Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Perspective of Power

[First published on this blog under the title "How the West Won the World..." on September 7, 2005]

Introduction

What we see happening in the world today, regarding the emergence of international Islamic terror, is to a large extent due to how the West, collectively speaking at least, regards Arabic and African nations and cultures as under-achieving, corrupt, tribal trouble makers. The point I will expand on is that the West, from a position of great power, can afford to do so. And what we can do, we will do.

Power and the Human Perspective

A person's perspective of another person depends largely on the relation of power between them. The more powerful of the two can afford to treat the less powerful one with contempt and much worse, besides mere contempt. The underdog has little choice: he can stay put and be humiliated or he can (try) to run and risk being caught all the same.

This principle is not confined to the interaction between two individuals; instead it applies to a whole range of interactions, including how nations treat each other.

Because of the superior firepower of the West's military machinery, African and Arab peoples, cultures and nations have been looking down the barrel of a very loaded gun, for most of modern history.

In today's world, this statement is true more than ever before. Militarily speaking, any contest between these parties would be almost impossible to lose for the West.

We are more than ever in a position where we do not have to take our opponents' claims too seriously: there is little they can do to make their claims hard or make the West change position.

A Small Head Start

Somewhere in the sands of time, the Western world, and in particular Europe, started to obtain a small but significant advantage in scientific, technological, economical and military terms, over what I'll very broadly call the rest of the world. Superficially speaking at least, from that moment on the principle that wealth creates more wealth, caused the gap to widen at an almost exponential rate.

It is futile to try to pin this "moment" down to a precise point in time, nor is it necessary. Suffice it to say that by the end of the 18th century Europe is in a good position to start colonising large parts of the world, in search of resources and often living space as well.
Islamic forces had also been driven out of their European strongholds centuries before.
The colonisation itself provides the West with the means to consolidate its leading position and widen the wealth divide to a point where it is almost impossible for the rest of the World to catch up.

The Colonisation and Slavery

At the end of the 18th century colonialism seemed to have become a thing of the past. Britain had lost its Thirteen Colonies in America, Spain and Portugal had lost most of South America and Holland was having difficulties holding onto the East Indies.

A hundred years later, however, a second wave of colonisation took place. Within twenty years, from 1880 to 1900, every corner of the Earth, from the highest mountains in the Himalayas to the most remote Pacific island and Antarctica, came to be claimed by one or other European power. Africa saw the most dramatic colonisation. It was divided up as if it had been a cake split between greedy European leaders. This was called the "Scramble for Africa".

One only needs to look at a current day map of Africa to find traces of this colonial period: the many straight borders speak volumes about nation-building in that corner of the world.

The colonisation of Africa itself is an example of how power from the barrel of a loaded gun has allowed Europe to conquer entire, vast regions of land and subjugate the indigenous peoples. The West's ruthless exploitation of the resources present there, in terms of human resources (labour), minerals, ores, rubber, later also oil etc, has contributed vastly to the West's fortunes, thereby further increasing the gap between "us and them" in all respects.

The way, generally speaking of course, white people of European descent have been able to exploit their position of indisputable power through vastly superior fire power, culminated in the ability to dehumanise and objectify entire indigenous peoples, to the point where slavery was largely considered justified, even part of the "natural" order of things.

And when slavery in the US was finally abolished in the middle of the 19th century, black people found they were free but penny-less. On the whole (there are many exceptions on the individual level), black people in America, have not been able to even remotely to bridge the gap between rich "white" society and "poor" descendents of African slaves, a situation that causes serious problems today.

The American dream of a "meritocracy" remains firmly out of reach for those who are at the lowest end of the nation's economical prosperity.

Western Influence in the Middle East

The motives for the West's dominance in the region cannot be explained by expansionism alone. Here's how Daniel Pipes put it in his book, "The Long Shadow".
Second, the Middle East is the one not-industrialized area of the world which directly affects vital United States interests. It contains the largest oil reserves on the planet; should the U.S.S.R. gain control over these, Moscow would be in a position to undermine the existing world order without firing a shot. Geographically, the Middle East is the membrane at the middle of the world through which most everything passes. Its land, water, and air passages have the greatest importance for trade; just to mention the names of some of the passageways-the Suez Canal, the Straits of Hormuz, the Bosphorus, the Bab al-Mandab-conjures up the region's critical role in international trade and strategy.


