April 25, 2006

A Force that Gives Us Meaning

(keynote address for a conference in Cali, Colombia, October 2005)

“They create a wasteland and they call it peace.”–Tacitus, 1st century A.D.

Sometimes I think it all began when the human race sat down. Pascal wrote that the hardest thing in the world for a human being to do was to sit quietly in a room. He was right, of course, but that is probably because we weren’t meant to sit quietly in a room. We were designed to move, to walk, and for hundreds of millennia that’s what Homo sapiens did. Not just coincidentally, war does not show up in the archaeological record until the Late Paleolithic–say, about 15,000 B.C. Conflict and aggression, of course, were always with us; but systematic, organized conflict and aggression–war, in short–is a relatively recent phenomenon, and coincides with the beginnings of sedentism, urbanism, religion, and social inequality (also known as politics). In one form or another, human beings have been doing pretty much the same thing since the Neolithic era.

It also has a lot to do with where we locate meaning. “The mystery of the world is the visible,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “not the invisible.” Frank Lloyd Wright said that his god was Nature, which he spelled with a capital N. For the hunter-gatherer, the visible world was not some mysterious code, imbued with hidden meaning, which we had been placed on the earth to figure out. Rather, the world as it presented itself was its own meaning. “Meaning” becomes an issue only if you believe something is being withheld; if there is no mystery, if what you see is what you get, then “meaning” is a nonissue and you can just live your life. When life itself is not enough, that’s when problems arise.

If life itself is not enough, if you are convinced that there is a hidden meaning somewhere that you need to uncover in order to feel all right, then you are caught in what I call the “Neolithic dilemma”: there is a hole in the soul, and something out there, somewhere, is going to fill it up. For some people that something is alcohol; for others, fame or wealth. Many pursue romantic love; others try to lose themselves in work. But the one activity guaranteed to fill the void (for a while, at least) is war. “War,” as the American journalist Chris Hedges recently wrote, “is a force that gives us meaning.” There is something intoxicating about going to war; it has an erotic feel to it that is dizzying in its intensity. Who can forget the image of the actor Slim Pickins, in Stanley Kubrick’s movie Dr. Strangelove, riding a nuclear warhead like a cowboy on a bronco and shouting “yahoo!” as the bomb descended to oblivion? In many ways, war is the ultimate religion, and it is no accident that religion has been the cause of so many wars.

One thing religion does, or has a tendency to do, is split the world into Good and Evil; a mental framework sometimes referred to as “Manichaean.” Manichaeanism makes things very convenient for us; at the very least, you don’t really have to think a lot, which can be an enormous relief. But even beyond that, it enables us to harden our ego boundaries; to fill ourselves with anger, rage, or self-righteous virtue, and thus never have to look at the secret parts of ourselves that are fearful, that hurt, that make us feel ashamed. In his book The Forgiving Self, psychologist Robert Karen writes:

The binary, black-and-white mentality offers the shelter
of simplicity. There are good behaviors, bad behaviors;
good people, bad people; right thinking, wrong thinking;
righteous nations, wicked nations. The potential to live
[this way] . . . represents a significant part of our psychic
life, for many people the most significant part. It is
associated with blaming, revenge-seeking, scapegoating,
xenophobia, warmongering, the draconian treatment of
prisoners, as well as idol worship, cult phenomena,
religions of the “one true faith,” and chauvinism.

Another word for this is “paranoia,” the etymology of which is very interesting. In Greek, it means “like knowledge”–i.e., that which is not genuine knowledge but nevertheless resembles it in structure. Illusion, in short. War requires a lot of illusion; in particular, the belief that the problem is entirely “out there.”

One of the best illustrations of this phenomenon in recent times, at least to my mind, is Ronald Reagan. No complexities in the world for him: the United States was “the city on the hill,” the Soviet Union “the evil empire”–end of discussion. Well, I never thought much of the Soviet Union myself; it was certainly no place I ever wanted to live. But by the time the Vietnam war was over, it had become clear to many Americans–at least for a brief moment in time–that our house was not exactly in order either. The war in Vietnam was a lie; it had no purpose beyond its own perpetuation; we had killed literally millions of innocent civilians; and the perpetrators of the war, including Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara, were unable to say why we were there because they didn’t know themselves. Financially, in terms of both military and subsequent social costs, the war is estimated to have set the United States back two-thirds of a trillion dollars (in 1967 dollars, no less); as for the spiritual cost of the war, that is incalculable. It tore the nation apart; political scientist George Modelski, in Long Cycles in World Politics, dates the period 1971-75 as the beginning of the end of the American empire.

It was on the wings of this debacle that Jimmy Carter was elected to office, in 1976. President Carter understood the spiritual cost of the war; he told the American public that the country had gone astray, that the time had come for some serious soul-searching. The time was over, he said, for finding fault on the outside; we needed now to look within ourselves, look at the way we were living. As I said, it was a very brief moment; the temptations of the binary, Manichaean world view were too powerful to resist. By the time Mr. Carter delivered his famous “spiritual malaise” speech in 1979, the American public was done with self-reflection and ready to get on with business as usual, i.e. blame the enemy. Ronald Reagan, a simple-minded actor with a clear black-and-white formula, came along at just the right time, enabling the country to return to the stupor of denial. In the 1980 election, he won by a landslide; and in Republican circles to this day, the Carter presidency is ridiculed as a joke, as the epitome of weakness, when in reality just the reverse is true: Mr. Reagan’s bellicosity was weakness disguised, and Mr. Carter’s attempt at soul-searching the real strength.

And the Neolithic drama never ends. War serves too many psychological purposes for us to let go of it. “Our world,” writes Robert Karen, “is full of people who thrive on power and acclamation and feel empty and worthless without it.” Two and a half years ago, on the eve of the war in Iraq, Jimmy Carter published a short article calling the venture a mistake, and asserting that it was the work of a few individuals in the White House and the Pentagon who had never resolved their own frustrated, pent-up ambitions. As Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, later admitted, the “neoconservative” crowd was never really concerned about any purported weapons of mass destruction. Rather, he said, the inner circle simply agreed that this was the best way to sell the war to the American people, and they were going to have this war come hell or high water. The result, as is now plain to see, is a mess: Shias and Sunnis are united for the first time in their history (by their hatred for the U.S.); the Bush administration vows to “stay the course,” without being able to say exactly what that course is; we are again bogged down in what may prove to be another Vietnam-type situation; nearly 2,000 American soldiers have died, and according to a study done by the Johns Hopkins University in late 2004, so have about 100,000 Iraqi civilians; and the spiritual and financial cost is once again increasing exponentially. Asked by reporters at his April, 2004 press conference whether he felt he had ever made a mistake, the Manichaean “president of good and evil,” as the philosopher Peter Singer calls Mr. Bush, was nonplused: apparently, the possibility had never occurred to him.

It’s not that the United States can go on forever; no nation, no civilization, can. The choices now open to us, as the historian Immanuel Wallerstein recently wrote, are to decline rapidly or to decline gradually; there are no other options, much as Americans would like to believe the contrary. At this point in U.S. history, when our hegemonic strength is really a mirage, to foment war–especially a phony, let alone colonial, one–is to put ourselves firmly on the path of rapid decline. The alternative, brilliantly spelled out by W.H. Auden many years ago, is by now tragically foreclosed; but it does go to the heart of what it means to be a human being—a crucial part of what the human struggle is about. Auden wrote:

We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

– Morris Berman, Cali, Colombia, October 2005


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