Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A 2007 warning: the world's twelve worst ideas
Fred Halliday
8 - 1 - 2007

The world is full of conformism masquerading as profundity, says Fred Halliday, who explodes twelve global falsehoods.

In identifying error, two great models at either end of modern times exist. The first is part thirty-nine of Francis Bacon's Novum Organon (1620), with its four categories of idol: those of the cave (of individual men), the tribe (human nature), the marketplace (intercourse of men with each other) and the theatre (philosophical dogma). The second is Francis Wheen's How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions (2004).

Some errors are products of the unchallenged, the routine, the conventional. Some are new, products of fashion, of novelty, even of globalisation. Everyone has his or her own selection, born of profession, personality, place. The list could be a long one but, like Christ and his disciples, twelve seems a comfortable figure, at once extensive and compact. Here, for 2007, is one suggested list, in ascending order:

Number twelve: Human behaviour can be predicted

In the name of a supposedly "scientific" criterion of knowledge, scholars are berated for not predicting the end of the cold war, the rise of Islam, 9/11 and much else besides. Yet many natural sciences – seismology, evolutionary biology - cannot predict with accuracy either. Human affairs themselves, even leaving aside the matter of human intention and will, allow of too many variables for such calculation. We will never be able to predict with certainty the outcome of a sports contest, the incidence of revolutions, the duration of passion or how long an individual will live.

Number eleven: The world is speeding up

This, a favourite trope of globalisation theorists, confuses acceleration in some areas, such as the transmission of knowledge, with the fact that large areas of human life continue to demand the same time as before: to conceive and bear a child, to learn a language, to grow up, to digest a meal, to enjoy a joke, to read a poem. It takes the same time to fly from London to New York as it did forty years ago, ditto to boil an egg or publish a book. Some activities – such as or driving around major western cities, getting through an airport, or dying - may take much longer.

Number ten: We have no need for history

In recent decades, large areas of intellectual and academic life - political thought and analysis, economics, philosophy - have jettisoned a concern with history. Yet it remains true that those who ignore history repeat it; as the recycling of unacknowledged cold-war premises by the Bush administration in Iraq has devastatingly shown.

Number nine: We live in a "post-feminist" epoch

The implication of this claim, supposedly analogous to such terms as "post-industrial", is that we have no more need for feminism, in politics, law, everyday life, because the major goals of that movement, articulated in the 1970s and 1980s, have been achieved. On all counts, this is a false claim: the "post-feminist" label serves not to register achievement of reforming goals, but the delegitimation of those goals themselves.

Number eight: Markets are a "natural" phenomenon which allow for the efficient allocation of resources and preferences

Markets are not "natural" but are the product of particular societies, value systems and patterns of state relation to the economy. They are not efficient allocators of goods, since they ignore the large area of human activity and need that is not covered by monetary values - from education and the provision of public works, to human happiness and fulfillment. In any case the pure market is a fantasy; the examples of the two most traded commodities in the contemporary world, oil and drugs, show how political, social and cartel factors override and distort the workings of supply and demand.

Number seven: Religion should again be allowed, when not encouraged, to play a role in political and social life

From the evangelicals of the United States, to the followers of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, to the Islamists of the middle east, the claim about the benefits of religion is one of the great, and all too little challenged, impostures of our time. For centuries, those aspiring to freedom and democracy, be it in Europe or the middle east, fought to push back the influence of religion on public life. Secularism cannot guarantee freedom, but, against the claims of tradition and superstition, and the uses to which religion is put in modern political life, from California to Kuwait, it is an essential bulwark.

Number six: In the modern world, we do not need utopias

Dreaming, the aspiration to a better world and the imagination thereof, is a necessary part of the human condition.

Number five: We should welcome the spread of English as a world language

It is obviously of practical benefit that there is one common, functional, language of trade, air traffic control etc, but the actual domination of English in today's world has been accompanied by a tide of cultural arrogance that is itself debasing: a downgrading and neglect of other languages and cultures across the world, the general compounding of Anglo-Saxon political and social arrogance, and the introverted collapse of interest within English-speaking countries themselves in other peoples and languages, in sum, a triumph of banality over diversity. One small but universal example: the imposition on hotel staff across the world, with all its wonderful diversity of nomenclature, of name tags denoting the bearer as "Mike", "Johnny" and "Steve".

Number four: The world is divided into incomparable moral blocs, or civilisations

This view has been aptly termed (by Ernest Gellner) as "liberalism for the liberals, cannibalism for the cannibals". But a set of common values is indeed shared across the world: from democracy and human rights to the defence of national sovereignty and belief in the benefits of economic development. The implantation of these values is disputed, in all countries, but not the values themselves. Most states in the world, whatever their cultural or religious character, have signed the universalist United Nations declarations on human rights, starting with the 1948 universal declaration.

Number three: Diasporas have a legitimate role to play in national and international politics

The notion that emigrant or diaspora communities have a special insight into the problems of their homeland, or a special moral or political status in regard to them, is wholly unfounded. Emigrant ethnic communities play almost always a negative, backward, at once hysterical and obstructive, role in resolving the conflicts of their countries of origin: Armenians and Turks, Jews and Arabs, various strands of Irish, are prime examples on the inter-ethnic front, as are exiles in the United States in regard to resolving the problems of Cuba, or policymaking on Iran. English emigrants are less noted for any such political role, though their spasms of collective inebriation and conformist ghettoised lifestyles abroad do little to enhance the reputation of their home country.

Number two: The only thing "they" understand is force

This has been the guiding illusion of hegemonic and colonial thinking for several centuries. Oppressed peoples do not accept the imposition of solutions by force: they revolt. It is the oppressors who, in the end, have to accept the verdict of force, as European empires did in Latin America, Africa and Asia and as the United States is doing in Iraq today. The hubris of "mission accomplished" in May 2003 has been followed by ignominy.

Number one: The world's population problems, and the spread of Aids, can be solved without the use of condoms

This is not only the most dangerous, but also the most criminal, error of the modern world. Millions of people will suffer, and die premature and humiliating deaths, as a result of the policies pursued in this regard through the United Nations and related aid and public-health programmes. Indeed, there is no need to ask where the first mass murderers of the 21st century are; we already know, and their addresses besides: the Lateran Palace, Vatican City, Rome, and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC. Timely arrest and indictment would save many lives.

Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the LSE, and visiting professor at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (IBEI). His books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB Tauris, 2003) and 100 Myths About the Middle East (Saqi, 2005).