Searching for a Global Master or Meta-Narrative
by Julia Evergreen Keefer

a remembrance essay

In the spring of 2002 as the world turns once again to the corrosive, unholy hatreds seething in the Middle East cauldron of cultural conflicts, we can continue to analyze the relative truths of diverse cultures in the spirit of post-structuralist and postmodern thought, or we can search for a master or meta-narrative that articulates a morality all nations could respect. The dialectic of universal versus relative truth is a debate that philosophers and politicians have waged since ancient times. Whenever we go too far in the universal direction, we get totalitarianism, suffocating empires, or intolerant monotheistic regimes; whenever we keep saying, "it depends," we find ourselves drowning in the flux of fractured selves and a slippery evasion of all that is deemed good, true and beautiful by the human species at large. Reconstruction versus deconstruction, globalism versus multiculturalism, McWorld versus Jihad, are all imperfect ways of defining these dichotomies. Classical Aristotelian logic is pitted against the relative methodology of Stephen Toulmin, the symbolic logic of George Boole, and the logic embedded in the Arab or Asian and Slavic rhetoric, as the case may be.

President George W. Bush's war on terrorism, inspired by the terrorist attacks of September 11 in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, expresses a clear disjunctive syllogism, in an attempt to gain support global support for his agenda: "You are either with the terrorists or with us. You are not with us. Therefore you must be with the terrorists." A conditional enthymeme then follows: "Because the US has declared war on terror, anyone who is with the terrorists, either by harboring terrorists or by direct conspiracy, is guilty of terrorism and therefore subject to attack by the US, the world's foremost military power." This enthymeme contains the threat of complete annihilation of guilty parties, a claim of policy that would in itself, instill fear in many.

There are two main problems related to this syllogistic thinking: one is that deduction works best when the world does not and cannot change, so that a moral truth clearly stated would then be true under all circumstances, a diifficult condition for our ever-changing globe, and two that the either/or proposition makes it difficult to negotiate with those who are "with the terrorists and with us," such as Yasser Arafat, or those whose apathy or ignorance causes them to avoid the inclusion altogether.

The situation became extremely ambiguous when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sought to apply the disjunctive syllogism to Israel's war on terror. In his address to Israel's parliament on April 9, 2002, he stated:

"Israel is proud of its friendship with the United States and of America's leadership in the moral and historic political-military struggle against the forces of evil which have risen up against the civilized nations. Since that deadly attack in September, the partnership between Israelis and Americans has, unfortunately, become a 'partnership of blood' between victims of terror. We are partners to the principles set forth by President Bush in his most recent speech, and I quote: 'Terror must be stopped. No nation can negotiate with terrorists. For there is no way to make peace with those whose only goal is death.'"

With these words, Sharon continued his assault on Palestinian refugee camps, the fiery standoff at the Church of the Nativity, and the occupation of Palestinian areas in an attempt to crush the terrrorist infrastructure of Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aksa Brigades, while international media filmed the death and destruction, fomenting anti-Israeli demonstations all over the world, in America and Europe as well as the Arab countries. What went wrong? Why can't this syllogism be applied deductively to all places around the world? This analogy only works if one ignores the 1) rhetoric, 2) interpersonal, often unconscious power struggles, 3) time/space constraints, 4) transcendental philosophies, 5)economic needs, and 6) the biological craving for the catharsis, conspiracy, camaraderie and competition of war and violence.

