Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Failure of a Civilization


Maryam Sakeenah

“If you seriously think”, said a 12-year old in a class on Darwin’s idea of evolution, “that you’re nothing more than an overgrown (evolved) monkey, you start behaving like one as well.”

It makes more sense than the child knew it did. For, in this simple statement lies the link between accepting the biological theory and incorporating the amorality inherent in it into the social structure_ just what the West has done by unquestioningly accepting the theory of evolution as the authentic explanation of ‘how it all began’. School textbooks present it as the Gospel-Truth, and children are fed on it. However, when one looks at the many scientific grounds on which the theory has been rejected and criticized as flawed, and the many questions it leaves unanswered, one wonders why a theory that leaves so much to be desired has gained so much ground. On yet another level, the theory has innumerable psychological, spiritual and emotional implications at which the human sensibility revolts. The child who spontaneously reacted against the idea was only being his purely human self.

Believing man to have the same inclinations as animals and human society to be subject to the same natural laws as the rest of the animals, seeing him as a part of the natural tussle for survival as just another creature in the jungle naturally implies that he is devoid of the unearthly notions of morality. For, the human jungle operates on the idea of ‘survival of the fittest.’ Operating in the jungle and abiding by its jungle-laws, man has to outgrow outmoded versions of morality held by the traditionalists that hamper the fulfillment of his survival instinct or make him lesser able to fight the battle. Whatever makes man ‘fitter’ to survive the rigours of the cutthroat, utilitarian jungle, becomes the ‘right.’ That is all there is of morality, which evolves socially, and hence is a relative concept. Darwin writes: “If men were treated under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless the bee, or any other social animal, would in our supposed case gain, as it appears to me, some feeling of right and wrong, or a ‘conscience’… in this case an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed one impulse rather than the other: the one would have been ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong.’.”

The process of evolution, central to any social progress, is the result of a severe struggle for survival amidst the ‘sub-species’ (as Darwin referred to the various human races) of humanity. The one emerging stronger will secure its survival by exterminating the weaker. Thus would mankind be ‘cleansed’ and improve qualitatively. This progress or improvement of the species, was the ‘noble end’ Darwin preached, saying, “All do good who work towards that end.”

Placing the argument socially, it translates itself into the Utilitarian doctrine of ‘the good is that which is useful’, which is the ruling maxim in capitalistic societies. Within this lies a clear, outright rejection of morality as universal and invariable. It also negates the fact that morality has to be the basis for building social institutions, shaping economy and managing politics. Secularism and its accompanying ideologies take root from this rejection of absolute morality. Secularism rejects innate values and religion as a basis for legislation. The criterion for such legislation becomes ‘utility’ and ‘interest.’ These two terms are mutable and constantly evolving, just as the species struggling in the jungle. When these become the criterion, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and wrong’ become shifting, fragile, mutable. What is useful for you, your society or the State today might not be so tomorrow. Thus ‘War Is Peace’ and ‘Ignorance Is Strength’ whenever ‘1984’ recurs. Osama bin Ladin suddenly turns from ally and hero to foe and terrorist in a changed global context, and Saddam Hussein from America’s blue-eyed boy to Arch-Enemy and barbaric tyrant. Nothing holds_ but, ‘What We say, goes’, as the American President so honestly observed. Morally unjustifiable warfare becomes necessity for making the Superpower ‘stronger, safer, better’, in order to be the fittest one around in the forest.

On yet another level, the notions of usefulness and interest spring from extremely selfish motives. Personal whim and selfish desire become the imperative, arbitrarily demanding satiation. It is this narrow selfishness that becomes the criterion dictating the ‘morality’ of an act. This is what the Quran refers to when it says, “Have you seen him who takes his own desires as god?”

