My last book of essays is titled The Age of Dis-Consent. This unconventional title calls out for an explanation. It is difficult to imagine what it was like living in political system where those in authority based their legitimacy not on reflecting the consensus of the people. Legitimacy is derived from religion, myth, tradition, or ideology. Those sources had provided legitimacy over the monopoly of violence for thousands of years. Largely we co-operate with strangers because we find a mutual interest that benefits both of us or the strangers have weapons that compel us to obey. It isn’t a wholly binary system as each political system configures the relationship based on their traditions, practices, and interests.
18th Century London
In the 18th century, the conflict between free will and obedience to authority found a solution in the idea of elections. Elections, in other words, were a rough compromise between tension existing between private freedom and public obligation. Before giving the right of the state to cut off a citizen’s head, the state needed legitimacy to justify its actions. Legitimacy of the actions undertaken by political class was based, in theory, on the consensus of the governed. The foundation of state action flowed from the consensus of the people. Elections were an 18th century invention to produce evidence of consensus. Count the votes and the winner takes the reigns of power with a mandate from the people. Just a little reminder: in the 18th century there was no industrial revolution, the masses were not consumers in front of a screen twelve hours a day looking at products, services, personalities, celebrities, and toy poodles.
How people communicated, the subject of that communication not to mention expectations, values, and the role of family and neighbors separate us from the 18th century as if it were an alien planet. But we still vote as if that analogue world with its values, technology, and structure mirrors the 18th century. Obviously that is not the case. Given our digital world of networked relationships, the access to large amounts of information, expert opinion, and analysis—often hidden among the millions of mindless top ten lists and celebrity gossip—people have an infinitely greater capacity to be informed compared with their 18th century counterparts. Should we stop and reconsider the whole purpose and meaning of elections and voting?
People living in feudal times had little say in the decisions made by those who ruled over them. The idea of consensus coming from the people during feudalistic times would have been viewed as treason.
The 18th century also derived a mechanism to determine the consensus of the governed. It was called an election. People ‘voted’ to show their support for a candidate, his/her party, and their policies, and those who had the most support could claim legitimacy to govern. The rate of technological change, population movements, composition, size, education and density, along with new methods of cheap transportation and communication have made how we think about consensus different from those in the 18th century.
18th Century technology
The expectations we have about consensus are connected with a network of interconnected digital functions and elements including, statistical analysis, testing protocols, updating. We are far more demanding on the frequency of consensus gathering, as well as accuracy, durability, availability, and comparison between consensus of the governed and the policies of those in power.
Elections have fallen on hard times. They are like old reruns of TV shows your parents watched with their parents. In many countries unless there is a mandatory voting law, more than half of the people eligible to vote failed to do so. A way of saying, like it or not, you’re going to vote. With large amounts of money elections can be, directly or indirectly, bought by the big money donors. Politicians gerrymander districts to make their seats bullet proof from challengers in other political parties. The real problem with elections is they are boring. Full stop. They may be the most exciting thing that has ever happened in the lives of candidates, consultants, and financial donors. Unfortunately for many voters election campaigns are another source of ‘noise’ in the system. Election campaigns, like many civic and private activities struggle to reduce the incredible noise and upgrade the weak signal.
Elections are staged events with media consultants converting them into the dramatic equivalent of Shakespeare. Everyone knows the name and only a handful of people have ever attended one. Elections are from a different age where entertainment had nowhere near the central role it plays in modern life. Elections lack the entertainment value to deliver a good experience for most people. Debates, campaign ads, interviews, pundit-talking heads are poorly thought out attempts to bring elections as a big deal reality show into the heart of the entertainment business and it hasn’t really succeeded. The audience for candidate debates was likely proportionally much higher in the 19th century. As a kind of theatre it didn’t suffer from a lot of competition.
I suspect no one under forty follows news, ads, debates and other programming around election time, and that half of those over forty fall asleep before a debate is over.
Thailand is an example of the struggle to find consensus for the governing class. A popular parlor game is to use favourable opinion polls as a substitute source of legitimacy in the absence of elections. As a fig leaf, a poll doesn’t cover the naked, exposed parts—the legitimacy question isn’t truly resolved. The battle over legitimacy has one powerful group arguing political legitimacy is linked the domain of elections, and the electoral majorities support a legitimate basis for a winner take all political system. The other group with even more power and influence believes the electoral system fails to produce a genuine consensus as the votes are ‘bought’ or the voter’s manipulated with populist promises or cash payments.
