nthposition online magazine

Evil and its discontents: a 21st Century bestiary

by Stephen Chan

[ politics | opinion - june 04 ]

At the end of human time - and the human world - beasts would appear in the heavens and wage war on God and His angels. The Biblical book of Revelation uses striking imagery to illustrate a final battle between Good and Evil. Whoever wins - and Revelation has Good winning - the human apparatus of self-government and self-control will be lost. Either God's kingdom will rule over earth - or Gog and Magog, Satan's great lieutenants, will subsume the kings of the world into their own victorious rule. More than any other book in the Bible, a Manichean vision is apparent. There would be no battle if God had been all-powerful from the outset. God has to win this battle to prove Himself supreme. If the Great Dragon, Satan, and the bestial Gog and Magog offered no chance of a close battle, it would be unimportant - a sideshow in heaven. But they range powerful forces against God, and they think they can win. The apostle John, watching all this on his island, has to be constantly reassured by visions of heaven's splendour, by angels blowing trumpets, because - as he describes it - the baddies are pretty colourful dudes and pretty damn strong. They can unleash their own mass destruction. And, in the vision of a female Babylon, they have the babe of all time on their side as well.

This is to take the Apocalyptic vision on its own terms of grandeur, and then degenerate it. What was a Manichean and titanic struggle between Good and Evil becomes carnival - not quite burlesque, but theatrically perverse.

The problem here is that, in the post-9/11 world, we have all become Manichean - concerned with a huge confrontation between two empires, two faiths, two ideologies, each with the same vision of each other. In what is shaping up to be a close-fought battle, each sees the other side as inhuman, sub-human, demonic - something to be summed up in simple language and condemned; something to be slaughtered like a sheep in front of a camera, or piled into the simulation of naked orgy and forced orgasm in front of a camera. Those who slaughter and those who abuse see themselves as pure; and they are, after all, only killing and degrading those who are impure. But the way each does it suggests that the pure have an intimate knowledge of what humiliates: to kill someone as if he were livestock, animal; to make mountains of naked flesh out of people who profess a different god - and, in the latter case, to inject into that naked flesh all the sexual fantasies of a carnalised imagination, unable to be enacted by those directing the proceedings, not on camera for friends anyway, but able to be depicted using specimens that have no intimacy with the viewer. It is as if the soldiers, rather than being within a Sodom and Gomorrah of their own fantasies, construct their prisoners into an evidence of Sodom and Gomorrah which, of course, God witheringly destroyed. Finally, each atrocity merely prefigures a God who will win.

What is at stake as the 21st century ekes its troubled way into the world is not only the perversity of image; the image is not only an enactment of an underdeveloped or degenerated society; the images are visions of a titanic heavenly struggle. God is with the Good (who fight and are excused their over-zealousness) and is against the Bad (against whom nothing too bad can be perpetrated). What we have at the beginning of the new century is something eschatological - from the end of days. And that is not an author writing colourful words for an electronic article, but the stuff of political rhetoric and discourse. Terms like 'The Axis of Evil', and 'The Great Satan', are not extracted from philosophically nuanced reflection. With the image comes the soundbite - and both image and soundbite construct a world that is oppositional, threatening, and immediately at hand. As indeed it is: New York is struck from the sky; US tanks roam the streets and fields of the Middle East. If all that doesn't feel Apocalyptic to those who have suffered it, the image and soundbite will do their best to help the vision along.

None of this happened at once. Indeed, some will look back to the Crusades and say it is medievalism come again. Hieronymous Bosch and his fantasies of perversity and hell have also come again. Others will look to the colonial adventures that maladroitly created today's Middle Eastern states, and the international interest in oil that followed closely behind. Still others will look to the creation of Israel, and Israel's own violent outreach against the Palestinians, as a critical factor in encouraging forces to range against the West. But some will also look at the intellectual discourse that imbued Washington at the close of the 20th century. The images and the soundbites did not arise from a genealogy only of predecessor images and soundbites, but from a carefully stated depiction of a world divided into competitive empires, then competitive civilizations.

