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Posts Tagged ‘John Fitzgerald Medina’

The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

[I]n turning inward, Dickinson gained unique insights into the human psyche.

(Pollak and Noble in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson,page 45)

The Passion of Emily Dickinson 

As I indicated at the end of the last post, I am looking at another book this time. Unlike Gilbert and Gubar, with their focus on patriarchy in The Mad Woman in the Attic, Judith Farr, in her book The Passion of Emily Dickinson,spends most of her time in the first two thirds of her book unpicking delicate strands of evidence to help us guestimate to whom some of Emily Dickinson’s poems were addressed.

Though fascinating from a biographical point of view, whether Emily Dickinson was writing a poem to Sue or to the Master doesn’t really matter to most of us as aficionados of her work. For us, what counts is to be able to allow the poem to impact as strongly as possible on our consciousness through the lens of our current understanding. Admittedly sometimes biographical details can shed light upon the meaning of poem: but all too often they constitute a veil between it and us. A great poem almost always transcends even the writer’s conscious intentions and understanding. That’s what makes it great. If anyone can capture all its meaning in words it might as well have been written in prose.

For these reasons, I am skipping over the whole of the first part of her book and homing in on where I feel most at home, with what Farr has to say about Emily Dickinson as poet of the interior in relation to time, nature and eternity.

The beginning of this exploration comes at page 247 when Farr writes:

She did have a poetic ‘project,’ and throughout her oeuvre it is perceptible. This was to depict ‘Eternity in Time.’

She continues (pages 247-48):

[H]er feelings result in a radiant conception of immortal life. . . . There is nothing morbid about this dream vision. … It is love, and the painful longing issuing from it, that gave Dickinson her vision of eternity. . . If Dickinson’s poetic productivity largely ceased after 1868, the reason had to do with the assimilation of her two great passions for Sue and for Master.

I will come on later in more details as to why I think this is yet another over-simplification of why she may have fallen away from her peak after the mid-1860s.[1]I’m not denying though that love and loss were part of the grit that helped form the pearls of her poetry. I concur with Farr when she writes (page 251):

[S]he had to grieve before she could continue to develop (and the grief was itself a means of developing).

Pollak refers (page 6) to ‘Dickinson’s incremental knowledge of the house of pain.’

Her love of poetry and her perception of its links with love, as we have already noted contrasted with her loathing of domestic chores (page 255):

Her prevailing conception of love inspiring art enables Dickinson to write her final sentences. There eternity is felt in time, and its sea is linked to her work.… Her vision was of the next world next to her as she did her housework, all that baking, canning, cleaning, and sewing so balefully recorded in her letters.

Nature was crucial to her, as it had been to the Brontës and to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, because for her (page 294) ‘nature offers clues about infinity.’ This was even to the extent that (page 302):

The horizon was a point of order for landscape painters like Church. For poets like Dickinson, it was the point of fusion of this world and the next.

Which finally brings me to two specific poems.

This is the first, an intensely powerful poem of sacrificial separation.

There came a Day at Summer’s full,
Entirely for me—
I thought that such were for the Saints,
Where Resurrections—be—

The Sun, as common, went abroad,
The flowers, accustomed, blew,
As if no soul the solstice passed
That maketh all things new

The time was scarce profaned, by speech—
The symbol of a word
Was needless, as at Sacrament,
The Wardrobe—of our Lord—

Each was to each The Sealed Church,
Permitted to commune this—time—
Lest we too awkward show
At Supper of the Lamb.

The Hours slid fast—as Hours will,
Clutched tight, by greedy hands—
So faces on two Decks, look back,
Bound to opposing lands—

And so when all the time had leaked,
Without external sound
Each bound the Other’s Crucifix—
We gave no other Bond—

Sufficient troth, that we shall rise—
Deposed—at length, the Grave—
To that new Marriage,
Justified—through Calvaries of Love—

Farr writes (pages 305-06) that, while being on the one hand plighting ‘troth on earth,’ it also records a quasi-religious ‘ceremony or compact of renunciation.’ She summarises it by saying:

This may have looked like an ‘accustomed’ sunny day when her flowers bloomed as usual, but it has marked her own movement from spring to summer: from girlhood to womanhood, from the old life to the sacred new one.

Nature is here contrasted with the spiritual by its ignorance of the day’s significance, its beauty notwithstanding. While her hope for her love’s fulfillment in the afterlife is its main theme, there is the implication that this separation is at least part of the crucible for her future poetry.

Before moving onto the next poem I want to quote in full, I need to refer briefly to two others: ‘I cannot live without You’ and ‘Behind Me – dips Eternity.’ As Farr explains (page 308) the first poem is important because it is describing ‘the surrender of a love that is morally forbidden.’ This is one of the sources of the grief referred to earlier. The second is important for present purposes because the opening stanza captures vividly her fusion of nature and eternity:

Behind Me– dips Eternity –
Before Me – Immortality –
Myself – the Term between –
Death but the Drift of Eastern Gray,
Dissolving into Dawn away,
Before the West begin –

Farr goes into much detail about how the Luminist paintings of Frederick Edwin Church and Thomas Cole, with which Emily Dickinson was deeply familiar, play on these tropes. I will shortly be coming onto how nature and women were similarly seen, and in my view still continue to be seen, as objects of exploitation during this period and beyond.

It’s probably also worth including here Eberwein’s view, expressed in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson (page 79), that ‘For Emily Dickinson, then, the essence of religious experience remained in that haunting question, “Is immortality true?”’

Capturing the Inscape

I now need to illustrate the other powerful capacity her poems have: to capture inner states. It will also serve as a useful pointer towards the next book I’ll be considering: Lives like Loaded Guns.

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things gives a powerful account, similar to the one in John Fitzgerald Medina’s Faith, Physics & Psychology, of the so-called Enlightenment’s rapacious attitude to nature, expressed all too often in sexual terms. Patel and Moore write (page 53):

The second law of capitalist ecology, domination over nature, owed much to Francis Bacon (1561–1626)… He argued that “science should as it were torture nature’s secrets out of her.’ Further, the ‘empire of man’ should penetrate and dominate the “womb of nature.“

For them, ‘The binaries of Man and Woman, Nature and Society, drank from the same cup.’ I think their meaning would have been more faithfully represented if they had written ‘Society and Nature’ in that order. Even so their point is reasonably clear.

They share Medina’s distrust for our Cartesian legacy (page 54):

[H]ere was an intellectual movement that shaped not only ways of thinking but also ways of conquering, commodifying and living. This Cartesian revolution accomplished four major transformations, each shaping our view of Nature and Society to this day. First, either–or binary thinking displaced both–and alternatives. Second, it privileged thinking about substances, things, before thinking about the relationships between those substances. Third, it installed the domination of nature through science as a social good.

Finally, the Cartesian revolution made thinkable, and doable, the colonial project of mapping and domination.

This maps onto McGilchrist’s thinking about left-brain and right-brain differences and how the holistic, intuitive and empathic processes of our minds, which were in the past sometimes dismissively referred to as ‘feminine,’ and which tune into the ambiguous subtlety of reality, have been misguidedly subordinated to those arrogantly over-confident, logical, serial and linguistic processes, which hopelessly oversimplify reality and are sometimes complacently referred to as ‘masculine.’

I agree that Emily Dickinson, though she ultimately transcended them, was shaped by these crude ideological forces within a capitalist nonegalitarian culture that sees nature and humanity (women and ‘natives’ particularly) instrumentally, as thingsto be exploited for some kind of purely material advantage, rather than as beings to be valued for their own sake and nurtured with love and respect. As the Universal House of Justice has pointed out in The Promise of World Peace, capitalism is as flawed as communism, because both are equally materialistic ideologies:

The time has come when those who preach the dogmas of materialism, whether of the east or the west, whether of capitalism or socialism, must give account of the moral stewardship they have presumed to exercise.

That Dickinson was able to retreat from these repressive pressures into Vesuvial creativity is both a blessing to her, that helped compensate for her pain, and a gift to us now as we confront our generation’s variants of a toxic culture. She can inspire us to also strive to turn our pain in the face of abuses into creativity.

Her social isolation, a characteristic that fascinates me as my Solitarios sequence testifies, may have brought at least one other crucial benefit, beyond giving her creativity space to flourish in a general sense. It may have made her more sensitively attuned to her inscape than most of us will ever be.

I heard a Fly buzz– when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

Not only is this one of my favourite Emily Dickinson poems, but it is a significant one as we begin to transition to Lives like Loaded Guns. Farr pins down its crucial characteristic (page 310): ‘In such poems Emily Dickinson investigates the nature of consciousness by analysing its recession.’ As many people know it’s not the only one. Most famously there is also ‘I felt a funeral in my brain.’ More of that later.

Why she should be so interested in recessions of consciousness, Farr does not explain except in terms of her interest in death. She apparently called her poems (page 328) ‘bulletins from immortality.’

In the next post we will begin to close in on where all these ideas are leading.

Footnote

[1]. Between 1861, the year the American Civil War started, and 1865, the year it ended, she wrote something in the region of 936 of her 1789 poems, ie 52%. She was writing at an approximate rate of 187 poems per year. After the war was over, her average rate was 32 poems per year. That may not, though, have been the only factor.

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I left the analysis of the source of evil actions with Haidt’s idea of the ‘hive switch,’ which took Zimbardo’s understanding a step further in terms of group influences.

Being part of a whole has dangers when it comes to the out-group, even when the groups have been randomly created by experimenters, such as was the case with Zimbardo, and also with others who introduced no power differential.

Labelling, Denigration, Dehumanising and Genocide

When in-groups and out-groups exist in the real world the price paid by the out-group can be even higher. For instance, certain kinds of language are particularly toxic. One example of this is the denigrating labels one group of people can use against another. Referring to others as ‘rats,’ ‘cockroaches’ or ‘a swarm’ are typical examples of this abuse. This denigrating terminology usually triggers the deep-seated disgust response in the group who uses it and places the people of whom the words are used in a non-human category: once this manoeuvre is performed the usual restraints of conscience that prevent one human being from degrading, raping, torturing or even murdering another human being are suspended and the newly classified non-human being can be maimed and slain with a clear conscience.

This point is succinctly made by Hauser in his book Moral Minds (page 199)[10]:

Disgust wins the award as the single most irresponsible emotion, a feeling that has led to extreme in-group/out-group divisions followed by inhumane treatment. Disgust’s trick is simple: Declare those you don’t like to be vermin or parasites, and it is easy to think of them as disgusting, deserving of exclusion, dismissal, and annihilation. All horrific cases of human abuse entail this kind of transformation . . . .

This same process can be seen in a slightly difference form as John Fitzgerald Medina explains in his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology. He unpacks how the founders of America managed to reconcile the rhetoric of their egalitarian constitution with profiting from both their virtual genocide of the Native Americans and from their practice of slavery, and about how the Nazis derived part of their inspiration from this. The Nazis, as well as highly esteemed figures in American history, justified their self-serving actions by invoking the notion that Africans and Native Americans were inherently inferior, an ideology of racism that persists in America and to some extent in Europe to this day, potential seeds of future denigration and genocide if we do not find effective means of transforming our collective consciousness. The diverse reactions, some of them very negative, towards the current influx of refugees suggests we might still have a long way to go before we are cleansed of racism and would never again be tempted towards ethnic cleansing of some kind at some point if we thought it served our purposes effectively enough.

Ricard in his book on altruism also deals in some detail with how certain social and psychological factors can distance us from the humanity of others and lead to extremes of cruelty and mass killings (cf especially Chapter 30 – Dehumanising the Other) even though there is a deep-seated natural revulsion against killing our own kind (Chapter 29). While it is hard to predict in any given situation what proportion of a population will actively participate in a pogrom, if we can convince ourselves the other is not human our reluctance to kill can be overcome with horrific consequences. This remains true to this day and we would be wise not to forget it. A recent BBC radio programme featured a scholar who had investigated in depth the thinking of groups such as Daesh and Al-Qaeda. He pointed out that the division, made in the minds of followers of these two terrorist organisations, between believers and unbelievers (kafirs) was absolute. They are two separate kinds of being, and therefore only the believer is fully human and deserving of compassion.