It is relatively easy to translate one language into another, but difficult to translate its rhetoric, for meaning is connotative as well as denotative. Everyone defines terrorist a different way. Preceding Bush's claims of fact and policy, is of course, a claim of value, namely that terrorism is bad. Terrorism is generally defined in Western countries as planned attacks of violence or terror against civilians by illegitimate combatants (not belonging to a recognized state) for political, social, philosophical or religious ends. But as we are seeing, many governments use terrorists the way Americans use the CIA-- for covert operations, intelligence, and other activities. "Terrorists" argue that they are freedom fighters, defending a just cause, or even "martyrs," deserving of the greatest national respect and a place in Heaven beside Allah, virgins, rubies, grapes and melon. Bin Laden said in his many tapes to Al Jazeera after 9/11: "There are good terrorists and bad terrorists. Bush and Blair are the bad ones; we are the good ones, fighting to free our lands from oppression by the non-Muslim infidels."Consequently many Arabs define terrorism as any violence, intentional or unintentional, against civilians, by legitimate or illegitimate governments, individuals or groups. From these definitions, it seems that almost anyone could be called a terrorist, under the right circumstances, and that at times these terrorists are considered martyrs.

Even if we agree on a definition of terrorism, we must then decide whether a suicide bomber is a martyr or a murderer. Therefore there is much controversy over this value claim, deciding who is a terrorist and then whether or not it is a bad thing. Many Arab countries, in fact, do not condemn suicide bombings against civilians, reasoning that it is the only way to fight a superpower or its ally, whose military strength overshadows that of any other nation in the world. Yasser Arafat's wife has endorsed homicide/suicide bombers as have the Saudi ambassador to Britain, Ghazi Algosaibi, and Imams in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. For a few months, Bush's attempt at deductive reasoning worked as America gained support from Europeans and moderate Arabs to plow into Afghanistan to destroy the Al-Qaeda network and free the Afghans from the "oppressive" Taliban rule. In his speech on April 4, 2002, Bush said:

"When an 18-year-old Palestinian girl is induced to blow herself up and in the process kills a 17-year-old Israeli girl, the future itself is dying, the future of the Palestinian people and the future of the Israeli people." By choosing such an egregious example, he hopes to rally the world to agree with his value claim about suicide bombing, but Algosaibi, the Saudi ambassador, wrote in a poem for this female bomber: "Tell Ayat, the bride of loftiness...She embraced death with a smile while the leaders are running away from death. Doors of heaven are opened for her." So while Bush says that the secular future is dying because of this act, some of the Arabs are saying that they will have a better future in paradise. There is a very dangerous difference in our approaches to life and death.

Bush warns that "All states must keep their promise, made in a vote in the United Nations, to actively oppose terror in all its forms. No nation can pick and choose its terrorist friends. I call on the Palestinian Authority and all governments in the region to do everything in their power to stop terrorist activities, to disrupt terrorist financing and to stop inciting violence by glorifying terror in state-owned media or telling suicide bombers they are martyrs. They are not martyrs, they are murderers. And they undermine the cause of the Palestinian people. Those governments like Iraq that reward parents for the sacrifice of their children are guilty of soliciting murder of the worst kind."(4/4/02) Bush then decided that suicide bombers should be renamed homicide bombers in order to condemn them unequivocally.

Saddam Hussein told his people to send their teenage girls to volunteer for suicide bombings because in essence, as "girls," they are worth more dead than alive. Because Saddam is intrinsically bad, according to Western leaders, he must be taken out as soon as possible, and Bush, the leader of the free world, is the one to do it. And the war on terror marches on, with or without multilateral consensus. Bush is more concerned with the clarity, consistency and "morality" of his foreign policy than with any attempts to please, placate or persuade in order to improve his image or prestige. Image was a priority in the eighties and nineties: it is now time for America to show moral leadership, to transcend the narcissism of much twentieth century politics. A great idea, but can it work?

Rhetoric deals with how one uses language for power. Ideal American political rhetoric is clear, concise, expository language which constructs, analyzes and refutes claims based on a heritage of logic from the Greeks, Romans, European Enlightenment, British traditions and the political oratory of American forefathers. It is often simplistic, expressing clear binary problems and directives, relying on extensive debate to finally arrive at a consensual truth. In contrast, Arabic leaders, who often rule over religious, political, poetic, military and economic domains simultaneously, lace poetry and dreams into their political rhetoric in a repetitive, recursive fashion. The Arabic language reads from left to right and therefore has a complete different direction, literally as well as figuratively. Bin Laden fancied himself as poetic warrior and we see how he appropriates the words of poet Dr. Abd-ar-Rahman al-Ashmawi as he inculcates followers with his message in a document found in an abandoned house in Kabul by American servicemen.

