The Ukraine variant, an ancient primer
Surely the Emperor and his court
will want to know what a fine
and generous revolution begins tomorrow
in one of his remote provinces...
From “The Sweater of Vladimir Ussachevsky” by John Haines
Beneath the lurid headlines about the Ukraine war flashing across luminescent screens as daily advertisements for the New World Order’s crisis du jour, deeper historical currents with existential consequences for humanity are coursing. And being ignored.
Lewis Lapham has observed that TV and computer screens are the modern “Pool of Narcissus.” In an interconnected global society lost in its own virtual reflection, Lapham asks, “Who can distinguish between a bloodbath in Afghanistan or a bubble bath in Paris?”
The consequences of living ahistorically are profound. Many nuclear policy experts believe the current geopolitical crisis could easily trigger a nuclear war. A negotiated end to the Ukraine war is also a remote possibility, but the process is being driven by Russia and Ukraine and mediated by Turkey in the face of US and NATO hostility.
How did we get here?
HUMANITAS vs IMMUNITAS
In 1976, at the height of the Cold War, Czech philosopher Erazim Kohák writing about the global conflict between East and West said, “Russia no less than America is Europe’s heir.”
If any public figure in the West were to utter such a statement today, they would immediately be condemned as a Putin sympathizer, probably accused of treason and deplatformed on social media.
Yet Kohák’s recognition of Russia’s legitimacy as a co-equal heir to the Greco-Roman philosophic, cultural and political legacy bequeathed to modern Europe and the US is crucial to any hope of saving that legacy. In this sense, the war in Ukraine is civilizational. Per Kohak.
“Power is not what is at stake in the Russo-Western conflict. The Western ideal of humanity is what it is all about and that ideal, regardless of the nominal victor, would not survive a war. The Chinese alone could be victors.”
Kohák is referring to the humanitas ideal (The Embers & the Stars, p. 111) that defines humans as moral beings rather than mere beasts of the field. It is an ideal predicated on learned kindness, restraint and community (communitas).
This historically unique concept, expressed institutionally through the early Catholic church, which, drawing on Judaism, added the idea of intrinsic God-given rights, is a “cultural achievement” that required three millennia of moral effort. It is not a factual given but a “moral ideal by which the human can orient his life.” Despotism is always lurking, progress towards the ideal always tenuous, but it is still a lodestar that demands lip service even from totalitarian dictators.
The humanitas ideal was interpreted and acted upon very differently in the East and West following Constantine’s renaming of Byzantium to Constantinople in 330 AD (Istanbul today.), which he hailed as the “New Rome.”
The vast Eastern Roman Empire centered in Constantinople, for which Russia was the inevitable geographic outlet, drew on both the humanitas tradition and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The emphasis in actualizing a moral ideal of humanity thus fell on true faith and obedience. Humanitas was an ideal too precious to rest on free will alone. The heavy hand of both church and state were required to maintain adherence.
In the Western Roman Empire centered in Rome, with the US as the inevitable geographic outlet, the emphasis fell on free will and the conscience of individuals as moral actors, with the republic acting in theory as a “guardian of liberties rather than a tutor of righteousness.”
What has become blindingly clear since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, exponentially accelerated during the past two years of pandemic biopolitics in service to a newly medicalized authoritarianism, is that neither side now believes in nor trusts human freedom. The political projects of East and West have nearly reached a point of convergence. Both are predicated on forced obedience to higher authority and a reduction of humanity to biology.
Kohák characterized the militarized global competition between the US and Russia as “a struggle between freedom and perfection” driven by differing interpretations of a common cultural heritage.
Under pandemic authoritarianism, the goal in the West has shifted from humanitas to immunitas, from a shared ideal of community among free individuals to state intervention aimed at relieving individuals of responsibility for their own well being.
The Latin meaning of immunitas is exemption from taxes or public service, while communitas is the very spirit of community and service predicated on humanitas. In a race to make ourselves exempt from both nature and one another (immunitas), we are becoming the very thing that we condemn and doing irreversible damage to the civilizing legacies of both humanitas and communitas.
