The Touch of Evil

From a final scene in The Thin Red Line

What’s this war in the heart of nature ? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? ls there an avenging power in nature? These are some of the existential questions posed by the mystical Private Witt in the opening scenes of The Thin Red Line, Terence Mallick’s great meditation on war and man’s descent into the barbarity of military conflict. He was trying to come to terms with man’s savage replication of inanimate nature’s ebb and flow. Looking for an answer to them is ever an urgent task. Indeed, it is a perennial task confronting generations of mankind from time immemorial. Today its urgency forces itself upon us yet again.

I know he meant something more subtle than it sounds, but to many ears it was a soundbite too far. The end of history, Francis Fukuyama declared in 1989, was upon us. His first outing with the idea was in an essay. This caused such a stir that it was expanded into a book entitled The End of History and the Last Man. The occasion for his prophetic utterances was the demolition of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites, bringing about the end of the Cold War.

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

— Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, The National Interest, No.16 (Summer 1989)

Well, well, well? So much for wishful thinking. It was a little ironic to hear – on Bari Weiss’ Common Sense platform – Professor Fukuyama, discussing our current world crisis with historians Niall Ferguson and William Russell Meade, where the consensus was that we were now indeed entering Cold War II. Cold War I got its baptism of fire in the Korean War. Cold War II was now getting its hot war initiation with the Russian assault on the Ukraine.

Aside from the fact that historical narratives are about much more than the rise and fall of empires and ideologies, history will end when the human race has run its course on this earth. In the meantime human beings will forever need to struggle with the powers behind the forces we now see unleashed in Eastern Europe – the forces of evil, mysterious and malign, which take possession of our hearts and wreak havoc as they do. This is what we keep forgetting – at our peril. We have done it before and are now once again scrambling to try to make sense of it. 

T.S. Eliot more than hinted at our folly in  Four Quartets when he confessed,

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river

Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,

Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;

Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;

Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.

The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten

By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.

Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder

Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated

By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.

The river has long been a metaphor for man’s troubled journey in this world, sometimes more, sometimes less, mixing good and evil. Rivers in Ukraine are not only metaphors but real players in its current struggles.

Kiev on the banks of the Deniper

Our current incarnation of the implacable strong brown god bursting his banks is Vladimir Putin. This century has already had two other gods of different hues which have destabilised our fragile existence – the god of greed who ravaged the world economy in the first decade of the new millennium, and then the crowned monster – still of uncertain human origin – who cut short the lives of almost 6 million of us and inflicted pain an estimated 500 million more – and rising. All three of these are in different ways manifestations of  mankind’s capacity for evil. From time immemorial, to inflict pain and suffering on our race, a capacity which has been in evidence since evil first entered the heart of Cain, driving him to slay his brother Abel.

In their exchanges with Bari Weiss, these three aforementioned remarked on our failure to learn anything from history. That certainly is part of the problem. We keep forgetting the ogre slouching in the shadows, waiting for the moment  to come out and devour us. History, if studied and reflected upon with any wisdom, will lead us towards the overwhelming question, “why?”. Any honest grappling with that question will lead us further to consider the problem of evil, its origins and the need to mount defences against it. There is a mystery surrounding evil that material science will never fathom – and political science does not make much of a fist at it either. We do not like mysteries – except when they entertain us – because they ask us to be humble. Humility in turn nudges us to perhaps acknowledge that a God more powerful than the brown god – or gods of any other colour – may be needed to help us cope with what assails us in the greater and lesser onslaughts we suffer here in our earthly sojourn. 

But we also need to go even deeper, lest we adopt a holier-than-thou posture in all this, letting ourselves off the hook on the question of complicity in those things which have brought woe on our race. We need more than humility. We also need an honest self-awareness and a capacity for contrition. The greed and carelessness of the many compounded the exorbitant greed of the relatively few who triggered the financial crash of the last decade. The mystery of the origins of the viral forces which ravaged the world economy in this decade is still unresolved – but until the CCP gets itself a higher standard of honesty and openness, the jury will remain hung on that one. It is in this context that it is worth reflecting on the recent words of Philip Johnson, columnist with the Daily Telegraph.

He reflected on the  extraordinary reverence the French have for Napoleon Bonaparte, whose monument sits within an open circular crypt beneath the golden dome of Les Invalides in Paris, conveying the unambiguous message that here lies a ‘great man’ of history. He notes that we are fascinated by such people, even though they are brutal, ruthless and despotic. They seem to weave a spell over the millions prepared to follow them, sometimes to destruction. But, he asks, to what extent do individuals determine history?

In War and Peace, Johnson reminds us, Tolstoy sought to debunk Thomas Carlyle’s theory that events are shaped by “great men” like Napoleon, seeing them instead as “involuntary instruments of history.”

The invasion of Ukraine, he argues, is being personalised as “Putin’s War” or the adventurism of “Mad Vlad”, thereby divorcing the event from its context by making it entirely a projection of one man’s derangement. 

