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Better worlds

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


Who hasn't imagined living in a place that better suited their own worldview?

For some this means projecting themselves into a society where everyone agrees with them on the fundamental matters. For others it's enough to hope that everyone in this world will turn out to be the sort of people that they could consider as their friend − in spite of any disagreements over lifestyle matters that crop up in practice.

Historically, the persistence of belief in an abstracted better world has been one of the main drivers for the improvement of this one. Yet in its most extreme expression, it is surely a form of childishness, and a dangerous one at that.

Wherever there are people whose main coping mechanism in this life is the hope that the next one will be close to perfect (for the better-behaved at least), you will find individuals that believe that a more immediately perfect state of affairs can or will be brought about on this Earth. (See yesterday's post on the Maya Apocalypse.)

Recently people have used computer technologies to seek an approximate form of utopia through their interactions with like-minded avatars in virtual worlds, though it does seem that these sanctuaries tend to downgrade rather rapidly into hyper-imperfect simulcra of real life.

Personally I believe that in any open society the existence of people whose main objective in life is a closed society is a necessary element of the pluralistic mix. Yet inevitable as they may be, theirs is a worldview that needs constant monitoring and occasionally some pro-active suppression. In the words of Gordon Brown, we must be vigilant.

Take the Fascist strain of the new world order mentality. It took democratic societies a while to realise the extent of the threat that it posed. Once they did however, they responded with all the force they could muster. The trouble is that this conflict has left us with some unfortunate legacies. One of these is the tendancy to view all modern conflict through the prism of WWII with its implied Good v Evil plot structure. The second is a renewed complacency.

After the war what remained of the fascism meme (to shamelessly pilfer one of Richard Dawkins's half-baked ideas) continued to evolve, as you would expect, in directions that would make it harder for liberal societies to cull.

From Franco through to Rios Montt it repeatedly bonded quite successfully with religious conservatism (both Catholic and Protestant) but generally only at the margins of the Western world. Where nationalism faltered, it duly became more universalist.

Its present symbiosis with radical Islam − on the margins within our society − is particularly alarming, because it has thereby managed to culturally reposition itself within a context in which secular, liberal westerners find it harder to summon up the requisite intolerance.

Prior to the Enlightenment Christianity looked an awful lot more murderous than Islam, particularly if you take note of the standard response to heretical belief (at least in the West. Orthodox Christianity was usually more tolerant). But perhaps the main reason that we had a Renaissance and then an Enlightenment in Western Europe is that Christian dogma contains a number of contradictions that the tradition of Hellenic rationalism was ultimately able to exploit in order to gain the upper hand.

However, it's worth remembering that if it hadn't been for the work of Muslim scholars in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, it is unlikely that we would ever have regained access to that tradition of Hellenic rationalism, and we might still be setting fire to people that we collectively disagree with.

To a large extent we got where we are today by suppressing the Christian in favour of the Classical. Islamic civilisation certainly also achieved a kind of unrepeated apogee when it drew closest to the Classical tradition of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Yet the fundamental division of the open pluralistic life versus the monolithic existence existed in the Classical world too in the social/political models embodied by Athens and Sparta. Plato's Republic is the most memorable attempt by an ancient thinker to imagine a society ordered in such a way as to minimize the social and political relevance of the kind of people the philosopher didn't much care for.

He rather fancied living in a place where everyone else thought much the same way as he did on all the really important matters and where the rules were interpreted enforced by clever people and not by the mass ranks of the numbskulls. Who can blame him?

It's the infantile people that pick up books like this and try to put their fancies into effect that we need to keep an eye on.



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