Saturday, April 16, 2005


Exercising Political Influence

[Ed. note: This commentary originally ran in various print publications in March 2004. We thought it worth repeating.]

Yesterday evening, while preparing dinner in my studio apartment, I listened to KQED San Francisco advising commuters to avoid routes between the Castro District and Civic Center due to a march of protesters headed for the California Supreme Court, which had just ordered Mayor Gavin Newsom to cease issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. A week from tomorrow, tens of thousands are expected to march up Market Street boulevard from the ferry terminal to city hall to express opposition to the US occupation of Iraq. A month after that is the women’s march in Washington, D.C. to rally against the Christian fundamentalist policies of the Bush Administration that threaten the lives of women and children.

Entering the fourth year of Bush II, many Americans are cynical about the prospects for salvaging democracy, prosperity, or hope for a better world. Indeed, they may be right; all indicators point to a downward trend in quality of life. So why bother?

Well, for one, it’s something to do, and that always beats whining as an activity. But while we might have diminished expectations compared to those who struggled for equality throughout the previous century, we can certainly imagine the degradation of our society to intolerable conditions far worse than those of the present. Just look at Africa.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger, in his book Civil Wars: From L.A. to Bosnia, observes that the inability to distinguish between bravery and cowardice is symptomatic of autism and the loss of conviction. He quotes Hannah Arendt who wrote about the period between the two world wars:

I suspect there has never been a shortage of hate in the world; but…[by now] it had grown to become a deciding political factor in all public affairs…This hate could not be targeted at any one person or thing. No one could be made responsible—neither the government, nor the bourgeoisie, nor the foreign powers of the time. And so it seeped into the pores of everyday life and spread out in all directions, taking on the most fantastical, unimaginable forms…Here it was everyone against everyone else, and above all against his neighbour…
What distinguishes the masses today from the mob is their selflessness, their complete disinterest in their own well-being…Selflessness not as a positive attribute, but as a lack: the feeling that you yourself are not affected by events, that you can be replaced at any time, anywhere, by someone else…This phenomenon of a radical loss of self, this cynical or bored indifference with which the masses approached their own destruction, was completely unexpected…People were beginning to lose their normal common sense and their powers of discrimination, and at the same time were suffering from a no less radical failure of the most elementary survival instinct.

Enzensberger proposes that today’s protagonists have no need for rituals, and can survive without a Fuhrer. Simply put, he says, “Hatred on its own is enough.” Comparing every carriage on the underground to a miniature Bosnia, he notes that not to conform is to risk death.

Speaking of ordinary people in their everyday lives today, “Aggression,” he observes, “is not directed only at others, but at themselves. It is as if it were all the same to them not only whether they live or die, but whether they had ever been born, or had seen the light of day.” He goes on to assert that,

However huge the genetic pool of stupidity might be, it is not big enough to explain this urge to violent self-destructiveness…The only conclusion one can draw is that this collective self-mutilation [over such things as loss of jobs or identity] is not simply a side-effect of the conflict, a risk the protagonists are prepared to run, it is what they are actually aiming to achieve.

Referring to the apparently senseless destruction we’ve seen take place in places like the Balkans and Somalia, what he terms collective running amok, Enzensberger asserts the concept of ‘future’ disappears: “Only the present matters. Consequences do not exist. The instinct for self-preservation, with the restraining influence it brings to bear, is knocked out of action.”

The author cautiously warns that when censorship, fear, and blackmail rule, institutions retreat and normal living conditions dissolve. Resulting criminality in many regions of the world, he claims, has radically altered public standards. Writing in 1990, he somewhat prophetically (at least as far as we in the US are concerned) recognized that with the epidemic of wars, aggression and defense become indistinguishable: “More and more people are pulled into the whirlpool of fear and hate until the situation becomes quintessentially antisocial.”

As a caution to fellow journalists, Enzensberger maintains, “To a certain extent, the media magnify the person who has become unreal, and give him a kind of proof of existence.” As an entreaty to all humanity, he remarks, “When the moral demands made on an individual are consistently out of proportion to his scope for action, he will eventually go on strike and deny all responsibility. Here lie the seeds of brutalization, which may escalate to raging aggression.”


<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?