Sunday 12 January 2003

The “idealization of historical ignorance”

From Normative Shift by Coral Bell (The National Interest No. 70)

Whether 300 or 1,300 years in incubation, the conflict between the West and Islam has changed dramatically in the past thirty or forty years. For most of its history, this conflict was about power, land, and religion thought of as a creed armed rather than as a basic moral. Muslims and Christians alike had no argument with the bedrock code of the Hebrew Bible when it came to family, sexual and other fundamental moral obligations and assumptions. But in the last three or four decades, it is the West that moved rapidly away from these fundaments. Having so moved, the West then turned around and, mostly by media and commercial-borne inadvertence, begun exporting these new norms to the world of Islam—where they have caused no little trouble and resentment. The critical normative gap between us and them has widened because we widened it. And yet this obvious fact is hardly ever noted in the West.

From Fixed Opinions, or The Hinge of History by Joan Didion (The New York Review of Books, Volume L, Number 1):

There was much about this return to New York that I had not expected. I had expected to find the annihilating economy of the event—the way in which it had concentrated the complicated arrangements and misarrangements of the last century into a single irreducible image—being explored, made legible. On the contrary, I found that what had happened was being processed, obscured, systematically leached of history and so of meaning, finally rendered less readable than it had seemed on the morning it happened. As if overnight, the irreconcilable event had been made manageable, reduced to the sentimental, to protective talismans, totems, garlands of garlic, repeated pieties that would come to seem in some ways as destructive as the event itself. We now had “the loved ones,” we had “the families,” we had “the heroes.”

In fact it was in the reflexive repetition of the word “hero” that we began to hear what would become in the year that followed an entrenched preference for ignoring the meaning of the event in favor of an impenetrably flattening celebration of its victims, and a troublingly belligerent idealization of historical ignorance. “Taste” and “sensitivity,” it was repeatedly suggested, demanded that we not examine what happened.

From The Burden by Michael Ignatieff (The New York Times Magazine, 5 January 2003)

Until Sept. 11, successive United States administrations treated their Middle Eastern clients like gas stations. This was part of a larger pattern. After 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet empire, American presidents thought they could have imperial domination on the cheap, ruling the world without putting in place any new imperial architecture — new military alliances, new legal institutions, new international development organisms — for a postcolonial, post-Soviet world.

The Greeks taught the Romans to call this failure hubris. It was also, in the 1990’s, a general failure of the historical imagination, an inability of the post-cold-war West to grasp that the emerging crisis of state order in so many overlapping zones of the world — from Egypt to Afghanistan — would eventually become a security threat at home. Radical Islam would never have succeeded in winning adherents if the Muslim countries that won independence from the European empires had been able to convert dreams of self-determination into the reality of competent, rule-abiding states. America has inherited this crisis of self-determination from the empires of the past. Its solution — to create democracy in Iraq, then hopefully roll out the same happy experiment throughout the Middle East — is both noble and dangerous: noble because, if successful, it will finally give these peoples the self-determination they vainly fought for against the empires of the past; dangerous because, if it fails, there will be nobody left to blame but the Americans.

(Links via Arts & Letters Daily)

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Comments

I just blogged to thank Tom for his posting about “motivated simplicity” and “active powerful ignorance.” Now I’ll have to link to your citation of these essays as well; thanks, Jonathon!

Posted by AKMAdamtheSudsyChaplainoftheUniversityofBlogaria on 13 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

You're most welcome, AKMA. Love the new comment 'moniker' -- pity it's being truncated!

Posted by Jonathon on 13 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour