The history of the 20th century proves the view that as the vision of God fades, we first become clever monkeys; then we exterminate one another. Paul Johnson
There is also the Territory of historical self-righteousness: if we had lived south of the Ohio in 1830, we would not have owned slaves; if we had lived on the frontier, we would have killed no Indians, violated no treaties, stolen no land. The probability is overwhelming that we belong to a generation that will be found by its successors to have behaved deplorably. Not to know that is, again, to be in error and to neglect essential work, and some of this work, as before, is work of the imagination. How can we imagine our situation or our history if we think we are superior to it? Wendell Berry
Pol Pot Proves Existence of God
On December 6 -7, 1999, NPR presented a two part report on Cambodia.
The documentary assessed the cultural, social and political outcomes of the Khmer Rouge "revolution." It also explored Cambodian attempts to bring Killing Field criminals to justice.
The purpose of this essay is to examine "the ground" in which justice is planted, the soil from which justice springs, whether justice can exist without an "objective guarantor."
The Khmer Rouge -- like every modern revolutionary movement -- claimed to represent "the essence" of justice and dignity. To the extent Pol Pol believe he embodied The True Incarnation of Socialist Justice, he arrogated omnipotence to himself.
What is justice? Where does justice come from? On what ground does justice make its appeal? Can justice survive the human claim that mere mortals are its only embodiment?
Can we prevent individual zeal-for-justice from becoming random antinomianism? Once people claim to author justice, can anything prevent them from "making up the rules as they go along?"
It the West, we believe human beings are endowed with inalienable rights, a noble sentiment that begs this question: "Who, or what, endows inalienability with the quality of inalienability? How is inalienability vouched safe?"
For example, is there any way to argue against "the allure of cocaine" or "the seductiveness of the zipless fuck" once they're viewed as self-evident truths?
Without a "transcendental ground" in which value is "objectively" rooted, what prevents any "right" from being alienated? Either we believe in an actual depository of transcendental significance -- a "God," "Dharma" or "Tao" which transcends the human condition, or human beings will suffer an irrepressible urge to deify themselves, "to make it up as they go along."
If a "higher power" exists, and if higher power encompasses human interests, then it is at least possible for the inalienability of human rights to be vouchsafed by an external touchstone. If there exists an "external warrant," an "objective guarantor" then we can determine that "rights" have "roots," that rights are informed by actual "meaning" that resides beyond the capriciousness of human will.
However, if there is no "higher power," then Mao was right: "all power comes from the barrel of a gun."
Absent "higher power," all argument centers on subjectivity, and, in the domain of subjectivity there is no "brake" to prevent one human being from asserting supremacy over another.
Clearly, we can pay lip service to the belief that individual humans have no "right" to subject other humans to their will -- or to otherwise harm them - but why not?
In the absence of a transcendental guarantor, there is nothing to defend against the self-arrogated primacy of individual will. Lacking a transcendental guarantor, individuals would be foolish not to fight for the supremacy of their personal ambitions, which are philosophically akin to the subjective ambitions of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Attila the Hun and Jack the Ripper.
This struggle for brute primacy occurs almost everywhere in nature. "Natural mandate," defines clear pecking orders, minutely subdivided hierarchies of dominance/submission relationships based on force, or the threat of force.
On the other hand, Democracy, equality and freedom are constructs that depend not on nature, and not on mere human ascription of value, but (if they exist at all) they depend on a depository of meaning that transcends the human condition.
The American Declaration of Independence insistef that "we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights," an observation that cuts to the heart of this issue: without a transcendental guarantor, there can be no independence based on egalitarianism. Lacking transcendental ground in which liberty and equality are actually rooted, individual human ambition will, by nature, escalate violence in order to "fight it out."
The Modern Argument holds that human beings may do whatever they wish so long as "it doesn't harm anyone." This principle is lofty, but fails to ask whether harmlessness is possible? Every time we purchase a computer or a car, we contribute to the direct or indirect degradation of the biosphere, simultaneously marginalizing the poor.
We moderns -- reluctant to be humbled by any concept akin to "original sin" -- are certain we can be "pure."
It is an interesting paradox that "Puritanism" lies at the heart of most revolutionary movements.
Despite our determination to be pure, we are, perhaps, more vicious for not recognizing our complicitous guilt in the perpetuation of inevitable structural malfeasance. Tax-supported globalization, for example, may invoke the greatest holocaust of all time - the elimination of the world's peasantry both culturally an physically. Despite the ravages of globalization and the "structural adjustments" it requires, we insist on personal innocence -- if only because our ideology is "in the right place." We seem blithely unaware that we might minimize our collusion by refusing to pay taxes.
Instead, we bobble from one political promise to another -- from one "new messiah to another" -- never becoming sufficiently invested in any of them so that we accept responsibility for the inevitable waywardness of every hero or cause. It is as if we are addicted to sacrificing virgins, each new political promise -- Stalin, Mao, Sendero Luminoso, Pol Pot -- slowly transforming itself into the most recent "political experiment to violate The Pure Vision," a vision which, apparently, each of us, individually, is clever enough to hold fast.
