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Posts Tagged ‘racism’

I know I’m taking a break from blogging but I read a powerful article yesterday that has triggered me to break my cyber-silence. It’s a challenging piece in yesterday’s Guardian on the subject of racism by . Having grown up in the shadow of a war not just against aggression but against the genocidal ideology that lay behind it, and now following a spiritual path, the Bahá’í Faith, that has as a central tenet the abolition of all prejudice, I am all too aware of how deeply the seeds of racism are buried in our Western psyche. Cleansing ourselves of its toxin is far harder work than many of us think. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link

Munroe Bergdorf’s assertion that all white people are racist has upset many, but society is skewed in our favour and it is right to acknowledge that.

Last week, model Munroe Bergdorf hit headlines when a statement she’d posted on social media following the protests in Charlottesville allegedly calling all white people racist was leaked to the Daily Mail. Since then, Bergdorf has received rape threats and death threats, been accused of “playing the victim”, and been sacked from a L’Oréal campaign that, ironically, celebrates diversity.

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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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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 second, appear on the consecutive days.

The previous post, triggered by two contrasting books – Altruism and Black Earth – raised the possibility that we might repeat the horrors of the Holocaust. We may not have travelled as far down the road of moral enlightenment as we would like to think. We are prone to rationalising our self-centredness and have not freed ourselves from the virus of racism.

Ayn Rand (for source of image see link)

Ayn Rand (for source of image see link)

Ayn Rand

That a popular strain of American thought idolises the guru of egotism, Ayn Rand, should give us pause for thought. While proponents might contend that Rand and her acolytes place sufficient emphasis upon preserving the powers of the state to protect individual freedom in a way that will prevent any repetition of Hitler’s state destroying excesses, it is worth examining for a moment some of her ideas and the results that they are having to this day.

Ricard (page 302) recalls a televised interview in which Rand stated: ‘I consider altruism as evil . . . Altruism is immoral . . because . . . you are asked to love everybody indiscriminately . . . you only love those who deserve it.’ Her ‘sacred word’ is ‘EGO,’ but it did not bring her any happiness (page 305).

If she were not so influential in the States her bizarre position would not matter. Many Americans, in a 1993 survey, ‘cited Atlas Shrugged, her main work, as the book that influenced them most, after the Bible!’ Furthermore, as Ricard points out, she has powerful advocates (page 301):

Alan Greenspan, former head of the Federal Reserve, which controls the American economy, declared she had profoundly shaped his thinking, and that “our values are congruent.” Ayn Rand was at Greenspan’s side when he took the oath before President Ford. . . . .

She has shaped libertarian economic thinking (page 303) which regards the poor as ‘killers of growth, beings who harm entrepreneurs.’ Moreover, ‘Only the individual creates growth; society is predatory, and the welfare state, a concept that prevails in Europe, constitutes “the most evil national psychology ever described,” and those who benefit from it are nothing but a gang of looters’ [The quote is from Ayn Rand 1976 in The Economist, 20 October, 2012, page 54].

I understand that it is important not to be simplistic about this and dismiss all libertarians as narrow-mindedly self-seeking. Jonathan Haidt analyses some of the complexities in his excellent The Righteous Mind. He clarifies that on the American political scene the word ‘libertarian’ denotes someone of a conservative mind set.  He teases out some important aspects of this world view in order to get out from under his preconceptions about it (pages 305-306):

[Libertarians] do not oppose change of all kinds (such as the Internet), but they fight back ferociously when they believe that change will damage the institutions and traditions that provide our moral exoskeletons (such as the family).

He unpacks this in the context of his understanding of the value of moral capital (page 292):

. . . we can define moral capital as the resources that sustain a moral community . . . . . .  and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.

He writes (page 307):

We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital. . . . . To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.

So, after this analysis of the way that liberals, with whom he identifies, fail to understand some of the crucial insights of their political opponents (and of course vice versa), he reflects upon a disturbing trend (page 309):

America’s political class has become far more Manichaean since the early 1990s, first in Washington and then in many state capitals. The result is an increase in acrimony and gridlock, a decrease in the ability to find bipartisan solutions. . . . .

