I have seen the future, brother, it is murder.
Leonard Cohen, The Future, (1993)
From the street corner where Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie – precipitating not only the First World War but a calamitous century – a few steps might have taken him to an Orthodox church, a mosque, a synagogue and a Roman Catholic cathedral. In 1914 Sarajevo was, like most European cities, characterised by the religious, cultural and ethnic diversity of its inhabitants, who got along with one another reasonably enough.
It took decades of war, genocide, population transfers, forced conversions and ‘ethnic cleansing’ to create the false and frozen national unity of the Cold War. But everything changes; ice thaws. The natural diversity of human beings is slowly returning to Europe, though many find the change difficult to accept.
These thoughts were prompted partly by Saturday’s official commemoration of the assassination’s centenary, and partly by a characteristically pointless discussion about cultural diversity on Radio 4 this morning. Listening with half an ear, I paid attention only when I heard one contributor argue that ‘we’re always being told that diversity is a good thing’.
It’s true that these debates often seem to pit those who argue that diversity is good and those who say that people prefer to be with ‘their own kind’, or words to that effect. As so often in political argument, both positions flatter the listener by suggesting they have more power over their lives and circumstances than they actually do. Human diversity is a fact, not a good. What matters is how we live with it.
Those who cannot accept that reality sometimes take action to change it, like Gavrilo Princip in 1914. The consequence was murder, just murder, as numberless millions were sacrificed on the altars of nationalism, national-socialism and socialism. Today’s rebels against reality, in Nigeria, in Iraq, in Somalia and elsewhere, kill in the name of religion. Soon, the countries in the world that have not lived through genocide will be outnumbered by those that have.
Ultimately, the choice is personal. Which call will we respond to – the smooth and false appeal of liberation through blood or the stony path of struggling through today’s problems today, of living with our neighbours, whoever they may be, and of looking for what is cherishable in them, in us and in the day. Leonard Cohen, whose wise humanity makes him not just a great artist but a good one, spoke about this choice in an interview some years ago:
‘…Democracy, fraternity, equality, liberty, [these words] resonate in the heart. But when it comes down to individual choices, we’re very unwilling to surrender our status, to surrender our position in regards to the others. And we’re frightened by the notion that we might have to share our room with strangers; we might have to share our heart with strangers, to share our life with strangers, with those poorer than us.’
Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen (edited by Jeff Burger) p. 320
I don’t suppose the woman begging for coins where statues to both Gavrilo Princip and Franz Ferdinand have stood was allowed to sit there when the world’s panjandrums paraded in Sarajevo on Saturday. But I expect she’s there again today, as the leaders’ caravan passes on to its next self-admiring destination. Meanwhile, the people of Bosnia Herzegovina are busy helping one another recover from May’s disastrous floods, solidarity their only aid.
You don’t have to believe human diversity is a good thing – although there are arguments for thinking so – but there’s no point in pretending that it doesn’t exist or that it can be tidied away, except by murder. And everything’s better than that.