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What Else Do We Have To Lose But Our Misperceptions?


The science and security board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists revealed on 23 January 2020 that it has moved the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock another 20 seconds closer to the midnight hour. “It is 100 seconds to midnight,” announced the Bulletin's president and CEO, Rachel Bronson. “The Doomsday Clock is a globally recognized indicator of the vulnerability of our existence,” said former Irish President Mary Robinson. Midnight is the metaphor of the final doomsday annihilation.

The minute hand was never so close to the brink of a global catastrophe since 1947 when it was originally launched amid the Cold War animosity.

In a wider context, never before, at least in my lifetime, was the traditional matrix of human behaviour, perceptions and prospects, rooted in the inexorable faith in the triumph of Good over Evil, in the inherent optimism of mortals believing to be bound for Heaven, so warped and contorted.

Flabbergasted, now we discover the world becoming imposingly rude, strikingly arrogant, unfriendly, and inhospitable. Do you remember Walt Whitman's “Leaves of Grass”? Here is one of my favourite lines: “The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first…” Frankly, it is incomprehensible just as before. Now we definitely face the moment of truth or “post-truth”, one can hardly come to terms with, let alone accept and accommodate.

The premonition of humanity having unknowingly passed thresholds, crossed red lines and now facing insurmountable challenges like degrading planet, collapsing economies, unhinged and destabilized societies, generates a most powerful of all sentiments. Fright. Colossal fright. Fright of biblical proportions and similar implications.

It fuels the abundance of gloom and doom prophecies. They are multiplying and reproducing themselves shamelessly and virally. Fear mongering flourishes, it is recorded on an unprecedented scale, reverberating in the media, social networks, communities. It spreads alarm and panic, produces a worrisome phenomenon of a self-validating narrative with all the makings of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cold shiver runs down the spine.

There seems to be two sources of our frustration. The first one amounts to the profound dissatisfaction with the social, economic and moral pillars of our everyday existence. Jimmy Wu, self-identified as writer and reader of politics, tech, culture, math, fiction, makes a sober and sombre observation on what we have ended up with after embracing or being cunningly manipulated to embrace the delusion of “market-based” values:

For forty years, wages have been stagnant or falling for most households, while those who are fortunate enough to have a steady job typically work longer hours than the average medieval peasant.” Further, he enumerates other typical ills of a sick society:

  • Sky-high rents push neighbors out of their homes, wrenching apart communities and putting people on the streets.
  • Social media keeps us ever more connected online, while walling us off in the real world.
  • Pressures and expectations set by corporate marketing departments degrade our self-image and induce eating disorders in teenagers.”

The most dramatic and disturbing message by Wu deals with the erosion of moral beliefs. “But far from being confined to economic policy, contemporary capitalism (often called “neoliberalism”) also embodies a philosophical belief that self-interest and competition, not cooperation, should pervade every aspect of our lives.” He recalls the horrifyingly cynical mantra coined by the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher: “There is no such thing as society.” In other words, this is the ugly truth: “You're on your own.”

The second source of anxiety bordering terror is the state of politics, in a wider context, and the thorough misbalancing of international interaction. Naturally, we could always find “the last refuge” and a safe asylum embracing a pervasive contemptuous approach by subscribing to George Orwell 's postulate that politics, anywhere and everywhere, has always been “a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia”. We could easily and eagerly, I assume, vilify all those “political animals” who prey on our imposed negligence, ignorance and unawareness, let alone our myths-prone naivety. Yet, it could hardly serve as a potent anaesthetic or cure.

No less disturbing happens to be the ceaseless barrage of bellicose huffing and puffing, which accompanies comprehensive violence across the globe. The world remains a battlefield of geopolitical ambitions, scene of religious rivalry and tribal animosity. The world is still a theatrical stage for a ceaseless clash of warring ideas. Here, as The Washington Post columnist and humourist Art Buchwald once put it, “dogma eats dogma”, while the rulers of all brands, either elected or non-elected, dictate to their humble subjects their bidding to go overseas to die for a set of values that often smell of crude oil, natural gas or dusty mineral resources.

13-2Today's abnormal reality, so distant from what civilization is about, or should be about, meticulously contradicts and depreciates the prediction made by Francis Fukuyama. The thinker imprudently claimed in his benchmark essay “The End of History?” (it saw light in the summer of 1989 prior to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall) that all humankind, from now on, would swear allegiance to the liberal world order and, consequently, bury the hatchet of wars, regional conflicts, interethnic hostility, and the primordial “us vs. them” antagonism.

