I used to think that mass delusions were historically rare and unlikely to recur, but I’m coming to think they’re common and unlikely to ever cease. We seem to have largely gotten over ideas like witches’ spells are dangerous and stars determine our fates, but we’re constantly exposed to and threatened by ideas that are just as loony.
It would be interesting to work out a taxonomy of mass delusions, from those that are usually harmless to those that may cause death. The classification system could also identify the strength of the delusion, from ones, like fear of black cats, that are persistent but not really serious, to those that are sometimes subject to reconsideration, to those whose adherents will kill to establish them as eternal truths.
Yesterday I learned that the President has ordered more troops into Iraq to fight ISIS. This is clearly premised on the view that this crazy outfit is bent on the destruction of our way of life, and will in due course attack us. There is, to be sure, some support for this view in their rhetoric and brutality, but it may be totally wrong. Remember, they haven’t attacked us, and it is entirely possible that their strategy is to provoke us to fight them so as to inspire their supporters. And if they aren’t really a threat to us, the idea that we must wipe them out to survive should be classed among the most pernicious of delusions – ones that seems so reasonable as to be beyond question, and that lead inexorably to violence and mass death.
Tom Friedman wrote an unusually thoughtful column a week or so back comparing ISIS and North Vietnam. He reminded me that in the 1960s, US leaders, and presumably a majority of the electorate, were convinced that the Communists in North Vietnam were primarily motivated by an anti-capitalist ideology and a willingness to fight along with other Communists for world domination. Thus we pursued a war that led to the deaths of some 58 thousand of our soldiers and more than a million Vietnamese. We now know, or at least are starting to understand, that the Vietnamese were primarily driven by nationalist concerns. They weren’t a domino.
Friedman suggests that the success of ISIS may similarly be attributable less to religious or political ideology than to nationalist concerns and anger at Sunni oppression by Shiites. There clearly are some jihadists with dreams of regional, if not world, domination, but their numbers are probably much smaller than those who back them out of more pragmatic and local concerns. In short, this looks more like a civil war with mainly regional implications, not an existential threat to the western way of life. If this is correct, there is no way the US can wipe out this enemy, and it would be a horrific folly to try.
While I’m talking about uncomfortable subjects, I’ll mention I just finished reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. The book is part factual reportage, part memoir, and examines what factory farming means to the animal victims and to human society. I knew something about this subject beforehand, but learned a lot from the book. It’s written in an easy-going, thoughtful, personal voice, but includes some very disturbing subject matter, particularly the accounts of routine corporatized animal torture and abuse.
Here are some sample facts: “Animal agriculture makes a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined; it is the number one cause of climate change.” “More than ten billion land animals [are] slaughtered for food every year in America.” “We know, at least, that [not eating animals] will help prevent deforestation, curb global warming, reduce pollution, save oil reserves, lessen the burden on rural America, decrease human rights abuses, improve public health, and help eliminate the most systematic animal abuse in world history.”
Here is a sample aspirational thought: “What kind of world would we create if three times a day we activated our compassion and reason as we sat down to eat, if we had the moral imagination and the pragmatic will to change our most fundamental act of consumption?”