“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” — T. S. Elliot
Whitman wrote in “Leaves of Grass”:
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself!
I am large; I contain multitudes.”
Contradictions have, in fact, largely defined human life—even human “civilization”—for millennia. Our contradictions are at least as immanent in the 21st Century as they were in the days of the pharaohs. They are interwoven in world myths: from the Trickster, who may deceive and enlighten at once, to the Garden of Eden—Paradise lost when we have the effrontery to taste of the Tree of Knowledge! Freud and Jung treated our shadow selves; and our dual natures seem part of the double helix of our cells. The “Old Testament” often plays on the theme. My 3 favorite books from that very uneven anthology are “Proverbs” (“There is that maketh himself rich, yet hath nothing…”) “Ecclesiastes” (“He that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow”) and “The Book of Job.”
In the first chapter of “Job,” the hero is described as “a perfect and an upright man, one that fears God and eschews evil.” What more could anyone ask—even God could not ask for more! Except… Satan plants a seed of doubt in God’s apparently too-pliable mind: “Does Job fear God for naught?” the Serpent hisses. And God, whom we used to think all-knowing, must prove Himself (to Satan?) by torturing His faithful servant!
Job’s fidelity is tested and “rewarded” with the deaths of his children, destruction of his livelihood, painful boils all over his body; and his garrulous “friends” can offer nothing but cold comfort and specious logic. His wife advises him to “curse God, and die,” but Job holds fast to his “integrity”—his belief in a just, omniscient, merciful God. Nevertheless, in spite of his mighty efforts, physical pain reduces him, ransacks his certainties, and he cries out: “Wherefore do the wicked live, become old, yea are mighty in power. …They spend their days in wealth, and in a moment go down to the grave.” Updated: the rich and powerful live to ripe old age and die quickly without pain. But, for the good, God-fearing man or woman: our blessings can destroy us, cause unwarranted suffering. (And God’s voice at the end, speaking out of the Whirlwind, may enlighten or not, may soothe or not, depending on one’s attitude!)
But, all of that was long ago! Surely in our “modern” world, our high-speed, high-tech world of NOW, we need not wait for voices out of whirlwinds to know where we are and where we’re going! GPS and the amicable robot’s voice will steer us home!
And “home” is anywhere we hang our hat, as Streisand sang in the good old days. And home is where, as Frost said, “when you go there, they have to take you in.”
And then Frost answered himself in “The Death of the Hired Man,” perhaps his best poem, certainly his most dramatic: “I should have called it something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”
All of which may have been good and true in the hard-working, rural “white” America
Frost celebrated way back then.
But where is “home” now, as we contemplate America’s millions sleeping in old cars, or abandoned buildings, or warming their cold, sore bodies over sidewalk grates? Where is “home” as we look to rivers of refugees rushing across borders in the Middle East and Europe, escaping our endless wars—wars invariably fought these days—so our “leaders” declaim–to secure elusive “peace”… and to keep the “homeland” safe? After the cataclysms of the 20th Century, hadn’t we earned some respite in the 21st? Is displacement to be the eternal theme of humankind?
A cursory review of history, and we wonder: Has the human species always been so massively contradictory, so divided against itself? Doesn’t the Old Testament also tell us, and didn’t Lincoln remind us, that “a house divided against itself cannot stand”?
We come to a “momentary stay against confusion,” and then lose that moment again! We achieve a Golden Age of Pericles or a long Augustan era of peace and prosperity; a Tang Dynasty; seven centuries of sunlight, scholarship and bliss in Andalusian Spain “where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in tolerance, and… literature, science, and the arts flourished”; a Renaissance or Enlightenment…and then, the invaders come, or entropy overwhelms us, “the center cannot hold,” and we blow up the sacred monuments in Palmyra or in the Black Hills of America–shattering the crystals in the Palace of Wisdom with covetousness, narrow-mindedness, xenophobia, schizophrenia, sadism and folly.
Islam itself, the West’s bugbear again, or “radical Islam”–as our “radical Right” would have it; as our self-appointed moral compasses declaim–arose as one of the consequences of the fall of the Roman Empire–brutal and decadent in its closing fires-of Nero-“minnows”-of-Tiberius-
But, contradictions and conflicts within Islam–as between Sunnis and Shiites–soon led to internecine wars that have continued for over a millennium. In more recent centuries, Islam has faced onslaughts from crusaders and invaders–from Christians, secularist Turks, capitalists/imperialists from Europe and the US. (And yes, after the Prophet’s death, as the religion spread rapidly across the Middle East, North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, the cry was often: “Convert or die!” Whether that was more sanguinary that the Crusaders’ idea of massacring all who stood in their plundering way, “letting God sort Christians from infidels”—only God, at last, can say!
