Ship of fools

  Blog No. 53.


The Ship of Fools


The ship of fools is an allegory, originating from Plato, that has long been a fixture in Western literature and art. The allegory depicts a vessel without a pilot, populated by human inhabitants who are deranged, frivolous, or oblivious, and seemingly ignorant of their course. The concept makes up the framework of the 15th century book Ship of Fools (1494) by Sebastian Brant, which served as the inspiration for Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting, Ship of Fools: a ship—an entire fleet at first—sets off from Basel, bound for the Paradise of Fools. In literary and artistic compositions of the 15th and 16th centuries, the cultural motif of the ship of fools also served to parody the ‘ark of salvation’ as the Catholic Church was styled. (Wikipedia)

I have posted a blog each week for the past year – so this post marks the start of Year 2. A year ago, having some time on my hands, I embarked on a search for a clearer understanding of the world about me than that available through New Zealand’s Main Stream Media. (Fairfax’s ‘World News’ pages, which contain very little other than syndicated stuff from the Murdoch media empire and other corporate empires of that ilk, offers a singularly distorted and one-eyed version of global reality!) I set out in the hope that it would be a relatively narrow fog-bank through which I would have to grope my way, before emerging into a sunny landscape of obvious truths.

That was not to be. The World Wide Web is every bit as full of deliberate misinformation and sirens of untruths as is the MSM. The advantage of the WWW is choice, in that it offers convenient and instantaneous access to multiple views of any one event or situation. Furthermore it offers awareness of matters, which accidentally (and often deliberately) escape the attention of the establishment newsrooms. I am not yet out of the fog, but, though still stumbling, am confident that I have managed to grasp certain objective truths.

To summarise the fruits of a year of discovery:

  •  Should things continue as they are, abrupt or (more optimistically) rapid climate change, on top of all the other unsustainable human depredations upon the planetary environment, will probably, within three or four generations, threaten the continuation of human and much other life on Earth.
  • · The likelihood of nuclear war beating climate change to the extinction of human and most other terrestrial life will be greatly increased by the human starvation, desperation and attempted migrations, which will result from climate change in its medium term.
  • · The current international political structure, whereby a plethora of competing states claim sovereignty for themselves, without ceding adequate power to a central authority responsible for the guardianship of the global commons and the development and enforcement of international law, will prove unable to enforce the measures necessary to negate the above threats.
  • · Individual sovereign nations will continue to be used as vehicles by powerful elites to assert dominion over others and to erect financial systems that enable the strong to exploit the weak. The resultant inequalities and the sense of injustice and outrage that they engender, result in chronic conflict. Though the economy of the newly emergent neo-liberal phase of capitalism might now be globalised, there exists no matching polity. Globalised corporates are able to exercise power unrestrained by even those democratic bodies they haven’t yet been able to buy.
  • · The Ship of Fools sails on. The system is unlikely to change without a massive, grass-roots democratic awakening. Political elites rely on public apathy for their maintenance of power and the course on which they have set their nations. This electoral apathy is induced by full-time immersion in the daily economic struggle, a feeling of individual helplessness in the face of such overwhelming power and above all, by ignorance as to what is actually going on and the extent to which alternatives exist.

To continue my medieval art theme here we have Albrecht Durer’s ‘Four Riders of the Apocalypse,’ Death, Plague, War and Famine. His four cavaliers will soon be with us again and their mounts may be called Climate Change, Nuclear War, International Anarchy and Greed.

Four Riders
Albrecht Durer: Four Riders of the Apocalypse

Having not yet emerged from the fog, I will have to continue my stint of observation, research and commentary. I sat down this morning and without thinking, wrote down a list of at least twenty other topics I felt would be worthy of further exploration.

A blogger is by nature, more of a commentator than an activist, but I feel it has to be every adult’s civic duty, given the perils ahead, to be active in one way or another. From the bottom up, the key to survival will be social support and solidarity: everyone can play a conscious communal role in helping friends, family and neighbours develop mutual trust and support systems. At the other end of the scale, the most ambitious of all such activist goals would be for reform of the United Nations. Should that prove impossible, the global community will have to arrive at some other rational structure to curtail the current political anarchy in which flourish the worst abuses of ungoverned corporate power intent on wagging the democratic dog.

Yesterday the son of a good friend, travelling from Christchurch to Auckland, spent the night, prior to taking the Cook Strait ferry. Being of a different generation, he had a different view of our society’s plight. He reckons that the current generation of rich old men, who control the world, have completely blown their chances of being able to redeem the situation. His own generation, he saw as too busy earning a living, rearing children and earning their manumission from the banks by paying off their mortgages, to be able to offer any serious opposition to the status quo. He put all his faith in what he called ‘Generation Z.” This is the generation of people currently being born and who will have the most time in which to reap the bitter harvest sown by the preceding generations.

Generation Z
Generation Z: the future victims of our apathy.

There might well be some truth in what he had to say. In the 1950s, I was sent to boarding school in England but, as my father was stationed with the British Army on the Rhine, I used to spend my school holidays in Germany. I made many German friends of my own age group, who had been born during, or immediately after the war. Several of these friendships continued into adulthood. My wife was born and brought up as a fluent German speaker in Berlin, where her father was a member of the British Military Government. As such, she was even more exposed to this generation of Germans. What strikes us both about this experience, is the unanimity with which that generation were deeply ashamed of their parents’ participation in, or their failure to prevent, Hitler’s rise to power and the subsequent abominations of his era.

Our German childhood friends’ no longer had anything to fear as a result of the sins and omissions of their parents’ generation; the worst was behind them. In our case, Generation Z will be entering adulthood at a time when the future, rather than the past is deserving of dread. They will have everything to fear from our failures, and those of successive post-war generations. We have spectacularly failed to prevent the deployment of nuclear weapons and to take timely counter-measures to prevent potentially irreversible damage to the climate and the natural world into which Generation Z were born. It will be surprising if they do not come to view us as even greater criminals than our childhood German friends viewed their parents’ generation. The inferno created, or not prevented, by their parents, cost only a relatively few millions of lives when compared to the massive genocide and ecocide that our failure to control rapid climate change may yet result in.

With the imperiled Ship of Fools directionless and at odds with itself, the passengers and crew need a captain to be placed in command. Those, who continue to place the vessel in jeopardy by fighting among themselves, should walk the plank.

Nahla a recent addition to Generation Z







Nahla, my first grandchild, born April 2013: contemplation of whose future inspired this blog. I just hope that ‘Z’ is not the last letter in the generational alphabet.

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One thought on “Ship of fools

  1. Bill McEwan says:

    Hugh, once again so lucid, perceptive and erudite. I am greatly comforted by your synthesis and equally, daunted at the prospects for the future,

    It looks like I will not have any grandchildren. I never thought I would say that I am glad of that. At the same time I am much in need of the freshness and optimism of the young. Being older and reflective is not a source of joy in 2015. And I am sure I won’t enjoy the shame when Generation Z says “You buggered it up for us.” So we must do what we can now, both for our own psychological well being and also the general well being of those who come after us.

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