Monday, 22 October 2012

"I'm gonna teach peace to the conquered" : a different kind of helplessness

"I'm gonna teach peace to the conquered, I'm gonna tame the crowd," sings an ironic Bob Dylan in Lonesome Day Blues. When I heard the line I hoped he wasn't referring to the way we sometimes deal with rearing our kids  but one way or another I guess he was, and maybe we ought to hope that ensuing generations will learn from our mistakes but there again the selfish part of human nature so often seems to hold sway.

It may be that the desperate fate of the humble, meek and poor is unavoidable and that they should learn to live with it but that can be tough to take sometimes. You know, like the way the wealthiest and most powerful of succeeding generations try to control and run every aspect of human activity at the same time as telling us, the less rewarded remainder, that the consequences of their exercise of power is for everyone's own good. We should, it seems, be thankful for what's left to us.  Yet forcing something upon people who don't really want it or at least don't really want your kind of peace can never be satisfactory. People may succumb physically to the coercion of the rich and powerful but it usually has a different consequence in the psyche of the subordinated. It can spawn an internal resistance in those not yet  emotionally fatigued by the humiliation of being the bargaining tokens of those who wish to be predominant. This is a resistance that demands a just peace and a fair share of the world's fruit.   Cynics - perhaps even realists - would say that the relentlessness of Dylan's enforcing peacemakers is so overwhelming that in the face of it any resistance dissipates into a despair - a helplessness - that becomes a miserable inertia. Occasionally those with energy left to fight will rebel and make war against injustice but history seems to demonstrate that even the most altruistically motivated of political and economic revolutions end up being contaminated by the self-interest and greed for power exercised by an unscrupulous few and their toadies. Everything seems to fall back into its old perfidious state and the poor remain hungry and helpless.

Be sure this is a helplessness born out of cruelty and avarice.  It is not a magnificent Wordsworthian  moment of helplessness in the face of nature when for a short instance we are filled with joy, awe and wonder that each of us has a part to play, however small, in the great mystery of our universe. No, this is the helplessness which is formed under the shadow of  an abuse of power exercised by a very small minority of humanity against the rest of humanity. What is most upsetting is that many of us enclosed in this selfish process  -  those who are allowed sufficient affluence to make their material life tolerably acceptable  -  acquiesce to the most destructive instances of this malevolent predominance. We are paid just about enough to buy our silence while billions of our fellow beings suffer abject poverty and powerlessness. They starve because the economic and political systems we tolerate allow them nothing.  We pride ourselves on being the most rational and intelligent of species on the planet. Robert Burns remarked that human beings alone have the capacity to reflect on the past, live in the present and  make a reasonable guess about the future. So it is a sad irony that, as Noam Chomsky among others has observed,  humankind is the only species which has taken the trouble to learn how to destroy creatures of its own and other kinds at the same as developing the capacity to obliterate the planet. Yes Robert we may be smart but to date we haven't exercised our smartness too well. It is a pity we haven't had the humility to teach our children about this.

For too short a period of our lives many of us happily immerse ourselves in the joy and  innocence of our children expressed through their curiosity, their imagination, their play as well as their loyalty, love and dependence. How unfortunate it is when the time comes to formally educate them we indoctrinate them to accept  that a measure of material gain makes the blow to their dignity acceptable when  they are asked to doff their caps before the destructive force of the powerful few.

Is there any way we can slowly brick by brick take down the diabolical edifice we have constructed  and carefully build another fairer one ? Twenty years before the French revolution Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in a sense a Bob Dylan of his time, thought such a project possible but only if we were content to live again in small communities where everyone had concern for everyone else.  This was not to be a perfect place - after all  humans beings would inhabit it -  but it would be a place  that could manage without conquerors, a place where peace was natural and where tameness did not have to be inculcated.

My guess is the times are not a-changing that much.

John Stein comments :

We here in the US have a very competitive society and economy.  In competitition, there are winners.  When there are winners, there must be losers.  I think of playoffs in sports. Every team who makes it into the playoffs goes home a loser, except for one.

Our system has gotten out of balance.  We had much better balance a few years ago. Systems that are out of balance, well, eventually they cease to exist if they fail to restore the balance in time.

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