Humanism, the West’s Last Great Utopia

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at Bal...

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El humanismo, la última gran utopía de Occidente (Spanish)

Humanism, the West’s Last Great Utopia

Jorge Majfud

The University of Georgia

One of the characteristics of conservative thought throughout modern history has been to see the world as a collection of more or less independent, isolated, and incompatible compartments.   In its discourse, this is simplified in a unique dividing line: God and the devil, us and them, the true men and the barbaric ones.  In its practice, the old obsession with borders of every kind is repeated: political, geographic, social, class, gender, etc.  These thick walls are raised with the successive accumulation of two parts fear and one part safety.

Translated into a postmodern language, this need for borders and shields is recycled and sold as micropolitics, which is to say, a fragmented thinking (propaganda) and a localist affirmation of  social problems in opposition to a more global and structural vision of the Modern Era gone by.

These regions are mental, cultural, religious, economic and political, which is why they find themselves in conflict with humanistic principles that prescribe the recognition of diversity at the same time as an implicit equality on the deepest and most valuable level of the present chaos. On the basis of this implicit principle arose the aspiration to sovereignty of the states some centuries ago: even between two kings, there could be no submissive relationship; between two sovereigns there could only be agreements, not obedience.  The wisdom of this principle was extended to the nations, taking written form in the first constitution of the United States.  Recognizing common men and women as subjects of law (“We the people…”) was the response to personal and class-based absolutisms, summed up in the outburst of Luis XIV, “l’Etat c’est Moi.”  Later, the humanist idealism of the first draft of that constitution was relativized, excluding the progressive utopia of abolishing slavery.

Conservative thought, on the other hand, traditionally has proceeded in an inverse form: if the regions are all different, then there are some that are better than others.  This last observation would be acceptable for humanism if it did not contain explicitly  one of the basic principles of conservative thought: our island, our bastion is always the best.  Moreover: our region is the region chosen by God and, therefore, it should prevail at any price.  We know it because our leaders receive in their dreams the divine word.  Others, when they dream, are delirious.

Thus, the world is a permanent competition that translates into mutual threats and, finally, into war.  The only option for the survival of the best, of the strongest, of the island chosen by God is to vanquish, annihilate the other.  There is nothing strange in the fact that conservatives throughout the world define themselves as religious individuals and, at the same time, they are the principal defenders of weaponry, whether personal or governmental.  It is, precisely, the only they tolerate about the State: the power to organize a great army in which to place all of the honor of a nation.  Health and education, in contrast, must be “personal responsibilities” and not a tax burden on the wealthiest.  According to this logic, we owe our lives to the soldiers, not to the doctors, just like the workers owe their daily bread to the rich

At the same time that the conservatives hate Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, they are radical partisans of the law of the survival of the fittest, not applied to all species but to men and women, to countries and societies of all kinds.  What is more Darwinian than the roots of corporations and capitalism?

For the suspiciously celebrated professor of Harvard, Samuel Huntington, “imperialism is the logic and necessary consequence of universalism.”  For us humanists, no: imperialism is just the arrogance of one region that imposes itself by force on the rest, it is the annihilation of that universality, it is the imposition of uniformity in the name of universality.

Humanist universality is something else: it is the progressive maturation of a consciousness of liberation from physical, moral and intellectual slavery, of both the opressed and the oppressor in the final instant.  And there can be no full consciousness if it is not global: one region is not liberated by oppressing the others, woman is not liberated by oppressing man, and so on.  With a certain lucidity but without moral reaction, Huntington himself reminds us: “The West did not conquer the world through the superiority of its ideas, values or religion, but through its superiority in applying organized violence.  Westerners tend to forget this fact, non-Westerners never forget it.”

Conservative thought also differs from progressive thought because of its conception of history: if for the one history is inevitably degraded (as in the ancient religious conception or in the conception of the five metals of Hesiod) for the other it is a process of advancement or of evolution.  If for one we live in the best of all possible worlds, although always threatened by changes, for the other the world is far from being the image of paradise and justice, for which reason individual happiness is not possible in the midst of others’ pain.

For progressive humanism there are no healthy individuals in a sick society, just as there is no healthy society that includes sick individuals.  A healthy man is no possible with a grave problem of the liver or in the heart, like a healthy heart is not possible in a depressed or schizophrenic man.  Although a rich man is defined by his difference from the poor, nobody is truly rich when surrounded by poverty.

Humanism, as we conceive of it here, is the integrating evolution of human consciousness that transcends cultural differences.  The clash of civilizations, the wars stimulated by sectarian, tribal and nationalist interests can only be viewed as the defects of that geopsychology.

