Monday, 27 April 2009

For the sake of pity: Why read Nietzsche?

There was a time when I could not stomach Nietzsche at all, but lately I want to read nothing else but Nietzsche (with the possible exception of Stendhal, and that only because I wanted to see if Nietzsche's glowing comments were justified - and they were).

Anyone who believes that our overriding moral obligation is to help the poor, the homeless, the refugees, the malnourished, the diseased, etc, etc MUST read Nietzsche. This is not to say that the morality of pity is defenseless; but it deserves to be challenged. Nietzsche suggests we look backwards at the genealogy of this morality and forwards to what it aims at.

As far as the aim is concerned, where is all this pity heading? Are we just trying to make sure that everyone is comfortable, with a warm meal and a bed and a TV and no sound of gunfire in the vicinity? But obviously it is not enough for those of us who pity to be content with their comfort, their warm meal, their bed, their TV and the absence of gunfire. No, we want there to be a crisis somewhere - a crisis that will be a call to action, that will get us up out of our armchairs and out into the streets knocking on doors to raise money for the moral effort. So if we achieved our goal and everyone was warm, comfortable and well-fed and well-entertained, would we be happy? Would we feel better? Or would we feel that something was missing? Are we do-gooders not ever so slightly parasitic - parasites of the poor and needy?

Am I alone in yearning to help others while suffering from a congenital inability to help myself or to help something that we might call "us" (a word - an object - completely alien to me)? Is this not - as Nietzsche suggests - a little decadent?

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Learning from the Taliban: a lesson in zeal

James drew our attention to the news from Pakistan (from a region close to the one we visited in our youth):

Taliban fighters spilling out of the Swat Valley have swept across Buner, a district 60 miles from Islamabad, as Hillary Clinton warned the situation in Pakistan now poses a "mortal threat" to the security of the world.

The US secretary of state told Congress yesterday that Pakistan faced an "existential" threat from Islamist militants. "I think the Pakistani government is basically abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists," she said. Any further deterioration in the situation "poses a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world", she said.
In Imam Dheri, the Taliban headquarters near Mingora, a Taliban spokesman, Muslim Khan, told the Guardian their goal was the establishment of an Islamic caliphate first in Pakistan and then across the Muslim world.

"Democracy is a system for European countries. It is not for Muslims," he said. "This is not just about justice. It should be in education, health, economics. Everything should be under sharia." The drive into Buner signals the next step in that strategy. Khan said Taliban fighters were being deployed to ensure sharia law was implemented there too.

Given that Pakistan is a kind of democracy and given that it has been an ally of the West, there is, if not a threat, at least a challenge. To which the response should be...what? Bomb Swat? We disagree. The rise of the Taliban in particular and Islam in general as the Other of the West should first lead to a little soul searching - a little introspection on our part.

There was an interesting documentary this afternoon on Press TV (a station which could have been called The Voice of Tehran, but wasn't). It showed the lives of a handful of young Muslim women in Sweden, looking especially at the difficulties they face being Muslim in a non-Muslim society. Perhaps this tiny sample was completely unrepresentative, but what was striking was the sharp contrast between strong Muslim women, on the one hand, who insisted on their firm beliefs despite the almost constant barage of unfavourable comments and, on the other hand, the terribly flabbly looking Swedes who didn't seem to have much of anything to believe in or insist upon. Far from being oppressive, the hijab was something that made these already strong women feel even stronger. The zeal in their voices and the sparks from their eyes as they talked about the significance of this otherwise flimsy square of fabric was something to behold.

Those women are not the Taliban, but they are both aspects - the one armed, the other unarmed - of the rise of Islam as a global counterforce.

But a counter to what? To democracy? The Guardian report unfortunately does not give me enough of Clinton's comments to know what the perceived object of the threat is exactly. Regardless of what she thinks, though, it is surely a fact that there is not much in the West, beside the sheer force of high-tech weaponry, to oppose.

Another image: The US military hiring shopping space in a busy mall to set up what is in essence an amusement arcade equipped to create the most dramatic war-gaming experience a kid with a Playstation could ever dream of. And this is supposed to be cutting-edge military recruitment. War is a thrill. War is adrenaline. War is power. Power is pleasure. The dubious equations follow one after the other, but they don't amount to anything that anyone with a mental age of more than 13 could seriously believe in, and stand up and eloquently defend in the face of criticism in the way that those Swedish Muslim women stood up and eloquently defended their insistence that the appearance, the sexuality, of a woman should not be a public issue.

Before we start shooting we need to think a little more about what we have lost - about how awfully flabby we have become. There is surely a case to be made for an intelligent and commited kind of moderatism - a firm belief in a separation of powers, and the constitution and the rule of law, etc. But there are times (like today) when it seems that that is not what we have. Instead we have this dreadfully adipose hedonism, which doesn't even deserve to be described using a term ending in -ism since that implies an ideology, which is nowhere to be seen.

Nietzsche - that great philosopher of anti-Facism - drew an enlightening distinction between weaker reactive cultures and stronger active ones. The West increasingly appears to be the weak reactive global player, only gaining strength by creating a media panic about an axis of evil. The Islamic world seems much les reactive. It has its faith, which the people would insist on and be inspired by even if Muslim families were not being blown up by unmanned aircraft controlled at a safe distance by timid post-Nintendo GIs. The Muslim is fired by ideas and beliefs that could be spread to others. What puts the fire in us that we could spread it to others. Wellness? Relaxation self-help techniques? A conscientious approach to dentistry? Hip-hop?

No, before we start shooting the misguided zealots of Swat we need to think long and hard about how there can be a cultural/ethical/moral/political renaissance in the West. Things have to be changed. Those who talk of dumbing down are not wide of the mark. But how are we to smarten up? I don't know, but I appreciate the way our zealous Muslim brothers and sisters are unwittingly making this a burning issue. A new standard is being set. Instead of trying to shoot it down, we need to rise up to it.

The IKEA test of the free spirit

Non-Europeans unfamilar with the IKEA phenomenon will need some background: IKEA is a Swedish manufacturing giant that no has huge warehouses outside every major European city (or so it seems). Hence my mother in a small town in northern England now has exactly (EXACTLY) the same furniture as a Greek family living in a suburb of Thessaloniki in northern Greece.

I went to IKEA. It was painful. I couldn't eat any of the traditional Swedish meatballs they were serving (because the idea is that you don't just go to IKEA to buy cheap flat-pack furniture - it is meant to be pretty much a day out for the family, hence the children's play area and the traditional Swedish meatballs).

What sprung to mind was the IKEA test of the free spirit (for readers of Nietzsche who might be wondering if they are, or are not, free spirits). To take the test you have to need furniture and really want to get it at the lowest possible price. You then go to IKEA, where there is such an abundance of cheap furniture (all so clevely flat-packed that it is virtually possible to furnish an entire dining room for a family of five with stuff that can be fitted into a small hatchback on a single run). And then you must see how you feel. Those who pass the test are those who genuinely feel an achingly deep nausea as horrible images of that Munchean scream come to mind again - a screaming figure on a bridge (as I recall) - a bridge to...nowhere?