Thursday, March 30, 2006

Ain't gonna study war no more

There's a great deal of generalizing going on here, and I hope I can be forgiven for not providing links and footnotes to all this rumination, but I'm just wondering aloud: why aren't Sweden and Norway and Finland in the news more, for violence?

I'm curious because, culturally, these are the lands of the Vikings, people who would split their enemies backs open and pull their lungs to out through the wound (according to Annie Dillard, in a memorable passage from her novel The Living.) This is the land of Beowulf, which includes a compendium of stories that leads to one conclusion: these people simply couldn't get along with each other. One story in Beowulf is of a wedding party bringing the bride to seal peace between two tribes, but the party gets trapped by the winter, and by the spring thaw they've slaughtered their hosts and returned home with the bride. The poem even ends with the great hero dead, and his tribe convinced they will be slaughtered the next day, when word gets around. There is, in other words, no dearth of violence in the history of the region, no culture of neutrality, a la Switzerland; no tradition of extreme Christian tolerance or non-violence. In fact, unless I am wrong, it is today the least Christian part of an increasingly secular Europe.

But I was listening to the BBC World Service, and a story about the World Cup came on. Germany is hosting it this time, and they are worried about security; not because of terrorists, but because of soccer fans, "hooligans," as they have been dubbed. And the problem now is not hooligans from Britain, but from Poland. Now, taken as a normal human attribute, violence doesn't seem so unusual, and in that context the fact that the hooligans are now more likely to be Polish is just something of a curiosity, something worthy of a news report. But I wondered: why don't I ever hear of Swedish hooligans; or Norwegian thugs; or out of control Finnish soccer fans?

Somebody with more knowledge of the World Cup may pop up and tell me it's because the Scandavian countries don't play soccer, or aren't big soccer fans. But then I never hear about hockey game violence in those countries, either, and I assume they like hockey. And it may be just my ignorance, too. It may be the violence exists, but it isn't reported. Certainly Scandinavians have police, and murders, and the other violence that human communities are heir to. But how much, I wonder? Per capita, how much do they have?

I do remember a story on NPR, so long ago now I'm too lazy to even Google for it, about what we now call "corporal punishment," but what I grew up calling a "spanking" (at home) or "getting licks" (at school.) We have, since my childhood, pretty much eliminated "getting licks," but we still tolerate spankings, if people want to inflict them. Tolerate legally, that is. We may prosecute parents for child abuse, but "abuse" doesn't include raising your hand to your child on occassion; at least not legally. In Sweden, if I recall correctly, it does. Parents, this story reported, cannot raise their hand to their child, even at home, even in calm reflection and complete conviction that: "Spare the rod, and spoil the child." (Which, no, does not mean beat the child with the rod, but that's the generally accepted interpretation, wrong though it is.) Indeed, the children in this country know of spankings and corporal punishment only from fairy tales. They've never experienced it, and consider it as unreal as dragons and fairies and fair damsels and charming princes.

And every once in a while I reflect on this, and wonder: is violence learned? Or is it inherent? Is it a concomitant of our make up as human beings, or a conclusion we reach by deciding first that power is the only venue available to work our will on the world? So much of the issue of violence comes down to will, and the obstacles to its exertion, to our exertion of it. Iraq stands in our way for some perceived reason, will not accede to our will: violence is the solution. Killers wander the streets; violence is the solution. My child will not obey my will: violence is the solution.

That last one we're giving up on, more and more. I've never raised my hand to my daughter, and I never will. Never having learned violence as a solution within the family, I doubt she will decide to use it in her family, one day. Curiously, the issue is tied up with magic, in my mind. Magic works as the perfect exertion of our will in the world: the magic does precisely what we wanted done, whether we had worked out all the goals of our desire or not. In fact, that is the magic, that what we will is perfectly realized, without flaw or hindrance, and even what was not foreseen or forethought, is already accounted for and a response made, a perfect response that solves even the unforeseen consequences or our act. That's the magic of Harry Potter, and most fantasy films and stories.

It's also the magic of technology, or "smart bombs" and "weapons systems," which will work our destructive will, but do only what we intend to do, not what we actually do. Garbage may go in, but surely only goodness and virtue will come out. Which is always our excuse for violence. "This will hurt me more than it hurts you," was simply wishful thinking, a displacement of guilt as you let violence take over and hopefully work the magic you were too angry, too tired, too limited in your thinking, to work out yourself. It is blaming the victim, be that person Saddam Hussein, or "the insurgents," or the child, for what you do. Your intent is good, and if only the magic, the violence, would take over and smooth out all the unforseen and inherent consequences, would make right what you intended to make right, and do it the way you intended it to be done, then your will would be done. God's will would be done. Which you always hope is one and the same thing. But you never know, until you exert your power, do you? And then, what does that power do to your spirit?

Magic, violence, technology. What is the spiritual value of these things?

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