THE CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS AT THE END OF HISTORY Slavoj Zizek In a Hollywood story, its rich historical background serves merely as the excuse for what the film “really is about” - the initiatic journey of the hero or of the couple. In Reds, the October Revolution is the background for the reconciliation of the lovers in a passionate sex act; in Deep Impact, the gigantic wave that inundates the entire east coast of the US is a background for the incestuous reunification of the daughter with her father; in The War of the Worlds, the alien invasion is the background for Tom Cruise to reassert his paternal role… not so in Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, where the background persists. In a typical Hollywood sci-fi, the future world may be full of unheard-of objects and inventions, but even the cyborgs interact exactly the way we do – or, rather, did in old Hollywood melodramas and action movies. In The Children of Men, there are no new gadgets, London is exactly the same as it is now, only more so – Cuaron merely brought out its latent poetic and social potentials: the greyness and decay of the littered suburbs, the omni-presence of video-surveillance… The film reminds us that, of all strange things we can imagine, the weirdest is reality itself. Hegel remarked long ago that a portrait of a person resembles it more than this person itself. The Children of Men is a science-fiction of our present itself. It is 2027, with the human race rendered infertile - the earth’s youngest inhabitant, born 18 years ago, was just killed in Buenos Aires. The UK lives in a permanent state of emergency, antiterrorist quads chasing illegal immigrants, the state power administering the dwindling population which vegetates in sterile hedonism. Are these two features – hedonist permissiveness plus new forms of social apartheid and control based on fear – not what our societies are about? Here comes Cuaron’s stroke of a genius – as he put it in one of his interviews: “Many of the stories of the future involve something like ‘Big Brother,’ but I think that’s a 20th-century view of tyranny. The tyranny happening now is taking new disguises — the tyranny of the 21st century is called ‘democracy’.” This is why the rulers of his world are not grey and uniformed Orwellian “totalitarian” bureaucrats, but enlightened democratic administrators, cultured, each with his or her own “life style.” When the hero visits an ex-friend, now a top government official, to gain a special permit for a refugee, we enter something like a Manhattan upper-class gay couple loft, the informally dressed official with his crippled partner at the table. Children of Men is obviously not a film about infertility as a biological problem. The infertility Cuaron’s film is about was diagnosed long ago by Friedrich Nietzsche, when he perceived how Western civilization is moving in the direction of the Last Man, an apathetic creature with no great passion or commitment: unable to dream, tired of life, he takes no risks, seeking only comfort and security, an expression of tolerance with one another: “A little poison now and then: that makes for pleasant dreams. And much poison at the end for a pleasant death. They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health. ‘We have discovered happiness,’ - say the Last Men, and they blink.” The Last Men doesn’t want his daydreaming disturbed – this is why “harassment” is a key word in his mental universe. At its most elementary, the term designates brutal facts of rape, beating, and other modes of social violence which, of course, should be ruthlessly condemned. However, in the predominant use, this elementary meaning imperceptibly slips into the condemnation of any excessive proximity of another real human being, with his or her desires, fears and pleasures. Two topics determine today's liberal tolerant attitude towards others: the respect of otherness, openness towards it, and the obsessive fear of harassment. The other is OK insofar as his presence is not intrusive, insofar as the other is not really other. Tolerance coincides with its opposite: my duty to be tolerant towards the other effectively means that I should not get too close to him, not to intrude into his/her space – in short, that I should respect his/her intolerance towards my over-proximity. This is what is more and more emerging as the central 'human right' in our society: the right not to be harassed, i.e., to be kept at a safe distance from the others. The courts in most of the Western societies now impose a restraining order when someone sues another person for harassing him or her (stalking him or her or making unwarranted sexual advances). The harasser can be legally prohibited from knowingly approaching the victim, and must remain at a distance of more than 100 yards. Necessary as this measure is, there is nonetheless in it something of the defense against the traumatic reality of the other's desire: is it not obvious that there is something dreadfully violent about openly displaying one's passion for and to another human? Passion by definition hurts its object, and even if its addressee gladly agrees to occupy this place, he or she cannot ever do it without a moment of awe and surprise. This is the case even with the growing prohibition of smoking. First, all offices were declared "smoke-free," then flights, then restaurants, then airports, then bars, then private clubs, then, in some campuses, 50 yards around the entrances to the buildings, then in a unique case of pedagogical censorship, reminding us of the famous Stalinist practice of retouching the photos of nomenklatura – the US Postal Service removed the cigarette from the stamps with the photo- portrait of blues guitarist Robert Johnson and of Jackson Pollock. These prohibitions target the other's excessive and risky enjoyment, embodied in the act of "irresponsibly" lighting a cigarette and inhaling deeply with an unabashed pleasure (in contrast to Clintonite yuppies who do it without inhaling, or who have sex without actual penetration, or food without fat) – indeed, as Jacques Lacan put it, after God is dead, nothing is anymore permitted. In today's market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol... and the list goes on. What about virtual sex as sex without sex, the Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties (on our side, of course) as warfare without warfare, the contemporary redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration as politics without politics, up to today’s tolerant liberal multiculturalism as an experience of Other deprived of its Otherness (the idealized Other who dances fascinating dances and has an ecologically sound holistic approach to reality, while features like wife beating or incest rape remain out of sight)? We from the First World countries find it more and more difficult even to imagine a public or universal Cause for which one would be ready to sacrifice one's life. It effectively appears as if the split between First World and Third World runs more and more along the lines of the opposition between leading a long satisfying life full of material and cultural wealth, and dedicating one's life to some transcendent Cause. Is this antagonism not the one between