The Great Contradiction of the 21st Century is that humankind has never been more connected—and our very connectedness renders us more vulnerable. We can communicate with friends in Mumbai and Singapore in an eye-blink, and we can lose all our vital information thanks to hackers in Shanghai or anywhere in the next eye-blink. And what is true for the individual goose is true for our collective ganders—the whole shebang of modernity. Wasn’t all this Age of Anxiety stuff supposed to surcease when the Cold War ended? Whatever happened to the “Peace Dividend” Ronald Reagan and Daddy Bush promised?
Of course, if we were paying attention in the ‘90s, we heard murmurings; we saw the graffiti-handwriting on the wall. And the graffiti said, “A clash of civilizations” would be coming to a theater (of war) near you!
And I wondered–Why? Why did Huntington write with surety about such a clash? Why did it have to be inevitable? Could we learn nothing to avert catastrophe? Surely, we are masters of our fate (in the West we especially like to think so! “Captain of my soul”—and all that!). Forewarned is forearmed. If we knew more about our potential enemies, were we all not mature enough, not seasoned enough, to sit down at the Table Round and talk things through?
(I confess congenital naivety! “The poet,” Goethe wrote, “is essentially naïve!”)
I soon realized: The best thing in Huntington was not news of an inexorable “clash,” but delving into the roots of it; i.e.:
“The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion […,] but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.”
“In the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilizational clash, Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous.”
In other words, our goose is cooked.
Things will get worse… before… they… get… worse!
Then… what hope? Can people live without that elusive, fluttering hawk on the wing? Is there “informed” hope as opposed to the ignorant sputtering of our politicians and media hype-sters who tell us to just go about our usual business: i.e., watching millionaires play soccer in tax-financed mega-stadiums; Christmas shopping for the latest electronic baubles; Thanksgiving prayers over hormone-injected turkeys; café au lait and pinot noir—or else the “terrorists” will win! After 911, wasn’t George Winsome Bush advising us, in the best Tammy Faye Baker tradition to “shop till we drop,” to resume our “normal” lives? And, don’t we hear the same chattering politico-media chorus now—background Gregorian chanting from Sharm el Sheikh to Paris to Mali?
News flash: the “terrorists” have already won! We have met the enemy and they are us! I do not mean that we are “worse” than they are, but I do not see that we are “better”! When our politicos and media mavens talk about “good guys vs bad guys” or their “pure evil” vs our “basic decency,” I wonder how dropping bombs on, and drone strikes against, civilians is less evil than cutting off heads?
“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” mused Alexander Pope. “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”
A few years before Huntington was peddling his inevitability wares, Joseph Nye was advocating a “soft power” approach. His argument was simple (but not simplistic): we had won the Cold War by being “firm,” “resolute,” “proactive,” etc., but how could we win the Peace? We needed a new set of adjectives (less Viagra-sounding, we might think now!).
The best comment I have heard about the Paris tragedies, actually came a couple of hours before the attacks were “breaking news” worldwide. Before the attacks, the “Extra! Extra!” news of the day was that the UK could confirm that “Jihadi John” had been killed in an air-raid! “Jihadi-John” was the infamous Brit-Arab, hooded and masked–sounding a bit like John Lennon!—with the awful habit of cutting off men’s heads on the “social media.”
I think it was on the BBC station that I caught a short interview with the mother of James Foley–a missionary who had been one of J-John’s victims. Interviewer and James Foley’s mother were seated in the studio, and he asked her the typical nonsense: if she were “relieved” now that her son’s murderer had been “brought to justice.” This sensible, sedate mom wondered how she could feel relief about the murder of a “deranged” man! What did it solve? Further, she was certain, her son would feel the same way; she was certain that her son would have forgiven that deranged man!
Most of us are not designed that way, of course. When Dylann Roof went off his nut and massacred 9 members of an African-American church in Charleston, just five months ago this year, many of us “normal” people wondered how the surviving parishioners could talk about “forgiveness.” (Wasn’t Roof’s an act of “terrorism”?) I suppose only the most exceptional among us can talk about “forgiveness” at such times, but many of us cannot help but wonder if we human microbes on this pretty speck of dust called Earth have the capacity to learn from our mistakes and misdeeds over the millennia?
If we begin to understand our enemy and ourselves, we may begin to make some headway! (As Sun Tzu wrote in “The Art of War”: Know your enemy, but not yourself, 100 battles, 50 victories; know yourself, but not your enemy, 100 battles, 50 victories; know yourself and your enemy, 100 battles, 100 victories.)
In spite of all the tripe dripping from the lips of Trump or Carson, Hillary-Shrillary , Hannity-Vanity or O’Reilly-O’Really-?, 100-year-war-Cain-McCain and all the guff from our multi-starred consultant-generals—all the tripe about “evil,” “pure evil,” “rabid dogs,” etc.–those retaining an iota of sanity amidst the muck and clucking must wonder: Are babies born “evil”? How are values enculturated and ingrained? Does the “only Super-power” bear any responsibility for this world of blood, guts and explosive glory?
