TCS Daily


Failure and Fantasy

By Lee Harris - February 11, 2003 12:00 AM

Few things are more important for a society than the way it explains failure to itself; and in this a society is not unlike an individual.

We all know people who are continually shifting the blame for their own failures on to someone or something else, so that nothing is ever their fault. These are the congenitally innocent, and they stand at the other extreme from the congenitally guilty-those people who hold themselves responsible not only for what they do, but for what they could have done, but didn't, and who continually browbeat themselves for the failures of others.

Somewhere in between these two extremes falls the bulks of human beings - those who are prepared both to blame and to share the blame.

To be sure, most of us fall into this category through no inherent virtue of our own, but only because we are lucky enough to have other people around who systematically refuse to put up with our own fantasies of unblemished blamelessness and who force us to face the fact of our own inevitable complicity in whatever adverse fate has overtaken us.

Collective Fantasy

But in this respect, societies are clearly at a disadvantage in comparison with individuals. If an individual goes wrong, his society can point this out to him; but if the whole society goes wrong, then what?

This is why the greatest danger a society can face is catastrophic defeat and failure that it has brought upon itself-not because of the material consequence of such a defeat, but because of the ever present temptation to escape from the intolerable burden of collective guilt by an appeal to collective fantasy.

This was the temptation faced by the American South, at the dissolution of the Confederacy. Should it pursue the fantasy of interminable guerilla warfare held out to it by irreconcilables like Jefferson Davis? Or should it cut a deal with reality, lick its wounds, and vow never to act like such an idiot again, as urge to do by Robert E. Lee?

It chose the latter, and in doing so, it collectively elected to subscribe to a myth-a complexly nuanced myth in which a noble citizenry had fought for a poorly chosen lost cause and was defeated by the material superiority of a not totally indecent North.

In short, the South had been defeated fair and square. It was no one's fault. And let's get on with it.

Now there are all sorts of objections that could be raised about this myth on the score of its historical accuracy, but there is something no one can deny about it: it worked. And it worked by allowing the healing oblivion any nation desperately needs after it has just finished tearing itself apart.

We take this for granted now. Of course, the South got back together with the North, and made one Union. No surprise there. It had to.

But this is absolutely incorrect. There was nothing inevitable about it, something that I first realized when reading Anthony Trollope's account of a dinner at Yale in his book, North America. Everyone at the table agreed that, after so much blood-letting and mutual slaughter, it would be impossible to imagine the South ever reconciling itself to defeat, and that the North and South would forever remain hostile camps to each other, a by-word for interminable internecine strife.
But this didn't happen, and the reason that it didn't lay in the deployment of the Confederacy myth of defeat, a constructive illusion that permitted the face saving of both erstwhile enemies, and the creation of a society that was far more united than any large society had ever been in mankind's previous history.

The Story Line that lay behind the healing myth was clearly modeled on the literary tradition glorifying chivalry that was the mainstay of the southern reading public. Everyone wanted to conduct himself like a hero from Sir Walter Scott, whether the hero was a Rebel or a Royalist. And it was this Story Line that drove the collective consciousness of the south to chose to tell the story of their failure as a noble battle between honorable foes.

Germany and the Myth of the Great War

But other nations, and other peoples, chose to tell a different myth at such moments of failure, and the myth they chose may reflect much more disturbing literary traditions.

Consider the myth with which the German people consoled themselves for the debacle of the Great War. They most certainly had not been defeated fair and square; they had not even started the war in the first place. They had only been defending themselves from others. They had acted as everyone else would. They deserved to win, and indeed they would have won, except for one thing.

They had been betrayed.

Betrayal was the dominating metaphor through which defeat was comprehended by the German nation; and it is a historical error to think that this theme was only found in Nazi propaganda. Hitler, as we all know, blamed the Jews. But every other sect put forward its own candidate for the role of betrayer in the great collective psychodrama - Bethmann-Hollweg, Walter Rathenau, Matthias Erzberger, Woodrow Wilson, the Socialists, the Communists. In each case, however, the bottom line was the same: Germany "really" won the war, but got cheated of its victory by the wicked machinations of evil men.