So even from within his own balanced critique which accepts the value of moral capital, he is clearly aware of the dangers of group identity and especially of any group identity with a black-and-white view of the world and/or with an egotistical creed.

Narrow ideologies of this type are many and varied.

Collaboration

During the Second World War, for example, those who believed in some form of nationalism, originally well-short of Nazism’s totally racist ideology, when battered by the depredations of the Soviet Union during the period of its cynical pact with Hitler, were more likely to collude with pogroms (Snyder: page 130-31):

Insofar as the Soviets removed states that people wanted, and insofar as the Germans could pose as the ally of those who wished to restore them, the Germans could manipulate a powerful desire. The nature of this opportunity depended, of course, upon what leaders of national groups believed they could gain or lose from occupiers.

He explains exactly what this specifically meant in practice (page 142):

By destroying the Lithuanian and Latvian states, the Soviets gave the Germans the ability to promise a war of liberation.

What the Germans learnt (page 143) ‘was to exploit the experience of the Soviet occupation to further the most radical goals of their own, and what they invented was a politics of the greater evil.’

That pogroms were in fact somehow related to the sense that the Nazis were liberators is made clear (page 150):

. . . pogroms were most numerous where Germans drove out Soviet power, . . . Pogroms and other forms of local collaboration in killing were less likely in Poland, where anti-Semitism had been more prevalent before the war, than they were in Lithuania and Latvia, where anti-Semitism was less prevalent.

That pogroms tended not to escalate where that hopeful belief in liberation was absent is confirmed by their rarity in Poland where (page 161) ‘Germany could not even pretend to offer Poland to the Poles. Germany had already invaded Poland once.’ It seems as though people are not inclined to go the whole hog with wholesale systematic slaughter on the basis of psychological or material gain alone: you need an ideological component as well.

Narrow ideologies, possibly always in combination with greedy and/or self-serving tendencies, make us more vulnerable to perpetrating systematic atrocities against those who are seen as beyond the Pale[1] we have ourselves arbitrarily created. Self-interest and dissonance reduction seem to have played a strong part in the Holocaust as well: for example, blaming the Jews for all the ills perpetrated under Soviet occupation exonerated everyone else in those territories from the shame of their own collusion as well as ensuring the property they had gained would not be restored to their original owners (Snyder page 152-54). Killings do, of course, occur without an ideology to back them, and can involve large numbers of victims, but never on the same massive and sustained scale.

Raising a more general and bleakly pessimistic point, Snyder earlier quoted Herling, a victim of the Gulags (page 122): ‘. . . There is nothing, in fact, which a man cannot be forced to do by hunger and pain.’ Herling became convinced that ‘a man can only be human under human conditions.’

While the examples of heroic self-sacrifice in Nazi and Japanese concentration camps, in the cases of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, as well as in the current example of Bahá’í prisoners in Iran, suggest most strongly this is not true for everyone, Herling’s point is probably true for most of us under such extreme conditions. In our relatively benign social climate, the rarity of whistleblowing in the face of toxic reactions within an organisation suggests that most of us are too craven to stand up against abuses.

Expanding our Circle of Compassion

Zimbardo in Warsaw 2009

Zimbardo in Warsaw 2009

This sad probability is what drove Zimbardo, after his many experiences of humanity’s inability to resist evil, to formulate his ‘ten-step programme for resisting the impact of undesirable social influences and at the same time promoting personal resilience and civic virtue’ (The Lucifer Effect – pages 452-456). He ends his explanation of the steps by saying (page 456):

Before moving to the final stop in our journey, celebrating heroes and heroisms, I would like to add two final general recommendations. First, be discouraged from venal sins and small transgressions, such as cheating, lying, gossiping, spreading rumours, laughing at racist or sexist jokes, teasing, and bullying. They can become stepping-stones to more serious falls from grace. They serve as mini-facilitators for thinking and acting destructively against your fellow creatures. Second, moderate you’re in-group biases. That means accepting that your group is special but at the same time respecting the diversity that other groups offer. Fully appreciate the wonder of human variety and its variability. Assuming such a perspective will help you to reduce group biases that lead to derogating others, to prejudice and stereotyping, and to the evils of dehumanisation.

All this has confirmed my conviction that there is an imperative need for our society to actively believe in two fundamental truths: first, that altruism is as natural as egotism and can therefore be nurtured in our children, and second, that in this age it is not enough for us to extend our compassion only as far as our family or immediate neighbourhood – we can and should learn to embrace the whole earth and its inhabitants, living and non-living as our concern.

A core aspect of this is articulated in a message of the Universal House of Justice to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the project there on 24th May 2001:

Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

There is a challenging aspect to this as we discovered as we explored this together in a recent workshop at the Bahá’í Summer School in Keele.

There is no get-out clause in the wording that this message uses: ‘Each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’ So that means everyone must take responsibility for the welfare of everyone. I can’t wriggle out of it. This means me: I have to take responsibility for the welfare of everyone – no exceptions allowed.

Some aspects of this are not too challenging. I live near a college for the visually handicapped. Quite often as I walk to town I spot a blind person with a white cane at a difficult crossing, where traffic is hard to judge if you can’t see, struggling to decide whether or not it is safe to cross. It’s easy for me to offer help and let them take my arm as I choose the right moment to cross. It costs me no more than a minute or two and I know exactly what needs doing.

It gets harder with large groups that are equally in need of my help, if not more so, because effective help would require more effort and more knowhow. I might baulk at the idea of helping thousands of refugees even though I wanted to.

That was not the biggest problem though. What about those who undoubtedly are playing a part in creating the refugee problem, Isis for example? I have no problem helping the physically blind. What should be my attitude to the morally blind, those who might harm me if I try to help them and who are impossible for me to like let alone love? Isn’t moral blindness deserving of compassion and effective help?

In the workshop we got as far as realising that society has a responsibility to understand their deficiencies and seek to remedy them compassionately, while keeping those individuals who are doing this work safe from harm at the hands of psychopaths or fanatical ideologues.

It was heartening to find that Ricard’s book addresses exactly the same issue more effectively (page 28):

Like the sun that shines equally over both the “good” and the “bad,” over a magnificent landscape as well as over a pile of trash, impartiality extends to all beings without distinction. When compassion thus conceived is directed at a person who is causing great harm to others, it does not consist of tolerating, or encouraging by inaction, his hatred and his harmful actions, but in regarding that person as gravely ill or stricken with madness, and wishing that he be freed from the ignorance and hostility that are in him. This doesn’t mean that one will consider anyone who does not share one’s moral principles or deeply disagrees with them, as being ill. It refers to people whose views lead them to seriously harm others. In other words, it is not a matter of contemplating harmful actions with a equanimity, even indifference, but of understanding that it is possible to eradicate their causes the way that one can eliminate the causes of an illness.

In explaining a related meditative exercise he recommends (page 263):

Go further; include in this loving kindness, those who have harmed you, even those who are harming humanity in general. That does not mean that you want them to succeed in their malevolent undertakings; you simply form the wish that they give up their hatred, greed, cruelty or indifference, and that they become kind and concerned for the well-being of others. Look at them the way a doctor looks at his most seriously ill patients. Finally, embrace all sentient beings in a feeling of limitless and love.

fallon2-b0ee8cb596cc89ff6f00864002eb74ed8351d68e

James Fallon (far right) with his wife, daughters, and son.

What becomes even clearer both in terms of Ricard’s argument in his book as a whole, but also in terms of the Bahá’í model of civilisation building, is that prevention is infinitely better then cure. We need to address the problem of how to enable our society as a whole to widen its compass of compassion so that everyone who grows up within its sphere of influence embraces the whole of humanity in its circle of concern. There is some evidence (see link for Fallon’s view) to suggest that certain kinds of positive experience can temper the destructive aspects of even a genetic predisposition to psychopathy.

And once we have convinced ourselves of this, and we must do it soon, we need to ensure that we educate our children to become citizens who will feel inwardly compelled to take responsibility for the care of everyone and everything that lies directly or indirectly within their power. We must ensure that this sense of responsibility is not just a feeling. We must ensure that it is active.

More of this next time.

Footnote:

[1] The term ‘pale’ came to mean the area enclosed by a paling fence and later just figuratively ‘the area that is enclosed and safe’. So to be ‘beyond the pale’ was to be outside the area accepted as ‘home’. Catherine the Great created the Pale of Settlement in Russia in 1791. This was the name given to the western border region of the country, in which Jews were allowed to live. The motivation behind this was to restrict trade between Jews and native Russians. Some Jews were allowed to live, as a concession, ‘beyond the pale’. (See link for source of reference.)

