Part 12 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization –
Conclusion: The United Nations
“We Irish think otherwise” Bishop Berkeley
The United Nations was formed in the aftermath of World War II and was built upon ideas of national sovereignty going back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 that ended the seventeenth-century Thirty Years War. Conceived in San Francisco and born in New York, the UN was also an expression of the post-war triumphalism of the United States.
Like the United States, the United Nations is a bicameral political system with various departments of agency and administration called the Secretariat. But de jure is never de facto, and in actuality the nations of the Permanent Five of the Security Council are there to insure that no World Federalist utopia ever arises to challenge the supreme sovereignty of the nation-state. (One needs to remember that the members of the P-5 are the largest producers and dealers of arms in the world.) And the General Assembly is there to check the power of the Security Council to make certain that no empires ever rise again to rule the other nations of the world as their colonies. Given this system of checks and balances, it is not surprising that grid lock set in early and that the United Nations has never been able to develop into an effective means of eliminating war, genocide, famine, global pollution, the abuse of women and children, involuntary servitude and slavery, or even policing little dictatorships in protection of human rights. The United Nations is ineffective but absolutely essential as a world forum. We cannot scrap it and start all over again.
The UN is a cultural process and not a perfected institution. Historians know that it took centuries for democratic republics to evolve. From the time of the Magna Carta in 1215 when rights were granted by the monarch to the barons, to 1688 when the definition of sovereignty was extended from the Sovereign to the Parliament in the Glorious Revolution, to 1776 when the definition of sovereignty was extended from the Parliament to the people in the American Revolution, to the Great Reform Act of 1832 in Britain in which voting rights were no longer based on the ownership of property, democracy has been a long work in progress. It took centuries of agitation and legislation before citizenship was no longer restricted in terms of class, race, or gender. Even in democratic Switzerland, women did not get the vote until 1971.
In much the same way, it will take a century before the United Nations evolves into an effective instrument of global cooperation and coercion. And like the founding conditions of World War II that ended with the exclamation point of atomic weapons, it will take environmental catastrophes and natural disasters to lessen the power of nation-states and bring forth effective transnational associations. As in the evolution of life, nations will need to become organelles within the larger entity of a planetary eukaryotic cell.
And so we cannot scrap the United Nations and start over. We can only work to allow nations like the USA, Russia, and China to become like mitochondria with their ancient DNA and their ability to produce the ATP cycle of energy needed for the larger planetary cell. The nation-state will always be needed, for no one wants New York or Geneva to tell Cairo, Egypt or Cairo, Illinois how to manage their daily affairs.
Slowly, and in response to the atmospheric damage produced by the USA and China, the Security Council will need to transform itself into an Executive Council of the large nations on each continent: the USA, Brazil, China, India, Russia, and the European Union. At the moment there is a cultural vacuum in Islamic Civilization, and no intelligent partner for world governance has emerged. Ideally, Iran as a most ancient civilization should be a leader, if only it could throw off its reactionary theocracy to liberalize and come forth to inspire Central Asia, as it did in ages past. But given the hostilities between Sunni Pakistan, Shia Iran, and Israel, that cultural evolution seems unlikely without more wars and catastrophes. Since there is not a single unrepressive and progressive government in the Islamic World, for even secular Turkey persecutes its writers for shaming the state and seeks to block the scientific teaching of evolution, the prospects are not inspiring.
Were Iran to liberalize and aid in modernizing Afghanistan, then Iran would be the likely choice for the transformed Security Council. If Pakistan could end its slow motion civil war and assert state authority in the tribal regions to become a stable country and overcome its hostility to India, then Pakistan could become a needed global partner for the UN. At the moment, no such cultural evolution seems likely and what the global conflict of this moment of history is about is the role of Islam, and the role of religion in general in the evolution of a planetary civilization. President Obama recognized this critical moment in his historic address this year in Cairo. The question of our time is whether or not the three Abrahamic religions can grow beyond their out-dated forms to contribute to a new sacralization of world culture in which art and science are equal partners? Instead the Islamic nations now seek to pass anti-blasphemy laws to drag the world of science and art back into the Middle Ages.