The German people, with pitifully few exceptions, followed here the pattern established in the Fairy Tales collected by the Grimm brothers, casting their national history as the story of the struggle of the Virtuous Us against the Wicked Other.

This is the perennially favorite literary form of the child and the primitive, and is found in all narratives that carry a fairy tale like simplicity of good versus evil, like the classic American Western, with the good guys in white hats pitted against the bad guys in black ones.

In Germany after The Great War, there had to be a bad guy in a black hat-the defeated German people had a profound psychological need to shift the blame for their condition onto someone else, since otherwise the German people would have had to recognize their collective guilt in having brought about the destruction of an entire magnificent world-the cultural world of the nineteenth century, an era of progress, prosperity, and peace, on a scale unimaginable by any time before. Who could bear to face such a burden of guilt, especially when this destruction had ended their own world as well?

Arab Failure

The sins of the Arabs seem much less by comparison, and yet they too are desperately in need of the Wicked Other to explain away their own sense of having failed, by which I mean that hideous gut wrenching despair that you have brought your own very bad situation entirely on yourself, when you could have so easily prevented it if you had only acted otherwise. We all know this feeling in our individual lives, and how painful it is. Just imagine what it must be like on a collective scale.

The Arab world is haunted by the failure of a great culture to follow through on its promise, accompanied by a falling behind into feudalism and fanaticism. Had Islam not possessed such genuine grandeur in the past, the present would not be so painful, and so much in need of balm to soothe its pangs of self-recrimination. Nor were matters in any way helped by the string of humiliating defeats suffered by Arab forces at the hands of a vastly smaller state of Israel.

But, tragically, the Arab world seems to be united in wishing to choose the same balm that the Germans chose after the Great War, the indispensable fantasy of those who refuse to face up to reality, "It was all someone else's fault."

This is simply not our tradition in the United States. We blame ourselves, and at our best universities there are professors who are paid quite nicely to find as much fault with our society as it is humanly possible to do. An insane policy by any standard you might wish to chose, except that of pure pragmatic success-the most self-critical nation in human history is also the first nation to achieve absolute superiority over all the other nations of the world; and perhaps, by some dialectic irony, it is more through the efforts of men like Noam Chomsky than Rush Limbaugh that we possess supreme military might. Can you really fear a society in which men like Chomsky and Gore Vidal are lionized, as opposed to being shot in the middle of the night in a remote forest? A society so absurdly tolerant has to be trusted; and it is precisely this trust that has kept other nations from arming themselves to the teeth against us. Talk is cheap-and, with the USA as the dominant power, quite safe as well.

But it is this peculiar penchant for self-criticism that explains why Americans have trouble even acknowledging the fantasy ideology of so much of the Arab world today. It is because we are not fond of shifting our blame to others. We do not seek out bad guys to explain our faults and failures. Hence, when we are attacked, our first response is often the classic line, "Why do they hate us so?"

In fact, they hate us because we are the bad guys in the black hats that the Arab world so desperately needs to comfort themselves for their own failures and defeats.

Only the Story Line that the Arab is employing is not drawn from novels of Scott or the Fairly Tales of the Brothers Grimm, but from the enchanted world of The Thousand and One Nights. And, according to this Story Line, America is cast not simply as a bad guy, but as an all powerful evil genie that the virtuous Aladdin of the Arab world must destroy.

It is this underlying metaphor that explains the peculiar nature of the hatred felt for us. We are not, to them, real creatures of flesh-and-blood, but djinns, and our power has nothing to do with our own historical achievement as a people, but arises from the Aladdin's lamp called technology which, in their eyes, simply happens to be in our possession, and not theirs-though, with a little good luck, all this could change, in a twinkling of an eye, in the next twist of Scheherazade's serpentine tale.

And this, too, explains the characteristic of the Arab street that is so profoundly repellant and disturbing to us-their joyous celebrations not only when they have succeeded in murdering our people, as on 9/11, but even when our people have died as the result of a failure of our technology, as in the shuttle disaster. For them, what has really failed is not our technology-of which they have so little clue-but our magic; and when an evil genie loses some of his magic power, what better cause for dancing and shouting can there be?
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