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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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Chief Joseph ( for source of image see link)

Chief Joseph ( for source of image see link)

My parody of materialist thought last Thursday gives me a good excuse to republish this series on Medina’s book. This is the second of three posts: the first came out yesterday, the last tomorrow.

In conveying John Fitzgerald Medina’s perspective on the modern world in his book Faith, Physics & Psychology, I got as far as explaining his sense of the basic problem of materialism and his hopes for some form of holism as a solution. He also locates part of our current problem in the blinkered attitude of some forms of Christianity to other cultures.

Native North American Wisdom

That these kinds of Christianity mindlessly obliterated what they could not understand is a tragic example of prejudice from which were are still suffering the consequences (page 175):

The American Indians and European colonists had radically different worldviews. The Indian holistic perspective could have helped to equilibrate the excessively materialistic orientation of Western civilisation.

I will be examining the unholy consequences of in far more detail when I come to look at his consideration of racism and prejudice. For now I will deal with Medina’s treatment of the core essentials of the world views themselves. He quotes Chief Joseph 1840-1904 (page 176):

“We shall all be alike – brothers of one father and one mother, with one sky and above us and one country around us, and one government for all. Then the Great Spirit Chief who rules above will smile upon this land, and send rain to wash out the bloody spots from the face of the earth that were made by brothers’ hands.

He concludes (ibid):

I believe that the traditional Indian worldview contains the seeds for a new vision of reality that can help Americans solve many of their problems. Furthermore, the traditional Indian perspective is consistent with the modern holistic movement, and it is also consonant with several key teachings of the Baha’i Faith.

The contrasting attitudes to nature were a key source of conflict (page 181):

For the European colonisers, the natural environment fell into the secular category, and the earth and its resources were simply regarded as commodities to be exploited for economic and political gain.

. . . . In contrast, the American Indian holistic worldview drew no distinction between the secular realm and the sacred realm – even the natural environment was considered sacred.

The perspective of the Europeans was bizarre to say the least from the Native American point of view (pages 181-82):

. . . . for most Indians, the idea of buying and selling parts of the sacred Mother Earth as a privately held asset was inconceivable and made about as much sense as the idea of buying and selling the air.

A tragic and immensely costly war of ideas was virtually inevitable and not to the credit of the invaders (ibid): ‘ . . . the deist viewpoint was in direct conflict with the traditional spirituality of American Indians, who believed that the creator is in no way separate from his creation’ and the major implications of this were radically in conflict as well. The native American experienced (page 183) ‘all entities’ as existing ‘in an interconnected, interdependent cosmos . . . infused with the power emanating from the Creator’ whereas the interlopers’ worldview (page 184) had a ‘radically different . . . . despiritualised view of the natural world’ captured in the repellent language of Francis Bacon who 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.’

It’s hard to imagine a wider divide.

Chiefs of the Six Indian Nations (for source of image see link)

Chiefs of the Six Indian Nations 1871 (for source of image see link)

Social and political organisation

Medina stresses that we should not delude ourselves into believing that native Americans were backward and primitive, riddled by irrelevant superstitions too fantastic to be trusted as a guide to the building of an harmonious and just society. Far from it (page 186-87) as a lengthy quote from his book eloquently testifies:

It is important to recognise that the American Indian holistic model was able to create sophisticated societies that were capable of instituting democratic government, gender equality, egalitarian economic structures, mathematics, science, the arts, religion, and so forth.

. . . . In 1797, years after the American Revolutionary War, Paine wrote in Agrarian Justice, ‘the fact is, that the condition of millions in every country in Europe, is far worse than if they . . . . . . had been born among the Indians of North America at the present day.”

In Indian society throughout the Americas, land was owned communally. . . . The food produced in all the lands was generously shared among everyone in the community including the less fortunate, the aged, and the ill. . . . Indian people were not trained to be mindless drones operating within a collective. To the contrary, they were raised to be independent thinkers and problem-solvers; they were encouraged to think for themselves but to be selfless in the sense of acting for others.

