Keep Your Cool and Don’t be a Chump

Every child knows the sly maneuver of provoking another child to “lose his cool,” and thereby bring down upon his head the wrath of some severe but spasmodic adult authority. Say you are lined up waiting to board a school bus, and directly in front of you stands a boy you wish to peeve and humiliate.  Some distance away stands a teacher who is mindful of his need to retain the appearance of authority, but who is also somewhat lazy, distracted and bored in its exercise. Your sly plot is to get this teacher to “crack down” on the chump in front of you by triggering a conspicuous reaction—say a loud cry and some flailing punches—with an inconspicuous provocation—say a whispered accusation of addiction to solitary vice.

Inconspicuous provocation; conspicuous reaction; “crack down” by a severe but spasmodic authority.  And all, as was once said, “for the grins.”

You can see that this maneuver depends on what we might call a relatively high “threshold of cognizance” in the teacher.   This man is lazy, distracted and bored, but he is not too lazy, distracted and bored to notice a loud cry and some flailing punches.   Just sufficiently lazy, distracted and bored enough to miss a whispered accusation of addiction to solitary vice.  The provocation did not cross his “threshold of cognizance,” but the retaliatory punches did.  And this is why he “cracks down” on the wrong guy.

Grins, as I said, all ’round.

This sly maneuver is not specific to juvenile sadists, but among adults an opportunistic motive is often combined with the purely sadistic.  It is a staple of office politics.  To marginalize an individual, a sly campaign of inconspicuous provocations will often suffice to trigger a conspicuous reaction that will brand the chump as a “hothead” or a “loose cannon.”  In some cases, the boss may be party to the conspiracy because he wishes to manufacture a pretext to crack down on the chump; in other cases, the boss is, like that lazy teacher, a mere catspaw of the conspirators.

A similar maneuver is also very common in democratic politics because “the people” are a severe and spasmodic authority with a high threshold of cognizance.  “The people” are, in fact, very similar to that teacher who was mindful of his need to retain the appearance of authority, but too lazy, distracted and bored to attend very closely to its exercise.  This is why the American public tends not to notice the inconspicuous provocations of a low-level insurgency in some foreign land, but will notice and call for action when the government of that foreign land undertakes conspicuous retaliation.

Communists used this maneuver very effectively throughout the Cold War, often with the aid of journalists who controlled what passed over “the people’s” threshold of cognizance.  Murders by “agrarian reformers” (i.e. revolutionary guerillas) were scattered in time and space, and so fell below “the people’s” threshold of cognizance (with the help of journalistic suppression). A retaliatory massacre by the government happened all at once, was therefore highly conspicuous (not to mention loudly reported), and therefore roused Americans’ spasmodic wrath.

The New Left of the 1960s routinely used this maneuver in its confrontations with the police, and one sees much the same thing in the tactics of today’s BLM, Antifa, and other anarchist groups.  When New Left protesters gathered outside the Democratic Party convention in Chicago, in 1968, their stated aim was to inconspicuously provoke “police brutality,” since they hoped photographs of uniformed men cudgeling students would trigger the spasmodic wrath of the American public.  The vile epithets with which these New Left protesters had provoked the police would not appear in newspaper photographs, or even in televised footage of the mêlée in Grant Park, but the thumping truncheons of “police brutality” would be there for all to see.

Inconspicuous provocation; conspicuous reaction; “crack down” by a severe but spasmodic authority.  And in this case, it was not just for the grins.

The New Left called this tactic “confrontation” or the deliberate fomentation of “riot conditions” (1).   This is how the New Left engineered a revolutionary “confrontation.”

  1. Find a pathetic group that has some grievance with existing social arrangements, and then do everything in your power to heighten public sympathy for this pathetic group and their grievance.  In Chicago in 1968, the pathetic group was college students opposed to the Vietnam War.  Three years earlier, it had been Blacks seeking civil rights through the “Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”  In 1969, it would be persecuted homosexual patrons of New York’s Stonewall Inn.
  2. Encourage the pathetic group to “demand from the power source concessions they cannot, or will not, accept” (2).  During this stage of “confrontation,” the trick is to separate reasonable and unreasonable demands, pushing the reasonable demands over the threshold of public cognizance, but disclosing unreasonable or radical demands to only the targeted “power source.”  These unreasonable or radical demands are equivalent to the whispered insult in that school bus line, since their purpose is to provoke the “overreaction” that will discredit the “power source” in the eyes of the public.  The demands of the SCLC looked reasonable to much of the nation’s newspaper-reading public in 1968, but to the State of Alabama they would have been radical and unreasonable concessions.
  3. Wait for a violent riot in which the local power source “loses its cool” and appears to overreact, and then use this apparent overreaction as a pretext to seize what was demanded and crush the local power source.

The inconspicuously whispered taunts of the one child were meant to trigger a conspicuous reaction in the other, and thereby bring the wrath of the inattentive teacher down on the head of the chump.  In the case of office politics, I said that a boss may be party to the conspiracy, because one employee’s conspicuous reaction to the inconspicuous provocations of his enemies will give the boss a pretext to “crack down.”  (“He’s a ‘hothead,’ a ‘loose cannon,’ ‘totally unhinged’.”)

In the political sphere, a higher authority may likewise welcome—may indeed foment—a “confrontation” between some pathetic catspaw and a lesser power source, since the conspicuous “overreaction” of the lesser authority to the inconspicuous provocations of the pathetic catspaw will give the higher authority a pretext to gather power to itself. When the State of Alabama appeared to “lose its cool” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on “Bloody Sunday,” 1965, this was used as a pretext to curtail the power of the State of Alabama and engross the power of the Federal Government.  When the Chicago Police Department appeared to “lose its cool” in Grant Park in 1968, this was used as a pretext to curtail the power of the city government and engross the power of the Federal Government.