Mohsin Hamid makes a telling point on this issue in a recent Guardian article. His focus is on how the idea of the purity of the in-group is used to justify discrimination and even atrocities against the out-group. He started with a discussion of Pakistan, which translated means ‘The Land of the Pure,’ but rapidly expanded the scope of his analysis:

Pakistan is not unique. Rather, it is at the forefront of a global trend. All around the world, governments and would-be governments appear overwhelmed by complexity [Could he mean perceived chaos?] and are blindly unleashing the power of fission, championing quests for the pure. In India a politics of Hindu purity is wrenching open deep and bloody fissures in a diverse society. In Myanmar a politics of Buddhist purity is massacring and expelling the Rohingya. In the United States a politics of white purity is marching in white hoods and red baseball caps, demonising Muslims and Hispanic people, killing and brutalising black people, jeering at intellectuals, and spitting in the face of climate science.

The Toxic Effects of Inequality

However, there are other setting conditions for this kind of behavior, which relate to other Teachings of the Faith in a way that illustrates the beautiful coherence and interdependence of the various aspects of the whole of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation. Take economic inequality. The Faith emphasises the importance of reducing such inequity, as well as eliminating prejudice of any kind, no matter what it’s origin. This would of course be important simply to alleviate the effects of the resulting extreme poverty on the disadvantaged such as greater health problems and a shorter life. However, inequality also has implications for the issue of denigrating language and persecution.

The matter is, in truth, quite complex. Chua pursues a possibility, which links a minority’s economic dominance with a savage backlash from the deprived majority. Of course Chua is not claiming that extremes of wealth justify the extermination of the wealthy by the impoverished, nor is she arguing that such extremes are the only motive for genocide. She is, though, saying that extreme inequality is an important but previously discounted factor that has to be added into the mix. Even the conferring of power to the previously disadvantaged does not dispel its toxic consequences.

The inequality obviously needs to be eliminated, while somehow ensuring that it is not by eliminating a group of people! This seems to be far easier said than done.

Wilkinson and Pickett (I came very close then to typing Wilson Picket – not a name that will mean much to the under fifties), in their analysis of inequality in The Spirit Level, cover a huge amount of ground in a thorough and well-balanced treatment of the topic.

To compact their case into the density of a singularity, they produce evidence to substantiate their claim that inequality underlies many of the problems in society that we insist on picking off one by one: these include violence and a widespread distrust that corrodes community life.

This is in their view largely because, the greater the degree of inequality, the more stressful life becomes for everyone, rich and poor alike. Increased stress brings numerous other problems in its wake, not least in terms of health. The tensions in the pecking order that inequality brings are at the heart of the social stresses involved, and social stresses, they argue, are the most damaging forms of stress both for individual health and social cohesion.

They look at a number of possible objections to their thesis and find good reasons, in their view, for dismissing them. For example, they find evidence to suggest that the direction of causation is from inequality to the problem, not from some other variable such as an English speaking culture. Portugal, a very different culture, is at the negative end of the problem spectrum along with the U.S. and the U.K. and shares inequality as the most plausible potential explanation. Scandinavian society along with Japan, also very different, is at the positive end of the problem spectrum and shares high levels of equality along with Norway, Sweden and the rest as the most plausible potential explanation.

Our Attitude to Death

There is another perspective to add into the mix here to give a more complete picture of my thinking so far. An extreme inability to come to terms with death – and its children, trauma, pain and suffering – creates what Solomon et al call ‘cracks in [our] shields’ (The Worm at the Core – page 185 passim). This in turn, as they unpack, brings all kinds of destruction in its wake.

They do seem to rubbish religion at times, which doesn’t appeal to me, but – and it’s an important ‘but’ – they accurately capture an essential problem. They may see faith as a false fix, as in a way everything is in their eyes, but they pin down exactly one thing that needs fixing, almost above all else perhaps, and demonstrate that how we choose to fix it can lead to dire or delightful consequences.

We have ‘clumsy modes of dealing with terror,’ they quote Yalom as stating (page 190). Unless we establish a firm enough foundation of meaning and a strong enough platform of self to stand upon, death, or rather our fear of death, will always unground us, pathologise our minds – narcissism, anxiety, depression, psychosis, OCD, anorexia (and maybe psychopathy; I’ll have to ponder more on that) are according to them at least partially rooted in a failure of meaning and selfhood in the face of death.

Solomon et al insist on saying ‘self-esteem’ albeit in a healthy rather than an unhealthy sense: I wish they didn’t.

I prefer selfhood. For now I’ll shorthand it by quoting a dictionary definition: ‘a complete sense of self.’ A complete sense of self, for me, has to go far beyond anything that makes me more important than anyone or anything else, as Robert Wright powerfully explains, and has to recognise how whatever I am is connected in some way to the universe as a whole and to all forms of life within it. When I damage you or them, I damage me.

They bring various kinds of evidence into the mix, usually studies showing, for example, that exposure to death stimuli results in higher levels of intolerance for those who are ‘different’ in some way, or in greater use of alcohol or tobacco.

In their summary of ‘psychological disorders as terror mismanagement’ (page 190) the kind of evidence Solomon et al adduce includes a significant link at times between death-anxiety and psychosis (page 191):

One study of 205 hospitalised schizophrenic man found that 80 patients were overtly preoccupied with death, and that death fears coincided with the onset of the schizophrenic symptoms or with times when the symptoms were magnified.

They argue that ‘[s]ubject to bouts of overwhelming terror, schizophrenics construct imaginary worlds – which are as real to them as this book is to you – to counteract the dread.’

In spite of my dislike of diagnostic language and of their tendency to overstate their case, I have to admit they are making an important point.

They argue that all of us tend to create destructive solutions to the existential problem of death. This comes in two main forms: meaning systems/world views and self-esteem.

Let’s take world views as an example of their case (page 131):

It is deeply disturbing to have one’s fundamental beliefs called into question. Take our meanings and purposes away, characterise them as juvenile, useless, or evil, and all we have left are the vulnerable physical creatures that we are. Because cultural conceptions of reality keep a lid on mortal dread, acknowledging the legitimacy of beliefs contrary to our own unleashes the very terror those beliefs serve to quell. So we must parry the threat by derogating and dehumanising those with alternative views of life

The same kind of process applies if our self-esteem, as they term it, is threatened.

Because their book is focused on proving the nature of the problem they don’t say much about the solutions. They make a strong case that death denial is ultimately destructive leading to problems ranging from mindless consumerism through mental health problems to outright fanaticism. They spend less time contending that a constructive acceptance of death and its integration into a viable pattern of life bears the fruits of a common sense of humanity and a desire for positive purpose. Destructive terror-reducing purposes can be avoided. They share my liking for the existential therapy model, but don’t go far enough beyond that for me.

I think that just about covers the main influences on my thinking, apart from Bahá’í sources, which I will come back to later. Now to return to a consideration of Peterson’s perspective in the next post.

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child-soldier-empty-roadOnly as humanity comes to understand the implications of what occurred during this period of history will it be able to meet the challenges that lie ahead. The value of the contribution we as Bahá’ís can make to the process demands that we ourselves grasp the significance of the historic transformation wrought by the twentieth century.

(Century of Light – page 0)

The recent sequence of workshops on unity that I am blogging about at the moment also has roots in the insights expressed in a book I delved into about two years ago. Here is the third post of eight. I will be posting them interwoven with the Becoming True Upholders of His Oneness sequence. Century of Light is this key text published by the Bahá’í World Centre designed to help us understand the challenges we face in the world today. If you prefer you can download this in PDF version (3 Components of Our Wreck). I learned a huge amount both from preparing these materials and from walking with others in the 2015 workshop along a path of intense exploration over a period of days. 

Reflecting on Quotations

We agreed in the first workshop that we would start the day today by trying out one way of building reflection on a quotation into our moments of quiet contemplation.

We need to sit comfortably in our chairs, our backs reasonably erect, both feet in contact with the floor and hands lying loosely in our lap. We need to spend a few moments withdrawing our attention from the outside world and instead focusing it on our breathing. This is probably most easily done by resting our full attention on the movement of our diaphragm. At the start, if it helps, we can use our rate of breathing to slow down our inward recitation of the passage we have memorised. When we are alone we can of course recite the passage out loud. If anyone has not yet memorised a passage it is fine to begin this process by reading it slowly and mindfully after settling quietly into a reflective state of mind.

Keeping our breathing steady and even, we should focus our entire attention upon each phrase as we read or recite it. As Easwaran points out (page 32) in his excellent book, in the end we have to find the pace that suits us best: ‘the space between words is a matter for each person to work out individually.… If the words come too close together, you will not be slowing down the mind… If the words stand too far apart, they will not be working together…’

If we find our mind has wandered, we should, without getting irritated with ourselves, begin the passage again at the beginning. This teaches the mind that it cannot getaway with wandering: there is a price to pay.

In these early stages we should consider ourselves very successful if we can meditate in this way upon a text for five minutes without losing our concentration. Our aim over a period of months could be to increase their concentration span to something like 20 minutes. Clearly this would enable us, if we wished, to memorise longer passages for reciting, rather than repeating the same short text. It is advisable to change the text we use each week to fend off the indifference which can come from overfamiliarity.

  1. Why would regularly experiencing the wisdom captured in words in this way be helpful to us?
  2. What was our experience like this time?

Group Work

Reminder: For each group discussion the group should choose a facilitator. It would be best to change the facilitator for each piece of group work over the series of workshops but the group will remain the same. During the consultation, the facilitator’s role is to keep track of the time, to ensure that:

  1. everyone contributes something,
  2. no one keeps repeating the same point, and
  3. no one makes excessively long contributions.

The group also needs to agree who will keep a record of the main points for when there is a report back to everyone at the end of the group consultation. The aim should be to make the report back no longer than five minutes.

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Group One Task

The Evidence of a Corrosive Cultural Climate

Pages 1: The loss of life alone has been beyond counting. The disintegration of basic institutions of social order, the violation – indeed, the abandonment – of standards of decency, the betrayal of the life of the mind through surrender to ideologies as squalid as they have been empty, the invention and deployment of monstrous weapons of mass annihilation, the bankrupting of entire nations and the reduction of masses of human beings to hopeless poverty, the reckless destruction of the environment of the planet – such are the more obvious in a catalogue of horrors unknown to even the darkest of ages past.

This is a powerful indictment of our culture. We need to unpack some of the implications before we can move on to more positive perspectives.

  1. Where do see evidence of ‘the disintegration of basic institutions of social order’ and ‘the abandonment . . . of standards of decency’? Is there an antidote to this process?
  2. What do we think is meant by ‘betrayal of the life of the mind through surrender to ideologies as squalid as they have been empty’? How might that best be remedied?
  3. Are any of the other points unclear in their implications?

Pages 3-4: The vast majority of the human family, living in lands outside the Western world, shared in few of the blessings and little of the optimism of their European and American brethren. [Refers to China, India, Latin America, & Africa.] . . . Most tragic of all was the plight of the inhabitants of the African continent, divided against one another by artificial boundaries created through cynical bargains among European powers. It has been estimated that during the first decade of the twentieth century over a million people in the Congo perished – starved, beaten, worked literally to death for the profit of their distant masters, a preview of the fate that was to engulf well over one hundred million of their fellow human beings across Europe and Asia before the century reached its end.

These masses of humankind, despoiled and scorned – but representing most of the earth’s inhabitants – were seen not as protagonists but essentially as objects of the new century’s much vaunted civilising process. Despite benefits conferred on a minority among them, the colonial peoples existed chiefly to be acted upon – to be used, trained, exploited, Christianised, civilised, mobilised . . . . To a large extent, religious and political pieties of various kinds masked both ends and means from the publics in Western lands, who were thus able to derive moral satisfaction from the blessings their nations were assumed to be conferring on less worthy peoples, while themselves enjoying the material fruits of this benevolence.

Additional Information:

In his book The Bottom Billion (2007) Paul Collier explains there are at least 58 countries worldwide trapped in poverty, as a result of factors such as incessant conflict or bad governance. The total population of these countries at that time was 980 million people, seventy per cent of whom live in Africa.

In addition we can factor in the abuse of children in various ways (Universal House of Justice: Ridván 2000):

Our children . . . . should not be left to drift in a world so laden with moral dangers. In the current state of society, children face a cruel fate.