THE DISEMBODIMENT OF BIDEN & PUTIN
“We pay little attention to the art – not the nature, the art – of living as free moral persons. We mask it with a sophistication which is little more than distraction. Beneath it, we are becoming a race of amoral, technologically advanced savages.” – Erazim Kohák
”Joe” Biden and Vladimir Putin have both characterized Ukraine as a religious war, their dire end-of-days language functioning like the neural spasms of two long amputated limbs. Pope Francis & Patriarch Kirill have echoed the apocalyptic message with condemnation of the other side’s “evil actions.” The choice of absolutist religious language is a hollow reflection of a once historic struggle reflexively parroted in today’s headlines even as the humanitas ideal is trampled.
The ancient question of whether humanity would live as free moral beings or as perfectly obedient disciples is still an argument worth having, but government and media have merged in a war against free speech in both the West and East. The difference between the two sides today is increasingly one of degree, not of kind. Questioning of official narratives is no longer permissible in either Russia or the US, and by extension NATO.
Waiting in the wings is China, where even in May 2022, the most extreme Covid lockdowns on earth continue in adherence to a state mandated “zero Covid” policy. In spite of the policy’s manifest failure, there is continued mass testing nationwide, with people who test positive sent to government quarantine camps. In Shanghai, China’s largest city, there are 16,000 sealed-off areas, 4 million people forcibly locked in their homes, another 5.4 million blocked from leaving their residential compounds and factory production is nearly shutdown. China’s zero Covid policy reflects the reality of a regime that tolerates zero human freedom.
The historic movement away from freedom and individual liberty has been dramatically accelerated since the end of the first Cold War by the rise of a new transnational governing structure designed to service the needs of increasingly globalized capital and markets. National and local governance have been steadily usurped by global institutions controlled by a small, elite class of capitalists, financiers and technocrats, so called “sovereignty-free actors” who dominate international governance and descry “inadequate state-centric” government.
Traditional elections can’t fix this problem. Even voting for Brexit, Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro had little impact because the displacement of meaningful civic engagement by globalization, political consumerism and lurid media spectacle has turned democracy into a permanent political carnival, with citizens transformed into often angry and frustrated consumer-spectators.
PANDEMIC ANTHROPAUSE & THE POLITICS OF BIOLOGICAL IDENTITY
Given potentially explosive popular dissatisfaction, maintaining the openly authoritarian ideology that emerged during the Covid pandemic requires a state of permanent crisis and what the NY Times calls a “New Cold War.” This is happening in tandem with a pandemic “anthropause” explicitly aimed at reducing human life to biology. In this milieu, choosing an alternative biological identity can seem like a radical personal political statement.
Yet rather than nurturing a flowering of authentic civic and cultural diversity, a thousand artificial flowers now appear, spawning a furiously empty and divisive political freak show that displaces citizen empowerment with a cartoonish ideology of distraction. In the process, genuine political agency and a unifying vision of humanity are being trivialized and diluted beyond recovery.
The effect is grotesque, with flippant corporate sponsored cultural novelties such as Apple Inc.’s racially inclusive pregnant man emoji drawing attention away from the steady advance of authoritarian absolutism. The new emoji was the product of a subcommittee of the transnational Unicode Consortium, whose voting members include Apple, Adobe, Google, Microsoft, IBM, Facebook and, adding a patina of global inclusiveness, the Sultanate of Oman’s Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs.
Public feedback is an afterthought solicited by the Consortium “from time to time” via notifications published on the Unicode blog, which is not even an HTTPS secure website. Debate among the unwashed takes place after the fact as open democratic processes are completely ignored.
The coupling of corporatized transnational cultural and political trivialization with delusional geopolitical realpolitik backed by force of arms is a lethal dead end. In spite of this new order’s self-proclaimed inclusiveness via front organizations such as the World Economic Forum’s vacuous Global Parity Alliance, it is unhinged from a moral sense of life and a genuine belief in the intrinsic value of the other.
The capacious humanitas ideal is a flexible and living, but always fragile, legacy that we will lose, possibly in a mushroom cloud, if we continue to take it for granted while capitulating to a soulless New World Order. The greatest challenge of our times is reclaiming our own cultural, religious and political history in order to emphatically reject the abyss of warmongering transnational authoritarianism looming on the near horizon.
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