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William Pfaff
Extended Book Review with commentary
By: Harry Rosenberg

Pfaff brings the currents of history to life, not by listing a series of events on timelines, but by illustrating their underlying currents: struggles for dominance and control. He does this--in ways unique for his time--in the retrospective style of a historian. He views current events in their proper and often surprising historical context. Nationhood and nationalism go hand in hand. In his view, nationalism will pass in due course as something better comes along. He does not dwell on what that might be. But we surely agree. Nationalism is too much akin to jungle warfare to bring peace to humanity.

Humanity has evolved instincts that served good purposes in the jungles and savannahs of our concestors. Three such instincts, dominance, fierceness and herding, seem to combine in the Authoritarian Personality of our times, so ably studied by the likes of Adorno, Milgram, Altemeyer, Dean and Zimbardo.

Martha Stout added "frosting on the cake" by illustrating how the sociopaths among us, those amoral creatures, can manipulate people and minds; by extension, sociopathic personalities co-opt causes, movements, and even nations. The latter is on prominent display in our times on both sides of this so-called war on terror. On each side, sociopathic leadership styles have co-opted national or religious institutions in their struggles for dominance. Each sees the other as an abomination.

It has always been so. Pfaff quotes Arthur de Gobineau in this regard. "I am sure that Julius Caesar, had he had the time, would have willingly written a book to prove that the savages he had met in Britain did not belong to the same race as the Romans, and that the latter were destined thus to rule the world while the former were destined to vegetate in one of its corners." We see nothing in American policies to believe that this is not the case today.

In this way, The Wrath of Nations resonates fully with our research. More than that, written 14 years ago, it amply predicts what has happened since! Pfaff is that rare individual who can, in his own time, see history in the making with insights that most mere mortals have to wait decades or centuries to acquire--amazing in itself.

Pfaff makes much of the ebbs and flows of governance history. After reviewing several long-lasting currents, he makes a convincing case for nationalism as a movement in and for our times. Not exclusively for all cultures of course, for tribalism, feudalism, empires, caliphates and other forms of governance still find expression in hot spots on earth. There can be no doubt, however, that nationalism is an idea whose time has come. Perhaps not for everyone, but for Europe and the Western Hemisphere. At the same time, Pfaff views nationalism as a passing phase. It would seem so. Politics evolves and that means something better, or rather more fit, will come along--if mushroom clouds do not intervene. Is that not the gravest danger we face, given the irrational elements with fingers on the triggers? If a person can be so humiliated s/he is driven to suicide, who can say a nation humiliated could not do likewise?

Reading his renditions brings to mind some parallels between nations and the individual people, their constituents. Like people, nations:

  • remember historic slights. This is seen not only in Europe but also in the Middle East and Africa.
  • collect and retain behavioral hang-ups. In both the individual and some nations, behaviors are pursued beyond all memory of their origin--hang-ups by definition. This is corollary to the above and expressed in foreign policy and trading relationships.
  • exercise dominance in trying to impose a hiearchy as the top dog or at least as high as it can be on the competitive scale. This is simply the Authoritarian Personality in its current ultimate expression.
  • tend to establish exclusiveness. Just as people prefer to live in walled-neighborhoods of "uniqueness" at the expense of outsiders, nations tend to limit immigration.
  • are subject to bigotry. Demonizing (dehumanizing in Zimbardo's terms) is as popular among nations as it is among societies and individuals.

Pfaff's discussions could make one despair of peace ever being possible. Nevertheless, he notes positive progress, hopes for the future. Nationalism is not the end of the line for social evolution. He sees further progressive movement; history is on the move in his view. Quoting from his last chapter:

      "...We go forward by certain institutional arrangements that ameliorate the way communities deal with one another. We find ways to overcome the limits of our primordial loyalties, or to subsume them into affirmation of a larger interest, a reconstruction of a political civilization, as the Europeans have specifically tried to do, and as all the democracies have recently done, in what I have called their inadvertent commonwealth.

      But it is a great error to fail to understand the difference between this progress, that of civilization, and the progress of man. The failure to make that distinction gave the world Marxism-Leninism and Nazism, and it is perfectly capable of giving us much the same thing again in the future. The crucial truth is that man as such does not grow better. He is free. He remains the beast/angel Pascal called him, a chaos, contradiction, prodigy. He progresses only by recognizing his nature, his misery together with his sublime possibility. A politics has to be built on that."

Marvelous, simply marvelous, what this gifted writer/journalist foresaw in 1993, the year this book was published. It seems we have not yet recognized any progression as a species. It seems that the mightiest democracy came within a hair's breadth of visiting its own version of totalitarianism -- conceivably that could happen even yet.

If we continue electing those who instill fear
instead of building societal confidence
and celebrating our differences,
we will deserve what we get.


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