When nations go psychotic

As someone once said (was it TS Elliot?)  human beings cant stand very much reality. Every now and again communities, and sometimes whole nations go potty – psychotic. Jonestown is perhaps one of the best examples, although it was a kind of concentrated community a cult which attracted a certain type of person the kind of person who ended up dead. The best example of a nation in the grip of psychosis is Nazi Germany as a reading of Sebastian Haffner’s marvellous output on What It Was Like helps illustrate. Its only when I read his Defying Hitler that I really got a feel for how it might have been, how people could have been so – well – crazy.

And another example Ive always thought is the South in the American civil war. Here they were with no chance of winning, picking a fight so they could ultimately lose it, when they could have kept their slaves and got on with their lives. Why were they so crazy, so unreasonable as to simply jump off the cliff? Who knows?  As we say in our family – with apologies to Manning Clark – “who can ever tell what goes on in the heart of a mango?”  But an economist believe it or not anatomised the very strange state of the South in around 1860. J. E. Cairns wrote a book called The Slave Power. And his focus was on the way in which a particular economic structure had poisoned the culture of the South.

He argues that one thirtieth of the population are slave owners who manage to get their hands on all the surplus of the slaves. There is then another large class of ignorant ‘poor white trash’ the value of whose labour is undercut by slave labour. They thus sit on their porches cleaning their guns and nursing their resentments. This is Cairns summary (from a review of the book by John Stuart Mill).

To sum up in a few words the general results of the foregoing discussion the Slave Power that power which has long held the helm of government in the Union is, under the forms of a democracy, an uncontrolled despotism, wielded by a compact oligarchy. Supported by the labor of four millions of slaves, it rules a population of five millions of whites a population ignorant, averse to systematic industry and prone to irregular adventure. A system of society more formidable for evil more menacing to the best interests of the human race, it is difficult to onceive.

Jesse James is famous for his exploits in the wild west, but he got going before the civil war in terrorist hit squads that would liquidate local families who were suspected of inadequately vicous racial sympathies. Thus from before the civil war, the South was a kind of terrorist state. You knew you might be bumped off if you were too nice to niggers or people thought you might have nigger loving sympathies.

And of course it wasnt just before the war. After the war the South became a fully fledged terrorist state in which lynching was a fairly normal part of life. Not a good place to be a nigger-lover or perhaps an atheist or anything else that was  . . .  well weird. I lived in North Carolina in primary school and of course I was too young to understand the place, but I do recall it was a strange, strange place. We went to a guest house for one weekend on the coast and I caught crabs and proudly cooked them up on the stove for everyone to eat. One woman with a broad southern accent took me aside and sat me down and talked to me for a while. She seemed like such a nice lady. Then she said to me how do you think those crabs felt as you caught them. I didnt know what to say.  How do you think they felt as they were lifted up towards the pot of boiling water . . . what do you think they thought as they were slowly boiled alive? How would you have felt?

My parents came looking for me many hours later. I was hiding in the back seat of our car, still crying for the sins I had committed against those crabs. The south is a strange place.

Anyway, the fact is that it’s been clear to me for a long time that the USA is a strange place too. Its a place which is dominated, both economically and in terms of population by its North East and West Coast which are just normal places, where normal views of the world predominate. Of course like anywhere else they have their particular strengths and weaknesses. But people mostly believe in evolution and things like that. And then its got the Midwest which is full of conservative people who probably think the 1950s were pretty good, but Im guessing theyre pretty normal people. And then youve got the South, and its only a generation really the 1960s since it ceased being a pretty openly terrorist state with lynchings and officially sanctioned racism. So here’s my theory. The south perturbs the U.S., which might otherwise be a pretty normal place where the reality based community can frolic away, that it is prone to fits of paranoia which can border on psychosis.

