observations and opinion
As I write this, I enjoy peace. I feel safe in my home, on our hill, overlooking the lake and hills in autumn flame. It is a perfect scene. And you, curled up in your onesie at home, sitting at a cafe window or staring at your phone as the bus jostles you to work – you too, are almost certainly spending your day in a place of peace. This peace is the legacy we have been handed by our parents and grandparents, brothers, sisters, daughters and sons.
My parents, aunts and uncles were young adults during World War II, when their homes were bombed and their friends were blown to pieces and their psyches scarred. They came home and built a cautious, profitable peace. My generation grew up hyper-conscious that war most likely meant nuclear holocaust and so we, naturally, became desperate for peace. That threat seemed to dissolve like the cheap concrete of the Berlin Wall and we’ve just been trying to make money since then. A North American born in the mid-80s had a childhood with essentially no physical or psychological burden of war – until adolescence, when war came smashing into our buildings. But even that soon settled in as a kind of background noise – Afghanistan, Iraq, etc – cutting deep only when someone you knew personally had to serve or suffer abroad.
For those of us who have not personally known war – and that is most of us – we treat peace as an entitlement, as the natural order of things. And when I say “peace” I mean not only the absence of organized war, but also the absence of serious social disruption. In most developed countries, New World or Old, there is a high level of personal security: your body is protected by law and police, as are your goods; you can go shop for a purse and simply expect to walk back from the store unmolested (yes, this varies from place to place and yes, the experience of women differs from men; but on a relative scale, even the most vulnerable people in affluent countries live in a state of “peace” compared, to say, the slums of Rio or almost anywhere in Africa).
Thus, we live with the expectation of being safe, and figuring, generally accurately, that people aren’t going to do bad things to us. No guarantees but despite paranoia, statistics suggest most people in North America or Western Europe aren’t going to encounter any kind of crime at all, much worse than a burglary or credit card fraud. If you have ever had too much to drink but still gotten home with your socks and your wallet in place, you know this is true.
Why is it true? In the organized, affluent countries so many of us call home, why are we so safe? Why is it that there aren’t more bad people, doing bad things? Is it possible that we have perfected some New Kind of Man, a non-violent and rational being who is now suitable for employment on the Starship Enterprise? Has human nature changed, perhaps due to the very high doses of protein and sugar in the affluent diet? Has fluoridation drugged us all into a pale-eyed stupor, like the imprisoned souls of “The Giver” ? Have we just forgotten war, thanks to our daily dose of meds?
Probably not. Human beings are not much more evolved today than 100, 200 or 300 years ago. We’re taller if we eat more protein, fluoride allegedly keeps our teeth in better shape. Physically and mentally there is no proof of any vast evolution in us over recent centuries. Indeed, if you look at the worst behaviours of the past century, you might well think we are evolving backwards.
It is probably true that human beings are no better, or worse, intrinsically, than ever. And they are not “better” in countries where law prevails, than in other places.
But their behaviour is better – where law prevails. Law that establishes norms, which people feel are reasonably fair; law which processes disputes in what is, much of the time, an even-handed way; law which demands that we respect each other’s persons and property, and which threatens us with punishment and social isolation, if we do not. if you do something “bad” in Canada or such places, you will pay for it. You will pay for it literally. You will pay for it with uncomfortable social stigmatization. You will pay for it with time in a jail cell. The truth is, the darker impulses that have always lurked in the hearts of men still lurk, even in Canadian hearts (hard to believe, I know). But those impulses are constrained by social, police and judicial forces, while society offers a greater sense of cohesion and reward to make wildly anti-social behaviour unnecessary or unattractive.
Not for everyone, not all the time, of course. But for the most part. Even if it is unconscious, and it often is, adherence to legally-enforced norms is the potent glue that holds a society together in some form of “peace.” It can be an unfair peace – segments of society can be marginalized or severely disadvantaged relative to others. But there is no need to pretend that a law-abiding society is perfect, to observe its advantages.
