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 Interviews with People Who Make a Difference: The Roots of Human Aggression: Healing the Wounds that Drive Us to War 
Interview with Andrew Bard Schmookler
   as interviewed by Daniel Redwood DC

Andrew Bard Schmookler, who has been called "one of the greatest intellectual integrators of the twentieth century," has emerged as one of America's most articulate and insightful social philosophers. He never shies away from the toughest issues.

Schmookler's highly-acclaimed first book, The Parable of the Tribes, explored the social, political, psychological, and mythic forces which have made so much of history a battlefield. The Parable of the Tribes was hailed as a "formidable synthesis" by Jonas Salk and "a work of immense scope and boldness" by Daniel Yankelovich, and was awarded the Erik H. Erikson Prize by the International Society for Political Psychology.

His next work, Out of Weakness: Healing the Wounds That Drive Us to War is a further exploration of the roots of aggression. Tightly reasoned yet filled with warmth and passion, Out of Weakness integrates psychology, myth, and politics in a way that should prove enlightening for those used to focusing on only one or two parts of that triad.

In this interview with Dr. Daniel Redwood, Schmookler discusses the roots of human aggression and warfare, as well as the reasons that wealth rarely brings its possessors what they thought it would. He also presents the idea of "traumatic overlearning," in which people are so strongly affected by a traumatic event that they start applying the lesson to any and all situations, no matter how inappropriately.

Schmookler has been a senior policy advisor to Search for a Common Ground in Washington, D.C., and a research affiliate of the Center for Psychological Studies in the Nuclear Age at Harvard University. His columns appear frequently in America's major newspapers, and he is a regular commentator on National Public Radio. Married and the father of three children, Andrew Schmookler lives in the Shenandoah Valley in Broadway, Virginia.

DR: What is The Parable of the Tribes, and what is the most important lesson we can learn from it?

ANDREW BARD SCHMOOKLER: The Parable of the Tribes is a way of understanding why it is that civilization has developed the way it has, and in particular why it is that even though human beings have created a whole new world, it is not a world which is designed to serve human needs, and why it is that our history has been so destructive and tormented.

The answer, in a nutshell, is that something happens when a creature takes the step, which on this planet only human beings have done, of stepping out of the niche in which they evolved biologically, apparently becoming free to invent their own way of life. That freedom is apparent and not real, because by stepping out of the order of biologically-evolved nature, where all the interactions are regulated by an order which has evolved to protect and preserve life, those creatures unwittingly will unleash forces that drive their systems to evolve in directions that they did not choose, could not prevent, and which serve them ill.

In particular, what The Parable of the Tribes shows is that taking that step creates anarchy. It's freedom for one society, but it is anarchy if you have a number of such societies, having emerged from nature, interacting with each other outside of any order, either biologically evolved or man-made. Those societies, each of which appears to be free if you look at them in isolation, are in a situation of anarchy.

Thomas Hobbes called anarchy our "state of nature." But it is just the opposite of the state of nature, because nature is anything but anarchic. Hobbes was right, however, about what anarchy makes inevitable: a struggle for power, a war of all against all. Struggle is inevitable, but more important is the fact that out of that struggle a social evolutionary process will emerge. Out of that struggle there will be a selective process, because stepping across that line created open-ended possibilities for cultural innovation. Primitive societies all had to be pretty much within narrow limits, but here you have open-ended innovation combined with an inevitable struggle for power. Because of that struggle, only certain ways of organizing human life will survive.

DR: How does this struggle develop and spread?

ABS: The Parable of the Tribes shows that the nature of anarchy is such that it brings a certain kind of evil to the fore: namely that power in a situation of anarchy acts like a contaminant. The parable itself asks what happens if you have a group of tribes living within reach of each other. If all choose the way of peace, then all live in peace. But if all but one choose peace, what are the possible consequences for the others? I show that there are four possible consequences. But they all have one thing in common: regardless of what happens, in each instance the ways of power spread throughout the system.

