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.