Archive for March, 2015

The Ugliest Duckling

March 27, 2015

Recently I had the good fortune to attend a book talk by Dutch sociologist Abram De Swaan (born January 8, 1942). The topic was one that many people would find disquieting, perhaps distasteful, or even repellent: the “modern” phenomenon of mass murder.  But American mass media wouldn’t be very interested in his message, because Mynheer De Swaan isn’t studying mere penny ante schoolhouse slaughter like Sandy Hook or Columbine.  Instead, his attention is focused on organized, large-scale atrocities perpetrated by armed political movements or government regimes, mostly in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.  Rwanda. Cambodia. Bosnia. The Final Solution. The Cultural Revolution. The Soviet Purges. And so on.  These episodes have generally occurred in the context of widespread social upheaval and generally at the instigation of a regime or state.


De Swaan recommends approaching the mass murder phenomenon while bearing in mind (at least) four levels of social analysis:

  • long-term, perhaps dormant, trends in social transformation occurring at the time
  • political movements and state policies
  • interpersonal interactions in everyday social life
  • psychological/sociological patterns of individual interior “life-of-the-mind”

From this perspective, the groundwork for future atrocity is laid when latent social tensions are redefined by political actors to

  • accentuate social differences and divisions,
  • demarcate boundaries of “compartmentalized” social categories,
  • enact physical/spatial separation of these newly defined social fragments,
  • and accelerate psychological processes of self-identification, projection, internalization, fervent “othering” (and so on) within increasing numbers of the citizenry.

Once these ideological/political projects have achieved an as-yet-undefined level of cultural ubiquity within society, mass murder and atrocity become not only possible, but perhaps likely.

Just to keep the scorecard tidy, De Swaan has proposed four principal categories of mass murder:

  • the victor’s frenzy [ Sri Lanka, Japanese Imperial Army after the conquest of Nanking, etc. ]
  • regime by terror [ Soviet Purges, Cultural Revolution, Khmer Rouge, Hussein Iraq, Assad Syria ]
  • the loser’s triumph [ 3rd Reich after 1942 ]
  • pogrom [ Armenia, 1948 India, Rwanda, Bosnia ]

He’s willing to consider two other possible candidates for mass murder:

  • intentional famine [ is he thinking of Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China and Kim’s North Korea? ]
  • air war: “strategic” bombing campaigns [ is he thinking of Germany unto Britain, USA/UK unto Germany/Japan, USA unto Iraq, Israel unto Lebanon and Gaza? ]


However, even with such a neat academic typology, mass murder is a messy business.  When confronted with gory horror of truly massive casualty figures, a common human reaction often seems to be one of incomprehension: “How could people do such a thing to their fellows?”  This question is exactly the starting point for the many researchers who have previously examined cases of attempted genocide, mass extermination, and wholesale slaughter.  De Swaan has reviewed the existing academic literature (such as it is) and found it lacking.

The initial wave of research in the 1950’s (understandably) concentrated on the notorious German case (then quite recent) and reached the comforting but none-too-rigorous conclusion that these “evil deeds” were perpetrated by evil men, or at the very least by men in the tenacious grip of “evil”.  Such men must be monsters, and as monsters must be eradicated.  Thus, the Nuremberg trials.  But De Swaan notes that this analysis relies heavily on the concept of “evil” without adequately exploring the full dimensions of what “evil” is understood to be.  Despite the fact that the term “evil” –in the European cultural context– is heavily freighted with a nebulous range of religious and moral meanings, early writers on the topic of mass murder generally limited themselves to defining “evil” as encompassing the perpetrators’ use of intensely cruel and painful methods of torture and killing on a large scale. This approach left the theological-moral/psychological dimensions of mass murder largely unexplored, and thus failed to adequately explain how nominally Christian people (in the German case) were able to engage in these types of behavior.

Soon enough, researchers came to understand that available evidence contradicted the sweeping claims of the “evil monster” thesis: many of the minor cogs in the vast killing machines were demonstrably less than monstrous, and in fact greatly resembled –and behaved like– the average Johan or Jurgen on the street corner.  They were still guilty, but they weren’t monsters. But what, then?