Thus the Superego, which is the individual’s moral ‘police force’ is emptied of the religious/moral imperative, the ‘regulatory authority’ of belief in a higher Being that keeps what is base in man under check. The ‘id’ enlarges itself to occupy the vacuum and takes the space of the Superego. The base instincts now begin to dictate fulfillment. The moral qualm is muffled, and thus springs the hedonism and the permissive culture that we see in Western countries.

The influence of Freudian thought also comes into play here. Freud saw all human misery to be springing from unsatisfied ‘id’ desires, and thus laid down the satisfaction of these urges as the basic right of the individual. From the wearing out of the ancient Biblical commandments came, “Thou shalt not suppress thy instincts”, and “Satisfy thy urge.” Darwinism’s fist having shattered the moral bulwark, this psychological theory quickly gained root, speeding the Whiteman’s descent into the jungle of a permissive culture. Hence ‘individual freedom’ and ‘liberty’, which seldom means more than the freedom to indulge, become sacrosanct, inviolable values. The place earlier accorded to humanistic traditional moral values is given to these, and whatever violates the code of individual freedom is shocking, inexcusable crime. This becomes all they have of morality, in fact the criterion for a new false, selfish morality. Love, earlier seen as sacrifice, sharing and giving, comes to be selfishly seen as the satisfaction of a human need. All such human values are coloured in the gaudy paint of selfishness. The cult of The Self assumes worship.

Hence comes about a massive shift in individual and social psyche. With each individual caught up in battle with fellow-beings to secure the ‘fitness’ to survive, unabashedly persuing narrow personal interest to be able to win the struggle, seeking satisfaction of the ‘instinct-as-superego’, a culture of Narcissism, self-preoccupation and self-obsession is created. Christopher Lasch, writing about American society and culture, observes: “People have retreated to purely personal preoccupations. Having no hope of improving their lives in any of the ways that matter, people have convinced themselves that what matters is physical and psychic self-improvement: eating health food, taking lessons in ballet or belly-dancing, immersing themselves in Yoga meditation, jogging etc. Harmless in themselves, these pursuits, elevated to a program and wrapped up in the rhetoric of authenticity and awareness, signify a retreat from the big things in life… to live for the moment is the prevailing passion_ to live for yourself. ‘Survival’ has become the catchword, and ‘collective narcissism’ the dominant disposition. The society makes sense only of living for the moment, to fix our eyes on our own private performance, to become connoisseurs of our own decadence, to cultivate self-attention. The world-view emerging among us centres solely on the self and has individual survival as its sole good.”

Survival and personal well-being thus become the two ideals to be craven for. The society thus acquires a new orientation altogether_ the culture of Narcissism. The individual becomes caged within his minimal self, with his outlook on life severely restricted. The culture develops to suit the needs of the new Narcissist individual. It creates a lifestyle of personal ease and comfort to help the Narcissist stay in his blissful prison. Thus we have consumerism becoming literally a philosophy of life_ Mc Donalds and Coca Cola, Yoga, planned diets, electronic gadgets, frivolous entertainment channels flashing on the telly_ all there to answer the Narcissist’s personal needs and create an unreal, self-satisfying lifestyle for him. Electronics brands begin to claim that having all these can make ‘Life Good’, a cola drink becomes a proud identity of a ‘new generation’ of trivial Narcissists, and Cartoon Network is there to help you ‘Get Unreal’ as you shrivel into the minimal self. The consumerist culture feeds the Narcissist and keeps him slumbering in his blissful artificial, air-conditioned and centrally heated Paradise. The corporate business interests at the top dictating American policy sustain the consumerist culture, because such a lifestyle generates capital for the multinational giants.

Yet as the self shrivels up, so do the traditional universal human values. Universal humanism shrivels into jingoistic Americanism. With traditional morality absent, all your innate moral energy is held subject to the nationalistic ideal which is pumped into your veins through typical White-House rhetoric. You feed yourself on the myths of ‘The Great American Nation’, and you become a believer in a cruel morality of jingoism. A perfect illustration of how this mindset operates is in those stories of violent, inhuman prison-abuse by U.S soldiers at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, as if the inmates were some vile, despicable, lower-order beasts that you kill under your heavy boots. This is the absolute subversion of morality by narrow nationalism, humanity by blind Americanism. And it is not an aberration, it is a malaise spread deep into the very roots of Western civilization.

