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Technological progress and human barbarism: An unheroic coupling

By Louis René Beres


Every time I get on an airplane, I am struck by the contradictions. As a species, we can take tons of  heavy metal, and transform them into a once-unfathomable vehicle of travel. At the same time, we are required to take off our shoes, and discard our bottled water, before being allowed to board. The point, of course, is not to make us more comfortable (those days are long gone),  but to ensure that we don’t blow up the aircraft.

What is wrong with us? Why should such a smart species have become so untrustworthy? Why has the ruinous gap between technological intelligence and human compassion been allowed to become so glaring? Where, exactly, have we gone wrong?

We humans still reveal, sometimes with an undimmed optimism, the delicate veneer of “civilization.” Recalling William Golding’s shipwrecked boys in Lord of the Flies, we discover, behind this sheltering veneer, a lurking barbarism. We try not to acknowledge that many parts of our planet are actually worse  off today than they were several millennia ago. Yet, instead  of asking “why,” we stubbornly insist upon facing the next rounds of war, terror and genocide with a barren stream of pompous solemnities, ritualistic clichés, and plainly vacant promises.

How, we should inquire, has an entire species, miscarried from the start, managed to scandalize its own creation? Are we all the potential murderers of those who live beside us? Wherever we glance, whenever we lament the primal chastisements of our inarticulate and disordered human societies, only the skeleton and the corpse seem to remain constant. Here, on earth, absolutely everything else is transient.

In all “high tragedy,” as it was originally performed in fifth-century Athens, we humans are presented as unwelcome and deeply-flawed guests in the world. Today, this demeaning presentation appears especially hard to dismiss. After all, following even a “small” nuclear war (now a distinctly plausible expectation), cemeteries the size of small cities will need to be erected.

For whole swaths of the world, both within and between nation-states, necropolis could become the new “normal.” Before anything fully human could ever again be born into such a world, a gravedigger might have to wield the forceps.

Tragedy should remind us that the earthly spheres of order, justice and reason are always severely limited, and that no amount of technology or science can ever compensate for our multiple failings and estrangements. Even if we humans should sometimes be punished in excess of our wrongdoings, this suffering fate does not make us innocent. Above all, it is the dreary silence and narrowness of ordinary people that cheerlessly sustains the world’s madness.

To be sure, there will inevitably be garrulous and impassioned reactions to the latest famines and exterminations — after all, such reactions are de rigeur among “civilized” persons  —  but even the most grievous sighs will never be so audible as to interfere with lunch.

Not long ago, former US President Bill Clinton was impeached for his dalliances with Monica, but never meaningfully reproached for allowing 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis to become victims of a machete-based African genocide. Today, both Iraq and Afghanistan remain crouched in the bruising darkness, a progressively-deteriorating microcosm of regional and global chaos. When we Americans finally leave these latest conflicts, there will be no tangible signs of civil accomplishment or military victory. On the contrary, the resultant slaughter will promptly suffocate the slender remnants of progress, and render moot all of our huge and thoroughly well-intentioned sacrifices of blood and treasure.

After these wars, a penultimate final curtain will be lowered. Unsurprisingly, the chorus,  now chanting in unison, will mournfully intone that we humans had once again failed to learn anything of importance from myriad lessons of the past. For its part, the audience will experience a bewildering and contrapuntal fusion of grief and joy. Exeunt omnes.

But there is no real point to fawning upon our past mistakes. No, we must now look back thoughtfully, in order to look ahead purposefully. How much treasure, we must ask, how much science, how much labor and planning, how many vast oceans of sacred poetry, have we already ransacked, to expand the increasingly dreadful portent of chemical, biological or nuclear war?

I don’t know the answers. I do know, however, that our banal and corrupted political institutions can never save us, and that even our universities, allegedly perched high above the daily clamor of work and family, are consciously unmindful of  the really important questions. Indelicately, higher education now proceeds hand in hand with crude commerce, smugly crushing any hints of student originality, and shamelessly displaying disregard for anything that is detached from contrived status rankings or tawdry financial gain.

The American university, now an obsequious adjunct of the wider corporate universe, lies outside the precise topography of what is truly important to human survival. Certain French philosophers of the eighteenth-century Age of  Reason liked to speak of a siecle des lumieres, a century of light, but today, the ivy-covered walls are fouled by a conspicuous darkness of excruciating conformance, rote learning, vulgar self-interest, and an oddly-fashionable loathing of anything intellectual. In today’s university, worldwide, the “life of the mind” has become an embarrassingly thin text.

Occasionally, truth must emerge through paradox. We humans can build complex machines to fly us through the air; yet, we must also fear that others will adapt these aircraft as instruments of mass murder. Such stark contradictions of our schizophrenic age offer an insistent final warning, unsettling, but also overwhelmingly dense with implication. If we can somehow heed this critical warning in time, and with sufficient understanding, the forseeably tragic action of our global drama may still ultimately close on a gentle note of grace.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is Professor of Political Science at Purdue University. He is author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law. Read his previous OUPblog posts here.

For further reading, we recommend Barbarism and Civilization by Bernard Wasserstein.
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