Ger van Elk, Symmetry of Diplomacy, 1975, Groninger Museum
July 31, 2023
The blaming game has always been counter-productive. In the UN Human Rights Council, the practice is known as “naming and shaming”, as if the States engaging in “naming” would possess a higher moral authority over those “named”, and as if the assignment of blame could possibly contribute to an atmosphere conducive to dialogue and compromise.
Those who assign the blame would do better to look for root causes and, in any event, do some sweeping at their doorsteps, as China has told the US on repeated occasions. I recall once the Chinese Ambassador saying in jest that he would send a couple hundred mirrors to the White House. This also reflects an idiom attributed to Confucius (551-479 BC) that “all will follow one who is personally upright, even though he does not give orders, but if he is not personally upright, they will not follow, even though he gives orders.”
If we examine the blaming game in the light of our own experiences, we see how often this infantile practice caters to our subconscious fears and animosities, how often it entails a knee-jerk reaction against things that we do not understand and are unwilling to explore further. Thus, we concretise our defences by going on the offensive and denouncing others, whom we label “evil”, whether individuals or governments. The practice remains sterile, because the targeted States push back and become even less inclined to undertake changes.
What humanity needs today – and what it has always needed throughout history – is understanding the causes of things, the tensions that lead to conflict, the complexities that demand solutions. Inertia is not the answer. We absolutely need understanding to be able to formulate a roadmap toward reconciliation. Only then can a modus vivendi emerge, which should then facilitate economic and cultural adjustments and an enhancement of international cooperation. It is this understanding that coagulated in 1945 in the United Nations Charter, which is more necessary today than ever before. The choice before us is to accept a rational compromise, a quid pro quo, or to risk nuclear annihilation.
If we Christians were to practice Christianity, we would give effect to that crucial sentence in the Lord’s Prayer – dimite nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimitimus debitoribus nostris – forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. But forgiveness is not a one-way street. In order to be forgiven, we must also pro-actively forgive others, even if we cannot always forget what has transpired. Memory is indeed important in the conduct of public affairs. Forgiveness, reconciliation and peace are at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, which serves as a mode d’emploi for the survival of the human species.
In contravention of the Sermon on the Mount’s admonition not to judge others, so that we not be judged ourselves, we are hyper-judgmental and love to apportion blame and guilt. Why don’t we let God do the judging? We mortals would be well advised to listen, try to understand the causes of injustice, and thus avoid the ultimate evil – armed conflict.
Every country has at one time or another committed egregious crimes and abuses. The Europeans have perpetrated enormous crimes against each other, so the Spartans against the Athenians, the Romans against the Carthaginians, against the Gauls, against the Jews. Not without reason did Tacitus (56-120 AD) describe the philosophy of the Roman legions as follows – solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant – they make a desert and call it peace. This, of course, does not cancel out all the glories of the Roman empire, the civil code, the medical advances, the roads and aqueducts, literature and philosophy. As the late Terry Jones of Monty Python fame noted, the Romans also murdered and plundered many peoples, subjugating and humiliating their leaders. But “victors write the histories”.
The Middle Ages and Renaissance experienced permanent wars among kings, dukes and counts, with the common folk bearing the consequences. Genghis Khan and his hordes swept through Mongolia, China, the Asian steppes, India, the Caucasus, Crimea, advancing as far as Russia. Timur (Tamerlane) is reputed to have killed twenty million, and was proud of it. Diplomatic envoys to Samarkand were shown the skulls of the defeated. The Thirty Years War in Europe 1618-1648 displayed the absurdity of fighting over religion – Catholics against Protestants — although the wars were really dynastic, the Habsburgs against the Bourbons and everybody else.
Eight million deaths taught the Europeans nothing, because Louis XIV pursued his aggressive wars against the Netherlands, Prussia, the Habsburg Empire, devastated the Palatinate and the Heidelberg Castle, stole the German-speaking Elsass and Lothringen from the Habsburgs, etc. One act of megalomania after another.