Those who protest against elections as a functional mechanism to determine consensus have a point. There are flaws and distortion and what worked well in the 18th century when the class of people entitled to vote was a small percentage of the population. That may be the essential point of the elite’s grievance with elections; they started off as a vehicle for the elite to register their consensus. It was only after the 1832 British electoral laws were reformed to begin a process to expand suffrage beyond 5% of the adult population. The spread of the popular vote has been uneven across the globe. What is meant by an election varies drastically between cultures and countries. Who can vote also has no broad cultural consensus in many parts of the world. Thus it is easy to fall into the trap to assume the experience of Britain in elections and voting is a universal standard to measure elections and voters in other cultures with a different cultural and political tradition.
Elites suffer from the old devil of mission creep. Once election reform starts to increase the number of people entitled to vote, like government holidays, it is nearly impossible to overturn. In Thailand, the junta, which overthrew the elected government, are stuck with either rolling back electoral rights, or rolling back the authority of those who are elected under existing rights, or simply kicking the election can down the road. Again Thailand’s history is not Britain’s or America’s history though expectations of a sizeable number of people are influenced by that history. No one, it seems, has sat down and thought, is this 18th century mechanism the problem? If so, how can it be updated given the current technological and information revolution?
We’ve inherited election from people who lived, worked, thought and moved in an era of horse and buggy and steam engine transportation systems, where women had limited rights, and slavery, genocide of native population, colonialism, and empires were largely accepted. The infrastructure of the political institutions and the attitudes of people inside and outside those institutions assumed a shared consensus that hierarchy was the appropriate model. What separates the analogue and digital world is the shift of attitude away from hierarchy to networks. And that has been a powerful change that continues to echo through political systems everywhere there is an internet connection.
What do people want from their government? For most of recorded time what they wanted was inside a black box. Except for neighbors and family one had little contact with the outside world. What others wanted was a mystery. An election was the way to open the black box and resolve the mystery. Once the election was over, the lid was slipped on the black box.
Elections voted representatives into office who shared values that today a consensus of people would find abhorrent. It is no surprise as the American look ahead to their 2016 presidential election there is a crisis of faith in elections in reaching a consensus.
This raises a number of hard questions. Is it possible that given the connectedness that groups forming over core issues whether guns, abortion, gender equality, drug policy, and personal and national security that we should reconsider what kind of consensus is possible. A broad consensus happens but at the most meaningless and vaguest level. When you examine the official statements of mutual esteem and self-congratulation leaders at any international conference, you have a feeling these official ‘lies’ are the only level at which consensus can be agreed upon. The leaders have a consensus to meet again at the next conference or negotiation table. But that is about the only specific action they agree on. The official statement becomes the “consensus” document the leaders pass along to citizens. They might not be outright falsehoods but often what isn’t said is the true test of resolve and commitment.
Governments in their international conferences and negotiations often seek to hide their lack of consensus behind a smokescreen. At home, politicians seek coalitions of groups to elect them to office. A candidate needs just enough to get elected and stay elected. Compromise with other groups can be difficult, dangerous, and expensive.
We are left with the blunt, crude election tool handed down from analog age. This is no surprise when you consider the landscape of the 18th and 19th centuries with limited electoral rolls, limited ways of communicating opinions, attitudes and wants between officials and voters, limited ways for voters to communicate among themselves, and the relative slow technological changes that could be managed by the elites for their own best interest. Most of this has broken down. No wonder elections are basically a walk through an ancient museum piece of a political system.
18th Century Voters an exclusive club of Wealthy Landowning White Males
Not only are elections incapable of producing genuine consensus, political leaders are no longer capable of delivering the changes that keep up with the rate of change happening in people’s lives. They are running faster on a treadmill with the speed and incline increasing and they are winded, and that makes them vulnerable to diverting attention from problems—with variations of the diversionary cry, “Look, there’s a squirrel.”
