In some important respects, Iran is only a microcosm. Whatever happens next within that particularly troubled and troubling country, many of the deepest underlying problems and divisions will remain genuinely global.This is because revolution, despotism, war and terrorism are always generic issues in world politics. In the end – that is, civilizationally – they will need to be understood and confronted on a broadly international level.
“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” observed the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, and “everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” Today’s simmering Iranian instability and belligerence are more a symptom of generic civilizational fragility than merely an isolated (albeit catastrophic) disease. Beneath the surface, all world politics readily reveal a distinctly common and malignant disorder. This is the seemingly irremediable incapacity of many human beings to find both meaning and identity within themselves, as individuals.
Iran is only a microcosm. From the beginning, all world affairs have been driven by some form or another of “tribal” conflict, by incessant and deadly struggles between more-or-less warring groups. Without a clear and persisting sense of an outsider, of an enemy, of an “other,” whole societies routinely feel lost in the world. Drawing self-worth from their membership in the state or the faith or the race – from what Freud had insightfully called the “primal horde” – these humans often cannot satisfy even the most minimal requirements of interpersonal coexistence.
Every sham may have a patina. Our very obvious progress in the technical and scientific realms still has no real counterpart in basic human relations. Yes, of course, we can manufacture jet aircraft and send astronauts into space and even communicate by “twitter” (whatever that means; I’m not really sure), but before we are allowed to board commercial airline flights we must first take off our shoes. The point of such removal is certainly not to enhance our personal comfort, but rather to ensure that we won’t blow up the plane.
What kind of world is this? Iran is only a microcosm. We humans surely want to be upbeat about the whole world. We are turned off by anyone who speaks candidly about life’s day-to-day vagaries, or about its simultaneously absent ecstasies. Whenever a friend or colleague is asked, “How are you?” the visceral answer must always be the same: “I’m great.”
What nonsense! In fact, there remains very great pain and loneliness throughout the world. Further, in certain matters, nothing important ever really changes:plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. In the truly critical issues of mega-survival, we humans may now be living far more precariously than ever before. Of course, this is especially apparent to the always-imperiled people of Israel – imperiled because millions of mortal Arab/Islamist enemies are still guided by the thoroughly atavistic primal tribal dynamics of “the herd.”
What a world! Iran is only a microcosm. The veneer of human civilization is still razor thin, particularly in large portions of the Arab/Islamist world. However conversant with statistics and science, certain nations in our world can still glance smugly over mountains of fresh corpses, and announce without apology or embarrassment that “God Is Great!” Assorted mass societies greedily suck out the very marrow of human wisdom, reverence and compassion in a deeply misguided dash to “power.” In the Middle East, among Israel’s existential foes, the ultimate form of sought-after power has absolutely nothing to do with land or territory. It has to do with something that can never be understood in Washington. It has to do with power over death.
Globally, hope exists, to be sure, but it must now sing softly, in an undertone. The “blood-dimmed tide” creates a deafening noise, but it is still possible to listen for transient sounds of grace and harmony. We must all quickly learn to pay very close attention to our most intimate human feelings of empathy, anxiety, restlessness and desperation. These feelings are always determinative, and always – ultimately – universal.
As Jews, we already understand that life on earth must ultimately be about the individual. In essence, therefore, we see that the time for “modernization,” “globalization,” “artificial intelligence” and “new information methodologies” is already over. To survive together, all residents of this endangered planet must first rediscover an authentic human life that is detached from meaningless and corrosive distinctions (“us” and “them”), banal conformance, shallow optimism and contrived happiness. Only in this vital expression of an awakened human spirit may we finally learn that agony is more important than astronomy, that cries of despair are more serious than the disembodied powers of technology, and that our tears have a much greater significance than robotic smiles. “The man who laughs,” commented the poet Bertolt Brecht, “has simply not yet heard the horrible news.”
Iran is only microcosm. The true and persisting instabilities and barbarisms of life on earth can never be undone by improving global economics, by building larger missiles, by fashioning new international treaties, by spreading democracy or even by periodic revolutions. We inevitably interrelated humans still lack a tolerable future not because we have been too slow to learn, but because too many among us have stubbornly failed to learn what is truly important.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is Professor of International Law at Purdue University. Born in Switzerland at the end of World War II, he is the author of many books and articles dealing with world politics, law, literature and philosophy. Professor Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.