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Friday, October 3, 2014

A Lesson from Frederich Nietzsche


In Tom Wolfe’s 2000 essay collection, Hooking Up, he describes the impact of science on our understanding of human behavior.  He quotes Frederich Nietzsche’s famous “God is dead” as one example of how science—and social philosophy—killed our reverence for the unknown.  Wolfe goes on to explore the impact of Nietzsche’s statement on our own culture at the turn of the new millennium.  Writing in 1882 during a time of relative peace in Europe, Nietzsche warned:  “The story I have to tell is the history of the next two centuries.”   What Nietzsche predicted, Wolfe notes, is that “. . .  the twentieth century would be a century of ‘wars such as have never happened on earth,’ wars catastrophic beyond all imagining” (p. 98).   The reason:
Because human beings would no longer have a god to turn to, to absolve them of their guilt; but they would still be racked by guilt, since guilt is an impulse instilled in children when they are very young, before the age of reason.  As a result, people would loathe not only one another, but themselves.” (ibid.)

            What happened, of course, was the Twentieth Century, a century of two World Wars, revolutions in Russia and China, the Korean War, ideological wars in Vietnam and the Middle East, revolutions and counter-revolutions in Africa and Latin America, not to mention the so-called Cold War.   Turns out Nietzsche was right about that.
            But Nietzsche had a vision for the 21st century, too.  In The Will to Power, he predicted that this century—our century—would see “the total eclipse of all values,” based on the rise of what Wolfe describes as “barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods.”  “Nobody,” wrote Nietzsche, “should be surprised when . . . brotherhoods with the aim of robbery and exploitation of the nonbelievers . . . appear the arena of the future.”
            Certainly, the Nazis and Marxists of the 20th century met Nietzsche’s description, but Nietzsche’s vision is very descriptive of what has happened so far in this century.  Al Qaeda (which attacked New York the year after the publication of Wolfe’s essay) is just one example.  In the past few months, we’ve seen the example of ISIS’s “convert or die” attacks in Syria and Iraq, Russian ethic nationalism in the Ukraine, Boko Haram kidnappings of girls in Nigeria, just to name the most obvious examples.  And, we are only fourteen years into this century! 
            According to Nietzsche, we can expect more.  As Wolfe paraphrases Nietzsche, we are entering  “a frantic period of ‘revaluation,’ in which people would try to find new systems of values to replace the osteoporotic skeletons of the old.”
            So what does this mean for our generation?  If, in the 21st century, ISIS is something we can expect more as typical than as an aberration, what strategies must we develop to maintain our own culture?  
            Well, for one thing, it means that conflicts with “barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods” will not be war as our grandparents knew it.  This is not government-versus-government inter-national warfare.  It is likely that no peace treaties, no territorial redistributions, no economic collaborations will settle differences and make our enemies friends and allies.   In fact, while these brotherhoods are often violent, war itself, as we typically think of it, may not be a practical solution.  As the Middle East has demonstrated over the past century of European intervention, the methods of war—invasion, occupation, destruction of community, etc.-- only leave increased bitterness behind.  There is no government to accept defeat, no way for the participants to accept the new “normal” after war.  For that matter, there is no way to judge success. 
            What, then, can we do in the face of ISIS and other nationalistic brotherhoods? 
            First, of course, nations need take action against violence against those who cannot protect themselves.  This is best seen not as “war” in the traditional sense, but police action against nongovernmental criminal organizations.  The goal should be to stop the violence and bring the guilty to justice.  The process may look like war, but we need to have a different mindset about what we are doing.
            While these police actions are needed, there is much more to be done beyond that in order to address the underlying problems.  This requires a true coalition of interested and affected nations and other organizations, committed to a long-term engagement to seek both political and social solutions to the underlying issues that led to radicalism.  It  recognizes that these radical brotherhoods are not driven by territory or commercial gain alone, but by a deep loss of identity—a loss of control over their culture, their religion, and their sense of being part of a self-sustaining community.   This, as Nietzsche wrote, leads to a radical “revaluation” as the groups try to find a new identity.  Without these steps, we will simply see a vicious cycle of police actions with no end in sight. 
            There is a theory of social development called the “expanding communities” model.  It works at both the individual level and the societal level.  The individual level works something like this:  Early on, young people identify most with their immediate family.  As they grow, they begin to identify with a broader community—the neighborhood.  Being a member of a neighborhood becomes their public identity, and the family becomes a more personal, private identity.  As they grow older, youngsters may see their membership in their school as their public identity and privatize their neighborhood identity; then they move on to their profession as their public identity and privatize their identity as alumni.  So it goes.  The same sort of thing works at the societal level, but in broader historical terms that define the individual’s relationship to society itself.  Early in history, individuals identified with their family or tribe.  Over time, they formed villages containing multiple tribes; their tribal membership became a private identity as they became publically members of their village.  Then, perhaps, they identified with their religion, with their country, or with their region, etc.
            The question today for many people—it seems to be a particular problem in the Middle East but also in the Russian ethnic areas of the former Soviet Union—is that civilization change—a combination of colonialism, political revolution, international commerce, and the global information society, to name a few—has taken away their public identity, leaving them with the ghosts of private identities but with nothing else to give them a place in society.  This is the ultimate source of ISIS.
            The challenge, then, is to help all people find an identity that allows them to be productive members of the new global society that has arisen around them but that does not yet include them.  This is a task that requires involvement of many different parties, first, to understand the problem and, second, to seek cultural—and eventually political and economic—solutions.
            The current ISIS phenomenon is a good case.  Over the past two centuries, the culture of the Middle East has been undermined by all sorts of internal and external influences, from Napoleonic invasions to British colonialism to the commercial exploitation of the region’s oil reserves and the creation of a Jewish state, displacing millions of Palestinians.   Prior to Western involvement, the Middle East had achieved a tenuous stability through the overlapping influence of three distinct forces:  several Islamic sects, cultural/ethnic groupings, and political/military realms.  Each had its own area of influence that, often, overlapped with but did not coincide with political borders.  The experience of the past century has upset these balances by putting the emphasis on political/economic boundaries. 
            There is little that the United States or other Western powers can do to address this imbalance on their own.  It requires an open discussion among Middle Eastern states, religious and cultural leaders, economists, and other governmental and nongovernmental organizations whose activities have an impact on the issues.  It is a good example of why we need a vibrant United Nations.  We need to accept the reality that we are living, essentially, between civilizations.  Western civilization as many of us understand it ended with the two world wars of the last century.  We are now living in a global economy that is still developing and has yet to take on recognizable form as a civilization.  Nietzsche’s warning is still valid.  We need to find a new standard—a new god, if you will—that will give us a moral compass in these new waters.