Monday, April 22, 2019

Once-Great Britain's National Humiliation

In principle, Gideon Rachman is a distinguished foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times. Clearly, he is a cut above columnists like Thomas Friedman. Thus, we are slightly dismayed but not entirely surprised to see Rachman profess to know something about human psychology. In a recent column he offers his thoughts about humiliation, about which he knows very little. He is nevertheless undeterred, because he is channeling what passes for serious thought on the subject. After all, if you don’t know anything about shame and humiliation you would naturally rely on the authority of august psycho professionals.

In his column Rachman discussed national humiliation. He offered his views about the humiliation that Once-Great Britain is suffering in its Brexit process. We have occasionally opined on the topic, remarking that Prime Minister Theresa May has botched her job spectacularly and should, if she had an ounce of shame left, resign. She has not, and this does not speak well of her or her nation.

Rachman offers the picture of a supplicating prime minister awaiting a verdict that she has allowed the grand poohbahs of the European Union to deliver. Considering that most of said leaders were rescued from Nazi oppression by Great Britain, it’s a significant turn of the tables. That Theresa May would allow herself to be thus humiliated does not, as I say, speak well of her or of her nation.

She is defining British prestige and status down. Perhaps the people of Once-Great Britain are willing to accept this diminished status. If so, they are in bigger trouble than they think.

Rachman pains the scene of national humiliation:

Leavers and Remainers don’t agree about much. But there is one point about Brexit that seems to unite them: the notion that the whole process has turned into a ghastly national humiliation. Writing in the New Statesman, Martin Fletcher, a Remainer, lamented that: “We are reduced to this. A humiliated, supplicant British prime minister sitting alone in a Brussels side room
...while the rest of the European Union discusses our fate.”

He continues:

The pro-Leave Daily Mail also proclaimed that it was “a national humiliation” to witness Theresa May “throw herself at the feet of Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel”. Witnessing all this lamentation, part of me wonders why so many commentators seem surprised by this turn of events. Any mildly attentive observer could have predicted that — given the unrealistic nature of Britain’s ambitions and the forces at work — this was not going to end well.

The state of affairs leads Rachman to some unfortunate reflections on a topic he does not understand. In makes for bemused reading. His solution is, guess what, therapy. Anyway who believes that the cure for a sense of national humiliation is group therapy has gone seriously awry.

First, humiliation is an emotion — not an objective fact. To the extent that the British are tempted to wallow in a sense of their own shame, they should snap out of it. Countries that decide they have been humiliated are often dangerous to others, and to themselves. A carefully nourished sense of national humiliation leads inexorably to calls for revenge against the foreigners (and/or domestic traitors) alleged to have inflicted this terrible fate upon the nation. It is a corrosive force in politics, and often leads to a call for a “strong leader” — one who can pull the nation together and avenge the slights it has suffered.

There you have it: snap out of it. Add a few pills and a little therapy… and all will be well. It is difficult to count the ways that Rachman has missed the point, but we can try. An emotion is trying to tell you something about your circumstances. You can either decipher the message and deal with the situation… or you can shut down the emotion with pills or mental gymnastics.

Take an emotion that we all understand. If you are walking through an alley and  suddenly have a feeling of dread, of being in danger, you are most likely facing a real threat. The anxiety is telling you to get out of there or to face the danger… one or the other. The Rachman approach is to pop a pill and get over the dread. This makes you prey, but it also numbs you to all dangers. And to reality. It is a grotesque mistake to dismiss emotion as having nothing to do with reality… a mistake that characterizes much therapy culture thinking about emotion.

As for humiliation, true enough, it does lead to anger. But, it leads to anger when leaders ignore the message it is trying to send. A humiliated nation is losing status, losing prestige, losing pride and losing morale. It is leading its citizens toward depression. To which Rachman would say that they should get over it or to pop a few Prozac. Or a few stimulants, a few amphetamines, a few opioids. How better to get over the feeling of despair, a feeling that, if left to run its course will render people dysfunctional and incoherent. It will cause them to lose their desires and to think that life is not work living. Try telling them to snap out of it.

Despite what Rachman says a nation does not decide that it has been humiliated, any more than the women walking down the alley decides that she is in danger. It is not an abstracted state of mind, needing only the right medication or a columnist to tell you to snap out of it.

As it happens, when people tell you to get over it and to ignore the real reasons why you are frightened or depressed, you are very likely to get angry. Getting angry is a step toward saving face, improving status and prestige. Getting angry says that you refuse to accept the lowered status and the attendant depression. Of course, you need to point the anger in a constructive direction. If you are threatened with a loss of status you should take concrete steps to regain status. You might encourage your inept prime minister to resign and to leave the process in the hands of someone who can project national pride and self-respect.

Consider one historical example that Rachman cites. Consider China. Until recently the nation was seriously humiliated by outside and inside forces. It ended its romance with Maoism as one of the poorest nations on earth. It has undergone a major reconstruction over the past four decades and has arisen as a world power. It has overcome low status, low prestige and soul-deadening poverty to become prosperous and powerful.

You overcome national humiliation by building, not, as happens in the case of the Palestinians, by trying to destroy what others have built. We might mention in passing that international Jewry overcame the humiliation of the Holocaust by building a modern prosperous respected nation. Why is Rachman opposed to all that?

