The Avant Garde of Western Civ
David Holdridge presents an extract from his book, The Avant Garde of Western Civ.
Cross Border, Summer 2005
“They are imbuing the soil with their blood,” I said. “Sanctifying it and making it theirs. The field of Blackbirds for the Serbs,” I added as I turned toward my Serb program director, “versus the footloose, the homeless, and the multinational who will not die for soil.”
Attendance at the fountain was down … composed mostly of several new arrivals as the old timers were pushing off for more attractive emergencies elsewhere. We were more workaday these days. My didactics now were most often confined to my hooch at bedtime; my flourishes more an allowance from my staff than an encouragement. They remained respectful of me as a veteran, who led by example, but stayed reluctant to become interested students. I had eyes. I could see the attention waning—the eyelids heavy, the heads turned elsewhere. Toward the dogs. To the Satphone. “Sorry to be late, Mother, the boss was in the middle of one of his worldview speeches.”
There we few circulated around the fountain, some bread and cheese, an Ifes or Pepsi in hand. We, the footloose on reclaimed Kurdish soil, so close to Arab soil, with the displaced, the remnants of the ethnic purges, on either sides of the line. Empire, nation-state, Treaty of Westphalia, the humanitarian imperative, global village, self-determination. Such important concepts we plumbed. School busing, ethnic cleansing, the wall in Palestine, the Schengen Accord, European Union accession for Turkey.
All attempts, we figured, at defining Right Relations between peoples. To what extent do we conglomerate or separate? If conglomerated, then is it federated, allied, imperial or national? If separated, then is it by race, ethnicity, language, religion, ideology or geography?
And then, quite abruptly, I waved it all aside—the academic—and leaned in. “Imagine the 14-year-old Eritrean boy,” I said, “in burlap, thin as a stick, peering at the images from Baywatch or The Simpsons at a store front in Asmara. Imagine the Shia housecleaner in Kut watching a re-run of The Matrix on the master’s TV. Whatever they defined as Right Relations before is certainly getting redefined now in ways it never was before. For the receivers, they yearn for the abundance before their eyes and, if denied, they insist on it—and if denied again, they eventually seek to destroy it.” So borders, we concurred, were now permeable.
But simultaneous and parallel with this transformation, we knew better than most there had also arisen fierce movements for physical borders where none existed. On this particularly starry summer night, I recounted to the remaining staff my personal witness as the heavy hands of the colonialist and then the nomenclature were lifted.
“I was at work there,” I related, “in the Balkans—peering down from Mt. Igman on the besieged city of Sarajevo—and in Georgia as heretofore inclusive borders dissolved across half of the land.” More than 20 new entities, I had guessed, had thus far been formalized into new states. “But many more,” I cautioned, “want independence from the former configurations and continue to insist on asserting their own language, religion and culture. In fact, anywhere we look across the old Soviet periphery or in Africa there are incipient independence movements, armed insurgencies, crying for borders as a guarantee for Right Relations. “So, there is the dynamic, my friends, our context: the global homogenization through the new technological revolution and the fierce insistence for borders around tribal entities.
“We are caught in it,” I warned them. “We sit on all these ethnic fault lines—in Bosnia and Republika Srpska, in Kurdistan, in the Sunni triangle, in the Maronite stronghold, in Aceh, in Mindanao, in the Casamance, in Western Sahara. You guys know,” I told the weary colleagues across from me. “Each side here in Diyala sits us down and pulls out their maps and agonizes over patrimony lost. They reiterate their version of Right Relations between them and their adversary. They keep us up late with the tales of the martyrs, often true, usually presented as proof of one side’s historic preeminence rather than a reflection of a more insidious cause.”
“And the counterpoint. All of it now,” as I took the liberty to sweep my hands under their faces, “so dramatically unfolding in the Arabian Peninsula. The teenagers clawing down the heretofore isolation with no less passion than Berliners smashed down their wall. For all of it … Silicon Valley … Times Square … and Hollywood … for chatting with Suzie in Toledo or diving into Portland’s digital library. And, yes, also, for some to visit the dark sites: the website of al-Qaeda.
“Damn it, guys … can’t you feel it”—as I jumped up out of my chair, “that earth shaking beneath us?” I jumped again and they laughed. “Those popular yearnings for universal participation and sharing freed up for the first time in history and yet the horrific resistance by tribes and zealots to any accommodation with historic neighbors.” There was silence; no one else was choosing to fill the night air. Signs of a rumination preliminary to calling it a night. “Sounds like a wrap to me,” said the man from Belgrade, with a twinkle in his eye. “Good night, all,” I saluted, before I veered over to the pen to check on whether there was sufficient water for the dogs.
*[This article is an extract from David Holdridge’s The Avant Garde of Western Civ, courtesy of Press Americana 2017.]
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Photo Credit: Endelpende