Sunday, 21 April 2013

Love Will Be the Superpower


One reason why writers write and readers read books is because they are one of few mediums that are free of advertisements. You choose the interludes; you come and go as you please. You are alone with the word and the writer's extraordinary capacity to engage your heart. The best do it honestly, even if that means it has us grasping at stinging nettles, because it sings true to the rhythms and patterns of life - which is something to care about, believe in, and learn from.

The same can be said of articles that try to hold their moral compass to the true north, when everyone else is still down south. In regard to the recent Boston Marathon bombings, the best article I found was Adam Gopnik's piece for The New Yorker. It somewhat bravely turns a critical eye on America rather than the bombers, and touches upon the tragic story of how America can turn such events into a hysterical and insular overreaction that snowballs into a sole narrative akin to a national lynch mob - which has already claimed innocent victims over the bombings thanks to social media outlets.

Gopnik shines his light on what he describes as the toxic combination of round-the-clock cable television, and an already exaggerated sense of the risk of terrorism, turning a horrible story of maiming and death and cruelty into a national epic of fear. "What terrorists want is to terrify people," Gopnik writes, "Americans always oblige". And what is even more telling is how those self-same Americans have left comments under Gopnik's article vilifying him for his opinion piece.

"Insensitive and arrogant" writes one; "vomitous" (sic) and "liberal nonsense" decries another, and the long list of comments continue in the same vein. The most interesting is the one that accuses the article's voice of having "a lack of compassion". As a British reader, I for one found it filled with compassion, and great insight. Foresight that comes from a divine perspective may sound as though it lacks compassion because of its objectivity, but quite the opposite, it has the compassion to be able to see without cultural blinkers. And a few would argue that the ones middle America wear are some of the heaviest.

Neither that last statement, nor Gopnik's piece is an attack on America; indeed it is said in the spirit of love for America, and the freedoms it stands for; were the restrictive regimes in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia or North Korea superpowers that influenced a large part of the world, we in West, so used to our freedoms, would feel threatened.

This is not to whitewash America's genocidal treatment of its indigenous populations, or its historical trade in slavery, or its foreign interventions overseen by its Central Intelligence Agency, becoming almost a colonial presence in many areas of Asia and Middle East to cultivate cultural and historical bad blood, such as setting up concentration camps and supporting programmes of ethnic cleansing and torture cells for political expediency back on American soil.

Probably this is why to a large extent to many of us the economic rise of China is so disturbing, because we fear its influence as an re-emerging power could spread its inherently racist and totalitarian values to other countries. We know what a superpower at its most inhumane can achieve.

But it is America that is a superpower, and has been so for many decades, and even if economically that is no longer the case, culturally, its "soft diplomacy" has worked into the global conscious for too long to be erased so quickly. If America reacts with compassion, the world will sit up and notice. If America becomes as bad as the people it blacklists, then the world will notice that, too. America needs to show that its freedoms do not just apply to its white population, or indeed just to its own citizens - but those ideals are for all humans everywhere. American aggression, like its regression, is infectious.

Relevantly, America's film industry has become very retrogressive, as well. In the Hollywood blockbuster "Olympus Has Fallen" we see the White House in the wake of a terrorist attack with the new bad men du jour North Korea and the Middle East. The film doesn't pretend to be anything but an action movie that harks back to the eighties era, and you get your money's worth of violence.

Gerard Butler in Olympus Has Fallen 2013
Gerard Butler single-handedly
saving the American way
of life in "Olympus Has Fallen"
If you have a soft spot for films filled with quotable one-liners, where an action hero kills about fifty bad guys, escapes unscathed, and in the grand finale, has hand-to-hand combat with the number one bad guy, saves the destruction of the country with three seconds to go, and manages to take swipes at foreign countries, then this is for you.

The film is an American propaganda piece, and in its maniacal hatred of anything un-American it regresses even further to pay homage to the Red Scare - the term used to denote the promotion of fear of a "perceived" potential rise of communism or radical leftism, used by anti-leftist proponents in the United States. The intensely patriotic fervour of the 1940s and 50s that gave rise to the anti-communist fear in America brought with it many causalities amongst its own citizens. Societies were divided as people were encouraged to spy and inform on one another.

This similarity didn't go unnoticed when "Olympus Has Fallen" was reviewed by British newspaper The Guardian. A key scene where one of the North Korean baddies is despatched with a bust of Abraham Lincoln is described as being indicative of the "Go Team America" mood of the action film. After the subtleties and nuances of the Oscar winning film "Lincoln", here you have the face of Lincoln smashed down on a North Korean bad guy.

It's not meta-textual, it's just in your face, and what might be more worrisome is how North Koreans and South Koreans aren't really separated ideologically - simply because they are from the same race. And that lack of compassion is woven throughout the whole film. On this point, Catherine Shoard makes some insightful comments in the Guardian review:

It's a film about the fallacy of compassion. There are several points at which they have to make a decision about whether or not to spare somebody's life, one person's life who's in pain in front of them, or put the "greater good" first. And they make the wrong decision, twice ... It's a film about "manning up" in a very aggressive way, dealing with pain and just not being a pussy.

