Let’s begin with a story. Colombia has had its fair share in the last month — as has the U.S.; as has the world.
(As for me, I’ve been busy coming to terms this past month with the fact that my legal precarity here is going to be a long-term affair, while continuing to work under difficult circumstances. I now have a handle on what life will look like if I never get back on the migrant-visa track, and am ready to move forward.)
Here in Colombia, ex-president Álvaro Uribe was recently placed under house arrest by the Supreme Court, as it deepens its work into charges of witness tampering (along with other investigative processes). Many people here, particularly from the more affluent classes, are “uribistas”; they view his strongman tactics against the brutal actions of FARC as having been necessary to protect the country (and their wealth), and they view his arrest as a sign than the country is descending into radical leftism. As in the U.S., though, you’ll find that some of the lower-middle-class citizens also favour the wealth-securing ex-president — although here, their reasoning has less to do with misunderstanding who a strongman leader is ultimately protecting, and more to do with having lived in fear of guerrilla violence for whole, terrible decades. These lower-class uribistas are grateful to Uribe for cracking down retributively on those who made them feel small and powerless for so long.
A larger portion of the population, however, is grateful to see justice in some measure done, because Uribe, his party, and his government used military action as a blunt-force tool for the reclamation of state control, which led to the encroachment of death-squads (parapolítica), the mass murder of indigenous and Afro-Colombian civilians (as a “cost” of war against FARC), and the degradation of democratic institutions. It is not a stretch at all to point to specific mass murders as indicators of their culpability in war crimes and acts of genocide. Even now, years later, the Supreme Court found itself under extreme threat of intimidation when they took up his case, and many are still worried that it won’t be able to rule fairly, without pressure from powerful forces behind the scenes.
President Duque, a successor to Uribe’s party and school of thought (and someone whose actions are quietly gutting intermediary ex-President Santos’s peace deal by weakening the implementation of critical reforms), even had to assure the country that he would not interfere with the Supreme Court’s processes on behalf of his predecessor, despite also vociferously condemning their decision to take Uribe under house arrest.
But how uncannily similar to news up north, no?
Because the U.S., too, is trying to confront an immense amount of corruption (and gross incompetence) in its highest offices. The U.S., too, has been struggling with a compromised judicial system to bring about the changes necessary to hold certain persons accountable for, oh, treason, tax fraud, disenfranchisement along racialized lines, negligent government management leading to 176,000+ COVID-19 deaths, and general conditions and policies amounting to crimes against humanity.
Likewise, the U.S. and Colombia both face steep increases in unemployment, the gutting of small businesses, rising poverty rates, and eviction due to COVID-19. Also when it comes to shifting from oil economies for environmental protection? Or anxieties about the decline of the middle class amid a rising rich-poor divide? Same boat again!
Which is why, as a humanist, I often struggle to understand why we haven’t yet made the necessary leap to thinking and acting globally. Humanism in its strongest formation calls for the use of informed advocacy to improve human agency. It seems like the most obvious next step, then — once we stop letting religion hold the centre of cultural discourse — to tackle other problems impeding our ability to better the lot of our species and our world.
So… when will we finally put (the traditional definition of) chauvinism to one side, too?
The Religiosity of Nation-States
To some extent, after all, most atheists already seem to recognize that the history of religion is tied strongly into the history of nations: that religious sects, originally, were means by which states maintained authority over the collective, and rallied authority for warmongering against neighbours. Polytheistic monotheism, in which persons recognize the existence of a pantheon of gods and devote themselves to the worship of a specific god within that pantheon, is blatantly obvious in both the Hebrew and the Christian bibles, while Islam even keeps a form of such polytheism alive by regarding prophets before Muhammad as valid but incomplete messengers of the word of Allah (i.e. a similar message, but found within a lesser shrine).
One of the greatest failures of New Atheism’s most prominent members, though, was an inability to extend their critical thinking to the nation-state project that had been established in lockstep with religion: a project so deeply paired with religiosity that if they truly wished to see a world in which religion was de-centred in cultural discourse and political-policy formation, the nation-state had to be de-centred, too.