Once we grapple with the impossibility of purity, we enter new and humbling territory. Wendell Berry described this territory well: "There is also the Territory of historical self-righteousness: if we had lived south of the Ohio in 1830, we would not have owned slaves; if we had lived on the frontier, we would have killed no Indians, violated no treaties, stolen no land. The probability is overwhelming that we belong to a generation that will be found by its successors to have behaved deplorably. Not to know that is, again, to be in error and to neglect essential work, and some of this work, as before, is work of the imagination. How can we imagine our situation or our history if we think we are superior to it? Then there is the Territory of Despair, where it is assumed that what is objectionable is "inevitable," and so again the essential work is neglected. How can we have something better if we do not imagine it? How can we imagine it if we do not hope for it? How can we hope for it if we do not attempt to realize it?"
By grappling with the impossibility of purity, we come to see that every Value System --- socialist, communist, capitalist, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, Jewish, animist, Taoist, Jainist, materialist, atheist --- is, at bottom, a Belief System. Furthermore, we can determine that some belief systems coincide with an external guarantor of meaning and justice, while others do not.
Having said that, it may be true that there is no external guarantor of meaning or justice. However, if there is not, we devolve, inevitably, to Mao's power-brokered free-for-all.
In the end, nothing of ultimate value can be proven. All value systems are taken "on faith."
For example, what might prevent certain advocates of "animal rights" from arguing that humankind is a deadly canker parasitizing the biosphere, and that the elimination of "homo sapiens" represents the only path to a "final solution"?
In the absence of an external guarantor, what persuades us that life is worth living?
When Stalin -- informed by the self-certainty of "scientific materialism" -- asked "how many divisions the Pope commanded," he expressed that had no answer. Yet.
In the end, the Pope -- without a single division -- outlived the Communist experiment by 2 millenia.
Maybe, the survival of the Papacy - or, for that matter, the demise of Stalin - are profound tragedies. Who's to say? Unless some external guarantee of meaningful serves as touchstone for making value judgment --- ANY value judgment.
Another common argument is that value judgments cannot be made at all. This argument appeals to individuals unfamiliar with intellectual rigor, but still fails the straight-face test. Everyone -regardless their belief system - is passionately attached to "The Truth" of their personal position.
The Modern Argument is based on the premise (the belief, really) that any transcendental "ground of being"
- whether we call it Tao, Dharma or God - is a subjective construct, perhaps the most subjective construct of all.
It is true that egregious horrors have taken place in the name of religion. But the crux of true religiosity hinges on weakness, on emptiness, on humility, on "the void," on "sunyatta," on lowering oneself to "become the ground," to "under-stand," --- not elevating oneself to "lord and master," dictator, cacique, know-it-all. Unlike nature's hierarchical pecking orders, true religiosity is based on the premise that "anyone who leads must first be servant of all," must "wash the feet" of everyone.
True religiosity requires the voidance of self in order to make room for something (or someone) bigger, greater, fuller --- something or someone lastingly satisfying, someone or something pre-existent whose purpose (at least in part) is to fill the emptied human vessel with value that ultimately resides beyond the vessel. It is this depository of "meaningful otherness" that imbues self with worth, that endows inalienable rights with inalienability.
Just as a container's emptiness is the pre-condition of its utility, so does human fulfillment depend on a process of "self-emptying" that makes way for the entry of trans-human value.
Irreligiosity, on the other hand, is acquisitive. It fears the void. Panicked by the perceived threat of emptiness (and its companion, "stillness"), irreligiosity is frenzied to "fill up."
The ultimate aspiration of irreligiosity is to overflow, to have too much, to accumulate, to collect, to put things in storage, to guard them in vaults, to create bastions and walls, status and class, insulation and isolation, self-willfulness and perversity. The primary end of this sound and fury is to ascribe to each self-deified being some measure of "lasting" definition.
If the mythic rationale for Lucifer's fall is taken into account, prognosis for the modern condition is not happy.
Chesterton observed that the modern world is living off "the principal" of Christianity, off the accumulated bankroll of Christendom. In the absence of "new deposits," it is foolish to pretend -- as globalizers do -- that the post-Cold War Pax Americana is - at long last - the harbinger of universal good news. In fact, globalization represents an uncontrolled plunge into valuelessness.
"Falling" and "flying" have a lot in common. Unfortunately, not enough.
The modern argument is essentially subjective, whether or not its adherents are conscious of the fact.
Moderns -- especially "educated," "enlightened" moderns -- are desperate to believe that an "appeal to human rights" does NOT require roots in any "ground of being" - the only "place" where rights can be endowed with transcendental meaning.
It is refreshing, if controversial, to recall Vaclav Havel's address to the United Nations: "Consciousness is prior to being."
Or, take a more concrete example
The ancient Jews did not believe in infanticide.
The ancient Greeks did.
