One of the beliefs that most distinguished
the fascists, Nazis, and communists of the 20th century was their
organic view of society. Proponents of all three ideologies thought of society
as an organism – and of each of you, dear readers, as simply a cell in some part
of the organism. And just as our cells have no importance outside their ability
to serve our whole body, in the aforementioned three ideologies, our whole beings
had no importance aside from their ability to serve the whole society. So, of
what value was the individual? He was simply a tool for the ends of others,
none of whom have importance either because they, also, were tools. And if society
was an organism, then it made sense for the head to run things, right? Government
was thought to be the head. And, of course, because there were many people within
government, the true head was leader of the government – Mussolini, Hitler, and
Lenin or Stalin.
Why is all this relevant to an article by "The Wartime Economist?"
Because the organic view of society, though hostile to the basic principles
of individual rights on which the United States of America were founded (I use
"were" on purpose; "states" is plural) has crept into our
language and has distorted much thinking on the issues of the day, including
war. It is particularly important in discussions of war because people are more
likely to fall into the trap of seeing war as a conflict between two organisms
rather than what it is, a conflict between two governments that, in most cases,
have dragooned their countries' resources with little or no consent from their
citizens. So, for example, most people who discuss U.S. foreign policy, including,
distressingly, most libertarians, talk about what "we" did when it
was, in fact, not you or I, but specific government officials, who took the
actions they're describing. They say, "We dropped the bomb on Hiroshima,"
not "Harry Truman decided to send a small number of people in the military
to drop a bomb on Hiroshima." "The Japanese [or, more commonly, "the
Japs"] bombed Pearl Harbor," rather than "The Japanese government
decided to send hundreds of pilots in airplanes to bomb Pearl Harbor."
George Orwell wrote a famous essay, "Politics
and the English Language," and a famous novel, 1984,
making the point that language really does affect thinking. In 1984,
he focused on the fact that, without certain words, certain thoughts could not
be expressed – thus the importance of the government's "memory hole,"
down which certain words went. In his "Politics" essay, Orwell also
pointed out the other side: using words can affect how we think. And that is
my point here. Specifically, if we use the word "we" to refer to what
specific governments have done and will do in the future, we are adopting the
organic view of society, which most definitely will affect how we think.
I saw this in a conversation my wife and I had recently with a well-traveled
man we met while in San Antonio. In response to an innocent question about what
his favorite place in the world was, he lit into an attack on George Bush and
Bush's foreign policy. At some points in his rant, he personalized the issue
– for example, when he talked about "Bush's war." There's nothing
wrong with speaking that way: it is Bush's war. But then he went on to
say that the Sept. 11 attack was "self-inflicted." It was a predictable
result of the U.S. government's meddling in the affairs of other countries,
he said. Now, as it happens, I agree with this last statement. But he then went
on to minimize the loss of 3,000 people on Sept. 11: what did the lives of 3,000
people matter when millions have been murdered throughout the world? That I
don't agree with. I thought then, and still think, that the loss was horrific
and that the people who did it were among the most evil people in history. But
that's because I see each of the 3,000-plus people as an individual who matters.
He doesn't. Why? Because he has the organic view of society. Go back to his
statement that the Sept. 11 attacks were "self-inflicted." How did
the young kid and the 40-something businessman on one of the flights inflict
it on themselves? They didn't. So, what did this man really mean? He meant that
the U.S. government had helped to bring on the Sept. 11 attacks. But his organic
view of society – society is an organism with government as the head – led him
to say that the killings were "self-inflicted."
The great tragedy of collectivism, the organic view of society, is that it
makes people heartless – they become incapable of seeing the real losses and
hurts inflicted on innocent people because they stop seeing them as individuals.
The example above is one of someone who couldn't see the hurt that individual
innocent Americans suffered in the Sept. 11 attacks. Another example is how
hard it is for Americans to see the hurt that the U.S. government inflicts on
many foreigners. Two instances come to mind.
While reading a draft of one of my students' thesis chapters a few years ago,
I came across the statement, "Fewer than 150 people were killed in the
1991 Gulf war." I wrote in the margin that the number killed was likely
in excess of 100,000 people, three orders of magnitude higher than the number
he mentioned. When we went over his chapter together, he said that when he wrote
"people," he had meant "Americans." His mistake was an innocent
one, but it was an innocent consequence of a selective collectivism: seeing
Americans as individuals, but people of other societies – particularly ones living
in countries on which the U.S. government had made war – as part of an organism.
My second example is like that of the man who thought Sept. 11 was "self-inflicted."
Kevin S., a Navy officer and former colleague of mine at the Naval Postgraduate
School, was burned by fuel from the airplane that flew into the Pentagon on
Sept. 11. It looked as if he wouldn't live, but he did. It was a heroic story
that was written up in his local Virginia newspaper. The article talked about
his recovery and had me cheering for him and his spirit. But then the article
stated that Kevin had contacted some of his buddies in the Air Force and asked
them to write on one of the bombs to be dropped on people in Afghanistan, "Kevin
sends." As much as I sympathized with Kevin, I was equally sympathetic
toward some of the people whom "Kevin's" bomb would injure or kill,
who were at least as innocent as he was. Unfortunately, Kevin's collectivist
thinking prevented him from distinguishing between those who had hurt him and
those who had not.
Collectivism is the ugliest ideology in the world. It has been directly responsible
for well over 100 million deaths in the 20th century. Let's do our
part by not participating in it, even – maybe especially – in our language. The
only hope we have for a peaceful world is to hold guilty people responsible
for their actions and to treat the innocent people in all countries as innocent.
Let's quit talking about governments whose horrific actions we detest as "we."
Copyright © 2005 by David R. Henderson. Permission automatically granted
to use in whole or in part as long as publication, author, and title are attributed.