Now, we should recognize that the magnificent paradox of humanism is double: 1) it consisted of a movement that in great measure arose from the Catholic religious orders of the 14th century and later discovered a secular dimension of the human creature, and in addition 2) was a movement which in principle revalorized the dimension of man as an individual in order to achieve, in the 20th century, the discovery of society in its fullest sense.

I refer, on this point, to the conception of the individual as opposed to individuality, to the alienation of man and woman in society.  If the mystics of the 14th century focused on their self as a form of liberation, the liberation movements of the 20th century, although apparently failed, discovered that that attitude of the monastery was not moral from the moment it became selfish: one cannot be fully happy in a world filled with pain.  Unless it is the happiness of the indifferent.  But it is not due to some type of indifference toward another’s pain that morality of any kind is defined in any part of the world.  Even monasteries and the most closed communities, traditionally have been given the luxury of separation from the sinful world thanks to subsidies and quotas that originated from the sweat of the brow of sinners.  The Amish in the United States, for example, who today use horses so as not to contaminate themselves with the automotive industry, are surrounded by materials that have come to them, in one form or another, through a long mechanical process and often from the exploitation of their fellow man.  We ourselves, who are scandalized by the exploitation of children in the textile mills of India or on plantations in Africa and Latin America, consume, in one form or another, those products.  Orthopraxia would not eliminate the injustices of the world – according to our humanist vision – but we cannot renounce or distort that conscience in order to wash away our regrets.  If we no longer expect that a redemptive revolution will change reality so that the latter then changes consciences, we must still try, nonetheless, not to lose collective and global conscience in order to sustain a progressive change, authored by nations and not by a small number of enlightened people.

According to our vision, which we identify with the latest stage of humanism, the individual of conscience cannot avoid social commitment: to change society so that the latter may give birth, at each step, to a new, morally superior individual.  The latest humanism evolves in this new utopian dimension and radicalizes some of the principles of the Modern Era gone by, such as the rebellion of the masses.  For which reason we can formulate the dilemma: it is not a matter of left or right but of forward or backward.  It is not a matter of choosing between religion or secularism.  It is a matter of a tension between humanism and tribalism, between a diverse and unitary conception of humanity and another, opposed one: the fragmented and hierarchical vision whose purpose is to prevail, to impose the values of one tribe on the others and at the same time to deny any kind of evolution.

This is the root of the modern and postmodern conflict.  Both The End of History and The Clash of Civilizations attempt to cover up what we understand to be the true problem: there is no dichotomy between East and West, between us and them, only between the radicalization of humanism (in its historical sense) and the conservative reaction that still holds world power, although in retreat – and thus its violence.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

Men of the Cybernetic Caves

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Hombres de las cavernas cibernéticas (Spanish)

Men of the Cybernetic Caves

Jorge Majfud

Every time someone complains about ideas that fall outside an arbitrary and narrow circle called “common sense” (also known in English as “horse sense”), they do so by brandishing two classic arguments: 1) the philosophers live in another world, surrounded by books and eccentric ideas and 2) we know what reality is because we live in it. But when we ask what “reality” is they automatically recite to us a list of ideas that other philosophers placed in circulation in the 19th century or during the Renaissance, when those philosophers were branded by their neighbors, if not jailed or burned alive on the holy bonfire of good manners in the name of a common sense that represented the fantasies or realities of the Middle Ages.

The Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén, still in the name of what his detractors could frivolously call “populism” – as if a dominant culture were not simultaneously populist and classist by definition; what is more demagogic than the consumer market? – critiqued the idea that the poet must repeat what the people says when “misery attempts to pass itself off as sobriety” (Tengo, 1964). Then he recalled something that turns out to be obvious and, therefore, easy to forget: the “common man” is an abstraction if not a class formed and deformed by the communication media: film, radio, the press, etc.

Perhaps common sense is the inability of that common man to see the world from provinces other than his own. The first time that a common man like Colombus – common for his ideas, not for his actions – saw a Caribean, he saw the scarcity of weapons of war. In his diary he reported that the conquest of that innocent people would be easy. It is no accident that the violent enterprise of the Castilian Reconquest would be continued in the Conquest of the other side of the Atlantic in 1492, the same year the former was completed. The Cortéses, the Pizarros and other “advanced” men were unable to see in the New World anything other than their own myths through the insatiable thirst for domination of old Europe.

