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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 06-05-2023 06:25

When nobody believes in anything much

There is nothing much worth fighting for is proving to be a major problem in all developed countries.

Until quite recently, there was no shortage of intelligent people who were willing to die for their religious beliefs or for a political cause they valued more than life itself. Quivering with rectitude, they sought martyrdom, the gorier the better. Though many of them were equally willing to kill anyone who either did not share their views or could be regarded as superfluous to requirements because they would be out of place in the homogeneous societies they wanted to help build, their contemporaries hailed them as heroes.

Of course, when the creeds such individuals clung to so fiercely went out of fashion, as most eventually did, later generations would find their behaviour incomprehensible, but though it is surely beneficial that in parts of the world death-defying and death-dealing fanaticism has become far less common that it used to be, the assumption that there is nothing much worth fighting for, let alone dying for, is proving to be a major problem in all developed countries.

There is surely a connection between modern man’s lack of interest, in that much beyond his own immediate welfare and the steep fall in the birth rate that is causing anguish in many countries not because people would prefer their community to survive for a long time to come but because it makes governments tinker with pension schemes that were instituted before the demographic rot set in. The vague suspicion that something important, something to do with one’s place in an uncaring universe, has gone missing is demoralising in an insidiously subtle way. Devoting oneself to saving the planet by banning industry and farming and, while about it, vandalising works of art because they divert attention from what really matters, or demanding that all company boards should reflect with mathematical precision the ethnic and sexual make-up of one’s country is not much of a substitute for the beliefs that in former times made existence seem meaningful.

This is one reason, perhaps the main one, why the Ukrainians’ courageous, and extremely costly, refusal to surrender to the imperialistic Russians has won them the admiration of Western Europeans and North Americans, plus a huge amount of material support. Their old-fashioned bravery brings back memories of former times when it was taken for granted that “ordinary people” knew they were duty-bound to sacrifice themselves on behalf of their fellows. Despite all efforts to discredit such primitive ideals, nostalgia for them can be detected almost everywhere.

Ironically, the feeling that something valuable had been lost by Westerners was behind the prestige Vladimir Putin enjoyed among fringe right-wingers and left-wingers before he ordered the invasion of Ukraine. Little more than a year ago, he was warmly regarded by many who sensed that, after losing its spiritual anchor, their civilisation was drifting towards oblivion, and imagined that in Putin’s Russia there were many who had not lost touch with the ways of thought the West had abandoned. In their view, Western societies were falling apart because they had shrugged off the belief systems which for centuries had bound them together.

This was what Friedrich Nietzsche had in mind when he declared God dead. Far from gloating over the demise of the old tyrant, he thought it would probably turn out to be a disaster which, as time went by, could have nightmarish consequences for large numbers of people. In the light of what happened in the 20th century, the German philosopher was right to fear that something truly awful could be coming Europe’s way.

Some attempts to fill the gap left by the fading of belief in an all-powerful and omniscient deity – among them those undertaken by Communists, fascists and Nazis – led to the slaughter of many millions of men, women and children. Even when Communists became well aware that their comrades had committed, and were still committing, monstrous crimes, many remained loyal to their creed until the Russians decided it was worse than useless, and even today there are those who believe in it.

Unfortunately, the movements which in the West took the place of the totalitarian ones have been unable to satisfy humankind’s innate hunger for certainties. For those who are living under a dictatorship, a desire to replace it with a democratic order can inspire great deeds, but once democracy is firmly installed many of those who fought for it start complaining that it does not provide people with clear-cut solutions for the problems that most bother them. Many soon start yearning for something a bit stronger.

This, by and large, is where we are now. Even in well-established democracies such as the United States, authoritarian ways of thinking are eating away at principles, among them the need to respect freedom of speech and make an honest effort to understand other points of view. For Joe Biden, Donald Trump and his “MAGA” supporters are fascists who are seeking to overthrow the established order so they can implant a dictatorship. For many on the Republican and libertarian side of the divide, Biden has sold his soul to Black Lives Matter and the censorious “woke” activists who insist that, if they are so inclined, men can be women and everyone should be obliged to watch their pronouns and treat them as such. In some Western countries, objecting to this, even in private, can earn you a spell in jail; Irish parliamentarians are discussing a crime bill in which the mere possession of material deemed likely “to incite hatred” by saying nasty things to transsexuals and the like could have you put away for two years or land you with a hefty fine. 

For the last couple of decades, what is known as “identity politics” has been spreading from the academic circles in the United States where it was hatched to other English-speaking countries and then to the rest of the world, including Argentina, where Kirchnerites in search of something both new and presumably progressive have eagerly imported items they think could be useful, such as same-sex marriage. Luckily, they are unlikely to be around long enough to make “inciting hatred” by criticising them a crime, although they have had no qualms about going after, in a quasi-legal fashion, a retired general who spoke up for the many military men who remain locked away in squalid jail cells even though they have yet to be condemned for anything they may have done over 40 years ago.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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