Bryan Mukandi
Bryan Mukandi

Libya and the gods

Where to begin on the mess that is unfolding in Libya?

In the words of my friend from the East End of London, “Will the West never learn?” The shortsightedness — no, the self-righteous blindness — the arrogance, and the goldfish-like forgetfulness of lessons from the recent past are staggering. It all boils down to one thing: “We killed God”, and now, “must we not ourselves become gods?”

To quote from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science at some length: “Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: ‘I am looking for God! I am looking for God!’
As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. Have you lost him, then? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? Or emigrated? Thus they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances.

‘Where has God gone?’ he cried. ‘I shall tell you. We have killed him — you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us — for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.’

Here the madman fell silent and again regarded his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke and went out. ‘I have come too early,’ he said then; ‘my time has not come yet. The tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling — it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the distant stars — and yet they have done it themselves.’

It has been further related that on that same day the madman entered diverse churches and there sang a requiem. Led out and quietened, he is said to have retorted each time: ‘what are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?'”

Nietzsche’s point here is not that God himself is dead, but rather that the place once held by God in the Western mindset; the authority once granted to the Christian tradition is no more. The Enlightenment was about replacing the authority of religion and tradition with man’s own reason. Hence, having “killed God”, having repudiated religion’s hold on society’s thinking and moral judgement, society itself had to fill the void that was left. “Reason”, it was decided, was a sufficient means with which to plug that gap. So for Hegel, to give one example, reason becomes apparent through the interactions of members of society. It is revealed as we engage with each other, challenging and refining each other’s views. In short, “we … ourselves become gods” in that it is we who determine what is right or wrong; what the world ought to look like; its purpose; its nature; and our role in it.

That’s where things like the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect” come from. So too Barack Obama’s “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for”, echoed in the Western media’s refrain: “we couldn’t just sit there and allow thousands to be massacred”. These ideas only make sense behind the backdrop of the view that we have a degree of control most religions and traditions are adamant we do not. Anyone who buys into the idea that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein”, or that what happens on earth is ultimately beyond the control of man, will think differently. If when all is said and done, world events are dictated by the will of God, or at the very least are subject to it; if humanity’s power to shape events is limited, we can’t possibly be the solution to the strife in Libya. We can only have the power to mould the world into our image of what it should be if we take ourselves to be gods.

It is with the supposed omniscience and omnipotence of gods that the leaders of the US, Britain and France have decided to intervene in this affair. There is plenty of evidence to support the allegation that Muammar Gaddafi is unhinged. But does the world beyond the region really understand what was happening in Libya? Do we understand the motivations of all the political actors beyond the simplistic good guys/bad guys; pro-democracy/authoritarian; revolutionary hero/Hitlerite dichotomies that Hollywood and Hollywood-esque journalism have schooled us into adopting? What about the consequences of this meddling? What about the way in which Western intervention has, and will continue to taint genuine protest in the Arab world with the whiff of puppetry? Or the way Libya has now sucked the oxygen from everything else happening in the region by diverting attention from a genuinely unprecedented set of events? The wave of protests that started in Tunisia was not planned for or instigated by the West. Iraq was, and look how that turned out. One could have as easily made the “Responsibility to Protect” argument against the Saddam Hussein regime, but the results would almost certainly have been the same.

I’m not saying that the lives of people in Benghazi are unimportant. Nor am I suggesting that it is wrong to care about human life or to have the desire to see it preserved. To love another, to care about the welfare of strangers, is praiseworthy. Yet there are times when we must wake up and realise that easy as it is to believe at times, we are not gods. Neither Obama, nor the United States of America, nor you, nor I can save the world. Sometimes we can give money. Sometimes we can demand reform from our leaders. Other times, all we can do is be grateful for our relative freedoms and privileges, appreciate the lot of those not so privileged, and try to make sense of the disparity.

Nietzsche’s madman was mostly right. What indeed “are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres”, not of “God”, but of we, the new gods? The largest and most powerful “churches” in the liberal secular West are the large economic and political institutions. Governments, bodies like Nato, the World Bank, Fox News and The New York Times, and of course, that all-powerful entity, that supposed repository of our collective wisdom, “the market”. It is these “churches” that are tombs, though we perceive it not. They represent the end that must befall our attempt at divinity. Even with the best of intentions, our attempt to recreate the world can only lead to destruction.

Alas, I fear that I have come too early … my time has not come yet. The tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling — it has not yet reached the ears of men … deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard.

  • Stephen Browne

    Enjoyed the read, thanks. I thought it a good analysis of why people want to believe in god, though the politics remain as murky as ever. One simply hopes that conflicting greed is somehow balanced out.

  • Haiwa Tigere

    With all due respects you seem like a man who likes the sound of his own voice.
    For heavens sake man make your point and leave madmen and the like out of it.One has to squeeze just to get a whiff of what you mean.