But to what extent are the Russian people willingly swallowing the justification given on state-controlled media that Russian troops are merely engaged in a humanitarian operation in eastern Ukraine to protect their ethnic brethren from fascist death squads and genocide? Johnson cites Putin saying  that without helping the insurgents in the Donbas there would be “another Srebrenica”. “The fact this is preposterous is irrelevant if it is believed in Russia.”

Johnson again: “The so-called great men of history never act alone. Napoleon was followed by his Grande Armée into Russia and to miserable retreat because until then he had, by and large, been a winner, extending the boundaries of France, even egged on by “progressive” European thinkers. 

Putin visited a reenactment of the battle of Borodion, presaging the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. Will the siege of Kiev presage another downfall?

Putin, puny as he may be, shares something of the trajectory of Napoleon. Like Napoleon, after the mayhem of the Terror, he pulled his country together again after the messy collapse of the Soviet experiment. Now for reasons so far unfathomable to most of us he also has set his sights on a new Empire. To help him along this path he has also become a dictator, has created a phony sense of national grievance, and manufactured an enemy in the West to generate  paranoia in his people. 

What now remains to be seen, even as this is written, is whether the Russian people will buy the lies he feeds them and cooperate in the evil which he is unleashing on them and a sovereign neighbour which simply wants to determine its own way in the world and find its place in the community of nations.

How this all ends is alarmingly uncertain.  It may be the end of Vladimir V. Putin, it may be the extinguishing of the independent State of Ukraine – but one thing it will not be is the end of history.

Twenty years after – an unfolding conflict

“It was twenty years ago today” – well perhaps not today, but certainly this year – that Samuel P. Huntington published his seminal article in Foreign Affairs and set the world thinking again about new rumours of war. Just a year earlier Francis Fukuyama had published The End of History and the Last Man. That book was an expansion of his essay in the summer issue of The National Interest in 1989, months before the fall of the Berlin wall on the night of 9 November in the same year.

 What we may be witnessing” he wrote, is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

 That was a very controversial view and for most people it was read – or perhaps misread – as an oversimplification of the consequences of the events of the 1980s. But on a positive interpretation we did seem to be witnessing the end of three hundred years of conflict – sometimes dynastic, sometimes nationalistic, sometimes nakedly imperial and latterly a conflict between two ideologies, the one socialist and totalitarian, the other liberal and capitalist. There did seem to be a basis for optimism that there was now nothing really powerful enough to divide the human race and drive its factions into a war which if unleashed in our day and age might render the very planet itself incapable of sustaining human life.

That optimism was short-lived and the first wake-up call came from Samuel Huntington, the late Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard University, with the publication of his Foreign Affairs article, The Clash of Civilizations. With that our cosy reading of history came to an end and we were confronted with the prospect of new and even more intractable conflicts rooted in the deepest recesses of human consciousness, supra-rational and sometimes irrational, depending on your point of view. These conflicts would be much less susceptible to negotiation and compromise than conflicts rooted in political and economic differences.

In Huntington’s view the world had more or less now returned to the pre-Westphalian condition when wars of religion plagued Europe, or to the age of the Islamic conquests and the reconquista of Spain in the late Middle Ages. Once again the primary axis of global and regional conflicts was going to be cultural and religious.

Twenty years on, how does his thesis stand up? Without its oversimplifications, pretty well. At the time of his writing that essay there is no doubt but that Islamic militants were already on the move. But they were still not perceived as the global threat to peace that they have now become, necessitating a global protective security shield which in its own way matches anything that had to be put in place by western democracies to protect themselves from the threat of communism.

While the range of potential clashes he proposed for consideration looks a little too extensive, nevertheless the emergence of militant Islamic movements is enough to validate his central thesis. This clash has well and truly re-splattered red markings along the “bloody borders of Islam”, both the external ones and the internal ones where Shia and Sunni factions slaughter each other on a daily basis.  It is hard to find a location along those borders where there is not currently some jihadist group at work – from western to eastern Africa, or among the Mediterranean nations of north Africa, the Middle to the Far East and into those western societies where substantial Islamic immigration has taken place.

This is a war-in-progress and it is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. By and large it seems to bear out Huntington’s main thesis. The intractability of the conflict can be seen in the  bleakness of the prospects for peace negotiation in one of the many theatres in which this war is being played out in full battle dress – that of Afghanistan and the conflict with the intransigent Taliban.

But there is another war brewing which also has all the characteristics of the clashes predicted by Huntington. This is not one to which he paid much attention but it is brewing nonetheless. It will probably remain a largely cold war but it promises to be war just the same and will bring its quota of victims and suffering in its wake. It is the war which has already broken out within the old West to which we have already pinned the term, “culture wars”, making it seem with that soft word “culture”, a little more benign than it actually is.

It is in fact, largely, a new war of religion although few dare to call it so as yet. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, a robust defender of what he holds to be inalienable human rights – like the right to life from conception to natural death – and the moral teaching of his Catholic Church, said last year that he expected to die in his bed. He thought, however, that his successor would probably die in prison while the man who would succeed his successor would die the death of a martyr.

