August 1st, 2005

coyote Phil

Terrorism as theatre

An interesting recent article addresses the question, If there are so many terrorists out there, why are they accomplishing so little in America? I mean, I think I could do more damage against the US in my spare time than the entire worldwide terrorist network has been able to do in the last few years.

Terrorism as Theater

The suggested answer is that the bottleneck in deploying terrorism is keeping terrorists motivated. The hard part is not planning or getting explosives into the US, but finding someone disaffected enough to want to die, and keeping them at a fever pitch long enough to do it. Hamas, it says, recruits their suicide bombers less than 24 hours before their missions; any longer and they would back down. By the time you recruit somebody in Palestine and fly them to the US, they're already thinking twice about it. So terrorism works best in countries where you have large, local, disaffected populations. The claim is that this is more so in Europe, because European muslims aren't as integrated into the culture as they are in America.

This is an example of the tension between motivation and rationality. The basic problem with activism is that effective, bold action must be directed by reason, and their is a kind of conservation law that excitement plus reason is a constant. The more dramatic an action is, and the more excitement it takes to motivate someone to do it, the less reason can be involved.

Still, you'd think that the terrorist masterminds could provide the reasoning, and find warm bodies to get excited about some other, bogus reason. And the terrorists carrying out the 9/11 and London attacks planned them far in advance. So there's more to it than this.
coyote Phil

Activism: Abbie Hoffman, George Soros, war, and poverty

... And so the terrorism post brings us to the tension between reason and action.

High motivation and rational behavior are diametrically opposed in activism. Consider the late 1960s. Activists like Abbie Hoffman were able to get America's youth very excited for years, yet accomplished little. If you read Hoffman's writings, you'll see that he repeatedly emphasizes the importance, in activism, of NOT THINKING, but of just doing things for their theatrical effect. He knew that attempts to agree on objectives would defuse the excitement. He exhorted people, when they went to activist meetings, not to listen to the words, but just to get psyched on the vibrations, and then go out and do something random and theatrical. The only real criterion was that it be something to "strike against The Man", so anything disorderly was considered "activism", even getting drunk and pissing in the street. He helped created a movement that gathered a huge momentum, which shot off in mostly random directions, accomplishing little.

At the opposite extreme is George Soros, who has written in /On Globalization/ and other books about how to reduce world poverty. Soros is a genius and has lots of good ideas, which are all so complicated that they are incapable of ever exciting people.

Activism that actually works, like the Vietnam antiwar movement or the civil rights movement, always has a simple, emotional, one-sentence message at core. Activism will never cure poverty, because its causes are too complex to sum up in one sentence.