Thoughts on Power-seekers, War, and Foreign Policy

Charles Jeanes
By Charles Jeanes
February 4th, 2015

Arc of the Cognizant LXXXVII

The Wind’s Four Quarters

“History does not repeat itself. But it rhymes.”  Mark Twain

“History does not repeat itself. People do.”     Voltaire

By Charles Jeanes

Politics, War, Police, Leadership.

The winds of current concern have blown me in four topic directions, not all of them related but each demanding I express my humble opinions. The topics are: politics as revealed by elementary-school pupils; war and its origins in human prehistory and biology; a fatal shooting by police in Castlegar; the bent shape of Canadian foreign policy crafted by our prime minister.

Innocent Politics

My granddaughter has recently shown herself a true scion of my pedigree by attempting to be elected to a political office, to wit, mayor of her school. Her poster promised the electorate free movies, and admonished them that rewards would be forthcoming only “if you’re good.”

Another boy in the school had a wonderful sense of what to offer voters: he grasped that students do not want to be bossed, so he promised not to “command” people.

The election had a nicely-balanced result decided by the teacher. Everyone, no matter how many votes each received, will have a chance to be mayor for two weeks. As per normal politically-correct practice in schools, winners and losers are not distinguished. I will withhold my opinion about that.

I am not surprised my granddaughter is so well-versed in the offering of reward for good behaviour; that is on me and my grand-parenting style. The boy who realized his peers do not want to be bossed might reflect his own view more than his friends’ but whatever the case, I like that a young mind is sensitive to bossy “leaders.” He has put his finger on a sore point. People drawn to politics are not always the best of us, just driven.

I am a rebel against so-called leaders myself, and I wish more Canadians were actively engaged in electoral politics and scrutinized the candidates who stand forth to be chosen. We really do need to question why people seek power.

The ambition to be important, and to be seen to be important, is not a drive I would encourage. As author Frank Herbert observed, it is not so much true that “power corrupts” as it is a fact that corruptible characters gravitate toward exercise of power.

A Self-conscious Humanity, our hope for the future

Power-seeking is a pathology, not the quality one expects from the self-aware. A self-aware person is the only one I consider qualified for political office. When the love of power is overcome by the power of love and self-awareness, we might enjoy decent political communities.

Self-awareness is a quality humanity possesses perhaps uniquely among the species of the planet. It is this quality of conscious self-knowledge that might be our saving grace from the scourge of our propensity for war.

War has seeds in our evolutionary biology and in our mutable cultures; it is hypothesized by writers on war (e.g. Jungian psychologist James Hillman) that by a tremendous effort of self-consciousness, humans might master ourselves and cease to choose war as a method of resolving human conflicts.

Ants fight wars, they are the only animal other than us that does this; ants have no choice in the matter. Humanity can choose.

“Imagine nothing to kill or die for… I hope one day you’ll join us and the world will live in peace.”

“Natural” Origins of War

I am once again teaching a class in the Selkirk Learning in Retirement program, this one titled “War and Politics through History.” I approach war dualistically, as a phenomenon of our biology (nature) and our minds (culture).

I am gratified that the topic did not alienate women students as I had feared because one woman told me the title and subject were not congenial to her when I offered the course. In fact the gender ratio in the class is one-to-one.

Gender has of necessity been a topic front and centre in this course because I have begun with an exploration of our evolutionary origins in pre-human creatures like Australopithecus Africanus  and homo erectus. The difference between the sexes in many mammal and bird species is very significant, and animals that have societies, alpha males, pecking orders, and territories, have relevance to human genetic predispositions.

Humans are less favoured by evolution for inhibiting our violence toward other humans than species like wolves or baboons.

The alpha male of other species does not murder his defeated foe; the dominant one demonstrates his victory by ritually mounting the defeated as if the latter were female (among baboons) or the subordinate wolf exposes his jugular vein to the alpha and the victor merely thrusts his nose against that throat for a moment.

But humans can kill one another; no inhibitory hard-wiring embedded as an evolutionary inheritance stops us as the wolf is stopped by his genetic coding.

Male humans have a “fight-or-flight” response to stress such as fear, and the male amygdala gland, larger than in females, prepares the male body for violent action. The female response to stress is termed “tend-and-befriend” because female evolutionary patterns of caring for children and banding with other females in large numbers have proven the best strategy for them.

Now, in the 21st century, our affluent, peaceful civil societies in the West require us to harmonize with the feminine inclination; male violence and aggression is mal-adaptive in conditions of modern, urbanized mass living.

Prehistory: a golden age without war?

Human society at the level of subsistence, of hunting prey, foraging vegetation, and horticultural food-production, has been idealized as “the peace of the primitives” by some anthropologists and ethnologists. There is evidence that bands of humans in small numbers with recognized territories do not engage in what we would call true warfare. It is more a case of ritualized male aggressions for demonstrations of prowess, for revenge, for asserting the group’s territorial frontiers, and is not organized nor collective. Death is rare, and one death sufficient to end a confrontation of the unregimented individual fighters. Weaponry may be deliberately chosen for its non-lethality. Or so the research of authors like Quincy Wright and A. Warnerburg suggest.