Elections and voting were created in an analogue world, but innovation brought us knew instruments to communicate and obtain information: telephones, computers, digital networks, big data, storage, and incredible speed of transmission. This dynamic rate of change makes most heads spin, trying to comprehend and find meaning. The demands on the authorities also increase. Social, economic and technological change shows cracks in the existing political system. The institutions like an 18th century wooden ship strains under the weight of modern cargo. There is no new mechanism to replace elections. That’s a problem. That’s where we are stuck in the mud, not able to move forward or backward. Political stress intensifies as these technological tectonic plates continue to shift.
18th Century French cannon
In time, the 18th century idea of elections will be replaced by a mechanism that emerges from the Information Age. One that is more adaptable, fluid, consistent and reliable. No one can safely predict what that replacement might be. But we see a few hints arising from the world of AI, surveillance, polling, and data mining. Every time you retweet someone you are showing a preference. Every time you like an article, a product, an image, you are making your wants known. Consensus of wants and likes runs under the technological hood night after night; mountains of data, as we ‘vote’ on dozens if not hundreds of issues, products, events, and personalities every day.
When the military assumes power through a coup or any means other than democratic means, it is not surprising the generals who come from a different political sub-culture, bring with them a military set of ideas about the nature of decision-making, legitimacy, and structure. The last point ‘structure’ is significant. Elections come not only a different era but a different structure of society, information, and the economy.
In another context, Thomas E. Ricks wrote,
“Your structure is your strategy. In other words, how you organize your institution, how you think about questions of command and control, determines how you operate. You can talk about being agile and flexible all you like, but if you retain a traditional hierarchy, there are limits to how much you can achieve those goals. In order to really adapt, you must work not harder but differently.” Link: https://www.mca-marines.org/gazette/2015/06/hierarchy-does-not-work#sthash.LjOWQZqZ.GahTqApd.dpuf
We see some outlines of direction of consensus making—its incorporation into the entertainment model. As most people wish to be entertained and informed. They embrace reasons to become passionate, and once emotionally charged, they act to register their support. John Oliver’s show has an Englishman with a common touch, who is funny in an English way, but appeals to an American audience. Recent John Oliver shows focus on changes government policy on important issues that are open to a withering entertainment attack, drawing from an arsenal of irony, paradox, absurdity and contradiction. Two good examples are net neutrality and civil forfeiture.
He’s hit a cultural sweet spot between serious and funny, and people are listening and officials and politicians are listening to Oliver’s large audience. John Oliver has been able through the entertainment medium to forge a kind of broad consensus on issues that gives officials and politicians cover (call it protection) to make a change as there will always be a group that will resist change.
In modern, contemporary life, anyone running for a public office doesn’t have to make sense so long as he or she can entertain people. Those who can’t fit the entertainment format will not make it through the audition stage of the political process.
We are at a major crossroads. Not unlike that overlap between hunter-gathers and farmers at the dawn of the agricultural age. Most of the people in power everywhere are products of the analogue age. We are more like the 18th century than the generation born after 1990 who only know a digital world. As with all great change, it takes for the death of the old generation before the new technology no longer has this built-in resistance from those clutching onto the past.
What will the new digital generation decide about consensus, elections, and political institutions? It is difficult to predict the outcome. Though the role of AI will likely play a role. What are the broad outlines of such a role by AI systems? In short, AI will enable a new way to measure consensus. But that may come at a cost.
Once consensus is the product of an AI using means we can’t comprehend, it is a short step to allowing AI to make the micro-adjustments to keep the policies and funding of policies in constant balance with the consensus of the moment. Elections artificially separate the public and private sphere but our ‘likes’ and ‘wants’ overlap the two spheres. Netflix, Amazon, YouTube make most of their revenues from recommendations; they know what people like from what they bought or watched before. Customers start to rely on the providers to feed them what they want.
In this world, voters are a sub-set of customers who have desires, wants and needs and matching those expectations to others who promise to fulfill them becomes the focus. Whether it is a movie or a policy on recycling of plastic bottles, a data base will know with a high degree of probability what movies you like and what you think the government should do with plastic bottles.
In this brave new merged buying/voting world, the buyer/voter votes hundreds of times a day, and no longer distinguishes between private and public. In this world there is no need to politicians to translate consensus into policy, which as we’ve learned is often corrupted by anti-consensus forces lurking in the shadows. The end of secrecy and privacy will be as destructive for political class as for the governed.