The USSR has since long gone but the possibility of a threat in which one nation (or group of nations) could strongly affect the world's balance of power by gaining control over its largest oil reserves, remains in place.

Islam v. Christianity

Many argue that the events of 9/11 and other acts of terrorism against the West are the start of a new international war by Islamic forces on the Christian West. There are indeed a few "mad mullahs" who advocate starting such a new attempt to conquer the West and impose Islam on all peoples of the world, even though most of them advocate the use of peaceful means to achieve their goals.

In the West, we have quite a few Christian crackpots too, in particular the minority, dominionist movement of the American Religious far Right, the so-called "Fundies", whose aim is to defeat the Muslim world for once and for all.

But such an all-out conflict between Islamic and Western forces remains of course highly unlikely for various reasons.

Firstly, militarily, the West could not lose such a war and that in itself is a strong motive for the Islamic forces not to start it.

Furthermore, neither the West nor the Ummah are unified enough to be able to mount a concerted attack on each other. Massive calls to arms against Islam would create further strong divisions in an all already strongly divided Western world. We have after all also a strong presence of assimilated Muslims in many of our countries.

And the Ummah exist more as a theoretical concept than as a concrete reality: Islam too is strongly divided. Its assimilated brothers and sisters would almost certainly be largely opposed to an all-out worldwide Islam-on-Christianity international war.

The real danger of such a highly hypothetical conflict therefore lies not in a full scale, head-on collision but in a war of attrition fought by a world-wide group of Muslim militants, which are likely to be only very loosely affiliated (if at all) and may have quite diverse objectives. But the kind of violence most of these groups inflict does have one common aspect: it is Islamic-on-Western violence, branded rather gratuitously as Global Terror.

And the West, with its extremely complicated infrastructure of energy production, chemical manufacturing, transport systems etc, remains very vulnerable to low-tech attacks which can inflict massive damage, as shown clearly on 9/11. This vulnerability forces the West in a position of entrenched internal and National security, to prevent further attacks from happening. These security measures can become tools of oppression and control of entire ethnic groups, further perpetuating the cycle.

Black and White

The White, Western, man, as a mythical construction at least can afford to see himself as vastly superior to all other "races". Race, in human terms is almost certainly a White construction itself and one that most clearly does not have a basis in genetic make-up, or much else for that matter, except perhaps in power itself. There is only the human species (Homo Sapiens), not a collection of human races, which has adapted and evolved and today is completely intertwined, making the notion of race completely arbitrary and superfluous.

Today, the contentious term "racism" (or the even more risible "racialism") is also used when a person expresses dislike for the people of a particular nation, as if that nation were inhabited by a "human race" of its own (the "French Race", the "German Race", the "Lichtenstein Race").

But the myth of a White Race, superior and "chosen by God", has served and continues to serve as a rationalisation of many crimes and genocides perpetrated by white peoples.

In popular myth White Man is still described as an Architect, Builder, Conqueror, Super Achiever, Son of God and... ultimate Ubermensch.

Many quack "White Histories of the World" see other "races" as inferior, perhaps even aspiring to the White ideal, through a succession of reincarnations (see e.g. the Dutch "philosopher" and self-proclaimed medium Josef Rulof).

And compared to the White Man, the achievements of other peoples pale into insignificance, or so at least it is perceived.

The success of European civilisation allows the White Man to consider himself still the original Herrenvolk...

The Holocaust

In Nazi Germany, this erroneous belief of racial superiority of the White Man has led to what today remains a genocide of unparalleled scale. Nazi doctrine was based on a fabricated ideology, in which assumed but completely unproven superiority of the White upper race (Der Ubermensch) was central to attempt to justify the murder of 6 million Jewish people, as well as many other inferior "undesirables", in what was seen as the "final solution" (die Endlosung) to a perceived problem dating back to the beginning of all human time: these "parasitic non-white people".