[A French Jesuit missionary in 1657 stated] Their kindness, humanity, and courtesy not only makes them liberal of what they have, but causes them to possess hardly anything except in common. A whole village must be without corn, before any individual can be obliged to endure privation.

It is noteworthy that in most Indian societies, women were afforded more respect, equality, and democratic participation in socioeconomic and political decision-making than their European counterparts, who were still largely treated as the property of men.

There is further compelling evidence to support this point of view (pages 189-90):

The Iroquois League was founded sometime between A.D. 1000 and 1450 by the Indian messianic figures Hiawatha and Deganawidah.

. . . . [It] lasted for centuries as an economically prosperous and socially harmonious unit that spanned from New England to the Mississippi River.

In fact it was so successful that the founding fathers of the United States borrowed the model (page 192):

Franklin became a major advocate for the use of Indian political structures within the American government.

. . . The Iroquois system is now known as a ‘federal’ system, in which each sovereign unit retains some power to regulate internal affairs yet yields some of the sovereignty to one central government, which has the power to regulate affairs common to all. . . . [The writer of the U.S. constitution] had only one possible model of what would later become known as federalism – the League of Six Nations. Weatherford states, ‘The Indians invented it . . . . even though the United States patented it.’

Agriculture

The sophistication of the Native American model lay not just in politics (pages 199-200):

Contrary to the American colonists’ misinformed judgements, much evidence now exists to show that the American Indians were in fact, quite adept at cultivating a large variety of plants in a diversity of climates, soils, and environmental conditions. They utilised the Earths resources wisely, gently, and reverently.

This system may be at least equal if not superior to our environmentally disastrous monoculture (pages 201-02):

Unlike the Europeans, who planted row after row of the same plants, the Indians throughout North and Central America cultivated small plots of land that often looked like wild, haphazard gardens. . . . Scientific studies have shown that such Indian-style plots, call milpas in Mexico, are resilient to pests and weeds and protect the topsoil from erosion. . . . . .

Modern agronomists marvel at the simplicity and productivity of Indian-style agricultural plots, and some are actively studying it as an alternative to the European style, monocultural plantation form of farming, which leads to widespread soil erosion and degradation of topsoil due to the massive use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers.

Quantum Mechanics

Holism & Physics

This holistic and interconnected view of the world, underpinned by a sense of a transcendent guiding Presence, is increasingly seen as completely compatible with modern physics, though physics would draw back from including any kind of God in its own model, at least at this stage. Medina draws on a book Blackfoot Physics by F. David Peat (page 217):

Quantum physics now supports a picture of the universe as a dynamic, indivisible whole in which everything is interconnected and interrelated. . . . Some indigenous people, to this day, have been able to maintain a holistic view; . .

The seemingly solid world of appearances is not to be trusted, physics suggests. The native American view is the same (page 218):

At its most fundamental is the Indian philosophical understanding that this physical world is just an illusion, a ‘world of appearances’ or ‘shadow world’ – it is not the true reality. Similar to Bohm’s holographic model…, their philosophical understanding is that each part of the universe ‘contains’ the whole universe within it.

This position is also forcefully expressed by Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, as this experience from His childhood testifies:

In a letter Bahá’u’lláh recalled as a child seeing an elaborate puppet show about war and intrigues in the court of a king and the riches of those in authority. After the performance, Bahá’u’lláh saw a man come out from behind the tent with a box under his arm. “What is this box?” Bahá’u’lláh asked him, “and what was the nature of this display?”

“All this lavish display and these elaborate devices,” the puppet master replied, “the king, the princes, and the ministers, their pomp and glory, their might and power, everything you saw, are now contained within this box.”

Bahá’u’lláh then recalled: “… Ever since that day, all the trappings of the world have seemed in the eyes of this Youth akin to that same spectacle. They have never been, nor will they ever be, of any weight and consequence, be it to the extent of a grain of mustard seed.… Erelong these outward trappings, these visible treasures, these earthly vanities, these arrayed armies, these adorned vestures, these proud and overweening souls, all shall pass into the confines of the grave, as though into that box. In the eyes of those possessed of insight, all this conflict, contention and vainglory hath ever been, and will ever be, like unto the play and pastimes of children.”