We aren’t at that point and we may never get to this point. We are at the point of a broken consensus mechanism that is 300 years old pretending that it still works. We live in a time of distrust, dis-connect and dis-consent. A time of newly formed networks that don’t reflect the values of the traditional institutions and hierarchies. Like the last of the hunter-gathers we see the change everywhere but despite the evidence to the contrary, we believe we can control it. Those with a vested interest in hunting and gathering must have been angry and fearful as many powerful people around the world.
A new generation is already living among us. Many of them believe the fundamental changes of the Information Age aren’t being reflected in the structure of their institutions. They don’t consent to why their governments’ design, enforce, and evaluate policies. Ironically, governments, supported by their corporate sponsors, have been able to maintain legitimacy by creating the illusion they act with the consensus of their citizens. That magic act can’t last for long. Too many people know the old tricks. The cracks in the fake horizon, like in TheTruman Show, are appearing. Sooner or later, the last of our analogue-age elites will die, and a new era will begin.
The one most people know is a lie. Voters are disgruntled. They are disconnected with their political system. Voting appears to many as a futile exercise and disconnected from anything approaching consensus on issues they care about. But no one much likes the truth either: elections while they smell of musket powder and a lathered horse, there is no new mechanism that people agree is the new way mechanism to judge consensus and therefore whether a government is legitimate. As the Information Age continues to plough under the old political landscape, we may wake up one day and find all of our ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ have been data mined and a new set of leaders has been announced, claiming legitimacy based on vast stores of information that only a machine can comprehend.
I’ve been thinking of winners and loser, peacemakers and
warriors, victors and the vanquished. These binary extremes define much of our
culture, and much of about the way we think of war and winning. That visceral
desire to defeat the enemy is bred in the bone. Crime authors wade knee deep in
the fallout that rains down from such a world. Only we know life is far more
complicated than such neat divisions appear to offer. Black and white has always
given a seductive quality over shades of gray. Comfort comes from believing we
can size up an event, situation, person, idea in terms of right and wrong, truth
and lies, and hate and love, peace and war. It is, though, a false comfort, and
the best fiction—crime fiction or other genres—cause a reader to question such
thinking. Come to think of it, the questioning of the sacred, the challenge to
belief is one of the main reasons people read a certain category fiction. It
doesn’t have a name as far as I know. Let’s call it Deliberative Literature—it
has a fiction and non-fiction wing. Such books stand in contrast to escapist
stories or confirmation of bias stories—as these are the meat and bones of
bestsellers, publishers love them. They sell in the millions of copies.
Deliberative Literature has a small audience.
But this wasn’t always the
One place to start to
understand what makes Deliberative Literature into a bestseller is with Daniel
Fast and Slow. Kahneman’s fifty years of research reveals the scope and
nature of our irrational, emotional and biased thought processing. We don’t
deliberate so much as react emotionally and process that reaction as logical,
true and right. The highly charged emotions are not benign. Our historical,
emotionally based behavior records a bloody, messy history from burning witches,
mass imprisonment of cannabis users, beheading infidels, killing critics of a
faith, selling human beings, and justifying subjugation by use of violence
against gays, women, and ethnic minorities.
We need to deliberate on
this record and raise questions. The examination of the evidence and facts, and
testing both, will make many people uncomfortable as the sacred cows become
vulnerable when subject to verification.
Non-fiction books also
have the capacity to bore under the lazy thinking, propaganda, bias, prejudice,
deceptions and lies that are the foundation for a belief, a government policy, a
law, or cultural practice. Like novels they take a jackhammer of experience,
scientific studies, evidence of the casualties caused by the operation and
management of the institutions charged with implementing a belief system. These
books chip away at the unstable, rotten foundation, exposing the truth—it was
made largely with sand and very little cement. The foundations of law and
democracy should be made of sturdier stuff. It can be overwhelmingly
disorientating to have your beliefs system questioned as not only be wrong
and counterproductive but dangerous and harmful, causing massive damage to the
lives of millions.
Whether fiction or
non-fiction, a number of readers search for a book that unshackles the tyranny
of the mind locked in a cage of misinformation, false information, and mythic
lies. When you find such a book, you want to pass that book along to a friend.