Paul Krugman is one of the few people in the daily press who are calling something that has long seemed to me to be evident. Mainstream republicans are crazy –  not all but many. And of those that are not, many have to cow tow to crazy people anyway. And so Krugman laments the way in which, since Obama won the election, he gets more hate mail, and more crazy hate mail. Jimmy Carter has also weighed in, deeply worried about the craziness he’s always lived amongst. This is what I was getting at in a post a long time ago, when I called for apologies anyone?

This post by Brad Delong  suggests that it’s only going to get worse.

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22 Responses to When nations go psychotic

  1. Tel_ says:

    “how do you think they felt as they were lifted up towards the pot of boiling water . . . what do you think they thought as they were slowly boiled alive? How would you have felt?”

    The right and proper time to introduce kids to the “Meat is Murder” idea is before dinner, after a long day’s activity, when they are hungry.

    There’s a strange irony in the American Civil War. While the South were busy using slavery and racism to repress the individual rights of blacks, so the North were busy repressing the right of states to secede from the union — thus demonstrating the weird fractal structure of power and brutality. The blacks no doubt were boiling alive plenty of innocent crawdads, and those in turn presumably use those nasty claws for something.

    I thought the Goodies said it best with their “Equal Rights for Vegetables” episode which is one episode I’d like to get on DVD if I could find it.

  2. Pingback: POLITICAL RACISM « DUCKPOND

  3. Rafe Champion says:

    Craziness in the US is bipartisan. Consider the political correctness of the left, especially on campus, and the programs of affirmative action which are the most obvious cases of official racism since slavery was abolished.

    On the topic of rights for vegetables, someone used to talk about “votes for acres” to favour the National/Country party!

  4. Patrick says:

    I just can’t comprehend how Nick, an otherwise quite intelligent and rational person, finds ‘mainstream republicans’ so crazy. What does Jimmy Carter qualify as, for example, or Ezra Klein? Neither demonstrates a significant commitment to reality.

    What about former White House ‘czar’ van Jones? Acorn? The DoJ staff who abandoned the prosecution of Black Panthers for voter intimidation after their conviction? Or the union thugs who beat up a voter outside a townhall?

    In any country the political discourse of both sides tends to the ridiculous, but I have never seen one iota of reasonable evidence that there is greater disconnection from reality, tendency to violence or what-have-you amongst the right.

    After all, what party did those terrorist lynch-mobs affiliate themselves with?

  5. Patrick, Rafe,

    Of course each side has its crazies. I’m sad that as intelligent people trying to figure out things for yourself, you don’t seem to have got past what seem like your partisan reflexes. If you can’t see a difference between the mainstream of right thinking here and in most countries and the mainstream of right thinking in the US, then fair enough. I think I can.

  6. Patrick says:

    I’ve lived there, and I still can’t. I can’t work out whether lefties need to sustain this fantasy of right-wing demonry/derangement in order to justify their own sense of innate legitimacy, or whether they are just projecting.

    As for what motivates people like you who aren’t classically ‘lefties’ then I am just as perplexed as you :) Although I am not, really, since I think you are just suffering from confirmation bias (as, doubtlessly, am I suffering from my own partisan bias, try as I might).

    And I am keen to see where do you get around the fact that the people who represented the terrorist state you are talking about were not Republicans at all?

    Finally, you are concerned that Obama is unpopular and people hate him even though you quite like him. Well, it’s funny, but the same thing happened to the last President, except I’m pretty sure it wasn’t ‘mainstream Republicans’ doing the hating. In fact my recollection would be of ‘mainstream Democrats’. I’m happy to be corrected, but whilst I think you can make a reasonable case for ‘mainstream US political culture’ being a bit wierd, I just don’t see it as a partisan problem.

  7. As for the Southern Democrats of pre LBJ America, so that’s a sign that the craziness has been politely passed from left of centre politics to right of centre politics. My point is not a partisan one, it’s an anti-crazy one. On a related matter, I think it is true to say that in that in that earlier period, the Democrats in the US were not nearly as institutionally socialist – e.g. with nationalisation objectives in their constitutions – as labour parties around the rest of the English speaking world were and as parties in Europe were. (I’m happy to be corrected if I’m wrong about this).

