Meditations: Cartoons and Human Consciousness (II)
Cartoons and Human Consciousness, Part II
Western and Asian governments, and now even the government of Iran, are calling for an end to weeks of violent protests over cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed. Can they contain the chaos, or is the 'clash of civilizations' gone beyond the old borders and categories?
Though little mention is made that Denmark was one of the few European members of the 'coalition of the willing,' we're way past the point of calling for cooler heads to prevail. This crisis has little to do with cartoons. Nor is it a matter of freedom of the press vs. religious sensibility. It goes beyond the ancient conflict between Christians and Muslims, as well as post-modern and pre-modern worldviews. This is a crisis of human consciousness as a whole.
Received wisdom from the ashes of Europe's 'Enlightenment' clashes with jarring images of worldwide protests over a score of cartoons emanating from a tiny country in Europe. Despite overwhelming evidence of the unaddressed irrationality of human nature, the gradual perfectibility of man remains an article of faith for the vast majority of Western intellectuals.
Repeating shibboleths such as pluralism, multiculturalism, and diversity has become indistinguishable from the rhetoric of politicians. If present trends on both sides of the spectrum continue, space for original thought and dialogue will cease to exist.
As one protest organizer in Jakarta said, "they want to destroy Islam through the issue of terrorism ... and all those things are engineered by the United States." How do we respond to the truth, and address the falseness, in such a pithy expression of unreasoned passion? Invoking defunct Enlightenment ideas extolling the superiority of reason seems removed from reality, an utterly inadequate response to Muslim rage. Can Western intellectuals do no better than hearken back to Enlightenment ideals?
It's as futile to try to prop up the rotten girders of Western civilization, as it is to scream against the forces of modernity. The foundations of Christian and Islamic worlds have already sunk into the muck. Western intellectuals need to quit offering bromides. Extolling Voltaire's wit, and rousing the ghosts of Locke, Descartes, or Hobbes, falls absurdly short of the crisis facing humankind.
It's also too late to warn, as Bertrand Russell did in the 1950's, "If in the West the view prevails that Christianity is essential to virtue and social stability, Christianity will once again acquire the vices which it had in the Middle Ages." That's already occurred in America. The blind conformity and irrationality of the Muslim mob mirrors the blind conformity and irrationality of the Christian consumer.
The supposed steady march of modern history has run into the wall of the same unaddressed and unexamined issues that have plagued humanity since the beginning of civilization. The question is, does the crowded, collapsing condition of the planet make this juncture any different than the innumerable crossroads that have been ignored before? Upholders of the fantasy of human progress would have us believe that the cycles of history will continue spinning in essentially the same circles forever, and that human reason, resourcefulness, and resiliency will muddle through this dark age, as we have all the others.
But everything, including the human spirit, has a limit, which ultimately will be defined by how much of 'man' the earth can withstand. The mass dispiritedness and depression we are experiencing in North America, Europe, and the English-speaking world are evidence that the West is not just philosophically tired; it has expired. The mentality of the market, and the machine, has tremendous force however, and Muslims rightly fear the deadness and darkness they sense in the West.
Conflating individualism with the primacy of the individual is a confusion of the highest order. The true individual is undivided, not egocentric. Individualism is the logical end of human fragmentation, resulting in the irreducible unit 'me' insisting that there is nothing else but 'my reality.'
The ostensible reason for the riots is the double insult of depicting and caricaturing the prophet Mohammed. The injunction against depiction is rooted in the insight that people strongly tend to mistake the symbol for the reality. Tragically and ironically however, it has degenerated into a world war of images and symbols.
They are two sides of the same coin: the ascendant images of Western individualism and consumerism, and the beleaguered symbols of Islam and tradition. Human consciousness can end its enslavement to image and symbol, but not through reason and thought, but rather through insight and understanding.
- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The author welcomes comments.