Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Condition of Children and Barbarians

The headlines over the last ten days have been dominated by news from Gaza as the Isrealis and Hamas engage in a deadly and escalating kind of reciprocal "rumble", each street gang refusing to stand down and consider the future implications of their actions beyond simply coming out on top, regardless of the number of lives sacrificed in doing so. Of course one might say that both sides are considering the future implications and that security and continued existence of their respective states warrants such action. They believe that in order to survive one must eliminate the threat once and for all. There are times in history when this has been an effective strategy for survival, when it has been necessary to destroy evil, but until the modern age, it has necessitated the complete destruction of whole cultures.

The strategy to eliminate the other is less and less effective in the modern world. It is based on a view of the past that not only tallies up the wrongs suffered at the hands of the enemy as justification for further violence but that unrealistically assumes that there is one discreet, self-contained entity that can indeed be totally eliminated. The end result of such action is usually not complete victory for one side but rather the destruction of countless lives on both sides and an uneasy "peace" waiting for the next retalitory response. In the case at hand, the Israelis and the Arabs are continuing a mode of behavior that their past experience would seem to indicate is getting them nowhere, locking them into endless war.

In an op-ed piece in todays New York Times, Roger Cohen equates such a policy as "rule of the dead," a dominion he sees as prevalent only in the Middle East today. The rule of the dead demands that one look primarily to the past, to the long line of injuries perpetrated first (if there is a first) on this side then on that, to justify the perpetuation of conflict. The dominion of the dead, of the past, precludes any peace in favor of the living. The dominion of the dead fattens itself on the blood of the living.

The philosopher Georges Santayana's famous quote is never far from my mind. Most people only remember the last line: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." In the case of the Israelis and the Arabs, and of countless adversaries before them, this seems contradictory. It is precisely in remembering the past that they continue the unwinnable struggle for dominance. The whole quote, however, runs like this:
"Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness...
when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it...
this is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience.
The point here is that both sides do remember the past, but only an incomplete and highly subjective version of it. They do not retain the total experience, that is, the costs of temporary victory along with the victory itself, nor do they learn from it. And so they repeat it. They remain in the condition of children and barbarians, acting on instinct, forever caught in a deadly tit-for-tat, forever relying on instinct, which has learned nothing from experience.

This is where future consciousness comes in. Future consciousness is all about learning from the past and applying what you have learned to the future and in so doing creating a better world than the past. Future consciousness prescribes creating a constructive future rather than falling into a repeat of an ineffective past mode of being. Future consciousness is being informed by the past in order to get to someplace new, in order to change, not stay stuck in destructive modes of behavior that perpetuate negative features of the past. Cohen cites the Germans and the French, the Japanese and the Chinese, as examples of peoples that found a new way to co-exist. And while it is true that the destruction of the evil that was Nazism and Japanese imperial militarism was necessary to pave the way for this new pattern of behavior, can we not hope that reasonable people on both sides of this conflict can learn not only from their own past experience but from world history as a whole.


  1. Comment from Tom in Minneapolis

    Thanks. I appreciate the thought but I don't think it is as black and white, or past/present as the oped makes it seem. Rockets in your bedroom on a daily basis is very real and very present to Israelis. If they were just annoyances, like flies, one might ignore- but they are not. Hamas, on the other hand, encouraged by ignoring of rockets will continue to add more to the game until Israel might just disappear. One needs to also understand that this is a proxy war between Israel and Iran which is supplying much of the Hamas armamentarium. Iran is like the smart kid who encourages someone else to jump off the cliff into the water below. There are other players in this game pushing and baiting. It's not just the pair.

  2. Thanks for your comments Tom. Even as I wrote the piece I kept having to stop to consider the ramifications of my points and to modify them. (What about evil???) Of course it is not black and white and in talking to Tom about it this morning I had to concede that in many ways the Israelis seem justified, especially within the context of ensuring their survival in terms of those who would annhilate them. As for your point about a proxy war, indeed! As much as you might see the conflict as a war between the Israelis and Iran, you could add that the US, in their funding of Israel, is just as much involved. It is the Cold War all over again with the messy conflict being played out elsewhere, i.e. not in the US or Iran. Of course it is complex... But that is always used as a kind of excuse to not think creatively about a situation. I may sound naieve in proposing future consciousness as a beginning step in finding a solution, but then I am evolutionary in my thinking. The human race cannot pursue its violent, bloody path forever.....or can it?

  3. Tom A.responds
    Yes, the US is behind Israel as are other nations, including, to a point Egypt which does not like Muslim extremists. We can't forget the past with the British messing in the territory and then dividing it up giving more than one party the same turf. To honor their commitment to the Jews, they said if you can take the turf we won't stop you-hence Uris' Exodus and the Jewish invasion.

    But the jews have their own problems like the muslims (sunni/shia). With their open door policy, they had to take long after established, the Russian Jews who demanded land like the rest and pushed beyond the borders. Hence its not just the "territory" but territories and all the various dissenting factions on both sides.

    Unlike Ghandi or the Dali Lama, neither side is willing to be the one taking a non-violent position. Turn the other cheek and the Israelis will find themselves sitting in the waters off shore. Hamas senses that if they stopped fighting Gaza will become a Jewish settlement with all the consequences attendant.

    Schumacher said small is beautiful but he believed that one may need a nuclear power plant if it is "apprpropriate". Future consciousness, I don't believe, requires that the practicing parties embrace non-violence in absolutely 1st principles. War or life/death struggles may be in the cards.