  • Millions and millions in country after country are dislocated socially.
  • Children find themselves alienated by parents and other adults whether they live in conditions of wealth or poverty.
  • This alienation has its roots in a selfishness that is born of materialism that is at the core of the godlessness seizing the hearts of people everywhere.
  • The social dislocation of children is in our time a sure mark of a society in decline; this condition is not, however, confined to any race, class, nation or economic condition – it cuts across them all.

It grieves our hearts to realise that in so many parts of the world children are

  • employed as soldiers,
  • exploited as labourers,
  • sold into virtual slavery,
  • forced into prostitution,
  • made objects of pornography,
  • abandoned by parents centred on their own desires, and
  • subjected to other forms of victimisation too numerous to mention.

Many such horrors are inflicted by parents themselves upon their own children. The spiritual and psychological damage defies estimation.

Additional Information from ten years ago:

26,575 children die every single day. Of the 62 countries making no progress or insufficient progress towards the Millennium Development Goal on child survival, nearly 75 per cent are in Africa. In some countries in southern Africa, the prevalence of HIV and AIDS has reversed previously recorded declines in child mortality. Achieving the goal in these countries will require a concerted effort. Reaching the target means reducing the number of child deaths from 9.7 million in 2006 to around 4 million by 2015. Accomplishing this will require accelerated action on multiple fronts: reducing poverty and hunger (MDG 1), improving maternal health (MDG 5), combating HIV and AIDS, malaria and other major diseases (MDG 6), increasing the usage of improved water and sanitation (MDG 7) and providing affordable essential drugs on a sustainable basis (MDG 8). It will also require a re-examination of strategies to reach the poorest, most marginalized communities.

Trafficking in children is a global problem affecting large numbers of children. Some estimates have as many as 1.2 million children being trafficked every year. There is a demand for trafficked children as cheap labour or for sexual exploitation. Children and their families are often unaware of the dangers of trafficking, believing that better employment and lives lie in other countries. Most child casualties are civilians. But one of the most deplorable developments in recent years has been the increasing use of young children as soldiers. In one sense, this is not really new. For centuries children have been involved in military campaigns—as child ratings on warships, or as drummer boys on the battlefields of Europe. Indeed the word ‘infantry’, for foot-soldiers, can also mean a group of young people. What is frightening nowadays is the escalation in the use of children as fighters. Recently, in 25 countries, thousands of children under the age of 16 have fought in wars. In 1988 alone, they numbered as many as 200,000. And while children might be thought to be the people deserving greatest protection, as soldiers they are often considered the most expendable. During the Iran-Iraq war, child soldiers, for example, were sent out ahead in waves over minefields.

  1. How do you think that we managed to disguise from ourselves the iniquity of what we were doing in all these areas for so long and why has Africa come out of it all so badly?
  2. Have we now moved past that period of exploitation, neglect and abuse, or is it still happening? If it is, why does it persist?
  3. If we have moved on to some degree, how did we do it?
  4. Why is the harm we have been doing to our children a crucially important issue for us to address urgently, probably as urgently as climate change if not more so?
  5. What does all this tell us about the size of the task still ahead, if we are to turn things round completely?

Group Two Task

Materialism

Page 6: Where winds of change did dispel the mists, among the educated classes in Western lands, inherited orthodoxies were all too often replaced by the blight of an aggressive secularism that called into doubt both the spiritual nature of humankind and the authority of moral values themselves. Everywhere, the secularisation of society’s upper levels seemed to go hand in hand with a pervasive religious obscurantism among the general population.

Page 89: Fathered by nineteenth century European thought, acquiring enormous influence through the achievements of American capitalist culture, and endowed by Marxism with the counterfeit credibility peculiar to that system, materialism emerged full-blown in the second half of the twentieth century as a kind of universal religion claiming absolute authority in both the personal and social life of humankind. Its creed was simplicity itself. Reality – including human reality and the process by which it evolves – is essentially material in nature. The goal of human life is, or ought to be, the satisfaction of material needs and wants. Society exists to facilitate this quest, and the collective concern of humankind should be an ongoing refinement of the system, aimed at rendering it ever more efficient in carrying out its assigned task.

Page 135: There has not been a society in the history of the world, no matter how pragmatic, experimentalist and multiform it may have been, that did not derive its thrust from some foundational interpretation of reality. Such a system of thought reigns today virtually unchallenged across the planet, under the nominal designation “Western civilisation”. Philosophically and politically, it presents itself as a kind of liberal relativism; economically and socially, as capitalism – two value systems that have now so adjusted to each other and become so mutually reinforcing as to constitute virtually a single, comprehensive world-view.

Appreciation of the benefits – in terms of the personal freedom, social prosperity and scientific progress enjoyed by a significant minority of the Earth’s people – cannot withhold a thinking person from recognizing that the system is morally and intellectually bankrupt. It has contributed its best to the advancement of civilisation, as did all its predecessors, and, like them, is impotent to deal with the needs of a world never imagined by the eighteenth century prophets who conceived most of its component elements. Shoghi Effendi did not limit his attention to divine right monarchies, established churches or totalitarian ideologies when he posed the searching question: “Why should these, in a world subject to the immutable law of change and decay, be exempt from the deterioration that must needs overtake every human institution?”

Page 136: Tragically, what Bahá’ís see in present-day society is unbridled exploitation of the masses of humanity by greed that excuses itself as the operation of “impersonal market forces“. What meets their eyes everywhere is the destruction of moral foundations vital to humanity’s future, through gross self-indulgence masquerading as “freedom of speech”. What they find themselves struggling against daily is the pressure of a dogmatic materialism, claiming to be the voice of “science“, that seeks systematically to exclude from intellectual life all impulses arising from the spiritual level of human consciousness.

These are key paragraphs for us to understand thoroughly if we are to grasp the importance and true nature of a more spiritual path forward.

Blake Newton

Additional Information:

From A Compilation on Scholarship: Baha’i Reference Library):

Just as there is a fundamental difference between divine Revelation itself and the understanding that believers have of it, so also there is a basic distinction between scientific fact and reasoning on the one hand and the conclusions or theories of scientists on the other. There is, and can be, no conflict between true religion and true science: true religion is revealed by God, while it is through true science that the mind of man “discovers the realities of things and becomes cognizant of their peculiarities and effects, and of the qualities and properties of beings” and “comprehendeth the abstract by the aid of the concrete”. However, whenever a statement is made through the lens of human understanding it is thereby limited, for human understanding is limited; and where there is limitation there is the possibility of error; and where there is error, conflicts can arise.

Medina, in his book Faith, Physics & Psychology, explains that he sees the current worldview as destructively rooted in the thinking of Descartes and Newton. He refers to it throughout as the ‘Cartesian-Newtonian worldview.’ Descartes split mind from body, which he considered to be a machine. He considered that all true understanding derived from analysis (splitting into components) and logic. Add to this Newton’s determinism (we can predict anything from our knowledge both of its starting state and the operation of immutable universal laws) and, in Medina’s view, we have the current, in his view pernicious, Cartesian-Newtonian worldview (page 14):

. . . . this classical science worldview is based on a mechanistic view of human beings and the universe that alienates human beings from their spiritual, moral, and emotional faculties. It has divided the world into mutually exclusive opposing forces: the dichotomies of science versus religion, reason versus faith, logic versus intuition, natural versus supernatural, material versus spiritual, and secular versus sacred. The result is a materialistic worldview that emphasises the truth of science, reason, logic, the natural, the material, and the secular while ignoring or even denigrating the truth of religion, faith, intuition, the supernatural, the spiritual, and the sacred.

Medina goes on to unpack what for him at least are the limitations of ‘secular spirituality’ which (page 94) ‘do not necessarily promote an altruistic social ethic or a desire on the part of individuals to improve society for the benefit of all.’ He includes ‘religious fundamentalism’ (page 95-96) under this umbrella ‘because it represents an attempt to use religion as a vehicle to fulfil worldly desires for leadership or power or as a justification for ungodly acts such as forced conversion of pagans or warfare against infidels.’

He goes on to state that our version of Christianity has contributed to the problems the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview creates (page 129) as a result of its concept of ‘an all-transcendent God Who is essentially divorced from the cursed natural world.’ He concludes (pages 129-30):

It is my belief that an extremist form of Christian theism actually worked hand-in-hand with the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview to promulgate a false sense of separation between the spiritual and the material and between the sacred and the secular.

It is important to stress that he is not criticising the true essence of Christianity here, simply some of its more extreme distortions with their destructive consequences.

For those interested in a more mainstream Christian take on the matter see God, Humanity & the Cosmos (Southgate et al: pages 95-98): they too conclude that a mechanical view of the world prevailed as a result of the success of this Descartes/Newton fusion, and this then negatively affected economics and political theory as well as religion and our view of ourselves. 

  1. Why do we think secularism and religious obscurantism might go hand in hand in the way described here?
  2. What are the achievements of American capitalism and what makes them so persuasive given the damage the system seems to be causing?
  3. How can materialism, dogmatic or otherwise, be effectively a religion? What are the parallels?
  4. What is ‘liberal relativism’ and how has it been fostered by a materialist world view? How does this philosophical and moral approach make such a perfect marriage with capitalism? Do we agree that this arrangement is bankrupt?
  5. Are market forces not really impersonal?
  6. Are science and materialism not really in tune?

Report Back: One member of each group explains their conclusions and what they have learnt. Their group members can join in to field whatever questions and comments come their way.

Compensating Accomplishments

Pages 4-5: To point out the failings of a great civilisation is not to deny its accomplishments. As the twentieth century opened, the peoples of the West could take justifiable pride in the technological, scientific and philosophical developments for which their societies had been responsible. . . . . A continuous process of discovery, design and improvement was making accessible power of unimaginable magnitude – with, alas, ecological consequences equally unimagined at the time – especially through the use of cheap fuel and electricity.

Page 5: Changes taking place at the deeper level of scientific thought were even more far-reaching in their implications. The nineteenth century had still been held in the grip of the Newtonian view of the world as a vast clockwork system, but by the end of the century the intellectual strides necessary to challenge that view had already been taken. New ideas were emerging that would lead to the formulation of quantum mechanics; and before long the revolutionising effect of the theory of relativity would call into question beliefs about the phenomenal world that had been accepted as common sense for centuries.

  1. How do we feel about the advantages they quote? Why aren’t they enough to turn our society round and avert the crisis towards which we seem to be hurtling?
  2. In what ways do we think new scientific paradigms may have changed our perspective on reality?

Where now?

. . . . . As the twentieth century opened, Western civilisation was reaping the fruits of a philosophical culture that was rapidly liberating the energies of its populations, and whose influence would soon produce a revolutionary impact throughout the entire world.

More on all this next time.

Read Full Post »

stockport-war-memorialIn one of the major newspapers in Montreal, where press coverage of [‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s] trip was particularly comprehensive, it was reported:

‘All Europe is an armed camp. These warlike preparations will necessarily culminate in a great war. The very armaments themselves are productive of war. This great arsenal must go ablaze. There is nothing of the nature of prophecy about such a view’, said ‘Abdu’l- Bahá; ‘it is based on reasoning solely.’

(Century of Light – page 28)

The recent sequence of workshops on unity that I am blogging about at the moment also has roots in the insights expressed in a book I delved into about two years ago. Here is the second post of eight. I will be posting them interwoven with the Becoming True Upholders of His Oneness sequence. Century of Light is this key text published by the Bahá’í World Centre designed to help us understand the challenges we face in the world today. If you prefer you can download this in PDF version (2 Inevitability of WW1). I learned a huge amount both from preparing these materials and from walking with others in the 2015 workshop along a path of intense exploration over a period of days. 

2. Inevitability of WW1 & its Aftermath

We will now be looking at two rather dark issues, but out of their sequence in Century of Light because of the session lengths. Next time we will be considering what, in general, are some of the key challenges we are facing: these, in a sense, provide the overall context for what we are examining today.

The slide into war has a complex set of causes and the aftermath has many interwoven consequences.

Group Work

For each group discussion the group should choose a facilitator: if the blended groups this morning worked well we can stick with them. It would be best to change the facilitator for each piece of group work over the series of workshops but the group will remain the same. During the consultation, the facilitator’s role is to keep track of the time, to ensure that:

  1. everyone contributes something,
  2. no one keeps repeating the same point, and
  3. no one makes excessively long contributions.

The group also needs to agree who will keep a record of the main points for when there is a report back to everyone at the end of the group consultation. The aim should be to make the report back no longer than five minutes.