And say, “Read this.”
While these thoughts
circulated looking for a telephone line to land on, I read Johann Hari’s Chasing
the Scream. It’s a three-year in the field study from the frontline
of the drug war—the battlefield is worldwide, and Hari narrows things down to
Canada, United States, England, Germany, Switzerland, and a scattering of other
places in South America. He’s done his homework, interviewing drug users,
addicts, counselors, and local and national offices. He has doubts and shares
them. . It is wise to raise health concerns about any drug, cannabis included.
One problem associated with Anslinger’s War has been the failure to fund and
support independent scientific research projects to gather, analyze, and debate
evidence of both positive as well as negative effects of cannabis. There is
credible evidence that cannabis use by teenagers has harmful effects on
cognitive development, and heavy users show a pattern of poor attention, memory
loss, lower educational achievement and lower IQs. The usual caveat not to
confuse correlation with causation applies. The Australian government has funded
several research projects to examine health issues arising from cannabis use as
a prelude to introducing legislation for medicinal
While there is no scientific evidence that cannabis use makes someone smarter at
school, the work place or at home, it is difficult to justify a war based on
scientifically challenged research produced to date and to fund a worldwide
gulag system to incarcerate cannabis users.
He looks for contrary
evidence suggesting the War Against Drugs has been a good, positive campaign.
Hari’s conclusion is America and the rest of the world has begun the long
process to change the terms of engagement between drug users and the police.
Colorado and Washington were the first two American states to declare a
ceasefire in Anslinger’s War as waged by state authorities within their borders.
The police on the street won’t shake down users and arrest them for small
amounts of cannabis. Hari interviewed officials in Portugal and Uruguay about
their experience to eliminate the criminalization of cannabis use despite
Anslinger’s War global ban. None of them wish to return to a criminalization
response to cannabis use.
What Colorado and
Washington States did was decriminalize possession of a small amount of cannabis
that can be bought from licensed shops or a small amount can be cultivated at
home for personal use. But decriminalization is a start for a permanent state of
peace between governments and drug users. That’s legalization of drugs. Hari
suggests that this is the direction we are heading but the world is years away
from the first stage of decriminalization. Legalization appears to be down an
even longer road. How long? Who really knows? Hari reminds us that in 2000 B.C.,
they were smoking hallucinogenic herbs in the Andes. In our past, in other
words, there was no war against drugs. This is a recent invention, like the war
against terror. A metaphor expanding war to contain enemies who are largely
hedonists or true believers, and to throw them into a battlefield.
One of the best parts of
Hari’s Chasing the Scream is his history of an American official named
Ansingler who served 31 years as the
Commissioner U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, started the
war against cannabis and pushed that war through the UN to the rest of the
world, a war started on Ansingler’s terms—and he was highly successful to use
the prohibition model that had been used for alcohol. What had been legal
conduct had been made by law criminal conduct. This happened in the 1930s, and
Hari takes us through Ansingler baiting the American population with racial
hatred (Latinos) who were blamed for the evils of cannabis. Ansingler’s war,
like most biblical type wars, was based on a number of assumptions that had no
scientific evidence to support them. For example Ansingler apparently had
absolutely no problem convincing the Americans that cannabis would turn a normal
person into a slavering murderer.
Hari says we laugh at that
now, because almost most people sooner or later have been exposed to someone who
is stoned, and in experience over decades not a single stoned pot-smoking
slavering murderer has been found among the non-slavering killers arrested by
the police. But in 1930 people believed it to be true no one thought of
examining whether the science proved that hypothesis. We can easily fall into
the Dunning-Krueger trap of believing ourselves to be superior in knowledge,
ability, and intellect to others, and quite unable to see our own limitations
that lead to misery and death. Hubris and subjective, instinctual beliefs have
acted as the squadron leader for military adventures against people with
different beliefs and values. The War on Terror like the War Against Drugs is an
organized death march against people with values and behavior we fear. Like when
Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush, Jr. convinced Americans to believe that Iraq had
weapons of mass destruction as an excuse to invade Iraq.
