Saturday, January 13, 2007

Blair War Talk - why does hawkish rhetoric work? 

Did Blair ever ask himself this question before making this speech?

Why are hawks so influential?

A paper in the journal Foreign Policy suggest that the answer

…may lie deep in the human mind. People have dozens of decision-making biases, and almost all favor conflict rather than concession. A look at why the tough guys win more than they should.

) Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon. ‘Foreign Policy’ (Jan 2007 The core of their argument;

Social and cognitive psychologists have identified a number of predictable errors (psychologists call them biases) in the ways that humans judge situations and evaluate risks. Biases have been documented both in the laboratory and in the real world, mostly in situations that have no connection to international politics. For example, people are prone to exaggerating their strengths: About 80 percent of us believe that our driving skills are better than average. In situations of potential conflict, the same optimistic bias makes politicians and generals receptive to advisors who offer highly favorable estimates of the outcomes of war. Such a predisposition, often shared by leaders on both sides of a conflict, is likely to produce a disaster.

And this is not an isolated example. In fact, when we constructed a list of the biases uncovered in 40 years of psychological research, we were startled by what we found: All the biases in our list favor hawks. These psychological impulses—only a few of which we discuss here—incline national leaders to exaggerate the evil intentions of
adversaries, to misjudge how adversaries perceive them, to be overly sanguine
when hostilities start, and overly reluctant to make necessary concessions in negotiations. In short, these biases have the effect of making wars more likely to begin and more difficult to end.

The ‘Foreign Policy’ article is liked to a web debate on the theme available here. The articles authors respond here.

On a possibly parallel theme, might be worth taking a look at the article by Corey Robin in London Review of Books 4 Jan 2007 which looks at various books analaysing aspects of the writings of Hannah Arendt.

She was famous for her concept of ‘the Banality of Evil’, the idea that you don’t need radically wicked people to get massively evil events. People doing small things can do that. And one object of her attention was the ‘careerist’, which is her characterisation of Eichmann and many other mechanics of the Shoa. Robin’s article ends:

The main reason for the contemporary evasion of Arendt’s critique of careerism,
however, is that addressing it would force a confrontation with the dominant ethos of our time. In an era when capitalism is assumed to be not only efficient but also a source of freedom, the careerist seems like the agent of an easy-going tolerance and pluralism. Unlike the ideologue, whose great sin is to think too much and want too much from politics, the careerist is a genial caretaker of himself. He prefers the marketplace to the corridors of state power. He is realistic and pragmatic, not utopian or fanatic. That careerism may be as lethal as idealism, that ambition is an adjunct of barbarism, that some of the worst crimes are the result of ordinary vices rather than extraordinary ideas: these are the implications of Eichmann in Jerusalem that neo-cons and neoliberals alike find too troubling to acknowledge.

Blair is certainly not someone with extraordinary vices. We here are not people with extraordinary virtues. Warnings from history? A lot to talk about perhaps

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