Friday, September 15, 2017

Reflections on our thin veil of civilization and the threats of ubiquitous barbarity

You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilization from barbarism. I  tell you the division is a thread, sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn. (John Buchan) (Saturn (Cronos) led his brothers and sisters in a revolt against his father for power.)

William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies, is one of English literature’s testaments to the savagery of human nature. Both on the island where the British choir boys land after their plane crashes, and, ironically, in the ocean where the warship appears to evacuate them from their island “paradise”, violence reigns supreme. Competing ambitions, interests and ideologies enmeshed within an island and inside a global culture support, mirror, and underline each other’s energies. The pursuit of power in all of its many forms and iterations is pulsing in tension with the impulses to negotiate, compromise, collaborate and resolve….and, from Golding’s perspective, the winner is the savage.

Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. is set in a Catholic monastery in the desert of Southwest U.S. after a monstrous nuclear war. Since it appeared n 1960, it has never been out of print, a testament to the lingering angst that hovers over the west since the inception of the nuclear generation began. Both the Iran nuclear agreement and the North Korean persistence in its determination to join the nuclear club have brought the spectre of nuclear conflict into public consciousness in a way reminiscent of the early 1960’s when bomb shelters and school drills for children on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack (remember Cuba!) were high on the “richter” scale of personal and public fears.

Wars like the Korean, (still unresolved), Viet Nam, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other sites like Mali, Somalia, Nigeria, Ukraine, Chechnya as well as the several military engagements between Israel and the Palestinians have kept the stories, and the casualties of war relatively high on the scale of public issues for a long time.  They illustrate the evolution of killing technologies, spying devices and even unmanned bombers, operated from some office in Nevada, while dropping bombs on targets in Afghanistan, while keeping war on the front pages of our minds. While the “enemies” have changed, the drum-beat of the military answer to geopolitical conflict has rarely, if ever, been taken off the table by the major world powers.

Parallel to this theme of military conflict has been the political embrace of “human rights” as a hedge against ethnic cleansing, religious persecution, voter suppression, and the general abuse of power by those whose moral compass has failed them and consequently also those they “serve” has assumed a more prominent place in national and international affairs. Legislation like the 1964 Voter Registration Act, and the Canadian Charter of Rights (1981) have raised the hopes and the prospect of security somewhat for people who previously would have been powerless when denied their legitimate voice to participate in what are commonly known as modern democracies. 
In other parts of the world, however, human rights abuses continue unabated, except for the continuous, if peripheral watchful eye of agencies like Amnesty International. Dictators, too, have not exited the world stage, and the rise of Islamic terrorism has injected steroids into both the military and the security apparatus of major countries like the United State, Great Britain, Germany, Canada, Australia, India, Japan and China.

As China seeks to play a larger role on the world stage, leaders in Bejing have dedicated considerable attention and resources to the growth of their military including the building of islands in the sea to serve as airbases for their military aircraft. Just yesterday, a display of modern Russian military might was presented to western correspondents in the sea off the coast of Syria, following two years of Russian bombing of ISIS installations in support of the Assad regime.

Since taking office, trump too has given voice (and cover) to the growth of military buildup in his own country and around the world, without having the full range of experience and the propensity to learn about the dangers of both build-up and deployment. So the spectre of a renewed arms race hangs over the Middle East, and more recently over the Far East, with the escalating missile firings by both North and South Korea.

Ironically, everyone in public life knows that the military is not an effective or lasting answer to any conflict, yet their actions continue to inject billions into the arms industry, both in design and in production and sales. Sales of guns to millions of American people inside the country have ballooned in this century, resulting in a virtual armed camp in many neighbourhoods, freeways, and places where people gather.

The National Rifle Association too has poured millions of dollars in lobbying efforts to stop any legislation designed to restrict private ownership even of high-powered assault weapons designed exclusively for use by the military. Neighbourhood, school, mall shootings, and shootings on other sites like military bases themselves, have risen to an epidemic level in the United States. Doubtless, the culture of a military nation, born of revolution and nurtured by a military post-secondary tradition for millions who chose voluntary enlistment over college or university, supplemented by those who were drafted, has infected every town and city. The idolizing of veterans, regardless of the original motives for combat, or the final results of those combats, contributes to a culture of honour for the military, far beyond its national and international positive impact.

