Thursday, January 03, 2008

It Takes a Leader: the Creativity of Evil

In Questioning the Banality of Evil, The Psychologist Jan. 2008, S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher bring into sharp relief the danger posed by current American leaders and would-be leaders whose chief appeal lies in fear-mongering and demonizing of real and perceived enemies. Those who execute tyrants' orders (and enemies) are not affectless functionaries but enthusiastic believers:
A spate of books...suggest that very few Nazis could be seen as ‘simply following orders’ – not least because the orders issued by the Nazi hierarchy were typically very vague. As a result, individuals needed to display imagination and initiative in order to interpret the commands they were given and to act upon them. As Ian Kershaw notes, Nazis didn’t obey Hitler, they worked towards him, seeking to surpass each other in their efforts. But by the same token, they also had a large degree of discretion. Indeed, as Laurence Rees (2005) notes in his recent book on Auschwitz and the ‘final solution’, it was this that made the Nazi system so dynamic. Even in the most brutal of circumstances, people did not have to kill and only some chose to do so. So, far from simply ‘finding themselves’ in inhumane situations or inhumane groups, the murderers actively committed themselves to such groups.
How do conditions arise in which such self-selected executors - and executioners - are free to fulfill their potential? When enough people feel threatened enough, demagogues pick up the charge:
we do not interpret the world on our own, as many social psychological models tend to imply. Rather, people are surrounded by would-be leaders who tell them what to make of the world around them...Indeed, tyrannical leaders only thrive by convincing us that we are in crisis, that we face threat and that we need their strong decisive action to surmount it. In the BBC study, participants as a whole may have become relatively more authoritarian, but it still needed active leadership to exploit this and to make the case for a new tough regime. The role of leaders becomes particularly pernicious when they suggest that ‘our’ problems come about because of the threats posed by a pernicious outgroup. In this way they can begin to take the groups with which we already identify and develop norms of hostility against outsiders. Their role becomes even more dangerous when they tell us that ‘we’ are the sum of all virtues so that the defence of virtue requires the destruction of the outgroup that threatens us. These are the conditions which allow groups to make genocide normative and to represent mass murder as something honourable (Reicher et al., 2006).
While Andrew Sullivan finds insight here into jihadist ideological commitment, I'm more concerned about the implications for the U.S. Can you hear the crowds chanting Rudy, Rudy, Rudy? Americans have been badly frightened in the past six years, and the Rovian message machine has kept the fire stoked. Worse, the Bush Adminstration has laid bare the fact that the tissue of statutory and common law in which our vaunted civil liberties are embodied is kept intact not so much by "the consent of the governed" as by the consent of the governing. Our leaders before 43 have for the most part adhered to norms and taboos that have restrained their power. Now, for six years, the executive has imprisoned whom it wishes indefinitely without trial, tortured at will, spied on Americans in violation of the law, and asserted the president's right to disregard laws passed by Congress when he deems doing so essential to national security.

Americans are resilient and seem to be rejecting Bushian fear-mongering at last. If nothing else, we're used to the media skewering our leaders to the point where few of us take their pronouncements at full face value, and Bush at least has not meddled much with freedom of the press. But we've been subject to six years of of intermittent code orange. My fear is that some electoral accident - e.g., a Bloomberg 3rd party run - will throw the election to a dictator-in-waiting like Giuliani or possibly Romney. Romney doesn't seem a thug by nature, just a chameleon. But in his vocal support of torture and absolute executive power we would do well to take him at his word. We need a President who will roll back the executive power grab. Otherwise, dictatorial power is there for the taking.

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