In other words, when human beings stepped across that threshold, they created a situation inadvertently in which only the ways of power could survive and spread. All the other cultural options, all the other ways of organizing human life -p however beautiful or humane they may have been, if they conferred weakness in the inevitably intense competitive struggle -p those ways would be eliminated. Not because human beings wanted it to be that way, but because it is in the structure of anarchy. And anarchy, where sovereign actors interact without any order around them, was an inevitable byproduct of the emergence of human societies out of the regime of nature.

The Parable of the Tribes suggests that if there is anywhere else in this cosmos where life may have evolved to the point that some species has crossed that same threshold we did, out of the biologically-evolved niche, that species would have encountered the same problems which have plagued human history. Likewise, if human beings should blow it, and in 40 million years the descendants of today's raccoons were to develop as intelligent animals to the point where they could step across that threshold, they too would have to wrestle with these problems of a social evolutionary process warped by power.

DR: What are the major implications of this insight?

ABS:The most important implication is that there is an answer to the riddle of evil which has plagued mankind for thousands of years, an answer that takes us off the hook. Original sin, the death instinct, man the bloodthirsty hunter -p all these efforts to explain the existence of evil have really been a bum rap. The problem that we human beings have found, that surrounds our whole history, is not a function of human nature, is not a matter of human choice. It is an incidental byproduct of our creativity, which put us into a situation unprecedented in the experiment of life on earth, unleashing forces we couldn't anticipate and haven's been able to control.

The other important implication is that if anarchy is the root of the problem, then the solution has to include an end to anarchy. Anarchy now continues in the sense that there are sovereign actors. The world is still fragmented into societies that are not controlled by any order that compels them to protect the viability of the whole. there are two powers on this earth that have virtual veto power over the continuation of humanity and perhaps of life on earth altogether. A new kind of world order has to be created that places human action once again in the same kind of context that ruled in the regime of nature, that order that assures that the relationship between predator and prey, between parasite and host, are consistent with the viability and harmony of the system as a whole.

The Parable of the Tribes demonstrates that an indispensable part of this remedy to the ills of civilization is the knitting together of some kind of world order that will end the anarchy, and will allow something other than power to determine our human destiny.

DR: In your book Out of Weakness: Healing The Wounds That Drive Us To War, you write that the world is full of Chosen Peoples. What dynamics are involved when a group views itself as the Chosen People, and what happens when they meet up with another group that also sees itself as the Chosen People? Can their conflict be resolved without the utter destruction of one group or the other?

ABS: When people are treated badly at a fundamental level, they internalize that experience as a message that they themselves are bad or unworthy. There is therefore a narcissistic injury that goes along with misfortune and being abused. The Parable of the Tribes shows that the peoples of the world have all been living under circumstances that inflict repeated, severe, perhaps almost continual narcissistic injury. Such injury is an inevitable consequence of the ceaseless struggle for power and the elimination of human cultural options, and the resulting war of culture against human nature. People therefore labor under the burdens of narcissistic injury, unconsciously thinking that if we were worthy and good, the cosmos wouldn't impose on us such painful experiences. That's the unconscious way that it works. So that's the first step, people's internalizing this message.

The second stage is that the more severe this is, the more need and temptation there is to deny that experience. Denying that experience usually involves pushing it into the unconscious, and substituting for it in the conscious mind a more inflated sense of oneself, a grandiose self. Since both senses are there, and one of them is denied, the rest of the world has to play out the part that is being denied. In other words, if we are the Chosen People, everyone else is less. If I am the special one, everyone else is rejected.

The metaphor I use in the book has to do with the children of Israel, the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph is the one in the story with whom we identify. He is the one who gets the Coat of Many Colors. He is the one who goes on and does great things. But there are eleven other children of Israel. Israel in this case is Jacob, and they are all his sons. They are consumed with this rage, this pain, at not being the chosen ones.

The rejected sons decide to plot against Joseph. They throw him into the pit and sell him into slavery. Joseph, as we know, goes on to greatness, ultimately holding the lives of his brothers in his hands. But Joseph is just the conscious tip of the unconscious iceberg. Israel's experience is one part Joseph and eleven parts the brothers. That's how the sense of the chosenness arises. It's out of a dynamic based on a sense of scarcity and fear, driving a fevered attempt to build up an image of oneself that one fears is false. So there is a very great sensitivity to insult, to anything which might threaten to bring back into awareness that denied painful experience of oneself.