Group One Task

  1. Materialism, Science & War

A key component in the toxic mix of perspectives that led into WW1 was communism, with its messianic belief in the achievement of world revolution by any means no matter how violent (page 30):

The Communist Party, deriving both its intellectual thrust and an unshakeable confidence in its ultimate triumph from the writings of the nineteenth century ideologue Karl Marx, had succeeded in establishing groups of committed supporters throughout Europe and various other countries. Convinced that the genius of its master had demonstrated beyond question the essentially material nature of the forces that had given rise to both human consciousness and social organisation, the Communist movement dismissed the validity of both religion and “bourgeois” moral standards. In its view, faith in God was a neurotic weakness indulged in by the human race, a weakness that had merely permitted successive ruling classes to manipulate superstition as an instrument for enslaving the masses.

The advances in science that materialism had helped make possible, added other sinister components into the mix:

  1. Ibid: To the leaders of the world, blindly edging their way towards the universal conflagration which pride and folly had prepared, the great strides being made by science and technology represented chiefly a means of gaining military advantage over their rivals.
  2. Page 31: Science and technology were also exerting other, more subtle pressures on the prevailing order. Large-scale industrial production, fuelled by the arms race, had accelerated the movement of populations into urban centres. By the end of the preceding century, this process was already undermining inherited standards and loyalties, exposing growing numbers of people to novel ideas for the bringing about of social change, and exciting mass appetites for material benefits previously available only to elite segments of society. . . . . .
  3. Ibid: Beyond these implications of technological and economic change, scientific advancement seemed to encourage easy assumptions about human nature, the almost unnoticed overlay that Bahá’u’lláh has termed “the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge”. These unexamined views communicated themselves to ever-widening audiences . . . . and continued to undermine the authority of accepted religious doctrines, as well as of prevailing moral standards.

These two workshops are largely focused on negative issues, but are an essential requirement if we are to understand (a) the predicament of those who lived through this period, (b) the roots of the problem, and (c) the challenges that confront us now. There are some key questions we now need to address.

  1. Why is materialism so toxic? Why does it matter that it confidently asserts what is now widely believed in the West, that we are nothing but the product of our physical bodies and material circumstances?
  2. How is it, do we think, that science could so easily be commandeered to manufacture horrendous weapons, such as mustard gas, that would give us an edge in any conflict? Have we grown out of that kind of folly yet?
  3. The quotation lists the damage that stemmed from industrialisation, including the erosion of standards and the appetite for material goods. What other problems do we think we have seen from an increasing use of industrial methods on a global scale?
  4. In what ways does the undermining of religious standards matter?

Group Two Task

  1. The Costs of War

Page 32: It would serve no purpose here to review the exhaustively analysed cataclysm of World War I. The statistics themselves remain almost beyond the ability of the human mind to encompass: an estimated sixty million men eventually being thrown into the most horrific inferno that history had ever known, eight million of them perishing in the course of the war and an additional ten million or more being permanently disabled by crippling injuries, burned-out lungs and appalling disfigurements. Historians have suggested that the total financial cost may have reached thirty billion dollars, wiping out a substantial portion of the total capital wealth of Europe.

Even such massive losses do not begin to suggest the full scope of the ruin. One of the considerations that long held back President Woodrow Wilson from proposing to the United States Congress the declaration of war that had by then become virtually inescapable was his awareness of the moral damage that would ensue. Not the least of the distinctions that characterized this extraordinary man – a statesman whose vision both ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi have praised – was his understanding of the brutalisation of human nature that would be the worst legacy of the tragedy that was by then engulfing Europe, a legacy beyond human capacity to reverse.

Page 33: The ruinous reparations demanded of the vanquished – and the injustice that required them to accept the full guilt for a war for which all parties had been, to one degree or another, responsible – were among the factors that would prepare demoralised peoples in Europe to embrace totalitarian promises of relief which they might not otherwise have contemplated.

. . . . The deaths of millions of young men who would have been urgently needed to meet the challenges of the coming decades was a loss that could never be recovered. Indeed, Europe itself – which only four brief years earlier had represented the apparent summit of civilisation and world influence – lost at one stroke this pre-eminence, and began the inexorable slide during the following decades toward the status of an auxiliary to a rising new centre of power in North America.

These two workshops are largely focused on negative issues, but are an essential requirement if we are to understand (a) the predicament of those who lived through this period, (b) the roots of the problem, and (c) the challenges that confront us now. There are some key questions we now need to address.

  1. What do we think might have been, and perhaps still are, the signs of the ‘moral damage’ and ‘brutalisation of human nature’ caused by war? What part if any would the deaths of millions of young men have played in this process of brutalisation?
  2. The Bahá’í Writings and evolutionary theory suggest that a sense of justice or fairness is inherent in human beings. How would this have affected the way that the conquered nations experienced the ‘ruinous reparations’ and how might their sense of righteous action have affected the victors?

Report Back: One member of each group explains their conclusions and what they have learnt. Their group members can join in to field whatever questions and comments come their way.

Whole Group Session (Slide Presentation)

  1. League of Nations & the United States

On pages 34-35 Century of Light explains the flawed process by which the League of Nations was set up and failed to function as a result. As Shoghi Effendi pointed out ‘It received its initial impetus through the formulation of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, closely associating for the first time that republic with the fortunes of the Old World. It suffered its first set-back through the dissociation of that republic from the newly born League of Nations which that president had laboured to create . . . ’

While the world must move ‘to the emergence of a world government and the establishment of the Lesser Peace, as foretold by Bahá’u’lláh’ the obstacles that still remain are many, and we will be looking at part of this process in a future workshop.

The League of Nations foundered on the rocks of other problems than simply the dissociation of the United States: ‘it could take decisions only with the unanimous assent of the member states’, and it failed ‘to include some of the world’s most powerful states: Germany had been rejected as a defeated nation held responsible for the war, Russia was initially denied entrance because of its Bolshevik regime, and the United States itself refused – as a result of narrow political partisanship in Congress – either to join the League or to ratify the treaty.’ It is in this context that we begin to look at the heroic efforts of a key Bahá’í figure.

Shoghi Effendi’s Ministry

A topic to which we will be returning for consideration in its own right is the station and role of Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith. For now we will simply look at the impact of the war’s aftermath on the world within which he had to work.

i) The Context of his Work

The most obvious factor impacting upon his work is that (page 43) ‘the first half of [his] ministry unfolded between wars, a period marked by deepening uncertainty and anxiety about all aspects of human affairs.’

The situation thus created was not all bad (ibid): ‘On the one hand, significant advances had been made in overcoming barriers between nations and classes; on the other, political impotence and a resulting economic paralysis greatly handicapped efforts to take advantage of these openings.’

An important potential positive was that (ibid) ‘There was everywhere a sense that some fundamental redefinition of the nature of society and the role its institutions should play was urgently needed – a redefinition, indeed, of the purpose of human life itself.’

Century of Light spells out some of the details of these possible positives, some of which are the reverse side of the coin of the period’s downside (ibid):

In important respects, humanity found itself at the end of the first world war able to explore possibilities never before imagined (my numbering).

  1. Throughout Europe and the Near East the absolutist systems that had been among the most powerful barriers to unity had been swept away.
  2. To a great extent, too, fossilised religious dogmas that had lent moral endorsement to the forces of conflict and alienation were everywhere in question.
  3. Former subject peoples were free to consider plans for their collective futures and to assume responsibility for their relationships with one another through the instrumentality of the new nation-states created by the Versailles settlement.
  4. The same ingenuity that had gone into producing weapons of destruction was being turned to the challenging, but rewarding, tasks of economic expansion.
  5. . . . . Most important of all, an extraordinary effort of imagination had brought the unification of humanity one immense step forward. The world’s leaders, however reluctantly, had created an international consultative system which, though crippled by vested interests, gave the ideal of international order its first suggestion of shape and structure.

Century of Light goes on to refer to the positive examples of Sun Yat-Sen in China and Mahandas Ghandi in India.

ii) Shoghi Effendi’s Perspective

There is a key paragraph on page 52 (my numbering):

The landscape of international affairs would, he said, be increasingly reshaped by twin forces of “integration” and “disintegration”, both of them ultimately beyond human control. In the light of what meets our eyes today, his previsioning of the operation of this dual process is breathtaking:

  1. the creation of “a mechanism of world inter-communication … functioning with marvellous swiftness and perfect regularity”;
  2. the undermining of the nation-state as the chief arbiter of human destiny;
  3. the devastating effects that advancing moral breakdown throughout the world would have on social cohesion;
  4. the widespread public disillusionment produced by political corruption; and
  5. – unimaginable to others of his generation – the rise of global agencies dedicated to promoting human welfare, coordinating economic activity, defining international standards, and encouraging a sense of solidarity among diverse races and cultures.

These and other developments, the Guardian explained, would fundamentally alter the conditions in which the Bahá’í Cause would pursue its mission in the decades lying ahead.

  1. In terms of the world as we understand it, how accurate do we feel this analysis is?
  2. What, if any, do we feel are the weaknesses of the many global agencies now in existence to effectively address the problems of the planet and of humanity?
  3. Do those weaknesses have any remedies?

(End of Presentation)

Group Work

Group One Task

  1. The Corrosion of Ungodliness

Century of Light describes how the Bahá’í Faith is gaining increasing recognition while the social fabric surrounding it increasingly disintegrates (page 59): ‘As the Bahá’í community was constructing administrative foundations which would permit it to play an effective role in human affairs, the accelerating process of disintegration that Shoghi Effendi had discerned was undermining the fabric of social order. Its origins, however determinedly ignored by many social and political theorists, are beginning, after the lapse of several decades, to gain recognition at international conferences devoted to peace and development.’ Alongside this comes an increased recognition of ‘the essential role that “spiritual” and “moral” forces must play in achieving solutions to urgent problems.’

That there is still prevalent a ‘corrosion of ungodliness’ is primarily, in the Guardian’s view, the ‘responsibility . . . . . of the world’s religious leaders. Bahá’u’lláh’s severest condemnation is reserved for those who, presuming to speak in God’s name, have imposed on credulous masses a welter of dogmas and prejudices that have constituted the greatest single obstacle against which the advancement of civilisation has been forced to struggle,’ while he acknowledges at the same time ‘the humanitarian services of countless individual clerics.’

Their mistakes have left a vacuum that had to be filled (pages 59-60): ‘The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organise experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.’

This is something that Bahá’ís must take into full account. Nowadays, in the Guardian’s words, ‘an idolatrous world passionately and clamorously hails and worships the false gods which its own idle fancies have fatuously created, and its misguided hands so impiously exalted…. Their high priests are the politicians and the worldly-wise, the so-called sages of the age; their sacrifice, the flesh and blood of the slaughtered multitudes . . . .’

Additional Ideas from John Fitzgerald Medina’s Faith, Physics & Psychology:

Page 184: [He speaks of] classical science’s de-spiritualised view of the natural world. Francis Bacon, an early classical scientist, provides a quintessential example of this despiritualised view. He wrote that nature should be ‘hounded in her wanderings,’ ‘bound into service,’ and made a ‘slave, while the goal of the scientist is to ‘torture nature’s secrets from her.’

Page 217: [cf Blackfoot Physics by F. David Peat): Quantum physics now supports a picture of the universe as a dynamic, indivisible whole in which everything is interconnected and interrelated. . . .

Page 223-24: . . . in a much needed move, Enlightenment intellectuals did much to expose the gross corruption of the worldly, power-seeking clergy of their time. Unfortunately, because of their ‘blind rationalism’ and their overzealous efforts to expose church superstition, fanaticism, and hypocrisy, they ultimately promulgated an antimetaphysical outlook that has done much to undermine the faith and spirituality of people to this day.

Page 226: Unbalanced materialism has ultimately resulted in a loss of reverence for life and has diminished our appreciation for the supreme values of life such as compassion, justice, unity, joyfulness, love, service, generosity, patience, moderation, humility – all of which lead to personal wholeness and add an essential richness, beauty, and purpose to life.

Page 227: Locke’s ideas eventually led to the establishment of Western economic values such as free markets, property rights, individualism, and self interest as the primary force that motivates the actions of individuals, and the idea that prices are determined objectively by supply and demand. According to Locke, the right to private property represents the fruits of one’s labours. Furthermore, he emphasises the idea that the purpose of government is to protect individual private property.

