. In the United Kingdom there has been some form of representational government at least since 1430, and yet it has been one of the most stable and predictable countries in the world by almost any measure during the last almost 600 years. The United States of America has enjoyed over 150 years without a civil war or major domestic dispute, despite absorbing the largest amount of diversity, immigration, and social change in any nation during that time. In addition, during the same time span both these countries have pretty consistently been among the most innovative and the most wealthy nations in the entire world. Yes, these patterns of peaceful, stable, and reliable democratic coexistence are not easy to create, but they have been replicated in nation after nation using these two as an example.

Yes, you need some time, both the US and England fought civil wars early in their democratic experiments. Yes, you need strong institutions. Yes, you need a somewhat enlightened electorate. It's not easy, but stable and reliable democratic governance is possible. And the benefit of that governance is pretty convincing. As Vox reports, "At the same time as democracy spread globally, every objective metric of human welfare jumped up dramatically. Between 1950 and early 2011, global life expectancy jumped from 47 to 70. From 1990 to 2011, the percentage of people who died before turning five fell by about half. The percent of people killed by war is 1/30th of what it was in the late 1940s. 721 million fewer people live in poverty today than in 1981." In comparison to this, the feeble promise authoritarians give of "stability" is pretty pathetic.

2. Dictatorships lack a mechanism for change, renewal, and improvement
On a pretty fundamental level, democracies and authoritarian regimes operate on the basis of some very different assumptions about people. For authoritarian regimes, the population is a threatening and irrational mob that needs to be controlled, trained, and supervised. They need to be organized by a superior intelligence who then rules by decree supported by force. However, there is nothing innate in those who arrive at the highest echelons of power in those regimes that endows them with superior intelligence to those in the population (unless the population can be kept stupid and ignorant by artificial means). Therefore, it is likely that ideas, mechanisms, and methods superior to those developed by the regime will be developed by the populace, and they will definitely be developed by neighboring free nations that do not supress these ideas in the same way. In order to keep up with the rest of the world, these regimes will have to reward merit, and once they reward merit they also give power. Once they give power, then sooner or later their own grasp of it becomes threatened.

The Soviet Union needed an enlightened elite to keep up with the US in the nuclear race, but this at the same time put the future success of the Soviet Union into their hands, thereby giving them influence. This influence was then used by the likes of Andrei Sakharov, who invented the Soviet hydrogen bomb, to undermine or change the rigid structures of the Soviet Union. In the 1980s he "helped to initiate the first independent legal political organizations and became prominent in the Soviet Union's growing political opposition."

In democracies, brilliant people and ingenious ideas can rise to the top without any threat to the system. Rather than gathering a movement to overthrow a regime violently, they can peacefully join political parties, debate their ideas, and win local or national elections. People who see errors or imperfections can join with others to remedy them, and if the errors or imperfections are significant enough they will sooner or later gain power to do so. As long as there are strong institutions and ideals to manage the "crisis" of a national election, there is no great instability or risk inherent in the transfer of power. Although democracies at times elect people completely unsuited for their office, overall democracies have produced some of the most eloquent, capable, and intelligent leaders, and have been spearheading the reduction of poverty and increase in health and standard of living. In an authoritarian regime you are either the organizer or the organized, whereas democracies allow people to both organize and be organized in turn. Below is an eloquent statement on this by Robert F. Kennedy (starting at 2:40).

Rhetorics of These
So how does this all influence the rhetoric used by the proponents for each of these systems? For the proponents of stability, the most important thing is to always hold up the devil of instability to scare the populace. In order to do so credibly, these regimes will sometimes create artificial instability in order to have a clear deterrent. Russia has fomented ethnic and religious tensions in Azerbajan, Ingusjetia, Abkhasia, and South Ossetia, Stalin divided the Fergana Valley into four nations in order to create tensions between population groups (preventing a direct rebellion against his rule), and Putin is currently more interested in prolonging the Syrian civil war than actually bringing it to a close. In addition, it serves their interest to create civil discord in the "so-called" stable democracies. In the 60s, the KGB were planning to assassinate Martin Luther King jr. and install Stokely Carmichael as the head of the civil rights movement, since he was more favorable towards a more violent approach. At the same time, they were supporting the Black Panthers and other paramilitary groups financially, because doing so could weaken the United States. More recently, they have used Facebook, Twitter, fake news websites, hacking, and intimidation to organize protests and events aimed at stoking racial and religious tensions, and creating disillusionment among the populace. And they are also providing funds and arms to the Taliban to prolong the war in Afghanistan.

Proponents of freedom on the other hand will look for and support initiatives, groups, and people who are trying to limit or fight against tyrannies. Sometimes they will take the zeal too far, and not pay attention to the dangers posed by instability. Being used to the proponents of stability using this as a scare tactic, they will often disregard warnings against or be blind to the dangers that come with giving freedom to areas without strong institutions and with long histories of ethnic and religious tensions. The invasion and subsequent "democratization" of Iraq showed quite clearly the dangers of that blindness. The current state of affairs in Libya, where people are again sold as slaves in the marketplace, shows just how bad a state of anarchy and tribalism can become. Also, with the focus on parrying tyranny this worldview may be blind to other threats and problems that go beyond the question of freedom and oppression. Finally, they may become lost in a game of always supporting the underdog, even though the underdog turns out to be just as bad an oppressor as soon as the shoe is on the other foot.