But Lawrence Keeley finds quite another pattern and says it is a myth we like to believe, that primitives were not warlike and their violence was rarely lethal.

All are agreed that warfare underwent a profoundly significant transformation when humans learned agriculture and turned land into property, and the State was invented to organize political activity such as war. Urban civilization leads to walled cities and sieges, battles of regimented men in uniform ranks, and a specialized caste of men known as warriors (not soldiers) who are “noble.”

“Cultural” Origins of War

Human history as a record is coterminous with literacy and alphabets, and we know the historic past only thanks to symbolic language; all that happened before is part of prehistory, and our oldest record dates to just more than 5,000 years ago. The alphabetic revolution affected human brain formation, says Leonard Shlain, by the effect of neuroplasticity; using alphabets reinforces the strengths of the left brain, he posits, and that side of the brain functions for abstract theory, logic, and detached-from-feeling activities which are typically more masculine. The history we know from literate record is a history when men dominate women. It is a record replete with wars. Warfare favours male predispositions in politics; the first imperial State was the ambition of a male’s swollen ego, king of Akkad, who boasted in writing of his killing prowess.

Male kings with divine male-god sanctions appear in history with the oldest civilization, Sumeria; shortly after Sumerian city-states went into decline, a new political norm – the empire of conquest – was originated by Sargon the Great, leading armies from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean and Anatolia.

This is the merest sketch of thinking about the origins and persistence of war. As I said, some scholars see the possibility that human cultural choice can control deeply-imbedded natural behaviours like aggression and territorial possessiveness. Can a self-conscious humanity escape war by overcoming the idea that war may be necessary or positive?

Police shooting of civilians, and the Public Good

Castlegar RCMP just added another lethal incident to a resume of incidents involving RCMP, not long after the killing of Peter de Groot in Slocan last year.

Two points:

One, our trust in police is being sorely tested by the defective process we use to investigate cops killing civilians. It took too long to call the killers of Robert Dziekanski to account; perjury was proven against some of them.

We cannot trust a system where there is bias in investigative personnel to protect faith in law enforcement. Investigators will conclude that some facts “should” be withheld if they might seriously damage public trust: “It is not in the public interest to undermine public faith in the integrity of the law and its institutions.” Law enforcement depends for best effect on public trust; they may well rationalize withholding evidence of egregious action by inept officers.

We can never know what was not brought to light when authorities decide what is best for us.

Two, police take the high moral ground when they use deadly force; they’re protecting the public. But the civilian they kill may be, and in the cases I cite, they are – individuals of the public. An individual in conflict with a cop is not alien to The Public. He/she is not a convicted felon, not a threat against whom deadly force is unquestionably justified. The police must do as they claim to do, and protect the public when one single member of the public is in a situation of danger to him/herself; the main danger comes from the police.

I too grieve for the murdered cops’ families in Alberta and New Brunswick. Those deaths have no impact on my critique. Feeling at risk of their own lives is a feeling cops have to justify, not assume is a complete defence. Otherwise we have the Ferguson, Missouri, effect: a cop kills, says the victim was fear-inducing, and isn’t charged with murder. This is just not good enough; the standard of proof is too low.

Prime Minister Harper bends Canada’s past out of shape

Canadians, ignorant of our history, little appreciate that our Prime Minister has bent our tradition of foreign policy into a course without historic precedent and with small justification.

Wealthy, vast in geography, small in population, advanced in economy, and well-endowed with raw resources,  Canada can act as a kind of bridge between the USA and rich nations of old Europe, with developing nations in the former colonial world. It’s called middle-power diplomacy. The world needs it.

Our contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany was huge; only the mighty global powers — the USA, the Empire, the USSR — did more to bring Hitler down. We won international respect, and we extended it further when we alone of the world’s nations deliberately chose to be non-nuclear; this is startling because Canada, with the US and the UK, developed the atomic weapons of 1945 in the Manhattan Project. We did not arm ourselves with them, while our partners of course leapt to the opportunity to have horrible super-weapons.

By never being a party to imperial and colonial wars against national liberation and insurgencies, we also have won much trust and respect in the developing post-colonial world. Until the Afghan Mission.

Before P.M. Harper we were distinguished also by our impartial and reliable support for the United Nations. Canada was an early founder-member of the UN in 1945, rarely criticizing it and often very active in its various agencies, peacekeeping missions, and in the Security Council.

Until now, when our prime minister has an entirely novel vision for us, at odds with our past, contrary to our best interests. He wants us to rank beside imperial US, the UK, France and NATO, as champion of a tradition I call “policing Western Civilization and Order.” This is why he was eager to be a militant player in the anti-insurgency Afghan war and why he shouts bombast at I.S., jihadis, Putin, Assad, and Iran.

We ought to eject his party from power for this alone, though he has given us many other reasons here inside Canada. However, generally I avoid making this column a platform for politically-partisan opinion, and I will say no more…


Maybe there is a coherent thread tying this column’s topics together, but I leave them as they came to me on the wind, somewhat haphazardly arranged.

Categories: Op/Ed

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