Freedom in Omens: Why I think Syria is a ‘Serial Question’

Fundamental Set-up and Threat

With modest involvement to the clamored dialectical struggle vis-à-vis the complexity v fundamentality of the situation in Syria today, I do think that, on a more serious personal note in entering this dialectics, I am terribly threatened. Not so much of the politico-ideological struggles, but more on the unimaginable movements that inhumanely penetrate and destabilize – and for me obviously indicate the abuse of – the portents of freedom. OK, that is for the most part basic and humanitarian – but isn’t all there is? This may have been a sudden reversion to the fundamental side on the one hand but there is honestly no point in playing God if we absolutely deny it. The social encyclicals of the Church have found a voice in Francis today but what is changing? There must be. By the merits of evolutionary prowess, there must be something which we, by age, whether amateurs or veterans of the war called life, know that changed. We cannot be phenomenological creatures living as if nothing has happened, as if we do not feel threatened also. In other words, as Zizek says, we must not look like veterans in a war who only goes to coffee shops conversing and recounting the memories of the war saying “Oh that was a good one, etc. etc.” Of course there was peace, but we all know there are other swords brewing for sooner upsurges. How do we sustain, unless they remain chronicles and trending news, the victories of our past revolutions?

There is a more serious problem here. Prayers count as essential so first we must never cease, says Paul, to pray, even until we are reformed to change. Isn’t this the same effect of the grace of gratitude when we pray at mass that our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to God’s greatness but makes us grow in His grace? This is a classic and an effective human response, which we are called for in the events that only God has the power to change, although He has the wisest reasons to leave some of the free cooperation with us. The Spirit is calling, and yet only a few can find the strength to heed. Mundane distractions are everywhere: personal addictions, silly siding with television networks, in our current political air the viable ‘lesser evils’ for the ruling spot – in short, the comic responses to the serious situations bigger than any escape mechanisms we can strategize.

One can therefore decipher that the seriousness is gazing directly and always at us: the problem of Syria is a serial problem, connected to the medieval privative lack of goodness, revealing itself in phenomenological givenness the dilemma, the omen which perfectly explains ‘the signs of the times’ today: the evil of banal freedom. It is an onus, more than ever, as Gaudium et Spes exhorts, to scrutinize this area of humanity today. Modifying Arendt’s banality of evil, we are not playing anymore the totalitarian regimes of hegemonic drive which creates banal evil; people don’t know what to do anymore; morality is decaying; legal proceedings are changing the course of morality especially in gay marriages, and so on. No. I think that in these situations, it is not evil which is banal, but the instinctive choices that constitute the seemingly idiosyncratic and amoral acts that we make each day – not knowing that those will affect the global order. In short, crucial and terrifyingly threatening for me is the banality of freedom, the omen of banality all over, the omen of potential evil. I am even ready to claim that this is atheism at its best: free thinkers spreading everywhere, haranguing everything in the name of logic and thought, critiquing and causing problems but never contributing to the solution. When a human no longer knows what to do with one’s freedom, thinking that there is no possible connection to a higher necessity whatsoever, this freedom is banal and atheistic in its purest. This freedom echoes likewise the pseudo-Dostoevskian pronouncement: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted” – not only the permission of emancipatory evil thoughts, but also the horror of potentially horrendous acts.

And this sort of problem escapes the triviality of the matter, because it is, in one aspect of its fundamentality, firstly serial. It means that this omen of banal freedom is the same formulaic successive interrogation often heard in an clichéd battle for one’s rights: “how are we free if there is someone or something governing us?”, “how do I unchain myself from morality?”, “how to be free to do whatever is necessary for power?”, “how to express religiosity freely without borders?”, and so on.  From here, things become trivial, and the basic human necessity to be free becomes burdened by the will to unshackle certain limits: religious fundamentalists seeking a renewal of religious politics from Western ideologies (to its extreme, aren’t they maneuvering pseudo-ideologically also?), intemperate revolutionary rebels fighting for eth(n)ical renewal but in the process depriving this freedom from others, governmental strategies of American and Russian superpowers supervening the matter, homosexuals spotting loopholes in legal matters to profess their wants in the name of love, and so on. Not only then is this freedom banal, but evil in a sense that it wants to become sole absolute; it is fighting for what is missing in one’s orientation (political, economic, etc.) to be utterly autonomous. It is a terrible threat for humans to imagine a freedom – whether of rights, political, or religious freedom – like that of a God.