Sure, Fukyuama deserves a full quote: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the endpoint of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Fancy dreaming and wishful thinking, so it is. Despite being carefully worded (“we may be witnessing”), this foretelling fell flat when it encountered the unbending and unyielding logic of national egoism as well as the structural crisis of capitalism in its globalistic outreach and overstretch. Fukyuama and his enraptured but blindfolded followers sincerely assumed, as one sarcastic observer phrased it, that “The Western ideals of capitalism, liberalism, and representative democracy had prevailed. Eventually, the rest of the world would follow, and we'd all live in a happy, poverty-free, consumerist paradise forever and ever, amen.”

No way. Fukyuama's pink y dream refused to materialize. The list of inter-state wars, fought and never won, as well as on-going civil wars and regional conflicts has not decreased.

One of the turning point was NATO bombings of Serbia, a European country, the first such case since the end of World War II. NATO jets demolished civilian targets (e.g. bridges over Danube) and killed civilians (e.g., on the night of April 5-6, 1999, 12 civilians killed in the mining town of Aleksinac by NATO airstrikes. A total of 35 homes and 125 apartment units were destroyed, with no obvious military target in the vicinity according to the Serbian newspaper Politika ).

Since then, armed interventions multiplied together with the catalogue of martyrs and the volume of human sufferings.

We helplessly recorded acts of outright aggression against Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, etc. We watched and took due notice of the incessant skirmishes between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. And the tit-for-tat sparring between the United States aided by Britain and the partially de-sanctioned Iran. The unending confrontation between the Jewish state of Israel and extremist groupings in the surrounding area, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Tribal warfare, still engulfing post-colonial Africa. Low-intensity civil conflicts in Asia perpetuated by radicalized fanatics. The rise and fall of jihadists from the Islamic State (a terrorist umbrella organization outlawed in the Russian Federation), not yet totally eradicated that keeps spilling over and spreading within the MENA region and further on. This list of on-going local wars and conflicts is far from being completed.

On a global scale, with the current deliberate subversive actions and propaganda campaigns to justify the dismantling of the arms control system, hammered out at the final phase of the Cold War, the world is becoming a less and less safe place to live.

The worrisome trend is complemented with “the crumbling of previous pillars of stability like family values, spiritual ethics, protective rituals, traditional codes of behavior, etc. ”, as noted by an unorthodox iconoclast Umar Haque. This self-styled prophet strongly believes in the ultimate drama punctuated by the ticking clock: “The next three thousand days will choose whether human civilization merely endures and perseveres, or prospers and soars, or declines and quite possibly collapses altogether.”

13-3Do you sense the acid premonition of the inevitable final-final epic fail? It could compel us to embrace a depressing clarification of the Fermi paradox, the one that claims to explain why we have so far failed to come into contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. The reason is discouragingly simple: lifetime of any civilization evolving from sea-borne bacteria to humans mastering nanotechnology… is too short. There is not enough time span to develop sophisticated inter-space travel vehicles. Civilizations perish before they mature to the point when they cultivate the capacity to undertake voyages beyond the Milky Way to far-off galaxies. Sounds like a calamitous verdict, does it not?!

So, are we really doomed? Would this generation witness the break-up of the civilizational cycles of decline and renewal? Is it The End? Probably, not. I would rather side with Yuval Noah Harari, history professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of such best-selling books, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” (2014) and “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” (2016). Accepting the deplorable trend of the world turning into “a network of fortresses”, Harari hopes against hope that it is not meant to be “our inescapable destiny”. Why?

Harari believes that “in the 21st century the existential global crisis might forge a human collective out of disparate nations… humans almost always need some threatening common enemy. But we now have three such enemies: nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption.” The optimistic overtones of this scenario could serve as a consolation for the frustrated and perplexed majority, imho. On the other hand, am I wrong?

It feels good to finalize the preface with the full citation from Walt Whitman, not just the first part of the quote used earlier: “The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first; Be not discouraged – keep on – there are divine things, well envelop'd; I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.” So, let us not be discouraged and let us “keep on” since, after all, what else do we have to lose but our misperceptions?

Vladimir MIKHEEV

№2(148), 2020