A decade or so later, thanks to the psychology research of Stanley Milgram and others, a slightly more nuanced view emerged: the claim that “ordinary men do extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances.”  Under social pressure, under conditions of psychological stress, two-thirds of otherwise peaceable, law-abiding citizens may participate in heinously cruel activities.  Guantanamo. Abu Ghraib.  According to this thesis, you or I could well be given a gentle push down the slippery slope … to become torturers and killers.  Ya nevah know…

As a social scientist, De Swaan is still skeptical:  what about all those people –the thirty-three percent– who wouldn’t go along with Milgram’s experimental program of participating in torture unto death?  How are they different from those who join the parade?  For De Swaan, this is still the preeminent open question.  But empirical data about non-participation doesn’t exist, so it’s necessary to look at the question from the opposite point of view.  Until better evidence becomes available, De Swaan has proposed what he calls a tentative conjecture about the types of people who do participate, drawn from psychological studies of former low-level German functionaries conducted after WWII. What type of person allows himself to become involved in situations where mass murder occurs?  According to De Swaan, many of these men exhibited a set of characteristics that may be related to their participation in mass murder. They were:

  • obedient
  • loyal
  • highly devoted to their families
  • low in their sense of personal agency
  • low in empathy

The gloss above, the earth below.

Reflecting on the personal traits summarized by De Swaan, I was first of all struck by the observation that low agency and obedience are not merely present in these men by simple coincidence –they’re mutually reinforcing states of mind.  If you have a low sense of personal agency, you may well be more inclined to follow the lead of someone else.  But secondly, I was intrigued by De Swaan’s portrayal of these vanquished German warriors as devoted family men.  On the one hand it seems entirely plausible that men of a defeated nation would retreat from public engagement into refuge in intimate family life, but there’s also a much more significant dimension of this mundane observation … hiding in plain sight.  Obedience, deference, loyalty, surrender of personal agency and emphasis on the nuclear family are –in Europe and beyond–  all features of patriarchal culture and ideology.  Time for a causal loop diagram.


So then, could it be that men more deeply invested in patriarchy –with identities and self-perceptions strongly centered on their roles as fathers and patriarchs– are somehow more likely to become participants in organized mass murder when the occasion arises?  More likely to be obedient? More likely to defer? More likely to outsource personal agency to their “superior” in the social hierarchy?

In this context, perhaps it is intensely relevant that patriarchy’s stratified edifice rests on a simple, secret, almost implicit bargain: in exchange for obedient deference to the authority of the state, employer and social patron, patriarchy promises the lowly man a virtually unlimited dominion over his wife and children.  In return for the personal agency he surrenders in the workplace and polis, the petty patriarch is thus enfeoffed to be master of all he surveys within the walls of his domicile.  Were he alive today, renowned patriarch John Dalberg-Acton would undoubtedly take this occasion to remind us that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even at the nanoscale of an otherwise insignificant individual household within a much vaster society.

Should we then consider the possibility that the system and culture of patriarchy itself inexorably contains the seeds of mass murder?  Or should we instead, based on these indications, infer the persistent presence of repeatedly replicated social groups –networks of like-minded men– which use the techniques and mechanisms of patriarchy to maintain a privileged status within society and thereby command a correspondingly disproportionate share of social resources?  Perhaps these are men who are willing to deploy patriarchy’s fundamental tools of coercion and domination to their logical limit: the extinction of human life itself.

Reflect deeply upon this.  It needn’t be a binary choice.


One More Thing …

March 12, 2015

If you’re an aspiring World Cup contestant with a well-founded reputation as the worst national team on the planet, what can you do to turn things around?  Well, for one thing, you can offset the fact that your coach is named “Chokey” by designating as team captain a guy named “Karma”.  Then go to Thailand to train for a few weeks.

The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, the lowest-ranked team in international football, enjoyed a dream debut in the World Cup qualifiers Thursday by recording a shock 1-0 away victory over Sri Lanka at Colombo’s Sugathadasa stadium.  The winning goal came in the 81st minute as Bhutan skipper Karma Shedrup Tshering passed to Tshering Dorji, who slotted home calmly from inside the penalty box.

“We tried hard to acclimatize to the conditions here. We didn’t allow humidity to become a problem,” said a delighted Bhutan coach Chokey Nima. “We will celebrate today, but we are also preparing for the next challenge.”

