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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Living Among Wolves–Vain Hopes For Righteousness And World Peace

“If you live among wolves, you have to act like a wolf” – Nikita Khrushchev

However much we may criticize the Russians, and no matter how far their star rises and falls, their politicians have always understood the most fundamental element of human nature, that which underlies all human activity.

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Khrushchev, Stalin before him and Putin after him get it – human society has not progressed much if at all from its primitive, savage days; and unless nations play by the law of the jungle, they will be eaten alive.

Darwin started it all off, but even without his insights, historians and political philosophers could easily have seen how amoral, self-interested behavior rules every aspect of human society.  As importantly, even before the advent of Freud and psychoanalysis, students of human behavior have observed and noted the essential nature of social competition – siblings one against another; families jealous, divided, and determined to override; religious, ethnic, economic, and racial groups vying for power, authority, or at least a bigger piece of the pie.

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Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Machiavelli understood this primal drive for survival and supremacy and dismissed any collective or communitarian enterprise as weak and unfit.  Community, they argued, is a social construct, devised by individuals to promote and protect their individual self interest.  There is no higher value in social cohesion.  On the contrary, it is merely a means to and end – a facilitator for individual expression.

Families, courts, nations, and empires have all thrived and extended their reach and influence through conflict and pacification.  The Muslim, Chinese, Persian, Mongolian, Indian, Roman, British, and Malian empires did not achieve cultural and political hegemony through peaceful accommodation and consideration for opposing views but through the force of arms.

Without a doubt these empires lasted because of their savvy and intelligent rule, but their conquests were military.

Despite millennia of similar and predictable contentious and expansionist history, there are still those who insist that the world can be made a better, more verdant, and more peaceful place.  We are not, they say, so determined by genetic configuration; nor must we necessarily follow the same arc of events that characterized the early phases of our evolution.  We can stop the cycle of war, violence, and civil strife by overcoming our human nature.  Human initiative, morality, rational judgment, and communal purpose can overcome if not defy what seems to be but is not innate and immutable.

The progressive Left in the United States is profoundly committed to the prospect of a better world of social justice and  moral righteousness which can be achieved by commitment, zeal, and opportunity.  The conservative Right anticipates the normal swings of dominance and defeat – the predictable cycles of history – and hopes that we are in an upturn, but is not crushed if we are not.

Why then are the admonitions of Nietzsche and the statements of Russian politicians so surprising? Was it not according to the laws of competition and social evolution that Russia took over Crimea and establish hegemony over Ukraine? Is not the rise of ISIS and Islamic militancy expected in a world where political hegemony or bi-polarity has disappeared?

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Most importantly, what is so frightening about accepting our animal nature? Why such arrogance, such irrational belief in human exceptionalism?  While there is no doubt that homo sapiens represents a significant evolutionary step, affording intelligence, wit, insight, creativity, and perspective, why do we automatically assume that the more primitive aspects of human nature will disappear? Evolution is not a zero sum game.

No matter where we look, whether in history or drama, the result is the same.  The Shakespearean critic Jan Kott stated that if we were to read the Bard’s Histories in chronological order, we would see only a repetitious tale – kings, queens, courtiers, and pretenders, all vying for power, influence, and territory.  Since human nature underlies all human activity; and since human nature is essentially selfish, territorial, and protective, why should we be surprised at The War of the Roses?

Where in history has communalism, social harmony, peace and universal justice prevailed?
There have been attempts to reverse human nature.  Soviet Communists tried and failed.  European Socialists are still trying but fighting a losing battle.  American progressives still carry the torch of social harmony and peaceful enterprise, but have been roundly set back by the muscular, resentful, and determined Right.

Jack London’s The Call of the Wild is a story of wolves, their human masters, and the ineluctable, beautiful, primitivism of nature; but the moral of London’s story is far from human or compassionate.  It is one of fierce, dominant survival.

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The Call of the Wild is told from the perspective of Buck, a German Shepherd-St. Bernard mix who has been born and raised in Southern California, but because of his strength and obedience, he is sold to be part of Alaskan dog teams. It is a story of how Buck survived the North, the abuse and mistreatment of his owners; and the challenges of his competitors.  Buck quickly learns to respect the law of ‘Club and Fang” – the intimidating brutality of sled-drivers and the fierce rivalry for food and dominance among the dogs.  He steals meat, the first act of transition from the constructed civilization of the South to the more primitive but fundamental nature of the North:
This first theft marked Buck as fit to survive in the hostile Northland environment. It marked his adaptability, his capacity to adjust himself to changing conditions, the lack of which would have meant swift and terrible death. It marked, further, the decay or going to pieces of his moral nature, a vain thing and a handicap in the ruthless struggle for existence. It was all well enough in the Southland, under the law of love and fellowship, to respect private property and personal feelings; but in the Northland, under the law of club and fang, whoso took such things into account was a fool, and in so far as he observed them he would fail to prosper.

‘His development (or retrogression) was rapid”, writes London. “His muscles became as hard as iron and he grew callous to ordinary pain”.
And not only did he learn by experience, but instincts long dead became alive again. The domesticated generations fell from him. In vague ways he remembered back to the youth of the breed, to the time the wild dogs ranged in packs through the primeval forest and killed their meat as they ran it down. It was no task for him to learn to fight with cut and slash and the quick wolf snap.
In this manner had fought forgotten ancestors. They quickened the old life within him, and the old tricks which they had stamped into the heredity of the breed were his tricks. They came to him without effort or discovery, as though they had been his always. And when, on the still cold nights, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolf-like, it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose at star and howling down through the centuries and through him. And his cadences were their cadences, the cadences which voiced their woe and what to them was the meaning of the stiffness, and the cold, and dark.
It is easy to see how many would like human society to change, to evolve from The Call of the Wild to a socialist utopia – a society living according to its means, respectful of others, considerate, diverse, accepting, and tolerant.  The desire for utopia is very American.  In the early 20th century Utopian colonies – e.g. Oneida – were established in defiance of American nationalism.  In the 60’s, Utopian idealism had a strong resurgence.  Young people believed that the course of American – and human – history could be changed by right belief and committed action,.

Yet such hopes are no more than dreams.  It is Genghis Khan, Mohammed, Xerxes, Stalin, Hitler, the Mauryans, Queen Elizabeth I, and Jeffersonian Westward Expansion which are history’s predictors.

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Is there no hope for world peace? No final evolution from a society of wolves to compassionate Christians? Perhaps,but not likely.

The only hope for a relatively peaceful world is one of standoff.  Given an essentially competitive, adversarial world, the best we can hope for is stalemate – powers so equally armed and determined that provocation would amount to disaster.  It worked during the Cold War, and it might work now.

Machiavelli and Khrushchev were right.  We live among wolves; but there is no reason why we cannot adjudicate the standoff in our favor. 

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