Thursday, October 21, 2010

Some Things Left to Fight For: An Essay

Behold the hills of tomorrow/Behold the limitless sky/Fling wide the gates/To a world that waits/As our journey starts/Behold! Our hearts/Are high.” - - Stephen Sondheim, “The Hills of Tomorrow”, Merrily We Roll Along.

In the opening scene of Merrily We Roll Along – Stephen Sondheim’s fantastically flawed 1981 musical journeying the development of three prodigies from youthful optimism to the emptiness of midlife – Franklin Shepherd returns to his old high school twenty-five years after graduation, to deliver the keynote speech to the class of 1980. “We don’t have to wonder what happened to the world’s ideals any more,” he imparts cornily to the audience after the students’ performance of “The Hills of Tomorrow”, “This gang behind me has taken them all!”

The address now shifts in tone: “I can save you guys so much pain and hurt if I can make you understand today that life isn’t about doing the best; it’s about doing the best you can. A goal is something you aim for more than something you achieve. I’m thinking you better start by hearing the word “practical,” right here, right now, today.” We are to learn, as the musical moves backward through the lives of Frank, Charley and Mary, that he long ago surrendered his creative dreams in favour of the safety of financial security, and later wealth and opulence: “Every day I wake up singing/“Look at me I’m rich, and happy!””

As Frank tries to convince the class of the value of compromise, the pupils bite back: “Compromise? I haven’t even started!” Try as he might, he can’t crush the enthusiasm and expectation of youth. Fast-forward to our shared present though, and for this generation – in which I am a cog – it seems as though idealism is, if not flat-lining, certainly on life-support with bleak prospects. We, for the most part, seem to possess neither the will nor desire to gaze wistfully upon the hills of tomorrow, or appreciate and marvel at a notion of limitless skies or a blank canvas with its endless possibilities.

Our tawdry condition

Of Generation Y, the name given by demographers to those born between 1982 and 1995, it must be said that its members will, this autumn, likely be focused more on the outcome of The X Factor than the results of the impending midterm elections in the United States. The majority would rather check out who’s hot and who’s not on the pages of NOW and Grazia, as opposed to reading the freshest essays published in the New Statesman or The Spectator.  They are more likely to be able to name all the members of JLS than one of the G20.

We no longer read, and when we do, the subject matter is awfully ordinary and staid and the quality of writing appalling. In 1968, the author and polymath Gore Vidal sent shockwaves penetrating through society with the release of Myra Breckinridge, which questioned rigid concepts of sexuality and offered instead the notion of fluidity between the genders, imagining a world where men and women can “play out the most elaborate of dreams, where there will be no limits to the human spirit’s play.” Now, the best selling novels are a series of trashy, half-spun vampire stories that are merely vehicles for a stifling abstinence-only agenda, authored by a Mormon whose popularity is entirely disproportional to her literary abilities.

The situation only deteriorates when it comes to poetry or the theatre. On the latter, you only need to survey marquees in the West End – from the bland Jersey Boys to the insufferable Legally Blonde – to see before you the decline of our common culture. Politically, Generation Y are disengaged and voluntarily disenfranchised: they choose not to vote by and large, or they cross the box for a slushy, dull version of conservatism, going against their best interests.

In essence, it would be appear that our generation has entirely given up on the possibility that we can alter our surroundings, combat the orthodoxy and change the world for the better. We, along with society-at-large, have slipped into political senility and settled into a kind of banal, morose cultural daze. We inhabit a nightmarish world of meaningless days and dreamless nights, such is our tawdry condition.

The politics of compromise

The placidity of Generation Y is an unfortunate by-product of the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the grand ideological debate. With the consignment of the Soviet Union to the annals of history, and the grand sweep-up of tyranny in the East, evil was evicted from our common stoop and for the briefest of moments we were absent of enemy. In the aftermath, the perception arose that the major questions of our time had been settled, and deep philosophical inquiry was no longer necessary. The world we created after 1989 was perfect: it was to be our societal model until the end of days, and any desire to carry on striving for something better merely withered away.