As the Security Council evolves into a more representative Executive Council, it would lessen the need for obstructionist feelings in the General Assembly, but this body is always likely to be a labile, if not volatile, liquid of melting and merging nations with short-lived histories in which a process of break-up into tribal identities is followed by a reintegration into larger and more practical economic unities.
At the moment, science is the liberal force of planetary civilization and religion is the reactionary force, but the patron of science is still the nation-state, and so we are locked into a contradiction–one that H. G. Wells recognized after World War I, almost a century ago, when he imagined in an age of wars and catastrophes, that “a freemasonry of science” would emerge in the air above the war lords and rubble of the military-industrial nation-states.
In the general psyche of the moment in the mass media, the failure of the disaster movie 2012 indicates that in our general mood of global anxiety and Copenhagen Angst, a vivid portrayal of The End is no longer a fun way to spend ten bucks and an evening.
Readers of this series of columns over the past few weeks will have noticed that what they all have in common–whether discussing American, Israeli-Palestinian, or global drug politics–is the utter impossibility of their suggestions. For a new planetary civilization to evolve, humanity would need to grow beyond nationalism and religion. Both patriotism and religion have more to do with identity than a theory of the state or a vision of God. Both are expressions of the “us and them” feelings that have been with us since the hominization of the primates. Ideally, the state should lose its emotional charisma to become, not a source of emotional identity, but simply a public service utility that creates infrastructure for the national economy and guarantees public health and security. Dying for one’s country should be as silly as dying for Con Ed.
Because of my Irish-American mother and my Irish grandmother, I grew up feeling drawn to Ireland. On my father’s side, the Thompsons were Northern Irish, so on either side of various borders I still felt Irish in the post-historic landscape of Los Angeles. However, when I went to live in Ireland and study Irish history, I discovered that “Ireland” was a mythic construct, from the Book of Invasions to Patrick Pearse. After the Ice Age when the glaciers uncovered the Emerald Isle, the island was subject to laminar flows of various tribal peoples from continental Europe. In the days of the Irish Literary Renaissance, enthusiasts liked to speak of “the Irish race,” but this relic of nineteenth-century racist notions is utter nonsense. Heart-breaking as it must seem to the millions of us, there is no such thing as “Irish,” for we are genetically as much Iberian and Scandinavian as Celtic.
And in a similar way, recent genetic research is beginning to show that there is no such thing as “the Jewish people.” Jews are as diploid and exogamous as the rest of humanity, and the religion has grown through conversion of gentiles as much as endogamous propagation. I married a Jew and my half Danish nephew converted from Lutheranism to Judaism. Two other nephews married Koreans. So the Thompsons are now your typical new “American” family. For all human families, identity is a process and not a place.
Israel, like Ireland, is a mythic construct. In biblical times, there was no such thing as a nation, and the eastern shore of the Mediterranean was peppered with tiny kingdoms and transhumance nomads. From post-catastrophic Sea Peoples and Egyptian slave refugees, Phoenician and Babylonian Semites, to wandering goat-herding nomads, the Middle East also was a complex fluid of laminar flows.
Blut und Boden never works to fashion a true identity but merely creates a regress ad infinitum from nation to tribe to clan to sect in the search for cultural meaning and personal identity. (I embed three different languages in one sentence here to reinforce my point that history is a flooded plain filled with the silt of distant mountains.) That said, there is no question in my mind that the present Republic of Ireland is better off as an independent nation within the European Union than it was as a suppressed colony within the British Empire. And there is no questions that the Jews are better off in an Israeli homeland than in the stadtls of Central and Eastern Europe. But there are many questions in my mind about the manner in which the United Nations served as an inexperienced midwife in 1948 to the birth of the twins Israel and Palestine. And I have just as many questions about the manner in which the Israelis have constructed the myth of the Jewish state and disinherited its twin. Americans, of course, are in no position to point a guilty finger at Israel, for the Israelis are simply repeating our history of Manifest Destiny and using the army to displace the indigenous peoples.
Given the ignorant and smug imperialistic behavior of the British in drawing imaginary lines in Ireland, Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan, and India, it is little wonder that we are now having unending wars over fictional constructs called nations where nations never existed. No agency but the UN can fix these problems. To help establish a global approach to religious tolerance, the UN needs to make Old Jerusalem its first World City policed by its blue helmets. East and West Jerusalem should remain Palestinian and Israeli twin cities.
