As I write this, the news in Britain is dominated by coverage of the deliberations of members of Parliament, who are trying to decide whether or not to extend the bombing of Isis from Iraq into Syria. If you view this purely as a matter of men and women struggling with their consciences, then these intense, protracted discussions are understandable for reasons it’s impossible to present without going through each and every element of all the arguments involved.
If, however, you view this soul-searching as an attempt to find a practical solution to an enormous problem, then the agonised process becomes much harder to understand, for me at least. We have witnessed a century of aerial warfare, a course of military action that’s become more meticulously documented and examined as time’s gone on, so there can now surely be nothing that we do not know about the advantages and consequences of unleashing bombs or missiles on others from the air.
As I understand it, the object of the exercise is defence of the realm, so with the benefit of all our accumulated experience of these aerial campaigns, it should not be difficult for us to quickly decide if our security is most likely to be enhanced or lessened by bombing Syria, regardless of any other hopes or misgivings we may have.
I cannot see that it has any meaningful bearing on the aforementioned deliberations, but it nonetheless strikes me as strange that while the people who seem increasingly likely to be on the receiving end of a new aerial bombing campaign call themselves the Islamic State, no one else can agree on the name by which they should be known, as they are variously referred to as the so-called Islamic State, the Islamic State Group, IS, Isil, Daesh or Isis.
Nonetheless, this failure to agree on what are the appropriate or correct words to describe a group of people or some other human affair is the most notable characteristic of many of the ills that plague our world today. We’re all familiar with the heated arguments about whether a given group of people are freedom fighters or terrorists, but our views are polarised on many other subjects as well.
Whether it’s freedom of speech, climate change, the right to bear arms, abortion, the death penalty, trophy hunting, immigration, surveillance by the state, foreign wars, sanctions, fracking, benefits, bankers, public health, animal welfare, artistic expression or any other contentious issue, there exists such a chasm between those who differ on these things that the terminology used by one group of people effectively renders the subject unrecognisable to others, while it further enrages them because of what they see as the sheer bloody-minded intransigence of opponents who are deliberately trying to obscure the truth and thereby evade responsibility for their wrong doing or wrong thinking.
To my mind, this is all made worse by the existence of the internet, or the way in which the internet is used, despite the many unquestionable benefits that this technology has brought us. This means of communication allows us all to instantly see events taking place in distant lands and it also grants each and every one of us a voice, so that we can express approval or outrage at what we see according to our individual dispositions. There are countless polite and mutually rewarding conversations taking place on the internet, but these tiny, scattered oases of civilisation are constantly overshadowed by an unrelenting, ill-tempered cacophony everywhere else online, while the whole thing is further tainted and complicated by cyber warfare in all its myriad manifestations.
In the early days of the internet, this technological miracle was almost universally regarded as a boon to Mankind, so it’s shocking to see how something that once held such promise has failed to live up to our expectations of it. However, this is not the first time such a thing has happened, because we have the mournful precedent of the photograph that’s come to be known as The Blue Marble that was taken by one of the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft on December 7th, 1972.
This sublimely beautiful picture has become one of Mankind’s iconic images, because it showed us all how our planet is a delicate, vulnerable entity drifting in silence and solitude through the indescribable enormity of space. In 1994, when writing of the Earth as a pale blue dot as seen by a camera on board the Voyager 1 spacecraft hurtling through the remote reaches of the Solar System, the astronomer Carl Sagan reaffirmed that this place is the only home we’re ever likely to know, adding that “In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
And yet, despite all this, the world is not enough.
The glorious vision of an Earth without borders, with sparkling seas, wreathed in delicate clouds, teeming with every variety of life, resplendent with a mosaic of civilisations ancient and modern, a home for us all, is now largely forgotten or ignored in the light of our savage, parochial disputes over every imaginable subject.
Perhaps this is not surprising, because when we find ourselves in a position wherein we perceive that our deeply-held values, our livelihoods, our liberty, our way of life or our physical safety is threatened, our reality becomes starkly defined and narrowly circumscribed. A passing stranger may have assaulted us because of our appearance, we may find the suffering of another human being or animal intolerable, we can’t find health care when we’re ill, we’re starving, we’re penniless, we feel we’re being overrun; any number of worries, real or imagined, make it nigh-on impossible to summon up the soothing mental image of a cloudy blue pearl drifting serenely through space, with the aim of putting our woes into perspective or of finding a solution to them.
It is human nature to become engrossed by concern for ourselves and for our children, and to subsequently form an intimate world view of uncertain duration that’s far removed from the inspiring, spiritual vista glimpsed by an orbiting astronaut or cosmonaut. I suspect that all those of us who find deep pleasure and satisfaction in calling The Blue Marble to mind do so when we’re in a reflective mood, not when we’re embroiled in the throes of a dispute or struggle, something that William Wordsworth encapsulated in the final stanza of I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud:
“For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.”
If a portrait of the Earth from space cannot consistently make our hearts dance with the daffodils, then what hope is there for us? Well, it is not always possible for us to picture in our mind’s eye a detailed, constant image that acts as a balm, simply because it is beyond our ability to do so, particularly when we’re engaged in mental conflict or turmoil brought on by our circumstances and our instinctive, visceral reaction to them.
However, something that remains in our consciousness or else is never far below the surface is an idea, while some ideas are almost universally accepted and actively thought about by most of us throughout most of our waking lives. To give the examples that readily come to mind, we think of the Moon and stars as beguiling rather than mundane objects, we fear things that may lurk in the darkness, we find comfort and a sense of security when we sleep in caves and artificial caves rather than in the open, we regard murder as the ultimate taboo and we think of children of any race, creed or colour as sacrosanct.
All these notions or concepts are easily expressed and conveyed by means of the written or spoken word, so it should not be beyond all imagining that someone should be able to articulate another view about the value of our shared humanity that is as universally welcomed, accepted and retained as the idea that the warming rays of the sun at Dawn herald the optimistic beginning of another day.
Another idea or belief common to the majority of human beings alive today is that of an afterlife where our souls will find blessed repose. Depending on your faith or culture, this realm is known as the Summer Lands, Annwn, the Elysian Fields, Nirvana, Paradise or the Kingdom of Heaven, although these are just a few of the names given to this idyllic realm. The existence or otherwise of this celestial Utopia must remain a matter of faith until such time as we each die, but in our modern industrialised age, we’ve succeeded in making this world quite literally a Hell on Earth for the billions of animals we’ve enslaved, while we’ve done precisely the same thing to each other with even an greater degree of enthusiasm.
Simple logic suggests that if we can use our ingenuity to inflict the torments of the damned on the rest of Creation, then we can employ that same imagination – if not to immediately create a Paradise on Earth – then to present something to the world that will at least ameliorate some of the poison and suspicion that swirls around us all, like a baleful, suffocating miasma.
And when that product of someone’s imagination finally sees the light of day, it will arrive in the form of that most potent and enduring of human creations, nothing more and nothing less than a simple idea that is as captivating to us all as the sight of the Moon and the constellations eternally making their rounds through the night sky above us.
Yes, Heaven is thine; but this
Is a world of sweets and sours;
Our flowers are merely—flowers,
And the shadow of thy perfect bliss
Is the sunshine of ours.
If I could dwell
Hath dwelt, and he where I,
He might not sing so wildly well
A mortal melody,
While a bolder note than this might swell
From my lyre within the sky.