In 1988, Paul Kennedy - in one of those salon tomes of intellectual weight - warned that the US could decline before a rising Asia. But a year later, Francis Fukuyama was seeming to trumpet the triumph of the West - the victor in history. In 1993, however, Samuel Huntington was warning of a clash of 'civilizations' - and, although he advised a future cooperation among these civilizations, it was advice added to a sense of how much to be protected was the civilization of the West, with its unique attributes of freedom and democracy, and its need for oil (which might not necessarily be obtained democratically). The dawn of Islam as a contemporary civilization - and a civilizational threat, i.e. a threat to the West - was clear. If cooperation was impossible, then pull up the drawbridge - provided both Israel and the oil-fields are behind the drawbridge. The trouble is you might not be able to have both Israel and the Arab oilfields - not easily anyway. And when, on 9/11 attackers crossed any sense of drawbridge, and slammed home their message of pent-up antipathy, the US had no sense of how to respond except that, somehow, it should remain first and pre-eminent; and the challenge, which it could or would not understand, was simultaneously underestimated (taking out Afghanistan and Iraq, single countries, would do the trick) and overestimated (be on your guard at all times in all places against all people - make even the British present themselves with biometric passports - and, on no account, allow a certain food to be called French fries again). The world was pretty rapidly divided into for and against.

The core of those 'against' were given formidable attributes. From a cave in the Pakistani mountains, with an AK47, 3,000 books, a mobile telephone, and a portable dialysis machine, Osama Bin Laden can threaten the military and technological might of the US. A society that still teaches creationism and breaks box office records in watching a film about an ancient execution laments and excoriates another society that is 'fundamentalist'. Suddenly, one suicide bomber must be answered by tanks and helicopters, bulldozers and missiles - in order to get the balance of power and terror right. Suddenly, the greatest power of the West has an entity to put into its games theory - it's a two-person game again (and so soon after the Soviet Union) - only this entity is amorphous, underground, cellular, and linked by something that cannot be detected by machines, or predicted in a game of rational choice, and that is religious belief. The right wing press makes much of the advent of a bestial challenge. That which is hard to understand will on no account be understood - and what is, all the same, a human aspiration, is a dragon in the skies, able to be reduced to a pile of quivering, frightened and naked flesh. There is something so appalling in the naivety that constructs and reduces evil in this way that it is tempting to wonder whether it is not evil in itself.

This is to wax lyrically disgusted. But there is a real problem on both sides. There is no tradition of theological examination and qualification in Islam. Anyone can feel himself called and declare himself an Iman, a teacher of God. In underdeveloped societies the priests will reflect the general standard of education. In the US too, anyone can establish a church, declare himself or herself a Bishop, award doctorates of divinity by mail order, and preach in great rhetorical tones on cable TV. The Iman and the Bishop reflect their societies, and cater for the prejudices in their societies, cater for the simplicities that allow congregations to get through complex or grinding worlds. In each, evil is something both reduced (it is Bad, no nuance needed) and enlarged (it is coming to tempt you, probably get you, if you don't watch out). And life is a constant hazardous path between two great forces.

The greatness of Evil was the stuff of John's Revelation. Just as well the stuff of Good is greater. The trouble is that Islam too shares the same Semitic imagination - by which I mean both the Bible and the Koran sprang from the same culture and used the same images, and denounced equally a strong and evil foe.

Behind both, however, are messages of toleration, forbearance, rules for living with those who are different. In Christianity, the City of God is the City of Love - and, in St. Augustine's work, it is greater than the city of men. The Islamic mystics too talked of love and transcendence. But Augustine can be a pretty difficult read. What the US is discovering right now is that evil can be a pretty difficult thing to fight - and that might be because it shirked from thought when it discovered that it was a difficult thing to understand. But, finally, thought and understanding undo what was thought to be bestial.

The trick here is complex. It goes along the lines that it's a long haul back. Withdrawal from Iraq, a fairish settlement of the Israeli/Palestinian problem, and some significant scaling-back of posture in the Middle East would all help to put the 'onslaught from evil' and the war against it on hold. But the world was not expecting, or wanting, a second balance of power - a second cold war - in which two sides stared warily at each other from reluctantly recognised spheres of influence. It will have to be education and thought, thought and education, and thoughtful engagement for some years. And if now there are 'fundamentalists' in the Middle East, there are also the one-dimensional hawks of Washington - and both need nuance in their own positions, and a cultural appreciation of the other's. Will this come? Or will the beginning of the new millennium be scarred for decades by a new Dark Age, described in terms of a very old Apocalypse?