If you ride your bike home from yoga tonight, there will be an entire network – web – of rules, customs, laws, mechanisms, habits and collective choices which enable that to happen. Your bike had to be made, and those who built it were guaranteed a wage for their labour; so too the building where you will stretch; the bike will be locked to a rack, if you’re smart, and that will (maybe) not be assaulted by someone with tools. Odds are, your bike will be there when you come out of yoga. And then somehow you will make it home safe on the road, because enough motorists will respect your space and you will make smart choices. And when you unlock your house or apartment door, it will be intact too. That’s not a guarantee but the odds are overwhelmingly high, depending where you live.
What you will not think about is that web of decisions which make it all possible. And what you will not think about either, likely, is that someone has to preserve that network. What you will not think about, although it is true, is that you are protected by armed guards. Because as robust as our personal or collective consensual commitment to peace may be, it is nothing – it is a piece of paper on fire – if we do not contribute collectively to the defense of that peace. And that is because the instincts of man, which have so often made the world so terrible a place, are no different or better today than they were 100, 50, 10 or 2 years ago. We can still be monsters.
When I look out on the brilliant coloured forests on the hills around our house, I see the danger that lurks within humanity. A hundred years ago, the hills around our lake were bare: scraped down to a frisson of topsoil, plugged with potatoes and whatever else might survive in the stony mountain earth. This was farming so hard and unprofitable that only the desperately poor or foolish would attempt it. Eventually the farmers gave up. It took almost everything people had to fail at farming this land; it took the native evergreens, birches, ash and maples about a week to spring back up and reclaim it.
Unless we constantly plow the field, the weeds shoot back up. The soil of humanity – and that would be human beings – crawls with the unwelcome but incorrigible potential for evil. A farmer cannot go into her house, pull the blinds down and believe, for a minute, that if she ignores her fields that her crops will survive. Nature will reach up and destroy it. So too the city gardener. So too the public works department: leave cracks unattended and the sidewalks and roads will sprout with green. If we are not vigilant, almost to the point of exhaustion, the civilization that we have cultivated and enjoyed, will be swamped with invasive plants. That’s not paranoia – that’s just the lesson of all of human history. We ignore it to our peril.
We are fragile, we are imperfect, we can be strong but we can be easily swayed. And our strength can easily become a force for evil. Each of us has an inventory of what we think were the worst human crimes: the Holocaust, the destruction of native American civilization, the Serbian genocide against its neighbours, the Rwandan conflict, you name it. All of that was perpetrated by people with the same kind of blood, sinew, brain tissue and internal organs as you. The man down the street who punches his wife is not you – he is different from you – but he is not that different from you.
And here’s the really bad news: another man just like him is being born this minute. He is being raised in some awful alchemy of factors which will teach him that he is powerless, that he is unloved and threatened, and he will be so overcome with his cowardice that he will torment those who are weaker than him: animals, smaller kids, eventually women. If he is a real mess he may get lured into a violence cult, such as ISIS, and turn his lesser instincts into a tool for horror. And no matter what happens, if he repents and sincerely regrets and even changes his conduct for the rest of his life and is a saint, another like him will be born somewhere else tomorrow. The weeds spring up unattended, and we just can’t guard every inch of the other against them.
It has been said that conservatives have an inherently disenchanted view of humanity, and so rely on that as an excuse to tolerate what is wrong in the world. Maybe. If true then it is no less true that progressives (liberals et al) often have a falsely positive view of humanity, a belief in its perfectibility or improvement. Both of these are generalizations, which means that they are true, except when they are not.
My own view is this: individually we are capable of change and improvement, even against our most powerful and terrible instincts. But that is a matter of choice, a decision we make. Those who have no reason, insight or inclination to make such a decision, will not change or improve. If they live in a culture where they are marginalized and disdained (and that could be Ferguson, Missouri just as easily as Anytown, Syria) they will have little stake in the social compact, and they will seek out another team, other avenues to express themselves. It is our duty to civilization to give them more reasons to buy-in, and that includes giving them reasons to regret not buying in. That’s the deal.