Medina balances his dark picture of the Enlightenment and its imperialistic Puritan version of Christianity with an account of its more positive achievements but, in his view, these do not compensate for the cost of its tunnel vision (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.

We’re in Irreducible Mind territory here – the ground covered in the Kellys’ encyclopaedic examination of transpersonal phenomena in psychology. For example, they call into question the reductionist bias of the modern scientific consensus which dismisses in advance any and all evidence that suggests that there might be more to the mind than the workings of the material brain.

But more of that next time.

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Altruism Black EarthThe previous post, triggered by two contrasting books – Altruism and Black Earth – raised the possibility that we might repeat the horrors of the Holocaust. We may not have travelled as far down the road of moral enlightenment as we would like to think. We are prone to rationalising our self-centredness and have not freed ourselves from the virus of racism.

Ayn Rand (for source of image see link)

Ayn Rand (for source of image see link)

Ayn Rand

That a popular strain of American thought idolises the guru of egotism, Ayn Rand, should give us pause for thought. While proponents might contend that Rand and her acolytes place sufficient emphasis upon preserving the powers of the state to protect individual freedom in a way that will prevent any repetition of Hitler’s state destroying excesses, it is worth examining for a moment some of her ideas and the results that they are having to this day.

Ricard (page 302) recalls a televised interview in which Rand stated: ‘I consider altruism as evil . . . Altruism is immoral . . because . . . you are asked to love everybody indiscriminately . . . you only love those who deserve it.’ Her ‘sacred word’ is ‘EGO,’ but it did not bring her any happiness (page 305).

If she were not so influential in the States her bizarre position would not matter. Many Americans, in a 1993 survey, ‘cited Atlas Shrugged, her main work, as the book that influenced them most, after the Bible!’ Furthermore, as Ricard points out, she has powerful advocates (page 301):

Alan Greenspan, former head of the Federal Reserve, which controls the American economy, declared she had profoundly shaped his thinking, and that “our values are congruent.” Ayn Rand was at Greenspan’s side when he took the oath before President Ford. . . . Paul Ryan, who was a candidate for the American vice-presidency in 2012 as Mitt Romney’s running mate, requires his co-workers to read the writings of Ayn Rand; he asserts it was she who inspired his political career.

She has shaped libertarian economic thinking (page 303) which regards the poor as ‘killers of growth, beings who harm entrepreneurs.’ Moreover, ‘Only the individual creates growth; society is predatory, and the welfare state, a concept that prevails in Europe, constitutes “the most evil national psychology ever described,” and those who benefit from it are nothing but a gang of looters’ [The quote is from Ayn Rand 1976 in The Economist, 20 October, 2012, page 54].

I understand that it is important not to be simplistic about this and dismiss all libertarians as narrow-mindedly self-seeking. Jonathan Haidt analyses some of the complexities in his excellent The Righteous Mind. He clarifies that on the American political scene the word ‘libertarian’ denotes someone of a conservative mind set.  He teases out some important aspects of this world view in order to get out from under his preconceptions about it (pages 305-306):

[Libertarians] do not oppose change of all kinds (such as the Internet), but they fight back ferociously when they believe that change will damage the institutions and traditions that provide our moral exoskeletons (such as the family).

He unpacks this in the context of his understanding of the value of moral capital (page 292):

. . . we can define moral capital as the resources that sustain a moral community . . . . . .  and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.

He writes (page 307):

We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital. . . . . To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.

So, after this analysis of the way that liberals, with whom he identifies, fail to understand some of the crucial insights of their political opponents (and of course vice versa), he reflects upon a disturbing trend (page 309):

America’s political class has become far more Manichaean since the early 1990s, first in Washington and then in many state capitals. The result is an increase in acrimony and gridlock, a decrease in the ability to find bipartisan solutions. . . . .

So even from within his own balanced critique which accepts the value of moral capital, he is clearly aware of the dangers of group identity and especially of any group identity with a black-and-white view of the world and/or with an egotistical creed.

Narrow ideologies of this type are many and varied.