Creating such a global space for religious tolerance would give humanity a breather for the normal process of cultural evolution to continue and for a post-religious spirituality to emerge. Organized religion with its sacred texts and priests could slowly lose its medieval character and its sanctification of violence to be replaced by a personal immersion in the Cosmic Mind through meditation at home—no more temples, churches, and mosques needed. Contemplative spirituality would then be as natural as breathing. In one form of respiration, we would take in the planetary atmosphere, in the other, the Cosmic Mind. If people need to socialize in groups, they can simply create new interest groups and not need to turn churches into social clubs. But, of course, the chances for such a cultural transformation with its planetary awareness and post-religious spirituality approach zero. Cultural evolution takes millennia and not decades.
As for nationalism, well, you watch TV and read the newspapers, so you know what is going on there as well as I do. Israel is about to have at it with Iran, and Michael Ledeen and the other Neocons that misled us into Iraq are cheering us on again, urging us to believe in Evil, see the new enemy, and get ready for a great big war again.
But now the bad guys are on all sides of every conflict, so there is no McCain “Victory” to be found in the Middle East and Central Asia. It looks much more likely that the U.S. is about to be overwhelmed by the emotional and economic costs of the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.
Since World War II and the founding of the UN, America has felt that it is omnipotent and can beat anybody and fix anything in the GI manner in which “the greatest generation” fixed world fascism in the forties and communism in the eighties.
I remember World War II and the death of my uncle on Omaha Beach, and I remember my Dad talking about his service in World War I, and my older brother talking about his time on the cruiser Los Angelesin the navy in the Korean War. I was the generation scheduled to fight in the Viet Nam War, had I not as a child already been a casualty of the open air testing of atomic bombs and had to have my thyroid removed. My nephew fought as a Marine in the Gulf War. Every generation in America has had a war to fight, because America cannot function without the economy of war and the psychology of an enemy. And now we have become very, very good at making enemies.
It will not be my generation that solves the problems I have enumerated, and it looks more likely that humans simply may not be wise and intelligent enough to solve their problems of planetary pollution, cultural conflicts, and personal problems like addiction. And I am enough of a Celtic Animist–or what Whitehead called a panpsychist–to believe that it may take the Elementals to clean up our mess in a rather elemental way, as once they did before when the volcanoes put an end to Snowball Earth with the out-gassing of the magma over the ice that created the oceans and the subsequent origins of cellular life.
To die on Earth is easy: just become a zealot; but if you want to live on Earth, then you need to think big. So this column of “Thinking Otherwise” has been an old man’s distancing of himself from the common mentality in a thinking outside of time, outside of the short cycles of political history in the longer cycles of cultural evolution.
Cultural change is rarely voluntary. Can you imagine a Church Council of the College of Cardinals coming together to create the scientific renaissance? It would be like the dinosaurs coming together to vote for a new age of mammals. And so it is that most transformations of cultural structures are characterized by a Dark Age transition in which a catastrophe shatters the crystallizations of the old order. The thirteenth century was a brilliant period of cultural renaissance, then came the Black Death and the Inquisition.
Whatever societal forms survive our environmental challenges, one will need to be a new vessel in which science and spirituality have been miniaturized; otherwise we will end up with only collapsed states and dark age war lords. For those few millions living in our secular scientific-artistic civilization, the dynamical systems of the new sciences of complexity teach us that initial conditions can precipitate a new cascade, and that our consciousness of the system is part of the system itself.
The feedback of consciousness on the system can influence its behavior and outcome. A complex dynamical system is completely unpredictable, so no Nostradamus, Edgar Cayce or Maya Calendar can predict how it all is going to turn out. The universe is not a machine programmed by God, and if the human species ever grows up to take mature membership through conscious participation in the Cosmic Mind, or what the Buddhists prefer to call Buddha Mind, and Sri Aurobindo called “the Mind of Light,” then what Whitehead described as novelty and the creative advance of the universe can become possibilities of enlightened surprise and delight.
