“Compaction, Pack Instinct, and Territoriality:
Some Aspects of Irrationality”
by Fred Reed
“We’re all crazy. This explains everything. I will elaborate in hopes of joining Plato, Burke, and Hunter Thompson as a lighthouses of the intellects
The human mind cannot think of more than a very few things at once. We cannot for example think of a billion citizens of China as individuals, so we say “China,“ or “the Chinese” did something or other when most of them hadn’t heard of it, didn’t want to do it, or wanted to do something else. The billion become one sentient being, a sort of sprawling person.
Thus, for example, people speak of Cuba as “Castro,” or say that “Cuba” must be punished for doing something that Washington doesn’t like, and thus the embargo on trade. In fact, there are 11,000,000 million Cubans, of whom only one is Castro. Most Cubans do not like Castro, as evidenced by their attempts to paddle ninety miles to Miami on inner tubes. The embargo doesn’t punish “Cuba.” It makes life miserable for 11,000,000-1 people almost none of whom have any influence on Cuba’s policies. The embargo certainly doesn’t discomfit Castro, who can have all the prime rib and good bourbon he wants, embargo or no embargo.
This inability to handle complexity runs through and almost defines politics. For example, Donald Trump wants to punish Mexico by making it pay for his wall, this being greeted with acclaim by people for whom Mexico is one thing, a malevolent being in a sombrero and crossed bandoliers that is “shipping its criminals to the United States.” (The precise part played by a third-grader in Mérida in shipping criminals to the US is not clear.) It is easier to think of “Mexico” than of several thousand criminals or hundreds of thousands of the moderately impoverished, who of their own volition decide to go where the money is.
Extracting billions to pay for his wall will punish…whom? Or what? The money would come out of funds for construction of roads, or education, or medical services, and such. That is, it would punish those who did not go illegally to the US instead of those who did. It certainly would not punish anyone in the Mexican government.
The consequences of this psychic compaction are often horrible. The UN estimates that some 600,000 Iraqi children died of waterborne diseases like dysentery because America put an embargo on chlorine for treating water (they might make poison gas with it). “Iraq” was one evil thing, or it was Saddam Hussein. It, or he, had to be punished. (The people who run the US wanted oil, empire, and Israel. The part about punishing Saddam and imposing goodness and democracy was to sucker the rubes into an excited pack.)
Actually watching a child crying as it dies of diarrhea decreases the granularity to the individual level at which people can understand it. This is why governments do not like such things to become public.
Thee is also temporal compaction. The Jews killed Christ (“Gosh, Rachel, you don’t look old enough.”) or the South engaged in slavery and must be punished. No American has owned slave for generations, but this is too hard to think about. “The South” is one huge, leering, immortal plantation owner.
Another thing that makes human behavior hopelessly awful is the dog-pack instinct. We have an insuperable tendency to form packs and bark at other packs. In the case of some species, such as ours, a powerful territoriality is also in play. The urge to merge into a pack and fight with others is perhaps stronger than the sex drive. It is not unique to humans–ants do it, for example–but it is unusual in nature. Intelligent species, such as horses, form herds but don’t fight each other. So do whales. Cats don’t bother at all.
Countries (very large packs) fight and growl at each other, and form larger packs– NATO, the Warsaw Pact– to fight and growl at each other. These are immensely territorial. Members of these fanged herds do not actually pee on the borders to mark them, but come close.
Similarly– very similarly– teenage gangs have military hierarchies, territory, identifying clothing, and fight each other. Football teams exist only to fight each other, fans being supportive auxiliaries. So with the Olympics and the World Cup. Political parties, feminists, races, ethnicities, nationalities, religious faiths, sub-sects of those faiths, on and on and on, do the same.
The analogy of the dog pack is remarkably accurate. When a strange dog passes on the sidewalk in front of our house, our three dogs rush wildly the the fence, barking furiously. They don’t think the stranger is really a threat. He is being walked on a leash by his owner. Our pooches are territorial pack animals, just doing what such animals do.
So with air defense. When a lumbering, prop-driven, ancient Russian bomber turned recon bird approaches American air space, fighters roar frantically into the air to bark at it. The pilots know the intruder isn’t going to bomb anything. We are territorial pack-animals.
History is a sordid record of packs fighting for territory, thinking of each other as unitary sentient beings. Empires, the largest packs, grow like bubbles, conquering other people’s territory, and then deflate like bubbles when a newer and more vigorous empire appears. The Delian League, Rome, England, the Soviets, the Americans, China. Even the biggest dogs get old.
Countries behave as idiotically as dogs because they are ruled by people as idiotic as dogs. Male dogs in a pack want to be alpha-dog, and fight to get there. Male politicians, to include the marginally female, want to be alpha-pol and fight, scratch, claw, lie, cheat, and steal to get there. Politics rewards the unprincipled and truculent, and thus those most likely to start wars. A fairly small number of these pathologically combative people decide whether a country of three hundred million go to war with another that most of the population has never heard of.
Misfortune can follow when people with instincts suited perhaps to small bands living in the wild decide on war for nations of hundreds of millions with nuclear arms. Their hormonal urges are exactly those encountered in bar fights. The pack follows them because, again, we are pack animals. It is what we do.
It is what we do everywhere. As one deeply steeped in the fetor of journalism, I long ago noticed the First Law of Journalism: If you want to succeed, choose a point on the spectrum from Left to Right, and never, ever deviate from it. Which point you choose doesn’t matter. Smaller parties control less graft, but have fewer adherents among whom to distribute it. But you have to belong to a pack.
Consistency does matter. You must think what all the others at your chosen coordinate think, or the pack might degenerate into a group of independent minds, perish forfend. If you are a good liberal and come out against abortion, or a conservative and oppose the Second Amendment, you will never be forgiven. The first duty of every member of a pack is to be a member of the pack.
There you have it. All of political behavior in 1100 words. And you don’t even have to pay for it.”