Instead, “Western civilization” vs. “Islam” became the inanely chauvinistic battle cry of the late-New Atheist era: an ideological bottleneck that has made it very difficult for the further advancement of secularized discourse. Why? Because in holding to an outsize pride in “Western civilization” while condemning religion’s prominence in the secular sphere, these figures illustrated a reluctance to give up the more comfortable byproducts of Christian dominance (including a sense of colonial/paternalistic entitlement to live well off the fruits of exploited societies, the assumption of moral superiority especially over states containing the “sons of Ham”, and the acceptance of many other stratified demographic relationships in society as “natural”).
The Humanist Alternative
We didn’t need to fall into this trap, though. We did so only because the work of New Atheism was the work of trying to supplant older (singular, predominantly white-male) authorities with newer (singular, predominantly white-male) ones; and because it was taken up by figures who did not come out forcefully and routinely against their own hero-worship — who delighted in it, even, and so did not caution against the dangers of placing any human beings upon pedestals, let alone expecting them to be authorities on every subject for which they had an opinion.
I understand the tiniest slice of the dangers of prominence, myself, as an SF author who has already had people excited to be around me simply because of where I’ve been published. (Side note: My latest story, and the first I sold that’s set in Colombia, is now out at Analog!) I have a physical aversion toward cults of popularity, and I work hard to avoid anyone who would rather fawn and flatter than form a genuine rapport between flawed human beings. But… I’m still a very small fish, and I recognize that if I ever find my way into a pond where I grow bigger, I will have a proportionate responsibility to be extremely careful not to foreground any lay-opinions over expertise using that higher platform. My job then will be to cultivate a culture of redirection to the correct authorities on various subjects — and to dispel any misapprehensions, when they arise, that my opinions should be taken more seriously than my expertise allows.
It’s not easy, though. All the prominent figures from the 21st-century’s loudest secular discourse were simply human beings, too, and I would only be replicating their mistakes if I tried to position them as larger-than-life targets. What I want to emphasize more, then, is a sense of relief: relief that the aforementioned era has by and large passed us by, and relief that there is now a fallow field in which other, long-standing but often sidelined secular discourses may at last continue to grow.
Enter then, the work of humanism: the work, that is, of advocating for cultures and policies of improved human agency framed around a more well-rounded body of empirical data — one which takes into account the study of human behaviour and its histories and embraces the necessity of empathy to achieve our aims.
And part of that work involves learning not just to live with discomfort, but also to seek it out: to be as comfortable with questioning the biases that work in our favour as we already are the assumptions that do not.
To accept, furthermore, that part of the work of better-world-building involves unseating ourselves from positions of centrality and unearned superiority to which we have grown accustomed — one of which being the colossal lie underpinning nation-state chauvinism.
And, yes, non-Western countries engage in chauvinism, too — but to suggest that, because other nation-states are tethered to such destructive patriotism, we should accept the behaviour as an immutable part of the human condition is sheer naturalistic fallacy: a conflation of what is in the world with what ought to be.
Worse still — it also reflects a profound ignorance of what is in the first place.
Because nation-states aren’t actually the centres of power that they used to be. And we know this. We do. It’s just not easy, within our discourse communities, to foreground this most troubling facet of the world we live in. However, there’s a world of difference between not knowing how to talk about this shift in agency, and wilfully denying its existence — and so, we who allow ourselves to fall prey to myths like a united front of “Western civilization” vs. “everyone else” are not only showing our chauvinism… but also an ignorance unbecoming of those who pride themselves on being the most critical thinkers of them all.
Global Corporatism vs. Global Humanism
Sadly, the world we’re living in might just be the most unconscionable in all of human history. We have more wealth than ever, and more means than ever to distribute that wealth to tackle problems of famine, disease, ecological disaster, and attendant resource wars. Because of these two factors, then, our refusal to act in a more widespread and unilateral fashion is more damning than the refusal of every other generation come before us.
(I usually emphasize the fallacy of false urgency in this column, but I firmly believe that on this accord we are indeed living in exceptional times — shamefully so.)