The old chronicles recall a certain occasion when a group of conquistadors arrived at a humble village and the indigenous people came out to meet them with a banquet they had prepared. While they were eating, one of the soldiers took out his heavy sword and split open the head of a savage who was trying to serve him fresh fruits. The comrades of the noble knight, fearing a reaction from the savages, proceeded to imitate him until they retreated from that village leaving behind several hundred indians cut to pieces. After a brief investigation, the same conquistadors reported that the event had been justified given that a welcome such as the one they had witnessed could only be a trick. In this way they inaugurated – at least for the chronicles or as slander – the first preemptive action on behalf of civilization. The popular idea that “when the charity is great even the saint is suspicious,” makes heaven complicit in that miserable human condition.

In the same way, both science fiction and the plundering of resources by colonizing new planets are nothing more than the expression of the same aggressive mentality that doesn’t end up solving the conflicts it provokes at each step because it is already undertaking the expansion of its own convictions in the name of its own mental frontiers. The conquistadors (of any race, of any culture) can neither comprehend nor accept that supposedly more primitive beings (native Americans) as well as more evolved beings (possible extraterrestrials) might be capable of something more than a close-minded military conduct, aggressively exploitative of the barbarians who don’t speak our language.

That is to say, mass consumer science fiction – that innocent artistic expression, made popular by the disinterested market – is the expression of the most primitive side of humanity. The basic scheme consists of dominating or being dominated, killing or being exterminated, like our ancestors, the Cromagnons, exterminated the big-headed Neanderthals – later turned into the mythological ogres of the European forests – thirty thousand years ago. This genre could be understood especially in the Cold War, but it is as old as our culture’s thirst for colonization. It is not surprising, therefore, that the extraterrestrials, supposedly more evolved than us, would be out there playing hide and seek. It is quite probable, besides, that they know the case of the Nazarene who took the precaution of using metaphors to preach brotherly and universal love and was crucified anyway.

Presently, while conflicts and wars ravage the whole world, while the environment is in its most critical state, scientists are charged with finding life and water on other planets. NASA plans to use greenhouse gases – like carbon dioxide or methane – to raise the temperature of Mars, melting the frozen water at its poles and forming rivers and oceans. With this method – already tested on our own planet – we will stop buying bottled water from Switzerland or from Singapore in order to import it from Mars, at a slightly higher price.

We are not able to communicate with one another, we are not able to adequately conserve the most beautiful planet in the galactic neighborhood, and we will manage to colonize dead planets, discover water and encounter other beings who probably do not want to be found by intergalactic beasts like us.

Nor is it by accident that the objective of video games is almost always the annihilation of the adversary. Playing at killing is the common theme of these electronic caves filled with Cro-Magnon men and women. If indeed we could imagine a positive aspect, like the possibility that the exercise of playing at killing might substitute for the real practice, there still remains the question of whether violence is an invariable human quota (psychoanalytic version) or can be increased or decreased through a precise culture, through a psychological and spiritual evolution on the part of humanity. I believe that both are surviving hypotheses, but the second one is the only active hope, which is to say, an ideology that promotes an evolution of the conscience and not resignation in the face of what is. If ethical evolution does not exist, at least it is a convenient lie which prevents our cynical involution. The Romans also used to express their passions by watching two gladiators kill each other in the arena; some Spaniards also discharge the same passion by watching the torture and murder of a beast (I am referring to the bull). Perhaps the first replaced the imperial monstrosity with soccer; the second are in the process of doing so. A few weeks ago, a group of Spaniards marched through the streets carrying slogans like “Torture is not culture.” Protest is a valiant resistance to barbarism disguised as tradition. We are better off not noting that history shows that, in reality, torture is a culture with a millenarian tradition. A culture refined to the limits of barbarism and sustained by the cowardly refinement of hypocrisy.

Bertrand Russell used to say that the madness of the stadiums had sublimated the madness of war. Sometimes it is the other way around, but this is almost always true. It is not less true, of course, that the culture of violence carries with it two hidden purposes: 1) with the supposedly violent libido sublimated in sports, films and video games, the greater violence of social injustices (injustice, from a humanist and Enlightenment point of view) remain unchallenged by the exhausted and self-satisfied masses; 2) it is a form of anaesthesia, of moral habit-forming, in the periodic return of the brute, prehistoric violence of the electronic wars where one neither kills nor murders but suppresses, eliminates. This cybernetic primitivism seduces by its appearance of progress, of future, of spectacle, of technological exploits. Human ignorance is camouflaged in intelligence. Poor intelligence. But it continues to be ignorance, although more criminal than the simple ignorance of the cave-dweller who split open his neighbor’s head in order to avenge a theft or an offense. Modern wars, like the genre of science fiction, are more direct expressions of a race of cave-dwellers that has multiplied dangerously its power to split open its neighbor’s head but has not committed itself to the courageous enterprise of universal conscience. Instead, it defends itself against this utopia by taking recourse to its only dialectical weapon: mockery and insult.

Translated by Bruce Campbell