There is no doubt that I write to you in strange and uncertain times. To say they are frightening also is surely an understatement, but my fears, I suspect, are placed elsewhere to most. More is to follow on this shortly, but first I must offer you a lengthy disclaimer of sorts.
Primarily I must make it known to you that I do not write these words for the purposes of making money, for self-aggrandisement or for juvenile attempts at being a contrarian. It may seem odd that I feel such statements are necessary, but I have come to feel increasingly alone and isolated in the last several days and weeks – not only due to the draconian enforced lockdown taking place in the U.K. as elsewhere, but because such is the level of fear and hysteria around Covid-19, I no longer feel safe in expressing my observations or asking simple questions without being mocked, pilloried and intimidated. Some of the attempts to silence me have gone further than this. It seems only too fitting that I write this piece on Good Friday.
And why is it fitting? Well, why is it that Christians around the world commemorate the persecution and crucifixion of Jesus Christ? In essence, it is the archetypical and unavoidable tale of human existence. It is the necessary prerequisite for a spiritual re-birth we all inevitably experience.
This is because all of us, princes or paupers, are born as individuals into a society. That society – which we can only ever experience though our unique lenses of consciousness, or our personal truths to put it more plainly – is always the creation, for better or for worse, of souls who came before. Be it Da Vinci or Edison, Nikola Tesla or Steve Jobs, even George W. Bush or Tony Blair, Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, none of us are solely responsible for the cultures we live in. As C. Wright Mills wrote in his unfinished essay The Cultural Apparatus, “The first rule for understanding the human condition is that men live in second-hand worlds.” These worlds are always out of sync with current existence – they are always in need of updating.
But before many of us come to realise that our worlds need fixing, we are raised and cared for by our benevolent mothers. In myths and religion, these are the Virgins, the Prima Donnas or Mother Nature herself – all of the positive aspects of femininity. Meanwhile the wise old kings and the Patriarchs bring us gifts from afar – we can call this the fruits of capitalism, modernity and technological advancement in twenty-first century speak.
Inevitably however, as we have already discussed, these masculine elements begin to age and decay – unless watched over carefully, society becomes corrupted, unfit for purpose and totalitarian. This is Scar in the Lion King.
And like Simba or Jesus Christ, or like Abraham, the Buddha or Mohammad, when we – the children of God, as referred to in the scriptures – begin to reach maturity, we feel compelled to take on these injustices and update the broken system. We embark upon what Joseph Campbell (left) referred to as the Hero’s Journey. In our naive adolescence however, still without proper understanding of the complexity of the cosmos and sufficient appreciation of our histories, when many of us decide to take on these age-old tyrants, we do so filled with rage and improper understanding. We raise our fists at the blind old kings and many wish for the collapse of society.
History is abound with such examples. Consider the well-meaning yet flawed environmentalists who created the anarchistic Extinction Rebellion movement, or the feminists and post-Modernists who call for the “smashing of the patriarchy.” Personally, when I still had hair on my head, I joined the British Labour Party and became a devout anti-capitalist.
Naturally, such threats to the pre-existing order are never welcomed by the structure-at-large and for good reason too. Most of these seemingly new ideas are nothing but a re-hashing of old ideologies. Nonetheless, these radicals are marginalised and persecuted. In extreme cases they are exiled, imprisoned or assassinated. These are, of course, re-runs of the Crucifixion story.
But what separates Jesus, the enduring tale of Christianity and these other failed revolutionaries? – for a successful a Hero’s Journey is not guaranteed. According to Campbell and the countless examples provided in comparative mythology, once our heroes accept the call to adventure and cross the threshold into the unknown to take on these monstrous Leviathans, they are swallowed up into the belly of the beast. There, they must be initiated through “The Road of Trials” and resist a series of temptations.
“Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials,” Campbell wrote. “The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper who he met before his entrance into this region. Or it may be that he here discovers for the first time that there is a benign power everywhere supporting him in his superhuman passage.”
Campbell goes on to quote from the Qur’an, which states: “Or do ye think that ye shall enter the Garden of Bliss without such trials as came to those who passed away before ye?”
