When I look at societies that are confused, benighted and dysfunctional – like Arab society and, alas, the Russian one – I am saddened to observe a phenomenon I would describe as “pointless discussions.”
A pointless discussion takes place when an influential group that seeks to preserve its weight imposes on society a patently idiotic discussion. Everybody begins to discuss: “Is the Earth round or flat? Let’s have a discussion.” “Is it proper to go to the American Embassy? Let’s argue about it.”
If you watch the election campaign gathering steam in the United States, its most striking feature is that the debate focuses on a fundamental issue: what is America? Pitted against each other is the America of the Founding Fathers, a country where everyone can achieve what one wants, and a socialist America along the lines of Saul Alinsky and Barack Obama, a country in which the state promises to give something to everyone.
In this discussion, I am on the side of died-in-the-wool conservatives. But even such an out-and-out libertarian as myself understands that the tension between these two social poles – “Let people achieve everything by themselves” and “Let us provide everyone with all they need” – is the tension that drives society. There is no healthy society that does not help anyone and there is no healthy society in which everything is taken away.
The question is how to help the disadvantaged without robbing those who work hard. And conversely, how to make sure that those who have achieved a high status cannot seal that status by law (as happened, for example, in Venice).
How to balance these two trends is a meaningful discussion. I could name half a dozen other meaningful discussions that polarise American society: whether to wage wars overseas, abortion, gay marriage, immigration and so on. All these discussions are remarkable in that the answers to them at any point in the life of society are non-trivial and reasonable people may hold opposing views. Let’s face it: one and the same person may change his mind.
So, it is a feature of dysfunctional societies that such discussions are hardly ever held there. Instead they discuss questions such as, “Was the plague sent by witches or not?”; “Do Jews slaughter children or not?”; “Are Americans the enemies of Russia or not?” The progressive part of society proves triumphantly that there are no witches and that Jews do not eat children. But such discussions never reach the really substantive issues.
A normal discussion would go something like this: “What should you do to be able to run faster?” An unconstructive discussion asks, “Is it easier to run in shackles or not?” And the party of those who manufacture shackles insists that you can run faster in shackles.
In a free competition society, unconstructive discussions die away naturally. For example, the captain of the Costa Concordia, who sank a cruise liner because he was drunk and wished to impress a stripper, says: “I was on board the ship until the end.” Whereupon a video is released, which shows that the captain had fled and the coastal patrols yelled at him and forced him to return. That puts paid to the argument. The question of the captain’s heroism is no longer discussed.
When such a captain commands not a cruise ship but a whole country, he has far more opportunities to muzzle his opponents and engage in unconstructive discussions. A plethora of discussions is sparked off in society on “How the heroic captain was trying to save the liner” and “How it was sunk by an American submarine in order to compromise the captain in Italy’s eyes” and so on and so forth.
The main problem with unconstructive discussions is that, unfortunately, it is impossible to underestimate the degree to which a sick society needs them. Arab dictators have long survived by laboring the “Americans are the enemies of Muslims” point. It did not help the dictators, but the discourse did not go away. An alcoholic embraces the idea that it is his enemies and not vodka that are to blame for his woes.
After the protest rallies on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Prospect, the captains of our own Costa Concordia have launched several unconstructive discussions: “How Putin has heroically fought corruption,” “Is it proper to go to the American Embassy?” etc.
It’s a mobster’s trick of turning the tables on you. Somebody comes to a bandit and asks him, “When will you pay back your debt?” and he replies: “Why didn’t you ask about my grandmother’s health?” They are asked: “Do we have fair elections in Russia?” and they respond with “Why do you go to the American Embassy?”
You will never convince the manufacturer of shackles that it is easier to run without shackles.
The only thing you can do is to outlaw the manufacturer of shackles and teach people to run. Translated into Russian that means: revolution or reform. In a dysfunctional state, the latter is impossible without the former and the former is meaningless without the latter.