I probably spend too much time thinking about the state of the world but I find it difficult to switch off to the events and phenomena of our planet. Lately I’ve been pondering how experiences such as human suffering seldom result in a better society for all.
The reason I suspect, is that the one emotion that all humans and by extension human societies share is fear. There are numerous forms of fear, some rational, some irrational and all based on real or interpreted human experiences. Those myriad fears are the principle motivations for individuals and societies.
The history of national and ethnic conflicts is riven by fear, be it the fear of subjugation or a more insidious fear: that the invaded society lacks the cultural, economic or military strength of the invader.
Fear echoes throughout history and creates new human suffering. In a previous essay Reflections on War and Reality, I discussed modern Islamist movements in the context of modern warfare Many of those same Islamist movements derive their philosophical underpinnings from the heretical teachings of the 13th century jurist Ibn Tammiya, whose work became the basis of modern day Wahhabism. Ibn Tammiya was a fearful man: fearful of women, fearful too of the cosmopolitan nature of the Islamic world after the Mongol Conquests. That fear prompted Ibn Tammiya to reduce the tenets of the Koran and by extension the vision of Muhammad into a harsh, unforgiving and self-serving ideology far removed from its originator’s intentions.
A simplistic analysis might indicate that Ibn Tammiya was motivated by a desire for power. Yet often the individual’s quest for power is rooted in their fears and considered inadequacies. Heinrich Kramer the misogynist author of the Malleus Malleficarum and witch-hunting ideologue was rejected by the woman he loved. No doubt he found solace in the works of another earlier misogynist Augustine of Hippo whose writings, like those of Kramer and Sprengler have done so much to undermine the rights of women.
Societies are little different in how they approach fear. At the root of the fascist movements of the 1930’s and 1940’s were nationalist fears of cultural and socioeconomic stagnation. The sufferings of both the French and Germans in World War I culminated, neither in compassion nor catharsis, but in fantasy and pathos. Like wounded animals huddled in a corner, the populations of these countries lashed out at world from a place of fear. For the Germans that expression of fear was made manifest with Nazism, with its bellicose rhetoric promising a renewed Germany and the subjugation of “sub-human” enemies. A fearful population sought solace in fantasies of a Greater Germany or of Germany’s mythical enemies, Jews, gays and Slavs.
The French response was equally based in fantasy and fear. The majority of the French Army evacuated at Dunkirk returned to France, abandoning De Gaulle and Free French movement. The Vichy Regime sent hundreds of Jews to Nazi concentration camps and its leaders, Petain and Laval openly sought a formal alliance with Nazi Germany – an alliance that Hitler rebuffed on the grounds that the French were an inferior ethnic group.
Fear is writ large in the actions of Imperial Japan, the third component of the Axis Powers. At the heart of Japanese fascism was a fear of cultural inferiority, first in the face of the Chinese from whom the Japanese derived their alphabet and religious philosophies and then later, in the face of Western Imperialism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Complicating this sense of national anxiety was the Emperor Hirohito who in the face of increasing unpopularity employed militant nationalism to bolster his position in society.
Western societies in recent decades are similarly possessed by fears of socioeconomic stagnation. The rise of Trumpism, the Brexit Referendum and resurgent far-right movements across Europe are the result of a similar blend of fear and suffering that existed in the early twentieth century. In the wake of the Great Recession, western populations have become harder and in many cases crueller. The causes of that suffering are ideological. The Great Recession was the culmination of nearly fifty years of market fundamentalism espoused by neoliberal and neoconservative ideologues, religious fundamentalists and anti-democratic forces. The lack of compassion exhibited in Donald Trump and his supporters is rooted in the same kind of ideological fearfulness and fantasy exhibited by Europeans in the 1930’s and 1940’s – both of which are making a comeback with Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Norbert Hofer.
It would be simplistic to say that the fear and suffering caused by the Great Recession is alone responsible for the wave of cruelty and indifference currently gripping the Western world. However for many of my peers the Recession is still an open wound where homes and livelihoods were destroyed. The burden of private debt crushes those in my age-group yet political ideologues attack the public safety nets under the guise of “fiscal responsibility”.
