Yesterday, I read the book Assassin's Gate, probably the best single volume on the Iraq War I have read. It covers not just the military war, but the history of Iraq's society before and after the war. While very critical of the Bush Administration, it also is in some ways in favor of the war, especially as it details life under Saddam Hussein.
The details of Hussein's Iraq, in both the atrocities, and in the climate of constant fear, anger and betrayal, was one of the most grinding things I have read in a long time. And being a literate person, I am well aware of many atrocity stories from all of the 20th Century's great genocides. Iraq is a slightly odder story, because in the middle of such viscousness, Iraq was also a civil society that in many ways performed normally. Go to college, get a professional job, buy a car, have members of your family kidnapped, tortured and executed. The disjunction is hard for me to understand.
Some might thing that hearing about generations of people raised under tyranny would make me forget, for a while, my first world problems. The opposite was true, perhaps especially since (as mentioned) Iraq was a functioning society with at least the trappings of a first world society.
Having had a chance to see a large section of American society, and to see a large section of that society in a state of almost constant change, I have learned a few things. One of the most important is about the structure of a society and its trappings. In the time when I was growing up, American society was undergoing a long paroxysm of rebellion against authority. This actually predates my childhood, my parents grew up under the same regime of change. So in my time, I have observed many people who were seemingly dedicated to ideas of social or political change, in one ideology or another.
And yet, as the song says, I have noticed people falling into the same patterns over and over again. No matter how radical the ideology stated is, no matter how shocking matters of personal expression would have been to the past generations, businesses, organizations and even people's personal and social life have a disquieting sameness to them. People still are simultaneously selfish, and prone to following whatever authority presents itself.
An Organizational Chart is a rather simple and useful innovation. It merely describes who reports to who in an organization, as well as who delegates responsibility. There is nothing particularly sinister about this. But what those lines on paper don't know about is the full propensity that people have to be cruel towards one another, or even more so, to accept that cruelty. Whether we put this down to anthropology or theology is a great debate, but the simple practicality of it seems to be that people are inclined towards cruelty. The anti-septic mind that puts together organizations, or even the friendly social mind that throws a party, doesn't think about this. The lines on an org chart don't mean that one person can abuse another. The lines on an org chart don't mean one person can denigrate another. Or that they can harm another. It doesn't even mean, theoretically, that one person is "better" than another. And yet every time you put together a chart, or even have a group of people together, you can create people who are "better" than others, and people who are somehow inferior, who somehow should remember that whatever they have is at the grace of their betters. And once the situation is set up, even in the most mild, innocent of ways, it seems to grow threads and spread, and what started as expediency becomes an absolute statement of an individual's worth.
And from there, a type of sociological Second Law of Thermodynamics takes hold. Once this situation is created, it doesn't spontaneously mend itself. Once a society is created where some people feel that their very existence is only allowed at the penumbra of those who matter, the door is open to anything and everything. Our first world problems of dissatisfaction and marginalization and third world problems of oppression and even genocide are not that far removed: both are just the side effects of our inability to imagine that people can have value on their own, instead of from being connected to some higher purpose.