But there are limits! There is still, despite claims of post-era significations, an ethics beyond post-ethical domains. There must be – for it is a further threat to live in a discipline without ethical principles: science, politics; even theology without ethics is a dangerous rhetoric of moral dismissal. And this ethics, this conception of God, sets up the limit amidst these threats, paving the way for a clearer grasp of what it means to be social towards others, where freedom is likewise disposed in a manner that concerns humanity. Only in a sense that there is a sense of ethics or God that we are limited and imperfect but not evil. In this limitedness, only then can the sociality of the Samaritan within enter the scene.

Complex Interpolations and Utopia

To get to the complex part, on the other hand, a theoretical application of the scrutiny of ‘the signs of the times’ is in order.  What is the constitutive meaning of this complexity? It is simply, in all its ambiguity, defiant of description. This is, I claim, a postmodern predicament: not only are we integrating the global long-term projects, but more and more forms of freedom are playing the main character of the lost grand narrative. But there are more, in this false surety of the free flow of economic and personal liberty, paradoxes unimaginable. The facts are not even specifically telling of the wide array of issues. Analysts claim that at some point, the situation in Syria is an unwinnable war – which is an obvious positive point of sporadic interests!

The long on-going civil war in Syria since 2011 proves to be much more than an uprising against the Al-Assad political dynasty for 45 years until today. This narrative is not new since every Assad leader always goes against protesters and opposition groups to relive the dynasty: President Assad of Syria facing allegations of launching chemical attacks against the rebels and there is the perennial concern of illegitimate elections.

But new players (or so are they slowly revealing themselves) are taking advantage of this point: Arab Spring movements and the Jihadists, Rise of ISIS and other rebels in Iraq and Syria intensifying the problem, US and Russia deploying airstrikes with inclusion of the former’s operational allies with Australia and the latter’s special force Spetsnaz. China is a growing super power in the economic aspect of this play. Moreover, it is noticeable how the wealthy countries of the Middle-east such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar are anti-immigrants, which proves the suspicion that lingers concerning their ties to the US. These are interventions that come about naturally in a postmodern enterprise.

The statistics roughly estimate the effects: A massive displacement of about 12 million Syrians, about 4 million are refugees (and who knows how many from other countries), more than half of which are children. The refugees are now staying in Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon; and other parts of Europe. Germany and Sweden are worth the mention, and other nations of the European Union. It is a hard struggle to leave home and desperately find a new one where resources are scarce and the conditions (language, space, healthy environment, etc.) are difficult. And they are risking it because they are, puzzled by the interests of so many overlapping propagandas, no longer secure of the reality of the word ‘home’. For them, the goal at the very least is some place near and less dangerous: Europe. Even professionals are leaving and risking their profession. And the lower classes are active spectators of this chorus. Risking their lives to cross borders and continents, the most concrete picture of this crisis is the “drowned toddler Aylan Kurdi.”

This scenery of the young Aylan in the shore, which many artists have portrayed, is the main visual presentation of the crisis today. How much more of this is needed to re-awaken the clear path to answer the dilemma? It is unclear where a possible entry point is – it is messy and complex. The refugee crisis is a clearer entry but way too risky. To analyze Syria is a risky move of being an ignorant spectator of the matter – and this does not exclude influential thinkers.

Therein lies the point of Jacobin Magazine’s post last October 5, 2015 for any intervening ideological analysis: “leading progressive intellectuals are using their influence to disparage refugees and excuse elites”, thereby “obscuring the underlying causes and stakes of the refugee crisis.” Nick Riemer, the author of the article “How to Justify a Crisis” in the magazine, noted that the said intellectuals – Jürgen Habermas, Peter Singer, and Slavoj Žižek – are products of a self-styled enlightened institutionalization of the academia’s intellectualism which discretionarily universalizes particular facts into abstract themes capable of influencing a collective emancipatory act.

Without prejudice to the article, a quick glance of the intellectuals’ views might be a fair treatment. In an interview regarding whether or not the US should intervene militarily in Syria in the alleged chemical attacks, the famous ethicist Peter Singer replied that Syria is a complex issue, not just a question of humanitarian aids – but a general one that is not of the same “telegenic” value as what is seen. He reminds politicians that this is a bigger issue; millions, billions of lives are and could be at stake. He wrote that “affluent countries have a responsibility to take refugees, and many of them can and should accept more than they do.” This is said to be an impatient view but at bottom is seriously a concern which will add up later. Jürgen Habermas in addition stated that “the right to asylum is a human right and everyone who applies for political asylum should be treated fairly and, if appropriate, be taken in with all of the associate consequences.” This is viewed as unwillingness to learn the elite classes’ enlightened lessons and is a reflection of elitism, but whoever dares to call this an intellectual discretion must be forcing a bias from the concern.