Collaboration

During the Second World War, for example, those who believed in some form of nationalism, originally well-short of Nazism’s totally racist ideology, when battered by the depredations of the Soviet Union during the period of its cynical pact with Hitler, were more likely to collude with pogroms (Snyder: page 130-31):

Insofar as the Soviets removed states that people wanted, and insofar as the Germans could pose as the ally of those who wished to restore them, the Germans could manipulate a powerful desire. The nature of this opportunity depended, of course, upon what leaders of national groups believed they could gain or lose from occupiers.

He explains exactly what this specifically meant in practice (page 142):

By destroying the Lithuanian and Latvian states, the Soviets gave the Germans the ability to promise a war of liberation.

What the Germans learnt (page 143) ‘was to exploit the experience of the Soviet occupation to further the most radical goals of their own, and what they invented was a politics of the greater evil.’

That pogroms were in fact somehow related to the sense that the Nazis were liberators is made clear (page 150):

. . . pogroms were most numerous where Germans drove out Soviet power, . . . Pogroms and other forms of local collaboration in killing were less likely in Poland, where anti-Semitism had been more prevalent before the war, than they were in Lithuania and Latvia, where anti-Semitism was less prevalent.

That pogroms tended not to escalate where that hopeful belief in liberation was absent is confirmed by their rarity in Poland where (page 161) ‘Germany could not even pretend to offer Poland to the Poles. Germany had already invaded Poland once.’ It seems as though people are not inclined to go the whole hog with wholesale systematic slaughter on the basis of psychological or material gain alone: you need an ideological component as well.

Narrow ideologies, possibly always in combination with greedy and/or self-serving tendencies, make us more vulnerable to perpetrating systematic atrocities against those who are seen as beyond the Pale[1] we have ourselves arbitrarily created. Self-interest and dissonance reduction seem to have played a strong part in the Holocaust as well: for example, blaming the Jews for all the ills perpetrated under Soviet occupation exonerated everyone else in those territories from the shame of their own collusion as well as ensuring the property they had gained would not be restored to their original owners (Snyder page 152-54). Killings do, of course, occur without an ideology to back them, and can involve large numbers of victims, but never on the same massive and sustained scale.

Raising a more general and bleakly pessimistic point, Snyder earlier quoted Herling, a victim of the Gulags (page 122): ‘. . . There is nothing, in fact, which a man cannot be forced to do by hunger and pain.’ Herling became convinced that ‘a man can only be human under human conditions.’

While the examples of heroic self-sacrifice in Nazi and Japanese concentration camps, in the cases of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, as well as in the current example of Bahá’í prisoners in Iran, suggest most strongly this is not true for everyone, Herling’s point is probably true for most of us under such extreme conditions. In our relatively benign social climate, the rarity of whistleblowing in the face of toxic reactions within an organisation suggests that most of us are too craven to stand up against abuses.

Expanding our Circle of Compassion

Zimbardo in Warsaw 2009

Zimbardo in Warsaw 2009

This sad probability is what drove Zimbardo, after his many experiences of humanity’s inability to resist evil, to formulate his ‘ten-step programme for resisting the impact of undesirable social influences and at the same time promoting personal resilience and civic virtue’ (The Lucifer Effect – pages 452-456). He ends his explanation of the steps by saying (page 456):

Before moving to the final stop in our journey, celebrating heroes and heroisms, I would like to add two final general recommendations. First, be discouraged from venal sins and small transgressions, such as cheating, lying, gossiping, spreading rumours, laughing at racist or sexist jokes, teasing, and bullying. They can become stepping-stones to more serious falls from grace. They serve as mini-facilitators for thinking and acting destructively against your fellow creatures. Second, moderate you’re in-group biases. That means accepting that your group is special but at the same time respecting the diversity that other groups offer. Fully appreciate the wonder of human variety and its variability. Assuming such a perspective will help you to reduce group biases that lead to derogating others, to prejudice and stereotyping, and to the evils of dehumanisation.

All this has confirmed my conviction that there is an imperative need for our society to actively believe in two fundamental truths: first, that altruism is as natural as egotism and can therefore be nurtured in our children, and second, that in this age it is not enough for us to extend our compassion only as far as our family or immediate neighbourhood – we can and should learn to embrace the whole earth and its inhabitants, living and non-living as our concern.

