One World, Two Civilizations
Ryszard Kapuscinski, a member of NPQ's advisory board
and author of such works of literary journalism as Shah of Shahs, The
Emperor, The Soccer War and Imperium, is the war correspondent extraodinaire.
Long before CNN cast its occasional spotlight on Rwanda or Somalia, Kapuscinski
had been roaming the backwaters of the planet for decades as a reporter
for the Polish Press Agency, documenting the awakening, and later the
historical paralysis, of what we used to call "the Third World."
Warsaw - In historical societies, everything has
been decided in the past. All their energies, their feelings, their passions
are directed toward the past, dedicated to the discussion of history,
to the meaning of history. They live in the realm of legends and founding
lineages. They are unable to speak about the future because the future
doesn't arouse the same passion in them as their history.
They are all historical people, born and living in the history of great
fights, divisions and conflicts. They are like an old war veteran. All
he wants to talk about is that big experience of crisis which carried
such a deep emotion that he was never able to forget about it.
All historical societies live with this weight clouding their minds, their
imagination. They must live deeply in history; this is how they identify
themselves. If they lose their history, they lose their identity. Then
they will not only be anonymous. They will cease to exist. To forget about
history would mean to forget about themselves-a biological and psychological
impossibility. It is a question of survival.
Yet, to create a new value, a society has to have a clean mind that will
enable it to concentrate on doing something directed at the future. This
is the tragedy in which historical societies are trapped.
America, by contrast, is a lucky nation. It has no problem with history.
The American mentality is open to the future. As a young society it can
be creative with no burden of history keeping it down, holding its leg,
tying its hands.
The danger for America, and the danger for the whole world, is that American
development is so dynamic and creative that it will be a completely different
world on this same planet. Every day, America is producing more and more
elements of a completely new civilization which is further and further
from the civilization of the rest of the world. The gap is not only a
matter of wealth and technology, but of mentality.
The position and rule of dynamic America and the paralysis of historical
societies-this is the big problem for the future of mankind. Unlike the
vision we all held 20 years ago, the world is not converging, but spreading
apart like the galaxies.
When I first went to Africa 30 years ago, I could find some modern agriculture,
infrastructure and medicine. There was more or less a parallel with the
Europe that had been destroyed by war.
Today, even what was left from colonialism in Africa has deteriorated.
Nothing new has been built. Meanwhile, America is entering cyberspace.
After the Second World War there was a great awakening of consciousness
in the Third World countries. For Africa and Asia particularly, the war
proved that the master countries, like Britain or France, could be beaten.
Also, the centers of power in the world shifted from Germany, Japan and
the French and British empires to the United States and the Soviet Union-countries
that were not traditional colonial powers. These developments convinced
the young nationalists in the Third World that they could achieve independence.
The fight for independence had three stages. First came the national liberation
movements, especially in the largest Asian countries. India obtained independence
in 1947 and China in 1949. This period ended with the Bandung Conference
in 1955, where the first political philosophy of the Third World-non-alignment-was
born. This philosophy was promoted by the great colorful figures of the
1950s-Nehru of India, Nasser of Egypt, Sukarno of Indonesia.
The second stage, in the 1960s, was characterized by great optimism. It
was the period when decolonization spread rapidly with the non-alignment
philosophy as its guide. In 1964, 14 African countries achieved independence.
In the third stage, beginning in the 1970s, the great optimism which had
accompanied the birth of nations began to be dashed. The belief that national
independence automatically meant economic independence and cultural independence
proved to be a utopian and completely unrealistic conception.
The fourth stage was opened up by the Iranian revolution in 1979, which
emerged as a reaction to the optimistic efforts for development. The technocratic
character of modern values and the industrial plans of the optimistic
period ignored the crucial dimension of historical societies-the ethical
and religious values of tradition. The traditional-historical societies
refused this new way of life because they felt it threatened the most
elemental part of their identity.
The rapid importation of technology into Iran, for example, was also perceived
by Iranians as humiliation for a people with such a long, traditional
culture. Because they were not able to learn the technology, they felt
ashamed. This humiliation caused a very strong reaction. The Iranians
nearly destroyed the sugar factories built by European specialists because
they felt such fury. Because it was something foreign, they felt the technology
was built-in to dominate them. Change was so rapid that they were unable
to accept it.
The great Iranian masses that followed the Ayatollah Khomeini found the
grand economic plans of the Shah and his Westernized advisers inefficient
in terms of leading them to Heaven, to Paradise. As a result, even more
emphasis was placed on older values. People defended themselves by hiding
in these old values. The old traditions and the old religion were the
only shelter available to them.
The emotional and religious movements we see in reaction today across
the Islamic world are only the beginning. The Iranian revolution opened
a new period in Third World countries-the period of cultural decolonization.
But this counter-revolution cannot succeed. It is not creative, but defensive.
It remains defined by what it resists. It leads to paralysis. Meanwhile,
America moves on at relative light speed.
Nothing will change unless the historical societies learn to create, to
make a revolution of the mind, of attitude, of organization. If they don't
destroy history, it will destroy them.