In Canada, the $28billion worth of student loan debt is helping stymy the hopes of my generation. In the US, student loan debt stands at $1.3 trillion dollars.
Most North Americans are living paycheque to paycheque and the resulting stress cannot help but render the population unkind. Consequently when drowned refugees from the Middle East wash up on the shores of the Mediterranean, the attitude of many Europeans and North Americans is contempt. Why should our government help others when it’s failing to look after our own?
That lack of compassion is not only defeatist but also counter-productive. It’s easy to blame the same ideological governments who created the refugee crisis and who are responsible for the shabby state of social affairs across the Western World. But blaming those same governments is useless if doing so is merely an effort to absolve oneself of responsibility for their presence in the first place. We elected those same governments and if we want better governments, we must also improve ourselves and our outlooks. To do that we must look beyond our own hurt – a difficult task in its own right. We must cast off ideology.
When a population is hurting it will lash out at everything and everyone and most of the time, it will strike at the innocent. As the late James Baldwin observed the reason why so many people cling to their hate is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.
The same pathetic hatreds espoused by damaged people like Milo Milo Yiannopoulos, David Duke and Steve Bannon are selfish efforts by hurt people crying out for attention. And their half-baked ideological fantasies only resonate with people unable to address their own problems in a responsible manner. The harsh reality is that we only hear these hate-filled fools because we choose to do so.
I was born in 1982.
Nine years before my birth the Nixon Administration unilaterally ended the Bretton Woods Agreement and unleashed the financial markets that would cause the 2008 Recession. 1982 was the year that interest rates reached their highest point since World War II, bringing tremendous economic suffering across the world.
I was still in my mother’s womb when a former actor and fundamentalist Christian named Ronald Reagan swept to power as US president on a platform of economic fantasy and Hollywood myth. Reagan’s administration included many ideologues such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld who would launch the War on Terror in 2001.
A little over nine months from the date of my birth, Israeli backed Lebanese Christian militias marched into the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila in Beirut and slaughtered over two thousand civilians. It was at the time, one of the most brutal massacres of civilians in the Northern Hemisphere since World War II. 1982 saw the emergence of extremist groups that continue to haunt newspaper headlines today: Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah.
Margaret Thatcher was campaigning for re-election in 1982. Her policies and electoral style would be emulated by Canadian ideologues throughout the 1990’s. I was twelve years old when one of her most ardent followers, Mike Harris became premier of my native province of Ontario. Like Thatcher, Harris promoted a harsh neoliberal agenda, discounted human compassion as weakness and his in imitation of Thatcher and Reagan, his policies resulted in unnecessary deaths at Walkerton and Ipperwash.
As a child I can recall television images of bombed out buildings in places with names like Beirut, Oklahoma City, Belfast and Jerusalem. Later while studying for a history degree I came to the disturbing knowledge that my life and the lives of billions have been influenced by ideologues and fear based ideologies. Worse that the societies in which I lived, be they Britain, Canada or Ireland were steeped and continue to be steep in myth.
Now in 2017, the TV images are of bombed out buildings in places named Aleppo, Raqqa and Baghdad. The conman in the White House has a different name than the con-man who was president during my birth year, but like his plastic predecessor, he is a television creation of little intellect or substance. The world is still ideological and the same cruelty I recall from my childhood is rearing its ugly head in the name of economic determinism.
Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah now share headlines with Islamist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS – new pawns in a complex game of greed and ideology.
And it seems that nothing has been learned from all this suffering because we remain ideologically incapable of addressing our very human flaws. The writer and activist Uri Avneri summed up the effect of suffering during an interview in the wake of the Sabra and Chatila Massacres:
“It would be nice to believe that people who have undergone suffering have been purified by suffering. But it’s the opposite it makes them worse. It corrupts.”
But it doesn’t have to.
As hard as it may be to accept our pain and to address the source of our anger we have a responsibility to ourselves and to our loved ones and society as a whole to make the effort to break free of personal, socioeconomic and other abstract dogmas. The result of unchecked ideology is human suffering and that suffering in turn creates a feedback loop whereupon both the individual and the society become increasingly ideological – which in turn leads to more human suffering.
We owe it to ourselves to break that cycle.