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Man Is a Cruel Animal
Posted on Dec 22, 2008
By Chris Hedges
It was Joseph Conrad I thought of when I read an article in The Nation magazine this month about white vigilante groups that rose up out of the chaos of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to terrorize and murder blacks. It was Conrad I thought of when I saw the ominous statements by authorities, such as International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, warning of potential civil unrest in the United States as we funnel staggering sums of public funds upward to our bankrupt elites and leave our poor and working class destitute, hungry, without health care and locked out of their foreclosed homes. We fool ourselves into believing we are immune to the savagery and chaos of failed states. Take away the rigid social structure, let society continue to break down, and we become, like anyone else, brutes.
Conrad saw enough of the world as a sea captain to know the irredeemable corruption of humanity. The noble virtues that drove characters like Kurtz in “Heart of Darkness” into the jungle veiled abject self-interest, unchecked greed and murder. Conrad was in the Congo in the late 19th century when the Belgian monarch King Leopold, in the name of Western civilization and anti-slavery, was plundering the country. The Belgian occupation resulted in the death by disease, starvation and murder of some 10 million Congolese. Conrad understood what we did to others in the name of civilization and progress. And it is Conrad, as our society unravels internally and plows ahead in the costly, morally repugnant and self-defeating wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, whom we do well to heed.
This theme of our corruptibility is central to Conrad. In his short story “An Outpost of Progress” he writes of two white traders, Carlier and Kayerts, who are sent to a remote trading station in the Congo. The mission is endowed with a great moral purpose—to export European “civilization” to Africa. But the boredom and lack of constraints swiftly turn the two men, like our mercenaries and soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, into savages. They trade slaves for ivory. They get into a feud over dwindling food supplies and Kayerts shoots and kills his unarmed companion Carlier.
“They were two perfectly insignificant and incapable individuals,” Conrad wrote of Kayerts and Carlier, “whose existence is only rendered possible through high organization of civilized crowds. Few men realize that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings. The courage, the composure, the confidence; the emotions and principles; every great and every insignificant thought belongs not to the individual but to the crowd; to the crowd that believes blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and its morals, in the power of its police and of its opinion. But the contact with pure unmitigated savagery, with primitive nature and primitive man, brings sudden and profound trouble into the heart. To the sentiment of being alone of one’s kind, to the clear perception of the loneliness of one’s thoughts, of one’s sensations—to the negation of the habitual, which is safe, there is added the affirmation of the unusual, which is dangerous; a suggestion of things vague, uncontrollable, and repulsive, whose discomposing intrusion excites the imagination and tries the civilized nerves of the foolish and the wise alike.”
The Managing Director of the Great Civilizing Company—for as Conrad notes “civilization” follows trade—arrives by steamer at the end of the story. He is not met at the dock by his two agents. He climbs the steep bank to the trading station with the captain and engine driver behind him. The director finds Kayerts, who, after the murder, committed suicide by hanging himself by a leather strap from a cross that marked the grave of the previous station chief. Kayerts’ toes are a couple of inches above the ground. His arms hang stiffly down “… and, irreverently, he was putting out a swollen tongue at his Managing Director.”
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Conrad saw cruelty as an integral part of human nature. This cruelty arrives, however, in different forms. Stable, industrialized societies, awash in wealth and privilege, can construct internal systems that mask this cruelty, although it is nakedly displayed in their imperial outposts. We are lulled into the illusion in these zones of safety that human beings can be rational. The “war on terror,” the virtuous rhetoric about saving the women in Afghanistan from the Taliban or the Iraqis from tyranny, is another in a series of long and sordid human campaigns of violence carried out in the name of a moral good.
Those who attempt to mend the flaws in the human species through force embrace a perverted idealism. Those who believe that history is a progressive march toward human perfectibility, and that they have the moral right to force this progress on others, no longer know what it is to be human. In the name of the noblest virtues they sink to the depths of criminality and moral depravity. This self-delusion comes to us in many forms. It can be wrapped in the language of Western civilization, democracy, religion, the master race, Liberté, égalité, fraternité, the worker’s paradise, the idyllic agrarian society, the new man or scientific rationalism. The jargon is varied. The dark sentiment is the same.
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