  8. Richard Green says:

    I’m confused by the comments here. Am I the only one who read this not being about the right compared to the left, but rather the American Right compared to the Right in Europe, Canada or Australia. I guess the preeminence of comments wars between imagined enemies of Left and Right is just too ingrained into people’s minds so they parse differently.
    The Liberals/Conservatives/Christian Democrats et al aren’t crazy like the Republicans. They certainly don’t have the same love of totemic issues and tribal shibboleths.

    I’m not sure the American South quite helps us understand what’s happening with the US…but I’m not sure much can.

    In terms of cultural issues, I’m tempted to attribute it to the presence in the US of Movement Conservatism. The other mainstream conservatives in other countries tend to exist as a defence of the status quo, or at least traditional ways of doing things, both real and imagined. This entailed taking each issue on merits and forming arguments for each one, rather than referring to dogma. The US Conservatives, with Buckley and others have tried to make a unified system of beliefs out of Conservatism (in a way mirroring the socialists everywhere else), tying together views that aren’t really coherent when put together, sometimes to absurd extents.

    But that just shifts the issue a bit, why does Movement Conservatism appear in the US and not elsewhere?

    Possibly it is because the congressional system combined later with primary systems. There’s far less incentive for party unity and forming a governing bloc to gain executive power. This means people will espouse policies more inclined to elect them personally, rather than a party controlling the legislature, and will then appeal to a base instead of the median voter who is less inclined with purity of though. This will only increase when the moderate Republicans lose their seats to moderate Democrats.

    Still, this would imply craziness with the Democrats as well, and it doesn’t seem to exist in quite the same way, at least it hasn’t manifested itself in public quite the same way.

    And even if Australia or elsewhere became a congressional system, would we see the equivalent of Birthers and the like, I’m not sure there’s the roots to it.

    Which comes back to a cultural explanation. Which merely shifts the question.

  9. derrida derider says:

    Yep, Patrick and Rafe are studiously missing Nic’s point, which is that southern US attitudes doesn’t just appear crazy relative to the US left (if such a thing even exists), but they also appear crazy relative to conservatives everywhere outside the US.

    As just one tiny example, does it not worry you, Patrick and Rafe, that the majority of US conservatives subscribe to young earth creationism?

  10. Patrick says:

    It would if I believed it.

    OTOH, a lot of French lefties genuinely believe that the 35 hr week was a great victory for civilisation and that SocialismInOurTime is a worthwhile goal. You’ll forgive me if I find that just as disturbing as creationism. If anything there seems to me to be stronger grounds for belief in creationism!

    They are also indulgent towards violence, such as the recent spate of ‘bossnappings’, or the vandalism of OGM fields, or more generically, the entire French public sector strike culture. All this whilst remaining largely oblivious to the violence of their own poor mainly-Arab suburbs.

    I find them completely insane, but I don’t think France is anything more than a product of its particular history as it has been for as much. I don’t think there is anything pre-determined in it, and I don’t think it is pre-destined to continue, and I don’t think France is psychopathic either.

  11. Patrick,

    Do you think that Nazi Germany is a case in point of a community having somehow gone psychotic?

  12. Patrick says:

    Yes. Vichy France as well to a degree, mind you. And I do agree about the old American South, although I am not sure that it extended as long as you think.

    I think there is a difference between a psychotic society, such as the slave-era South or Nazi Germany, and a substantially ‘normal’ society in part hostage to a radical and undoubtedly psychotic element, such as the first-half-of-the-1900s South or, say, present-day Gaza, or too many parts of the world.

    I am not sure where to fit say Boer-war-era Britain, or Vichy France. Another difficulty comes from relativism. Looking at global reactions to Jewish refugees around WWII I feel that the whole world must have turned psychotic, if less so than the Germans. But then I turn around and wonder how much they really knew, etc…

  13. Thx Patrick,

    Just checking you were part of the reality based community.

