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  • stephen schecter

Blind spots and other matters

Modern societies are inclusive societies. They need to be in order to function. No functional area of social life can work if the people are not included in them. Which leads people in modern society to think society is made up of people when it is not. Society is made up of ways of organizing difference. These ways in turn generate structures of expectation. One of the structures of expectation of a modern society is that people are created equal when they are not. But people in modern society are considered equal before God and the law, so people who live in modern society not only think society is made up of people but also think all people are more or less the same, with a slight penchant to thinking they are more good than bad when you really get down to it. This is the true basis of modern imperialism, and it comes to bite democracies in the rear. This is what usually happens when you cannot see properly. Think of Graham Greene’s Quiet American.

Modern societies are the first societies where people think globally. They think in universalist terms. Not because capitalism gobbles up traditional society in the way Marx thought the Lancaster mills destroyed the Indian cotton industry, but because people start thinking in terms of humanity. We are all one race, the human race. That concept piggy-backed itself onto nineteenth century racist dogmas – which dug their heels into Christian theology and the white man’s burden – but in the end what triumphed, Nazism notwithstanding, was the abolitionist movement and the universal declaration of human rights. The racism vigilantes have it all wrong. They cannot wrap their minds around what modern history was and still is all about. They cannot see that the more modernity unfolds the more difference gets socially sanctioned and cherished. Their heads are still caught in European class society of the 18th century and everything wrong with modern society is attributed to the unfinished French Revolution of 1789. Every progressive movement since aims at being its concluding chapter. But all they produce is a nightmare. Nietzsche. Maybe even Yeats: Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man: ‘Ireland shall get her freedom, and you still break stone.’

China is not a modern society. Nor is Russia. Nor Iran. Neither is Turkey or Pakistan. The people in those countries are people too, just as the t-shirt would say. But their societies operate on a totally different basis and their structure of expectations is not what democratic societies teach its citizens to expect. There is no point trying to assess their behavior as we assess those of both citizens and governments in democracies. The evidence is now coming out that China lied about the Covid19 virus, suggesting that the regime deliberately exported it to the rest of the world, aiming to sabotage the United States because its president was finally making noises about China’s deception and perfidy in trade and other policies. Yet even today at least half the people in western democracies are more critical of the American president than they are of the Chinese Communist Party. They cannot believe that China would have deliberately lied and unleashed the pandemic on the world. They also cannot believe that the World Health Organization would be complicit in Chinese duplicity, though the evidence is mounting up that such too was the case. But why not? The WHO is a UN organization and the UN is the premier anti-Semitic organization in the world. As the saying goes, what starts with the Jews does not end with the Jews. How fitting that the good and right-thinking denizens of western democracy who amplified all the lies about Israeli apartheid and Palestinian victimhood now get to experience what happens when you bend the truth because you cannot see it. Because if Israel is an occupying colonialist power, how can China be a ruthless dictatorship bent on imperial expansion?

Bebel, a German socialist leader at the turn of the twentieth century, once quipped that anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools. One could turn what he said around and say socialism is the anti-Semitism of fools. Think of Bernie Sanders, who called Israel and her prime minister racist. To applause. And to silence from his Democratic colleagues, progressive or otherwise.

Here’s another dictum: truth is the first casualty of war. But before war comes blindness. Cognitive blindness. And truth is its first casualty. Truth belongs to the social sphere of science where truth is based on observations and the facts are said to prove or disprove their veracity. Be therefore a good observer, as Hamlet might have cautioned Polonius. Good theory helps with good observation. Bad theory does not. Neither does moralism. Here’s what critical theory led its practitioners to affirm: the personal is the political. Here’s what autopoietic systems theory led its practitioners to affirm: love is a tricky business that has nothing to do with politics. Who was right? The last fifty years of sexual intimacy would suggest that autopoietic systems theory wins hands down. Love has moved from the dangerous liaisons of an aristocracy in decline to best friend marriage to the contemporary form of solving problems together, sometimes known as Netflix and chill. In the process sex has not only become detached from morality, political or otherwise; it has even become detached from love, a development to which the boomer generation enthusiastically contributed. The process has also contributed immensely to the contemporary crime thriller literary genre. But the practitioners of critical theory who have disproportionately indulged in the sexual revolution their intellectual master claimed never to have occurred still maintain that politics will ultimately bring intimate salvation. At stake is who gets to be morally right, even righteous, while getting their rocks off. Crack an egg on your lover’s belly, dis Trump and stay silent about Chinese ruthlessness or Iranian theocracy because in the end we are all people, aren’t we? Not to mention the big echo chamber out there ready to support such narcissism.

It takes a long time to see properly. Few people are going to read Niklas Luhmann’s autopoietic systems theory. If they do, it will take a long time and even longer to absorb it. There is, of course, the Bible, the Hebrew Bible that is, but in the West we no longer read that book either, and it also takes time to learn its lessons in seeing. They do, however, come wrapped in stories, which are always a good starting point. In the beginning there was darkness on the face of the earth and God said let there be light, which is a way of saying let there be difference, that men and women may see. And what do they see in the Book of Genesis if not the folly of human passions when unrestrained and given full vent? And so the Lord kept sending them questions: where are you? where is the blessing? where is Abel your brother? who are you, my son? is my father still alive? The genius of the Hebrew Bible is the genius of autopoietic systems theory: on one side human beings with all their passions, on the other side the implacable and unreachable Deity to rein them in. Replete with irony. Suffused with paradox. A story about seeing who occupies what place and getting to the right one. But the lesson never seems to be learned. The Jews themselves never seem to have left the Book of Genesis, the Exodus from Egypt notwithstanding. Verily, it takes a long time to see properly. Three thousand years and counting. One should have mercy for human beings, it seems. Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do. But not homiletics. Even the preacher in the Hebrew Bible does not give sermons. Only paradoxical advice: vanity, vanity, all is vanity. Therefore, eat, drink, and be merry, and walk in the ways of the Lord. Nonetheless, China should be held accountable for the current pandemic, though not only China. Owning up to responsibility and mending one’s ways is a core issue of modern society, both for social systems and for the people who live in them. A modern dilemma: who is responsible for what, and to whom?

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