This week the media carried the story of how officials of an English Hunt fed fox cubs to its foxhounds to give them the experience of killing and devouring their appointed prey. It was an example of how some human beings continue to look on animals as material for either their nourishment or their pleasure, without any sense of the worth of the creatures they farm, train or kill. Although in this instance the focus of sympathy was meant to be the fox cubs, I also felt for the hounds which are not naturally hysterical killers, but are perverted into such by this kind of training. I am not a sentimentalist: foxes also kill; that is how they survive; but only human beings kill for fun.
I want to ask about the roots of this human cruelty and whether it may be connected with some of our more immediate political concerns, such as racial prejudice and terrorism.
I recently read an astonishing book by the Icelandic author SJón, The Blue Fox, in which a Christian priest hunts down and kills a rare arctic vixen which has blue fur. It emerges in the narrative that he has previously got rid of a Downs-syndrome girl in his family by selling her as a sex slave to some sailors. She is eventually cared for by the hero of the book, who learns her strange language and treats her with tenderness. The bitter hatred of the priest for anything and anyone whom he regards as merely animal is seen as the way in which he asserts his intellectual and spiritual superiority as a human being favoured by God. The book is a parable about the kind of power that protects life and the kind that destroys it.
There is reasonable evidence that many so-called primitive societies recognised the common interest of living things and displayed reverence for them in their customs. In the creation story in the Bible, human beings are planted in the midst of the living world as “likenesses of God” to continue the creator’s management of all creatures, a plan which is challenged when the human beings decide to become gods on their own terms, seeking the “knowledge of everything”, as the means to power over everything. The Bible story, which probably dates from the 8th century BCE, has already identified human arrogance as the root of evil, specifically of the never-ending struggle for power. This excess of self-regard and lack of appropriate reverence is identified in Greek drama as “hubris”, the quality which brings ruin on individuals and their families.
It is an arrogance which infected even Christian theology, in its misunderstanding of the creation story as a justification for treating animals as if God had no love for them; and for viewing the natural world as merely a God-given resource for the good of humanity. This divinely sanctioned arrogance has been over many centuries built into the ideology and practice of capitalism and its major opponent, state socialism, both of which have treated the natural world as an infinite provider of the raw materials of economic growth. Both systems believed that the ruthless application of the right economic practices would deliver an unending supply of goods and services.
Except, except… State socialism in the first instance discovered that even the savage pruning of millions of human lives and the destruction of millions of acres of natural habitat could not supply human need; and then, even as the capitalist world rejoiced in the collapse of its opponent, it began to be aware that its ruthlessness was depleting its own resources, polluting its own environment, and causing the over-heating of the planet.
The capitalist response has been exemplary: smear the reputation of any scientist who points out the destruction of the environment; deny the truth of global warming; insist that capitalism can provide for the lives of all humanity- while actually restocking its weapon systems and boosting its armed capability, so that when the crunch comes, the capitalist economy will supply the major capitalist nations, and the rest of the world can go to hell or face annihilation. That’s why nobody in the UK can tell you what our nuclear deterrent is for; it’s for dealing with the countries that might threaten our supplies of food, water and energy when the environmental shit hits the fan. This is not the sort of thing governments want to publicise, but of course they all know that the world can never live as richly and wastefully as the richest nations, and that the era of energy wars is fast approaching.
The rise of right-wing nationalist parties in the “western” world and of terrorist groups elsewhere can be explained as a response to the big lie of capitalism, that it’s good for everybody. These groups, often composed of people disregarded by government, have sussed out the terrible truth: the system will not supply everyone and when the bubble bursts, it will be first -come, first -served. So better grab power now, for your nation, class or religious group before it’s too late. That’s why they foment hatred against foreigners, migrants, other nations, other religions; people need to be trained for what is to come, they need to get a taste for blood……
Which brings us back to the beginning. The evil is arrogance. Not just our individual arrogance, nor even our religious or national arrogance, but fundamentally our arrogance as a species. We refuse to see ourselves as part of the web of life and utterly dependent for our flourishing on our fellow creatures. We have been content to remain ignorant about their contribution to our lives, from the millions of bacteria that live in our guts, to the great whales whose decline is a measure of the dying of our oceans.
Citizens need to wake up to what is happening in their societies and in the world. Christain churches need to repent their bad theology and neglect of God’s creativity. There is a modern children’s hymn with the refrain, “yes, it’s God’s world after all”. Indeed it is, but most people don’t believe it; they think the world belongs to them, or their group, or their nation, or their religion.
Yes, this is a rant: the conclusions I’ve reached are not backed with adequate evidence. But I wanted to get this argument with all its connections down on the page, because when even decent people living in a land of plenty start telling me that there is no room for refugees, I can smell the rottenness in the air. “By the pricking of my thumbs/ something wicked this way comes”.