Sunday, October 21, 2012

Progressive Delusions

Nearly a year has passed since I last mentioned George F. Kennan on Ghulf Genes, so it is time again. We have no scientific evidence for this, but as Wikipedia informs me, “Native Americans in the United States have historically had extreme difficulty with the use of alcohol.” Similarly I have no scientific evidence for asserting that “The late Western Civilization has had an extreme tendency to succumb to progressive delusions.” Both may be true. The late but long-lived George Kennan (1904-2005) had discovered an inoculant to prevent the onset of that disease: realism. Hence I hope that he will be remembered.

This came to mind as we settled down to read The American Conservative yesterday. We always read it together, meaning that Brigitte reads, I listen, and then we both talk. The article in question was a review by Leon Hadar of a book by Charles A. Kupchan of Oxford University titled: “No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn” (October 2012 issue). We were delighted. The spirit of rationalism, realism remains alive.

The other day I offered the opinion that technology progresses but humanity cycles. The progressive delusions syndrome (PDS) is the mistaken belief that humanity also progresses and that, in the West, the two-beat events of the American and of the French Revolutions inaugurated the new age with a ta-Dah! The theme, of course, had been sounded earlier in the 1215 Magna Carta and smaller echoes of the same. But it took the eighteenth century to offer us the quartet of Enlightenment, Secularism, Democracy, and Capitalism. The syndrome consists in believing that these Four Horsemen will inevitably conquer the world.

Outbreaks of PDS marked our invasion of Iraq. At last, we thought, we would establish a beachhead of democracy where all of the oil is. The impossible conquest of Afghanistan (has been done before but never successfully) arose from pure faith, an ardent desire to bring light to mountainous darkness—although, of course, the ghost of a great pipeline glimmers in that darkness as well.

The most recent outbreak accompanied the Arab Spring. I hastened to register a cautious disagreement then. Somehow I do not believe that Twitter will conquer the world or that “the Spirit of Progress moved upon the Facebook of the waters” then. That drama is still “under construction,” as it were, but the forms emerging, most recently in Egypt and in Libya, are not easily recognized as marketable offspring of Progress.

So let us by all means reread George Kennan and, fortified, prepare to battle the horsemen we’ve created. Nor should we fantasize that China, which looks back to 2100 BC to see its first dynasty, the Xia, will gladly embrace what we produced circa 1800 AD. In that spirit I note that it might be time to do some raking—as soon as the rain stops to fall.

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