Bhutan has been a member of FIFA only since 2000 and lack of funding has prevented it from taking part in previous World Cup qualification tournaments. The two teams meet again when Sri Lanka travel to Bhutan’s capital Thimpu for a return match on March 17.


Until then, Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index will be once again outpacing its GDP.


Render Unto Caesar

March 11, 2015

In terms of sheer notoriety within the national culture, Italy’s Rebibbia prison is roughly the equivalent of Sing Sing or San Quentin penitentiaries in the United States.  Lacking the exotic locale of Alcatraz or Devil’s Island, Rebibbia has to make do with a sordid history that extends back to the days of Mussolini, and boasts (if that’s the right word) many of Italy’s most dangerous criminals and gangsters among its inmates.  From a bureaucratic point of view, its principal advantage as an icon of Italian judicial punishment lies in the fact that the town of Rebibbia is a suburb of Rome, and has metro service into the heart of the capital. Thus, prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, journalists and the families of the accused can easily travel to the prison facility to attend the mafia megatrials that are occasionally staged within its secure environment.

But Rebibbia is probably best known to law-abiding citizens of Italy (and elsewhere) as the backdrop for a truly intense 2012 film by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani: Caesar Must Die.  The Taviani brothers’ film depicts the process of casting, rehearsing and staging a theatrical production of Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar‘ organized by the prison’s performing arts program.  The actors are inmates. The set is the prison itself.  The storyline is the stuff of legend as well as history.  Everyone knows the ending — or thinks they do.  This is a film you definitely have to see: you’ll never think of Shakespeare, Italy, or Rome the same way again.


So why the mention of Rebibbia at this particular time?

Pope Francis will travel to Rome’s Rebibbia prison on Holy Thursday (April 2) to meet inmates and celebrate the “Coena Domini” Mass, which commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus with His disciples the night before His crucifixion. As part of the ceremony, he will wash male and female inmates’ feet, [because] Holy Thursday Mass marks the commandment of love, demonstrated when Jesus washed the feet of His disciples.

The gesture of washing disciples’ feet was also presented in the New Testament as a demonstration of humility and an acknowledgement of our common humanity marked by equality before God.  That part of the message, at least, is worth bearing in mind.

No word on whether Pope Francis has actually seen ‘Caesar Must Die‘ .. or whether he prefers the message of Rosselini’s neo-realist classic Europa ’51.


Misplaced Chains

March 8, 2015

Why is it not surprising that International Women’s Day –March 8th– gets short shrift and the silent treatment in the United States?  It isn’t even noted on most printed calendars, the greeting card industry ignores a lucrative marketing opportunity, and the American news media studiously avoids the temptation to make the merest passing mention of a day directly relevant to 51% of the population.  Oh, and this year, Daylight Savings Time (spring forward) commences on March 8th — so International Women’s Day in the United States is only 23 hours long.  Unequal pay compounded by unequal time.

It seems likely that there’s a political motivation in addition to the reflexive patriarchal urge to diminish the social stature of women:

The earliest Women’s Day observance was held on February 28, 1909, in New York; it was organized by the Socialist Party of America in remembrance of the 1908 strike of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.  Women demanded that women be given the right to vote and to hold public office. They also protested against sex discrimination in employment. In 1914 International Women’s Day was held on March 8, possibly because that day was a Sunday, and now it is always held on March 8 in all countries.


A few years later, things got out of hand (from a patriarchal capitalist point of view):

In 1917, demonstrations marking International Women’s Day in Saint Petersburg on the last Sunday in February (which fell on March 8 on the Gregorian calendar) initiated the [Russian] February Revolution.  Women in Saint Petersburg went on strike that day for “Bread and Peace” –demanding the end of World War I, an end to Russian food shortages, and the end of czarism.  Workers in several nearby factories walked off the job in solidarity, marched on the Winter Palace, and the rest is [proletarian] history.

Here, then, is the inexorable slippery slope that terrifies the Koch brothers: women –> labor unions –> voting rights –> socialism –> international Communism –> expropriation of property.  Maybe we can get started on this tomorrow … when there will be 24 hours in the day.