  • citoyen

    Bryan, you make a fundamental point.

    The West is ‘playing god’ here – intervening into the affairs of a sovereign nation. The West’s interests are on the agenda here – oil, profits, and geo-politics – but their real agenda is sold to the world as ‘humanitarian’ intervention.

    [The no-fly zone which the West ran in Iraq for 12 years BEFORE their 2003 invasion was also ‘humanitarian’ – hundreds of thousands died there, though it was ignored by the media]

    The hypocrisy reveals the West is playing a double game.

    If the West is so filled with sympathy for citizens of Benghazi – why does it not have the same compassion for the citizens of Bahrain, Saudi and Palestine – who are bombed and sprayed with nerve/tear gas? Why has no no-fly-zone been declared in Gaza, Bahrain or Yemen?

    US helicopters and arms are used by forces there to harm civilians.

    The difference is that the Yemeni and Bahrain dictators are ‘American friends’ so they can hurt their people with impunity.

    The US supports Israel’s illegal occupation of Gaza, so they turn a blind eye to Israeli jets flying and bombing there and you didn’t read about that in the corporate (US friendly) media.

    Back in 1996, the US put a document out called A New American Century. General Wesley Clarke explained the US wanted to ‘take out’ Sudan, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Libya etc. All these countries have gas and oil, resources the US wants to keep a hand on.

  • africa lover

    It is not that the West does not learn. They have understood very well that huge military superiority and the unilateral world allow a type of intervention in world affairs that brings us back to the 19th century and avowed domination. Even then the West claimed to save the natives from themselves, their barbaric leaders and their savage (read unchristian) traditions.
    The main agenda here is clear – like it was in Irak – : ensure control over a major oil producer. A multiparty system is much easier to manipulate than a nationalist regime and even more so if they divide Libya into 2 countries, which might be an outcome of the intervention. The Sarkozy government adds its own petty aims, to revamp his tired regime with a supposedly swift military adventure and in the same time probably burry under tons of bombs its own shameful compromises with the dictator (hence his calls for his murder). The most likely result might well be to reunite many Libians around Gueddafi or at least to deprive the rebels of much legitimacy. It could also draw part of Arab opinion behind him.
    At least let us be aware of what is happening and not buy in the propaganda.

  • Judy McKune

    fabulous quote and why do politicians have the position, we give to them, – all we need are insiteful people who learn from history and to keep looking for truth.
    strangely, before I read your piece I read the following:-
    Thought For Today [[email protected]]
    Response Able
    We now know that the true meaning of responsibility is response able or ability to respond. Whatever we may think, say, do, or feel – these are our responses for which we, and no one else, are responsible. This is easy to see but hard to live, for we have been taught to believe and think the opposite. So we don’t consciously choose our response, we react instead, and then we blame others for our reaction. No wonder we feel imprisoned by others and our circumstances. The enlightened, on the other hand, have broken the spell, they see the illusion. They take full responsibility for their response abilities and as a consequence, they always hold their own destiny in their own hands. They are free spirits.

  • Lenny Appadoo

    What is your point Bryan? That it’s arrogant of man to make decisions best left to the fairy in the sky?

    I did not see any sky fairies rushing to help the helpless people of Libya being mowed down by their own madman of a President!!!

  • JvM

    You’re saying we should do nothing and be grateful we’re not Libyans? With that narrow mindset, SA would still be suffering under apartheid today. Defenceless people are being murdered, on this continent. I don’t care if they believe in a fairy tale god or not. If you just want to close your eyes and pray, you’re ignorant.

  • Balt Verhagen

    Ooh wow, Bryan. That is a most erudite ramble through Nietsche. And beautifully and meticulously quoted. So now you have convinced us – at germanic length: God has been assassinated by the West, that arrogantly refuses to see your truth that “ events are dictated by the will of God, or at the very least are subject to it; if humanity’s power to shape events is limited, we can’t possibly be the solution to the strife in Libya”.

    How fortunate that “we”, with our dead god, realised (as in the case of Libya, belatedly) world events in 1939 could not possibly be put down to “God’s will” but declared war on Adolf Hitler. The result was an infinitely greater mess and slaughter than is now threatening around Benghazi and Tripoli, but may I be so presumptuous to ask whether you disagree with the decision taken in 1939? That the situation demanded more than moral support for the countries and peoples brutally subjugated and some money for the resistance movements?

    Surely, the protests against Gaddafi were inspired by what was happening in the Maghreb and Middle East and applauded and encouraged by the West and much of the rest of the world as those in Egypt were. Perhaps predictably, they were met by singular brutality by Gaddafi. Can this be even remotely be accepted as “God’s will”?

    Can those – be they god-less or God-fearing – who encouraged those who revolt against corrupt regimes stand idly by?

  • MLH

    Loved this!
    Now please, Bryan, explain the Crusades, the Inquisition and other religious wars with a similar anecdotal tale.