This is how radical groups like the SCLC, SDS or BLM are made into catspaws and handmaids of a usurping central power.

In his essay on “The True Purpose of the Civil War,” Robert Lewis Dabney said that a cabal of Northern plutocrats and federalists used radical abolitionists in precisely this way.  Northern plutocrats and federalists wished to destroy the Constitutional order, and the political and economic power of the Southern aristocracy. To this end, they welcomed the inconspicuous provocations of fanatical abolitionists.  To many in the newspaper-reading public of the North, the abolitionist cause seemed reasonable and humane (if perhaps far-fetched), but to the Southern aristocracy it presented a face that was terrifying and real. When the Gulf States finally reacted to abolitionist provocations with the conspicuous act of secession (“rebellion”), Northern plutocrats and federalists had a pretext to use Federal power to destroy the Constitutional order, impoverish the South, and centralize power in the northeastern cities of Washington, New York and Boston.

Imagining their delight over the prospect of this usurpation, Dabney puts these words in their mouth:

“Now we have our game. We will inflame fanaticism and sectional enmities by the cry of Union and Rebellion, and thus precipitate a war between the States. Inter arma silent leges. . . . This short war will suffice for us, to centralize Federal power, overthrow the Constitution, fix our high tariffs and plutocratic fiscal system upon the country and secure for ourselves an indefinite tenure of power and riches” (3).

Inter arma silent leges is a phrase from Cicero that means “in war the law is mute.”  This is the principle more commonly known by the homely proverb “all is fair in love and war,” or by the somewhat more ominous German word Kriegsraison.  However expressed, it means that a declared enemy has no rights that one is bound to respect, and that a power at war is therefore guided by nothing but its own war aims.

Once they had provoked the South into the conspicuous reaction of secession, Northern plutocrats and federalists were quick to claim the license of Kriegsraison, although they naturally expressed their unleashed ferocity with Cicero’s Latin phrase.  It was used, for instance, by the Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, who went on to say, that the Southern “rebellion” had given men like himself a free hand to do what they had long wanted to do.

“Since these [Southern] States have voluntarily thrown off that protection [of the Constitution] and placed themselves under the law of nations, it is not only our right but our duty to knock off every shackle from every limb . . . . The Southern States have forfeited all rights under the Constitution which they have renounced . . . . The United States may give them those rights if it chooses, but they cannot claim them.” (4)

In other words, since the Southern States had “lost their cool,” Stevens and his ilk could now do with them just as they pleased. This is the sentiment that Donald Davidson had in mind when he warned that “the subtlest and most dangerous foe of humanity” is “the tyranny that wears the mask of humanitarianism and benevolence” (5).

And this is why you should keep your cool and not be a chump!


(1) Allan Brownfeld, The New Left: Memorandum Prepared for the Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and other Internal Security Laws of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Ninetieth Congress (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968), pp. 4-5.

(2) ibid.

(3) Robert L. Dabney, Discussions, vol. 4 (1892), p. 102.

(4) Congressional Globe, January 22, 1864.

(5) Donald Davidson, The Attack on Leviathan: Regionalism and Nationalism in the United States (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1938), p. 12.




9 thoughts on “Keep Your Cool and Don’t be a Chump

    • Sue:

      Better yet, free the friggin slaves.

      Perhaps you missed Prof. Smith’s admonition to “keep your cool and not become a chump?” As George Lunt wrote in ch. 1 of his book, Origins of the Late War (Boston, 1866),

      … it will be seen that slavery, though made an occasion, was not, in reality, the cause of the war. Antislavery was of no serious consequence, and had no positive influence, until politicians, at a late period, seized upon it as an instrument of agitation; and they could not have done so to any mischievous effect, except for an alleged diversity of interests between the sections, involving the question of political power. Wise and patriotic citizens for a long time kept those interests at the proper balance, or the passions, which were thus stimulated under just control. As those great men passed away, self-seeking and ambitious demagogues, the pest of Republics, disturbed the equilibrium, and were able, at length, to plunge the country into that worst of calamities, civil war. The question of morals had as little as possible to do with the result. Philanthropy might have sighed, and fanaticism have howled for centuries in vain, but for the hope of office and a desire of public plunder, on the part of men who were neither philanthropists nor fanatics.

      With (self-seeking) mere politicians and demagogues at the helm, as was the case in 1860, freeing the slaves in the South (which was utterly impracticable in any case) would have been used by such men to the selfsame purpose and for precisely the same underlying reasons.

  1. Pingback: Keep Your Cool and Don’t be a Chump | Reaction Times

  2. As the so-called trolls discovered in the 2016 election cycle, this is a tactic which can be wielded against the central power, as well. (Not that the outcome was virtuous, but let’s face it: Trump was never supposed to win.)

  3. The way out of this is to simply stop worrying about the optics. When you see these idiots getting hit by the cops just stop caring for them, laugh at them and hope it happens again.

    • I take that sort of synchronicity as an omen. Likewise when I encounter the same arcane word twice in a short space. It’s an omen that I ought to mull over its meaning. You’re right about Dabney. Every American reactionary makes his way to Dabney, sooner or later. And when he does, he knows how the Arab feels when he finds an oasis in the desert.

  4. Pingback: Yankee Stay Home! | Σ Frame


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