But who is this “us”? Am I refusing to act? Are you? Is it even really our governments, in most cases, that have proven morally impoverished and inadequate managers of the resources and opportunities before them?
Or is it those individuals most successfully boosted by a system of unchecked wealth creation through multinational corporate enterprise, which ever so many lower-class people zealously support even at cost to their own livelihoods, either a) because they entertain dreams of one day being at the dizzying top of the pyramid themselves, or b) because they would prefer to suffer so long as people they dislike suffer more?
It was once famously said that religion is the opiate of the masses — but the same can easily be said for our “Western civilization” chauvinism. This unquestioned presumption of entitlement to the comforts and superiority of our countries/civilization over others occupies so much of our discourse that it distracts us from a clear-eyed and collective assessment of how power actually operates in our world, why, and to whose ultimate benefit. It allows us to cultivate a sense of jealousy toward what we have, and a project into which we can pour all excess labours, thoughts, and loyalties.
Even writing the above, for instance, puts me in mind of the fear ingrained in so much of Western discourse: the idea that even the merest discussion of plutocracies and corporate-capitalism, and their outcomes for human well-being on a planetary scale, is akin to raising the red flag high and calling for the establishment of a capital-C Communist state. Do we not see how much of a colonized mentality such a dichotomy represents? How little discursive room we’ve given ourselves, in this supposedly superior Western paradigm, to properly outline the state of our political enterprises, and to consider the extent to which they might need to be reformed to ensure better outcomes for our species on whole?
Against Chauvinism: Humanism’s Final Frontier
The most pervasive “triumph” of Western thought, in the hands of chauvinists, is the creation of a limited field of alternatives. To such thinkers, those in Western nation-states who interrogate and reimagine their own political and cultural institutions are “destroying” the one defense we supposedly have against the encroachment of inferior, civilization-wide ideologies. These chauvinists do not see themselves, ever, as the actual destroyers of Western ideology’s supposedly superior critical attributes, in the process of demanding a unified front toward outsiders. To them, this is a war, and you’re either on “their” side or against them.
But imagine, if you will, a generation ship — like the one in Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky (1963), say, or its predecessor work “Universe” (1941). Both stories illustrate how easy it is to forget that worlds exist outside the one you’ve always known… and both have been read as scathing indictments of the role that religion historically played in keeping people from ever looking beyond their immediate purview.
Ever so many aspiring, atheistic science-fiction writers love to imagine replicating this sort of work and winning accolades for it. The old masters did it! So why can’t we, today, simply echo their anti-theistic themes and succeed?
But where they — and the New Atheists — both err is in conflating a symptom for the disease. The disease is tribalism, and we’re all susceptible to it, even when the superficialities of religious belief are set aside. Granted, for a long while religion and the chauvinistic state were intertwined powerhouses, primary and central to political action in the world, so it made good sense for much of our history to centre our secular discourse around them.
Now, though, international business arrangements more often determine human outcomes from behind the scenes. That’s why, for countries as seemingly different as the U.S. and Colombia, you’ll still find the same global corporatism shaping local matters — such as who lives and dies from pandemic; what “justice” looks like for different classes; when countries can move from oil-dependent economies to greener futures; and which governments get to be stable while others “need” to remain destabilized.
Meanwhile, what are “we” doing about it? Besides permitting secular discourse to play into the belief that our ideological stand still needs to be made along lines drawn in the sand by religion and “Western civilization” fealty? It’s tough, I know, to pull ourselves from the easy click-bait both those topical terrains — but if I can leave readers today with just one take-away, I hope it’s the following, which I try hard to live by myself:
Don’t assume that the options presented to you in any given discourse, or community, or demographic, are the only ones that exist.
Because we are on a generation-ship: a pale blue dot streaking so quietly through the deafening roars and silences of the greater cosmos that any outsider might well marvel to discover how cacophonous our planetary goings-on really are.
And the conversation we need to have “onboard” — a conversation transcending borders, transcending entrenched notions of “civilization” and its comforts — has only just begun.