You may only read this site if you've purchased Our Kampf from Amazon or Powell's or me
• • •
"Mike and Jon, Jon and Mike—I've known them both for years, and, clearly, one of them is very funny. As for the other: truly one of the great hangers-on of our time."—Steve Bodow, head writer, The Daily Show

"Who can really judge what's funny? If humor is a subjective medium, then can there be something that is really and truly hilarious? Me. This book."—Daniel Handler, author, Adverbs, and personal representative of Lemony Snicket

"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

January 06, 2008

Understanding People By Understanding Politics

I really have no interest in politics. But I'm definitely interested in people. And I think politics, because it places humans in heightened circumstances, throws human nature into stark relief and thus is a big help in understanding it.

Take these two items about the Clinton crowd. The first is from a recent blog post by David Corn:

When talking to Clintonites in recent days, I've noticed that they've come to despise Obama. I suppose that may be natural in the final weeks of a competitive campaign when much is at stake. But these people don't need any prompting in private conversations to decry Obama as a dishonest poser. They're not spinning for strategic purposes. They truly believe it..."They really, really hate Obama," one Democratic operative unaffiliated with any campaign, tells me. "They can't stand him. They talk about him as if he's worse than Bush." What do they hate about him? After all, there aren't a lot of deep policy differences between the two, and he hasn't gone for the jugular during the campaign. "It's his presumptuousness," this operative says. "That he thinks he can deny her the nomination. Who is he to try to do that?"...A senior House Democratic aide notes, "The Clinton people are going nuts in how much they hate him. But the problem is their narrative has gone beyond the plausible."

The second is from a 1993 article by Seymour Hersh:

A significant factor in the campaign against Saddam Hussein was simple animosity, stemming from the Iraqi leader's occupation of Kuwait in August of 1990 and his near-suicidal defiance of American pressure, which resulted in the brutal and disastrous Gulf War in early 1991. A former American ambassador in the Middle East recalled his surprise when a colleague, who holds a high post in the Clinton Administration, told him that he had started arguing for retaliation on the day after the first reports of an assassination attempt reached Washington from Kuwait. "I was shocked, because I view him as a normally very responsible and sober person, who understands about power and how to use it," the former ambassador said. "He just hates Saddam—a visceral hatred." Another former senior official said that many officials in the Pentagon and the State Department had become increasingly angry with Iraq in the early months of the Clinton Administration, feeling that Saddam Hussein had been "getting away with things" because of Washington's preoccupation with events in the former Yugoslavia.

What does this suggest?

That humans naturally hate anyone with whom they're competing for scarce resources. In the first case the scarce resource is the presidency. In the second it's control of the mideast.

In both cases, life for the peons will be pretty much the same no matter who wins. Obama's policies wouldn't be too different from Hillary's. And certainly both the United States and Saddam agreed it was necessary to crush regular Iraqis. Yet in both cases the Clinton people become irrationally angry at their challengers. Indeed, they actively seek out reasons to be mad, even when they wouldn't be bothered at all by the challenger's actions if he weren't challenging them. (Certainly the US was fine with Saddam invading Iran, and the Clintons didn't mind Obama's "presumption" in 2004.)

What are the larger implications? That people don't hate each other and then compete, they compete and then hate each other. France and Germany wouldn't have had their institutionalized centuries of mutual loathing if they were on opposite sides of the planet...even though the participants were certain of just the opposite, that their hatred had nothing to do with the others being right next door and everything to do with them being inherently evil.

Second, that it's important for us peons not to get caught up in the mutual animosities of our psycho leaders, who will demand we join their "team." Not only do they not care about us, they're driven so crazy by competition that they can't even judge their own best interests.

Third, that if you want a society where everyone hates each other, be sure to create as much competition as possible.

Finally, it's always good to stop and think when you yourself hate someone, even in day to day life. Do you hate them for real reasons, or are you searching out reasons to hate them because you're competing with them? Being conscious of this aspect of my own nature has often made me much happier than I would be otherwise.

Here endeth the weird lesson.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at January 6, 2008 05:19 PM

Excellent observation, I think. Which applies handily to the Palestine crisis (60 or 120 years of crisis, depending how you count it): the problem is not some inherent hatred between Islam and Judaism but rather, a competition for scarce resources by two groups, one (the invader) buttressed by all the might of Europe and the United States, the other not so buttressed. But the invasion has happened, and it won't turn back, so how best to resolve the hatred? Well...

In a Middle East Peace Camp held in Seattle in 2006 I ran an activity trying to get kids to understand about the sort of emotions that arise when one competes for too-scarce resources: I had kids join in knitting a scarf from both ends. Rages were common in the beginning - peace came about as the scarves started getting longer, and some control over one's own resources of yarn and needles could be gained.

As long as Israel holds on to all the resources there will be as much competition as possible for them. With the results you foresee. If Israel were to find some way to persuasively share resources (political power, land, water, in that order), it could end the conflict today.

It won't, of course. But I believe it could.

Posted by: Shunra at January 6, 2008 06:20 PM

Excellent post!

Posted by: cemmcs at January 6, 2008 06:26 PM

Newsweek read point # 3 and ejaculated. Bravo!