And when nations engaged in such narcissistic processes encounter each other? In recent years we watched the United States and Iran playing out a relationship that is some 40 years old, in which an ancient Persian narcissism, reinforcing the Shiite sense of grievance, has been inflamed by the insensitivities stemming from American narcissism. Over the decades, we trade insults.

DR: How do we break the cycle?

ABS: The remedy has two main components. One, of course, is to create a world where people are not having to deal with these injuries, where they have a sense of being loved and valued, and thus don't require a narcissistic project, where feeling good about ourselves doesn't require that everyone else be somehow inferior. In the meanwhile, and to help bring about such a world, we need to develop awareness of what we are doing. We need to recognize that we are all in the same boat. This contrasts with the narcissist's way of encapsulating all love into self-love, with other people hardly being real.

To the extent that we gain awareness of our real experience, we can see that we have these wounds in common, rather than allowing these wounds to divide us. Instead of being possessed by the spirit of our narcissism, the image of ourselves as the Chosen People, we can turn to our wiser self and resist our narcissism.

Rambo, in the first film, leaves a swath of destruction, which has been wrought in righteous vengeance. We enjoy this warrior's revenge, because we identify with him -p Rambo, the wounded warrior who is also "the best." In the film, Rambo says, "They drew first blood, not me." But we all came into the world innocent, and were hurt. For all of us, it is true that "they" drew first blood. The world is full of peoples who have been victimized. If we remain attached to our victimhood, we will see our aggressions as mere retaliations. Spiritual progress is to let go of the sense that in our injuries we have a special grievance, and to allow the wounds we have in common to bring us together.

DR: In one of your books you quoted from a poster which says, "The truth shall set you free. But first it will make you miserable." Must we always pass through hell in order to reach heaven?

ABS: I don't know if it's part of the very nature of being that that should be the case, but it is in the nature of the human condition in this right now highly-diseased planet. The earth is ill with us, and we with our condition also are ill. There are aspects of our experience that are just very painful, at both the personal level, and at the level of sensitivity to what's going on around us. To be fully open, to be fully human, is to allow reality in its fullness to enter into us. We learn to turn it off because it hurts too much. That's why people learn to adapt, by turning off what they need to to make their experience bearable. They pay a price by losing life, by losing truth, by becoming dishonest with themselves, by getting out of touch with themselves and other people and with their relationship to society and the living planet around them. There is a tremendous price that is paid.

But if you open back up to the truth, you have to go through all that pain we've been denying and avoiding. The world is filled with pain, and that pain is ramifying through all of its systems, including families and social bodies politic. America in the 1980s worked hard to deny the pain. Letting back in the things we're afraid of, we'll find out that yes, there was a reason to be afraid of them. It hurts.

DR: You have written about the concept of "traumatic overlearning," in which we are so strongly affected by a traumatic event or situation that we proceed to apply its lessons to absolutely anything and everything, no matter how inappropriate the application.

ABS: Historically, one example is Munich [In 1938 British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced "peace in our time" after agreeing not to oppose Hitler's takeover of Czechoslovakia]. There was a lack of preparedness and a lack of willingness to face certain very unpleasant truths about one's adversaries. What ensued from that, as it was experienced by people at that time, was an absolutely cataclysmic global conflagration. The whole planet was consumed in an attempt to contain a virulent evil, in the form of Nazism, and millions of people perished.

They learned their lesson at Munich, but after that every possible adversary began to be seen as a Hitler, as an absolutely implacable foe. We hear things like "The only language they understand," and "Any concession will only encourage them." These things were probably true of Hitler. I'm not saying that the lesson was not true about that event, or that it is only true about that event. But likening Ho Chi Minh to Hitler, or maintaining as many of our cold warriors did that negotiating with the Soviets can only lead to another Munich, so that the only way to deal with them is to wage war, hot or cold, are examples of traumatic overlearning.