. . . . Unfortunately, as will be shown later, Locke’s ideas (as is the case with most Cartesian-Newtonian concepts) have led to destructive outcomes.

Page 230: In retrospect, considering all the defects of laissez-faire capitalism, it can be argued that had it not been for the eventual “interference” of government reforms, laissez-faire capitalism would have doomed, to this day, the European and American masses to industrial slavery.

. . . it is important to note that the alternative economic system of socialism is also fundamentally flawed. . . Both systems place undue importance on economics as the core of civilisation. . . . From a spiritual perspective, in spite of all their surface differences, capitalism and socialism, when applied in actual practice, have both been destructive to human beings, communities, and the environment.

Page 238: . . . . Herman Daly, a World Bank economist, and John Cobb, a Protestant theologian, . . affirm that the exclusion of religious and spiritual values from ‘economic science’ has had a devastating impact on people, communities, and the environment. They state, ‘Adam Smith himself emphasised in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that the market [freemarket capitalism] is a system so dangerous that it presupposes the moral force of shared community values as its necessary restraining context.’

Pages 250-51: Holistic advocates, in contrast, insist that the entire global order must be transformed in order to honour the true spiritual potential of people. They assert that transcendent spiritual qualities make human beings inherently capable of great acts of altruism, love, generosity, and self-sacrifice; however, the current global order encourages the development of greed, self-centredness, competition, hedonism, and the like.

  1. Why might spiritual and moral forces be so crucial to solving the world’s current problems?
  2. Why is ungodliness corrosive? What is the evidence, do we think, for the idea that ‘the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organise experience’?
  3. The cost in flesh and blood of our idolatries was evident throughout the 20th Century. Are we still paying the same price for the same reason?
  4. Are the checks and balances that have been introduced to reduce the injustices of the untrammelled sufficient? If so, how do they work? If not, why not?

Group Two Task

  1. The Three ‘Crooked Doctrines’

Mixed Dictators v5We have already met one of these – communism – earlier today: the other two, according to Shoghi Effendi (pages 60-63), are Nationalism and Racism. These are among the ideologies that amount to being false religions in terms of the fanatical fervour they elicit from their adherents. He spells out the distinction between the latter two: ‘. . . . While sharing Fascism’s idolatry of the state, its sister ideology Nazism made itself the voice of a far more ancient and insidious perversion. At its dark heart was an obsession with what its proponents called “race purity”. . . . . The Nazi system was unique in the sheer bestiality of the act most commonly associated with its name, the programme of genocide systematically carried out against populations considered either valueless or harmful to humanity’s future, a programme that included a deliberate attempt literally to exterminate the entire Jewish people. . .’

Communism was, however, not well placed to claim the moral high ground: ‘For long years, the Soviet system created by Vladimir Lenin succeeded in representing itself to many as a benefactor of humankind and the champion of social justice. In the light of historical events, such pretensions were grotesque. The documentation now available provides irrefutable evidence of crimes so enormous and follies so abysmal as to have no parallel in the six thousand years of recorded history. . .’ As a result partly of the influence of these three pernicious perspectives ‘The brutalisation that the first world war had engendered now became an omnipresent feature of social life throughout much of the planet.’

Additional Ideas from John Fitzgerald Medina’s Faith, Physics & Psychology:

Page 112: As proof that such secular spirituality is highly dubious, consider the fact that many Enlightenment philosophers spoke eloquently about justice, equality, and liberty, and yet in the end, supported slavery, racism, classism, sexism, and genocide against American Indians.

Page 233: It is ironic that Marxist revolutionary Communists set themselves up as the primary mortal enemies of laissez-faire capitalism because, in actuality, Marxist Communism and laissez-faire capitalism are both extreme manifestations of the same Cartesian-Newtonian worldview.

Page 235: Many fervent advocates of capitalism boast that the failures of socialist schemes prove the inherent superiority and basic soundness of capitalist theory. Such boasts are warranted only if one thinks that capitalism and socialism are the only two economic choices available to humanity. The fact that so many people have been conditioned to think that capitalism and socialism are the only two plausible economic choices clearly reveals the Cartesian-Newtonian stranglehold on the Western imagination.

Page 272: Based on an overall view history, it is clear that the Cartesian-Newtonian world view that began to emerge in the 1500s is a common denominator connecting all the following movements:

  1. The Scientific Revolution and the development of the Age of Science (from the 1500s until now);
  2. The establishment of the American colonies and the founding and consolidation of the United States – including the conquest of the Indians and the enslavement of Blacks (from the late 1500s through the late 1800s);
  3. The formal development of the ideology of racism – the ideology of White racial superiority and on-White inferiority (from the late 1600s until now); . . .

Page 274: In his book Racial Unity: An Imperative for Social Progress, [Historian Richard] Thomas writes,

American fashioned a special brand of political and moral compromise that helped it to rationalise both the conquest of the native people and the enslavement of blacks. Since America was not about to abandon slave labour or its policy of dispossessing the native peoples of their land, the only real and practical choice was to minimise the nature of it sins: blacks and native peoples (Indians) were not to be considered on the same level of humanity as whites; blacks were heathen and immoral, next to the apes in the scale of evolution. Gradually an ideology emerged in the United States and Britain which explained that white racial dominance was a blessing… Both countries began formulating a racist ideology to cover those moral contradictions that collided with certain Christian and Enlightenment beliefs [all men created equal, inalienable rights, et cetera]. . . .

He explains how the pathology of racism, as we now know it, can be traced to the conquest of American Indians and the enslavement of Blacks in the American colonies beginning in the late 1600s.

Page 282: One of the most tragic aspects of this [the 1950s] period is that some of it could have been prevented had American leaders acted with wisdom and courage. Sadly, even President Dwight D Eisenhower, the same man who, as a ranking general, had commanded great armies against the forces of Nazi oppression in Europe, publicly made it clear that he was not in favour of school integration and that he thought the Supreme Court decision requiring desegregation was wrong.

Page 344: Nonetheless, as seen in the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith, it is unnecessary to adopt a moral relativist attitude to combat cultural imperialism and racism. The Bahá’í teachings assert that there are some absolute values such as justice and compassion, which apply equally to all the members of the human race irrespective of culture.

  1. How is it possible for huge numbers of human beings to commit such large scale atrocities?
  2. When we look around us now, where do we see evidence of brutalisation?
  3. How can people on the one hand advocate equality, as the founding fathers of America did, and yet at the same time condone slavery and effective genocide.
  4. What are the dangers of ‘moral relativism’? Does this mean there are no problems with moral absolutes? Are absolutes such as justice and compassion free from any of these dangers? If so, why? If not, why not?

Report Back: One member of each group explains their conclusions and what they have learnt. Their group members can join in to field whatever questions and comments come their way.

AND please don’t forget the memorisation practice over night!

Supplementary Material for Group Work

(to be tackled if there is time or deferred to Session 4)

Having confronted over the last hour or so the dark side of human reality, now we can begin to examine the flickering of various candles beginning to combat this darkness.

Group One Task

  1. Unity and the UN

Kofi+Annan+UNCentury of Light explains how even the darkness itself contains hints of potential light (pages 70-71): ‘At a relatively early point in the second world war, the Guardian set that conflict in a perspective for Bahá’ís that was very different from the one generally prevailing. The war should be regarded, he said, “as the direct continuation” of the conflagration ignited in 1914. It would come to be seen as the “essential pre-requisite to world unification“. The entry into the war by the United States, whose president had initiated the project of a system of international order, but which had itself rejected this visionary initiative, would lead that nation, Shoghi Effendi predicted, to “assume through adversity its preponderating share of responsibility to lay down, once for all, broad, worldwide, unassailable foundations of that discredited yet immortal System.”

The dimly discerned positives relate to the key concept we will be exploring more fully later (page 71): ‘If the change could not yet be described as an emerging conviction about the oneness of humankind, no objective observer could mistake the fact that barriers blocking such a realisation, which had survived all the assaults against them earlier in the century, were at last giving way. . . . . The years immediately following 1945 witnessed advances in framing a new social order that went far beyond the brightest hopes of earlier decades.’ The clearest example of this, they explain, (pages 71-72) is found when, ‘Meeting in San Francisco in April 1945 – in the state where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had prophetically declared, “May the first flag of international peace be upraised in this state” – delegates of fifty nations adopted the Charter of the United Nations Organisation, the name proposed for it by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. . . .’

This led onto (pages 72-73) ‘the United Nations’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The moral commitment it represented was institutionalized in the subsequent establishment of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. In due course, the Bahá’í community itself would have good cause to appreciate, at first-hand, the system’s importance as a shield protecting minorities from the abuses of the past.’

And even the shibboleth of national sovereignty had taken a hit (page 73): ‘[Concerning the trial of Nazi leaders] Although the integrity of the proceedings was gravely marred by the participation of judges appointed by a Soviet dictatorship whose own crimes matched or exceeded those of the defendants’ regime, the act set an historic precedent. It demonstrated, for the first time, that the fetish of “national sovereignty” has recognizable and enforceable limits.’

Most of what is said immediately above is straightforward history. There are two questions we might want to deal with briefly.

  1. Do we wish briefly to explore the nature of such prejudices as have caused great suffering not only to the Bahá’ís in Iran but to many other minorities elsewhere?
  2. Why does Century of Light describe ‘national sovereignty’ as a ‘fetish’? (Fetish means an obsession or idol in this context.)
  1. Green Shoots

Page 74: Beyond all the continuing educational disadvantages, the economic inequities, and the obstructions created by political and diplomatic manoeuvring – beyond all these practical but historically transient limitations – a new authority was at work in human affairs to which all might reasonably hope somehow to appeal. . . . [Once subject peoples were now being represented.]

. . . . As time passed, growing numbers of outstanding figures in every walk of life would escape the familiar limits of racial, cultural or religious identity. In every continent of the globe, names like Anne Frank, Martin Luther King Jr., Paolo Freire, Ravi Shankar, Gabriel Garcia Marques, Kiri Te Kanawa, Andrei Sakharov, Mother Teresa and Zhang Yimou became sources of inspiration and encouragement to great numbers of their fellow citizens. . . . . The world-wide outpouring of affection and rejoicing that was to greet the release from prison of Nelson Mandela and his subsequent election as president of his country would reflect a sense among peoples of every race and nation that these historic events represented victories of the human family itself.

Question. Apart from the most famous ones in the list, ie Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Anne Frank and Nelson Mandela, do we know why the others are mentioned? What does this suggest about the possibility of a sea-change in world affairs?

Group Two Task

  1. The Cold War & beyond

After the second world war we moved into a period termed the ‘Cold War.’ Century of Light summarises the situation (page 87): ‘Hardly had hostilities ended than the ideological divisions between Marxism and liberal democracy burst out into attempts to secure dominance between the respective blocs of nations they inspired. The phenomenon of “Cold War”, in which the struggle for advantage stopped just short of military conflict, emerged as the prevailing political paradigm of the next several decades.

This tense stand off was in response to the atom bomb’s threat of ‘mutually assured destruction’ (page 88): ‘For Bahá’ís, the prospect could only bring vividly to mind the sombre warning uttered by Bahá’u’lláh decades earlier: “Strange and astonishing things exist in the earth but they are hidden from the minds and the understanding of men. These things are capable of changing the whole atmosphere of the earth and their contamination would prove lethal.”’ The Soviet Union sought to capitalise on the injustices of colonialism in what was termed the ‘Third World’ while ‘the response of the West – wherever development aid failed to retain the loyalties of recipient populations – was to resort to the encouragement and arming of a wide variety of authoritarian regimes.’

Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, materialism continued effectively unchallenged (pages 89-90): ‘impulses to devise and promote any formal materialistic belief system disappeared. Nor would any useful purpose have been served by such efforts, as materialism was soon facing no significant challenge in most parts of the world. Religion, where not simply driven back into fanaticism and unthinking rejection of progress, became progressively reduced to a kind of personal preference, a predilection, a pursuit designed to satisfy spiritual and emotional needs of the individual. The sense of historical mission that had defined the major Faiths learned to content itself with providing religious endorsement for campaigns of social change carried on by secular movements. The academic world, once the scene of great exploits of the mind and spirit, settled into the role of a kind of scholastic industry preoccupied with tending its machinery of dissertations, symposia, publication credits and grants.’

