News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: The Plague... Continued?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Plague... Continued?

I have posted here some remarks on the prospect of a biological plague and its moral and spiritual consequences. Of course, there are the symbolic aspects of plague that many writers and thinkers have used to express various political or spiritual messages. Perhaps the most famous recent use of the theme came from Albert Camus in his book, The Plague.

The beauty of symbolism is that it can mean many things to many people. It's always been my understanding that Camus was writing about the human condition. While situated in a specific time/place, the book explores humanity's mortality and the various ways we deal with the continual threat of death in philosophical, experiential, spirutal terms. There are other interpretations, though. ...

In a recent appearance at the US naval Academy, controversial authors Mearsheimer and Walt--known for their very strong objections to a linkage in foreign policy between the US and Israel--presented their views on the situation in Iraq, as well as future repercussions of this war. In response to a question, Mearsheimer makes the following rather creative interpretation of Camus' plague:

I remember once in English class we read Albert Camus's book The Plague. I didn't know what The Plague was about or why we were reading it. But afterwards the instructor explained to us that The Plague was being read because of the Vietnam War. What Camus was saying in The Plague was that the plague came and went of its own accord. All sorts of minions ran around trying to deal with the plague, and they operated under the illusion that they could affect the plague one way or another. But the plague operated on its own schedule. That is what we were told was going on in Vietnam. Every time I look at the situation in Iraq today, I think of Vietnam, and I think of The Plague, and I just don't think there's very much we can do at this point. It is just out of our hands. There are forces that we don't have control over that are at play, and will determine the outcome of this one. I understand that's very hard for Americans to understand, because Americans believe that they can shape the world in their interests.

But I learned during the Vietnam years when I was a kid at West Point, that there are some things in the world that you just don't control, and I think that's where we're at in Iraq.
As the article reports, after something of a stunned silence, the assembled cadets, officers, and others gave Mearsheimer and the other guests a standing ovation for their responses and comments.

I am somewhat bemused, perhaps confused, by this response. My first reaction is to see it as some kind of mystification, a denial of responsibility, a fatalism even. I find that response unacceptable. As much as I appreciate the pathos of Mearsheimer's speech, I do not accept that this type of passive acceptance fits this situation. Not that there are not circumstances and situations where one might not indeed simply accept things that fall outside of your control. Indeed, not to do so, not to recognize that life often presents such circumstances and situations is probably a sign of being a control freak, if not sociopathic.

Yet, I disagree that Iraq is that type of event. It is a man-made occurrence whose causes are well-known as ahving their origin in choices made by the Bush administration. These can be known and understood and counter-acted by making other choices and implementing other actions.

Perhaps I am overstating Mearsheimer's point. Again, the pathos of his remarks--in the context of his audience--is very effective. It could be, however, that Mearsheimer is putting the Iraq "war" in a much larger context. He does say: "But I learned during the Vietnam years when I was a kid at West Point, that there are some things in the world that you just don't control..."

Is he referring to the historical conflict between civilizations or something of that kind? Is the you here the indefinite you as in anybody or everybody? If it is, then he's referring to you, the everybody we supposedly are. That is, the I that I am as part of this or that culture, society or civilization.

There are problems with even this formulation, disregarding for the moment the statement as a matter of personal belief. Its acceptance of the historical as a force outside one's control, holding up one's hands in exasperation or futility is a sign of despair. But the despair originates in accepting the notion that I or anyone else is a passive member of a collective whose purposes or ends are coincident with the fate of that collective.

Certainly, I could say that there are forces that I have no control over. That's a fact of life that I must indeed accept just to face the real facticity of who I am. As I mentioned above, to do otherwise is to imagine a measure of control over events that I simply do not have. To try to do so, to believe that I can somehow control all things about the world around me implies a pathological desire that itself probably begins in a deep sense of despair.

But to accept the notion that I am only this factical being, to rule out the possibility of affecting events based on possibilities inherent within that very factical matrix that I call my own is not only existentially dishonest, it's also immoral. A moral being does not identify his or her being with the collective will or the interests of the race or species. An ethical being sees that its own sense of well-being often means opposing such a view because to do otherwise means that I have given up the struggle to live as a moral being.

Mearsheimer's fatalism is surprising. After courageously taking on the Israel lobby, he now contends that the fight against injustice may simply be a "done deal" against which individual and personal actions have no effect. I reject this view for various reasons; most notably, I do not accept the view that I am simply a weaponless pawn of history. To do so means that I will--if only silently--assent to injustice and immorality. And that is something I cannot and must not accede to.

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