We, Generation Y, have grown up and formed in this post-communistic, post-intellectual age, a world absent of foe and cause. As a result, most of the cohort has opted for a total catharsis from politics altogether, in favour of that suffocating cultural malaise. Those that stayed merely sort refuge from extremities or difficult choices, and curled up in the cuddly winter sweater that is the common ground.

It is this, the politics of compromise, which is killing the revolutionary spirit just as much as the more pervasive mantra ‘ignorance is bliss’. In pursuit of electability, politicians and their theoretical counterparts have abandoned presenting bold ideas to the public, fleeing the mountaintops in favour of campaigning in the marshy lowlands that lie in between.

The centre ground has become our political monoculture because the narrative it presents is more pleasant to digest: it is easier to concede than to clash. We are all the worse for it. “Conflict may be painful,” Christopher Hitchens writes in Letters to a Young Contrarian, “but the pursuit of the painless solution leads to the painful outcome of mindlessness and pointlessness; the apotheosis of the ostrich.”

Recapturing idealism

If our generation is to survive, make an impact and leave behind any sort of legacy whatsoever save a wholly negative one, we need to raise our heads out of the sand and rediscover and redefine idealism for the twenty-first century. Idealism needs to become something relatable to the present, not a notion confined to the misty watercolour memories of a handful of tired old 68ers. One of the reasons we are no longer attracted to any sort of radicalism is because the aging keepers of the flame are totally alien to us. We have no common language or connection with tousled hippies with flowers in their hair, Trotskyites in donkey jackets encircling the United States embassy, or unwashed anarchists smashing in branches of McDonalds.

Generation Y requires something altogether more relatable, modern and dignified. We must pay little deference to the past, though, like those peaceniks, we ought to strive for the betterment of humanity. But we must not repeat the mistakes of our forefathers. It is important therefore that we do not confuse our common noble effort to improve the personal condition, by wasting time imbibing ourselves with ideologies that aim for some state of perfection. Utopias, as Martin Amis correctly noted, are always living hells, preposterous and impossible to achieve. Indeed, the world has been scarred too often – too many mass graves dug, too few lives lived to their fullest – as a direct result of figures and groups, inspired by an idyll, goose-stepping down the same broken and twisted road, justifying their merciless means for some nirvanic end.

As such, we must look to distance ourselves from the outmoded ideologies of the twentieth century, pockets of which still survive on campuses the length and breadth of the country. This is said not only in reference to the right, in terms of fascism and neo-Nazism of course, but the left: communism and socialism are relics, and must be treated as such. Followers of the Manifesto are diminishing, and their numbers are so few that they now appear less like a political grouping than a cult, worshipping the ghosts and demons of fallen regimes and dead ideas. We shall not progress as a generation by surrendering to the thought patterns of our parents.

For us, idealism ought to mean something entirely different. As youth, we are at our best as the ultimate defenders of free thought and expression, the true keepers of the flame of liberty. Previous generations believed that improving the human condition meant seeking to impose near-tyrannical modes of political operation upon millions of people, whether they sort it or not and whatever the cost, since the arrival at utopia would cancel out the crimes committed to get there.

Generation Y, on the other hand, must strive to defend liberty in all corners of the world, as to unchain and alleviate people from the dictators and despots our forebears supported in solidarity with their ridiculous notions of what was good, or rather necessary. No longer can there be such a thing as a ‘good tyrant’, not another Pinochet or Reza Shah, Nasser or Arafat. If we can do this, if we together carry the banner of liberty and freedom, then we will quickly uncover that there are causes worth taking on and enemies in the midst.

Outposts of tyranny

The fag-end of Generation X failed its last major political test, in deciding en masse to coalesce around the genocidal, megalomaniacal clansman and one-time President of Iraq Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti, in opposing the work of the humanitarian coalition seeking to topple him and install a democratic regime in the Middle East. Their defences of this dictator were pitifully weak even when were trying their hardest: they revelled in his supposed secularism, ignoring the fact that the words “Allahu akhar” were written on the national flag in his own handwriting; they praised his ability to keep the country together, even though he only achieved this by slaughtering thousands of his fellow countrymen.

