Thursday, August 24, 2006

Interbeing and the Clash of Civilizations

I've started reading Samuel Huntington's 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. It grew out of an essay he wrote in Foreign Affairs in the summer of 1993.

Eventually, I'd like to read the key books by many of the bigwigs. The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama; Out of Control by Zbignew Brzezinski and Pandaemonium by Daniel Patrick Moynihan are currently on the (growing) list.

Their views of what does - and does not - belong in discussions of political reality, like those of Hobbes, need to be analyzed and challenged. Plus, I need to refine my thinking from the broad-brush Jesus-inspired radical love concept, to a detailed picking apart of why the arguments of the respected statesmen and scholars are incomplete. What are they missing in their assumptions and deductions?

I can't remember exactly when I first became aware of Huntington's views. It must have been sometime after reading Paul Berman's 2003 essay in Salon about the Muslim thinker Sayyid Qutb. Huntington wasn't mentioned in that essay, but he occupies the same sphere of intellectual influence and addresses the same sorts of issues as Berman.

Until I began reading Huntington's book, I had only a vague sense of his argument as holding that contemporary global politics are, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be, defined by the cultural differences between the West, including historically Christian nations in North America and Western Europe, and the non-West, including everybody else. Since 9/11, world attention has been more or less riveted on the Islamic non-West, in the form of Muslim fundamentalist terrorists.

But Huntington, it turns out, postulates a "multipolar, multicivilizational world," including nine civilizations - Western, Latin American, African, Islamic, Sinic, Hindu, Orthodox, Buddhist and Japanese. His belief is that since the end of the Cold War, citizens of nation-states have been engaged in a process of self-identification, and frequently, they identify more with those who share their "philosophical assumptions, underlying values, social relations, customs and overall outlooks on life," than with people with whom they happen to share a geographic location.

For example, Muslim people in Sarajevo, by waving Turkish and Saudi Arabian flags during a protest in April 1994, were demonstrating how their cultural affinity with fellow Muslims in the Middle East superceded their national identity as Bosnians. Closer to home, Mexican immigrants have protested their shabby treatment in America by marching with Mexican flags, or upside-down American ones.

Huntington's other main point in the first chapter is to present four different possible paradigms for world politics since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Fukuyama is cited as the prime articulator for the "euphoria and harmony" view: that since the bipolar Cold War is now over, hegemonic democratic capitalism has no serious contenders for power, and all nations will more or less fall into line behind the American banner.

The second view is the "Us and Them" view, that all people can be divided into two groups, the good guys and the bad guys. This view is common throughout history, and under this framework, with the USSR no longer filling the enemy role, it remains to be seen not if there will be a new enemy, but who will fill that empty slot.

The third view is the "184 States, More or Less," premised on the notion that "states are the primary, indeed the only important actors in world affairs," and therefore states will continue to react to one another by forming advantageous alliances against perceived threats from other states.

I don't believe Huntington was in a position to take into account Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky's views on global public opinion as the "other superpower." My wish, back before Shock and Awe, was that a sea of photographers and social workers armed with cameras and compassionate ears would march into Iraq, document the torture and repression, mobilize public opinion to stop the torture and repression, and begin to help the victims.

The fourth view is the "sheer chaos" paradigm: that without the stabilization of the Cold War, governments and economies would collapse, leaving behind only inter-tribal bloodshed.

Three things leapt out at me in my first read of the first chapter.

Huntington wrote:

"People use politics not just to advance their interests but also to define their identity. We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against."

I disagree; I think Jesus had it right with that business about letting the one who is without sin cast the first stone. I think we know who we are best when we know who it is who makes us uneasy, and when we begin the work of acknowledging, healing and transforming those aspects of ourselves. I really don't like my inner Bush, but I'm trying to work with him, because I think that's the best way to heal and transform the outer Bush too.

Huntington wrote, about the four paradigms:

"These four paradigms are also incompatible with each other. The world cannot be both one and fundamentally divided between East and West or North and South. Nor can the nation state be the base rock of international affairs if it is fragmenting and torn by proliferating civil strife..."

I disagree. Paradox is precisely that: two things that seem incompatible but together form a necessary whole. The Uni-verse is the one and the many, turning about each other, locked in a puzzling dance. That's why Heraclitus is my favorite philosopher: "This universe, which is the same for all, has not been made by any god or man, but it always has been, is, and will be an ever-living fire, kindling itself by regular measures and going out by regular measures."

This gets me confused sometimes, though. Must there be huge amounts of war to counterbalance the huge power of humanity's growing appetite for peace?

Huntington wrote:

"States respond primarily to perceived threats...Values, culture, and institutions pervasively influence how states define their interests."

I agree. It's the perception of threats - even more than actual threats - which underlies the fear which underlies the aggression. Which means it is possible to change the values, culture and institutions of America to pervasively influence this nation to perceive differently, and to define our interests as identical to the interests of those who are currently victims of our bombing campaigns, ground assaults and economic sanctions. Thich Nhat Hanh calls the concept interbeing.


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