Our new president seemingly understands something of very great importance: The state of our union is intimately intertwined with the state of our world. Our fate as Americans will ultimately depend upon our willingness to identify more broadly and openly as citizens of the entire planet. Reciprocally, the fate of all others on earth will be impacted more or less by what happens next in American politics. But the final outcome of all such interdependence will be determined by what is ordinarily called “human nature.”
To help rescue an imperiled planet, America’s newly elected president will have to look beyond politics. Our always troubled and too-often exterminatory species contains within itself the sources of its own periodic eradications through war, terror and genocide. “The horror, the horror,” mumbles the Marlon Brando character in “Apocalypse Now.” How thin, he reflects correctly, is the veneer of our so-called “civilization.”
Consider not just Iraq and Afghanistan, but also the Sudan and Somalia and Congo and Georgia and Pakistan and Iran and North Korea. Recall especially the Holocaust. Look back at Rwanda. Remember Cambodia. Crimes against humanity, however and wherever displayed, are never remediable through law, politics or diplomacy. Rather, they must be stopped at their source. This means that they can be understood and curbed only by a ubiquitous prior awareness of our most basic human needs and expectations.
At their deepest core, crimes against humanity are not really the product of politics gone awry. They stem ultimately from the unbearable loneliness of individual human beings. “Normally” unable to find meaning and security outside of groups, literally billions of individuals will often stop at nothing to acquire membership in a crowd. Whether it is a nation, a social organization, or a terrorist band, the crowd offers all an essential communion. Indeed, it is the frantic search to belong, and thereby to overcome individual loneliness, that best defines “history.”
Real history – president-elect Obama should observe – is pretty much the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption. Tangible expressions of the incessant human search for redemption in groups can be found in the enduring jurisprudence of sovereignty and self-determination. But the “self” in these legal principles refers to entire peoples, never to individuals. The ironic result is sometimes even a measureless orgy of mass killing that we conveniently describe as “power politics.” As Jews, we still see entirely too much of this today in the incessant Arab/Jihadist preparations for war, terrorism and genocide.
Divided into thousands of hostile tribes, almost 200 of which are now called nation-states, many human beings generally find it easy to slay “others.” As for empathy, it is typically reserved almost exclusively for those who live within one’s own tribe. It follows that an expansion of empathy to include all outsiders is a basic condition of authentic peace and global union, and that without such expansion our species will remain dedicated to its own incremental debasement and disappearance.
What must our new president do to encourage wider empathy, and to foster deeply caring feelings between as well as within tribes? How can he improve the state of our world so as to ensure a viable and prosperous state for our own American union?
Sadly, the essential expansion of empathy for the many would be literally “dreadful,” possibly improving human community, but only at the terrible expense of private sanity. We humans are designed with particular and largely impermeable boundaries of feeling. Were it otherwise, an extended range of compassion toward others would bring about our own total emotional collapse. Planning seriously for national and international survival, Mr.Obama must thus prepare to accept a very unorthodox and paradoxical understanding: A widening circle of human compassion is both indispensable to civilizational survival, and a potential source of private anguish.
The president-elect can learn much from our own Jewish traditions. According to ancient Jewish thought, the world rests upon 36 just men – the Lamed-Vav. Only because of their own “heavy lifting,” because of their own unimaginable suffering, can the rest of us endure.
There are many meanings to this wonderful Jewish tradition, but one is altogether primary. A whole world of just men (and women) is impossible. It is, then, because ordinary individuals simply cannot bear the torments of so many others that G-d has created the Lamed-Vav. How shall human union now deal with a requirement for global civilization that is both essential and unbearable? Newly informed that, empathy for the many is a precondition of a decent world union, what can create such empathy without producing intolerable emotional pain? How can we deal with the ongoing and multiplying expressions of war, terrorism and genocide?
The answer cannot be found in ordinary political speeches and programs. It lies only in a resolute detachment of all individuals from certain lethally competitive tribes and other collective “selves.” A more perfect union, both national and international, thus lies in a determined replacement of “civilization” with “planetization.” In turn, this politically problematic replacement will depend upon prior affirmations of true Self, upon a steadily expanding and incontestable acceptance of the sacredness of each individual. Again, these affirmations would express tenets integral to Judaism.
Our new president should understand that the state of our union could never be better than the state of our whole world. He will also need to realize that the state of our world will depend substantially on what happens inside the United States. In acknowledging this significant mutuality, the overriding common factor must always remain the individual human being – the sacred “one” who steadily follows an immutable and universal trajectory of birth, gratification, suffering and death.
Copyright © The Jewish Press, January 9, 2009. All Rights reserved
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D. Princeton 1971) is the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law. Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, he has lectured and published widely on various behavioral, philosophical and legal aspects of war, terrorism and genocide.