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Creating barbarians
by Thanos Kalamidas
2008-05-04 09:58:39
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Every time there is something on the news about funny situations between America and the eastern front, Russia and her allies, I remember an old poem by the Greek poet Kavafis written more than a century ago. The title of the poem is “Waiting for the barbarians”; the poem finishes with the following verses:

Because night is here but the barbarians have not come.
And some people arrived from the borders,
and said that there are no longer any barbarians.
And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution.

I thought of the poem when I was reading that the US administration is expelling the last of the Belarus diplomats from USA and closing down all the embassies. What’s wrong with Belarus? A controversial government to start within the limits of a dictatorship! President Alexandr Lukashenko, despite the fact that he was dramatically elected during elections, has used every law and possibility to stay unmoved in place while freedom of speech, press and religion are constantly restricted. And the worst part, a very close ally of Russia and a customer to all kinds of Russian production from food to arms. Most of all a former USSR country that doesn’t want to escape from the role of the satellite to old Mother Russia!

Let’s get another country in the same geographic and historic situation. Georgia! The former foreign minister of the USSR Eduard Shevardnadze became president of the newly independent country, and tried to follow Lukashenko's example only to be stopped by the Rose revolution. Then everything changed for Georgia, not that it became the temple of democracy in one night but Georgia didn’t depend anymore on Russia. Of course a new protector appeared, the pompous Americans promising a future in NATO and EU.

Amazingly we often miss that NATO should have disappeared after the end of the USSR since it has no legitimate reason for continuing since its target was to protect the west from a USSR that doesn’t exist anymore. However, the American administration has gone to so much extent in forcing Georgia inside NATO that it has caused an angry reaction from Russia. So what made Georgia suddenly become the good guys and Belarus the bad guys? Was the democratic change enough? If Belarus has elections tomorrow will that make NATO invite them for full membership or demand they will have to turn hostile against Russia to fulfill the criteria?

You see that’s exactly what makes me more suspicious and it is mainly because they have done it before. Pakistan is not a democracy, it is a dangerous and fatal democracy but if the Americans could excuse it be sure that Musharraf would have been the next Secretary of the North Atlantic Alliance. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a proud democracy with respect to human rights, freedom of speech, freedom of press and religion but if this American administration could they would have pressed the Europeans to invite them for full membership in the EU like they are not doing it at the moment with Turkey that has a long way till it can rightfully called democracy.

I wish tomorrow Belarus would become a democracy not tomorrow but now. Then again and I have often written about it democracy is a long and often painful process and having a parliament and elections doesn’t make a country automatically a democracy. Iran has elections and parliament but they have nothing at all to do with democracy, from the other side Russia has both and exercises democratic rights and freedom the last two decades at least. So why this American administration does does that? Perhaps they need …barbarians and since they have failed with other kinds of barbarians they recreate the old fear of the USSR! But then again there is already one generation that has no idea what USSR means. For them is just history they teach at school and not the most interesting one. So is this American administration creates barbarians in vein blinding people from the real problems?

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Emanuel Paparella2008-05-04 11:21:15
Some pertinent ruminations on barbarism: whenever I go to Europe and hear the words “you Americans…” I interrupt immediately my interlocutors and ask them “excuse me, which Americans are you talking about?” I do this in order to impress on them that there are Americans and then there are Americans and that to brand a whole people with negative labels risks the unfortunate collapse of bridges of understanding and common values that have taken decades to build. This is true on both sides of the Atlantic I am afraid, and can perhaps best be seen in NATO which at one time stood for an awareness of those common democratic values and now looks like a rather confused institution in search of mission. Indeed, pari passu, there are Europeans and then there are Europeans. It would be enough to read some of Havel’s political essays to be persuaded of that. It does not take long to realize that Eastern Europeans do not speak the same political language as the Western Europeans. They seem to be less anti-Americans and at the same time be more cognizant of the fact that the EU and the US, for better of for worse, share a common identity based on the concept of Western Civilization and to a certain extent a common destiny; that we are indeed in the same boat and should that boat be the Titanic devoid of a moral compass (here Havel is instructive) navigating among the iceberg of nihilism, we shall suffer the fate of Atlantis: a great civilization that is no more. Perhaps I was their “Soviet experience” that taught them that much? One wonders.

Emanuel Paparella2008-05-04 11:22:46
(continued from above)
The symptoms of the above malaise are not difficult to spot: they are found, on both sides of the Atlantic to be sure, in a mistaken rationalism which Aristotle calls theory without experience or reason unable to reconnect to the individual images from which it sprang, and Vico dubs “the barbarism of the intellect” devoid of imagination and divorced from “poetic wisdom” (literally, the forming of images) and playing on the chess board of Machiavellian real-politik considerations; a barbarism which is more lethal than the former barbarism of the senses. Vico insists that intelligence transcends the power of rationality and logic and is includes the powers of imagination, of the emotions and of the spirit. As Aristotle points out, to prescribe good medicine with a mistaken diagnosis is to be a bad doctor.

Emanuel Paparella2008-05-04 11:25:55
(continued from above)
In the Divine Comedy there is a powerful image that aptly illustrates the state of affairs in which modern Western Civilization finds itself at the moment. Dante and Virgil find themselves in the deepest part of hell and enter a dark cave in which they see a man holding a lantern. As they get closer they realize with horror, that the man is decapitated and holds his own decapitated head as a lantern of sort in his right hand. Dante says that “facea luce a se stesso” [he did light to himself]. To quote the translated full passage found in Inferno, Canto XXVIII, 118-126):

I saw for sure—and still I seem to see it—
A body without a head that walked along
…But it held the severed head by the hair,
Swinging it like a lantern in its hand,
And the head starred at us and said, “Poor me!”
Itself had made a lamp of its own self,
And they were two in one and one in two.
(continued below)

Emanuel Paparella2008-05-04 11:27:27
Dante is in the circle or sowers of discord. The “lantern man” is the French poet Bertran del Born who has abused his poetic powers to create dissension among people turning up-side-down the ancient injunctions of poetic wisdom thus becoming a rationalist and a “new barbarian” doing light unto himself. He is in a greater predicament than the physical barbarian of old in the grip of the barbarism of the senses who however had his imagination intact interacting holistically with his social religious life. This is indeed, the crux of the NATO problem. Anti-Americanism and EU vs. US is a red herring utilized by rationalists of all stripes, the secular fundamentalists, to distract from the real issue which is this: how do we build in the West new paradigms for an old civilization? How do we avoid the Vichian “barbarism of the intellect”? How do we prepare new wine for old wineskins?

P.S.Should the reader be interested in some more in depth answers to these questions see my weekly column titled “Deconstructing Europe” at the Global Spiral of the Metanexus Institute:


Emanuel Paparella2008-05-04 11:34:24
Errata above: the link is:


Emanuel Paparella2008-05-04 11:38:36
Errata again: add "t.aspx" to the end of the above link.

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