  1. How can we explain how religion in certain places at certain times slides into fanaticism?
  2. At the same time, elsewhere, it becomes a consumer fad. How does that happen, do we think?

Whether as world-view or simple appetite, materialism’s effect is to leach out of human motivation – and even interest – the spiritual impulses that distinguish the rational soul. “For self-love,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has said, “is kneaded into the very clay of man, and it is not possible that, without any hope of a substantial reward, he should neglect his own present material good.” In the absence of conviction about the spiritual nature of reality and the fulfilment it alone offers, it is not surprising to find at the very heart of the current crisis of civilisation a cult of individualism that increasingly admits of no restraint and that elevates acquisition and personal advancement to the status of major cultural values. The resulting atomisation of society has marked a new stage in the process of disintegration about which the writings of Shoghi Effendi speak so urgently.

. . . . . However important the application of legal, sociological or technological expertise to such issues undoubtedly is, it would be unrealistic to imagine that efforts of this kind will produce any significant recovery without a fundamental change of moral consciousness and behaviour.

Page 91-92: . . . the unification of humankind under a system of governance that can release the full potentialities latent in human nature, and allow their expression in programmes for the benefit of all, is clearly the next stage in the evolution of civilisation. The physical unification of the planet in our time and the awakening aspirations of the mass of its inhabitants have at last produced the conditions that permit achievement of the ideal, although in a manner far different from that imagined by imperial dreamers of the past. . . . .

. . . . . That yet greater suffering and disillusionment will be required to impel humanity to this great leap forward appears, alas, equally clear. Its establishment will require national governments and other centres of power to surrender to international determination, unconditionally and irreversibly, the full measure of overriding authority implicit in the word “government”.

The quotations immediately above pinpoint precisely the opposing forces of integration and disintegration.

  1. In what way could ‘the spiritual impulses that distinguish the rational soul’ lead to ‘a fundamental change of moral consciousness and behaviour’ that would reverse the ‘atomisation of society’?
  2. How would such a transformation assist humanity to relinquish its attachment to the nation state and allow ‘national governments and other centres of power to surrender’ their authority ‘to international determination’? The current debate over the European Union helps give us a sense of what might be involved.

Group Report Back: this is to be done as an exercise in role play. As far as time permits, one member of each group takes it in turns to explain to a member of the other group what they have learnt and needs to field whatever questions and comments come their way.

 Next time:

We will be examining the components of the wreck preparatory to inching towards an understanding of what we all need to do in response, whether Bahá’ís or not.

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The world’s population currently consumes the equivalent of 1.6 planets a year, according to analysis by the Global Footprint Network. Photograph: NASA (For source see link)

We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.

(Shoghi Effendi, Letter to an individual Bahá’í, through his secretary, 17 February 1933.)

The previous post ended with the following point.

Most of us are trapped in our simulations, created by early experience and powerful influences in the present. Reflecting as an individual and consulting as a community are harder to do than we would like to think and need courage and perseverance in equal measure, courage to risk this shift in processing in the first place and perseverance if we are to learn how to master the skills in each case.

For the impact of destructive processes within the individual there is a wealth of evidence, both social and clinical, which I look at straightaway. I will look at the impact on groups and communities later using the work of Zimbardo as a powerful example.

Processes such as the ones I am about to outline are simply examples of the kind of invisible obstacles we might have to deal with when we are trying to shift our perspectives to integrate experiences and evidence against the grain of our programming. Breaking out of our individual or collective trance is not easy. When the evidence is complex, as with climate change, or collides head on with prevailing dogma, as with the reality of the soul, it’s particularly difficult.

Culture and the Individual

First, let’s take a look at some of the negative influences that operate under the surface within the individual. These do overlap with aspects of the wider culture but are worth considering here given their impact upon every single one of us as an individual.

As adults we may often find ourselves behaving in completely counterproductive or even destructive ways in our everyday lives and haven’t a clue why we do so, or even sometimes that we are doing so.

There are all sorts of ways that our culture subliminally shapes our reactions in ways that would shock our conscious mind. A recent study, for example, looked at the reactions of Americans from all parts of the racial spectrum. One of the experiments involved determining how quickly subjects would shoot at a target person in a risk situation. Pictures of different people were flashed up on the screen, some from a white European heritage, some from a black African heritage. It was no surprise that white subjects would take less time to shoot a black person than a white one. What was shocking was that the same was true for black subjects, so deeply had the toxin of racism infected them as well. What none of the subjects would have been aware of was that they were behaving in this way.

Even prominent people within a culture, those with access to the most information and with the most power to change things, succumb to the insidious influences of their society. Many of the founding figures of the United States were slave owners. Their personal investment in slavery conflicted with their avowed principles such as the equality of all men. John Fitzgerald Medina in his excellent book Faith, Physics & Psychology quotes the explanation given by historian Richard Thomas (iBook page 280):

Since America was not about to abandon slave labor or its policy of dispossessing the native peoples of their land, the only real and practical choice was to minimise the nature of its sins: blacks and native peoples (Indians) were not to be considered on the same level of humanity as whites; blacks were heathen and amoral, next to the apes in the scale of evolution. . . .

The technical term for this is resolving cognitive dissonance, and is a process that I was tempted to include in my earlier discussion of disowning, but wasn’t sure it applied directly to climate change. As Saul McLeod explains:

Leon Festinger (1957) proposed cognitive dissonance theory, which states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes maladaptive behavior.

According to Festinger, we hold many cognitions about the world and ourselves; when they clash, a discrepancy is evoked, resulting in a state of tension known as cognitive dissonance. As the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it, and achieve consonance (i.e. agreement).

This of course only works if we can successfully blind ourselves to the fact that we are doing it.

It’s obvious now to most people that the Americans and the British, in terms of race, hoodwinked themselves with this self-deceptive but profitable ploy. What we may not all fully appreciate is how far the toxic ideology of racism that thus developed spread its poison, for how long, and with how much resulting damage.

When John Fitzgerald Medina claimed in his book that Hitler was influenced by American eugenicists to develop aspects of his genocidal agenda, I had to check this idea out further.

I read Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: the Holocaust as History and Warning in tandem with Ricard’s Altruism, quoted earlier in this sequence. He confirms the extent to which the Nazi vision of extermination to gain land was inspired by America (pages 15-16):

Racism was the idea that turned populated lands into potential colonies, and the source mythologies for racists arose from the recent colonisation of North America and Africa. . . .

In the late nineteenth century, Germans tended to see the fate of Native Americans as a natural precedent for the fate of native Africans under their control. . . . . For the German general who pursued these policies, the historical justice was self-evident. ‘The natives must give way,’ he said. ‘Look at America.’

. . . . When Hitler wrote in My Struggle that Germany’s only opportunity for colonisation was Europe, he discarded as impractical the possibility of a return to Africa. The search for racial inferiors to dominate required no long voyages by sea, since they were present in Eastern Europe as well.

Hitler saw the Soviet Union as a Jewish project and felt (page 20):

[a] second America could be created in Europe, after Germans learned to see other Europeans as they saw indigenous Americans or Africans, and learned to regard Europe’s largest state as a fragile Jewish colony.

It is deeply ironic therefore that the nation who saw themselves as liberators of Europe at the end of the Second World War should have been part of Hitler’s inspiration in the first place. So do destructive subliminal processes wreak havoc on a massive scale in our world, especially when potentiated by self-interest. Climate change denial should come as no surprise therefore, given the complexity of the issue and the power of the vested interests who would lose out if something really effective were ever done to address the problem.

It’s a moot point in both cases whether those pulling the levers of persuasion, the propagandists, are as unaware of their reality distortion as many of those who come to believe them.

There are many more examples of this kind to illustrate the way that culture warps and biases our perceptions to devastating effect and I won’t attempt to list them here. We’ll come back to the cultural scale later.

Trauma and the Individual

What is also true is that our personal history has a powerful subliminal effect on us as individuals and can wreck our lives and those of the people closest to us. Trauma is the easiest example to use to illustrate this.

We may be completely unaware of the still active impact of early trauma, to whose current significance we are almost completely blind even if we remember anything at all about it.

Many different models of therapy have developed way to explain how this works.

That there is such an effect and that it is relatively widespread can be demonstrated in many ways. In a study carried out in 2010 and quoted by Koenen et al in The Impact of Early Life Trauma on Health & Disease: the Hidden Epidemic (page 13-15), out of a sample of 5692 English speaking Americans 2190 (38.48%) reported some kind of traumatic experience prior to the age of 13.

A recent sequence of posts on this blog looked at the work of a Jungian therapist, Joy Schaverian, with people who had been traumatised by their experiences at Boarding School. She graphically explores through case histories the damage that has been done as well as the repressive mechanisms, with their consequences, that had been mobilised to cope.

To give a brief example, Schaverian explains, when she discusses one of her patient’s difficulties dealing with the time a teacher hit him in the face with a cricket bat, how hard it was for him to fully accept what he was saying (page 57):

Theo first told of this incident early in analysis. Then, a few months later, he retold it, this time with more depth of feeling. It was as though he was at first incredulous but then, as I took it seriously, he began to believe himself and to take seriously how abusive this had been. As Theo recounted it for the second time the feelings associated with the event became live in the session. Theo went white; he felt sick; he had trouble breathing and physically regressed.… The emotional impact of this was fully present in the room. Theo was overwhelmed and speechless.

The benefits of revisiting traumatic events in this way , even when they have possibly been forgotten between sessions are priceless (page 118):

. . . if [traumatic events] can be told they are gradually detoxified, thus eventually accepted as part of the person’s personal history. It is then an accessible narrative and no longer unconsciously dominates their life. When there is no such witness the trauma may become embodied, leading to conversion symptoms such as digestive problems, migraines, chronic pain, poor energy and a large number of other physiological indicators. This may be because the event that caused it is remembered in an embodied sense, but not recalled cognitively and so it cannot be consigned to the past.

We’ll be coming back to the idea of embodied memories in a moment.

Other concepts from different traditions are scripts in Transactional Analysis, which I’ve explored elsewhere, archetypes from Jungian therapy, constructs from Personal Construct Therapy, schema etc. the formation and experience of all of which are shaped by early experience as well as culture.

The examples I want to focus on right now I’ve chosen both because they provide dramatic and detailed illustrations of the invisible impact of childhood trauma on adults and are part of my recent reading around trauma and psychosis.

A recent post includes a detailed example, from their 1991 book The Stormy Search for the Self, of what Christina and Stansislav Grof term a spiritual emergency. Those interested in knowing more detail should click the link above. Basically it explores how a traumatised person was helped through her crisis without standard psychiatric treatment and later in the book how what they call Holotropic Breathwork helps people gain access to embodied memories.

They feel that this approach unlocks blocks between our awareness and the contents of the unconscious (page 259):

. . . .  It seems that the nonordinary state of consciousness induced by holotropic breathing is associated with biochemical changes in the brain that make it possible for the contents of the unconscious to surface, to be consciously experienced, and – if necessary – to be physically expressed. In our bodies and in our psyches we carry imprints of various traumatic events that we have not fully digested and assimilated psychologically. Holographic breathing makes them available, so that we can fully experience them and release the emotions that are associated with them.

I want to focus on a couple of examples from their earlier work – Realms of the Human Unconscious: observations from LSD research. The use of LSD in this way has come to seem controversial, so much so it was made illegal 1981, six years after this book was published. Some researchers are recently beginning to think more positively about its potential benefits, but we are a long way from repealing the laws that ban it.

Why the Grofs’ research is worth drawing on in this context is for what it seems to reveal about the accuracy with which inaccessible traumatic memories are stored in the brain. LSD helps a person regain lucid and detailed memories, which can then be integrated.

More than that, the Grofs developed a strong sense of the sequence in which such memories can be retrieved and the way they group into a mutually reinforcing layered networks which they call (page 46) ‘systems of condensed experience,’ COEX systems for short.

Both the detail and the interconnectedness of the memories go a long way to explain their power to shape our experience and behaviour in the present in spite of our routine oblivion to their existence. That such interconnected detail coexists with such intransigent forgetfulness explains the power the past experiences have to impact upon us outside our awareness. The examples I’m giving go a long way towards proving how much changing this impact depends upon bringing the whole network of experiences into consciousness.

The work they report on in this book was done in Prague in the decade leading up to 1965.