Non-Christians sometimes understand better some of those elements necessary for living together in mutual respect. They are not bound by Christ’s admonition “love your neighbour”. It suffices to stop hating one’s neighbours, stop perceiving them necessarily as competitors or toxic menaces. In his Ethics (1677), the great Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) tried to persuade us to look at things in the proper context and in the perspective of eternity – sub specie aeternitatis. In his Tractatus politicus (1676), Spinoza advances a mature and rational approach to our daily activities “not to mock, lament or execrate human actions, but to understand them” – humanas actiones non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere.”. Spinoza was a great apostle for peace and mediation, an advocate of freedom of thought and expression, something that in 17th century Netherlands was not at all mainstream.
In order to facilitate reconciliation, it is important to focus on the commonalities of all women and men on the planet. Human beings share similar yearnings, aspirations and expectations – to love and be loved, to enjoy the sunrise and sunset, to live in peace and harmony, run on the beach, laugh, sing, dance, play with our children and grandchildren, listen to the cuckoo’s call.
We all want decent food, water, a roof over our heads, a meaningful job to be able to feed our families and enjoy the simple things of life, the pursuit of happiness and human dignity. That is precisely what the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are intended to facilitate. It is not utopia. It is within our reach. It is what the United Nations was established to promote in all corners of the world.
Most politicians give lip service to the “rule of law”, peace, democracy, human rights. Many, however, violate the provisions of the Covenants whenever politically expedient. Rather than joining hands internationally in order to guarantee world peace, many politicians want to advance their own personal agendas. Megalomania is also a commonality of the elites of all nations and civilizations.
Yes, among the commonalities of all humans is a more or less pronounced desire to have more of everything, and in some cases a will to exercise power over others, whether in our own families, in the office or in government. We Catholics know this as one of the seven capital sins – avarice. But the worst of all seven capital sins, the fountainhead of most crimes and abuses, the source of most wars, the very essence of imperialism and colonialism is the sin of arrogance.
One common denominator of all members of the human family is that we are all capable to do injustice to others. That is why the Lord’s prayer has that crucial request “ne nos inducat in tentationem” – do not let us enter into temptation, because we are all capable of surrendering to it. Given certain psychological moments, conditions, fantasies and illusions, we can all make the wrong choices – out of arrogance, greed, lust or even inadvertence. Indeed, we are all potential criminals. But not all of us get an opportunity to do evil.
We all share – the capacity to hurt others. No country or civilization has a monopoly over goodness or evil. No culture is so superior to the others that its members cannot sin. Accepting this simple fact is a first step toward talking to others. In order to achieve a modus vivendi among all cultures and nations, it is important to know our positive and negative commonalities and realize that if we do not pursue our good instincts and instead allow ourselves to be lured by our negative tendencies, we will not have sustainable peace.
A modus vivendi is entirely possible in our world. But we must tame our politicians and hold them accountable when they commit crimes in our name, when they undemocratically do what we have not explicitly authorized them to do, when they set up a system of criminal secrecy as any mafia or racketeering association, when they brazenly lie to us, when they start wars without our consent, when they persecute whistleblowers like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.
Why do we fail at reconciliation?
In order to achieve reconciliation, we must have the animus to reach out to our adversaries. We must feel the need to reconciliate. Alas, many of us live in a binary world off good versus evil, of “us” and “them”, of “with us” or “against us”. The corporate media indoctrinates us in favour of every “war effort”, in the name of democracy and “patriotism”. We are brainwashed into hating “the enemy”. The corporate media is obviously in the service of the military-industrial complex and has a stake in prolonging every war, because there are more war-profiteers than those in Lockheed/Martin and Boeing. There is a whole inter-connected industry that depends on war and war appropriations.
We are not asked whether we want trillion-dollar military budgets. We are not asked whether we want to prolong the war in Ukraine or would actually prefer to advance peace negotiations. We are not asked whether we want sanctions to be maintained, especially bearing in mind that they have been counter-productive. We are not asked whether we would rather have national budgets directed toward health, education, job-creation, infrastructure.
