A Lesson in Politics

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The masses have never thirsted after truth. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.

~ Gustave Le Bon

To those paying close attention, the present U.S. attorney general and secretary of state provided as good an overview of the nature of political systems as you will find. Eric Holder, Jr., declared that America is "a nation of cowards" when it came to racial matters; that we "simply do not talk enough with each other about race." That he should make such a statement just a few weeks after a black man had been sworn in as president, was all the more remarkable, albeit not surprising.

About fifty years ago, I began to give serious consideration to the question of how social conflicts are caused by the practice of dividing ourselves into mutually-exclusive groups with which we identify our sense of being. My initial introduction to this phenomenon came from reading one of James Baldwin’s books, in which he expressed the hope that he might one day walk into a room and see neither "white" nor "black" people. While I was somewhat puzzled by his comment, further inquiries led me to the writings of such men as Fritz Perls and Ludwig von Bertalanffy. It was in Perls’ work that I discovered the concept of "ego boundaries," that lie at the core of our conflicts with others. In my book, Calculated Chaos, I applied this idea in analyzing how institutions — particularly the state — depend upon such divisiveness for their well-being.

How does all of this apply to Mr. Holder’s remarks? Political systems could not exist if they were to serve all persons and groups in an undifferentiated manner. To give an isolated example: if each of us was to pay our taxes and receive, in return, precisely the governmental services we wanted, the state would have no raison d’tre. Such a result is what one obtains in the marketplace — and with lower costs — against which the state is constantly at war. Accordingly, political systems prosper by offering various groups of people the illusory advantage that they can secure goods and/or services at a cost lower than what they would pay in taxes; that others will make up the difference — all in the guise of promoting some benefit to which the recipient is "entitled," or which serves some alleged "greater social good." This reasoning is what is presently pouring trillions of dollars into the coffers of the corporate favorites of those running the state system.

People with varied interests quickly discover the advantages of organizing themselves into groups to lobby the state for these apparent benefits. Ego-boundary identities have proven themselves an effective means of promoting collective ends. Race, religion, ideology, economic interests, ethnicity, lifestyle, age, nationality, provide just a handful of grounds upon which to organize mass movements. Those to be organized into such groupings, as well as those who control the machinery of the state, develop a symbiotic relationship in the perpetuation of the political process.

Of course, in order to maintain the seeming effectiveness of such practices, it is essential that group identities be reinforced. The boundary lines that separate one group from another (e.g., "employees" and "employers," "straights" and "gays," "Hindus" and "Muslims," and other "us" versus "them" categories), must be clearly delineated and rigorously defended. This is what underlay Clarence Thomas’s difficulties in getting appointed to the Supreme Court: he was a black man who reflected a different mindset from the more established black politically-active groups. If blacks are to continue to have political influence, qua blacks, there must be no blurring of the lines separating their group from those with whom they must appear to be in conflict if cohesiveness among blacks is to be maintained. The same logic applies to all other groups, whatever their constituency.

This is why I believe that the election of Barack Obama to the presidency will end up weakening, not strengthening, African-American political groups. To the degree such organized activism is premised upon irreconcilable differences among blacks and whites, Obama’s election nullifies such a premise. What was significant about his victory was not that an African-American was elected to the presidency, but that his being black was not considered, by most voters, to be a disqualification for the office. It is that fact that may help to bring about the state of mind to which Baldwin referred.

I suspect that Attorney General Holder’s remarks may have been motivated by a felt need to reinforce the old boundary lines of racial separation. The man is, after all, a product of political activism, and if the divisiveness to which he has been accustomed was to dissolve, such groups might come to wield no more influence than did the once-powerful Anti-Saloon League.

On the other hand, Holder went on to note that race "is an issue we have never been at ease with." If he is sincere in what he is saying, he might consider that the intervention of the state — whether it be the federal government’s enforcement of the Fugitive Slave laws, Lincoln’s exploitation of the slavery question to enforce his appetites for federal hegemony, or the more recent enforcement of "politically-correct" speech and conduct — has made it quite difficult for men and women to "talk . . .with each other about race" without fear of retaliation in colleges, the workplace, or by state prosecution of so-called "hate crimes."

Confirmation of the role played by political institutions in generating the social conflict that is rapidly destroying Western civilization, has been offered by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Speaking at the European Parliament in Brussels, and using climate change and energy security as her topics, she advised listeners to "never waste a good crisis."

Political systems thrive on "crises," for they are used to generate the fear that causes men and women to huddle at the feet of state authorities who — like the "big daddies" of our childhood — promise to protect us from perceived threats. Any crisis will do, particularly those that can be seen by some groups as threats arising from others. Nor has Boobus shown much reluctance to discriminate between the genuine and the illusory in his willingness to respond to alleged crises. Even fabricated causes — be they make-believe threats from Iraq, or the belief that there is a consensus within the scientific community that humans are the cause of global warming, or the proposition that cowardice about race inheres in a nation that has just elected a black president — can be used to keep people in manageable herds.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918—1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.

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