Today's date:
Winter 2002


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.