Human Behavior, by Extension History, Is Predictable.
In that acknowledgment we can find saving grace and a separate peace, but unfortunately, confusion and bitterness usually sucks up all available oxygen and crowds everything else out, deflating our spirits and dissolving our resolve. This is because evil appears to prevail much too often. And for that reason along with countless others, we look for things outside ourselves for deliverance and reification. That wouldn't be so bad, but too often we choose to go running for our guns and our intoxicants of diversion.
As a remedy, humanity enlists idealism as the savior we hope shall rescue us from the whole bloody mess.
Ideals have a providential reason for being. Our very souls reach out for them like the sunflower faithfully follows the trajectory of the sun across the sky. By their very nature ideals are the impossible attributes for which we aspire. Their attainment would give us the status of Gods in flesh and blood for we are apt to equate their realization with spiritual success and spirituality with Godliness. (If not that- then at least elevate us to something more than just mammalian creatures)
Yet we know that we can never measure up to those ideals even though we usually try to give the diametrically opposed impression. When a frustrated orchestral player once scoffed at a Stravinsky score as impossible to perform, the sage of all compositional sages simply replied, "Yes, maybe so, but it's the impassioned attempt that counts." In our heart of hearts, we know an impassioned attempt is about the best anyone can muster, consequences be damned. That failure is the odds-on favorite is not something that should ever deter our best efforts. That's the nobler story and eternal drama of human kind, right? And beside, there is a premium placed on sanity here, isn't there?
Reason, many would agree, is that faculty best suited to implement the ideal into the real, even though the omniscient sense mentioned earlier is wise enough to know that reason's nature is too often cold and disdainfully exclusive. It lacks heart for want of a better negative definition. But "being reasonable" is generally considered the sin qua non of tools that can leverage real improvements. Reason is powerful enough to make us believe contradictory things such as "good intentions sometimes pave the way to hell." The Age of Enlightenment's philosophy seems to have left as strong an imprint on future history as did the rise of capitalism and the fall of absolutism.
So it is that these seemingly strange days the world is living through are really no different than any other time simply because humans have remained human. But we tend to measure all events according to our ideals and disregard the persistent, existential factors. Maybe that is humanity's most lasting charm. But in reality, the more events unfold the more humans prove they are and will always be just that- human. And paying tribute to the phenomenological is like having an unseemly taste for the tragic. It is condescended to as the nihilist's credo. Best go singing in the rain.
And just how is it we can rightly compare any given human act today as opposed to yesterday when supposedly the world was at least a scintilla different? Most of us are firmly committed to belief in progress, so it should stand to reason that things should naturally change for the better. Again, our psychological need for sanity is firmly attached to this by the hip. Most of us maintain only that mental and emotional bandwidth capable of surviving the vicissitudes of life by bouncing one current event in time against another, and judging the dynamic effect the best we can in accordance to our better judgment as based on experience. Survival of the fittest implies the fittest embrace the hope that progress is the natural course of things.
What prevents us from seeing things clearly and truly for all times is that we are essentially filled with fear. We are so used to that oppressive emotion that most of us deal with it as a matter of course. For some there is perpetual trembling, but for most it manifests as the eternal donning of a rigid body armor that is disguised as a smile and laughter as often it is a scowl or impassive non-response to the world. As testament to the human spirit, this can be considered a necessity or even courageousness, but a good defense often comes across as offensive.
There are times when defenses drop away, no matter how much we'd rather hold on to them. Loss- that most universal of solvents- is a primordial case in point. When we have suffered great loss, that dark, leaden door forged by our fear- that imposing door that is always shut and locked against all we wish to protect ourselves from suddenly springs open with a violent start and a strange light comes pouring through, flooding our being.
How clearly two terrible current events that rip at the fabric of today's world order illustrate these perennial philosophies.
Just a month ago, when North Korea's Kim Jung Il once again rattled his nuclear saber, the South Korean people ignored him. There were more important tasks at hand. Under normal circumstances, South Koreans would likely feel rage and fear at the dictator's maniacal rants threatening their entire nation, but the South Koreans were in mourning for the loss of their own man of the people who beat the odds by overcoming the ruling elite to become president, only to fall by alleged disgrace culminating in a mysterious death.
President Roh was a rare phenomenon- there is that word again- and the South Korean people spontaneously came together over him, attending to their collective loss as opposed to succumbing to the distractions of a tin-horn autocrat to the north who has devoted his entire existence to imprisoning all his own people while wishing only for the destruction of his long list of enemies. At least the solidarity South Korea experienced in their outpourings of grief and elegiac gesture lasted for the interim of mourning.
Post-election events in Iran provide another stunning example of where loss brings things to light. But in this case, the loss is much more complicated and tinged with irony. As I watch the ongoing television coverage on the Asian edition of CNN, I experience the chill of knowledge that the great masses of Iranian youth- constituting 70% of the population born after the Islamic revolution of 1979- are not only fighting mad at the election fraud, but also in mourning for the loss of something they or their ancestors have never had- political freedom. Their hopes had been high for attaining something they could palpably envision in their own hearts and imaginations but has never existed in their nation's history. The Iranians had lost the promise of something they had never had. However great Persian civilization has been going back 2500 years to before Darius the Great, the people of Iran have never tasted freedom. Sometimes it is much worse to lose something never had than something once possessed.
And as for that cherished ideal democracy, just what democratic country in the world functions truly so?