We must begin to admit that America and its allies in Europe, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Gulf States, etc., have fatefully (and myopically) fanned the flames of the Sunni-Shiite divide–using either side to gain momentary advantage. Thus, we used the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein to wage war against the Shiites in Iran (and about 1 million dead in Iran!) But when it came time to pay the piper, we refused, betraying our former client state, leaving Saddam bankrupt and facing insurrection, leading to Saddam’s invasion of our puppet state of Kuwait, leading to the first Gulf War, etc. And when Leslie Stahl asked saxophonist Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright if the deaths of half a million Iraqi kids was “worth it,”—deaths owing to our blockade, embargos, sanctions, etc. against life-saving drugs and medical equipment, etc.—steely eyed (but not “evil”?) Madeleine replied, emphatically and unapologetically, that it was!
Half a million dead kids in Iraq. 129 dead in Paris. There’s no equivalencies in war, of course. But, one wonders if Stalin’s cynicism was right: one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.
No equivalencies! Last year, 3 Jewish youths were kidnapped while hitch-hiking outside of a Jewish settlement abutting Palestinian territory. Their bodies were found soon after. Hundreds of Palestinians were arrested as “suspects,” leading to widespread riots, leading to a Palestinian youth, possibly mentally impaired, being kidnapped, forced to drink gasoline, doused with gasoline and immolated. Leading to more riots and an invasion of Gaza that left over 2000 Palestinians dead—mostly civilians, mostly women and children—and many more wounded, displaced and traumatized. Some of the most advanced weapons-systems in the world employed against some of the most primitive. A massacre! Was there an outcry in the “civilized” West? No one even had to tell us to “go shopping”!
But, everything changes, “contains the seeds of its own destruction,” as Marx justly noted about Capitalism (but failed to note about the system he devised in its stead. When has dictatorship—of the “proletariat” or anything else–simply “withered away”?)
“They” tell us to go shopping, live our “normal lives,” because our “leaders” (what Aldous Huxley deemed our “Controllers”) know well that terrorist attacks are a sick theater to match our own sick theaters of consumption, materialism, sports and celebrities, environmental destruction. Lao Tzu, Confucius and Joseph Nye would advise us to “tone it down.”
Can we revise our moribund and defunct educational systems—our high schools emphasizing football, cheerleading, socializing prurience; our colleges much the same, emphasizing student debts–leading to life-long wage-slavery? Can we de-emphasize filling in bubbles on standardized tests, re-emphasize time-tested subjects like “Rhetoric,” “World History,” “Comparative Religion”? Can we clip some of the feathering from our bloated 1000 worldwide military bases, reduce the half of our taxes and national budget that we direct towards the military-industrial-complex and provide, like many other “advanced” societies, free or near free college education, vocational education (that also includes the Humanities), non-pharmaceuticalized healthcare and health guidance? Can we dismantle our grotesque prison-industrial system?
“After the first death, there is no other,” Dylan Thomas wrote in “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.” What more can one say—if one child’s death is not more than sufficient an indictment, a plea, despair?
We had better start to acknowledge the many crimes committed by the West–against Africans, the Americas’ indigenous people, and in the Middle East and Asia–during the West’s centuries of expansionism and conquest. Recognizing our own contradictions–as Whitman suggested–may be the first step towards reconciliation and resolution of these current world-devouring horrors.
We are more “connected” now, and more vulnerable! (Imagine a massive “cyber attack” taking down the grid on America’s east coast!) The Western approach, probably since the scientific revolutions of the “Enlightenment,” followed by the Industrial Revolution (mass production, assembly lines, etc.); and, especially, since Einstein, has been what I’ll call “atomization,” or a reductionist approach: i.e., reducing compound and interwoven elements to their smallest particles (or ideas) in order to analyze and categorize. This approach has caused explosive growth, exploitation of human and mineral resources, ecological despoilation. If we are to survive this century as something other than algorithmic androids (!), we will need a more comprehensive, interactive approach–need to understand what Heisenberg was getting at when he observed how mere observation and measurement could change a particle’s velocity or position. Einstein understood something of this, too, when he wrote about “spooky physics”–how widely separated particles could “correlate”–once “entangled,” always “entangled”! (Artists have understood these phenomena for millennia; just check out the plays of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides!)
In one of my favorite Biblical stories, Jacob “wrestles” with an angel “unto the breaking of the day.”
I interpret that to mean that he is “wrestling” with his better self, his “higher” self. Doubts against assurance. Good ideas against less-good. Truths vs falsehoods.
We are all divided–hexed, vexed, and maybe blessed, with that helical symbol in our cells and souls. And, one mutation in one gene, changes everything!
We are in the Whirlwind now, and we must render our best answers!
Gary Corseri has published novels, poetry collections, dramas and articles. He has been an editor, journalist, gas station attendant, door-to-door salesman, and grape-picker in Australia. He has taught in US prisons and public schools, and in universities in the US and Japan. He has performed his work at the Carter Presidential Library, and his dramas have been produced on Atlanta-PBS and elsewhere. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.