Primum Non Nocere

by Gilles d'Aymery

July 29, 2002


In times past, during my formative and turbulent years, armed with the faith of youth, riding high my own Rossinante against all the perceived and real injustice in the world, some close to home (much too close, sadly), instinctively loathing power in any circumstance, without exception, in a period of extreme emotional fragility, my grandmother would endeavor to guide me. She was a great listener, all-forgiving of my excesses and mistakes. She'd talk little but when she did her words were carefully chosen, tailored by kindness and always attempting to instill confidence in my shattered self.

This was some 35-40 years ago but I have a vivid memory of the words she spoke. She'd say, "go, mon petit, look toward the future, keep your head up, walk with self-esteem. Remember, wherever you go, whatever room you enter, every time you speak, people will notice you for they will sense deep idealism, honesty and justice." "Beware," she'd add, "of the risks and pitfalls, however. Beware that in the name of fighting injustice you do not create injustice, that in fighting hatred you do not hate." "When a fire is burning do not add fuel to it." And, these words we've all heard time and again but rarely heed... "violence only begets violence." "First, do no harm."

Many a grandmother must have pronounced these words to many a grandchild. For one reason or another they have had a great resonance and influence on my life. I may not have heeded them well all the time but I have tried and I keep trying to walk this fine line. I've often stumbled and made mistakes but the compass heads in the same direction.

Later on, I was privileged to meet a few individuals who influenced me greatly, particularly during my graduate and post-graduate studies. People like Alexis Wolkenstein, my esteemed and much admired professor at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, Bernard Deutsch, Sylvie Lambiotte, and more. They were all answering my thirst for knowledge through countless debates and by providing reading lists whose contents occupied my days and nights for years; the result of which became clearer and clearer with time: the more I learned the more I discovered how little I knew...and how much my grandmother's simple words made sense.

There are lots of people out there who in the name of fighting perceived and real injustice create worse injustice; who end up hating hate so virulently that they are spilling hate through all the pores of their skin, always in the name of some higher truth; who see themselves as white knights fighting what they consider dark and evil forces with the same tools they so loudly decry when used by the enemy. Some of them are longing for a utopian future that too often resemble the myths of an idyllic past that never existed; others, often well-intentioned populists, long for a more inclusive political culture from which they feel they've been excluded for ever; others still, more apocalyptic-minded, see terrible plots and secret cabals behind all human events, a world led by an ultimate ruling power made of small evil groups bound to destroy "civilization" and the entire universe.

Ever since the illegal NATO war against Serbia in the spring of 1999, when I strongly objected to the demonization of the Serbian people as a whole, my path has crossed many such people. They are a cross-section of various political interests and agendas. They cover the entire political spectrum. Anarchists, Marxists, Socialists, lefties, paleocons, Libertarians, racists, anti-immigrants, religious fundamentalists, anti-Semites, white supremacists, populists, conservatives, progressives, conspiracists, peace and antiwar activists; an entire kaleidoscope of diverse values and frame of references having one commonality: the rejection of the order of the day, whatever the order and whatever the day. The opponents of the New World Order and world socialist totalitarianism walk hand in hand with those of the same New World Order and world capitalist totalitarianism, down the streets of dissidence, all shouting in unison. Talk about interesting bedfellows!

I recall during the war against Yugoslavia resisting, not always successfully, the efforts of contributors who, opposed to the demonization of the Serbs, wanted to demonize the other side (Croatians, Muslim Bosnians, Albanians, etc.). I remember my discomfort expressed in some of my articles and in many private correspondence, with this reverse hatred, with the creation of the enemy by people who in the majority did not even know much of anything about the Balkans in the first place. Antiwar coalitions were formed, activists were unleashed with the goal to partake in the stopping of this malevolent colossus gone awry, all asking for a better world -- though unable to agree with what it meant and quite short on propositions as to how to reach the promised land -- and, most evidently, being utterly inconsequential in regard to the events which run their course, oblivious to the shouting crowds.

Disenfranchised people tend to increase the volume of their discontent over time. The decibel of the shouting rises with the recognition that one has in effect no influence on the policies being decided and implemented in the corridors of power. The Al Aqsa intifada and 9/11 rekindled the energies of those fringes. The harsh rhetoric became harsher. For lack of clear evidence and simple explanations for these latest ills and orgies of violence (WTC/Pentagon, Afghanistan, Palestinian suicide bombings, Israeli brutal and self-defeating retaliation), for a generalized malaise before events that in the realm of economics, ecology, human interactions, whose complexities one can hardly grasp, thus compounding the sense of powerlessness and dissatisfaction, positions become more extreme, more implacable, until they essentially mirror those of the hated order.