The incursion of combative language including military metaphors, combat similes, winning/losing dichotomies and the inculcation of personal winning/losing achievements among the young for centuries has contributed much to the dangers of dependence on military might, and the dangers implicit in mishaps and accidents when the political rhetoric demands military action.

The argument that military might “insures” peace, because no enemy will be willing or eager to attack a superior military power is one that has found resonance among the American taxpayers for centuries. Naturally, it comes as no surprise that dictators also revert to military protection and military aggression to preserve and enhance their hold on power.

On a domestic scale, people who allegedly love, nurture and give birth to their children are among the most vile and least suspected perpetrators of a kind of violence that cuts through any veil of civility. Such activity has been enacted by both mothers and fathers, on both sons and daughters, and too much of this abuse has been inflicted out of some misguided belief in a kind of purist and perfectionistic morality, not unlike the honour killings that have befallen “wayward” children of East Indian parents except in degree. A similar kind of wanton violence has been inflicted far too often by mainly male spouses on their female partners, for such a wide range of motives, all of them beyond the pale of even a modicum of civilization.

Of course, gangs of drug dealers, street gangs, and private militias take violence as their primary communication method, inflicting as much death and bloodshed as they possibly can. In the last few years, increasing numbers of law enforcement officers have been caught on video inflicting physical abuse, sometimes even leading to the death of the target. The military weaponizing of law enforcement, shortly after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. has only exacerbated the frequency and level of intensity of these attacks, without eliminating the racist motive behind many of these incidents.

Are we humans inherently violent, with a paper-thin mascara of restraint, in order to be able to exercise other personal ambitions and goals, which, ironically, are also dependent on “bettering” another, whether a single person, or an organization? As Rousseau reminded us centuries ago, are we innocent at birth, and acquire both the desire for and the techniques of inflicting violence from our sociologizing among other humans, including our own families? The Christian theology of an original Fall, from innocence in the Garden of Eden, generating a need for redemption has contributed significantly to the notion of human evil. The anthropologists tell us that we are the only species which eats its own kind, and while such behaviour does not occur or find its way into our awareness frequently, it does occur, along with the murder of infants by their very troubled mothers.

We now know that much abusive behaviour is an expression of a need for power and control, much of which have been denied and out of reach for many young children. And this inappropriate need for power and control finds expression in our private homes as well as on our battlefields. Belief systems that begin with a foundation that we are all that we need to both survive and thrive, however, have often foundered on the public perception (supported by the Christian church) that such beliefs elevate humans above their need for God. Many have wondered and even asserted that such a counter-intuitive posture bruises if not rejects an unbounded, unrestricted love and acceptance from the deity. Institutional need for power and control over parishioners is not and cannot be removed from consideration as a primary impetus for man’s inhumanity. Rules, regulations, dogma and institutional theology have imposed a rigor beyond human capacity to comply, without the attendant responsibility for such abuse.
Of course, there have been innumerable theories, ranging from the rejection of altruism (Ayn Rand) to the elevation of empathy (most world religions) competing for the rights of explication, justification and leadership in world history. Words, stones, coins and other people have been, and remain, the primary agents of the seeding, nurturing and propagation of competing world views, for personal, family and national interests. And while the tension is unlikely to dissipate any time soon, the advocates for civilization continue to enter the debate under significant negative odds, given that the threat of global annihilation hangs like a cloud over all of our towns, cities and pastures.

Spectres of Armageddon have been sprinkled into the history and the theological literature, as part of the archetypal heritage of successive generations in various cultures. Eschatology is an integral component of Christian systematic theology, serving, it would seem, as an ultimate clincher to the arguments for the “purely disciplined life of the Christian pilgrim. Indeed, many still occupying pews in Christian churches are serving their time as insurance to ward off an afterlife of fire or ice, depending on one’s picture of Hell. Many have uttered those very words directly to this scribe, although they seemed universally unconscious of their vain efforts to negotiate, or even to bribe their God in that perceived leverage.

