June 28, 2004 Samizdata.net/blog/
Having bombed some mosques, George W. Bush has built a Protestant mosque at Abu-Ghraib prison. Here, the Iraqi Moslems are taught that pork may be good for them and that the teachings of the Holy Koran are supposed to be subordinated to the teachings of Democracy, as represented by handpicked Iraqi exiles protected by American armor.
As many people before him with a gleam in their eye and fervor in their speeches, George W. Bush wanted to do good. As many revolutionaries before him he fell victim to technology, too awesome to reveal its implications.
Technology as the main cause of revolutions
Martin Luther, George W. Bush’s intellectual predecessor, correctly sensed that thanks to improved manufacturing processes, people were becoming economically independent. They no longer wished to be led blindly, to be told to behave “just so” without being given a reason that they could intellectually accept. People were becoming literate, able to read the Bible by themselves, and to think about their lives in a more rational way. The Germans, British, and Dutch did not speak a Romance language, and now they wanted church services in their own language since they simply did not understand Latin. Suddenly, they had become mature enough to want their Mass to be more meaningful, that is, understandable, to them. And when the language of the Mass became an issue, there were other matters to discuss. The Catholic Church failed to account for the social change that manufacturing brought about, and Germanic peoples turned Protestant as a result. The French, Italians, Spanish, and Portuguese remained Catholic, since a Latin Mass was understandable to them. Thus the Protestant revolution reflected the fact that manufacturing technology had made people more self-sufficient, able to read and to think for themselves.
The twentieth century saw several totalitarian revolutions, precipitated by an incorrect understanding of industrial technology. God of the Bible created everything to be unique: a Man, a Woman, the Sun, and the Earth. Ford created a Model T, and these cars were leaving the factory gates all exactly the same, 60 an hour, all painted black. The only inefficient and unpredictable part of the assembly line was the human.
Russia and Germany lost WWI, and thus had a reason to believe that the God of the Bible had failed them. But there was a new god: the Machine Tool. This new god created everything that constituted the world of a twentieth century European. A modern man no longer sees a starry sky: he sees the roof of his car, as he is completely surrounded by Machine Tool products. Shoes and shirts, tanks and bombs - everything is produced by the Machine Tool, and the shared virtues of all of these products are sameness and predictability. Moreover, these products are all inanimate. A Machine Tool, great and miraculous as it is, does not create cats. But if the world produced by the Machine Tool is inanimate, where does it leave humans?
If you worship the Machine Tool, it is logical to see humans as woefully imperfect, a product that needs to be recalled and recast, but to do that to all people is impractical. Thus, some types of people need to be proclaimed as being better than others, imperfect, but closer to the ideal. Hitler thought that the Arians were the best, and there was a very convincing reason: some of them were proclaimed to have a “proportional” skull, clearly a step in the right direction, especially if you think like a primitive, early 20th century machine tool. Since a curved nose was harder to manufacture, a good human had to have a straight nose; and the rest of his head was covered best by a steel helmet. Non-Arian humans, thought Hitler, were only good to make soap or lampshades out of. Stalin was of a slightly different opinion. He thought that workers were best because they served the Holy Machine Tool, and capitalists were worst because they clamed to own It, blasphemously putting themselves above the Holy Mechanical Creator.
Hitler’s idea was, let’s just say “purely theoretical” because there were no Arians and skull proportions had nothing to do with anything. Hitler himself certainly was not an “Arian” type. Stalin’s idea was purely theoretical as well. While claiming that workers were valuable and had advanced knowledge in the form of a revolutionary theory, Stalin very much liked to clean minefields by making thousands of workers run over them.
What we have here is technology incorrectly understood. Yes, a Machine Tool can make products fast and efficiently, but it is not God the Creator. God is a Spiritual Being, and since every Human has a soul, each Human is infinitely valuable.
Hitler and Stalin thought that they were on the forefront of progress, that their actions were dictated by modern scientific and technical knowledge, and yet, the reality was exactly the opposite: they were guilty of unprecedented barbarity. And in their barbarity, they were indeed helped by technology, as Auschwitz was much more efficient in killing than a medieval three-day rampage in a sacked city.
Millions of people whose lives were touched by industrial technology followed the teachings of Hitler or Stalin and saw them as progressive simply because these people also misunderstood the implications of industrial technology.
Thus, we should always keep in mind that technology may have its dangers. If you see Iraq on TV a few times and suddenly feel that you understand the Iraqis, technology has let you down. And this does not mean that a TV in itself is bad: it simply means that it has not been given a proper place in your decision-making process and in your worldview.
Technology comes into our lives as a neat plaything, and then has a tendency to surreptitiously cause major negative results in unexpected places. A Machine Tool is much better in producing household goods than a medieval manufacturer. But that does not mean that people need to be “recast” (to use a communist expression) or sent to Auschwitz.
When television was invented, it was not immediately clear that the entire nation would grow obese and stupid glued to the 24 hour sports channel and that the President would decide to invade a very distant and a very dissimilar country after having seen it on TV. When airplanes were not available we had much more respect for distant places, but now we can unwrap a piece of chewing gum, push a launch button, and a missile will obliterate a city while the gum is still sweet in our mouth. That’s too fast.
But it was not the TV that caused our President to make a hasty decision. The technology that misled him is far more basic and far more powerful: it is the social technology of win/win, a supreme and uniquely American invention.
