'Through tattered clothes great vices do appear;/ Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,/ And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;/ Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it./ None does offend, none, I say none.'
' Shakespeare, King Lear
There was a time when the world strove to be civilized. That meant that such qualities as truth, honesty, compassion, and all that we call 'good' were considered not just desirable in themselves, but also politically correct. Policies were formulated on the basis of these qualities, even though they may have had certain quiet spin-off benefits for those who formulated and implemented them.
The Marshall Plan, for example. It was, as we know, the main force behind the re-building of the shattered economies of Europe after World War II, and it was based on principles like the ones I have mentioned, and on other similar beliefs and virtues. Yes, built into it were certain innocuous conditions, like the one that enabled American films to be shown freely all over Europe, a provision that helped Hollywood enormously, but made the development of cinema in Europe more difficult. It was only the strong policies adopted by France to support locally-made films that made it possible for French mainstream cinema to exist, but more or less on the fringes; in the West Germany of the time, and in the United Kingdom, mainstream local cinema slowly died away as distributors found it cheaper to bring in American films; all over Europe, films became the preserve of the 'serious' film-maker ' the Renoirs, Truffauts and Fassbinders.
But this aspect was totally overshadowed by the other, far more all-embracing, improvements to the economies of these countries that the Marshall Plan made possible. It remains a testament to the great faith placed by American leaders first and foremost, and in the leaders of the European countries, in the qualities that I have been talking about ' the attributes of civilization as they saw it, and the basis for a new world order. They, along with the totally different Soviet Union, jointly foreswore war. Peace became the holy grail, till it was taken over and given a tawdry makeover by spin doctors on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
I mention this only as an example. The point is really that there was a great emphasis placed on what were seen as 'good' values; there were international meets and conferences to underscore these, and various resolutions, various bodies which were set up to take forward the establishment and spread of these values ' like Unicef ' began to work vigorously in and among the deprived, underprivileged and the poor. The 'free' world saw the Soviet Union as a threat to all that was good and civilized; the Soviet Union and its allies saw the West as a greedy capitalist society that made a few rich at the cost of thousands of poor, deprived workers and labourers.
In the Cold War, the values lauded by the two sides were, after one smoothed away the semantics, the same. Now, with the Soviet Union gone, and a new set of leaders determining international policies, the old values are being seen as that ' old. They haven't been discarded, nor will they be. The rhetoric remains the same, because to change that would bring in uncertainties and fears among people which could well lead to instabilities in society that could get out of hand. What has changed is what that rhetoric seeks to justify.
If war, or armed conflict, broke out in Korea or Vietnam, it was, then, one side declaring that it was upholding the values of freedom and civilization and the other saying the same thing but seeking it in different social settings. At least, the declared values were not just stated, but believed in by all those who fought on different sides. In Korea, the 'free world' did believe they were preserving democracy, which to them embodies all the virtues that we've been talking about; and on the other side, the socialists believed that they were defending their way of life, where everyone was equal, against a voracious capitalist invasion. In Vietnam, the United States of America believed much the same thing, and left only when they realized that they could not carry on, not because they suddenly saw the North Vietnamese as being right and they wrong. The beliefs stayed; only the tactics changed.
But in today's world, it isn't the same any more. The Palestinians have been pushed out of their land and this is justified as they have been declared to be a hotbed of terrorism; so it was right to attack their camps and houses, to seek out the terrorists who killed innocent Israelis and others. That, in the process, Palestinian children and innocent passers-by were killed was shrugged of with that American phrase, ridiculous as language but terrifying in what it covered up, 'collateral damage'. On the other hand, the mass murder of millions of Hutus and Tutsis was looked on with indifference because they ' the Hutus and Tutsis ' made little difference to the interests that were paramount to those who made international policies. Not just the Western powers, but the whole world looked on unmoved.
And then, of course, there's Iraq. The same rhetoric, but this time not everyone believed in what was nothing less than an invasion of a country whose oil was coveted; tens of thousands of Iraqis have died and there's no doubt thousands more will, only because the US wants to get at Iraqi oil. The rhetoric stays the same, although it's now sounding increasingly ragged, as the US itself is floundering in what they thought would be a part of its empire to whose riches they could easily help themselves.
If we need other examples they are there; Viktor Yuschenko, the Ukrainian candidate for presidency has clearly been poisoned, and by a very sophisticated poison that the most advanced laboratories in the West are finding difficult to identify. All they know is that it's a dioxin, and that Yuschenko has 6,000 times more of it in his blood than a normal human being should have. So poisoning an inconvenient political personality is once again becoming a means of getting to power. And the advantage is that, being secretly done, no one needs to take recourse to the rhetoric of 'good versus bad', of civilized values and barbarism. What matters is who has the means to do it.
Then there are the questions being asked about the way Yasser Arafat died. Conspiracy theories apart, the facts are that he was indeed buried in an unseemly hurry, and that the reason given for his death is some extremely complicated condition in his blood that even the best French doctors are unable to explain. Suzanne Goldenberg in her article, 'No Way To Die' in The Guardian of December 16 has pointed to this and other dark aspects of his death. Could this too have been a result of poison' It may not be, but now we've moved into an age when nothing matters except power and the money that go with it.
One wonders if this is a new trend that we're seeing. Are Lear's anguished words, quoted in the beginning, assuming a truth that the world will have to live with' And if so, when will the hypocrisy of using the old values as still something motivating our actions be given up' As another great poet, W.B.Yeats, the Irishman, asked, 'And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born'