Friday, April 21, 2006

The Lowest Form

Baron Bodissey has some analysis on the recent problems in the Solomon Islands. You may have heard about it on the news, but network news can be awfully vague on issues involving ethnic contention. The problem is basically that Chinese immigrants to Honiara, Guadalcanal, have been very successful economically. I imagine that they have also maintained a large degree of isolation from the other inhabitants as immigrants generally do, but Chinese in particular. The majority indigenous population has gradually built up a level of rage that could not be quenched except by mass destruction aimed at the Chinese, a group which is, by the way, a very small minority. One interesting aspect of the story is that the majority felt that rich Chinese were corrupting their democratically elected officials in evil places like hotels and restaurants.

The Baron is a thinker, but he has a strong "clash-of-civilizations" worldview, obsessed with Islam, itself, as a congenital source of tyranny and violence. I expected him to somehow blame the Arabs for the problems in the Solomons. He surprised me by blaming the islanders for scapegoating a helpless minority. He compares the Chinese minority to Jews in Europe, implying that it's psychologically satisfying to blame someone who can't fight back. A lot of his commenters disagree, seeing darker forces under the surface, but I agree with the Baron in this case.

Whenever something goes wrong, when a child dies or a crop fails or prices rise, people want to blame someone. They look around to see who might have benefited by their misfortune. The neighbor's crop is fine. He must have cast a hex on mine. But someone in the group knows the neighbor and stands up for him. If the neighbor is of a different group, especially an isolated group, no one will stand up for that person, at least no one who matters, no one who is present when the "crime" is discussed. If a critical mass of these randomly generated negative feelings occurs, focused on a single individual, that individual will be in trouble. Whatever group that individual belongs to will also suffer by association, association with a "proven" troublemaker.

Now, among awake, healthy humans a process goes on continuously that I would like to characterize as generating "blame nodes". Every perceived injustice, misfortune, disagreement, or military setback generates copious quantities of blame nodes. Think of them as being distributed, perhaps according to the Poisson distribution, relatively evenly across the n-dimensional human landscape. It is the nature of a blame node that it likes to be connected. It wants to join each blame event with a plausible culprit. Human cognition being what it is, the join is not necessarily related to logic or acute analysis.

Blame nodes can be strengthened, weakened or multiplied. They usually fade with time and resistance and can be cancelled completely due to interactions among the relevant individuals. Blame nodes can also be strongly autocatalytic in two senses. A favorite node tends to engender copies of itself, by the original creator of the node and by closely associated people, and the target of a given node may react with defensive counter-nodes, leading to a sort of arms race. It should be obvious that these blame nodes represent a primitive sort of life form, subject to peculiar patterns of natural selection. Nodes joining to powerful people will tend to disappear. Nodes that have unknowing and helpless targets may well increase without bounds. Conspiracy theories turn thusly into cataclysms.

Successful isolated groups have often been the targets of abuse throughout history. Not just Jews. Think about the Tutsis, the Armenians, Vietnamese fishermen in the Gulf states, Chinatowns the world over, the Knights Templar, the rich widows of Salem, the prosperous gay men of Providence. Something about success is galling, especially if honestly earned. We are able to tolerate millions of lowly illegal immigrants, but an influx of physicians and professors from South Asia provokes resentment.

One group that interests me is the Order of Freemasons. Recall that the Masons generated a lot of successful people early in our country’shistory, George Washington being the most famous. Just a few decades later there was a powerful national Anti-Masonic third party. How could that happen? Having known some Masons, my grandfather was a Mason, I find it astounding that people could coalesce around the concept of opposing Masons.

The problem they had is that not everybody can make it into a Masonic Lodge. There is some isolation and always lots of secret doings. No Mason could refute accusations about the events that took place in Masonic meetings because they couldn’t break secrecy. Wealth and power accumulated among Masons because they selected promising young men who knew how to get along with people. They cultivated their connections with one another for economic benefit, as everyone does with their friends, but these friends had a tight hierarchical social organization that fostered good internal communication and encouraged generosity. They were bound to succeed. Nevertheless, they were subject to envy and suspicion simply because they were a select group engaging in secret activities, harmless in fact, but closed to the public view.

Now, what you should be asking yourself at this point is, How can we harness the strengths of such groups without the liabilities? The answer is, invite everybody in. This in fact has been the successful strategy of Christianity and Islam, not to mention the Roman Empire and the United States. Is there indeed a way to engineer such a successful group? How could we copy the strategies of the most successful groups without unduly focusing the blame node matrix? In the US we do it by means of dynamic balance among a multitude of competing groups and by teaching tolerance. The program works pretty well, as compared to other places anyway, but it leaves out an unsuccessful and bitter underclass, and it fails to harvest the full bounty of our potential capabilities. Just as we can look at the Solomons today and shake our heads with dismay at their ignorant, self-defeating actions, I think we could look upon ourselves the same way. Let us avoid their mistakes. Let us imagine being in a better place and figure out how to get there.

4/21/2006 1:32 PM

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