A young teenager, my daughter has ruefully noted that society is still terribly sexist, particularly in how it pressures girls and women to turn themselves into dolls for the entertainment or titillation of others. “Things are still pretty bad” she has said. Yes, I countered, but if I had to choose a single place and time, in the whole history of this world, for her to be born, it would be here, now. Because things are in fact better for her, than they were for women a generation or two generations ago.
But they are not better by accident: they are better through work, ruthless, endless, sometimes joyless toil, fighting the tide against the entire history of mankind, which has always pushed women down and kept them down. The bad news that tide will never end. It may ebb in places, but it is constantly here. And we must martial our strength to guard against the forces of reaction and oppression and hate and we must, if necessary, imprison or destroy the people who are committed to violating our laws and rolling-back the gentle progress we have made towards a slightly better planet.
If we believe in progress – if we believe in greater equality of opportunity (or outcome for that matter), if we believe in taking the poison of bigotry out of decision-making, if we believe that girls in Syria, California, Chile, Bosnia, Chad or anywhere else, should have personal liberty and security, we have to act on that belief. If we want our kids to have a planet where crops grow and everyone doesn’t get skin cancer, we have to act on that. How do we witness the horrors of ISIS, or any other gang of criminals, and stand idly by? Haven’t we done that over and over and over, historically, and haven’t we seen the results? We cannot be stupid with the use of force (please God) but we cannot lie to ourselves that our liberty, our peace, is not reliant on the exercise or threat of force. That is just part of how it works and we must act accordingly. Otherwise all of our ideals are just words.
That means we need people who are prepared to use force, in the service of good. It is the cop who guards the daycare or the abortion clinic. It is the security guard in the lobby of your office building. It is the soldier plodding her way across foreign sand, body and mind jangled and bent by fear and exhaustion and stress. It is the guy putting rivets on a tank in a factory in Iowa. It is the woman piloting a drone. It is a President, who wants to de-militarize his country just a little, recognizing that the world is not as nice a place as he is – is not as nice as the people who voted for him – making decisions which disappoint or enrage those who are sick to death of war.
Violence is not the only defense against madness or bad behaviour, we know it isn’t. But when violence – especially oil-fueled, ideologically sanctified, well-organized and terrorizing violence – is taken up against civilization, what choice do we have but to answer it in kind? Is the western world permitted to suck the world’s resources dry, loll about in a soft bed of money and roll over when the very places we have so colossally messed up (the Mid East for example) are consumed by a rapacious cancer such as ISIS? Yes, the very wealthy and very unpleasant local regimes (in particular the Saudis) have to step up and crush “The Caliphate”, if only because they are inevitably going to be visited by it. But do we do nothing? How did we get so entitled that we can take so much and give so little back, when it becomes uncomfortable?
And these forces don’t need to be as overtly monstrous as The Caliphate to warrant resistance. You know what you believe to be just and right , you know what you treasure. Are you ready to let it disappear because you don’t like the idea of protecting it with force? If so, tell your local police department it can stop protecting you, your loved ones, your schools or clinics. Let’s shoot out the lights and make it really dangerous to walk home at night. No, you won’t do that. Because you know it would be wrong.
It is an inconvenient truth, but the forces of darkness live under the skin of the world and need only an organizing principle and agent – ISIS is just a recent, exceptionally awful and dangerous example – to surface and consume the good earth. This will always be true and progressives must react to it with vigor and, when required, with ruthless strength.
The myth of progress is that it is ever permanent. It isn’t – it is progress: a continual moving forward, often against forces which are pressing as hard (or harder) against that progress. Progress means fighting the forces of reaction. That has always been true and will always be true.