But why all this talk of heroes and beasts? What do persecution, trials and journeys into the belly of the beast have to do with Covid-19? Perhaps a more concrete example from history is necessary.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel laureate Russian novelist (below), was first a decorated commander in the Red Army. Following his graduation from university he served his country during World War II and was awarded the Order of the Red Star in 1944, but after witnessing Russian troops gang-rape German women and girls, he wrote to a friend in 1945 and pondered whether the Soviets were any better than the Nazis. The letter was intercepted by SMERSH – an umbrella organisation of Russian counter-intelligence – and while on active duty in East Prussia, he was detained and incarcerated. His journey into the belly of the beast resulted in eight years’ imprisonment and servitude in the grim network of Gulag labour camps that imprisoned over 18 million people throughout their history.
What happened next in those concentration camps mirror the words of Campbell all too precisely.
“The hero, whether god or goddess, man or woman, the figure in a myth or a dreamer in a dream, discovers and assimilates his opposite (his own unsuspected self) either by swallowing it or by being swallowed. One by one the resistances are broken. He must put aside his pride, his virtue, beauty, and life, and bow or submit to the absolutely intolerable. Then he finds that he and his opposite are not of different species, but one flesh.
“The ordeal is a deepening of the problem of the first threshold and the question is still in balance: Can the ego put itself to death? For many headed is this surrounding Hydra, one head cut off, two more appear – unless the right caustic is applied to the mutilated stump. The original departure into the land of trials represented only the beginning of the long and really perilous path of initiatory conquests and moments of illumination.”
That illumination for Solzhenitsyn resulted in one of the most profound pieces of literature. After years spent as a political prisoner in the Gulags, he came to understand what it truly meant to be human. Please indulge me and allow me to quote from The Gulag Archipelago in full.
“Looking back, I saw that for my whole conscious life I had not understood either myself or my strivings. What had seemed for so long beneficial now turned out in actuality to be fatal, and I had been striving to go in the opposite direction to that which was truly necessary to me. But just as the waves of the sea knock the inexperienced swimmer off his feet and keep tossing him back on to the shore, so also was I painfully tossed back on dry land by the blows of misfortune. And it was only because of this that I was able to travel the path which I had always really wanted to travel. It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good.
“In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there rotting on prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good.
“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us it oscillates with the years. And even within the hearts overwhelmed with evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an un-uprooted small corner of evil.
“Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions on the world. They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person. And since that time I have come to understand the falsehood of all the revolutions of history: they destroy only those carriers of evil contemporary with them (and also fail, out of haste, to discriminate the carriers of good as well). And they take to themselves as their heritage the actual evil itself, magnified still more.”
If anything, it is this message I hope people can take away from this appeal – for perhaps if we can heed the lessons from the heroes who came before us, be they mythical or real, we can avoid the forms of fascism and tyranny that preceded us too.
For now, however, it appears that most of us in the occidental world do not believe our societies are capable of evil. We are all too sure that Russia or China are the perpetrators of all the world’s sins. Meanwhile, too many of us compartmentalise and fail to hold ourselves to account for the crimes against humanity we as a society routinely commit.
It is in fact in trying to express this very sentiment that has often left me feeling alone and isolated, particularly following the outbreak of Covid-19. Although I am aware many people support my work and I am in a privileged position, when I expressed doubts about the narratives portrayed in the government or in media, or around the statistics and methodologies used, or voiced concerns about the sudden heightening of state and corporate power that will result in increased surveillance, censorship and threats to freedom of speech, my closest friends and family members insulted and attacked me. My crime was in stating that the West’s problems were far bigger than the threats presented by this apparent pandemic. These views were too unpalatable at a time of immeasurable uncertainty.
The matter was made drastically worse when last week, concerned about the growing social unrest in my south London neighbourhood, I decided it was my duty as a journalist to take a walk at night to inspect my surroundings – particularly given the fact that most other British journalists were all too content to work from home and simply parrot the government narrative. The growing signs of deprivation were there; I saw men rummaging through refuse bins, women were selling their bodies on the street. As I was on the return leg of my journey, two unmarked police cars – easily recognisable by the fact they were black Ford Focuses with tinted windows and blue lights in the interior – tried to run me off the road. They violently accelerated towards me and came within inches of hitting me. Having had covered the Julian Assange extradition hearings closely and having made contact with numerous other journalists and activists who have undergone similar experiences, I know this is a common form of intimidation. This was of course truly frightening – my adrenaline kept me up till six the following morning – but what troubled me more was how to communicate this to my friends and family that previously belittled me.