Bin Laden's poetic collage is a lament of a child who has left Palestine: "Father, where is the way out {of all our troubles}? When are we to have a settled home?" The answer to this question comes quickly: "Is it because America has come manipulating funds and media?" Osama's child also has his ethical dilemmas: "What can I utter to a world bereft of physical and moral vision, where nations are bought and sold in an inflationary and speculative trade?" The child came to Kabul to seek refuge, but then the Americans arrived: "Why, father, have they sent these missiles, thick as rain, showing mercy neither to a child nor to a man shattered by old age?" Osama describes his men as victims of terror: "Here are we, {locked in tragedy}: All safety gone-- it does not show itself. It is a world of criminality, my son, Where children are, like cattle, slaughtered. Zion is murdering my brothers, and the Arabs hold a congress! They are America's henchmen, blinded and devoid of vision." He then shifts the blame to the despotic monarchists of the powerful Arab countries and laments the fact that there is no army to serve the people, which was his goal in the Afghanistan training camps. Osama eludes to the kind of martyrdom he wants from his followers when he writes: "It is eternity that awaits us if God should will us to prevail."

Osama's objective was to recreate the Caliphate as the future global community, the era of Islam's ascendancy after Muhammad's death in the seventh century, through an apocalypse of Western culture and a jihad bringing all devout Muslims together. Here is a people who recite the Koran every day while criticizing American rhetoric, a combination of commerical soundbytes and conflicting claims. Both cultures have their own form of cultural hypnosis that one must cut through to discover a kind of truth valuable and useful to all. Osama is a victim as well as a perpetrator of cultural hypnosis, as are many adherents to the jingles and jangles of McWorld. Fortunately there are more enlightened proponents of all cultures, but Osama's forthrightness makes it easier to understand the duplicity of leaders like Yasser Arafat who conforms to Western rhetoric and agenda in English while switching to martyrdom talk and nationalistic propaganda and promises in Arabic, something many leaders do. So how do we impose a meta-narrative on that postmodern self, the man of many faces? Which is the real claim? What does the leader really believe? Human behavior has always been compounded by lies and delusions so that ambiguous rhetoric across cultures and flowery, obsequious diplomacy offer wonderful places to hide.

Freud might say that much of the anti-American hatred and jealousy around the world stems from a misplaced Oedipal transfer, the ever-present human need to rebel against and eventually displace dear old Dad. Bush, with his stern, paternalistic tone, is the ideal global father that rebellious young sons love to fight. In his speeches, he often seems to be scolding wayward children in an effort to return them to his universal fold. Certainly Osama, as one of fifty something children, must have had his own psychoanalytic issues with interpersonal power struggles. Perhaps his seething hatred for America is in part a transferential relationship. Perhaps the violent flag-burning anti-American demonstrations by young Muslims around the world are a way of sublimating the protest they might prefer to make against their own leaders, their own evil fathers.

There are healthier ways to sublimate these natural oedipal tendencies, to empower young people with more constructive outlets, and to give them a voice for something besides recitations of the Koran and cries against oppressors. However, these psychoanalytic needs must be addressed at their libidinal, irrational level as well as on the sociopolitical plane. The road to peace must embrace the dark wars of the unconscious as well as conscious mind.