Zizek’s case – albeit sloppily labeled as ‘nonsense’ when he proposes a fundamental reinvention of ‘communism’, careful international intervention of not succumbing to ‘neo-colonial traps’, and clear European rules on the refugees – is the most progressive one but shapes the question, drawing Singer’s and Habermas’ also, on point: “Is all this a utopia? Maybe, but if we don’t do it, then we are really lost, and we deserve to be.”

On the content of his takes one can notice the progressive essential points. Zizek already gave a vision last 2013 in theguardian on the expansion of the issue that “there are no clear political stakes, no signs of a broad emancipatory-democratic coalition, just a complex network of religious and ethnic alliances overdetermined by the influence of superpowers (US and Western Europe on the one side, Russia and China on the other.)” Thus, “Syria is a pseudo-struggle.”

In September of 2014, Zizek in The New York Times again pictured the complexity of the matter with the disgraceful ambiguities of ISIS to fundamentalism: “While the official ISIS ideology rails against Western permissiveness, the daily practice of the ISIS gangs includes full-scale grotesque orgies, including robberies, gang rapes, torture and murder of infidels.” On the one hand, the Western hedonistic license appears to be a form of what Nietzsche, as Zizek applies him, calls “passive nihilism”; on the other, the ISIS active assaults but lacking its true religious conviction is a form of “active nihilism”.

On September 9, 2015, Zizek in In These Times exposes the blatant fact that there is possibly no way in this crisis where the refugees achieve their dream of having the freedom to get what they want: the place they dream of, the conditions to settle with; the least they can have are minimalist rights – ready to pay the price of the Global Economy measures now directly letting them feel its true presence. This is in some sense a last resort to utopia, that there is still hope somewhere, and Zizek establishes its limits: “The hard lesson for the refugees is that ‘there is no Norway’ even in Norway. They will have to censor their dreams: Instead of chasing them in reality, they should focus on changing reality.”

Against the charge of intellectualism, these analyses are for me honest opinions; the fact that they really are makes them a take outside the actual experience but only coated with their disciplinary styles. Sure they are products of the academia but who are we kidding? – they are placard-holders with the inscription “I am an intellectual”! Charging them of such claim almost contradicts their identity against them. The horror scenario is: what happens if there are not, if they do not do what they do? Their responses of the many points Syria as a ‘Serial Question’ are taken in its multifaceted view. Here I am not radicalizing that the issue is wholly it but “I think” makes it an honest view on the matter, given the recourse of its progress and for me it is, even though we are geologically far from the situation, a question which concerns all – humans who are at the disposal of their freedom.

This means that in its complex form, what it means to be a serial question is precisely the various angles that display overlapping freedom: political right, right to asylum, ethical guidelines, the utopian desire for transgression and security, religious political movements, radical thinking, and so on.

Zizek’s formula is a stricter point of our predicament: “Non-existence of Norway = No absolute freedom.” However, to say that this is a dead-end misses the point. This is precisely in some way a reversal of the pseudo-Dostoevskian formula: if there is no God, there would be universal Prohibition. This means that reality is already exposing its end point: even in the domain where atheists and freedom hunters succeed in transgressing their own unshackled acts of freely doing whatever they want, one can well imagine that they are still operating on clear natural law rules and protocols. What stops them in some points are the limits of reality. The true threat is to cease to see these limits, the thought that existence is squandered and we have never left – says the opposite scene of what Evangelii Gaudium (#183) and Laodato Si’ envisions – this world “better than we have found it.”

We are never devoid of the Church’s exhortations. On the 80th Anniversary of Rerum Novarum, the same call to action dispels the defeatism in not pursuing one’s dreams. One of the Church’s best kept secret is telling: “Utopias are generally ineffective but they provoke imagination in building a better world (Octogesima Adveniens, #37)”. Rebuilding it means that the gospel way of renewing the earth, long term peace, is what is changing, and we have to sustain this ecological revolution from freedom’s ultimate grace in its limit: the ability to take care of the world’s economy as human as we are divinely entrusted as possible.

We do not know what is really phenomenologically happening in Syria and the particular conditions of the refugees unless we ourselves are there. No pleonasm of macro-political discussion can explain this. Instead, what we are left with are questions, and Syria is a blatant ‘Serial Question’ that affects us all. There are questions that are soon answered later in life and there are questions where the only answers are verifiable in the after-life, but this situation in Syria here-and-now – this puts the whole question of freedom into a whole new level of reevaluation.



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