The war of Northern Aggression

July 25, 2012

Readers may or may not be familiar with Mani, the founder of Manichaeism pictured here.  Mani was a Persian prophet who lived in the third century AD.  He created a philosophy in which the world is a struggle between the material, dark forces of evil and the spiritual, light forces of good.  This dualism has found its form in most religions over time, Buddhism and Christianity in particular.  Augustine, my least favourite catholic theologian of all time came to Christianity via Manichaeism although he subsequently renounced it.  Mind you that doesn't mean much; Augustine was a serial renouncer and denouncer.  

In the modern age it manifests in new age fluffy bunny spiritualism and to a degree in a lot of superficially attractive but false dichotomies like the fictional emotional/rational right/left brain nonsense and others.  It was declared a heresy by medieval Catholic Church, one of its better decisions although the Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius advice to the Crusaders prior to the sacking of Béziers was probably a little excessive.  

Its also the case the Western Society, and in particular the US is very prone to Manichaeism in both public and popular discourse. We see it in international as well as domestic policy and (I think) it impoverishes discourse.  I had an interesting encounter with it today.  I have given a lecture at the Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg which is probably one of the most catholic towns in the US, home of the first American saint and all that.  A part of that was about gaining multiple perspectives and I referenced the Civil War, using the southern designation which forms the title of this post. 

Now to make it clear, I am not denying that the anti-slavery movement was a key element in the Civil War, but I am (supported by several historians) pretty convinced that it was not the major issue for those in power.  Something that is confirmed by Lincoln's early statements that The South can keep their slaves.  Neither is it clear to me that real slavery died out any faster.  Also the consequences of an impoverished and humiliated southern population for the modern day are not fully explored.  Its very difficult however for anyone in the US to be neutral on this, including their historians.  For those interested I think the Ken Burns series and Amanda Foreman's latest book provide a more objective insight.

Now I used the “aggression” statement in my address, partly as a provocation to get people to think.  I was then firmly taken up on the issue by one participant just before lunch.  For her it was important to clearly link anti-slavery with the civil war, and with current right wing southern politics.  For here there were a bundle of things that were evil and she was not prepared to accept some subtlety of interpretation or for that matter to discuss it.  I understand, and was not offended.  It can't be easy having a liberal perspective over here at the moment.  But that does not excuse an over simplistic separation of history and the present into good and evil.  Passion is one thing, but it should not, other than In extremes lead us to avoid a more nuanced discussion.

If we want to progress, if we want to remove the conditions that allow terrorism to thrive then we really have to get rid of these primitive dichotomies.  We need to see things not just from another perspective, but from multiple perspectives.

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