Peace between nations or tribes requires some ability to forget and forgive or let go of the past so that the rancorous hatred of revenge and retaliation halts its vicious cycle. But different cultures have a different sense of time, based in part on their history, in part on their sense of space or geography. The deserts of the Middle East have an intimate relationship with the position of the sun which helped create a different calendar or sense of time from Western countries. Time and space have eternal qualities; memory is longer and deeper. Never have I felt the sense of eternity I did amidst the Egyptian pyramids where time stands still buried in the past, impervious to the whimsy and chaos of the seasons. Already in Manhattan in the spring of 2002, many New Yorkers are eager to forget about 9/11, get on with their lives, and avoid the ground zero site altogether. It may not be so easy to do what Bush says:

"We've seen fierce enemies let go of long histories of strife and anger. America counts former adversaries as trusted friends--Germany and Japan and now Russia. Conflict is not inevitable, Distrust need not be permanent. Peace is possible when we break free of old patterns and habits of hatred."(4/4/02)

For many peoples, their existence is their history, their land, their memory, and because the sand erases memory so easily, it behooves desert people to remember, in the tombs, the pyramids, traditions of mummification, rituals, holy sites, and yes, the give and take of war and violence. Yes, Israelis are threatened daily with unpredictable attacks by suicide/homicide bombers who destroy civilians, but Arabs claim this is in retaliation for Israeli occupation of its homeland, and the cruelty and insenitivity of this occupation that actually has killed more Arab civilians than the "martyrs" have killed Israelis. In this case, the occupations and the "terrorist" attacks occur simultaneously, so both parties are deemed guilty by the world community. But many Arabs reason that terrorist attacks against America are in retaliation for past aggression in many parts of the world, for support of Israel, and for American hegemony in all spheres of cultural and economic life. They are fighting against their corrupt leaders and even though not part of a nation now, they feel they are the future. Bin Laden dreamt of a pan-Islamic world of the future. He and his cohorts dreamt of planes crashing into buildings before September 11. Dreams form an essential part of memory, plans and strategies.

I write this essay on April 9, a day of Holocaust remembrance around the world when 6 million Jews and millions of others were killed by that chef of master-narrative, Hitler. He certainly had an unequivocal vision of how he wanted the world to be, of who was good and bad, right or wrong. The "evils" of Israeli occupation date back to the holocaust and the exodus from Europe to the biblical homeland. At the end of World War II, Israelis were the most legitimate victims of brutality, war and terrorism. Now they are blamed for their aggression. Humans continue to go from one extreme to the other, as does nature. When it is too dry, it rains. We will always remember, unconsciously or consciously to varying cultural degrees. But let us remember and forgive instead of remember and retaliate when it is in the interests of world peace and cooperation. Bush's cry of "enough if enough" rings to this need to let go of vengeance that kills its victim even before its catalyst. Hopefully Bush will know when to let go of his power so that he does not become the next Caesar.

Different languages have a different perception of time depending on the conjugation of their verbs. The French with its intricate, refined grammar, its passe pluperfect and all those other constructions, have a more meticulous sense of history than Americans. Americans were so eager to conquer space that they had to erase time, much of the time.

With the different concepts of time and space, cultures have different ways of transcending the vicissitudes and imperfections embedded in their time/space constraints and biology. Hence the different philosophies of life, death and the afterlife. To understand suicide bombings, we must realize that many of the militant feel that the afterlife, in paradise with Allah, is certainly better than anything they could experience on earth. Even religious Jewish and Christian people are not always so confident about paradise nor so eager to leave the dreaded earth, especially at the age of eighteen. When suicide bombers, terrorists, or martyrs blow themselves up, killing innocent civilians, or even members of their own faith, they do not feel this is wrong because the good will go to paradise. It's unfortunate that the innocents could not choose their death, but even Machiavelli, a Western political theorist, reasoned that the end justifies the means, and if terror is instilled in the oppressive infidel, a rapid departure from earthly life may be necessary. Bin Laden reiterated this when he said that his jihadhis love death as much as American soldiers love life. It is unfortunate for him that he underestimated the courage and determination of those American and Allied Forces who love life so much they are willing to fight death until it is conquered, at least for the time being. The most salient difference between the two cultures is their feelings about suicide. Western culture since the advent of the common era condemns suicide; in fact, it is a mortal sin and thoughts or attempts to kill oneself are almost as evil as the act itself. Not all cultures feel the same way about suicide. For Romans, Greeks and Egyptians, it was often an act of courage. Socrates drank hemlock to control his own death. Although Mohammed condemned suicide, many in contemporary Arab culture feel that killing oneself in the struggle against the infidel is not suicide but martyrdom.

