I had a disheartening private (now public) e-mail exchange with a friend, who surely doesn’t read my blog, about refugees streaming out of MENA (= Middle East and North Africa). Our exchange is quoted below. I wrote:

I’ve been saying for some time that we’re facing a diaspora away from ecologically and economically ravaged locations. Europe is currently on the front lines, but we’re been dealing with our own slow, steady influx from all points around the globe. The Central American refugee crisis in Texas (lots of children) is a good case in point. I figure, too, that people will soon enough (hard to predict precisely when) be streaming out of California and Florida as they face different water woes.

My friend replied:

I believe you…pretty violent protests in Germany…they are a product of their own guilt from 1935…I doubt they are refugees, they look pretty buff to me like ISIS terrorists…just another example of obama’s failed foreign policy in Syria…I expect my man, Putin to take care of business especially after the airline bombing…I could really careless about loss of Muslim life, the more the better they are all the enemy as far as I am concerned…

I replied:

Gotta disagree with you here. You sound like a right-wing Tea Party supporter. Germany has addressed its guilt over WWII, as has Japan. We can’t continue to throw that in their faces. The Islamic faith has over 4 billion adherents. They’re not all terrorists, though the small sliver of Islamofascists make the most noise and news and thus represent the entire 4 billion plus in the popular mind. Serious mistake. People are people all the world over, and most are constrained culturally (including religious affiliation) by the accident of birth location. We got lucky, sorta, being born in the U.S. I don’t expect anyone, including you, to go “kum bah ya — all men are brothers” with so many pundits and media organs banging the drum about “them.” But with a little circumspection, the differences between us are not so great that one can blithely consign an entire continent to oblivion because someone put the idea of the bogeyman in your head.

His final reply, to which I did not respond:

I guess I sound like a right wing Tea Party Supporter because I share a lot of their views…I do not consider islam to be a faith, I consider it to be a violent cult, I don’t buy the small sliver either, I can give you hard numbers to support this if you want…I do agree with your statement about being constrained culturally but that’s not my problem. History has show[n] us to be a culture of conquest…the strong conquering the weak…. a conquest ethic…we’ll see if your position changes over time as Chicago transitions, in the mean time I continue to prepare for the race war…no one put the idea of a bogeyman in my head, I was born in condition yellow…where ever there is a strong muslim population in the world there is violence and chaos, you can’t reason with their people…

All this felt like discovering my friend is a closet homophobe or Klansman. These few paragraphs are also packed with so many offhand offending remarks deserving unpacking that I can’t address them all at once. So let me contextualize and condense.

In the 1970s, disaster flicks were all the rage, with titles such as Airport, Earthquake, Fire!, Flood!, Cyclone, Hurricane, Plague, etc. Something was always disturbing our equanimity, usually natural disasters (titles needed only the one word) but less often technological failures. Those movies spawned kitsch such as Sharknado (90 minutes I’ll never get back) and its deplorable sequels. Inevitably, we graduated from cinematic disaster to dystopia and doomsday without delay, with titles such as The Day After, Soylent Green (due for a remake), The Omega Man (itself a remake that has been remade yet again), The Road Warrior (a sequel with a further sequel and a very recent remake), The Road, Deep Impact, and of course, Armageddon (unintentional kitsch, that last one). Red Dawn (and its remake) and numerous alien invasion flicks including Independence Day, The Day the Earth Stood Still (a remake), World of the Worlds (a remake of an adaptation from radio) ought to fit in there somewhere, demonstrating our irrational fear that something (natural, unnatural, or alien) or someone (alien in a different sense of the word) is always coming for us. These are stories we tell ourselves and keep telling ourselves through remakes and sequels, keeping us constantly on edge, and they have a few analogues in recent real-world history, such as the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami and the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear meltdowns. Cold War paranoia is an example of this same bunker mentality. Further examples extend throughout history, some incidents absolutely for real, others wholly imagined.

So if this is the starting point (“born in condition yellow”) behind one’s view of the world, reinforced by storytelling and actual events (including false flag operations), I suppose it’s quite easy to veer into attitudes that rationalize xenophobia: us-vs-them rhetoric that dehumanizes everyone not just like us. George Orwell captures this in his character Emmanuel Goldstein and the Two-Minutes Hate from his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. One might call the hate bait “Goldsteining,” but that’s clearly too on the nose (frank anti-Semitism) and probably too literary to find its way into common parlance. Further, in the wake of this weekend’s slaughter in Paris, it’s difficult to argue in favor of tolerance and compassion. Tea Party rhetoric and emotional anguish over senseless mayhem both appeal to the lizard brain and stimulate the fight response. Because pacifism in the U.S. and the flight response was extinguished with entry into WWII, we now always leap into the fray. Others (MENA peoples) are clearly fleeing, which is why Europe has a refugee crisis. So despite its difficulties, I will argue for tolerance and compassion, which is sorely lacking in the world suffused with hate bait.