Win/win vs. lose/lose
People have always thought that resources are scarce, and that therefore there is a need to fight over them. Every transaction had a winner and a loser, and there were such prohibitive transaction costs that, in the long term, both sides of the transaction were losers. If we determine, after a bloody fight, who is the slave and who is the master, we see that a slave loses because he does not get a fair payment for his labor, while the master loses in terms of productivity and personal security in comparison with the situation when a hired laborer gets compensated fairly.
America was built on a win/win principle of liberty and justice for all, and slowly but surely incorporated under this principle those groups that had been placed outside win/win. And it was done not out of the goodness of anyone’s heart, but because win/win really is what it claims to be, i.e. profitable for all. America is a country where everybody could come and become a citizen, where everyone could own land, where every race and every creed was eventually incorporated - and this is the source of America’s great strength.
By comparison, today 10% of French citizens are Muslim, and yet no national politician and not one Mayor is Muslim. Since Rwanda is populated by two major tribes, it is natural for Rwandans to think that this is one tribe too many, an idea that caused a million deaths during a period of three months. The world is moving towards win/win, but it is not there yet.
The problem with George W. Bush’s policy in Iraq is that he assumed that the idea of win/win has been accepted everywhere and that people strive to build a win/win society. But it is not true. Yanomami people, hunters-gatherers who live in the Amazon rain forest, wear no clothes, and yet, it does not mean that they want a Brooks Brothers suit. This is not to say, I hasten to clarify, that a Brooks Brothers suit is bad, it simply means that the Yanomami do not want it. And it is wrong to assume that the word “Yanomami” stands for “have not got a credit card”, “nudist” or “I’d rather dress casually”, as it actually means “human being”. An important lesson here: no suit, and yet people still consider themselves human beings, with a clear idea as to how they should live and what to wear. It is likely that Yanomami will offer strong resistance to the idea of wearing a suit, no matter how good it is.
Does it mean that America should abandon the rest of the world to its own devices? No, it does not mean that. But American intervention should be gradual, respectful, cooperative, and clearly beneficial.
The last condition is the most important one, because the win/win system that we are trying to impose is very threatening and disruptive. Look, since there are no losers under a win/win interaction, it follows that there are no winners as well (a winner being someone who won over someone else); and if there are no winners it follows that all participants in a win/win interaction are losers. So, by offering a win/win system we are in fact offering to turn everyone into a loser, and people do not want that! Since I know I may have caused your head to spin, let me try again.
Who is the winner in a win/win interaction? One party of the interaction has improved his situation over what it was before, that is, he is a winner over himself as he was prior to the interaction. And so are the other participants: they used to be worse off, now they are better off, so they are winners.
But this is not how the world defines a win! For a winner to be declared there needs to be a bloodied loser, or else it is not a win. A winner is defined as someone who defeated some other person.
America says, “Today you ran a hundred meter dash faster than yesterday, so you are a winner. You combated your inner resistance and won over yourself.” The world says. “You are not a winner unless you run faster than others. Tie their legs, steal their running shoes, poison them, scare them so that they won’t run!”
Win/win thus is a great challenge. There is nothing harder than to overcome yourself, and if you fail, you have nobody else to blame. Also, there is nobody to lord over and nobody’s suffering to see; here the question is, “If so, from what do you derive pleasure?” Win/win is a dictatorship of opportunity (which is limitless) over ability (which is limited, if not severely limited). Win/win is a cruel society that recognizes talent, and thus exists for the benefit of (a few) talented people, causing great suffering to the rest of us, should (and this is very important) we choose to become envious.
Take Jennifer Lopez as an example. She poses in a bikini, she sings, she has a thriving career and earns millions. What an affront to those who cannot pose in a bikini and can’t sing! Jennifer should wear a long black robe that hides the forms, cover her face, she should not talk unless spoken to, and spend her days serving tea to her husband. Now, that would be a boon to the millions of women whose bodies are not that shapely, so lose/lose has a point here.
Lose/lose gives the people the right they cherish most: the right to blame others for their own failure, and people are willing to fight and die for this right. Take the profession of composing music. There once was a Mozart, and now the challenge is to write something that Mozart would approve of. Shostakovich is one of very few composers who accomplished that. It is the same with poetry. There once was a Shakespeare, so now you need Anne Sexton or Robert Frost. But who could rise to such heights? Very few people. Lose/lose offers a solution. Get a set of drums, find a rhyme to the word “motherfucka” - and a rapper is born. Why take the profession of musician away from the masses?
We see that win/win is actually a dictatorship of those who can over those who cannot. Scarier still, it is a dictatorship of who I should be over who I am. When you are on a tennis court with Venus Williams, you know you have no chance of winning. But lose/lose is a democracy: when you wrap women head to toe, all of them are equally attractive.
Now, what does America try to impose on the Iraqis? Does America want to grant the Iraqis new opportunities (that they may not be ready to take advantage of) or does America want to take away their cherished excuse for failing to succeed?
It is a beautiful day in Iraq, and Shiites are gathering to honor their Prophet. They march down the street beating themselves with bunches of bicycle chains, pounding their chests, screaming. And then an American soldier comes up to them saying, “Why are you flagellating yourselves? Look, your backs are black and blue, you are bleeding. How will you go to work tomorrow? Let’s go watch some baseball, listen to music, try to meet girls in a bar.” There is a huge miscommunication here.
Americans live their lives hoping that things will get better, but people in the Third World live their lives hoping things will not get worse. America has good intentions, but for the Iraqis it would take a total change in perception to recognize them as such.
George W. Bush’s America is too good for the world, but unfortunately we cannot live elsewhere, so the situation calls for some tactical display of modesty, or else the world will conclude that we are too stupid to see the rest of the world for what it is.