In some ways ultimate transcendence is beyond language and the disputations over its connotations. In yoga the highest chakras are metalinguistic, achieved only through silence and meditation. Words can be weapons, lethal enough to cause many regimes to imprison its writers. It is possible that our global master narrative could best be achieved through silence and meditation. Unfortunately, our hormones do not allow many humans this kind of peace and so the stasis of meditation must be relieved by the kinetics of combat. Humans have biological needs, easily quenched in the throes of battle.

All cultures have transcended their individual lives through the camaraderie, catharsis and cruelty of war. This feeling of being part of an exciting mission, coupled with the testosterone rush of battle, has made it an almost necessary urge, if not activity, for much of the human race. Hence the appeal of a holy war, combining the need for transcendence with the orgasm of battle. The jihad in Afghanistan attracted many young boys with its promise of camping and trekking in the glorious mountains, self-transcendence, battle, and secret conspiracies. Everyone loves secrets. Similar urges are fulfilled in all military training camps. Every army feels its purpose its legitimate, and that God is on its side. Meanwhile the civilians pray to God to protect them from those who believe so strongly they will do anything to make everyone worship their God. It is our human love for drama and our need for forceful, charimatic leaders, that we focus on Saddam instead of more enlightened moderates like Mohammad Khatami of Iran. The young like to follow the fiercest and the wise prefer an enemy they can turn into a straw man.

Religious tolerance is a noble objective but the essence of many religions is its purity, its unilateralism, its focus. When I was in Cairo, the whole city stopped at 5:00 p.m., faced Mecca in the east, and bowed their heads into the filthy streets. There is a beauty and comfort in this kind of focus, and certainly the Muslim religion has provided an oasis for many troubled souls. But if you go to the mosque on East 96th in Manhattan nothing every stops for God-- not the traffic, the noise, nor the commerce. How can the collective, cathartic dramatic ritual of religion be respected in a multicultural, chaotic world? Eventually the waste products of McWorld must be analyzed for their deleterious effects on the aesthetic integrity of indigenous ritual and perhaps better boundaries, physical, psychological, religious and cultural, could be established so that the Sphinx doesn't have to stare at Pizza Hut and KFC.:) Humans have moved from "I think therefore I am" during the Enlightenment to "I am therefore I think" during mid-century Existentialism, to "I pray therefore I am and will be thereafter" in the Muslim era, to "I shop until I drop" in McWorld. We must continue to provide creative ways for humans to achieve more meaning, fulfillment and identity in their lives so that they aren't reduced to objects or streamlined intellectually to conform to a single external objective.

Speaking of objects and objectives, we must address what some believe to be the real reason for human conflict: money and resources. Are we all just fighting for the world's limited resources? If Arabs and Israelis did not feel equally entitled to that relatively tiny land of holy sites, would the war have lasted this long? If Israel were less potent economically and militarily, thanks in part to the U.S., would she not have been knocked into the sea by her Arab neighbors? Would the U.S. care so much about the middle east if they were not dependent on its oil? Would the Arab nations need and hate the U.S. so much if they were not dependent on its scientific and technological products, its coke and jeans, cell phones and computers? Much of the universal truths today crop up on a mundane level in the way we buy, sell and share inanimate objects. Yet this economy is not just material, but based also on information, virtuality and service, products connected to the mind and its values. Many of McWorld's products related to the media incite anger when they are attached to cultural values abhorred by the indigenous culture. Osama drank Pepsi with his roasted sheep while talking on his cell phone and using the internet, but he abhorred the cultural values promulgated by American mass culture, the blasphemies of the infidels.