But if we cannot create our destiny, then like the characters in a tragedy, who suffer a mindless doom only because they insist on holding to their impassioned mindlessness, our fate will descend upon us. It is the work of the artist, philosopher, and scientist of our new planetary culture to get us to snap out of it.
William Irwin Thompson (born July, 1938) is known primarily as a social philosopher and cultural critic, but he has also been writing and publishing poetry throughout his career and received the Oslo International Poetry Festival Award in 1986. He has made significant contributions to cultural history, social criticism, the philosophy of science, and the study of myth. He describes his writing and speaking style as “mind-jazz on ancient texts”. He is an astute reader of science, social science, history, and literature. He is the founder of the Lindisfarne Association.
His book, Still Travels: Three Long Poems was published in 2009 by Wild River Books. Order a copy from Amazon.
Works by William Irwin Thompson
Memoir – Farewell Address at the Lindisfarne Fellows Conference
Memoir – Pilgrimage to Lindisfarne: 1972
Memoir – The Founding of the Lindisfarne Association in New York, 1971-73 – Part I
Memoir – The Founding of the Lindisfarne Association in New York, 1971-73 – Part 2: A Community in Fishcove, Long Island
Memoir – Building a Dream – Part One: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – My Dinner with Andre Gregory: Lindisfarne-in-Manhattan, 1977-1979
Memoir – Building a Dream/The Shadow Side Part Two: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – Building a Dream/The Cathedral Part Three: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – Conclusion: The Economic Relevance of Lindisfarne
Memoir – Raising Evan and Hilary: Reflections of a Homeschooling Parent
Memoir – Sex and the Commune
Memoir – Raising Evan and Hilary
Memoir – With Gregory Bateson’s Mind in Nature
After Heart Surgery: Hokusai’s Great Wave
A Lazy Sunday Afternoon
Nancy Grayson’s Bookstore
On Reading “The Penguin Book of English Verse”: on my iPad and Exercise Bike
Wild River Books/Poetry – Nightwatch and Dayshift: Cezanne
Anatolian Days and Nights and the Cultural Evolution of Spirituality
And the Votes are In: The American Elections of 2010
Avatar – When Technology Displaces Culture
Bedtime Story for a Civilization
The Big Picture: Reflections on Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines
The Big Picture, II
Child Abuse and the Catholic Church
The Digital Economy of W. Brian Arthur
From Shamanism to Religion, Part Two
From Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality, Part Three
From Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality: Conclusion
January 1, 2011: Reflections on the Philosophical Notions of Republicans
January 6, 2011 – Part Two: The Etherealization of Capitalism
Nature and Invisible Environments
Of Culture and the Nature of Extinction
On Nuclear Power
On Religion – Part One
On Religion and Nationalism: Ireland, Israel, and Palestine
On Transnational Military Interventions
A Pagan Ur-Text of the Lebor Gebála Érenn
Part 1 – The Shift from Industrial to a Planetary Civilization
Part 2 – The Shift from an Industrial to Planetary Civilization
Part 3 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – The Recovery of a Cosmic Orientation
Part 4 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civlization – The Global War for Drugs
Part 5 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – The New Jerusalem
Part 6 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Catastrophes as the Spur to Institute Tricameral Legislature
Part 7 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Complex Dynamical Systems and Tricameral Legislatures
Part 8 – The Shift from a Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Israel and Palestine: Sic transit gloria mundi
Part 9 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civlization – On Sarah Palin and the Technocratic Society
Part 10 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – On Conspiracy Narratives as Expressive of the Transition from the Nation: State to the Noetic Polity
Part 11 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Global Awareness and Personal Identity
Part 12 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Conclusion: The United Nations
Political Meditation for the Fourth of July, 2011: Can We Shift from Empire Back to Republic?
St. David’s Day, 2011, Technology and Social Change
Saint Patrick’s Day, 2010: Us and Them: Identity and the State
Some Reflections on Hurricane Sandy and an Outline for a New Civilization
Technical Hubris: and the Sinkhole of Obama’s Centrism
Television and Social Class
Thanksgiving Day, 2010: The Uses and Abuses of History
The Elections of 2010
Thoughts on My new Kindle App: on My Mac iPad