The Holocaust remains as the single most horrific act committed by humans against other humans, and the identical motivation (of the third Reich) today, armed with nuclear warheads and the missile technology to launch them, could well annhiliate millions. (Einstein writes that even a nuclear war would leave at last one-third of the world’s population still existing. Have the hydrogen bombs surpassed the atomic weapons with which he was familiar?) Clearly,

·      the manufacture and sale of highly sophisticated weapons lies at the core of the current U.S. administration’s policy manual (if there even is such a thing).
·      the list of countries to which sales have already been made, added to the list of countries the current president has publicly uttered the prospect of acquiring nuclear weapons (think South Korea and Japan for starters)
·      linked to the almost inconceivable notion that also blurted from his lips, “If we are going to have nuclear weapons, why not use them?...
·      welded to the Putin braggadocio ‘not to mess with Russia because we do have nuclear weapons….

These shadows may not add up to a conclusive prediction that human savagery will find nuclear expression. They do however demonstrate a kind of “deployment” of the threat as a way of intimidating enemies, in the geopolitical climate that is 2017. To many observers too, the early part of past centuries has too often witnessed some kind of military conflagration….and the question looms, is this century really very different?

Should either Iran or North Korea, or both, actually acquire a nuclear arsenal, what assurances does the rest of the world have that one or both would not “export” either the technology and the fissile material to manufacture nuclear weapons to a different agent, perhaps a terrorist group, which would then be beholden to their benefactor? Pakistan is reported and reputed to have already committed such an opportunistic and subversive and scurrilous act. (Dr. Khan remains under house arrest for the crime.)

Recently, military leaders in the United States have begun to speak publicly about the fragility of the veneer of civilization. It is that thin, porous, ethereal and precious veil comprised of politeness, respect, tolerance, collaboration, a shared vision of a shared future for children and grandchildren, arms reduction treaties, and the mechanisms to verify their authenticity and compliance that, metaphorically at least, flies on the wings of poets, orchestras, operas, movies and theatrical productions touring the world’s stages. And these, along with the glacial growth of international institutions like the  World Court, the International Criminal Court at the Hague, the United Nations and its several humanitarian arms and legs serving refugees, human rights and peace-keeping initiatives, give us whatever authentic hope we can grasp.

There is no hardware or software extant that can or will prevent war. There is no magic formula to which all nations subscribe that can or will head off those military incursions (like Crimea and Syria) and there is no church or religion that can or will forestall the human impulse for violence.
Indeed, much of human history sees human blood and treasure being shed in the cause of advancing a faith perspective or preventing the advance of armies of prosletytes beavering to convert “the unwashed,” the heretics, the savages, and the unclean who have no religion or the wrong religion.

Good words, exhorting humans to “turn swords into ploughshares” for example, have abounded for centuries, without churches or their adherents or leaders finding the combination of strategy, tactics, will and collaborative partners to provide the world with assurances of peace, or of minimal conflicts.

Living on the increasingly apparent precipice of the “existential” threat, as Israel claims it has been for decades, and as North Korea currently threatens North America, and as millions of soldiers have done and will do each time they don their nations’ uniform, is a prospect most face only when near a ‘natural’ death from a disease. And we all live in the “in-between” place of that land between our birth and our death, witnessing abhorrent acts of despicable violence, deceit, humiliation and abuse, often without the strength or the means to redress the situation. Nevertheless, we each also seek opportunities for reaching out to others in their time of trial and tribulation, whether that be emotional, physical financial, or professional. And in those miniscule acts of kindness, we not only find fire-fly-flickers of light and hope, we also re-ignite the fading light of hope, love, compassion and empathy in the minds and hearts of our friends.

According to the proverb, the man picking up a clam on the beach and tossing it into the sea, when asked what difference picking up that one clam makes, when there are thousands waiting to be picked up says, “Well, it makes a difference to this clam!”


Have we picked up any clams recently? It is not only good for the clam; it also restores the spirit of the picker!

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