October 25, 2005
"Us" or "Them"
A reader recently
sent me an e-mail about a woman he had met and fallen for. Apparently
the attraction was mutual -- until one fateful day the subject
of the environment came up.
She was absolutely
opposed to any drilling for oil in Alaska, on grounds of what
harm she said it would do to the environment.
He argued that, since
oil was going to be drilled for somewhere in the world anyway,
was it not better to drill where there were environmental laws
to provide at least some kinds of safeguards, rather than in countries
where there were none?
That was the end
of a beautiful relationship.
true believers don't think in terms of trade-offs and cost-benefit
analysis. There are things that are sacred to them. Trying to
get them to compromise on those things would be like trying to
convince a Moslem to eat pork, if it was only twice a week.
Compromise and tolerance
are not the hallmarks of true believers. What they believe in
goes to the heart of what they are. As far as true believers are
concerned, you are either one of Us or one of Them.
The man apparently
thought that it was just a question of which policy would produce
which results. But many issues that look on the surface like they
are just about which alternative would best serve the general
public are really about being one of Us or one of Them -- and
this woman was not about to become one of Them.
Many crusades of
the political left have been misunderstood by people who do not
understand that these crusades are about establishing the identity
and the superiority of the crusaders.
T.S. Eliot understood
this more than half a century ago when he wrote: "Half the
harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel
important. They don't mean to do harm -- but the harm does not
interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because
they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves."
In this case, the
man thought he was asking the woman to accept a certain policy
as the lesser of two evils, when in fact he was asking her to
give up her sense of being one of the morally anointed.
This is not unique
to our times or to environmentalists. Back during the 1930s, in
the years leading up to World War II, one of the fashionable self-indulgences
of the left in Britain was to argue that the British should disarm
"as an example to others" in order to serve the interests
When economist Roy
Harrod asked one of his friends whether she thought that disarming
Britain would cause Hitler to disarm, her reply was: "Oh,
Roy, have you lost all your idealism?"
In other words, it
was not really about which policy would produce what results.
It was about personal identification with lofty goals and kindred
The ostensible goal
of peace was window-dressing. Ultimately it was not a question
whether arming or disarming Britain was more likely to deter Hitler.
It was a question of which policy would best establish the moral
superiority of the anointed and solidify their identification
with one another.
movements are not judged by the empirical test of how often they
actually produce peace or how often their disarmament tempts an
aggressor into war. It is not an empirical question. It is an
article of faith and a badge of identity.
Yasser Arafat was
awarded the Nobel Prize for peace -- not for actually producing
peace but for being part of what was called "the peace process,"
based on fashionable notions that were common bonds among members
of what are called "peace movements."
suggested awarding a Nobel Prize for peace to Ronald Reagan, just
because he brought the nuclear dangers of a decades-long cold
war to an end. He did it the opposite way from how members of
"peace movements" thought it should be done.
Reagan beefed up
the military and entered into an "arms race" that he
knew would bankrupt the Soviet Union if they didn't back off,
even though arms races are anathema to members of "peace
movements." The fact that events proved him right was no
excuse as far as members of "peace movements" were concerned.
As far as they were concerned, he was not one of Us. He was one
2005 Creators Syndicate