The knife's edge

—And I belong to a race too, says Bloom, that is hated and persecuted. Also now. This very moment. This very instant.

Gob, he near burnt his fingers with the butt of his old cigar.

—Robbed, says he. Plundered. Insulted. Persecuted. Taking what belongs to us by right. At this very moment, says he, putting up his fist, sold by auction off in Morocco like slaves or cattles.

—Are you talking about the new Jerusalem? says the citizen.

—I'm talking about injustice, says Bloom.

—Right, says John Wyse. Stand up to it then with force like men.

That's an almanac picture for you. Mark for a softnosed bullet. Old lardyface standing up to the business end of a gun. Gob, he'd adorn a sweepingbrush, so he would, if he only had a nurse's apron on him. And then he collapses all of a sudden, twisting around all the opposite, as limp as a wet rag.

—But it's no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That's not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it's the very opposite of that that is really life.

—What? says Alf.

—Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred.

James Joyce, Ulysses
This is an essay on hatred.  And on love.  And how these two dipoles are contending not only for the soul of America, but in a real sense for that of the world.

James Joyce is my favorite author.  (Yes, I was an English major for my undergrad.)  And Ulysses is my favorite novel.  I haven't reread it in more years than I care to admit.  But the above scene has always stuck with me.  It encapsulates in a few strokes the bitter dichotomy between two worldviews:  one that posits hope and love as the motive forces in history, and one that sees fear and hatred as the only ways to keep the tribe safe, to take and keep what's rightfully yours.

It's easy to look around now and come to the conclusion that hatred is winning out.  The 21st century began with the atrocity of 9/11.  It then escalated apace:  the Iraq War, more terrorism, torture sanctioned by our government under the rubric of "enhanced interrogation".  Immigrants—both legal and illegal—are increasingly looked on askance.  The baying of the Right in this country grows louder and louder with every passing year:  bomb those who disagree with us, show no compassion, enhance and extend the Empire.  Then closer to home:  those who can't succeed should be left to their own devices, no aid for anyone who doesn't pull his own weight, keep the government out of everything and let corporations do what they will.

The examples are too numerous to not think that we live in an ugly time, full of rancor and animosity, with no end to it on the horizon.  From Boko Haram in Nigeria bombing and killing to establish an Islamic emirate in the north of the country, to our own Dominionists infiltrating the political process to speed the US to take on the form of a Christian republic, the forces of reaction and oppression become more brazen, more emboldened, feeling that history is on their side.  They thrive on the power of "force, hatred, history". The US conservative movement pines for a bucolic vision of a bygone America that glosses over the oppression of slaves, Indians, women, gays, any people of color, anyone who didn't fit with the ruling class; an America that didn't win its western possessions through war and despoliation, but because it was God's will.  That America is all the more real to them precisely because it never existed; it's a historical construct, with the weight of history but without its substance.  If facts are messy things, just create your own; repeat a lie often enough, and brazenly enough, eventually it becomes the "truth".

What's to oppose them?

Well, it could be more force.  For every one of ours that they send to the hospital, we send two of theirs to the morgue, and so on.  Of course, that falls into the trap again.  Force against force, hatred against hatred, history spiraling ever downwards.  Force by itself can never solve anything.  World War II would've led to more destruction if it hadn't been followed up by the Marshall Plan and the rebuilding of Japan.  How much life and treasure would've been saved if the US hadn't reneged on the plan to hold open and free elections in all of Vietnam after the French pullout, just because we knew Ho Chi Minh would've won the contest?  Force may or may not be able to solve problems in the short term; if that and hatred are the only policies, then eventually it leads to resentment, and resentment turns to rebellion, and the cycle starts again.

Maybe "love" is the wrong word to oppose against the hatred that Leopold Bloom saw in Ulysses.  Another word might be more appropriate:  the much-maligned "hope".

Occupy Wall Street is looked at with a gimlet eye in the corridors of the pragmatic left for its refusal to take sides in the current political battle.  But I'd like to think that many of those who participated did so out of a sense of hoping to make things better for those who had no voice.  The Arab Revolt of this second decade of the 21st century is born out of a hope for a better life, where people can aspire to live free of repression, achieving both political and economic freedom from an ossified, unresponsive elite, one which, much like the 1% everywhere, cares only for its own prerogatives.  As Russia slides back into authoritarianism with Putin's re-emergence, a movement springs up hoping for something different for the country, something other than the rule of the strongman and his chosen courtiers which has dominated Russia for the past 1,000 years.

Hopelessness, fear, resentment:  those are the things our opponents count on; the toxic strength of those emotions fuel them, give credence to their policies.  Hope and love are quiet; their victories are small, but one victory leads to another, then to another, until we have America's first black President elected—and on his way to being re-elected; until we have decades'-long dictatorships in the Middle East, which seemed as enduring as the desert, toppling under the force of a people shaking off hopelessness and daring the truncheons and bullets.  Hatred thrives in silence; when other voices enter, other thoughts compete for attention, other modes of living make themselves known, then the old sureties crumble, their feet of clay smashed away.

The world is on a knife-edge between hate and love.  Which one will win out?  Well, you have to have hope.


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