Email from Ouaga, plus Charlottesville

This morning my friend Sabrina, in Bukima Faso for work on sustainable irrigation, circulated this by email:

the horrible terrorist attacks took place in a hotel less than a km away.

I am fine, and have been advised not to go out today, as the office is near an area that was cordoned off for a search for perpetrators.

It’s strange to be here in this situation – I am for now confined, but to a calm and lovely guest house, surrounded by trees and birdsong, and yet so close by, there was such unspeakable carnage.

Sixteen years ago, I got a longer message from Sabrina – a chilling first person account of the fall of the twin towers, as seen from across the river in Brooklyn. Since that time, I’ve cycled around the police cordons put up after London’s July 2005 bombings (two of them were a couple of minutes from my office, both on routes I often take), and those put up after the recent killing by a van driver who rammed into a Ramadan crowd at the Finsbury Park mosque. I’d just spent much of the day in that park with my son and a mosque-going (different mosque, though, I think) friend of his.

And of course, Charlottesville, which is just the most conspicuous event in a tide of violent racism, religious bigotry and misogyny that has been rising in both my home country and my adopted one.

Is it a kind of First World Problem for this all to seem a big deal? Forget Ouaga for a moment (it’s in Bukima Fasso, we will forget it soon anyway). Overall, deaths from terrorism in Britain, and elsewhere in western Europe, are lower than they were in the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, I knew people who believed in violence in pursuit of either communist revolution or national secession, and know either personally or by very few degrees of separation people who, in those days, did what they could to act on that belief. If I know any people who are like that now, they’re hiding it pretty well. It feels quite peaceable here day to day. Compared to the violence, and the threat of violence, ever-present in so many countries, life here is a day at the beach.

What makes it so unsettling to me is that the violence now seems part and parcel of a world that has gone mad. Mad in the sense of a widespread loss of connection with reality.

I remember an earlier time of polarization and threatened violence in the United States during the Vietnam war (as now, little of the actual violence was in the First World, and certainly not my white suburban part of it). I was young and certain and had very strong views, but I thought then and I think now that I understood the different sides of the issue. I knew, and talked to – and argued with, endlessly – supporters of the war, advocates of resistance at the ballot box, of resistance via non-violent non-cooperation, and of violent revolution. They all had arguments that made at least some kind of sense, that made use of real facts and logic and connected with reality as I understood it, a world of choices constrained by Cold War superpower rivalry, post-colonial nationalism and neo-colonialism, and the American political system. (And yes, those understandings were filtered through very different understandings of the proper role of the state and of hegemony and of personal choice vs. structural determination but we could, sort of, talk abou that.)

Maybe this is just the whining of a superannuated boomer, baby you’re out of time and all that, but I cannot connect with today’s political extremes in that way. For the thinking of an American Trump supporter or for that a believer in violent Jihad, I can contemplate sociological and psychological explanations, but I cannot see a plausible path from these political programs to a world that improve much on either Mad Max or The Handmaid’s Tale.

How can you organize an American government around the propositions that access to health insurance is enervating and puts us on the road to serfdom, that global warming is a fraud, that African Americans do not suffer discrimination and it’s OK for police to shoot them, that even lower taxes for the rich in what is already a new gilded plutocratic age will make everybody better off, and the rest of the world is out to get us? How can you believe that theocracy is the solution to the world’s problems? I know people aren’t really as rational as we would like to hope and that similarly deranged beliefs have been common throughout history, but even so such pervasiveness of derangement feels strange to me. I cannot even argue with these positions because they seem to me based entirely on the denial of the facts of the world as I know them.

Actually, I think these beliefs are to a large extent motivated by a desire, a need, to deny the facts of our world. We see refugees coming from the South – and, yes, many people coming to the US from Mexico and Central America today are refugees from broken systems, most people don’t leave home for fun – and if we have been paying any attention we know that among the factors contributing to this are climate change; the corruption fostered by our unsustainable appetites for oil, other natural resources, and drugs we have made illegal; and the weapons we sell governments that seek to defend the privileges those oil (etc) revenues have brought. We know that as things stand now, further climate change and climate- and oil-driven conflict will just send more poor people our way. I’ve framed all that from the standpoint of somebody in the rich west, but people in the rest of the world – notably both the rich in the oil producing countries, and the poor everywhere – are caught in the same vicious problem, in different positions, different roles. You have to be blind not to know that much of this will get worse before it gets better. Crops failing, more civil wars, that sort of thing.

We know too that solutions to this set of problems are difficult, hard to understand and hard to accept, and even harder to imagine actually being implemented. We know that for solutions to come – absent some deux ex machina combining cheap controlled fusion and rapid carbon sequestration – we would need changes in how we live (consume) the and imposition of governmental controls and international cooperation and international enforcement, all on a level that is foreign and distasteful to many. We know that such solutions can be attempted, and but still fail because they come too late or because the implementation is inadequate.

The even worse news is that, whatever your place in the world, you can find an ideology that, like a good drug, takes you out of the whole mess – that denies parts of the problem, and blames the rest on others. This is why the news from Ouaga and Charlottesville chills me. The handful of violent  extremists is scary mostly because each of them represents many thousands who share much of their viewpoint. Those viewpoints end in an escape from reality, and a refusal to work together on common problems.


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