Another example that comes to my mind, since I've been watching tapes of War and Remembrance, Wouk's novel, is the unspeakable trauma to the Jewish people, a whole civilization wiped out by a lunatic regime consumed with its own paranoid hatred. In the wake of that, there are people in Israel who cannot hear German spoken without becoming enormously disturbed. You can understand how that might be. The more traumatic history is, the more people will have these emotional black holes, and draw everything around them into them, so that whole spectra of experience are reduced, in a sense, to the image of the one thing which is most feared.

DR: I want to quote something else you once wrote, that "the will, driven underground, reappears in satanic form." Is it ever justifiable to try to break the will of another, whether of a child or of another nation?

ABS: I can't think of a situation where it would be justifiable to break the will of a child. Sometimes the will of a child cannot be allowed to run free, has to be thwarted perhaps, but to break it is to wage war upon the child, and what justification can there be for that?

Now with respect to a nation, Hitler arose, had a propaganda film made, The Triumph of the Will, which placed the will at the center of their canon, their mythology. I think it was essential to break the will of that regime. I do not think that there was an accommodation to be sought. But that wasn't the same as breaking the will of the whole nation. I believe that in some ways there was a possession at work there. If you think of the German nation as a whole, they became possessed by a demonic element from within, I would say that the defeat of the Nazis rescued the Germans from a possession from a part of their will that was a sickness, not only for the rest of the world but for themselves as well.

DR: Are we living in a world of scarcity or abundance?

ABS: Some things of value are scarce. There is no escaping that. But the problem of scarcity, in addition to being genuine, is made worse by our creating scarcity. We do this, for example, to the extent to which our traumas make us see life in terms of winners and losers. To the extent to which we construe life in terms of power, and in terms of status competition, then we do live in a world of scarcity. But that is because of pathologies in the way we organize human interrelationships, and because of our own distorted sense of what value is.

The religions of the world, such as Christianity and Judaism, Buddhism, and Taoism, if I understand them, have pointed us for at least a couple of millennia toward a more fundamental truth of abundance. they point us to a more fundamental level, where human life is not about power and status competition. They point us toward realms in which there is abundance. When Jesus says, "If you do this even unto the least of thy brethren, you do it also unto me," it implies that instead of there being a chosen while the rest are devalued, that there is a sense in which all beings are special. The Buddhists likewise have this outlook. You get to the point where specialness is not something to juxtapose over its opposite, but where specialness is rather a cosmic truth about being. Then there is abundance.

DR: Is the international economic system a zero-sum game, in which my gain is always your loss? If not, why do people so often seem to act like it is?

ABS: We have to look at what is the real currency involved in the international economic system. Taking economics on its own terms, which are valid though not the whole story, one of the great things that is true about economics is that it is anything but a zero-sum game. There is a leftist fiction which has survived for a long time, which imagines that "property is theft." Property is not theft. The wealth of the wealthy is not necessarily taken from the poor, as people on the left sometimes still assume. Nations that trade with each other often can enrich each other. Nations that withdraw from commerce often impoverish themselves. International economics at that level can be a win-win situation, though of course when international economics deals in terms of colonialism, then of course it can be exploitation, as in the empires of old.

But then at another level, if international economics is in some senses the waging of war by other means, if it is inevitably about power, then you get back into scarcity. When it's about who is going to be able to tell other people what to do, we are dealing with scarcity. One of my understandings that is emerging from my research on materialism is that an important part of what Japan has been about (Japan is one of the problematic aspects of international economics right now, not just in relation to the United States, but in relation to the Europeans as well) is that Japan is approaching the economic game as another arena in which to pursue values in terms of power rather than values in terms of wealth.

One of the attributes of a wartime body politic is that in order to maximize the power of the whole, it sacrifices the welfare of the parts. It's sort of like a chess game, where the pawns can be expended as long as the king remains protected. If you look at the Japanese economy, they have structured it not to provide for the welfare of the Japanese people, but to maximize the power of the Japanese economy, which is not just a bunch of independent actors in an Adam Smith sense, but is Japan Incorporated.

The standard of living in Japan is not remarkably higher than in countries that are considerably poorer in terms if GNP. They sacrifice themselves as consumers, as you do in war, in order to maximize the power of Japan Incorporated. That is, I think, why there is a lot of tension around Japan's economic role. It is tending to awaken in the United States, for example, more and more sense of economics as something we do not because of what it produces, but as another form of the arms race. Arms races produce nothing for the whole.

DR: You quote an intriguing study in which it was revealed that wealth correlated with reported happiness within societies but not between societies. Why was that?

ABS: That's a very important question for my current work. I've turned from the problem of war and peace to the problem of why our civilization is so destructive even in the condition we call peace. Central to that problem is the question: why are we so hungry for wealth without limit?

In the context of that inquiry, the question about whether riches scratch the itch becomes rather important. Because as a society, we are striving for wealth as if we believed that enough wealth would bring fulfillment.

My interpretation is that what people are seeking in wealth is not the wealth itself, but other things. One of these pertinent to your question, is status: people feel that having greater wealth than those around them gives them greater importance and value in other people's eyes. This means that having a little, around those who have even less, may give one more happiness than having a lot around people who have more. The implications of that are rather important too, because as we are now busily devouring the earth without any sign of satiating our appetite, the question arises, "Why doesn't having more and more seem to scratch the itch, or sate the appetite?" The answer is that if wealth is merely a language for dealing with quite different matters, wealth itself isn't going to take care of the problem. So the fact that we are plundering the planet in pursuit of economic growth as an end in itself would seem to be a misguided strategy.

DR: What is it going to take for enough people to realize that wealth is not going to get what we're after?

ABS: The importance of what we call "economic progress" needs to be acknowledged -p up to a point. Some people are too poor to feed their children, to meet basic human needs. For people living in such situations of deprivation, increasing material wealth can be a real benefit. But how much is enough? Economists say that with any given good, we reach a point of diminishing marginal utility. After a certain level of wealth has been reached, the whole realm of material abundance becomes less and less relevant to human fulfillment. In our country, I think, the pursuit of wealth at the sacrifice of other values has become irrational.

What will it take for people to realize that more the more wealth is not the best road to take in pursuit of happiness? It is a very important question, and I wish I knew more of the answer. We're a lot richer than we were thirty years ago, but if anything we feel poorer. You'd think that this experience would lead us as a society to throw out our cherished belief in the efficacy of wealth to buy happiness. But that is not how it works. Just because an idea has been proved wrong doesn't make people automatically abandon it and search for something more true.

DR: Does it just drive people deeper into their false beliefs?

ABS: In the Fifties, a book called The God That Failed appeared. Its author, Leon Festinger, was exploring what he called "cognitive dissonance," that is, how people cope with the discrepancy between their belief system and the facts. He studied a particular social movement at that time, a small cult that knew that the world was going to end at a particular time -- a time not very far off. Festinger followed them through their preparations for this apocalypse and on through the appointed day. Obviously, the world hasn't ended -p their belief system was disconfirmed by developments. Did they decide they were wrong? Not at all, they came up with elaborate rationalizations. In some ways, the very disconfirmation by events made some of the people still more tenacious in their beliefs, and more energetic in proselytizing for them.

In our faith in salvation through economic growth, our civilization is like a cult. Economic growth has become our idol. In our society as much as any, we measure progress and we found our hopes on economic growth. If you ask, "What is America's vision of where we as a society want to go?" I'd reply, "Is there any?" Prosperity is the vision. If a presidential candidate persuades us he will be able to keep our Gross National Product growing at 3% per year, that's all the vision of the future we require.

Economic growth has taken place throughout our lifetimes. The wishes we posed to the genie have been fulfilled. But polls show we have less sense of abundance, less sense of satisfaction and contentment, more anxiety -p but no less belief in the god that we worship. No less belief in Mammon. There is no crumbling of the dogmas of economic growth. So what will it take to bring about a genuine reconsideration, a new direction? Americans have been wrestling with this since the Puritans landed in Massachusetts. I think there are two major parts of the answer.

First, there are problems in the economic system we operate in. We think of the market system as a great device for allowing people to choose what they want. And in many ways, it is. But the menu is skewed in certain directions, and the market economy unfolds over time in certain directions because of the dynamics of the system. When the United States began, there were two principal visions of where the country might go: Jefferson's vision of a rural America peopled by virtuous and independent citizens, and Hamilton's vision of a burgeoning industrial market economy. In a society where the market is allowed to operate, Jefferson's vision doesn't have a chance. The market will generate powers with allegiance to the ways and values of the system that brought them to the fore. These powers will sweep aside everything that stands in their way. After 200 years, Jefferson's values are found mostly in commercials for industrial products like Countrytime Lemonade.