what Nietzsche called "passive" and "active" nihilism? We in the West are the Last Men, immersed in stupid daily pleasures, while the Muslim radicals are ready to risk everything, engaged in the nihilist struggle up to their self-destruction. No wonder that the only place in Children of Men where a strange sense of freedom prevails, a kind of liberated territory without this all-pervasive suffocating oppression, is Blackpool, the whole city isolated by a wall and turned into a refugee camp run by its inhabitants, illegal immigrants, and, at the film’s end, ruthlessly bombed by the air force. Life is thriving here, with Islam fundamentalist military demonstrations, but also acts of authentic solidarity – no wonder the newborn child makes it appearance here. In a debate about the fate of Guantanamo prisoners on NBC about in 2004, one of the weirdest arguments for the ethico-legal acceptability of their status was that “they are those who were missed by the bombs”: since they were the target of the US bombing and accidentally survived it, and since this bombing was part of a legitimate military operation, one cannot condemn their fate when they were taken prisoners after the combat – whatever their situation, it is better, less severe, than being dead… This reasoning tells more than it intends to say: it puts the prisoner almost literally into the position of living dead, those who are in a way already dead (their right to live forfeited by being legitimate targets of murderous bombings), so that they are now cases of what Giorgio Agamben calls homo sacer, the one who can be killed with impunity since, in the eyes of the law, his life no longer counts. If the Guantanamo prisoners are located in the space “between the two deaths,” occupying the position of homo sacer, legally dead (deprived of a determinate legal status) while biologically still alive, then the Terri Schiavo case which hold our imagination in March 2005 presents the opposite. She suffered brain damage in 1990 when her heart stopped briefly from a chemical imbalance believed to have been brought on by an eating disorder; court-appointed doctors claimed she is in a persistent vegetative state with no hope of recovery. While her husband wanted her disconnected to die in peace, her parents argued that she could get better and that she would never have wanted to be cut off from food and water. The case reached the top level of the US government and judicial bodies, with the Supreme Court and President involved, the Congress passing fast-track resolutions, etc. The absurdity of the situation, when put in the wider context, is breath-taking: with tens of millions dying of AIDS and hunger all around the world, the public opinion in the US focused on a single case of prolonging the run of a naked life, of a persistent vegetative state deprived of all specifically human characteristics. These are the two extremes we find ourselves today with regard to human rights: one the one hand those “missed by the bombs” (mentally and physically full human beings, but deprived of rights), on the other hand a human being reduced to bare vegetative life, but this bare life protected by the entire state apparatus. So what went wrong with us? Any attentive reader of Marquis de Sade cannot help noticing the paradox of how the Sadean unconstrained assertion of sexuality, deprived of the last vestiges of spiritual transcendence, turns sexuality itself into a mechanic exercise lacking any authentic sensual passion. And is not a similar reversal clearly discernible in the deadlock of today's Last Men, "postmodern" individuals who reject all "higher" goals and dedicate their life to survival filled with more and more refined and artificially aroused pleasures? If the old hierarchic societies oppressed vital forces through their rigid ideological systems and the state apparatuses that enforced them, today’s societies are losing their vitality through their very permissive hedonism: everything is allowed, but decaffeinated, deprived of its substance. And the same as for our pleasures goes for our democracy: it is more and more a decaffeinated democracy, a democracy deprived of its substance, of its political edge. A century ago, G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church.” The first thing one should add to it today is that the same holds for the advocates of religion themselves: how many fanatical defenders of religion started with ferociously attacking the contemporary secular culture and ended up forsaking religion itself (losing any meaningful religious experience). And is it not that, in a strictly homologous way, the liberal warriors are so eager to fight the anti-democratic fundamentalism that they will end by flinging away freedom and democracy themselves if only they may fight terror? They have such a passion for proving that the non-Christian fundamentalism is the main threat to freedom that they are ready to fall back on the position that we have to limit our own freedom here and now, in our allegedly Christian societies. If the terrorists are ready to wreck this world for love of the other, our warriors on terror are ready to wreck their own democratic world out of hatred for the Muslim other. Jonathan Alter, Alan Derschowitz, and Sam Harris love human dignity so much that they are ready to legalize torture – the ultimate degradation of human dignity - to defend it… Today’s predominant mode of politics is a politics of fear, a defense against potential victimization or harassment: fear of immigrants, fear of crime, fear of godless sexual depravity, fear of the excessive State itself (with too high taxation), fear of ecological catastrophies, fear of harassment (which is why Political Correctness is the exemplary liberal form of the politics of fear). Such a politics always relies on the frightening rallying of frightened men. The big event in Europe in the early 2006 was that the anti-immigration politics “went mainstream”: they finally cut the umbilical link that connected them to the far Right fringe parties. From France to Germany, from Austria to Holland, in the new spirit of pride at one’s cultural and historical identity, the main parties now find it acceptable to stress that the immigrants are guests who have to accommodate themselves to the cultural values that define the host society – it is “our country, love it or leave it.” This is why the “clash of civilizations” is the Huntington's disease of our time – as Samuel Huntington put it, after the end of the Cold War, the “iron curtain of ideology” has been replaced by the “velvet curtain of culture.” This dark vision may appear the very opposite of Francis Fukuyama’s bright prospect of the End of History in the guise of a world-wide liberal democracy; perhaps, however, the »clash of civilizations« IS »the end of history,« i.e., the ethnico-religious conflicts are the form of struggle which fits global capitalism. In our age of »post-politics,« when politics proper is progressively replaced by expert social administration, the only remaining legitimate source of conflicts are cultural (ethnic, religious) tensions. So, to quote President Bush’s unforgettable Freudian condensation, do not misunderestimate Children of Men – Cuaron’s new film strikes at the very heart of our predicament.