Thursday, September 24, 2015

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”

Déjà vu – from Biblical times? Congress hurtled toward a government shutdown on Tuesday, with Republicans threatening to block a budget deal if it includes financing for Planned Parenthood, as President Obama prepared to join the fight by pushing Republicans to scrap a multibillion-dollar tax advantage for private equity managers.” [With Possible Shutdown Nearing, Obama Looks to Take Budget Fight to G.O.P., David M. Herszenhorn and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, The New York Times, 16th Sept 2015]

If America appears to have lost its bearings [even worse if one goes by how a major US daily saw the last debate, i.e., “crazy talk at the Republican debate,” and piled on my countless readers], surprisingly, the Russians would still entertain a sense of persecution? “Anti-Americanism is more potent now because it is stirred up and in many ways sponsored by the state, an effort that Russians, despite their hard-bitten cynicism, seem surprisingly susceptible to. Independent voices are all but gone from Russian television, and most channels now march to the same, slickly produced beat. Virtually any domestic problem, from the ruble’s decline to pensioners’ losing subsidies on public transport, is cast as a geopolitical standoff between Russia and America, and political unrest anywhere is portrayed as having an American State Department official lurking behind it.” [Why Russians Hate America. Again, Sabrina Tavernise, The New York Times, 12th Sept 2015]

“‘America wants to destroy us, humiliate us, take our natural resources,’ said Lev Gudkov, director of Levada, the polling center, describing the rhetoric, with which he strongly disagrees. ‘But why? For what? There is no explanation.’ DURING my visit, Russians were thinking about America a lot, which was a kind of compliment, but in the way of a spurned lover who keeps sending angry texts long after the breakup.

“Intellectuals pointed me to books on Berlin in the 1920s and the concept of ‘ressentiment,’ a philosophical term that describes a simmering resentment and sense of victimization arising out of envy of a perceived enemy. It often has its roots in a culture’s feeling of impotence. In Berlin in the early 20th century, it helped explain the rise of German fascism. In Russia in August, it seemed to have many targets: Ukraine, gay people, European dairy products and above all the United States.

“Others believe that the government is unraveling, and that the shrillness of the nationalist narrative is a harbinger. Oil prices have plunged, shrinking the pie that Mr. Putin’s loyalists had been feasting on. ‘It’s like before Pompeii, when all the springs dried up,’ said one Russian friend, a former journalist who is a keen observer of the political system. ‘The ground is hot.’ The low opinion of America, Mr. Gudkov said, is not a permanent condition. The resentment seems to have more to do with Russians themselves than with any American action, a kind of defensive, free-floating expression of current anxieties.”

“But Russia stood for something that America has never been known for: depth of soul. If America radiated a certain vision of happiness onto the world, Russian heroes radiated a vision of total spiritual commitment.” [The Russia I Miss, David Brooks, The New York Times, 11th Sept 2015]

“‘The Russian attitude,’ Isaiah Berlin wrote, ‘is that man is one and cannot be divided.’ You can’t divide your life into compartments, hedge your bets and live with prudent half-measures. If you are a musician, writer, soldier or priest, integrity means throwing your whole personality into your calling in its purest form.

“The Russian ethos was not bourgeois, economically minded and pragmatic. There were radicals who believed that everything should be seen in materialistic terms. But this was a reaction to the dominant national tendency, which saw problems as primarily spiritual rather than practical, and put matters of the soul at center stage.

“While the rest of the world was going through industrialization and commercialism and embracing the whole bourgeois style of life, there was this counterculture of intense Russian writers, musicians, dancers — romantics who offered a different vocabulary, a different way of thinking and living inside.

“And now it’s gone . . . Russia is a more normal country than it used to be and a better place to live, at least for the young. But when you think of Russia’s cultural impact on the world today, you think of Putin and the oligarchs. Now the country stands for grasping power and ill-gotten money.”

What happened to these once two superpowers? Or does it go beyond them? “Signs of democratic dysfunction are everywhere, from Athens to Ankara, Brussels to Brasília. In the United States, the federal government has shut down 12 times in the last 35 years. According to the political scientists Christopher Hare and Keith T. Poole, the two main American political parties are more polarized now than they have been at any time since the Civil War.” [Across the Globe, a Growing Disillusionment With Democracy, Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk, The New York Times, 15th Sept 2015]

“Some citizens of democracies have become so unhappy with their institutions that . . . they may be tempted to dispense with partisan politics altogether. Would it not be better to let the president make decisions without having to worry about Congress — or to entrust key decisions to unelected experts like the Federal Reserve and the Pentagon?

“Institutional change, however, is only the first step toward the real goal: redistributive policies that improve the standard of living of citizens . . . The future of democracy is uncertain. In the West, democratic systems have proved strong enough to weather the disappointments of the last decades. It’s perfectly possible that they can weather more. But to put off serious change because it is so easy to assume that democracy is here to stay is to put at risk the very stability of democratic government.”

And it gets more complex as one looks at Europe. Most of the countries that were liberated from the Soviet yoke 25 years ago are still poorer than their neighbors and have not shed a sense of victimhood; many have never had large numbers of people from distant parts of the world on their lands; and many have only a limited familiarity with the crises of the Middle East.” [Eastern Europe’s Short Memory, The Editorial Board, The New York Times, 15th Sept 2015]

“All these things, however, are beside the point. The question before Europe’s national leaders is not whether they should welcome immigrants but how to cope with a massive and fateful rush that has put an inordinate burden on the European countries where refugees first arrive: Greece, Italy and Hungary.

“Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, has been among the most vocal in blocking any joint action, but he is not alone. He has argued that Germany is largely responsible for the mass migration because of its prosperity, generous asylum policies and — until this weekend — open borders, and he has made the specious argument that as a Christian country, Hungary should not be made to take in a lot of Muslims. Leaders of Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania and the Baltic States have all advanced similar arguments.

“These developments should be especially worrisome to the Eastern Europeans. Their inability to travel freely was an agonizing aspect of their decades under Communist dictatorship, and the generous welcome they received when they rejoined the ranks of Western liberal democracies was a great triumph for all of Europe. It would be a tragedy if those same eastern countries now contributed to the unraveling of European unity, just when it is so desperately needed.”

“This creative tension seems to show itself as a necessary staging that we all have to go through. It is amazing to see that the three classic divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures (Law, Prophets, Wisdom) also parallel the normal development of spiritual consciousness and even human growth, which I will call (1) order, (2) criticism and (3) integration.” [Things hidden: scripture as spirituality, Richard Rohr, Franciscan Media, 2007, pp. 72-73]

In other words, this is the 21st century but the world is yet to move beyond the first level of human consciousness – confined to the narrow boundaries of law – and the level of criticism and conflict. Probably the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis are among the very few that have reached the third level, that of wisdom.

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