I spent the next two days weeping in bed, gripped by depression, and unable to process the malevolence I had seen. I could not find the motivation to do anything. Nonetheless, like the countless others struggling in this world, I came to the conclusion I must go on surviving.
Persecution, of course, is an inevitable part of being a journalist and I have known that long before this incident – please do not mistake this letter as a plea for sympathy. However, all I ask of you today on this Easter Sunday is to look out for those who collective society is trying to silence. I am fortunate enough to still have my voice heard, so finally, here are my thoughts on the current situation.
In World War II, the Allied Forces went to war with fascism. After unthinkable horrors and immeasurable destruction, those forces came out on top and our countries vowed to never repeat that level of terror again. We created institutions like the United Nations and the European Economic Community. In Britain, Clement Attlee’s government created the National Health Service.
During war-time years, the United States of America, which had been reluctant to join the conflict, experienced a huge boom in its economy. Demand for arms and munitions meant Gross Domestic Product made double-digit gains, year on year, and with 20 per cent of the population employed by the armed forces, unemployment tumbled from 14.6 per cent to 1.9 per cent by 1945. As such, the war machine was born. Because when German surrender came and the demand for weaponry halted, the business interests that made a killing from this industry were reluctant to give up their new-found cash cow. Through think-tanks and lobbying, the need for “defense” was enshrined into U.S. public policy.
It would take until 1961 for President Dwight D. Eisenhower to identify this unholy trinity between the arms trade, the Department of Defense and Congress as the military-industrial complex, but sixty years on to present day, his warnings have never been heeded. In the meantime, since World War II, the United States has been in a continual state of war – the list of conflicts and military aggression is exhausting but worth reiterating.
This is, of course, notwithstanding, the numerous conflicts in South America. Quod erat demonstrandum.
Meanwhile the corporations, military or otherwise, have only grown more powerful. Each of them pillared around the infantile notion of perpetual growth, dependent on consumption, in a finite world of limited people and resources. And yes, our standards of living have dramatically improved in the time since that devastating world war, but in fact, these were largely ripples from the advancements made in theoretical physics – think the semi-conductor which gives us computing, the World Wide Web which emerged from the European Organisation for Nuclear Research and telecommunications that is dependent on the understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum. Since the 1970s, we have been living in a world of stagnation. Meanwhile there has been a hollowing out of our institutions, and state power has only grown to serve the interlinked corporate and imperial interests.
This is a vast and complex problem, which cannot be discussed at further length here (see this discussion between Eric Weinstein and Peter Thiel here if you are interested); however, I think most of us sense there is something profoundly wrong in our societies. In my estimations, we have become so technologically powerful we have completely forgotten our place in nature. Most of us think we stand as indestructible Gods above it. It reeks of the Tower of Babel story.
Covid-19 – whatever its origins, be it from a biological warfare lab or from natural mutations – should be a great reminder to us all that we are nothing but a set of complex organisms, struggling for survival on a complex planet, just as we always have been. And today, of all days, perhaps we can re-think how we structure our cultures and strive for a spiritual re-birth as the celebration of Easter is supposed to represent. We can never go backwards, but perhaps we can resurrect these ancient traditions. They are much wiser than we give them credit.
In my view, we should ditch social distancing and strive for community. We should ditch ambitions for corporate growth and replace them with the religious idea of stewardship. We must protect whistleblowers and journalists. Those in power will want to cling on any way they can, hence the noticeable police states and the renewed tide of fascism, but we must all be steadfast in stating these are not the types of worlds we want to live in.
Finally, there is one urgent matter we must address – the hero that warned us of all these developments is incarcerated in Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh. We must all rise to the occasion and rescue Julian Assange from the belly of the whale.