Recently, my thoughts have turned to an old movie– a Czech historical drama from 1967 called Marketa Lazarová. Set in a bleak and uninviting version of the Middle Ages, in which small clans war perpetually with one another, it is a meditation, among other things, on the brutality of un-restrained power in a lawless world. In the film’s closing scene, an omniscient narrator foretells that two “strapping boys” would be born to the heroine but that, “alas... cruelty and love [...] would contend for mastery of their souls.”
I find myself feeling at the end of 2016 as if the modern and cosmopolitan world I grew up in is giving way to something that looks a lot more like that of Marketa Lazarová. Masculine power is on the loose again. Universalistic pretensions have been replaced by raw assertions of national and ethnic superiority. Dominating others is held up as a legitimate pursuit in itself.
From one end of the globe to the other, every variety of macho chauvinism is gaining confidence from the others. From Putin’s Russia, to al- Sisi’s Egypt, to Assad’s Syria, to Modi’s India, to Duterte’s Philippines, to the Saudi monarchy, to various Mano Dura leaders in Central America... from the Israeli settler movement to Buddhist nationalism in Southeast Asia... from the Alterantive für Deutschland to the President-elect of the United State, I am hard-pressed to think of any dictator or would-be strongman who has not come out of 2016 looking more emboldened and dangerous than ever. The United States has provided a template – and in many cases, funding and arms – to allow repressive regimes to justify the worst human rights abuses under the mantle of a so-called “War on Terror” or a “War on Drugs.” We can’t help but feel that cruelty is gaining the upper hand from love in the battle “for mastery of our souls.”
Our anger at what is happening to our world can make us feel cynical about our own species. Yet this cynicism is precisely the thing that is corroding our aspirations for global community. Our pessimistic expectations of one another encourage an arms race mentality. One nation or person resorts to deceit, treachery, or violence, because they assume the others will do the same. Our cynicism becomes self-fulfilling; and global politics become a game of what economist Joan Robinson first dubbed: “Beggar- thy-neighbor.”
That is why, in resisting the gathering darkness, we so often find the darkness in ourselves. That is why cynicism is no shield against itself. That is why the more enraged I have gotten watching the events of the last few months of 2016, the more distant I have felt not only from the better kind of world I would like to see, but also from the best that is in myself.
Yet I remind myself that in real life – unlike in the movies – there is no omniscient narrator apart from ourselves. That thing which calls us to strive to be better is nothing other than our own mind and conscience. As much as cruelty and greed may be elements of our identity as a species, therefore, whatever it is in us that cries out against these qualities is a part of our human nature too.
If I'm design'd [...], writes Robert Burns, By Nature's law design'd,/ Why was an independent wish/ E'er planted in my mind? Remember, it is both cruelty and love that battle for dominance in our souls – and the fight goes on another year.