So, Rachman treats China like an also-ran dictatorship that has been threatening the world. In that he is grievously wrong:

It is no accident that the Chinese Communist party has made the study of China’s “century of humiliation” central to their country’s education system. The goal is to legitimise one-party rule, by drumming home the message that the 100 years of indignity only ended with the triumph of the communist party in 1949. Now, it is claimed, it falls to the party to continue the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese people” — as defined by President Xi Jinping.

This sense of historical grievance potentially makes China a dangerous international actor. It justifies the claim that the People’s Republic has the right to invade Taiwan, to “reunify” it with the mainland, erasing another alleged humiliation.

After missing the point completely, Rachman passes on to the United States. He does not understand that during the Obama presidency the nation was humiliated by Russia, by Iran and by other countries. The American people elected Donald Trump because they saw in him someone who would not stand by while America was diminished and demeaned in the world arena:

But narratives of national humiliation are not confined to authoritarian or semi-authoritarian countries like China and Russia. Similar claims were central to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, with his repeated insistence that: “The world is laughing at us”, and his promise: “I alone can fix it.” Yet, very often, these alleged humiliations are imaginary. Whatever Mr Trump said or believed, the world was not, in fact, “laughing at America” because of the size of its trade deficit or because of the Iran nuclear deal (two favourite Trumpian targets).

In fact, the world was laughing at America for its pathetic sellout to Iran. Obviously, nations that want to compete against America, especially the weak sisters of Western Europe, are happy to side with Iran against America. But, the cowardly Obama withdrew ignominiously from  Iraq. He withdrew from Syria and let ISIS metastasize. He allowed American sailors to be humiliated by the government of Iran, and thanked the government for treating them so well. He sold out to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and made a complete mess of Libya. We could go on. 

When Obama arrived for his last trip to China the government refused to roll out an off ramp to help him exit his plane. No such derogation when Trump went to Beijing. When Obama traveled to Riyadh for the last time he was greeted by the mayor of Riyadh. When Trump first went there he was greeted by the nation’s king.

Shockingly, the Financial Times foreign policy columnist has no real sense of foreign policy. Instead, he prescribes therapy. You thought I was kidding. I wasn’t:

Finally, it is worth doing what psychologists call “reframing” the issue. Others call it “thinking positive”. There are aspects of Brexit that Britain can be proud of. The deadlock in parliament is an impressive example of democracy in action, involving fierce debate, checks and balances and the rule of law. Presidents Xi and Putin may get 99 per cent approval for their proposals in rubber-stamp parliaments.

Great Britain is being humiliated on the world stage. Its politics are a shambles. Borrowing from cognitive therapy, Rachman suggests looking at the bright side of things, even if there is no bright side: that a dysfunctional political system shows democracy in action. In truth, when the rest of the world looks at democracy in action, in Great Britain and America, they do not want to try it at home.


Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: An emotion is trying to tell you something about your circumstances. You can either decipher the message and deal with the situation… or you can shut down the emotion with pills or mental gymnastics.

I'd agree with this partially. Like Kahneman's book "Fast thinking, slow thinking" says we have two ways of thinking, the first tends to be reactive and unconscious and often dependent upon defense mechanisms we first discovered at a young age, before our self-awareness enabled us other options. And the second "mental gymnastics" apparently allows you to step back from your immediate discomfort and look at the bigger picture and decide "this too shall pass" or if you have some control, what actions might help the most in the long run.

Like aging for instance is a potentially humiliating thing, when the vanities of youth have failed to produce all the fruit it promised, you have a choice to try to double down on what always worked before, or look at things from a different perspective that includes more external self-awareness of your rather ordinary predicament to everyone else. Do we comb over our balding top and feel humiliation on windy days, or do we swallow our vanity, and buzz it all off with some dignity left?

trigger warning said...

defense mechanism: a mental process (e.g., repression or projection) initiated, typically unconsciously, to avoid conscious conflict or anxiety.

"This book presents my current understanding of judgment and decision making..."
--- D Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, p. 4

You even got the title wrong. :-D

Daniel Kahneman is laughing at you, Ares. So am I. Read the book.

UbuMaccabee said...

Being a slow and inexorable accommodation to slavery, Leftism does not believe in humiliation. Humiliation in politics assumes a state of liberty and autonomy has been lost. Leftism doesn't just reject the value of the thing lost, it actively removes all traces of memory and recollection of the event. Soon, the event cannot be recalled. Leftism is the rejection of memory; it is inherently ahistorical. People are just plastic, and can be remolded to any necessary ideology, and England is about 49% gone. Truth is never a leftist value.

Many novels capture the chaos of leftism (Dostoevsky is the master), but the last Fargo season 3 really nails it. V.M. Vargas is as clear a picture as exists of the nature of lying, and the direct line between lying and evil. Lying leads to chaos and chaos to evil.

Sam L. said...

May and the Parliament have refused to do as their voters told them to do. This will not end well for May and the MPs. The EU itself, I expect to have a bad outcome. As I understand it, and I admit I don't, EU representatives are not directly elected by the populace, and that results in no responsibility to them.

Ubu, Leftism destroys the old books and knowledge and persecutes those who still remember them. We must fight back.

Anonymous said...

Aren't some thinkers confusing a bunch of politicians with an entire nation? Elections are ahead, these will be elections for the Europarliament and paradox supreme, Brexiteer Nigel Farage is expected to win big.

Anonymous said...

Thank god Ares is back. Deep insight about shit he doesn’t understand. Missed.

Always wanted an analysis of the volume of HET comments before and after Ares Olympus.

Wager on the over-under?