1936 and the illusion of progress
“And Covenants without the Sword are but Words,
and of no strength to secure a Man at all.”
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651
April 1, 2011
Seventy-five years ago, a head of state stood up before the world body to demand justice for his people, who had been terrorized and murdered by an imperial aggressor. All prior attempts to mediate the matter and appeal to the principles of collective security and equality of nations were deliberately ignored. The leader’s name was Haile Sellassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia; the world body was The League of Nations; the aggressor was Fascist Italy.
Sellassie’s address, delivered in June 1936 in Geneva, is not some arcane tidbit of long-forgotten 20th-century history. It is a highly meaningful document that depicts how Great Powers quickly betray their principles under the cover of law. The criminals and victims may have changed in 75 years, but the polite rationalizations we offer up to appease international crime today are pretty much the same. What Italy did to Ethiopia in 1936, Israel now does to Palestine and Lebanon, and U.S.-led imperial forces do to Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya—all with the active or tacit consent of the United Nations.
Now as then, aggression has the tacit support of a world body designed to prevent such violence, yet any equation between the failed League of Nations and the UN likely does not register with most people. The lessons of history are lost because we are careful to compartmentalize them to the time they happened and treat them as museum pieces. Our governing myths of progress and the perfectibility of man instill in us the conceit that whatever happened “back then” could not have any meaning today because we know so much more and the world is so much different. Yet the world is not different. Time may march on, but man runs in erratic circles.
The League of Nations was established in 1920 to ensure the world would never again suffer the horrors of mustard gas, trench warfare and other manifestations of total war. It failed because it practised appeasement toward Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, thereby emboldening them to commit further aggressions. The United Nations was established in 1945 to prevent genocide, total war, acquisition of territory by force, and other noble goals. It has failed because it practises appeasement toward Israel and the U.S. (“Isramerica”), thereby emboldening them to commit further aggressions. Take, for example, the acquiescence or active participation of the UN in mass murders like:
• Israel’s 2008-2009 “Cast Lead” massacre of Palestine when it dropped banned white phosphorous bombs on civilians;
• the U.S.’s gratuitous carpet bombing of Afghanistan in November 2001; or
• the U.S.-led “no-fly zones” and economic sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s that caused the deaths of more than 500,000 children.
Now read Haile Sellassie’s description of Italian terrorism:
“It is not only upon warriors that the Italian Government has made war. It has above all attacked populations far removed from hostilities, in order to terrorize and exterminate them.… Special sprayers were installed on board aircraft so that they could vaporize, over vast areas of territory, a fine, death-dealing rain. Groups of nine, fifteen, eighteen aircraft followed one another so that the fog issuing from them formed a continuous sheet. It was thus that, as from the end of January 1936, soldiers, women, children, cattle, rivers, lakes and pastures were drenched continually with this deadly rain. In order to kill off systematically all living creatures, in order to more surely to poison waters and pastures, the Italian command made its aircraft pass over and over again. That was its chief method of warfare.”
|Emperor Haile Sellassie delivers his address to the League of Nations, June 1936
There is no difference in the contempt for human life, or in the premeditated violation of the official morality of peace, yet how many of us see this connection and recognize the cruel fact that the very concept of collective security is untenable? To persist in a discredited behaviour despite evidence to the contrary is proof of irrationality, and it is only from such an irrational perspective that we can explain why the world has again degenerated into sociopathic hypocrisy. This is why Sellassie’s address still resonates so powerfully.
First, it tells us we must re-evaluate our perception of time. We see it as an arrow moving from the past to the future, and life becoming technologically, materially and, ostensibly, intellectually stronger along the way. The myths of progress and the perfectibility of man are so hardwired into our arrogant, reptilian, Judeo-Christian brain, that we equate novelty with superiority, and look on past failures as products of an inferior, hence irrelevant, technological, material and intellectual time. We can acknowledge and understand these failures, but not learn from them.
The second, more important, reason concerns morality. The Second World War was more a Manichean battle between good and evil than it was a political battle between opposing armies. By demonizing the enemy, admittedly easy to do given the atrocities the Nazis committed, we perversely deified ourselves and associated the failures of the past with the enemy. Small wonder that the war redefined our moral and political frame of reference and created an even greater discontinuity with the past. After all, the period 1918-1939 gave us fascism, genocide and war—what lessons could we possibly learn from it?
To have acknowledged that the League of Nations was a philosophical failure would have forced the Allies to examine their own culpability for the rise of fascism and the redundant impotence of the United Nations. Instead, we tell ourselves that the League’s failure was a political matter and could be remedied by a better Covenant and the participation of the U.S.
The morality of the immediate postwar period is a ridiculous anachronism yet it is somehow still invoked to define for us who is good and bad, who is an aggressor and who is a victim. In fact, though, the Allies that defeated the fascists are the new fascists. Jews, the eternal victims of genocide, are inflicting a new holocaust on Palestinians. The U.S.—that great icon of justice that takes most of the credit for defeating Hitler—justifies torture, wages war on its own citizens, sabotages international law, and coerces other nations into betraying the UN Charter.
The moral degeneracy of the UN was entirely predictable, because it is no different from the League of Nations. Collective security denies the essential role of war as an instrument of politics and defines “peace” according to the interests of the powerful. Without an effective, objective means to uphold its principles, collective security merely legitimizes bullying and delegitimizes dissent. In other words, those ultimately responsible for genocide are not the perpetrators, but rather those who knew it was going to happen and did nothing to stop it.
Instead of an arrow to describe time and human history, we should use Penrose stairs, an optical illusion in which a rising or descending staircase seems to double back on itself.
Given its irrationality, the Penrose stairs is perfect for describing the lack of human progress despite the linear passage of time. To free ourselves from the Penrose loop we have to disabuse ourselves of deeply ingrained delusions about war and peace, and good and evil.