In my "The Winds of Love" article, I opine that compassion has been sidelined in society, but I don't do so because I am some liberal romantic that believes we should just tow any line a terrorist happens to draw. I am both a romantic and a realist. War has been an evolutionary necessity at times, and has also advanced our knowledge in science and medicine. But today we need better justifications for saving lives, rather than in the arena of taking them first.

Besides showing compassion and forgiveness for your enemies takes balls. It is the hardest route; but if we hold on to anger, we hurt ourselves the most, and the violence will never end. This is the wisdom of a modern, enlightened world - that the lines drawn across our planet all have our fingerprints on them. Obviously, individuals need to be held accountable for their actions, but the race or religion they come from shouldn't be held accountable - not unless we are prepared to take a good, hard look in the mirror.

Before I am accused of being too idealistic in the flurry of emails that is sure to come after this post, I am aware of the futility of a "bleeding heart" in a world that has become increasingly "cold-blooded". Hugging a terrorist is not likely to end the violence, but neither is becoming as bad as one going to achieve the aim, either. Interestingly in the same Guardian film review is a documentary about a group of activists who appear clueless as to how they can save the world, when they can barely look after each other.

In "Fuck for Forest", activists use porn to raise money to save the rainforest by singing, stripping and having sex in public for cash. You may think charging strangers to watch you (or join you) as you have sex for a good cause is innovative, but just how novel an idea this is begins to look suspect the further we are taken into the film. When the activists head from Berlin to Brazil to bring their ethos to the native population, they are made to look like self-deluded hippy-like liberals in the culture clash that ensues with the actual community living there.

Once in the Amazon Basin, they meet the people they are allegedly raising the money for and get rejected, and it turns into a farce. It is not clear whether the travellers from Berlin are activists or exhibitionists, and the documentary turns into a showcase of unappealing people making a spectacle of themselves. Does such a grand faux-pas come from a real lack of compassion for their cause? Is the lack of merit because it's just people who want to have sex in public for money, within the pretext of a good cause?

Because liberalism for liberalism's sake can be used as a pretext for sex with strangers, just as conservatives can use the abhorrent acts of two men to arm up and go on a witch hunt. As one commenter wrote under Gopnik's article, tone is important, sometimes it's not what is said but the tone that matters.

Sometimes it's not what a film says, but what it doesn't say that resonates the most. Although, when all is said and done, films like "Olympus Has Fallen" are just movies, it is achingly indicative of the ignorance that plagues America. It rings false of too many people in glass houses throwing stones, without realising the effect American foreign policy (and films such as these) has slowly sown to reap the results we see today. It's surely no accident that the 10 best places to live peaceably in the world today - as listed by RD Magazine - are those countries either isolated from conflict due to geography, or have kept out of global conflicts because of political neutrality.

Critics of peace will say that wars needed to be fought for our freedoms, it was a dirty job, and it needed to be done. But when you are no longer fighting for freedom, but to become a large player in the world, then you lose the moral high ground. And if the West fears that the vacuum left by its passing will be filled by countries such as Russia and China, with worse human rights records, the ends don't justify the means if we are no better than people we turn into comic strip baddies. When the motivation to war becomes so self-serving, none of the technological or scientific advancements spurred on by military needs can justify the lives lost down the ages - especially when the money now is being diverted to warfare from the innovative sciences. America has streamlined most of its space exploration programmes, while the military technology now being built is for the sole purpose of making war, like killer drones.

Surely the aim of war should be to keep down casualties on both sides? And to continue fighting a war that should have been long over, to remain locked in a mentality that has passed, makes you as irrelevant as an outmoded piece of technology from the decade you are stuck in. You become a caricaturisation. And as Boston returns to some type of normality and the American public feed off such films, buoyed by the Boston bombings, America doesn't realise that it's satirising itself. Like the documentary "Fuck for Forest", the joke is on them, but it's not funny, because the joke is on us, too.

The real tragedy of the Boston bombing is that although it should be remembered for the heroic acts it inspired and the heroism of that day, and for the loss of innocent lives cruelly cut down short, many will remember it more for the lynch-mob mentality, and the lives that were damaged or taken, not by the bomb blasts but by the American public themselves. Innocent people targeted and attacked simply because of the colour of the skin. In this, as in the past, the public's witch hunt mentality has murdered or imprisoned more than one innocent person.

The incident also acts as a warning for us to all beware half-truths and misinformation. Conspiracy theories aside that the FBI had been following the bombers for two years, and this is just a staged incident to keep the "Islamic" terror alive in the minds of Americans; in the real world, rather than making the Boston bombings an attack on America's national identity, the country's best thinkers need to throw a light on how and why two apparently likeable boys became cold-hearted killers. But when no one wants to listen, making social statements is hard. When it goes against the rhetoric fashionable for the day, many will switch you off. However, it makes it no less true for all that.