A core aspect of this is articulated in a message of the Universal House of Justice to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the project there on 24th May 2001:

Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

There is a challenging aspect to this as we discovered as we explored this together in a recent workshop at the Bahá’í Summer School in Keele.

There is no get-out clause in the wording that this message uses: ‘Each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’ So that means everyone must take responsibility for the welfare of everyone. I can’t wriggle out of it. This means me: I have to take responsibility for the welfare of everyone – no exceptions allowed.

Some aspects of this are not too challenging. I live near a college for the visually handicapped. Quite often as I walk to town I spot a blind person with a white cane at a difficult crossing, where traffic is hard to judge if you can’t see, struggling to decide whether or not it is safe to cross. It’s easy for me to offer help and let them take my arm as I choose the right moment to cross. It costs me no more than a minute or two and I know exactly what needs doing.

It gets harder with large groups that are equally in need of my help, if not more so, because effective help would require more effort and more knowhow. I might baulk at the idea of helping thousands of refugees even though I wanted to.

That was not the biggest problem though. What about those who undoubtedly are playing a part in creating the refugee problem, Isis for example? I have no problem helping the physically blind. What should be my attitude to the morally blind, those who might harm me if I try to help them and who are impossible for me to like let alone love? Isn’t moral blindness deserving of compassion and effective help?

In the workshop we got as far as realising that society has a responsibility to understand their deficiencies and seek to remedy them compassionately, while keeping those individuals who are doing this work safe from harm at the hands of psychopaths or fanatical ideologues.

It was heartening to find that Ricard’s book addresses exactly the same issue more effectively (page 28):

Like the sun that shines equally over both the “good” and the “bad,” over a magnificent landscape as well as over a pile of trash, impartiality extends to all beings without distinction. When compassion thus conceived is directed at a person who is causing great harm to others, it does not consist of tolerating, or encouraging by inaction, his hatred and his harmful actions, but in regarding that person as gravely ill or stricken with madness, and wishing that he be freed from the ignorance and hostility that are in him. This doesn’t mean that one will consider anyone who does not share one’s moral principles or deeply disagrees with them, as being ill. It refers to people whose views lead them to seriously harm others. In other words, it is not a matter of contemplating harmful actions with a equanimity, even indifference, but of understanding that it is possible to eradicate their causes the way that one can eliminate the causes of an illness.

In explaining a related meditative exercise he recommends (page 263):

Go further; include in this loving kindness, those who have harmed you, even those who are harming humanity in general. That does not mean that you want them to succeed in their malevolent undertakings; you simply form the wish that they give up their hatred, greed, cruelty or indifference, and that they become kind and concerned for the well-being of others. Look at them the way a doctor looks at his most seriously ill patients. Finally, embrace all sentient beings in a feeling of limitless and love.

fallon2-b0ee8cb596cc89ff6f00864002eb74ed8351d68e

James Fallon (far right) with his wife, daughters, and son.

What becomes even clearer both in terms of Ricard’s argument in his book as a whole, but also in terms of the Bahá’í model of civilisation building, is that prevention is infinitely better then cure. We need to address the problem of how to enable our society as a whole to widen its compass of compassion so that everyone who grows up within its sphere of influence embraces the whole of humanity in its circle of concern. There is some evidence (see link for Fallon’s view) to suggest that certain kinds of positive experience can temper the destructive aspects of even a genetic predisposition to psychopathy.

And once we have convinced ourselves of this, and we must do it soon, we need to ensure that we educate our children to become citizens who will feel inwardly compelled to take responsibility for the care of everyone and everything that lies directly or indirectly within their power. We must ensure that this sense of responsibility is not just a feeling. We must ensure that it is active.

More of this next time.

Footnote:

[1] The term ‘pale’ came to mean the area enclosed by a paling fence and later just figuratively ‘the area that is enclosed and safe’. So to be ‘beyond the pale’ was to be outside the area accepted as ‘home’. Catherine the Great created the Pale of Settlement in Russia in 1791. This was the name given to the western border region of the country, in which Jews were allowed to live. The motivation behind this was to restrict trade between Jews and native Russians. Some Jews were allowed to live, as a concession, ‘beyond the pale’. (See link for source of reference.)

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Dad in Civil Defence

My father (centre) in the Civil Defence

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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