The diaspora from MENA is a civilizational problem — one of many actually. This demographic wave overtaking Europe carries with it terrorism having with no clear objective except to spread the pain. Whether terrorism sparks exodus or exodus sparks terrorism of is of little significance. People are emigrating because that region, like others, has seriously overshot its carrying capacity, and the dismantling of their oil economies has resulted in social and political upheaval. That’s the big, broad picture few want to acknowledge. Alongside it goes U.S. interference in the region, part and parcel of the Carter Doctrine, which bluntly recognized that because the U.S. is so fundamentally dependent on foreign oil (then and now), that’s really our oil over there. So again, those born there are on the violent receiving end of U.S. projection of power, with all the ancillary and collateral effects, and we here are the lucky if unwitting beneficiaries. The Islamic world centered (nonexclusively) in the Middle East has similarly been the chief antagonist (or protagonist?) in a clash of civilizations extending backwards at least one millennium when it was eclipse by Christian European cultures rising out of the Middle Ages. Strong ethnic, racial, religious, and national identifications fuel my friend’s misapprehension that we now face a race war. That surface appearance may hold true for some mischief, but in actuality, wars of conquest have always been resource wars prosecuted to expand territorial control. Modern conquest has manifested somewhat differently from the past: instead of occupation and annexation, we simply strip resources and cart them away. Local inhabitants are merely irritants who can be swept aside if they get in the way. Further, the quite literal alien invasion by refugees is not conquest in the traditional military sense or modern economic sense but conquest in term of sheer demographics, which threaten to make white Christian (increasingly atheist) Europeans minorities in their own countries. The same displacement is underway as Hispanics in the U.S. become the largest demographic category. Were it instead blacks, the race issue would be even more prominent. That last statement is probably hard to justify considering how strained racial divides are in the U.S., so I’ll leave it at that.

Armed with that god’s-eye view of our predicaments, the question is whether one embraces conquest, exploitation, dehumanization of the “other,” and the will to power or instead demonstrates compassion for people tossed around like rag dolls by the wages of history. Admittedly, natural disasters, demographics, and indeed the wide world around us care nothing for us as individuals, so we must ultimately fend for ourselves at the same time we rely on each other for everything. My friend prepares for and relishes the prospect of a race war, feeling no empathy but lots of hatred toward people he’s never met — people, I might add, who are mostly doing what they can to survive. Maybe it’s my fatalism borne out of being a doomer, but I see no point in further victimizing the victims.

  1. the Heretick says:

    The Western mindset has been heavily influenced by the Messianic religions to think in a linear fashion, science has also played its part in this predilection. We are led to believe that there are answers to every problem if we adhere to the scientific method and proceed step by step. Apocalyptic thinking is evident in all sorts of pronouncements from all sorts of factions and groups. Part of the fracturing of society is undoubtedly natural and to be expected, birds of a feather and all that, we see it in nature, but a large part is due to the alienation caused by mass societies. There is simply no way that the interests of all parties can be addressed considering the huge numbers of people present in today’s world. On top of the numbers is the fact that a tiny elite dominates the lion’s share of the loot, exacerbating the situation. The atheistic, humanistic, rational critique is just as guilty of apocalyptic thinking as the religious, contrary to popular thinking the two go hand in hand. I cannot help but think that the quest for “universal” justice is naught but a secular version of the City of God.

    Take KCMO as a center point, go out a 750 mile radius from there and figure how much of the planets grain, meat, cotton, soybeans and beets are produced from that region, I believe the answer will surprise you. As for the resources stripped from MENA? Oil, that’s about it, a blessing or a curse? These are not resources that feed people except thru their use in the machinery of the monster we have created, the very same monster which grinds up people’s lives, and exists on a steady diet of energy, and human suffering.

    And when the oil is gone? When the fertilizers stripped from the natural gas is no longer available?

    This is not Apocalyptic, this is that good old scientific method applied to depletion rates and the availability of solar radiation. The plain fact is that the entire solar system is a product of Mr. Sun, Sol for short, and the primordial accretion disc from which all of this sprang…………………

    So no, i would not judge your friend too harshly, dim as his vision may be, he is probably no more misinformed than many. And as for Islam being homicidal? So was Christianity in its day, and Judaism, etc. etc. Ad nauseum.

    We deal with competing imperatives, the word itself a variation of empire……….. we stew in the juices of a cauldron of our own making, not that we meant to, it’s Murphy’s Law, unintended consequences, dontcha think?

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment. Awfully big swing you took there, Heretic. I’m not sure what you hit exactly.

      I certainly agree that all energy ultimately derives from the sun. However, oil (or more broadly, fossil fuels) became the lynchpin of modern civilization only about 200 years ago. Thus, it is not really responsible for the Western mindset formed long ago, which continues to be modified right up to the moment.

      I also agree that Christianity and Judaism both have their homicidal periods and ongoing corruptions, so I don’t condemn Islam as others often do wholesale. However, Messianic aspects seem to me much stronger in Christianity, as do notions of redemption and the afterlife in both Christianity and Islam. And as you point out (I think), science (through the corrupting filters of technology and culture, not as a method of pure inquiry) offers its own presumed pathways to redemption and grace. However, given considerable variations in prominence of those aspects within Abrahamic religions, and carelessly lumping in science, I don’t quite see how you arrive at them all being apocalyptic.

      My blog post pointed out that we are all offered false targets for blame and hatred over difficulties experienced in the world. The monstrous machinery we devised and refined to destroy ourselves may require that projection of anger onto others to avoid looking at ourselves too closely and drawing inevitable conclusions. I get that, and indeed, I don’t judge as harshly as many I know and read. But neither will I explain it all away as unintended.

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