T'would explain why twenty years of "competition is better than anything" has produced a crop of angry Americans.

Posted by: sparky at January 6, 2008 06:29 PM

Another fundamental defect in our ape race. Maybe we'll find a way to improve ourselves as a species.

Posted by: wareq at January 6, 2008 06:48 PM

How about in those lovely Balkan backwaters, where there never was much to compete for or against, the hatreds were fierce and lasting.
Or, in some Podunk little college, where tenured faculty members, non-publishing and barely teaching, hated for the most petty reasons.
Competition as preached and practiced under extreme capitalism inspires all kinds of ugly things, but hatred can grow in non-competitive soil quite easily as well.

Posted by: donescobar at January 6, 2008 06:53 PM


Point taken! But competition can exist even where there are no material reasons for it's existence. Competition in our society has taken on a life of it's own, seeking niches that would otherwise not promote it.


Posted by: Iron Butterfly at January 6, 2008 07:05 PM

I wondered if somebody was going to make donescobar's point. At no point did Jon say competition is the exclusive root of strife.

This is simply a peek into the machinations of politics, which is what you get from ATR. Not some equation that unifies the universe - like a peek into the mind of god. So chill. Appreciate what this post is - an incredibly insightful Op/Ed you won't find in the NYT.

Posted by: A different matt at January 6, 2008 07:06 PM

"It's his presumptuousness," this operative says. "That he thinks he can deny her the nomination. Who is he to try to do that?"

Anyone who's voted for Nader is familiar with this mindset. 'How dare you deny us the Presidency! Who are you to do that?"

Posted by: SteveB at January 6, 2008 07:07 PM

It's the mindlessness of "competition is good" or "change is good" that has replaced the thoughtfulness of "depends."

Posted by: donescobar at January 6, 2008 07:23 PM

i'll never be president. who do i sue?

Posted by: hapa at January 6, 2008 08:56 PM

Serious typo dude: It's "scarce", not "scare". If you already have a good post, never ruin it with bad spelling.

Posted by: En Ming Hee at January 6, 2008 09:04 PM

How about in those lovely Balkan backwaters, where there never was much to compete for or against, the hatreds were fierce and lasting.
Or, in some Podunk little college, where tenured faculty members, non-publishing and barely teaching, hated for the most petty reasons.

But actually, there is always something to compete for, in the Balkans or in tiny colleges, or in a desert. Humans always need some kind of resource to live, and there are almost always limits to the resources. If there is less stuff to compete for, that could, depending on how the people take it, become a reason to compete harder and more ruthlessly. Petty hatreds can be just as divisive and dangerous as hatreds over enormous matters.

Maybe Mr. Schwarz has missed some wrinkle of how competition works, but I think his basic point is still sound.

Posted by: atheist at January 6, 2008 10:02 PM

Hey Johnathan,

Do you guys watch "The Wire"? I just saw the opener and it was amazing. If you like people this show is all about characters, and politics, and news.

Highly Highly recommend.

Posted by: patience at January 6, 2008 11:19 PM

But how true is this for humans generally? I don't think we'd want to say that Clinton staffers are representative of humankind (for that to be true, wouldn't they have to actually be human?)

I ask because a friend of mine ran on the Green ticket against a Democratic congressman, and, in the process actually came to develop more respect for the congressman, and is now on quite friendly terms with him.

Perhaps your rule doesn't apply to humans in general, but it does apply to the type of humans who succeed in attaining and holding power (my friend obviously isn't in this category.)

Aside from that, the Seymour Hersh quote is a really valuable reminder of the extent to which really, really important decisions at the highest levels can be motivated by complete irrationality and even childishness. It's an example of what George Washington warned us against in his farewell address:

The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur.

Posted by: SteveB at January 7, 2008 12:55 AM

SteveB 12:55 EXACTLY:
donescobar: The Balkans are the choke point on the trade routes to the Middle East from Europe and VERY necessary to both. To start a war there, one need only sell guns to the people in the mountains. 'Twas ever thus.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at January 7, 2008 01:46 AM

I'm going to disagree with my esteemed colleague hedgehog in his recommendation of ParEcon. It's interesting, certainly, but I don't think they're good ideas. Critiques of markets are lucid, but it's always easier to knock things down than build something new, and it shows here. ParEcon is a jumbled mess, and I find the adjective "Soviet" entirely appropriate - the proposed system is extreme bureaucratic fascism. I don't find it liberating in the least.

Posted by: saurabh at January 7, 2008 06:04 AM

easy scarcity you can make at home

- 2 empires of industrial sunk costs
- 1 inheritance of defensive hoarding (forgotten why)

mix ingredients liberally and leave on stove until burning out of control. seethe to taste.

Posted by: hapa at January 7, 2008 05:58 PM

The second ... in Jonathan's quote from Corn is worth spelling out in full:

"It's his presumptuousness," this operative says. "That he thinks he can deny her the nomination. Who is he to try to do that?"

You mean, he's, uh, uppity? "Yes."

A senior House Democratic aide notes, "The Clinton people are going nuts in how much they hate him. But the problem is their narrative has gone beyond the plausible."

Posted by: at January 8, 2008 09:09 AM