George W. Bush was perhaps one of the worst United States presidents of the post-Roosevelt era, but on the concept of freedom at least he was consistent to his country’s values. The “Axis of Evil” speech was misleading, in that it implied that Saddam Hussein, the Ayatollah Khamenei and Kim Jong-il were somehow in cahoots in the fashion of the Legion of Doom, though it was right to shame these leaders, in identifying their regimes as being so cruel and domineering of its people that they warrant staunch opposition.

Thanks to the interventionist actions of the Bush administration, two of the world’s most abhorrent governments have been removed – in Iraq and Afghanistan – though only the passage of time will show whether democratic values can entrench themselves in these societies, demonstrating that such tough action and great loss of life was truly necessary. As a generation, we can best console ourselves, safe in the knowledge that we never did anything to undermine the efforts of Iraqis and Afghanis to construct a healthier and happier existence for themselves.

Condoleezza Rice, in a speech in 2005, identified in addition to North Korea, Iran and Syria, four more nations as being overtly authoritarian and dictatorial: Belarus, Burma, Cuba and Zimbabwe. This list is by no means extensive, for it does not broaden its remit to include Mideastern madmen like Colonel Gaddafi, and the number of communistic regimes – or modern slave states – that cling on for dear life as the world turns at a faster pace than they can keep up with.

Our primary duty, being in receipt of freedom, is to shine the light of liberty to these blackest corners of the world, where governments have extinguished even the dimmest embers. We must speak out in any forum, campaign with solidarity groups, and aid and assist fledging democratic dissident movements. Our goal must be to realise a world were citizens from Habana to Pyongyang through Tehran can live rather than just survive, where they no longer fear the sound of a short, sharp rat-a-tat-tat on the front door, and can sleep serenely knowing that when they stir in the morning, the person lying next to them will still be by their side.

An inclusive secularism

Yet tyranny does not always appear as a black moustachioed face gazing down from every street corner (though, since totalitarianism is a cliché, it does more often than not). If we are to fight against oppression as a whole, ensuring that all people are free to act and think as they choose, then it would foolish to focus purely on noticeably oppressive strongmen and one-party states, ignoring the tyranny of religion.

The battle lines being etched out here are not atheism against faith, or belief versus disbelief. This is purely a matter of free thought and expression, and thus we should be looking to defend not only freedom of religion but from religion: away from those ghouls who seek to impose their values upon other people. “You have nothing to fear from me,” Julian the Apostate tells bishops in the fictionalised account of his life by Gore Vidal, “if you behave with propriety and obey the civil laws and conduct your disputes without resorting, as you have in past, to fire and the knife.”

The model for religious freedom and tolerance comes from the United States, not only from the First Amendment which specifies the separation of church and state, but from the writings of Thomas Jefferson. As the author of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Bill on Religious Freedom, he stated that “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

When religion and state converge, freedom will invariably suffer. It is a fatal symbiosis, and in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran where religion is the state, the concoction is even more entrenched and noxious. Thanks to the marriage of convenience that brought Houses of al-Saud and al-Wahhab to power, the Saudi people live out each day under the constant gaze of the mutaween, who have the authority to arrest unrelated men and women caught socialising in public spaces. In Iran, the return of the senile spectre Ayatollah Khomeini from banishment stabbed the true revolution in the womb, driving thousands of Persians into exile and consigning those who stayed to years of misery, war and strife.

Many have died in these theocracies, at the hand of clerical authority. Take the case of the fifteen schoolgirls who died in a blaze in Mecca: the mutaween would not let them flee the burning building, as they were not wearing the correct Islamic dress. Or, perhaps examine the fate of Sakineh Ashtiani, who now waits in limbo with a sentence of stoning for the crime of adultery looming over her. Generation Y, as part of the struggle for the protection of liberty, must seek to take the fight to these holy (or rather, unholy) autarkies, for the sake of religious freedom itself.

On the home front too, there is work to be done, for we cannot have true freedom of religion, and a just separation of church and state in the Jeffersonian tradition, whilst the Church of England exists as an organ of the state, and bishops sit in the House of Lords. It is a peculiar anachronism of a medieval religious conflict that the government of the United Kingdom continues to endorse an official state church, with the monarch as its head. Even as public opinion has evolved to the point of areligiosity, the Church continues to wield a grossly disproportionate influence over the business of the state. The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams still has the ear of authority, even as he continues to spout bile regarding the adoption of Shari’a law as “unavoidable”. We must seek to correct this gross imbalance, and embrace an inclusive secularism.