I will beg that question only by saying I remember all too vividly the allegations of electoral fraud both times George W. Bush was elected president of the United States. Did Americans take to the streets as have the Iranians? Not on your life, and in the first election of 2000, the decision to either recount or not to recount the contested ballots in the key swing state of Florida was made in the end on the basis of a 5-4 vote by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court was as divided as was the country; but even so, the American public proved itself not up to the task in demanding a truly free and fair election. They simply went whimpering away into the night to lick the reopening of old wounds.
Something had lapsed in the country's soul long before, but in 2000 it had finally become plainly visible. In the end, the message America broadcast around the world was that it really didn't matter who was president, so why contest the election? Several generations' worth of elections had proven to create depressed cynics of Americans rather than rallying a true spirit of violated patriotism. Surely, all the founding fathers were rolling in their crypts. Where were the Patrick Henrys and Frederic Douglas's of today? Gone to graveyards, everyone (as the song goes).
The real vote was in- Americans, citizens of the first and longest standing democracy had finally conceded to the world in mass that electoral democracy just isn't what it's cracked up to be.
What is it that makes a people forever denied true democracy more willing to fight for their political rights more fiercely than a people who have enjoyed such a right for over two hundred and twenty-five years? As one poetic American (an immigrant from Eastern Europe) once trenchantly observed, "In Eastern Europe, nothing goes and everything matters. In America, everything goes, and nothing matters." Iran can easily be substituted in to this relation.
In order to answer this troubling question, conventional analysis doesn't provide much satisfaction. According to boilerplate wisdom from the left it is said America has sold out its creed and regressed from the ideals and responsibilities that make for citizenship, trading them in for wanton consumerism. The new motto is now written on wall: "He who dies with the most toys wins." In so doing, Americans have come too comfortable and take for granted that gift that is most precious- freedom. This litany has been tossed in the faces of Americans since the rise of Communism in 1917, and understandably the country has in greater part ignored it or become inured by the constant assault. But to be fair to America, most of its people have come to understand through bitter experience that institutions of electoral democracy of and by themselves don't possess the power to insure or secure freedom and justice.
Freedom itself is just another ideal, however all-embracing and yearned for. Like all other ideals, it is unattainable in a pure form. Freedom is tainted by what defines it, and what defines it is who defines it- i.e. human beings and the human condition.
In its implementation, freedom is by phenomenological process reduced from an ideal to a cultural tainted, duplicitous artifact. The core existential problem is that freedom is an abstraction and must be equated to make its presence real.
The pitfalls for freedom's path to true realization are numerous, and usually have their roots in the direct conflicts found between ideals of freedom and the demands of the ruling economic and cultural special interests. For example, freedom is equated with property rights as much as it is the freedom of speech, but property rights always favor the rich. So freedom can never assure economic equality. Freedom is equated with justice, but only the rich have enough money to hire a good enough lawyer to defend their rights if need be. So freedom can never assure a fair trial. Freedom is equated with equal opportunity, but hate as multiplied across human hearts given cultural cancers brought down through the ages will always pull out all the plugs in order to keep those of another religion, or race, or sexual orientation, or economic class from ever having equal opportunity. So freedom as instituted by rule of law alone can never assure equal opportunity. Freedom must coincide and spring forth from the heart of every individual, for no law can legislate the qualities of the human soul. It can coerce them, but not necessarily win them over. For true freedom to exist, every single person in a given country must practice the responsibilities and ethics so entailed. How long does it take for such an evolution to take place?
In the end, most of what is attempted as the teeming masses of the planet reach for freedom, fails. Even U.S. presidents have admitted that "life is unfair." In the end, what trumps is the condition l'humaine. The human condition has few admirable connotations, and has mostly to do with the human race's inability to get along due to fear and greed.
In each individual's spirit, though, lives the true ideals realized if only for any one given soul.
The greatest art is produced by the soul author or sculpture or composer- the Shakespeares, Michelangelos, and Stravinskys. Artistic collaboration is grand, but always flawed in comparison to an individual master piece. The noblest ideals are most often born of one individual's thoughts. The City on the Hill illuminated by the Light of Heaven originates first and foremost in the heart of an individual, not society as a whole.
Society's collective sense comes together to become one only in times of great loss, great peril, or great promise- whether it be found in the untimely, violent loss of a president, the denial of a starving people their access to democracy; the invasion of one's country by a foreign power, or in the non-violent Gandhi leading the masses of poor across India in defiance of oppressive, colonial rulers.
But even if progress is achieved, and a foothold on freedom attained, it is a constant struggle to hold on to progress made. Rust never sleeps. Human relations are perennially flawed and so will be all their institutions. As Thomas Jefferson once said, all governmental systems must be routinely dissolved and reinvented as they inevitably evolve into a corrupted state. It is always two steps forward, one step back or the converse. It is condition l'humaine, but because we cannot lose hope or the energy to improve the human lot, I will give Stravinsky the last fractured note- it is the impassioned attempt to make the best of it that counts.
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Mr. John M. Gorrindo, who serves as an Indonesian correspondent for The Seoul Times, is a native-born Californian. As holder of a MA degree in music composition from the University of California, he made Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia his home after serving as a volunteer English teacher there. He also a writes fictions and composes music. Some of his writings and music can be found at Fringing reefs and Vertical Walls: http://johngorrindo.blogspot.com
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