The layering effect can be illustrated by Richard’s history (page 57-60). The first layer related to his expulsion from university because of his conflict with the communist orthodoxy of the time. A ‘deeper layer . . . . related to Richard’s experiences with his brutal, despotic, and autocratic father.’ Deeper still were earlier memories from childhood such as a strong electric shock at about age seven. A comically horrific encounter with a cow at about one year old was from the next level down. Finally (page 59), he encountered his birth trauma, which he concluded was ‘the fundamental prototype of all the situations in which he felt absolutely helpless and at the mercy of a destructive force.’

The Grofs later explain that, as a general rule, each more superficial level has to be explored before the deeper levels can be accessed (page 71):

The . . . . most important reason for thinking in terms of memory constellations rather than individual memories is based on the content analysis of consecutive sessions of a psycholytic series. Before the subject can approach and relive a traumatic memory from early childhood (core experience), he usually has to face and work through many situations in later life that have a similar theme and involve the same basic elements.

The final result of this LSD facilitated mental archaeology was positive in Richard’s case (page 60):

After the experiences of rebirth, positive ecstatic feelings of long duration occur in Richard’s sessions. They brought about a far-reaching improvement of the clinical condition. His depressions, anxieties, and psychosomatic symptoms completely disappeared and he felt full of activity and optimism.

The Grofs are keen to substantiate that most of these memories are rooted in reality. They quote case examples. For example, the mother of another patient, Dana, (pages 65-66) ‘was absolutely astonished by the accuracy of the account concerning the traumatic event as well as its physical setting. . . . . The description of the room was photographically accurate, even in the most minute detail, and its authenticity was unquestionable because of the very unusual character of some of the objects involved. . . In this case, there did not seem to exist a possibility that this information could have been transmitted by some other means. Before the patient was two years old, the family left this house; shortly afterward, it was condemned and torn down. . . . Dana’s mother gave away many of the things that formed the setting of the relived incident. There were no photographs of the room or of any of the described pieces, and the mother did not remember ever having mentioned any of the objects in front of the patient.’

So that’s what can happen to an individual.

Group Processes

It may seem a step too far to use examples of this kind, drawn from clinical work with individuals, and imply that group processes are similarly potentially pathological and operate all too often outside our awareness and conscious control.

One dramatic body of evidence will have to suffice for now to illustrate how this comparison might not be so far fetched. Philip Zimbardo provides the evidence in his brilliant analysis, The Lucifer Effect. His perspective is rooted in the study he initiated at Stanford University.

Student volunteers were divided randomly into two groups: prisoners and guards. It did not take long for the guards to descend into abusive behaviours that meant the study had to be halted before serious harm was done. From this, and after examining the behavior of American troops at Abu Ghraib, he came to disturbing conclusions about human behaviour in situations which steer us towards evil. He feels strongly that good people can do bad things not necessarily because they are bad apples who should bear full responsibility for their crimes, but because they are placed in a bad barrel that rots them. More than that, it is too simplistic to then blame the barrel for the whole problem. The barrel maker has to take his share of the responsibility. Corrupt systems can corrupt good people. Only the minority in his experience are able to resist.

Earlier work lends considerable weight to this latter point. For example, when I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).

What may seem baffling is how apparently decent people go along with toxic patterns of behavior. The forces that coerce conformity are astonishingly compelling. Haidt talks of the hive effect. In The Righteous Mind (page 247) he asks ‘Why do the students sing, chant, dance, sway, chop, and stomp so enthusiastically during the game?’ For him, ‘It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole.”’ Other experiments such as those by Solomon Asch, have shown how, when the majority in a group identify the wrong line as the matching one, the lone subject of the experiment tends to go long with the majority view at least some of the time: ‘To Asch’s surprise, 37 of the 50 subjects conformed themselves to the ‘obviously erroneous’ answers given by the other group members at least once, and 14 of them conformed on more than 6 of the ‘staged’ trials. When faced with a unanimous wrong answer by the other group members, the mean [ie average not stingy] subject conformed on 4 of the ‘staged’ trials.’

This video below by Melanie Joy conveys an attempt to unpack some of the detail about how this might work at a cultural level in a context meat eaters may find bizarre. As a vegetarian the validity of her explanation of how collusion is induced is compelling. Meat eaters may have to temporarily suspend their disbelief and step back from their investment in carnism in order to see how her explanation could easily be mapped onto such social toxins as racism and sexism.

Hopefully this helicopter survey of a vast field has done enough to convey clearly my sense that as individuals and communities we are locked into unconsciously determined and potentially destructive patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour, until, in my view, we are either painfully jolted out of our trance by a spiritual emergency or we painstakingly discover for ourselves the keys of reflection for individuals and consultation for groups. Only then do we have an opportunity to see what is working on our minds and change it.

In a complex world it is easy to hide from the wider but more distant impact of our individual and collective actions. Because the damage is potentially so great, so much greater than it ever was is the need now for our awareness to widen and embrace not just the daunting complexity within us but also that which stands between and outside us.

I have been considering the implications of this in the context of climate change and the afterlife but it also applies to many other areas of human behavior such as deregulation which removes safeguards in the interests of profit, extractivism that aggressively exploits the earth’s resources without sufficient care for the consequences, and a global economic system that harms not just the environment but the workforce to whose country cheaper production has been exported.

Where we might go next is dealt with slightly more briefly in the final two posts.

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Altruism Black Earth

In the light of recent events in London and Manchester and of this week’s sequence on Hillman’s book, that dealt in some detail with Hitler, it seemed worth republishing this sequence from two years ago. The posts, of which this is the last, have appeared on the consecutive days.

The first post looked at the implications of two books – Altruism and Black Earth – which led me to reflect on the possibility that we might not be immune to a repetition of the horrors of the Holocaust. At the end of the previous post we had reached the point of arguing that it is essential, if our society is to lift its collective consciousness to a more compassionate level, that we focus more intently upon the education of our children.

There are two key areas that determine the direction of a child’s development: parenting and schooling.

Parenting

Let’s take parenting first, and why it matters.

One main point is, and probably always should have been, fairly obvious, though now we have empirical evidence to back it up. When Jeremy Rifkin in his excellent book – The Empathic Civilisation – looks at where we are at present with the challenges we face, he concludes (page 502):

The question is, what is the appropriate therapy for recovering from the [current] well/happiness addiction? A spate of studies over the past 15 years has shown a consistently close correlation between parental nurturance patterns and whether children grow up fixated on material success. . . . If… the principal caretaker is cold, arbitrary in her or his affections, punitive, unresponsive, and anxious, the child will be far less likely to establish a secure emotional attachment and the self-confidence necessary to create a strong independent core identity. These children invariably show a greater tendency to fix on material success, fame, and image as a substitute mode for gaining recognition, acceptance, and a sense of belonging.

There are also less obvious forces at work as well. Ricard explores the exact relationship as currently understood between evolution and altruism. He looks carefully at the evidence and quotes Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s conclusion from her research that (page 173):

. . . . ‘novel rearing conditions along the line of early hominids meant that youngsters grew up depending on a wider range of caretakers than just their mothers, and this dependence produced selection pressure that favoured individuals who were better at decoding the mental state of others, and figuring out who would help and who would hurt.’

In other words, the fact that newborns interact quickly with a large number of people may have contributed considerably to raising the degree of cooperation and empathy among humans.

Hrdy’s final point of view is very clear (page 174):

. . . without the help of “alloparents,” there would never have been a human species.

We are now breaking that pattern (ibid.):

The notion of “family” as limited to a couple and their children developed only in the 20th century in Europe, and as late as the 1950s in the United States. Before that, most families included members of three generations, comprising aunts, cousins, et cetera.

This carries a significant risk (pages 175-76):

. . . . given empathy and the faculties of understanding others developed thanks to particular ways of taking care of children, and if an increasing proportion of humans no longer benefited from these conditions, compassion and the search for emotional connections would disappear. [Hrdy] questions whether such people “will be human in ways that we now think of as distinguishing our species – that is, empathic and curious about the emotions of others, shaped by our ancient heritage of communal care.”

Schooling

Is there any sign that our educational systems, not just in the West but also in countries such as China, are working hard enough to counteract a trend towards narcissistic materialism and competitiveness? There is a considerable body of evidence suggesting otherwise.

Of American education John Fitzgerald Medina writes in his hard-hitting Faith, Physics & Psychology (page 319):

Within the mainstream educational system, students spend endless hours in academic tasks almost to the exclusion of all other forms of social, emotional, moral, artistic, physical, and spiritual learning goals. This type of education leaves students bereft of any overarching sense of why they are learning things, other than perhaps to obtain some lucrative job in the distant future.

Though Jeremy Rifkin sees it more positively and refers to the existence in schools of programmes designed to develop empathy, he is not completely blind to the obstacles (pages 604-05):

. . . because empathic engagement is the most deeply collaborative experience one can ever have, bringing out children’s empathic nature in the classroom requires collaborative learning models. Unfortunately, the traditional classroom curriculum continues to emphasise learning as a highly personal experience designed to acquire and control knowledge by dint of competition with others.

[An example of what Rifkin refers to elsewhere in his book when describing programmes for cultivating empathy is in this clip.]  

An example of the current state of play in the States comes in a blog post on the NY Times site from a philosopher father after encountering issues with his son’s education. He summarises what he has learnt:

In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.

He spells out the implications of this rampant moral relativism:

. . . . in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

My strong impression is that the UK system has moved a long way in this dehumanising direction also. There is ample evidence to justify this view. Confirmation that Medina’s bleak picture applies at least to some extent within the UK can be found, for example, in an article in the Guardian of February this year which quotes recent research:

The survey of 10,000 pupils aged 14 and 15 in secondary schools across the UK found that more than half failed to identify what researchers described as good judgments when responding to a series of moral dilemmas, leading researchers to call for schools to have a more active role in teaching character and morality.

“A good grasp of moral virtues, such as kindness, honesty and courage can help children to flourish as human beings, and can also lead to improvements in the classroom. And that level of understanding doesn’t just happen – it needs to be nurtured and encouraged,” said Prof James Arthur, director of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, which conducted the research.

There was also a piece by Layard on the LSE website in January this year:

In a path-breaking analysis using the British Cohort Study, we found some astonishing results. The strongest predictor of a satisfying adult life was the child’s emotional health. Next came social behaviour, and least important was academic achievement. This is exactly the opposite sequence to the priorities of most (but not all) educators and politicians.

An article on the Greater Good website emphasises how important it is to include a moral component in the curriculum and shows that there is widespread concern about this issue:

Many schools are hopping on the bandwagon to teach “performance character”—qualities such as perseverance, optimism, and creativity— because it has been shown to lead to greater academic success. Fewer, though, are also teaching moral character, which focuses on qualities that enhance ethical behavior, including empathy, social responsibility, and integrity.

The challenge is that performance character by itself is not necessarily good or bad. A person can exhibit great perseverance and creativity, but use it towards bad means—take your pick of corporate scandals to see this in action. To blunt ends-justify-means thinking, schools need to balance achievement-oriented performance character with the ethical orientation of moral character, while also teaching emotional skills.

Case in point: A recent study found that students at a middle school that emphasized moral character demonstrated higher rates of academic integrity than students at two middle schools that taught only performance character. In other words, the students who cultivated their moral backbone were less likely to cheat than the students who developed perseverance.

chinese teachers

Chinese Teachers in UK (for source of image see link)

A recent series on BBC television showed clearly how China is walking along the same potentially destructive path. Four teachers came to the UK to prove how the Chinese system is far more effective than ours in boosting academic performance. They emphasised, in their comments on their approach, how China stresses preparing their students to succeed in what they see as an extremely and inevitably competitive world. Their blackboard-based monologues, pumping out facts with no opportunity to experience their living meaning, was reminiscent of the Gradgrind approach to education Charles Dickens satirised in Hard Times:

‘Gradgrind’s Class’ from The Illustrated Hard Times by Nick Ellis (for source see link)

‘Gradgrind’s Class’ from The Illustrated Hard Times by Nick Ellis (for source see link)

‘Girl number twenty,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, ‘I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?’

‘Sissy Jupe, sir,’ explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.

‘Sissy is not a name,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.’

‘My father as calls me Sissy. sir,’ returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.

‘Then he has no business to do it,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?’

‘He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.’

Mr. Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.

‘We don’t want to know anything about that, here. You mustn’t tell us about that, here. . . . Give me your definition of a horse.’