  • Judith

    How accurate and how poignant – thank you for this posting which truly made me think. Action against Gadaffi affects all Libyans and currently is solving no problems. It is a centuries old question around how a dictator is brought down and how healing takes place. To date, the problem has had no solution, but, just possibly, our minds are focusing on looking for the solution as we have greater communication, which is faster and more inclusive than ever before. These electronic debating chambers may be where we find the solutions!

  • Belle

    Frankly the ‘West’ is damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

    The Libyan rebels begged help from the UN/US/Europe. When your neighbour’s wife begs for help from an abusive husband do you tell her ‘sorry, Im not god so I can’t help’?

  • evoTapiwa

    @ Tigere

    You are right Haiwa. The point is simple – he is trying to say the West must stop trying to play God. But he is saying it in the most confusing way.

    Further, they are not playing God.

    Why is it that we only throw stones at the West sitting in our air-conditioned homes/offices?

    There could be a Western intrset true but there is clearly or are clearly bigger problems with these disctictirs – they have mastered how to coin their cause around justifiable cause – Mugabe, Saddam, and a fwe in Europe.

    The soverign arguement makes me sick.

    Please live it alone and encourage the dictators to start listening to their people plights.

  • Benzol

    @MLH: “explain the Crusades, the Inquisition and other religious wars with a similar anecdotal tale.”

    In another response I stated that wars (armed conflicts)are all routed in “economics” or “imbalances of available resources”.
    The Crusades were about trade routes, religion was the motivation to get the hordes going.

    Try to find the economic unbalances behind any religion based war and you might find that the religion was only the motivating factor to secure participation of the hordes.

  • http://aol fergie

    For those who don’t know about the writing of Nietzxche,he believes that the world was made up of two forces the strong and weak. When these forces meet they create what one call conflicts. Hitler used this thinking to justify going to war to take over the the weak countries. The people in Japan used this thinking to attack China. Many people used this thinking to justify the treatment of blacks as being weak people deserved to be treated in an inferior manner. However, Nietzsche went insane and was walking in the streets eating out of the trash cans in Europe. A good example of the strong and weak forces in the world was “A street Car Name Desire” Blanche was the weak force and Stanley strong force in this play. Tennessee Williams was a great Nietzsche fan and most of his works were based on Nietzsche’s thinking.

  • Deon

    What utter twaddle. You spend half your piece quoting a madman who, in any other lifetime, would be kept stoked on Prozac to the gills. God never does anything. It’s up to us to fix our own mess.

  • Elder Gutknecht

    the west will not learn because it doesn’t want to. to learn from it’s mistakes means acknowledging that mistakes were made and the west can’t do that (see tony blair for an example). Helping those in need (like defenceless peoples attacked by their own government) is to be applauded, it’s how you help that i take issue with. Violence or arming the defenceless, is not the way. helping the defenceless turn their countries into western clones isn’t either. the west assuming that ‘it’ has all the answers and the best way to live is arrogant nonsense – the current economic crisis bears witness to that.
    the west interferes when it suits it’s political aims, dressing it up as humanitarian concern, with the one aim of ‘converting’ as many countries as possible to it’s idealogy – money and power rule. i’m not clever enough to have the answers but i am awake enough to see that what the west does isn’t the answer.
    if deon is right and God never does anything then we are all in big trouble, history shows we can’t fix our own mess – we just lurch from one mess to the next. fortunately it also shows God does act – but as He doesn’t do it the way the west thinks He should, it’s ignored or ridiculed or missed

  • Pleb

    No more of a mess than the rest of Africa !

  • X Cepting

    “Sometimes we can give money. Sometimes we can demand reform from our leaders. Other times, all we can do is be grateful for our relative freedoms and privileges, appreciate the lot of those not so privileged, and try to make sense of the disparity. ”

    – That, is precisely the problem in Africa. A disempowered, disenfranchised mentality that leaves the average African with little option but head-shaking at the actions of the well/ill-meaning West that, granted, should not be involved in any problem solving in Africa. The real problem being that politics, as with most other systems abhors a vacuum and if there is the chance of access to resources the vacuum sucks harder. You cannot really blame The West for this. Rather blame the inability/unwillingness to act of the average African in sorting out their own injustices. Very few people would be able to watch their neighbours commit attrocites daily without eventually doing something about it.

    – “Humanity” achieves very little, if anything, ever, it is individuals that achieve. Individuals who find themselves “the man on the spot” (what I think Obama meant), not necessarily perceiving themself to be gods, as seems to be the case with many African dictators, wielding their perceived power over life and death gaily and with abandon.

    – Nietzsche, someone once aptly said, was a narcissistic idiot and in love with his sister. God-mentality, No?

  • X Cepting

    Ask yourself: Who helped The West to become this powerful? Who gave them aid, taught them technology, designed their weapons? Why should they share?