The Dangers of Form Agnosia
Sun 5th Oct 2014
There is a condition - agnosia - associated with damage to the occipitotemporal region of the brain, whereby patients can no longer recognise objects, persons, sounds, shapes, and smells. A variant of this condition - form agnosia - relates specifically to the inability to process or recognise composite images, or “the bigger picture”. While maintaining the ability to focus in on individual details, they lose the capacity to any longer link the parts to a single whole.
I often get the impression that society suffers from this condition, as if it has been smacked upon the head so many times that it has lost all comprehension of action and consequence. In particular, we appear to have mislaid our ability to assess the impact of meddling in the complex relationships between nations on underlying economical and cultural realities. This already discouraging prognosis also appears to be coupled with some selective amnesia and progressive Attention Deficit Disorder. While unpleasant in an individual, these conditions become extremely dangerous in a society particularly when they manifest in mass media or, even more alarmingly, foreign policy and domestic legislation.
Let me explain.
They say that hindsight is 20/20 – that from its lofty heights, posterity has the luxury of learning from the mistakes of its forebears and guiding future generations through the mire of socio-economic and political relations towards a future where, one hopes, we can finally cease to regularly decimate each other over increasingly scant resources. However, in a society where this posterity loses the capacity to analyse cause and effect, the impact of historical, cultural and economic ties, and apply these learnings to the wider picture, we end up repeating past mistakes – but with a much greater potential toll because technology, of course, marches on, even as education degrades.
The increasingly frequent propensity of Western leaders to overlook the context of various social phenomena, and to consequently apply swift and often ill-informed judgment, has resulted in the unfortunate and entirely preventable deaths of millions – “collateral damage” which could have been easily avoided had the foreign policy of the most influential nations taken into account the underlying drivers for these phenomena, rather than blindly attempting to harness long-suffered grievances in their insatiable drive for geopolitical dominance. The course of politics this year has been nothing if not surprising, especially given that this year marks the centenary of the beginning of the First World War. Somehow it does not seem ironic to our opinion leaders that on the same BBC channel there can be two programmes side by side: one warning of the follies of imperialism based on the bloody case study of the Great War, the other showing EU and US diplomats and politicians fuelling civil unrest in Ukraine, an open attempt by external nations at jockeying for position and geopolitical influence in a shrinking world. Yet no one seems able or willing to link the two.
Another worrying symptom is that political leaders today seem unable to link economics to foreign policy. Surely it seems ill-advised to play 20th century isolationist games in a 21st century globalised world? Especially so where the better part of the economies of most countries depend on external markets, particularly following a painful recession that the world has not yet recovered from, where such actions threaten to fling the world’s most developed countries back into the clutches of negative growth, unemployment, and civil unrest (on the brink of election season). Yet this is normal, can be observed on a daily basis preached by countless mouthpieces of countless nations, and forms the basis of 21st century politics.
Nowhere has this deficiency been more evident than in the handling of the crises in Ukraine and the Middle East by the international community.
A complete lack of understanding of the convoluted and intricate inter-relationships within countries in the Middle East have led Western governments, in their increasing ambition, into an endless conflict which has dragged on for 13 years. Despite the fact that effectively the same war has been unsuccessfully waged in Afghanistan by both the British Empire and the Soviet Union in the last century and a bit, and given that the tactics of the opposing side have not changed, the Coalition amazingly failed to take account of these well documented conflicts and, unsurprisingly, came across the same challenges and blockers which have cost thousands of lives in indiscriminate air strikes and guerrilla warfare. The behaviour of the Coalition in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria has seen Western governments trampling about like a bull in a china shop – sowing destruction at every turn. The complex demographics of Shia and Sunni populations, as well as other minorities, had been moderately contained by largely secular rule which, while never ideal, prevented mass violence. The rise of theocracies and radical groups, triggered by the removal of established (if controversial) heads of state in conflicts initiated by Western meddling to improve access to oil reserves, has snowballed, feeding off not only intra-Islamic conflict but also growing disillusionment with Western influence, which thus far has only brought instability, persecution, violence, and chaos to every state it has touched. A spectacular example is the support given to ISIS militants by Western governments in a bid to remove Assad, a secular ruler with a support base, which has resulted in these same radical militants now threatening Western oil fields in Iraq and spreading uncontrollably throughout territory deemed important for Western interests. Had the West bothered to read up on the history of the Middle East, perhaps ISIS would not now be beheading Western journalists in Iraq. And yet, we see analysts shrug and shake their heads in surprise that anti-western feeling continues to grow in the Middle East. Correspondingly, radical groups have no trouble finding new recruits.
A similar story unfolds in the Ukrainian crisis, whereby Western leaders surreptitiously inserted themselves into the politics of a divided country with no understanding of the (again) complex and highly emotional history of the region. Linked geographically as the sovereign state we know for only 23 years, Ukraine has always been divided. Its Western and Eastern regions hail from different backgrounds, ethnicities and cultural influences and, as a result of its varied, colourful, and often bloody history, hold vastly different and opposing values. These differences have played out again and again across economic, social, and geographic planes and a shared history of violence suffered inflicted has left many Ukrainians on opposite sides of not only an emotional and ideological but also a very physical barricade. To date, this conflict has been managed by something of an equilibrium, whereby every four years, a president would come to power that would favour one side a little more than the other (but still respect the basic differences of the regions). Where one side lost, the other gained, and so it went, while the education system and standard of living steadily fell and corruption and oligarchy dominated, until public annoyance finally spilt over into mass protest. Into this powder keg of dissatisfaction and tension come traipsing western politicians bearing cookies and incentives for only one side (again largely due to a simple lack of understanding that there was another side; anti-Kiev protests appeared to come as something of a shock, despite warnings by Russia of this exact outcome years ago in the event of an attempt to force a one-sided preference (as covered in cables released by WikiLeaks) in yet another bid to widen their geopolitical ambitions (again, the irony here is tangible). Due to a complete ignorance of the region’s internal tensions, what was expected to be an easy pivot has ended in a costly civil war which promises to drag on for months if not years. Even in this war, new parallels arise which the West either chooses to ignore or is naively ignorant of – tendencies and parallels that become more and more alarming with each day – such as the increase in political arrests, the rise of the far right and their unbridled influence on affairs, the increase in violence and discrimination which continues to go largely unreported such as the torture and detainment of civilians, the beating and blackmailing of MPs, and the gradual handover of police power from the state constabulary to armed private groups of unsavoury conviction. And yet, no link is made.
A situation not unlike the last years of the Weimar Republic is emerging in Ukraine and is a threat not only to those countries immediately on its borders, but to all countries who fail to notice this direction (already evident in the results of the recent European Parliament elections). Both inaction and encouragement of these trends by Western governments begs the question – is this agnosia by incompetence or agnosia by choice and what will be the result?