  14. Mike Pepperday says:

    I also think nations go potty though Jonestown doesnt seem relevant since that was a millenarian cult which did the logical thing.

    I do have a general explanation for pottiness: the constitutional structure. That is, the electoral system, the design of legislatures, and other institutional arrangements, do not lead to balance and moderation. This is touched on in some of the comments above.

    In Weimar it suffices for the purposes of my thesis that the President could, under the constitution, give the Chancellor emergency powers. So was the whole WW2 trauma the result of one sentience in the constitution? Well, show me Im wrong. You could say the president was senile; that the country was confused with trying to change from autocracy to democracy (a difficult thing to do elegantly); that at this vulnerable moment the Depression struck. And of course there was the Versailles indignity. Still, maybe things would have been different if that sentence hadnt been in the constitution.

    Thats a simplistic counterfactual and a political constitution is very much more than a formal document. I dont know enough about the US Confederacy but granting its pottiness, you could regard the explanation from JE Cairns (slave economy) as a constitutional one concerning the definition of citizenship, for instance.

    As comments above show, the explanation people generally latch onto is the cultural one: their culture was crook. The trouble is, cultural explanations explain anything. There is no conceivable falsification. Consider that quote: ignorant, resentful, averse to industry So it was the culture: ah well, too bad, nature of the beast, nothing to be done. A proper political system would take into account the culture and channel it or mitigate it.

    I do think the US goes nuts periodically. Think of early 20C social Darwinism, the stock market exuberance of the 1920s, the Great Depression, McCarthyism, the arms race, the Iraq War. Ratbaggery by any standards outside the US and by theirs too when they stand back.

    Commenters above talk about right wing craziness. Well, in the US the political structure reflects, encourages and exaggerates individualism. For example, the country is too much delivered up to the president. This might sometimes turn out well but it often turns out badly. The political parties are weak so congressmen are free to vote to suit paying sponsors. If a McCarthy pops up it is hard to pull him into line.

    Individualism is culture, of course. It was there when Locke and Montesquieu were the founding fathers instruction manuals and Tom Paines views were driving the design. To give them their due, the US was the first modern democracy and it was a leap in the dark. The constitution they set up is what we now call a presidential system. It has been much copied but the only place it works is the US. Everywhere else it has generated dictatorship. And in the US it doesnt work well.

    Since there is no prospect of the US changing its system, it will go on giving credibility to the individualistic bias of the culture. Collective biases will never have the same legitimacy. It may be that in such an environment the desperation of those seeking some collectivity might have a greater tendency to express itself in extremism like Jonestown.

  15. Tel_ says:

    The difficulty with calling people crazy is… we don’t actually have any idea what is sane. A convenient substitute is to figure out what is normal instead, but as others have mentioned, the US is normally crazy.

    Well, its funny, but the same thing happened to the last President, except Im pretty sure it wasnt mainstream Republicans doing the hating. In fact my recollection would be of mainstream Democrats.

    That would be the “same” you can believe in. People had unrealistically high hopes for Obama, and he was dealt a bad hand, disappointment was inevitable. If nothing else, Obama is smarter and better looking.

    Do you think that Nazi Germany is a case in point of a community having somehow gone psychotic?

    They must have been crazy, after all… they lost.

    Stalinist Russia on the other hand was sane as the day is long… they won :-)

    Since there is no prospect of the US changing its system, it will go on giving credibility to the individualistic bias of the culture. Collective biases will never have the same legitimacy. It may be that in such an environment the desperation of those seeking some collectivity might have a greater tendency to express itself in extremism like Jonestown.

    Mike, be fair, for anyone feeling the urgent need to join a collective, the world right now offers a broad selection to choose from. The average American may have trouble finding some of them on a map, but google provides that service to you don’t have to.

  16. Rafe Champion says:

    I have no idea how many conservatives believe in creationism but the thing that really worries me is the bipartisan support for big government.

    From where I sit the political correctness and intolerance on the left is just as much a worry as anything on the non-left.

