Friday, October 11, 2013

Good Guys, Bad Guys, and the Global Culture

I can't hope to capture all the ideas in Professor Yuval Noah Harari's lecture 9-3, but let me try to talk about one of them. A major target is the kind of the good guy/bad guy type of anti-colonialism that played a dominant role in much of twentieth century thought. In that schema the good guys were anybody who fought against colonialism and the bad guys were the imperialists. The trouble with this notion is that most of the very tools and ideas the the anti-colonialists wielded were legacies of the empire. He has previously talked about how those who lived in the Roman, Chinese, and Arab empires all became Romanized, made Chinese, or Arab. When the Roman and Arab empires failed, there was no authentic older culture to return to.

A similar thing is happening today, according to Harari. The ruling elite of the world is becoming more similar in its attitudes, lifestyles, and ambitions. At the same time, they are becoming more and more different from their origins and the ordinary peoples of all nations.

The ultimate trouble with the good guy/bad guy approach to history is that we are all the cultural (and often biological) children of the invading rapists and murderers as well as their victims. Few Indians, he argues, would be willing to shed all the cultural legacy of the British conquest. And even if they did, to what would they return? The culture of the various Islamic conquerors that ruled much of India for hundreds of years before the British (and built the Taj Majal)? The India of various other conquerors, the India of warring states? Of course if you go back far enough you find various indigenous empires, including the spectacular Gupta empire, but even they ruled over what were then many rather different cultures and states. This is true for everybody in the world, only it is less obvious if you have already left behind almost all traces of your ancestral cultures - as is the case for most peoples who have been American for two or three generations.

Reality is seldom as comforting as fantasy. But its a better guide to action.