News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Civilization@Risk

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Is there anything that provides a grimmer testament to human frailty than the Abu Ghraib pictures now available on the web? When you see these pictures, many react with disgust, anger, horror, or perhaps pity. Maybe you even react dumbly and uncomprehendingly. After all, they are pictures of men stripped naked and put into positions that make no sense. You have to think the brute reality of their physical discomfort into the pictures. The pictures themselves don't breathe the sighs or the smell of bodies contorted into shapes and positions meant to humiliate and demean. Pictures don't bleed.

But there's more to a picture than what's seen. That we fill that unseen void with our own nightmares or lack of feeling or overblown sense of pity--is it there where the gulf between human and human eventually erupts and discharges its foul poisons? For no picture can grasp that image that eludes every camera, that sense of who we are and that no word will ever inscribe on paper or sand but whose carcass can taunt with nagging ignorance.

These pictures tell a mute story of desolation and desecration; the profane shock of nude men that have become nothing but masses of flesh and hooded mannequins. They elicit more of that final and ultimate irony: our safe securities are nothing but lies and self-deception. ...

One thing that the photos from Abu Ghraib do not document and perhaps cannot show is the fragile hold that custom and ritual have on our lives. You have to delve deeply into the literature to see the concerted regime undertaken by the torturers to reduce these men to mere zeroes. The awful truth revealed by this psychological desecration is that what binds us to each other is quite tenuous and that it breaks quite easily in times of crisis and stress.

Humans are indeed a product of their culture and environment. This is a sad truth that the torturers and their medical gurus know well how to exploit and destroy. To break someone down, attack, mock, and crush their most sacred customs and ideals. Isolate, intimidate, deafen with noise to disconstruct a human being into its most elemental parts. And when the human grovels at your feet begging for mercy, start to retrain it and make it compliant and scarred for life. In this condition they might even learn how to kill for you.

Humans can and will mistreat each other much like a bad dog trainer treats an untrained dog. Given the right circumstances and the right conditions, to paraphrase Simone Weil, humans are capable of the most despicable crimes. The problem is, she said, that most of us will not admit that truth to ourselves. Instead, we work under the illusion that we wouldn't do it, we couldn't do it. ...

Our leaders want us to believe that what will save us is something called civilization. The Pope, for example, has joined the choir of those singing the hosannas of western culture and civilization. (Also see 700 Club reporter's comments.) Along with Pres. Bush, the Pope tells us that Christianity itself is threatened by the terrorists. This choir makes common cause on the Scylla and Charydbis of secular relativism and Islamic fundamentalism.

Were we to sacrifice a billion lives on the altar of western culture, would it produce a society where these crimes would never again arise? Given the assumption of original sin shared by the Pope and Bush, they cannot guarantee any such thing. And given the inability of social and cultural constructs to ensure this, why should I care whether western civilization survives or not?

The Pope’s and Bush’s view makes the basis for individual salvation count on belonging to a group of believers; belonging to this group somehow works magically to obviate the consequences of individual evil--that is, just as long as I belong to the group I am saved. Like those terrorists that say their group is the one to belong to, civilization has now come to a war between what group guarantees salvation or not.

Nothing in culture or civilization will save me from having to face the evil over and over that might face me as a possibility. Never, until time itself ends. The trumpet blare to fight for and save civilization as though it means the salvation of myself is just as much a manifestation of nihilism as the nihilism that these politico-religious leaders say they are out to destroy.

Religiously minded nihilism destroys values and guts self meaning as surely and widely as does the nihilism of secularity. Both purvey a type of self-consciousness that means joining the herd. Like any other consumer movements, religious institutions cannot but mirror this process since they have bought into the presuppositions of nihilism itself. And they themselves are part of the problem.

There are millions of ways that religious nihilism accommodates with purely temporal productions a universal human desire for happiness. Not only does the loss of cultural and social roots create the types of nihilism and violence exhibited by various religious fundamentalisms--Islamic, Jewish, Xtian, and Hindu--civilization and the need to ensure its survival also produces various forms of fascistic political regimes that fill the ennui and despair with repressive and nihilistic gestures.

As Kierkegaard noted long ago, modern individuals face a stark choice: join the fundamentalist charge back to the "origins," the culture of mass mind (mirror image of secularism itself) and thereby lose your real self in mindless despair. Or one can choose to realize the temporality of existence and in radical self-choice disengage oneself from the surrounding world; self-consciously aware of one's eternal destiny.

The way of the solitary individual is a narrow gate that few will enter. The modern age is a time when the spiritual is gutted and enervated to the point that even understanding that one has an eternal self is a joke and a scandal. Unless you can regain primitivity your only health will be envy, resentment, and the anger of the mutant lashing out an alien world.

False religion and its call to group identity destroy the true desire for love and community. Merge into the faceless herd of civilizattional religion or respond to the task of becoming a self, an individual of true faith striving to attain a perfection that you know in dreams but that existence itself tells you is impossible.

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