Answering the question of our time

Of all the unresolved matters and unanswered questions that plague global development – and prospects for some version of peace, stability and economic cooperation – by far the most pressing is how to find a just resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Peace in the Middle East has eluded generations of politicians, philosophers and protesters, in spite of the significant yet incremental steps made, in the form of concordances between Israel and her neighbours.

We have to be the first generation to divorce ourselves from the sorts of toxic ideologies that tied people so dogmatically to one side or another, in particular those who associated socialism and international leftism with supporting the Palestinian cause at all costs – to the point of justifying terrorism, and the demagogic rule of Yasser Arafat, the man who single-handedly stopped the last decent negotiations in their tracks. “[Barak] had taken great risks to win a more secure future for Israel”, President Clinton wrote in his memoir in reference to the Camp David negotiations, “Arafat’s rejection of my proposal after Barak accepted it was an error of historical proportions.”

Nor though, must we swing too far the other way, and make excuses for the sorts of superstitious and dangerous ultra-Orthodox Jews who are building settlements on the West Bank as to bring on the Messiah and rid Eretz Yisrael of heretical influences. Instead, we must come to the realisation that if there is to be peace in the Holy Land, then two peoples in one land must have two states. There must be a State of Israel alongside a Palestinian nation, cooperating economically and tolerating each other religiously.

The landscape of Israel today would be unrecognisable to our forebears. The hills of Jerusalem are a little more scarred, as a Security Barrier deemed necessary by the Knesset tears its way through Judea and Samaria. The Second Intifada begun by Arafat has entrenched suspicion and hatred between Israelis and Palestinians, still felt today via a succession of tit-for-tat reprisals that are costing both Jewish and Muslim lives. We are slowly approaching a tipping point, whereby any further delay in coming to a resolution and making a peace would make the current stalemate near irreversible, raising the prospect of another war.

The last United States administration, for all its aforementioned flaws, was the first to, while maintaining an unwavering alliance with the State of Israel, explicitly recognise the viability of the two-state solution – the only solution – in using for the first time the term ‘Palestinian state’. It would be foolish to let this small victory go unnoticed. Generation Y must pursue peace in the Middle East by supporting an equalised two-state solution, campaigning free from orthodox ideological biases.

Conclusion

Having followed Frank’s journey back to its humbler beginnings, we find him, Charley and Mary on the rooftop of their apartment. The year is 1957, and they waiting expectantly for a glimpse of Sputnik. There together, admiring the wonder of man’s achievements, Frank sings: “Feel how it quivers/on the brink…” “What?” asks Charley. “Everything!” he replies, “It’s our time/breathe it in/worlds to change and worlds to win/our turn coming through/me and you, pal/me and you.” Set within the plot of Merrily We Roll Along, these lyrics take on greater resonance, becoming all the more heartbreaking; the audience having already seen the husk of a man Frank later becomes. Out of context however, the song “Our Time” is an uplifting ballad about limitless skies and endless possibilities; the hills of tomorrow.

Now back at the start, as valedictorian of the class of 1955, Frank acknowledges his commencement address the debt of gratitude he owes to all his classmates, and humbly imparts in this ‘simply yet mighty thought’: “It is the obligation we have been given; it is not to turn out the same. It is to grow, to accomplish, to change the world.” Indeed, it is the responsibility of our generation to recapture that idealism which we have lost, and reinventing it to suit us and our time, an idealism of liberty, freedom and democracy, in order to accomplish the ultimate goal of freeing all men from forms of servitude and serfdom.

Do not let anybody tell you that everything has already been decided, that what we have is satisfactory, and that what we see and experience as our present will inevitability be our future too. We can be a great, if not greater generation, than the ones that preceded us. Yet we must not wallow, as we do now, in a state of perpetual ambivalence to the struggles going on around us. Generation Y, take heed – there are still some things left to fight for.