The humanist alternative
One doesn't have to choose between Mickey Mouse and the mullahs
March 18, 2003
As of this writing the heavy wheels of Apocalypse have 'inevitably" been
set into motion and poised to start their devastating march. The most sophisticated
war machine in history is parked at the borders of Iraq ready to "shock and
awe" -- read scare the living daylight out of - the populace to obedience.
Faced with an unforeseen resistance on the part of their traditional European allies
and a strong international anti-war movement, a daily parade of American might and
sheer arrogance has become part of everyone's daily lives.
The White House having barricaded itself behind a wall of silly piety about spreading
democracy and freedom around the world, has assumed a siege mentality, not surprising
considering the number of former Nixon and Ford administrations regulars in charge
of key policy positions. The French are evil and spineless, the Germans, well we
all know about the Germans. By now it's become a regular part of discourse of dissent
to refer to the new American agenda as Imperial in the pages of liberal and left
leaning literature world wide.
Lewis Lapham, the esteemed editor of influential liberal Harpers magazine,
uses the analogy to the Roman Empire regularly in his editorial column, comparing
the self-righteous proclamations of various members of the Bush Administration with
those of Augustus Caesar and his ilk. Still, with all due to respect to Mr. Lapham,
it seems more appropriate to liken Bush and the Bushites to a less epic bunch.
As Marx once noted, history always repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce.
The second rising of the American Empire resembles more closely that icon of modern
Americana, Star Wars, casting the Bush-Cheney-Powel Junta* as Darth Vader
and his Empire out to eliminate all pockets of resistance, re-drawing the map of
the world, break down old national boundaries, all backed by the overwhelming weight
of the most ferocious and technically sophisticated war machine ever known.
But who would be cast as Luke Skywalker and the Rebel Alliance? Who would hold up
the flag of resistance? Osama Bin Laden and his ragtag band of humourless, fundamentalist
thugs? Saddam Hussein and the silly, bullying Baath party?
The world seems increasingly squeezed between two orthodoxies: the money-power cult
of American Empire on one side, and the various reactionary movements of religious
and nationalist tribalism on the other. But in the wise words of Indian novelist
and social activist, Arondahti Roy, one doesn't have to choose between Mickey Mouse
and the mullahs. The two camps logic of the Cold War is outmoded and bankrupt. George
Bush and Bin laden are equally wrong to demand us to be either with them or against
The challenges of the twenty-first century are increasingly complex and can't be
resolved by applying the logic of a football game. But what is the solution? What
should be the approach to political and economic challenges both on local and international
level, now that various ideologies of both secular and divine varieties have proved
to be equally inadequate and murderous?
At the risk of sounding naive, I think a new, vigorous, wide-eyed Humanism may be
the only alternative. One of the advantages of living in North America is being present
at a cross road where civilizations, ideas, races and creeds meet, mix, fight and
mingle. Modern anthropology has taught us that there are humanist and anti-humanist
tendencies in all cultures and civilizations. It's high time to go back to the origins
of modern humanism and to take an interest in the principles of Enlightment all over
again. Let me cite an anecdote.
A few years ago I was reading an analytical piece by French philosopher Michel Foucault
on the power structure of "justice system in the Capitalist society". Foucault's
deconstruction of triangular structure of the court, the judge, prosecution and defendant
matrix and the myth of the neutral and blind justice based on a "fair and accepted
set of laws" was enlightening.
In the typical postmodern fashion he critiqued the notion of laws as universal and
demonstrated how not only the laws but the structure of justice itself is such that
it benefits those with power. He then contrasted the bourgeois system with what he
called the people's court, where the relationships of power and class are transparent
and there are no veiled pretensions to a pseudo-religious notion of justice.
Having lived in a post-revolutionary society for a few years, what struck me beyond
the author's elegant argument was that he had never had the misfortune to actually
be judged by a people's court and that this concept, the concept of court of people
smacked so much of a Kangaroo court. The Stalinist courts steamrolled their victims
also in the name of people as have countless other authoritarian regimes of secular
and religious variety.
Yes, it is possible to be trampled upon and convicted unfairly and even be mob lynched
if one is a member of a disadvantaged group in any parliamentary democracy with a
bourgeois system of justice, but at least the bourgeois system of justice gives one
the possibility of justice. You can deconstruct this system as much as you want,
but when it comes to a practical relationship with justice, I think I would rather
take my chances with a bourgeois court system than any people's court.
And this brings us back to the question of Enlightment. Yes, Enlightment existed
at the same time as Colonialism in Asia, genocide of American Indians and the enslavement
of Africans, but its ideas and principals were and still are noble. The essence of
Enlightment was to free "man" from the shackles of religious and tribal
prejudices; all men were created equal. All had a right to pursuit of happiness.
If one bled anywhere we all bled.
It is true that in practice the concept of "man" was presupposed as White,
European and Christian but there were those even then that realized the hypocrisy
of that chasm between theory and practice. Much of abolitionist movement in the United
States was based on Bible and Enlightment.
A wealth of fabulous postmodern writers in the past thirty years or so have critiqued
Enlightment on behalf of politics of identity and exposed the schizophrenia between
the ideals of Enlightment and its practices but one thing that has not happened is
its placement with a true alternative. If not Enlightment (and let's remember socialism
itself was a product of Enlightment) then what?
It really comes down to this. We do, more than ever, need a common,
universal set of principals to which everyone must be subjected. No, I'm not
naive enough to think that those universal principals could exist outside of history
and politics in a vacuum but in absence of these principals the alternative is simply
a return to barbarism based on tribalism and solipsism.
When it comes to basic and essential values should we not insist that they be applied
to everyone? Is torture any more or less justified in camp X than in Baghdad, Tehran,
Tel Aviv, Santiago, Moscow or Karachi? Should protection of civilians in time of
war - that hallmark of Enlightment - be any less the priority of Saddam Hussein than
George Bush? Should either be exempt from a potential war crimes court in the event
of massive civilian causalities? Should labour and environmental laws in Mexico and
Philippines be any less vigorous than the United States or Canada?
Should religious bigotry in Saudi Arabia be tolerated any more than in Northern Ireland?
Should people in Iran or Palestine or Thailand acquiesce to mediocrity in their political
culture any more than their counter parts in France or Sweden? Enlightment is European
civilization's gift to the entire world and the world is right to claim it as its
own regardless of Europe and America's history of colonialism and neocolonialism.
And we should not be ashamed to do so. It doesn't lessen us as people and diminish
our achievement as a culture. This is not a pissing contest to see who's been better
at the game of building civilizations.
It's also time that we look inside ourselves. What
is it that we can contribute? What is in our heritage that can contribute to this
new re-thinking of humanist ideals? In our culture, humanism has been expressed through
the work of the great Sufi poetry and culture. Basing itself on the Platonic notion
of divinity as omnipresent love, the Sufi culture throughout the centuries presented
an alternative to the official theology in Islam.
Poets were burned at the stake for espousing "heretic" notions such as
god as love and seeing the divine present in all things. The fact is that the Islamic
culture at times, especially in its Andalusian period was witness to this kind of
free mixing of cultures and people and the result was a Renaissance. One can even
argue that Enlightment would not have been quite possible without the continuity
the Islamic civilization provided between ancient Greece and Rome and the medieval
Europe. The leap from this to the notion of political and cultural plurality is not
* The "Bush-Cheney Junta" is Gore Vidal's term. I've just added Colin
Powel's name to the mix because he truly is one of the architects of the new American
Does this article have spelling or other mistakes? Tell
me to fix it.
By Asghar Massombagi