Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society / Ghassan Hage (Pluto Press, 2003) Review

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by Neil Godfrey

This was the first book I read by an Australian Lebanese academic and I found its discussion of fundamentalism and suicide terrorism most informative. It opened my eyes to seeing how our own Australian nationalism can be seen by non-westerners as just as fundamentalist as any other kind: it enables one to say in response to our collective abuses and crimes, “Well even if we make a few mistakes we are ‘fundamentally’ good at heart, by our nature or character” and thus gloss over our outrages as out of character, unfortunate ‘human’ aberrations. This is true of all fundamentalist mindsets, whether religious or other nationalisms. As for the suicide terrorism bit, it enabled me to see how personal despair, humiliation, hopelessness, — and end of real life on an individual level — is so unbearable that some prefer to swap their physical existence for a symbolic existence. His discussion of the Palestinian situation is trenchant, apt and the point more broadly applicable: when the Palestinians finally give up and turn to drink and vagrancy and park benches like the other “barbarians” we have subdued (aborigines, Indians) we will have “peace”. Hage pleads with society to embrace their minorities as fully human; to fail to do so is to negate society’s own humanity. While I have great respect for Hage’s argument and wish everyone would read and take to heart his book I also personally see us as less swayed by “ideas” than by “genetics” — we need to study our evolutionary heritage to understand our current mass and personal psychologies and work as much with that as with ethical truisms.

Oh, and one more image I have held with me from this book ever since I first read it at the time of its publication — it’s an image that tells us how little effort it takes just to hold together a civil society: you wait at a zebra crossing to cross a road, an oncoming driver stops to let you pass, you wave a thanks, he smiles and politely gestures in return; neither of you knows the other, but both of you recognizing that waiting at a simple zebra crossing marks a moment and space when strangers meet and signal each other in gratitude and kindness. Simple. How much can grow from such simplicity.

Neil Godfrey

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