To minimise the risks of this happening again, we all need to engage in social conversations that go on to spark progressive change. But it is a game of catch-up. Change, like the roots of terrorism, can grow gradually. For example, in America the issue of gay marriage is due to activism that started decades ago. Sometimes it's slower than activists want, but their work does count. What needs to change next is how we treat people different from us, and how we treat differences in general, because when we demonise a whole group of people, we can't then be surprised when they produce a few.

And every society has its demons, as America can attest to in recent months. Out of all the mass shootings, it is the Newtown shootings last December that stick with me the most - the murder of twenty 6-7 year olds in their schoolrooms by a white, American male. The Boston bombings took the life of one eight year old, a Caucasian American boy took the life of twenty - and each is as bad as the other. No less, or worse, but equal, because all life, even one, is sacred and precious, and when taken so young, just as meaningless. And in another Gopnik article - this time for the BBC about the infinities of parental love - the death of a child is the one common emotion that can reconcile enemies in grief. He writes:

One of the rules of mathematics and physics, as I - a complete non-mathematician - read often in science books, is that when infinity is introduced into a scientific equation it no longer makes sense. All the numbers go blooey when you have one in the equation that doesn't have a beginning or an end.

Parental love, I think, is infinite. I mean this in the most prosaic possible way. Not infinitely good, or infinitely ennobling, or infinitely beautiful. Just infinite. Often, infinitely boring. Occasionally, infinitely exasperating. To other people, always infinitely dull - unless, of course, it involves their own children, when it becomes infinitely necessary.

But many Americans, and the media, will not make the connection, of the children that were killed in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan - and that seeing their own child murdered, a lack of compassion means that people can easily murder the children of others. Some have called this the selective grieving of the West, and it's hard not to agree when you look at the statistics. Assed Baig writing for the Huffington Post explains:

On the same day as the Boston bombings at least 33 were killed and 160 wounded in a string of bomb attacks across Iraq. Attacks which did not take place before the US led invasion of the country. The same media coverage was not afforded to the dead in Iraq, nor did Obama seek to comment on the issue.

Looking down the news feed of news organisations, it is obvious what news takes priority. It is, of course, the three deaths in Boston. All life is precious, sacred and equal, but as far as our media and politicians are concerned, some is more precious, sacred and equal than others.

There will be no interviews with families, work colleagues or pictures for the victims of the 315 drone strikes carried out by Obama in Pakistan. People in Pakistan have been subjected to drone strikes, not knowing when or where they will strike, not knowing who they will strike, the distant hum of the drone could be the last thing they hear. Where are the media and politicians to show their condolences for these victims? To ask for prayers? To share their thoughts? To voice their disgust and indignation?

Nothing can condone the murder of innocent people, and that means all people, no matter where they live, or what creed the follow. For the Chechen people, from which the Boston bombers come, they too have experienced the mass slaughter of their children - as early as 2004, when Russian soldiers trying to end a siege of a school resulted in the deaths of over 180 children in Beslan.

Still, although the death of a child is something we can all understand, it is does not affect us all in the same way. Indeed the death of those twenty young children in Newtown hasn't even spurred enough impetus for major change to the gun laws in America. Arguably, it is the same attitude that generates the comments found under Gopnik's article; when such incidents occur immediately grabbing for your flag or gun, or screaming out the anthem is not the solution, but part of the problem.

There are many things America would like to change about the world, to eradicate the terrorists that would threaten its national security and the freedoms that we all dearly cherish in the West. But America has its own changes to go through, too, and it will ultimately need to reach out to people different from them. Because although America may influence the world, the world is more than the sum of America - or indeed the West.

Case in point, Margaret Thatcher - not known for being a champion of democracy or freedom outside of her own borders - was known for her intense dislikes, especially of the Irish, infamously branding them as "all liars". Thatcher was the United Kingdom's prime minister during much of the Northern Ireland troubles in the eighties and was the subject of an assassination attempt by the IRA in the Brighton bombing that killed five people.

The life and death of Thatcher.

A lady of extreme contradictions, it is said she took it hard that innocent people died by a bomb meant for her. She took a tough line against negotiating with dissident Republicans, including hunger strikers in prison, but she also signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement giving Ireland's government some say in the affairs of Northern Ireland, which paved the way for later peace.

Similarly, America needs to teach its citizens that we will not build bridges by burning them with misguided patriotism, and like it or not, one day those bridges will have to be built, for the good of our entire species. Rather than "Team America" against the world, we need to start seeing the whole world as on the same team.

The same goes for those that believe they can justify the terror they cause to innocent people. One day, the superpower will not be America, or a China, or any other single nation. It won't be terror, either. But only if we go out and do good, and do what's right.

We only have one shot at life, but for a life lived right, one lifetime is all we need. If we can generate far more material associations, allegiances, experiences and memories in affirmation of the protection of life, rather than the murder of it, then the future superpower will be love - in all its infinite forms.

Now that's a world worth living, not dying for - because who wouldn't want to stick around in a world where the superpower of love reigns supreme? I'm sure "bleeding heart" liberals and "cold-blooded" conservatives would both agree that's worth a front seat ticket any day of the week.

Yours in love,

Mickie Kent