In part, ancient Jews faulted the Greeks -- and its pantheon of Olympian gods -- because the Living God could not, according to the Israelites, warrant infanticide.
Perhaps the most revealing characteristic of ancient Jewry was its embodiment of contradiction.
Ancient Israel displayed the unique genius of recognizing that difficult prophecy -- prophecy that flew in the face of nearly every natural human inclination -- was worthy of canonization. Despite the difficulties occasioned by "inspired prophecy" (in fact, due to these difficulties) the prophets - while routinely oppressed and sometimes killed -- HAD to be sanctioned as God's emissaries.
This acknowledgement of difficult truth -- coupled with the recognition that very few human beings welcome difficult truth -- speaks of a religiosity that is, if not lunatic, the antidote for subjective slosh and apodictic self-glorification... the antidote for a world in which we prostrate ourselves at the altar of Mammon, pretending that the New Golden Calf has enough teats to suckle everyone.
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman has written a book entitled, "On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society." The first seven sections of Grossman' s book, while informative, display a disappointingly flat tone. However, the final section brims with insight.
Grossman, a psychologist and historian of military violence, notes that in WWII, only 15-20% of American soldiers were willing to fire their rifles. In the Korean war, this figure rose to 50%. In Viet Nam, the "willing-to-fire" figure hovered between 90 and 95%.
Grossman argues that many cultural phenomena -- particularly TV and violent video games (routinely used by the military to desensitize soldiers to the horrors of war) -- are creating a sea change in the post-modern psyche. Much of what we have considered wrong until now, has been re-defined as O.K., sanctioned as "desirable."
Perhaps this sanctioning of "desire" -- this redefinition of "lust," "envy," "greed," and "violence" as worldly-wise virtues -- accompanies the modern need to apotheosize subjectivity, to redefine Self as God, to abandon "traditional" disciplines in order that each individual determine "truth" for himself.
Or, if one is averse to "God-talk," the ongoing re-definition of traditional evils as virtues squares with the Tibetan Buddhist observation that much of the modern world is determined to "destroy Dharma."
At the end of radical subjectivity's yellow brick road "there's no there there." Lacking rooted Truth, how can anyone embody it? Lacking parameters of Justice that dwell beyond the human condition, how can humankind establish a framework that breathes a life of its own? The self-ascribed "Justice Project" has no more hope of success than Skinner's infamous "box."
Modernity has devised an ideological smorgasbord that exempts us from the need to sort value and to select meaning. Modernity is content to catalog and collect, to consider the world's variant values as simply different from one another. First we choose one value, then another, and another, and another. Like serial monogamy and serial murder, moderns subscribe to serial "value" systems.
What happens when we go bump in the night against the central role played by human sacrifice in Aztec, Mayan and Incan cultures (to name a few)?
It is odd - and profoundly revealing - that the modern world denigrates the careful discrimination of value, even as our individual lives grow unprecedentedly fussy. Never has a human culture felt so righteous about the passionate pursuit of individual whim. Often our passionate puruits of pleasure, comfort and consolation reflect extraordinarily narrow parameters of acceptability such as stringently defined "dietary codes" or the many political and attitudinal litmuses to which we subject our fellows.
It is, as Chesterton pointed out, an irony of human existence, that only transcendence guarantees the health of immanence. Lacking belief in values that transcend the human condition, we degenerate into the fascism of non-reflective, materialist immediacy, the Tyranny of Now. Wishful thinking and gushing feeling will not forestall tyranny for more than a couple of generations, when, at last, the spiritual bankroll of our believing ancestors is exhausted. Sooner or later, the suasive force of mere materialism obliges us (or our not distant descendants) to believe in "bread alone."
Frederick Franck argues the insufficiency of scientific materialism: "The consciousness of the scientist, in his mechanized universe, logically reaches the point where --- if he practices his science existentially and not merely intellectually -- the meaning of his own existence becomes an absurdity and he stands face to face with his own nothingness. People are not aware of this dilemma. That it does not cause great concern is in itself a symptom of the sub-marine earthquake of which our most desperate world-problems are merely symptomatic.
Gandhi said: "God would not dare appear to a starving man except in the form of bread."
However, it is also true that "man does not live by bread alone."
Any philosophical system which fixates on material standards-of-living, is, in the end, a complicit purveyor of hollow consumerism.
The world is a strange place, full of mystery. Flannery O'Connor noted that "the task of the novelist is to deepen mystery, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind."
But there is nothing strange or mysterious about the harsh logic whereby "The World" teaches us to hate our enemies.
Alternatively, the proposition that we should "love our enemies," is "out of this world."
Loving an enemy requires belief in an unfathomable well of love and forgiveness rooted "somewhere" other than atomized individuality, whether that "somewhere" be "Buddha Mind," "dharma, "Tao" or the "Will of God."
In his 1999 collection of prison writings, Leonard Peltier calls for foregiveness with these words: "Let us be not for ourselves alone, but also for that Other who is our deepest Self."