In an essay titled “The Future of Mankind,” British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) laid out three possibilities: “The end of human life,” “a reversion to barbarism” or “unification of the world under a single government.” He saw the third as the only alternative to either of the first two. For better or worse, our fate would be settled, he said, “before the end of the present (20th) century” — within 50 years of the time of writing.
From his mid-20th-century perspective Russell looked back on a catastrophic world war, and forward to an accelerating nuclear arms race and an intensifying Cold War. What were the prospects, in such a climate, of “unification?” The war that had just ended offered, paradoxically, a ray of hope. Its horrors, still fresh, had surely taught us something? Applying the lessons learned, however, “would require courageous and imaginative statesmanship in a number of countries.” There, of course, was the rub.
Sixteen years into the new century, there is good news and bad news. Human life has not ended, but the “courageous and imaginative statesmanship” is not in sight — unlike the reversion to barbarism, which is.
The weekly Shukan Toyo Keizai devotes 70-odd pages of its Dec. 24 issue to the theme of “modern history for business people.” It’s a kind of crash course in the basics of what you need in order to intelligently engage with the world. The year 2016, it says, “may well turn out to be a turning point in world history.”
It’s hard to imagine otherwise. It would be interesting to count the number of times the word “stunning” cropped up in the year’s journalism. What star would the peak of a mountain built of articles containing it reach? Brexit, Donald Trump, nationalism, populism — repetition has made all this so numbingly familiar; and yet, “stunning” it remains.
Just yesterday, it seems, unification was in bud — under a new name, “globalism,” and minus the world government, but in essence not radically different from Russell’s vision. Walls crumbled, borders loosened; by the 1990s humankind seemed on the brink of recovering something civilization had cost it: oneness.
Each Paleolithic culture was very much like another, but civilization was divisive. Ancient Egypt differed fundamentally from ancient Mesopotamia; ancient India, from ancient China. But one lives in capitalist, democratic New York essentially as one lives in capitalist, democratic Paris or capitalist, democratic Tokyo. Capitalist, democratic Beijing, capitalist, democratic Moscow and so on seemed plausible if not inevitable; it was only a matter of time. Then we’d arrive at what American scholar Francis Fukuyama, in a famous 1989 article, optimistically called “the end of history” — the global triumph of capitalist democracy.
The new century, however, exposed the extravagance of that prophecy without slowing the pace of globalism. It was simply where our species was headed. Losers resisted, as they had, futilely, the Industrial Revolution 200 years earlier. They’d be troublesome for a while but eventually would die off, give up or adapt and join the winners. When history marches, it doesn’t pause for stragglers. So went the conventional wisdom.
But something happened this time around that didn’t in the Industrial Revolution. Stragglers now have power they didn’t have then — bombs, planes and the internet, in addition to the vote. They’d been making the point for some time; in 2016 it sank in. History can be stopped in its tracks.
Shukan Toyo Keizai’s package of articles refers several times to the 1930s. The implied question: Are we going back there? There are too many obvious differences to make the analogy exact — not the least of which is World War II itself, as stark a warning as history has ever issued, though World War I seems quite stark enough. Gakushuin University President Toshikazu Inoue sees “dark omens” in recent developments. Patriotic ardor, populism, exclusionism, anti-intellectualism have all grown shrill. On the world stage are leaders feeding it and feeding off it. Thought itself is being shouted down, or tweeted down. In Washington, reports the Asahi Shimbun, Trump’s victory was celebrated by his racist, white nationalist supporters with cries of “Heil Hitler!”
Inoue, in his Toyo Keizai piece, reminds us of Japan’s anti-intellectual past as a warning against an anti-intellectual future. Liberal democracy, briefly ascendant in the 1920s, broke down in the ’30s. The fanatics took charge. Teachers and scholars who taught Japan’s divine descent as myth rather than history were hounded, discredited, fired or sometimes imprisoned as traitors. Their works were banned. Serious scholarship became impossible. For the most part it went unlamented. If serious scholarship diminished the nation’s stature, good riddance to it. If “words of the year” had existed back then, “post-truth” might have qualified. It did in 2016. “One of the defining words of our time,” said Oxford Dictionaries, which chose it as the word of the year.
Truth solves some problems but not all, and where truth fails, why not, says post-truth, give myth a chance? The myth of national greatness is resurgent. Lost to globalism, national greatness is restorable under strong — ruthless if necessary — leadership. Sagging economies will surge again. Natives will recover their soil, their cultures and their jobs from immigrants, refugees and terrorists. Walls and fences will keep good in and evil out.
Haruaki Deguchi, chairman of Lifenet Insurance Co., issues a plea in Toyo Keizai for attention to “the wisdom of history.” It’s hard-won wisdom at the best of times. “Each country going its own protectionist way, proclaiming ‘My country first!,’ is what led to WWII,” Deguchi writes. “Surely the best route for us, therefore, is the promotion and strengthening of friendly and peaceful relations among nations. This is especially true of Japan, which, poor in natural resources, owes its prosperity to trade. How can we reverse the rising current of protectionism, exclusionism and national introversion?”
He seeks an answer in “the “wisdom of history,” but “post-truth” is advancing a different agenda.
Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”
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