    BTW, do we agree that affirmative action is racist and sexist?

  17. The European right learnt the lessons of the 1930s but the American right hasn’t had a similar experience. Remember how in Germany mainstream conservatives, Catholics and economic liberals fell in behind the Nazis, persuading themselves that social democratic economic regulation was really the moral equivalent of Nazi concentration camps. The glories of the southern conservative tradition seem to be ignored. Separation of powers and a distrust of govt reduce the danger of the far right but they can still do much damages. The disastrous fiscal policy of the Bush administration reflected the far right’s influence.

  18. Patrick says:

    Does anyone understand #17?

  19. Mike Pepperday says:

    “BTW, do we agree that affirmative action is racist and sexist?”

    Sure we do, Rafe! (BTW)

    That’s not a bad example of what I meant by individualist bias. The other side (the collective bias) says that FAILURE to act affirmatively is racist and sexist. Of course both biases are represented in the US but the individualist one has the greater legitimacy. It is the default position against which the other struggles. I shouldn’t think anywhere else in the world is as one-sided in this respect as the US.

    In Japan perhaps the bias is the other way, towards collectivism (maybe not so extreme, though). In the Scandinavian countries both sides seem to have equal legitimacy. Here with us, too. These balanced countries do not go off the rails like the US does. Queensland did but we sent 4 Corners up there and sorted them out.

    Notwithstanding all that, I make the point again that it is the political structure which is faulty. In the US it is constantly exaggerating the unbalanced culture.

    Yes, #17 seems to be a sequence of non-sequitors.

  20. Patrick says:

    Back to the original post, the crux of it is presumably the penultimate paragraph.

    Paul Krugman is one of the few people in the daily press who are calling something that has long seemed to me to be evident.

    but let’s jump to the punchline:

    And so Krugman laments the way in which, since Obama won the election, he gets more hate mail, and more crazy hate mail.

    All that is established here is that Krugman is a Democrat and is perceived as being associated with the current Democratic administration in a way that he was not perceived as being associated with the previous Republican administration. I suspect that prominent blogging supporters of George Bush got hate mail up to their ears.

    So back to what was so evident that got us here?

    Mainstream republicans are crazy not all but many. And of those that are not, many have to cow tow to crazy people anyway.

    Huh? On what evidence? I think mainstream socialists are crazy too but then I would, much as Paul would [think mainstream Republicans are crazy].

    Nothing in Krugman’s post provides any support for a Republican-specific problem, except that Republicans specifically don’t like Democrats, whereas presumably Democrats specifically do tend to like Democrats…

    But if you have a pre-existing theory that Republicans are crazy, well I guess this certainly doesn’t disprove that theory, and of course what doesn’t disprove something you want to believe in confirms it :)

  21. melaleuca says:

    Rafe says:

    “I have no idea how many conservatives believe in creationism but the thing that really worries me is the bipartisan support for big government.”

    But Rafe you are a much stronger supporter of Big Government than almost everybody who posts or comments on this blog. Not so long ago you championed John Howard’s Northern Territory indigenous intervention which, among other things, involved plans for compulsory anal and genital probes for all black and brown Territory children. As it turned out, doctors refused to be involved in this rather extreme and highly unusual form of big government interventionism so it never happened. But you were right behind it.

    As to Republican craziness, the frequent rantings about death panels and the widely believed claim that Obama was secretly born in Kenya or Indonesia seem somewhat unhinged.

  22. TimT says:

    People believe in a lot of weird things. That website ‘Bad Pictures of Barack Obama’ is surely evidence that Obama numbers amongst his supporters a diverse bunch of absolute fruitcakes.

    Whenever I click through to the US political blogs I notice the tone on both sides is one of utmost contempt and animosity towards their political opponents. I think Rafe pinpoints a very good example of irrational unreasonable left-wing politics when he mentions political correctness on US campuses – David Thompson makes this an occasional feature of his very fine blog, here.

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