Are we really democracies in the US, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland? Of course, we are not. We are oligarchies and the only voices that matter are those of the “elites” and of the corporations. Yes, of course, we call ourselves “representative democracies”. The problem is that our “representatives” do not represent us.
There is a passage in the Sermon of the Mount that seems particularly relevant in the context of the on-going war in Ukraine. We pretend to load all the guilt on our adversary and absolve ourselves of responsibility for our own provocations and failures to attempt any kind of preventive or curative dialogue. We auto-declare ourselves to be right and proceed to be judge and jury over Vladimir Putin as the aggressor (which objectively he is), but we absolve all other aggressors.
We self-righteously advance to the altar of international justice blaming the Russians, without considering whether we too should be blamed for our megalomania and intransigence. The passage reads: “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” In other words, it is our responsibility to pro-actively seek reconciliation. Similarly, a few chapters later: “if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.”
In other words, seek out mediators like Erdogan, Bennett, Lopez-Obrador, Lula, Ramaphosa, Pope Francis.How do we arrive at reconciliation among nations? Only on the basis of the realities on the ground, not on the basis of ideologies. Somehow our leaders have not learned to accept the factum that Russia and China exist and that they are not going to disappear anytime soon. Our leaders only want to see Russia and China as vassals, not as countries with their own cultures and civilizations, fellow human beings with a right to their own security priorities, their own fears and hopes.
Rationality suggests that we should come to grips with this reality and act accordingly – for our benefit and that of the rest of the world.The UN Rapporteur on the right to international solidarity, Virginia Dandan, drafted in 2017 a useful Declaration on the Right to International Solidarity that – if it were ever adopted by the General Assembly and applied in good faith – would make reconciliation among peoples and cultures possible.We can ask ourselves whether the only way to achieve international solidarity is when an asteroid threatens the survival of planet Earth and we all have to join forces to overcome the cosmic menace.
Even then I am not terribly optimistic, since the Covid-19 pandemic, which provided a perfect opportunity to practice international solidarity, demonstrated that the rich and powerful monopolize all the vaccines and do not give a hoot about the people in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Out of the crisis we did not discover a new sense of solidarity, but witnessed only arrogance and avarice, as displayed in the greatest scam of the 21st century, the “Great Reset” proposed by the World Economic Forum. More power to the rich and to the transnational corporations.
Reconciliation with ourselves and with the Earth
Reconciliation implies different things to different persons. I mean it in the Stoic sense of endeavouring to make the best of reality as it is, trying to make sense of things and when sense seems remote, to hold on to known values, take pleasure in simple things, hope and work for better times. Thus, I dare close this essay with a poem by the German-Swiss novelist Hermann Hesse, whose mood often matches mine.
My translation of Spätsommer, written by Hesse shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, seems to me particularly relevant in the context of the Ukrainian tragedy and the cosmic tragedy that threatens to engulf us, a simple poem drawn from the collection Das Lied des Lebens, a rhyme of truth, whose quiet stoicism reminds me of Seneca’s veritas simplex oratio.
Once more, ere summer fades,
we shall our garden tend,
frail flowers water, relish sunlit glades,
for soon they wane, tomorrow comes their end.
Once more, before the planet goes insane
and sinks in howling wars and wrongs,
let’s cherish those good things that do remain,
take pleasure in them, sing them songs.
2. Matthew VI, 12.
3. Matthew V, 1-10.
4. Matthew VII, 1
5. Agricola, ch. 30.
6. Terry Jones and Alan Ereira’s Barbarians: An Alternative Roman History, London 2006
7. 1162-1227 AD
8. 1336-1405 AD
9. Matthew XXII, 39
10. Chapter I, § 4.
11. Michael LeBuffe, Spinoza and Human Freedom, Oxford 2019.
13. Matthew V, 23-24.
14. Matthew XVIII,
18. (1877-1962), Nobel Prize for Literature, 1946, Siddharta, Demian, Steppenwolf, Das Glasperlenspiegel.
19. Seneca Minor, Lucius Annaeus (4 BC-65 AD, Letters, 49, 12: “The language of truth is straight forward”.
Compare with Sir Walter Scott’s:
“Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive!”