Such things happen because the minimal individual, whose world is its Narcissist paradise, cannot create a link based on its discarded human values with that part of humanity that does not share its particular limited set of values. The Narcissist, whose vision is severely limited to the mirror-image before itself, is appalled at the lack of these values of individual freedom and personal liberty in societies that still uphold the traditional universal code of conduct and curtail the individual’s freedom within limits dictated by that code.

Perhaps Darwinism’s inherent racism also exercises its influence here. The ‘species’ (or sub-species) that wins the struggle to survive (and Darwin called the different human races ‘sub-species’) is decidedly the stronger, fitter and better one, and therefore deserves the right to dominate and rule, and spread its cult, its brand of civilization per force, to ‘exterminate all brutes’, or convert them to the winning cult. When a society feeds its people on such a theory, it instills in them a false pride in its specific values and civilization. Coupled with the Narcissist psyche which cannot see beyond itself in the mirror, and cannot sustain itself with anything except its frivolous consumerist lifestyle and values, this develops into dangerous starry-eyed self-love, jingoism, condescension and blind scorn for those who believe and live different. The Narcissist’s innate, God-given feelings of humanity, being engendered in the minimal self, fail to extend beyond the borders of the ‘superior’ civilization he is part of. Americanism becomes the new substitute of Humanism, and vile cruelty beyond the Atlantic is condoned if it is only shown to be an attempt to extend the ‘civilized’ values of liberalism and freedom to the ‘barbarians’ in unheard-of places.

This cult of selfishness is so deep and well-grounded that ‘national interest’ (a brilliant terminology for disguising base national selfishness) comes to justify all that is morally unjustifiable. It is interesting to note here, that a majority of those Americans who oppose the Iraq War, do so mainly because some Americans in uniform are losing their lives. Not for the much more humungous human tragedy there; not for the exploitation and abuse and madness and megalomania that the war is all about; not for the lies that cloud it; not for the criminal brutalities that a nation of innocent millions is suffering.

Entrapped in their comfort-infested lifestyles, their empty lives full of empty fullness measured out in empty cola cans, smoked cigarette ends and coffee-spoons, the starry-eyed nation is unable to shatter the mirror at which they stand admiring themselves in order to face the reality around. Consumerism and the lulling pleasures of hedonism, excessive comforts of an insulated life and an exaggerated focus on personal well-being prolongs the Beauty-sleep, and so these harmless multitudes let happen the worst crimes sponsored by their own chosen leaders, fed by the artfully phrased justifications of ‘national interest’, and for making America ‘stronger, better, safer.’

Thus the American system, with its claim of upholding all ‘civilized’ values, its people being ‘free’ and ‘liberated’, is unable to stay the hands of brute-force its own leaders sponsor around the world. This impoverished society, despite the highest standards of democracy, freedom, liberalism and education, is unable to flush out hegemonic, fascist elements at the helm of policy-making. This is the failure of a civilization.

Western civilization spirals towards the prehistoric jungle where beasts, for eking out more space for ensured survival, and for making their kind ‘stronger, safer, better,’ tore up each other; when primitive apes fought bloody duels for tribal hegemony, food or space. The instincts firing the sophisticated ‘civilized’ warfare of today and the primitive tribal duels of millions of years ago are the same. It is a descent into Animalism. When a civilization, preoccupied with sustaining the culture of Narcissism is unable to see its descent let alone stop it, it is a failed civilization. When all you have of ‘civilization’ is trapped within brand labels and sophisticated technology, in highbrow rhetoric justifying unjustifiable warfare, yours is a failed civilization.