Again, my grandmother: "Beware that in the name of fighting injustice you do not create injustice, that in fighting hatred you do not hate."

Over the last ten months or so, I insensibly witnessed a few people with whom I had intermittently related in the past three years turn the volume of their rhetoric to the hilt. I saw the rise of conspiracy theories and not surprisingly Jewish hatred. Characterizations of world evilness and anti-Semitism are essentially -- that is, everything being equal... that is, also, in the black and white simplifications of a world that encompasses millions of colors -- synonyms. I've seen an acquaintance from the shores of Lake Michigan become a mere pawn of direly reactionary undercurrents. I've read about "Ein Volk, Ein Fuehrer, Ein Israel" or about "Israel modeling itself on Nazi Germany." I've seen Israeli flags defaced with Swastikas, an act as reprehensible as Israeli soldiers painting Stars of David on Palestinian homes. I've heard that the Bush administration fomented 9/11. Or was it the Mossad? I've heard this one too. I have seen those people being lauded or referred on sites like williamcooper.com (a white supremacist site) or the Institute for Historical Review (a Faurissian, Holocaust revisionist, and heart-sickening anti-Semite organization). I have heard agent provocateurs and agitators shouting louder and louder their "uncompromising views," hating what they hate, BUT NEVER, EVER, COMING UP WITH A SEMBLANCE OF A WORKABLE SOLUTION.

To my consternation and sorrow Swans experienced a subtle and troubling increase in playing to this dysfunctional -- and, yes, quite reactionary -- cacophony. Reviewing the site's logs I noticed a rise in visitorship coming from what I would simply characterize here as unpalatable sites. At first I was befuddled. Then, upon further analysis, I was able to figure out which of our articles attracted these visitors. It did not take long to understand.

That a substantial subculture exists, based on mistrust, deep cynicism, the belief in the inherent darkness of humans who are deemed intrinsically sinners, the powers-that-be being all conniving to do no good and at the same time marionettes of even more evil forces, secretive powers, should not be dismissed. It does exist. One could dissert on its influence on the greater culture and one could debate the pros and cons of such a culture, the validity of its logic, and so on and so forth, but I have no inclination for such an exercise. Those who understand the reactionary character of this subculture, those who realize its diverting consequences, its recuperation by the very powers it loathes, its real dangers, and those who grasp the meaning of "First, do no harm," need no explanation. They know. Chances are that the members of such a subculture will not be swayed by my arguments.

I am not inclined either to employ the same tools used by this subculture to attack its members...or demonize them. Many of them are genuinely convinced of the prevalence of their views. I am not in the demonizing business, anyway. I actually wrote to our regular columnists that "Swans will not become a vehicle to demonize other people, be they Serbs, Albanians, Croatians, Palestinians, Israelis, Iraqis, Americans, Jews, Christians, Moslems, pick your favorite..." I'll be glad to add conspiracists and anti-Semites to the list; though as repugnant as the latter are to all my senses, I won't answer hate with hate, and as offensive as the former are to my frame of references and my values, I won't scapegoat them.

For, I'd rather follow the path of Robin D.G. Kelley in Finding The Strength To Love And Dream and heed my grandmother's words.

"First, do no harm."

· · · · · ·


Hippocratic Oath: First, Do No Harm (Primum Non Nocere)

The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy
by Albert O. Hirschman, Harvard University, 1991; ISBN: 067476868X

Right-Wing Populism in America
by Chip Berlet, Matthew N. Lyons, Guilford Press, 1996-2000; ISBN: 1572305681

The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays
by Richard Hofstadter, University of Chicago Press, 1979; ASIN: 0226348172

Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture by Mark Fenster, University of Minnesota Press, 2001; ISBN: 081663243X

Excerpts from Mark Fenster's Conspiracy Theories...

The Buchanan campaign incorporates themes of right wing populism, scapegoating, reactionary politics, and Fascism, Chip Berlet, 24 February, 1996

No Right Answers: How the U.S. Political Right Reacted to 9/11 and the Crises in the Middle East - (The Public Eye)

Dehumanization and Demonization - (The Public Eye)

The Sucker Punch of Right/Left Coalitions - (The Public Eye)

The Public Eye - Website of Political Research Associates


Gilles d'Aymery is Swans' publisher and co-editor.

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Published July 29, 2002
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