(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)

‘Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!’ said Mr. Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. ‘Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours. . . .’

The square finger, moving here and there, lighted suddenly on Bitzer, perhaps because he chanced to sit in the same ray of sunlight which, darting in at one of the bare windows of the intensely white-washed room, irradiated Sissy. . . . . .

‘Bitzer,’ said Thomas Gradgrind. ‘Your definition of a horse.’

‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’

Unfortunately the Chinese teachers’ approach was shown to produce better grades than the UK system. My worry is that it probably does not produce better human beings, even while conceding that our own system leaves a lot to be desired still in that respect.

In addition to the need to build back into the curriculum elements of creativity, morality, and spirituality, there is an additional vital element we must not forget. A service component, something at the core of the Bahá’í approach, is almost certainly crucial to any educational system, not just one for remedial purposes. Compassion has to be linked to action to be fully internalised.

Even if we accept that attempts are being made to introduce empathy-inducing elements into educational and training programmes in the States the blinkered way these are sometimes implemented undermines their efficacy, as Timothy Wilson testifies. For example, the research he reviews in his excellent short book Redirect: the surprising new science of psychological change points towards the critical importance of incorporating a community service component into any remedial programme for children and young people manifesting behavioural problems. He was reacting to the fact that an expensive implementation of the programme involving nearly 600 students across several sites failed to produce any of the expected benefits (page 131):

What happened? It turns out that each site was given a fair amount of latitude in how they implemented the QOP [Quantum Opportunities Programme], and none of the sites adopted the entire curriculum. In particular, most of the site managers decided to focus on the mentoring aspects of the program and non-fully implemented the community service component – the very component that we know, from the Teen Outreach and Reach for Health programs, has beneficial effects! Sadly, more than $15 million was spent on a five-year intervention in which a key ingredient (community service) was eliminated. . . .

The fact that policymakers learned so little from past research – at huge human and financial cost – is made more mind-boggling by being such a familiar story. Too often, policy makers follow common sense instead of scientific data when deciding how to solve social and behavioural problems. When well-meaning managers of the QOP sites looked at the curriculum, the community service component probably seemed like a frill compared to bringing kids together for sessions on life development. Makes sense, doesn’t it? But common sense was wrong, as it has been so often before. In the end, it is teens… who pay the price…

For a sense of the what the Bahá’í Approach involves this video is a good introduction. It shows how the Bahá’í emphasis upon engaging young people in the process of child education and community building works in practice.

(Published on 2 May 2013: You can download this film from the Official website: http://www.bahai.org/frontiers/)

It seems to me imperative that everyone, no matter what their circumstances might be, needs at the very least to find whatever ways they can to raise consciousness among their family, friends and contacts, so that more and more people internalise a vision of humanity as one family and understand better how to nurture and sustain people, fellow creatures and the planet. If that can also involve directly relevant action so much the better.

My personal plan

For the foreseeable future I plan to explore, as often as I am able, this whole issue of altruism. In particular I want to understand more fully what factors enable us to widen the compass of our compassion and what factors narrow it.

I am already fairly clear that this will take me back over some familiar territory, though perhaps seeing it through a slightly different lens, but it will also require me to look carefully at some areas I have not explored in detail. Historical texts, for example, have not been my favourite grazing ground in the past – something about the way they marshal information switches me off. However, Snyder’s book has persuaded me I ought to give them another chance as I came to realise, from reading Black Earth, how little I really understood about many of the background factors that shaped the Holocaust. Maybe I also need to revisit some philosophical work that I have previously avoided as too challenging in its approach.

Some bolder experiments in terms of my personal experience might not come amiss either. I doubt that I can fully understand the challenges of this area without stepping into the fire.

What I have realised about this topic is that I can investigate it almost anywhere at any time, no matter what I am doing – perhaps even when I am chilling out in front of some anodyne murder mystery on the television.

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Dad in Civil Defence

My father (centre) in the Civil Defence

In the light of recent events in London and Manchester and of this week’s sequence on Hillman’s book, that dealt in some detail with Hitler, it seemed worth republishing this sequence from two years ago. The posts, of which this is the first, will appear on the consecutive days.

The first memory I have from my childhood is of my father stepping through the backdoor in the morning light after an anxious night scanning the sky and listening for the warning of the siren’s wail. I rushed to greet him as he was taking his helmet off.

I pleaded with him to let me try it on. He wasn’t keen but finally gave in. All I can remember after that was the sting of the dust that fell into my eyes. Since that time I have never been completely able to shake that dust out of my mind.

Baby gas maskFrom time to time over the succeeding years we would take out the gas masks and recall the times spent in the cellar hiding from the bombs with our sawn off Darth Vader headgear at the ready. I have no memory obviously of ever wearing the gas mask for babies, but when we tried on the adult ones after the war we looked like stranded frogmen and the humour perhaps helped soften the memories for my parents. At primary school on rainy days our lunchtime recreation took place in the windowless red-brick air raid shelter next to the playground. The two doors at each end were angled so that almost no light could travel in or out. In virtually complete darkness we would play a variation of piggy-in-the-middle using the stones which lay all around the floor. How there were no serious injuries with so much stone flying through the darkness I will never know.

It was quite some years after the war before the blackout blinds in our kitchen were replaced by something more cheerful and ration books disappeared at last. The terror of those days of war must still have been with me when I went on to grammar school. The last version of the nightmare that had haunted my childhood came only then I am sure. I was running for my life, pursued by the Gestapo. I burst through the doors of the gymnasium at Stockport School and dashed towards the wall-bars at the end (interesting symbol in such a situation). As I clambered to the top, the doors at the far end burst open and the pursuing gang of torturers burst in and I woke terrified.

Later, as I read about the war as a young adult I came to realise that Hitler was almost certainly a narcissistic megalomaniac psychopath. The mystery was how so many people bought into his fantasies and followed him. I could only hope the same thing would never happen again but books such as Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and her concept of the ‘banality of evil,’ as well as Fromm’s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness were not entirely reassuring on that point.

Altruism Black Earth

What about now?

The spread of a dark ideology is woven into the pattern of our current culture. It is derived from a distortion of Darwinism. It shapes behaviour for which it is also used as an excuse.

I am currently reading Matthieu Ricard’s book on altruism and Timothy Snyder’s book on Nazism in tandem. It feels a bit like switching the light on and off in rapid alternation.

Not that Ricard’s book is blind to the dark side of our world at all. He argues that the prevalent credibility of the specious argument that human beings have evolved to be selfish leaves many people feeling that this is a self-evident truth that we simply have to accept, however reluctantly, and is used by others to explain and justify their self-seeking egotism.

He quotes (page 165) Frans de Waal who, speaking of Enron, the company ‘which went bankrupt thanks to embezzlement,’ said: ‘”the company’s CEO, Jeff Skilling – now in prison – was a great fan of Richard DawkinsThe Selfish Gene, and deliberately tried to mimic nature by instigating cutthroat competition within his company.”’

Ricard’s argument against accepting this toxic doctrine is, in my view, clear and compelling. He not only quotes Darwin himself as supporting the force of cooperation as an evolutionary positive but also adduces a wealth of replicable evidence to refute the baseless conviction that all behaviour, however apparently altruistic, is selfishly motivated.  This creed is completely contradicted by test after scientific test.

Sadly, though, evidence which is compelling for me is incredible to the all-too-many adherents of this cynical dogma (page 138):

Nonetheless, when confronted with the numerous examples of altruism which, like us, they witness in their daily lives, supporters of universal selfishness set to work proposing explanations that defy common sense. In other cases, they simply take for granted that genuine altruism can’t exist.

We’ve been here before, of course, with the battle being fought by reductionist materialists against the possibility of psi (see my posts on Mario Beauregard’s The Spiritual Brain). Daniel Batson, one of the key researchers into altruism, has responded to the critics by repeatedly producing further evidence for the genuineness of altruism that answers their current particular criticism and rules out their alternative explanations. In the end, in terms of this belief in the inherent selfishness of humanity (page 139), Ricard concludes that ‘A theory that is in principle unfalsifiable is not scientific, it is an ideology.’

lebensraum1

For source of image see link.

The Second World War 

And this is where Snyder comes into his own. His book is written as a warning to us that we should not complacently assume that we would never repeat the horrors of the Second World War. He feels that we are not so different from the people of that time that we could never repeat their nightmarish mistakes if the right conditions returned, as well they might, in his view. He raises the frightening possibility that, when we feel sufficiently threatened and an apparently plausible explanation comes along which appears to account for the threat and provides a supposedly effective defence, often by means of eliminating a scapegoat population, the vast majority of us will probably run eagerly after its proponents pleading to get on board, even if it means colluding in the slaughter of millions of completely innocent people, usually somewhere out of sight.

By what kinds of seductive pathways can this hell on earth be approached?

Most people born as I was in the shadow of the war will be fully aware of the Holocaust and its horrendous and abhorrent genocidal processes. What Snyder’s book does is examine in detail the various complex threads of argument by which this iniquity was made so palatable to so many.

In this first post I shall explore only one of these. Another will follow later. I am choosing this one first because of the overlap it detects between racist ideology and the very same culture that helped rescue Europe from Nazism – an irony that we would be wise to remember when we complacently assume that not only were we completely different then but that we could never ever be the same in the future.

While this thread links to the settlement made at the end of WW1 and the allocation of land that Germany thought should be hers, there is more to it than that, though clearly many in Germany felt that the settlement was unjust. And simply adding anti-Semitism into the mix doesn’t quite get there either. We need to add, amongst other things, the idea of Lebensraum and the provision of food that this would make possible. A key paragraph comes as early as page 15 in Black Earth:

“For Germany,” wrote Hitler, “the only possibility of a sound agrarian policy was the acquisition of land within Europe itself.” To be sure, there was no place near Germany that was uninhabited or even underpopulated. The crucial thing was to imagine that European” spaces” were, in fact, “open.” Racism was the idea that turned populated lands into potential colonies, and the source mythologies for racists arose from the recent colonisation of North America and Africa. The conquest and exploitation of these continents by Europeans formed the literary imagination of Europeans of Hitler’s generation. . . .

For the German general who pursued these policies, the historical justice was self-evident. “The natives must give way,” he said. “Look at America.” . . . . The civilian head of the German colonial office saw matters much the same way, “The history of the colonisation of the United States, clearly the biggest colonial endeavour the world has ever known, had as its first act the complete annihilation of its native peoples.” He understood the need for an “annihilation operation.” The German state geologist called for a “Final Solution to the native question.”

An equally sinister extension of this thesis was (page 17) the idea that ‘experience in eastern Europe had established that neighbours could also be “black.” Europeans could be imagined to want “masters” and yield “space.” After the war, it was more practical to consider a return to Eastern Europe than to Africa.’ To this end Hitler (page 18) ‘presented as racial inferiors the largest cultural group in Europe, Germany’s eastern neighbours, the Slavs.’ So it was not only the Jews who were racially slurred and targeted.

This relates closely to John Fitzgerald Medina’s thesis, in his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology, about how the founders of America managed to reconcile the rhetoric of their egalitarian constitution with profiting from both their virtual genocide of the Native Americans and from their practice of slavery, and about how the Nazis derived part of their inspiration from this. The Nazis, as well as highly esteemed figures in American history, justified their self-serving actions by invoking the notion that Africans and Native Americans were inherently inferior, an ideology of racism that persists in America and to some extent in Europe to this day, potential seeds of future denigration and genocide if we do not find effective means of transforming our collective consciousness. The diverse reactions, some of them very negative, towards the current influx of refugees suggests we might still have a long way to go before we are cleansed of racism and would never again be tempted towards ethnic cleansing of some kind at some point if we thought it served our purposes effectively enough.

Ricard also deals in some detail with how certain social and psychological factors can distance us from the humanity of others and lead to extremes of cruelty and mass killings (cf especially Chapter 30 – Dehumanising the Other) even though there is a deep-seated natural revulsion against killing our own kind (Chapter 29). While it is hard to predict in any given situation what proportion of a population will actively participate in a pogrom, if we can convince ourselves the other is not human our reluctance to kill can be overcome with horrific consequences. This remains true to this day and we would be wise not to forget it.

This is just the starting point for an examination of where we might go from here. Next time we’ll dig a bit deeper into the problem before looking at some of the possible remedies in the final post.

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