Through international trade, some trust is built and perhaps the desire for economic survival and well-being will force conflicting nations to negotiate and get along. But with globalisation we also have to respect boundaries, physical and cultural. Only secure boundaries will enable Israel and Palestine to coexist, unless the Israelis make another exodus and settle in the American southwest, the Palestinians forge another diaspora into Jordan, or the entire region succumbs to weapons of mass destruction or the governance of an international community. The three patriarchal monotheistic religions might endure for another century if the Arabs, Israelis and Christians could somehow achieve the miracle of sharing the holy sites and living together as one state. Such a solution is probably utopian although it exists in places like secular Turkey, America, parts of Europe.But whatever the solution, will the means justify this end? Humans have the ingenuity to solve insurmontable problems, but they never stop fighting about something. When they don't have reasons to fight, they invent them.

The hustle and bustle of multinational corporations and its waste products are creating new enemies among the environmentalists, some who resort to eco-terror, to protest the way in which McWorld is ravaging and oppressing the earth. If and when the militant Islamic conflict subsides, the next arena may well be environmentalists versus developers, world capitalists versus eco-spiritualists. In this struggle, some kind of global master narrative may be necessary to preserve the earth.

If the global community is to survive, we must construct some master narratives, some universal truths, while honoring the plurality and diversity of different cultures, and seeking to understand and respect their differences. Instead of drowning in the romantic ebb and flow of postmodern multiculturalism, we must throw out a few life rafts of universal truth and have the swimmers sit together on them, critically examining the different rhetorics, interpersonal power struggles, sense of time and space, transcendental philosophies, economic needs, and the unconscious universal love of war, the thanatos drive that Freud, Jung and Adler described so well, that must be catharsized and quenched in play, sport, humor and drama, instead of literally in war and violence. We can still return to our shores, cultiver nos jardins, defend our homelands and develop our culture but we must be together on those rocky seas, creating homospatial, (superimpostion of time/space)verity that encompasses both universal and relative truths.

In some ways, Bush's struggle to impose a meta-narrative can be commended if he is making an indictment against all forms of terror, oppression and violence towards the innocent. But American unilateralism, the more oppressive features of American foreign policy, the potential terror of American military might, and America's at times numbing and dumbing cultural imperalism can turn Bush's disjunctive syllogism into an arrogant threat based on logical fallacies. Westerners can make a logical claim which Arabs translate into a liturgical poem, Buddhists a Zen koan, Japanese a haiku poem, Chinese a visual/verbal saying. In our search for a global meta-narrative, perhaps we should start with the golden rule, Love the Neighbor as Thyself, for every religion in the world, monotheistic and polytheistic, includes some version of this truth in its teachings. Bush first called his war on terror "Operation Infinite Justice against Evil-Doers," but implying that American interests and foreign policy are infinite justice is blasphemy of the highest degree. The Arab world wisely rejected this nomenclature but even "Operation Enduring Freedom" is dubious because if Americans supported democracies in many Arab countries, the so-called "terrorist groups" might become legitimate leaders. If Bush is ready to unequivocally condemn any violence against the innocent, then this should be adopted globally. We would then have to figure out how to wage war without any "collateral damage," a worthy but difficult goal.

Ultimately the struggle should continue for deeper and better forms of communication, eschewing the more superficial content of media programming for a more educated, critical, creative and comprehensive multilogue among cultures, realizing that sharing jokes, food, land, love and laughter are often better ways to promote peace and understanding than imposing "moral clarity" with "See Dick run" style rhetoric. In spite of the fact that it is a cliche, "actions speak louder than words," is a moral certainty that many people feel when their houses are bulldozed or their fields turned into land mines. The end justifies the means only if the means justify the end, endorsing a respect for the present, for events that overlap in time/space and not just memory of the past or hope for the future. No one's paradise should be created from another's hell. Hitler's master-narrative did not respect relative rhetoric, interpersonal dynamics, time/space constraints, transcendence, biology nor economics. Let's hope the American one does and that the U.S. has the humility and vision to share its power with other global leaders.
P.S. Can Democracies produce Despots?

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