May 25, 2013
The Science of Genocide
Posted on Aug 6, 2012
By Chris Hedges
The 17th century Enlightenment myth of human advancement through science, reason and rationality should have been obliterated forever by the slaughter of World War I. Europeans watched the collective suicide of a generation. The darker visions of human nature embodied in the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad and Frederick Nietzsche before the war found modern expression in the work of Sigmund Freud, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann and Samuel Beckett, along with atonal and dissonant composers such as Igor Stravinsky and painters such as Otto Dix, George Grosz, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Human progress, these artists and writers understood, was a joke. But there were many more who enthusiastically embraced new utopian visions of progress and glory peddled by fascists and communists. These belief systems defied reality. They fetishized death. They sought unattainable utopias through violence. And empowered by science and technology, they killed millions.
Human motives often are irrational and, as Freud pointed out, contain powerful yearnings for death and self-immolation. Science and technology have empowered and amplified the ancient lusts for war, violence and death. Knowledge did not free humankind from barbarism. The civilized veneer only masked the dark, inchoate longings that plague all human societies, including our own. Freud feared the destructive power of these urges. He warned in “Civilization and Its Discontents” that if we could not regulate or contain these urges, human beings would, as the Stoics predicted, consume themselves in a vast conflagration. The future of the human race depends on naming and controlling these urges. To pretend they do not exist is to fall into self-delusion.
The breakdown of social and political control during periods of political and economic turmoil allows these urges to reign supreme. Our first inclination, Freud noted correctly, is not to love one another as brothers or sisters but to “satisfy [our] aggressiveness on [our fellow human being], to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him.” The war in Bosnia, with rampaging Serbian militias, rape camps, torture centers, concentration camps, razed villages and mass executions, was one of numerous examples of Freud’s wisdom. At best, Freud knew, we can learn to live with, regulate and control our inner tensions and conflicts. The structure of civilized societies would always be fraught with this inner tension, he wrote, because “… man’s natural aggressive instinct, the hostility of each against all and of all against each, opposes this program of civilization.” The burden of civilization is worth it. The alternative, as Freud knew, is self-destruction.
A rational world, a world that will protect the ecosystem and build economies that learn to distribute wealth rather than allow a rapacious elite to hoard it, will never be handed to us by the scientists and technicians. Nearly all of them work for the enemy. Mary Shelley warned us about becoming Prometheus as we seek to defy fate and the gods in order to master life and death. Her Victor Frankenstein, when his 8-foot-tall creation made partly of body pieces from graves came to ghastly life, had the same reaction as Oppenheimer when the American scientist discovered that his bomb had incinerated Japanese schoolchildren. The scientist Victor Frankenstein watched the “dull yellow eye” of his creature open and “breathless horror and disgust” filled his heart.” Oppenheimer said after the first atomic bomb was detonated in the New Mexican desert: “I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, in one way or another.” The critic Harold Bloom, in words that could be applied to Oppenheimer, called Victor Frankenstein “a moral idiot.”
Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
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