When both wars started—the
war on drugs and the Iraq war—there were shared communities that united not just
by religion but by association with racial hatred, prejudice, extreme ideology,
and a threat of sufficient emotional wallop that leads to hysteria. Ansingler
and Bush both showed how the only talent required is the skill to deepen fear
until hysteria sets in and at that tipping point no one is asking for facts, or
very few and that are dismissed as traitors, and you get your war. One day
people may look at Bush and his officials and laugh, how did people believe such
lies? We can say that because we patronize those who lived 80 years ago because
they had no way to knowing otherwise. There are always ways to know and there’s
always doubt. They were exactly like us. Fear soothes doubts and the rational
concern to support action with facts. Instead we only get subjective opinion.
Deliberative Literature is a pushback against those who use subjective opinions
to stoke fear in order to acquire, maintain and exercise power especially the
exclusive right to use violence against others.
Ansingler’s War though may
qualify as the longest international war ever waged. More than eighty years, and
Hari’s Chasing the Scream goes looking for what all that war as brought
to neighborhoods, schools, and cities. What started with racial incitement
against the Latinos became the bedrock of a de facto apartheid program in many
states and large cities. The war on drugs allowed rise of cartels and warlords
much like what had happened during Prohibition against alcohol and what happened
with making booze illegal, more people died from overdose (moonshine was a
killer during the Prohibition) as the consumer couldn’t be sure of the dosage he
bought or quality and impurities in products sold by street
In the last couple of
decades the super rich are regular features online and in the print media. We
have discovered what this means—a huge amount of wealth and income has been
distributed to sports stars, entertainers, technological moguls, and
inheritance. The fastest route to huge money was for the competitive race among
the brightest, fitness, athletic prowess who won mass acceptance and the riches
and fame that followed as they stood in the winner’s circle. Being born into a
rich family means you have a valet to help pull up your bootstraps. You don’t
hear much from about the also-rans who soon disappear into the crowd. The poor
and uneducated in Columbia, Mexico and Southeast Asia, not to mention Africa,
are rarely in the running in the international competition for the super-wealth
status. In Prohibition, the criminalization is a sure way for the poor to become
super rich or dead or both. Ansingler’s War resulted in hyper-wealth of the drug
cartels scattered from Columbia, Mexico, Burma, Thailand, and America. Attach
illegality to some product or service that makes people feel good—one
that exploits chemical hooks to reduce the edge of fear, depression, boredom, or
loneliness—and the results will be predictable. People want to be free of those
shadows that befall them. Drugs, booze, cigarette, sex. Not everyone wants to
meditate. People want a social way out, which takes them out of their head. Make
that thing illegal and you’ve got a black market running the next day. In a
month you’ve got an organization and the first murders. Then the real fear
starts as those who have found an unlimited supply of workers to sell a highly
demanded product for a huge profit. Hari illustrates that never has a war so
enriched a criminal class in the name of saving the ordinary citizen, their
children and family from taking drugs.
Look back on the
casualties of Ansingler’s War and you find corrupted political institutions and
more corruption in law enforcement system, prison systems holding millions, the
annual death rate directly attributed to the illegal drug trade continues to
kill thousands of men, women and children. Hari is good at highlighting the
hypocrisy of someone like Harry Ansingler who arranged a long terms supply of
heroin to an addicted US senator in return for his return for the prohibition
against drugs. You’ll have to read the book to find the name and it is a very
good one, too. Also as Ansingler was dying of cancer he passed the rest of his
days injected with morphine, transporting him into a state of calm where he
might avoid pain and suffering and the knowledge of the pain and suffering he
had released onto the world.
In the future, people will
build ‘Fear Mountain’, an alternative to the idolatry of Mount Rushmore. An
American Fear Mountain would have the massive stone Harry Ansingler’s head next
to J. Edgar Hoover. There would be a long list of those who pushed the ‘fear’
button and triggered massacres, genocide, the general flattening of people’s
homes, lives, and jobs. Every country would carve faces into their Fear
As the wise man says, the
future is always ahead of us; we never occupy anything other than the present,
trying to understand the scrambled events of the past, and to predict what
plausible state of affairs will likely come next. We mostly get the past and the
future wrong but that never stops us from seeking answers and believing our
answers are mostly right when in reality our instincts have proved an unreliable
We need to adjust our
attitude to the meaning of victory when it comes to war. The model isn’t a
sports contest. If it were that, the biggest, meanest, most heavily armed and
technologically advanced nation would always win. As America foreign wars have
shown since the end of WWII you can still lose the 100-meter race even though
you are the fastest runner because in reality it was never a 100-meters it was a
marathon through an unmarked, alien landscape. At the same time I was finishing
Chasing the Scream, I read The Myth of Victory, an essay in
Mark Kukis argues that our definition of victory is inherited from our
experience of WWII. The Japanese and Germans were completely and utterly
defeated and a new economy and political structure was rebuilt after the war
ended. That created an expectation about the meaning of war, victory and peace.
