Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Survival strategies then and now

A reader questioned me in a rather offhand way about the meaning of “survival strategy.”  Consider the rabbit.  His “survival strategy” is well known to us.  It includes “freezing” in hopes that a predator won’t see him, but if the predator does then he “flees,” and he is very good at fleeing.  But the arguably most important feature of his “survival strategy” is his great ability to reproduce himself.  However many rabbits the predators catch and kill, there are sure to be more on the way.
Homo sapiens doesn’t have a rabbit-like survival strategy.  In his early hunter-gatherer days an individual, if he were away from the tribe might very well “flee.”  Fight or Flight has always been an option.  If he is up against a foreign tribe then “flight” would indeed be “natural.”  But if he is back with his tribe and a neighboring tribe “on the prod” comes calling, then he had better well join the rest of the males in his tribe as they “fight.”  If he is too cowardly to do that then he won’t be pulling his weight and will probably be banished from the tribe.
But “fight or flight” is not the same as “pacifism.”  The rabbit is a pacifist.  He doesn’t have a “fight” mode.  It is all “flight” with him.  But man can’t reproduce himself the way rabbits can; so pacifism wouldn’t work as a “survival strategy.” 
Yes in these “Enlightened” times we have no essence and can choose to be pacifists.  We can even choose it as a nation which France in effect did, but it isn’t “natural” --  in the sense of corresponding to our “tradition.”  In the case of “fight or flight” it is an extremely long tradition stretching back to our beginnings as a species and arguably even before.  And as I argued, France realized after the war that they had erred.  At least that is how I take their actions: not wanting to be considered collaborationists and rationalizing their choice to make it seem as though they opposed their conquerors.
I think Heidegger is right in respect to tradition.  Tradition is important, and we revolt against ours at our peril.  We have the freedom like Bonnie and Clyde to reject the mores of our time and declare ourselves beyond good and evil, but there is plenty of evidence that course won’t work as a survival strategy.
Hitler’s resolve to conquer neighboring nations for lebensraum was “natural.”  That is, it is the sort of thing that primitive homo sapiens would do. If your tribe didn’t have enough to eat but you notice that a neighboring tribe was in an area where the hunting and berry-gathering was especially good.  You would “go to war” rather than see your tribe starve itself out of existence.  The lebensraum idea smacks of that tradition.  However, just because you want something another tribe has, doesn’t mean you are going to get it.  In primitive times you would gage your chances and attack only when you thought you could win.  You might ambush them, or some of them.  You might attack when they were asleep.  You wouldn’t fight fair because your tribe’s survival was at stake.  And neither did Hitler, and while he did conquer neighboring lands, he couldn’t keep them – due to the “fighting” ability of those who resisted him.
In the decisions of 1919 and then later as the UN was created, it was resolved that there would be no more invading another nation to claim his territory.  No more invading for lebensraum.   Perhaps most of the rest of the world takes that resolve seriously.  One of the many complaints France has against us was that we refused to support their desire to reclaim their colonies after World War II.  We very much opposed any nation having colonies.
Since the days of Wilson, American opinion has counted in the world primarily because we showed that we were willing to fight.  We weren’t quick to fight.  In fact we were very slow to take up arms, but we would fight.  As a nation “flight” isn’t an option, and neither is the French sort of capitulation.  So not only have we built up a huge arsenal such that few nations would choose to confront us directly, we are willing to use it. 
Furthermore, we have become so predictable in how and when we will fight that we have enabled many nations to become de facto pacifists.  In Europe, for example, thanks to the protective blanket the U.S. laid over them, they have functioned largely as pacifists.  Japan and Saudi Arabia also might be considered de facto pacifistic nations.  Someone can point out that the US is getting into more wars than other nations, but this is by design.  We guarantee their safety so they won’t have to fight.  Consider China: They must have Middle-Eastern oil or they can’t survive, and yet they don’t have an army or a navy in the Middle East.  Why is that?  They trust the U.S. to keep the oil flowing for them.
It is true that we no longer live in primitive times when “flight” and “fight” were clearer concepts for us, but we aren’t so far from those times that we can’t understand that we should never eliminate the possibility of “fight” from our quiver.  China and Japan may be trusting temporarily in America’s willingness to fight for them under certain circumstances, but should America fail them, they are more than willing to fight their own battles.  Whether the EU nations are equally willing is another matter.

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