Monday, May 27, 2013

Humans in the Raw

Cullen Murphy:

The United States of America in the twenty-first century is about as different from late-medieval Spain as a country can be. And yet a controversy during the summer of 2010 demonstrated how little effort is required to whip up popular fervor on issues of "otherness."

...Within a matter of weeks, birthright citizenship had moved from something that people took for granted to something that, according to opinion polls, nearly half of all Americans had decided they opposed. In January 2011, a group of state legislators unveiled a proposal to create what some described as a two-tiered system of birth certificates, one tier for babies born to citizens, the other for children of illegal immigrants. Shortly afterward, two U.S. senators proposed a constitutional amendment that would deny birthright citizenship outright to children born to illegal aliens, regardless of the consequences. As one commentator pointed out, "Without the concept of birthright citizenship, it is possible for someone to be born without having citizenship in any country at all."

The point is not to make a facile comparison between incomparable regimes. It is simply to note that dangerous passions — about social contamination, about religious incursion — can be found anywhere. It does not take much to arouse them.

Andrew Wright, reviewing John Gray's newest book:

In a nutshell his argument runs that there's no redemption for the human animal, in fact, we delude ourselves if we think we are anything beyond the animal. We are, he argues, violent, brutish and barbaric.  And whilst our 21st century lives in developed nations are no longer dominated by these three forces, it is deep-written in our nature to have these forces just below the surface and that fact is as immutable as the mountains. Whilst our technology and science progress and develop our basic character and nature cannot. We are not improving as a species, becoming less violent or nasty and inexorably moving on to some dreamy Star Trekkian future of benign benevolence. We are doomed to repeat the barbarism of history, civilisation only paper-thin.

...To prove his point Gray takes us to humans in the raw, to Naples in 1943 where starvation and disease took a modern city and tossed it back into the dark ages and people fought to live in the most desperate of conditions. In such terrible circumstances anything goes and the civilised life is seen to be the myth it is. Humans are animals that will do anything to remain alive, ditching values and philosophies long held simply to keep their hearts beating.

As I said it is a bleak and honest analysis and it is a powerful warning about human hubris, urging us to be ever humble and watchful for our own "nasty" instincts. Our institutions, our mythological civilised life where many of us have the privilege to live - where indeed John Gray himself gets the opportunity to de-construct it all - can and often is, washed away in an instant by the forces of dark disaster.

Hey, it's Memorial Day, isn't it? I just prefer to spend it reflecting on the ways in which other people, not just soldiers, have sacrificed so that we might live comfortably, and on the threats posed by, as one review of Murphy's book put it, “some vision of the ultimate good, some conviction about ultimate truth, some confidence in the quest for perfectibility,” whereby "as long as there are righteous people in the world, the danger of widespread persecution will persist."