Veni, Vidi, Vichy?
From 1940-1944 Vichy was the ignominious puppet government for the Third Reich’s occupation of France as a whole. Consisting of collaborators, it toppled during the allied liberation of that part of Europe. In one of its few acts of humanity, it allowed one specific prisoner of war camp to become the only degree granting agency within the universe of camps that erupted across the continent like a radically metastasized cancer. This camp housed many important young intellectuals of the day and well beyond, including Mikel Dufrenne and Paul Ricoeur. The latter’s late work concerning the concept of justice and problem of historical forgiveness is no doubt testament to the time he served in such a place.
But after two decades of time served in Afghanistan, what is the character of forgiveness here? No anti-Taliban Afghan would forgive us, for example. We abandoned them to a fate which was not at all preordained, though it will prove fatal to any possible vision which the vast majority of that country’s people might have begun to foster. Overnight, their culture regressed approximately 2.6 millennia. In a word, returned to the barbarism and blight of the pre-generalized ethics predating the trinity of newer Agrarian epoch religious world systems, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Yes, the Taliban claim to be Islamic, but this is a veneer, a convenient hat to wear, even a mask of gentility, perhaps. What they are is what all marginalized and neo-colonialized groups are: the mostly rural peasantry of a mode of production long surpassed in both discourse and geo-politics but stubbornly hanging about in the lands thus far forsaken by both capitalism and humanism.
For previous to the advent of Buddhism, agrarians lived in caste systems that naturalized the sense in which certain classes of persons were deemed to be at best irredeemable – at least in their present incarnations – and at worst sub-human, even non-human. Hindu-Dravidian, Egyptian-Judaic, and Greco-Roman systems were quite honest about the hierarchy of pedigrees animating human beings. Slavery was a given in the West for example, with no need to justify it until the world of ideas began to slowly alter its course from mythos to logos. Even so, within each of these earlier trinity of Agrarian epoch belief systems the seeds for a common ethics and a universal understanding of one’s fellow human as not simply akin to oneself, but as another to self, as kindred with self, were present. These would include the origins of the scientific worldview in Greece, the sense of moral weight within a life lived in Egypt, the relative equality of intimacy between the dominant sexes in India, the idea of a deity with a human, historical interest in ancient Hebrew thought, and so on. Even if the inertia of traditions dies hard, the very idea that in 2021 one could even think about a state that runs itself through such ancient and surpassed self-understanding is almost beyond the imagination.
And yet it remains as real. Today, women and children are the key chattel of yesteryear’s morals, and the reason why the abandonment of Afghanistan is so hard to bear in the West at least is that it exposes part of our own belief system for what it is. As did Death in Arcadia, the Taliban also dwell among us.
From Texan and Polish anti-abortion laws, to the absence of domestic abuse laws in Russia, to the lack of potable water for many Indigenous Peoples in Canada, to the physical coercion of children in East Asia and the United States and some few parts of Europe alike, not to mention the racial and ethnic inequalities pervading almost all large political regions, it is clear that the more ancient rubrics of what constitutes not only human life, but a moral life, resonate from far beyond their collective historical grave. Anywhere we observe ourselves disdaining the other not for what she is as a person but for what she supposedly represents as a type, we are practicing those pre-generalized moralities of the earlier agrarian trinity. The abhorrence of slavery which is itself a very recent sensibility and one not at all universally shared, should not blind us to our adherence to more informal practices of servitude, from bullying and lying to our children to the idea of private property and everything in between. It is sage to recall that nary a hierarchy is left standing with the newer ethics. Forbearance, the love of one’s enemies, the castigation of false prophets and prophecies alike, combined themselves in a trenchant and lasting historical critique of the civilizations that had rested upon the idea that there really were different types of human beings out there, to the point of those on the bottom requiring nothing and being ‘life unworthy of life’, to borrow a Nazi favorite.
In Afghanistan, young women in particular are so unworthy. But is it all that different for us? The tortured amalgam of our adoration of youth and yet our obsessive controlling of youth speaks to the same morality of ownership that was given its most grandiose forms in the culmination of the first sedentary civilizations. I worship you but you are mine nonetheless. You should be grateful to me for my affections, for an affection is all you are, in the end. An object of desire, a subject of my domain, pretty is as pretty does.
Now the explanation for our abandonment of ‘them’ comes into focus. This is not a mere convenience of politics, let alone some euphemism for ‘tough love’ – these countries need to look after their own problems, god dammit – nor is it a simple logistical failure in the face of a mere one-hundred thousand mostly pedestrian fighters who have nothing to lose in any case. All of these are symptomatic rather of a loss of determination, which is also the first sign of a yet deeper malaise: we are yet tempted by the same morality that has overtaken marginal Afghanis and created through them the Taliban and like forces. It works for us at a personal level – as small as is my life, thank god I’m not someone like him – and it works at the cultural level – for instance, youth needs to be sanctioned and molded into passive producers-consumers. In a word, it is we who are the primary source of unworthy life in this world, not a bunch of ex-peasant illiterates who have little grasp of the faith they claim membership in. For how can the West provide a role-model to the otherness of the world at large by reproducing social status and wealth hierarchies at pace, continuing to treat its children and youth as only partial humans with correspondingly partial human rights, and vehemently envisioning women as the uninscribed obelisks of phallic desire? (You are any man’s prize, you are thus every man’s prize). Our schools, the fashion system, the family, the sporting life, and even some of our legal codes continue to pay heed to the morality that states with certainty that some people are not worth as much as others, and that some fewer people, perhaps, may even be utterly worthless.
It was clearly not ‘worth’ our while to stick around protecting the youth of Afghanistan, of all places. The boys can become fodder for future conflicts, temporarily served by the girls who are to become enslaved to them in all ways. This more or less was the world before Prince Gautama had his revelation, and after over two and half millennia of conflicting values and histories, cultures and persons, we may well ask why we have ourselves become the latest Vichy government, collaborating not quite passively with the slavers, the murderers, the authoritarians, and most disturbingly, the old-world moralists of myth and inhumanity alike.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty-five books in ethics, education, health, aesthetic and social theory, and more recently, epic fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.