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Marilynne Robinson (on civilization)

May she keep on teaching and writing. Marilynne Robinson, photo from an article in The Guardian newspaper.

[3-minute read]

We hear it all the time. Human beings are naturally aggressive. We have always had wars, and we always will. Some of the more pessimistic among us – and listen, such people are not deranged; there are reasons aplenty to cast a stink-eye on our history  – go so far as to suggest that war is the natural condition of human societies, and that peace is an intermittent and temporary reprieve. This is nonsense.

Among many other reasons, it is foolish to think this way because, first, it is too easy, and second, it is too damned discouraging. Third, and most important, to consider warfare as our default mode is slippery and false because it allows us to excuse and even justify  (to ourselves, to our fellow foreign policy analysts, to our tough-on-crime cronies, to any of our partners-in-expediency) the use of brutal methods to address problems. Meanwhile, we routinely fall into the lazy assumption that human beings have hair-trigger predispositions towards violence or other anti-social qualities, yet most of us wouldn’t say this about the people that we actually know and interact with. (“People are AWFUL! Well, not my people, they’re mostly pretty great but, you know, those people out there…”)     

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What Do We Remember?

First I tweeted, then I thought.

Typical.

Beautiful. Nothing wrong with this. Except --

Beautiful. Nothing wrong with this. Except —

I retweeted sharp, moving, bitterly lovely and earnest images: helmet and bayonet, Canadian flag, grey beret-wearing veteran among poppies in remembrance of long-lost ever-youthful brothers in arms. It’s only natural: I’m touched by the loss of “my guys”. They’re mine because even though nearly all Canadian war dead fought under a different flag than the one I’ve lived my life under, they came from places I’ve been, or want to. I’ve recited the poems, sung the songs, seen the films. I used to have McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” by heart (the poppies blow), yes, and McGee’s “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth / And danced the sky on laughter-silvered wings…”, and a long time ago I read Timothy Findley’s The Wars like I was in one.

(Well, I know. John Gillespie McGee was American, but his “High Flight” poem celebrated his epiphany as a soaring fighter pilot for the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was dead, at age 19, not long after he wrote how he “wheeled and soared and swung / High in the sunlit silence”. It was a training accident. He hadn’t even had the chance to fight for honour, freedom or anything.)

A British man named Laurence Binyon wrote “For the Fallen” as the Great War was swinging into high gear in the late summer of 1914.

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‘Abdu’l-Baha (on truth and national limitations)

His father called him "the Master". He preferred to be known as a servant.

His father called him “the Master”. He preferred to be known as a servant.

He was a big story in 1912, but aside from the Baha’i community and its friends, few remember ‘Abdu’l-Baha Abbas. For 239 days, he travelled about North America to considerable acclaim: he was heralded in newspapers from Montreal to San Francisco, New York to Chicago as an “Oriental Seer”, the “Baha’i Prophet”, as a “Wonderful Persian Mystic” and “Apostle of Peace”. He gave hundreds of talks in synagogues, churches, universities, public auditoriums and private homes. His topics were many, but the central core of his message was one of spiritual awakening, the hard but necessary road to global peace, and the essential oneness of all faiths, races and peoples. Imagine: 1912.

On May 3, ‘Abdu’l-Baha (it means something like “servant of the Glory”) spoke at the Hotel Plaza in Chicago. He analyzed what factors led to the advancement of civilization and the living of an ethical, productive life. He pointed towards what he called “universal educators”, those historical sources of spiritual, intellectual and material guidance around whom whole systems of belief and practice have arisen. Given where he was, Jesus Christ was his main example.

The quote below almost seemed a throwaway line given at the end of the talk.

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Dwight D. Eisenhower (on the price we pay for war)

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

Was it politics-as-usual, war-by-other-means, or were his words the earnest thought of a man who really knew the price of war?

Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969) was the Supreme Allied Commander by the end of World War II, first military head of N.A.T.O., and then a landslide Republican winner of the 1952 U.S. Presidential election. He served two terms as President, during which the Cold War deepened and America prospered mightily. This quotation comes from his widely broadcast and historically notable 1953 “Chance for Peace” address, sometimes known as the “Cross of Iron” speech. Even Wikipedia notes the “debatable” sincerity of his words, and yet they are urgent and fine and no less true today.

He elaborated the purely economic price of the arms race like this:

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‘Abdu’l-Baha (“never the twain”?)

The East and the West must unite to give to each other what is lacking. This union will bring about a true civilization, where the spiritual is expressed and carried out in the material….We all, the Eastern and the Western nations, must strive day and night with heart and soul to achieve this high ideal, to cement the unity between all the nations of the earth. Every heart will then be refreshed, all eyes will be opened, the most wonderful power will be given, the happiness of humanity will be assured.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in 1911. (1911!) From Paris Talks, p. 21

Just Human Nature?

Have you ever noticed how gloomy we are in the way we talk about ourselves? About our species, I mean. Someone cheats – on his taxes, on her partner – and we shrug and mutter, “Well, it’s only human nature.” Over and over, we sing the same mournful refrain in response to signs of dishonesty, selfishness and aggression, most often evident among people that we don’t know.

I find this bizarre. I think we need to reclaim this phrase, and shout Now THAT’S human nature! whenever we catch people in acts like this: pushing a stranger’s car out of the snow; smiling at small children; preserving history or restoring spoiled habitats; singing the good old songs; standing against injustice; jumping into icy water or burning houses to save another. I don’t mean that lying and brutality don’t happen, only that they are not the default mode of the human system.

It reminds me of the view of history as one unrelieved tale of war, tragedy and competition. If this was true, how could we have cities and art and temples and enduring music? War destroys quickly, and this is the horror, but it is also the exception. If war and aggression were the rule, we’d have destroyed ourselves long ago. If it were otherwise, how could any of the cooperative projects and personal accomplishments of human beings remain? The King James Bible, Chartres Cathedral, Réal Madrid CF, the computer program on which I write: pick your favourite example of human enterprise and progress, and know that it required time and peace to be built.

And if our human nature is nothing but self-interest and negativity, how have we survived? (Just give us time, I hear some of you muttering. We’re working on it.) We can be beastly to each other, but we can also be angels. When we think of our friends, our family, the colleagues we know and respect, we don’t assume as some sort of default stance that they are “only out for themselves”, “naturally aggressive” or, God forbid, “born in sin”. Oh, we screw up. We are in constant need of education. Most of the time, though, most of us are just ordinary Janes and Jamals who are trying to be useful, wanting to enjoy the company of others and to leave some legacy of goodness behind. It’s only human nature, after all.

(And here’s Waldo! Ralph Waldo Emerson, that is, with his description of humans being at their best, the success that, in our heart of hearts, most of us want more than anything else:

To laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children, to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends, to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave the world a little better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition, to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.