Wednesday, May 4, 2016


Getting to the end of the Spring edition of Lapham's Quarterly called Disaster.  Just finished reading one of the ending essays, by John Gray.  Very thought provoking, and challenging to both the prevalent world view which is dominated by Western thinking, and my personal perspective.  If interested, the link below will take you to the essay.

In a nutshell, Gray uses the current bogeyman of the day, ISIS, to rebuke the basis of, not only our generally accepted foreign policy, but the entire set of beliefs that equate the movement towards a modern society with the eventual elimination of barbarism.  He states that barbarism has long existed as part of man's nature, but rather than decreasing as man's sense of civilization has evolved, it has merely changed in its form of expression as technology has changed.  In other words, the simple slash, pillage and burn mode of conquering that was prevalent for literally thousands of years, has been dramatically altered with the advances in weaponry.  He cites the many 20th and 21st century examples of barbarism as proof that our ability to be cruel and savage has been multiplied by our ability to create nuclear bombs, kill from miles above the ground, and present our atrocities to the world via social media and instant access to information.  He in no means defends ISIS, but he does cite the many examples of those who went before ISIS using those same techniques.

Gray often mentions in his essay how it should be no surprise that a group such as ISIS has arisen in the Middle East, considering our disastrous actions to destabilize the region.  We remove the structure, however distasteful we may find it, and leave a vacuum of power that is instantly filled by those very same forces that were being restrained by that structure.  He scoffs at our naiveté in thinking that by liberating a people from a dictator, the West would be greeted with open arms, and a democracy would quickly follow, when the people of that area had no recent experience with democracy.  Gray reminds us in no uncertain terms, that our version of freedom, runs contrary to a population where religion is more important, and divisive, than in the West.  At one point he quotes a high ranking official who was prescient in stating decades ago that drawing lines in the sand to create countries where no national allegiance exists would need strong leadership rooted in suppression and restriction, not freedom.  Finally, he warns that continued destabilization in Syria would exacerbate the problem, not solve it. 

I think that the following quote best illustrates Gray's mindset.

"Civilization is not the endpoint of modern history, but a succession of interludes in recurring spasms of barbarism".

This is his main disagreement with the liberal mind in general, me in particular.  I believe that man is evolving intellectually, socially and spiritually.  That as time marches past, instances of terrorism will lessen, both on the individual level and group level.  Gray asks the question, why do we wonder why some European born men leave their homes to fight for ISIS?  He seems almost amused that we can't get our mind around why someone would depart from the freedoms that exist in most western nations to join an extreme group marked by utter control of the individual.  We ask how did they come to be "radicalized", yet forget that an entire nation turned to barbarism against those deemed less than human during World War 2.  We are baffled by the hundreds from Europe who join ISIS, without remembering the millions who followed Hitler and his policies of genocide.

Gray condemns the reluctance of western leaders to unequivocally call a spade a spade, and commit to a unified policy of defeating ISIS.  On that front, he agrees with the hawks among us who want to eradicate the ISIS threat.  Yet, at the same time, he rejects the notion that democracy and capitalism are the answer.  It is as if, he has determined that we need to court the lesser of two evils by supporting strong arm dictators like Hussein, Khadafy and Assad, and hope that their lust for power will remain regional, and not spill into "our" world.  He is willing to condemn all those people whose only guilt will be to be born in the Middle East, to a life under the rule of a psychopath.  To me, it seems like a short term answer, yet understandable if one believes that man is more evil by nature than good.

So, we ridicule the Bush Administration for its debacle in executing the Iraq War, yet, perhaps, admire those who thought that the uplifting nature of capitalism and democracy might break the cycle of fundamental religious views that seem to mark so much of the region.  Certainly, and despite my belief that a similar backlash by those who cannot handle the changes now replete in our society are resulting in anti-human laws that seek to find sin and evil in those unlike us, I prefer a naïve optimism over a cynical fatalism.

As someone who has been more recently exposed to History, and the facts surrounding the advanced societies that existed in America before it was "discovered", in Southeast Asia, in the Middle East, perhaps we should ask ourselves if, centuries ago when Europe was marked by barbarism and all the advanced cultures were elsewhere, would it have been better had we been dismissed as people who would never change, could never change?

I often remark that violence begets violence, hatred breeds more hatred.  That only Love can defeat evil.  That, in the end, God created man to spend life searching for the line that separates good and bad, and to then choose a side, and that God created humanity to seek a group decision to act to benefit or harm each other, and the planet we inhabit. 

Yet, it is the real world we live in where there is in fact bad people engaged in horrible acts.  And, it seems ever more clear that despite our desire for simple answers, there are no simple answers to such complicated issues.  But perhaps answers will come more readily if we strive to expand our perspective, rather than narrowing it, whether that narrowing is caused by nationalism, religion, or politics. 

When one believes there is only one way, one Truth, one solution for every question, is that the mark of consistency or the burden of intransigence?

Is obliteration the only way to defeat those who engage in Barbarism?  Not if we assume that barbarism is part of our nature.  Does "using all means to defeat one's enemy" move us over the line from good to bad if we use torture to achieve that goal?  When is it time to fight the good fight, and how far removed from "good" is justifiable to fight that fight?

Gray takes on a tough subject.  Strange that his essay appears in a magazine called Disaster.


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