It runs as the backbone throughout Ansingler’s War, too. Unfortunately the
expectation of victory has proved illusory and a dangerously wrong guide to the
outcome of military campaigns in the post-WWII world.
Kukris shows evidence of
the losing hand dealt to superpowers in waging conflict. When wars were waged
between states, in the 19th century they had a 90% chance of
decisively defeating their enemy and declaring victory over that state. From
1900 to 1949 that percentage of victory dropped to 65% and from 1950 to 1998 the
percentage slipped to 45%. By 1990 the nature of conflict had also changed from
wars between nation states to internal conflict within nation states. From 1990
to 2005 there were 147 such internal conflicts and during that period only 14%
resulted in a clear winner, another 20% yielded a ceasefire, and 50% continued
the fighting and violence. We’ve become accustomed to conflating terrorists with
insurgency groups that attack the established order. Until, of course, the
established order is painted with the brushstroke of terrorism. No wonder most
people remain confused who are the good guys and bad buys. The subjective
picture quickly blurs into chaos and because we don’t question our biases and
the way they are manipulated by the powerful against us, we fall into the deep
hole of cynicism, despair, and doubt. Writers like Johann Hari write books to
awakened us from this self-induced slumber.
like Chasing the Scream, Thinking Fast and Slow, articles like
the Myth of Victory in places like 3am and Aeon are signs of the awakening. Green
shoots in our intellectual garden where Deliberative Literature is growing.
While Anslinger’s War started in 1930, it is likely to reach the 100-year
milestone in 2030. It is unlikely there will be a victory parade.
The statistics recited by
Kuris are counterintuitive to the belief of many that technological advancement
has provided a competitive advantage in all warfare. The Americans spent $700
Billion dollars on defence in 2012, they have the most advanced military
technology in the world and digital surveillance technology to gather, store and
assess information about enemies but victory in wars waged in Iraq and
Afghanistan have proved elusive.
Although Kuris doesn’t
break out the connection between the 147 conflicts inside nation states and wars
and Anslinger’s 100-year War on drugs, but it is a working theory there is a
close connection. Mexico alone has suffered 80,000 dead in its war against drugs
and no one is suggesting that war will be finished any time soon. John Nash (who
recently died) came up with Game Theory, a powerful tool that would suggest that
these internal ‘wars’ pursued as a zero sum game have failed. Internal conflicts
inside nations reveal a number of possible components that fuel the violence:
racial hatred, ideological fanatics, cartels, poverty, inequality, absence of
laws, the breakdown of trust and legitimacy in officials and law enforcement
institutions. Anslinger’s 100-year War against Drugs has financed internal
conflicts, enriched warlords and their war chest for buying weapons and loyal
fighters, brought entire communities under the authority of drug warlords. Harry
Anslinger got his war. He introduced a worldwide, non-stop war where there will
never be victory, and created a funding mechanism to challenge governments with
a reign of terror by unleashing a chain reaction of violence, murder and
The War on Drugs like the
are permanent wars with no frontline, no technology that will be decisive in
victory, with an endless number of new recruits and faceless enemies. If you are
a betting person, you’d wager that continuation of such wars against all the
odds of winning, is the likely outcome. And every time you roll Harry
Anslinger’s loaded dice, they come up showing winning numbers. That’s the job of
loaded dice. Do you believe the dice or do you look for the evidence what is
actually happening on the ground? We are years away from climbing Fear Mountain.
Meanwhile, many across the world will continue to follow their local
fear-mongering Harry Anslinger into another war that will redeem them against
the horror of an insecure, unsafe life etched with fear.