Within western civilization there are now two separate civilizations developing and the fault line between them is deepening with each year that passes. On the one hand are the adherents of the central Christian beliefs and moral laws. On the other are the nominal Christians for whom these beliefs and laws are a relative thing, susceptible to change and for whom the will of the majority is the guiding principle of life. These latter are allied with many who hold no religious belief and for whom all truth is essentially relative. These have bought into the version of modernity which exalts individualism over the common good, where marriage is redefined to eliminate the principle of indissolubility and its basis in the complementarity of the sexes is ignored, where sex itself is as much about recreation as it is about procreation and where the notion of equality is no longer linked to liberty or fraternity.

Huntington maintained that cultural conflicts were inevitable when adherents of the major religions – Christianity and Islam – found themselves confronted by a society dominated by the irreligious. Conflict became inevitable when the agents of government in that society begin to control and organise it in ways which change the very meaning of life itself and a people’s understanding of what the pursuit of happiness is all about.

His focus on all this was more in the context of conflicts between already constituted geographical blocks and much less about struggles between segments of populations within existing societies. It is in these theatres that this new cold war has now begun to break out.

Within Western societies – which are still largely but at best nominally Christian – there are now two emerging blocks. There are those who are essentially nominal in their allegiance to the ideals of Christian belief and practice and there are those who are actually committed to the effort, albeit sometimes failing,  of living their lives according to the principles enshrined in those beliefs and practices. This latter fits Huntington’s categorization of the type of civilization which is likely to provoke hostility and conflict. Its adherents are missionary, universal and teleological, that is: they seek conversions (mission), they see themselves in possession of the whole (universal) truth and that truth is where the end (telos) and destiny of mankind is revealed.

When, as is the case now in Western societies, laws begin to be put in place by one group – in this case the now dominant nominally Christian group under the influence of an irreligious version of modernity – which contradict and deny fundamental principles by which the other groups seeks to live, trouble is in store. What we call the “culture war” is in fact a clash of these two civilizations on a series of issues ranging through principles of religious freedom, freedom of conscience, principles governing the beginning and end of life, the nature of family, marriage as a social institution and the nature and purpose of human sexuality. For one group these are matters governed by expediency and a lassiez faire approach; for the other group they are non-negotiable issues founded in an immutable human nature and – for a believer in a divine creator – revealed in the teachings of their religion.

The conscientious Christian cannot, for example, accept as a basis for political legislation the principle enunciated by many politicians in all these societies, that while they see a particular human act as morally wrong they must still legislate to facilitate others to carry out such acts if they so choose. The following segment of a correspondence between a constituent and an elected representative in one Western democratic jurisdiction – Ireland – on the issue of abortion legislation illustrates the impasse between these two civilizations.

In the context of the lassiez faire  political approach to human abuse “the citizen” put the case to “the citizen’s representative” as follows:

In the case of deliberate abortion, the abuse is on the mother, on the child in the womb, and indirectly on the wider community. You didn’t say it, but I often hear other people say “It will happen anyway, so let’s legislate to allow it under certain circumstances.” Again, I’ve never heard this said about any other kind of crime (tax fraud, bank robberies, dangerous driving, drug dealing).

 There is enormous pressure worldwide to allow abortion, backed by a mighty industry and driven by so many people’s desire to have complete control of their lives, complete freedom in choice of lifestyle, escape from all suffering, escape from all constraints. These desires, often fostered by commercial interests, are based on illusions and ultimately lead to despair.

 The proposed change in (Irish) law seems very restricted, but in fact it would be taking a giant leap. It would be allowing people to decide which life is worth (preserving), and which life can be deliberately terminated. This is clearly pulling up an ethical and moral anchor, with drastic consequences.

 One day societies will look back in horror at the idea that they once used to kill their young, in much the same way as we now look back in horror at slavery. We can have the chance to take the enlightened approach, of resisting the pressure to conform in something which is inherently repulsive, no matter how it is dressed up.

 To this “the citizen’s representative” replied:

For an elected representative, one’s own feelings on a matter must not generally supersede what might be considered to be appropriate for the population as a whole. Where they are in common with each other, it is of course easier, but where there is a conflict the elected member must decide where the general interest lies – to attempt as best he/she can find the objective view.

 While I might not like the idea or practice of abortion, is it for me to impose these beliefs on the population as a whole? What is the balance between the State’s responsibilities and the individual’s rights? This is the debate that plays out.

 Therein lies the very fragile fault line between two civilizations, the one pragmatic in the extreme, responsive not to any principle but to the will of a majority – regardless of what that majority should wish. For those on the other side, rooted in firm and time-tested ethical principles, this is the philosophy which allowed and determined such human atrocities as slavery and the holocausts of the twentieth century. For them this is much more than a “debate that plays out”, it is a matter of life death and the destiny of mankind. It is something that in the last analysis they will be prepared to give their lives for – in one way or another. It is not a comfortable thought but Huntington’s explorations of the issue of the clash of civilizations twenty years ago cannot be seen as anything other than prescient.