DR: How can we find a road that leads in a different direction?

ABS: For us to head in a different direction, we will need to modify the market system to allow other values to express themselves as powerfully as do those of the market system. But there is also a psychological and spiritual dimension to this. Even as the market has, over the generations, shaped our consciousness, we had better understand how our consciousness keeps us addicted to the "fix" of more and more, even though this approach nourishes us less and less.We have to ask what is getting in the way of our being truly nourished. We have to look into those dimensions of our condition that interfere with our finding fulfillment. At the moment, I am focusing on two approaches to this problem.

One of them has to do with the ways our society, especially in the way we deal with human beings in the first few years of life, alienates us from ourselves. Maybe the reason we need more and more is because all this stuff we are feeding ourselves is not really getting through to us. Maybe if we were really in our bodies it would not take so much for us to feel satisfied at the material level. Maybe if we could heal the rift between the material and the spiritual dimensions of our humanity -p experience the spirit that is in the matter -p we would not need to devour the earth with our insatiable appetites.

The other dimension -p they are probably two aspects of the same thing -p concerns the fabric of human relationships. I think it is a loving relationship that really feeds us. If the fabric of relationship unravels -p- and I think in many ways it has in our civilization -p- we turn to other satisfactions for compensation. Madison Avenue spends billions teaching us to make equivalencies that distract us from "the real thing" to the likes of Coca-Cola. We turn to Ginger Ale for "the taste of love," we drink Gallo wines to conjure up the images of celebratory families.

DR: How can we change?

ABS: People will not abandon "something" -p- even if it is empty -p- for nothing. We will change when we sense that there is a path toward "real food" for "real people." As with the 12-step programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous, people will probably need some support to find the strength to confront their despair and emptiness, and to begin to turn toward a way of living imbued with real human richness.

DR: You have spoken of the image of the Round Table as the "mandala of a new order," in which the table has "no head," or alternatively, can be seen as one in which each person there, from his or her own perspective, is at the head of the table. The circle is an ancient, sacred symbol in many cultures. Can you expand on the idea of the circle in the context of your work on war and peace?

ABS: The Round Table has the virtues you mention, having to do with each person being at the head of the table. This connects with getting to a spiritual place where we see specialness as an aspect of what we all are as living beings, and not in terms of scarcity. It also connects with another spiritual insight, into the nature of living process, which has manifested throughout the biosphere during 3-1/2 billion years of evolution. Everything is recycled. There is no end.

End also means purpose. The planet is not here just for us. We are part of a circle. This implies obligations as well as rights. We have been trying to take more and give back less, but as Gregory Bateson said, "No creature can win against its environment for long." We've been winning for 10,000 years. It is now a commonplace understanding that if we keep winning, the circle will be broken.

In Out of Weakness, I spoke at one point about how when different types of computer programs were matched against each other in long-term tournaments, the exploitive program eventually rendered itself extinct. It didn't feed the system it depended on.

The circle symbolizes the sacred values of life. We are in the process of learning, but the question is whether we will learn it well enough and quickly enough. The stakes are much higher than our own individual comforts and whims. At stake is the biosphere itself, the sacred circle of life. If we experience our fundamental oneness with that circle, we will have a very different understanding of our "self"-interest, and our national "security." When we make that fundamental connection, when the circuit gains completion in our minds, we will discover new energies to work to restore the wholeness of life on earth.

Daniel Redwood is a chiropractor and writer who lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He is the author of A Time to Heal: How to Reap the Benefits of Holistic Health (A.R.E. Press), and is a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. He can be reached by e-mail at

©1991, 1996 Daniel Redwood, D.C.
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 About The Author
Daniel Redwood, DC, is a Professor at Cleveland Chiropractic College - Kansas City. He is editor-in-chief of Health Insights Today ( and serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of the......moreDaniel Redwood DC
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