Murari Sharma: Binary Standards

Left-leaning American intellectual Noam Chomsky says, “For the powerful, crimes are those that others commit.” As human beings, we often have Manichean standards — good and evil,  ‘us’ vs. ‘them,’ and one for the powerful and another for the powerless. This is not an east-west or democracy-dictatorship dichotomy. It is universal. This duality is the main source of most problems, including violent conflicts.

While some conflicts have taken place within the same community, culture or branch of a culture, most happen between different communities, different cultures or different branches of the same culture. Wars take a high toll of human beings, which is also interpreted in binary context. As Voltaire says, “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”

The reality is often uglier than Voltaire has mentioned. Mass murderers who win wars become heroes, but those who lose become villains because, as Plato has said, “Those who tell the stories rule society.” Conversely, those who rule society tell the stories. Put more bluntly, history is written by victors.

I have my own evidence to start with. I grew up reading the vices of multiparty democracy and virtues of the party-less Panchayat system. King Mahendra had prevailed over his democratic rival BP Koirala and his supporters and written the history of Nepal. After the abolition of monarchy, textbooks have been changed to reverse the narrative. Now the monarchy is being presented as the embodiment of vices and democratic leaders as the fountain of virtues, though the truth is far from it.

As a student in Western universities, I studied the weaknesses of Marxism and communism and strengths of capitalism and democracy. I am sure, in communist countries, students had to read a completely opposite story. China embraced the capitalist economy without pluralist democracy in two decades ago. I presume that Chinese students now have to read the virtues of capitalist economy and vices of multiparty democracy, because the story is being told by communist leaders  who have made that choice.

Image could change with success, or failure. With Japan and Singapore’s economic success, Asian values, long deemed inimical to progress, have won respect and credibility around the world. Despite comparable population, China, a communist country, enjoys greater Western respect and investment, because it has become the second largest economy and third largest military power, than India, a pluralist democracy.

Victory in wars offers the most fertile ground for myths to sow and grow. We worship the warlords or yore. We read the virtues of US democracy, economy and culture because America was instrumental for victory in World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito have justly been vilified because they waged the horrendous World War II and lost. If they had won, the history would have been written differently. Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill would have been projected as villains instead.

Human beings wage wars and commit cruelty in good conscience. But those who win get power and glory and those who lose face the consequences. In their narrative, victors highlight their virtues, hide their vices, such as mass murder, and justify them if they have already been exposed.  Bertrand Russell says, “The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists.”

This is true across cultures. For instance, in Islamic society, Muslims treat non-Muslims as infidels and their women as sub-humans in good conscience. Parents nominate a relative to kill their daughter  if she marries for love without their approval – deemed as honor killing — and pardon the murderer to save him from legal punishment. They do so to preserve the sanctity of Islam as defined by victors who set the rules.

In Hindu society, higher castes discriminate against lower castes in good conscience, without compunction. Dalits receive inhumane treatment as untouchable because, hundreds of years ago, incest had happened or someone powerful, angry with their forefathers, had declared them untouchable, the worst punishment of the time.

In Jewish society, Jews can treat Palestinians as worse than untouchable, as in apartheid, and destroy a whole village in retaliation if one of its citizens is harmed by them. It can treat them inhumanely, confiscate their land and build Jewish home there, deny them water, and refuse them their other basic rights in good conscience.

In Christian society, Christians treat other religions as inferior to theirs. In a bid to convert me, some devout Christians had told me at the University of Pittsburgh that my gods were inferior to their God. Now they are using their mission and money to proselytize the innocent and ignorant by using such deception and by bribing the poor in developing countries. God’s men and women do it in good conscience and prepare the faithful for cultural conflicts.

Crusades, jihads, dharmayuddhas, World War I, and World War II were fought in good conscience. So was the Cold War, in which the East and the West took opposite sides. Even after the communist bloc collapsed, Western countries continue habitually to insert themselves, directly or indirectly, in conflicts around the world under the veneer of promoting democracy and freedom and fighting terrorism. As most of these conflicts are situated in Muslim states, the clash of civilization, as predicted by Samuel Huntington, seems to be building up between the Christian West and Muslim East now.

Evidence suggests Western countries are more interested in expanding their own influence, market, and faith and in controlling resources. They helped East Timor and South Sudan, both Christian parts, carve out of Muslim Indonesia and Sudan, respectively, for oil reserves and religion. For a decade, they supported Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan who removed an elected government in a coup, protected the terror-in-chief Osama Bin Laden, supported Taliban, and aided and abetted Islamic terrorists to hurt India and Afghanistan. They installed Nouri Al-Maliki in Iraq who is sectarian, corrupt and dictatorial. Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan was no better than his predecessors.

More recently, Western countries backed General Sisi in Egypt to remove the duly elected Morsi, and enthrone himself, exposing their hypocrisy of love for democracy. Besides, Western countries are fomenting unrest against the elected government in the oil-rich Venezuela to install a friendly regime. They supported the Maidan uprising against the ousted Ukrainian President Yanukovych for geopolitical reasons. Russia did its part as well by annexing Crimea and lending moral support to the uprising started by the Russian-speaking people in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine may end up being divided.

Sure, governments must promote their vital national interests. That is what they are for. The problem I have is about their lying and causing colossal loss of life in the process. Saddam Hussein and Mommar Gaddafi were brutal dictators, and the Iraqi and Libyan people deserved their human rights. But the United States and United Kingdom lied that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and sheltered al-Qaida to go to war. They said they were hoping Libyan people to obtain democracy, but they were only trying to protect their oil interests from the increasingly pesky Gaddafi.

More disturbing is the loss of life. Casualties are much higher when wealthy countries with high technology join war. Such states use sophisticated and deadly weapons from a distance with impunity and try to keep their own boots out of the battlefield. This allows them to minimize their own losses, to kill the other side indiscriminately and kill many more people than in direct combats, and to walk away, leaving the host country in ruin.

Americans used atom bombs towards the close of World War to destroy two whole towns in Japan and chemical weapons in Vietnam. Nearly a million Iraqis lost their lives on American watch compared to 350,000 under Saddam Hussein in his 23 year rule. America walked away when internal pressure for withdrawal mounted, giving the Sunni militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to come back and destabilize the whole region using American equipment. Now Western countries are equipping the Sunnis in Syria who could soon join forces with ISIS.

Of late, Ukraine has become the victim of geopolitical contest. Western countries supported the Maidan uprising against the ousted President Yanukovych. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and it is supporting the uprising in the Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, in response. The West is supporting Kiev to suppress the rebellion and Russia is urging it to negotiate. They are doing it all in their good conscience. But Ukraine, chaotic and unstable now, might end up divided.

The binary vision was on full display the other day in Washington. Quoting the number of Ukrainian refugees fleeing to Russia in the ongoing violence in eastern Ukraine, a correspondent asked the spokesperson of the US department of states for her opinion. She said she did not believe the UN figures, because Kiev is part of American ‘us’ in the geopolitical contest with Russia. Sadly though, the duality game goes on.


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