Despite complete defeat and utter destruction of a the new empire (the Third Reich) that was supposed to last at least one thousand years, in a matter of years, myths regarding the Jewish inferiority continue to be bandied around by many, as well as being believed by many others.

Freedom and equality, Rich and Poor

From a position of power, the West really only pays lip-service to the lofty ideals of freedom and equality when dealing with Arab and African nations.

The West will write off the Third World debts, which they were not paying back anyway because they could not do so in the first place.

We will continue to provide aid to African nations, at the same time making sure they cannot catch up with the advantage we have over them. The gap between rich and poor is in fact widening, not narrowing.

The Israeli-Palestinian question

In the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process continues to be hampered by Israel's position of military invulnerability. Palestinian militants can wreak death and destruction on the Israeli civilian population but the extremist views of Hamas et al regarding the total destruction of the state of Israel cannot be achieved militarily, or by any other means for that matter. The Palestinian resistance has had its purpose in the past but it has also clearly shown that a Palestinian military victory is completely out of the question. And fighting a war that cannot be won is pointless.

Conversely, Israel's military supremacy also allows a minority of hard line Likhud members to refuse to give up even a square inch of territory to the Palestinians, as they are rightly convinced there is not much the Palestinians could do to force such a withdrawal. Israel has military superiority both on the ground and in the air.

Conclusion

While at a personal level, most Western people including myself, have many successful relationships (in the broadest sense of the word) with people of all creeds, colours and religions, but as a culture our position of strength changes our collective perspective.

Our position makes it unnecessary to take other cultures, less affluent and militarily weaker, all that seriously.

And resentment over this causes resistance movements to try and give us a bloody wake-up call... At this, sadly, they succeed. However, we in the West, in general, remain in a deep coma regarding our attempts to understand the violence directed at us.


Dedicated to my father, Walter.

7 Comments:

At 9:37 PM, Anonymous graniab said...

Well said Gert!

 
At 10:02 PM, Blogger markfromireland said...

Very well said indeed. It deserves to be widely read. I've linked to this hopefully it'll generate some traffic in your dierction

 
At 11:39 PM, Anonymous Griffon said...

Well, I make it three out of three, Gert. Well said.
It is so refreshing to read the "bleeding obvious" from time to time to feel that one is not mad and not alone, though in a small minority.

The loonies that would lead us get away with their destructive madness because of the general conspiracy of silence of the wider population. And it starts with the acceptance of the everyday lies we hear literally everyday.

Can I urge everyone to just for today to cry "bullshit" everytime you hear someone tell a lie or distort the truth no matter how small or insignificant it may be.

We all need to start practicing living in the truth before we will ever be effective in forcing our "leaders" into being truthful.

"And the Truth shall set you (and all your sisters and brothers) free"

 
At 1:04 AM, Anonymous Melissa said...

These observations certainly match my own - in the West even those white people who aren't racist on a personal level maintain a knee-jerk culturally racist perspective, founded on the notion that technological/military and economic superiority are what really count in this world. None of them stop to wonder for even a moment if that's what really counts, as if superiority in environmental stewardship, or parenting, or poetry are obviously insignificant and in no way impact the clear position of power held by whites in this world. Part of viewing things from the perspective of power is that nothing but power seems important to you - all other accomplishments pale in comparison.

 
At 9:14 AM, Anonymous Griffon said...

"Part of viewing things from the perspective of power is that nothing but power seems important to you - all other accomplishments pale in comparison."

WOW Melissa!
Talk about hitting the nail on the head.
That is worth repeating again and again.

 
At 3:20 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Thanks to all for the encouraging comments. When I first published it, I had few readers and got no reactions. It's great to see it does get read almost a year later!

 
At 9:02 PM, Blogger Richard said...

I have to confess that this is my first time of reading this.

But better late than never. I echo the words of the previous commenters, Gert -- well done.

 

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