A certain unifying reality is continuously imposing itself upon us, all of us, regardless of how we choose to define ourselves or each other. This reality is called Modernity, and it is in fact a process, a very ruthless process, despite the ennobling ideas born out of it and those that gave it birth.
It is so, because it is uncompromising in its demand that our very sense of identity should be as fluid, continuous and, so seemingly unending, as history itself. Modernity does not accommodate a rigid sense of identity, those who exhibit or insist on having such a sense will always be in conflict with Modernity even when they seem reconciled with it.
This is in fact the essence of our current dilemma. Modernity is ruthless even to those who embrace it. Its victims, therefore, are to be found everywhere, and it is as problematic in the East as in the West, in the North as in the South, for the Muslims as for the Christians, and for the Liberals as for the Conservatives. Indeed, Modernity has no pet child or prodigal son. It pampers no one. That’s why backlashes to it are to be found in all societies. Fundamentalism, for instance, is not a phenomenon unique only to Islam, as we all know, varieties of it exist in almost every human society and culture. Conversely, the woes of such phenomena Globalization, Americanization and even Terrorism, are felt by one and all. September 11, if anything, served to underscore this all too simple fact of our modern subsistence.
As such, Modernity, representing itself more and more as “fate” these days, can only be faced by openness to change and to dialogue, by participation in its making, and by inclusion of everyone in its benefits. In other words, Modernity has to be dealt with in the same manner an “enlightened believer,” so to speak, deals with fate or God’s perceived Will, that is by being realistic not fatalistic. For reality can be altered, but first it has to be accepted, in toto and as is, – denial is a mere facilitator of victimhood.
But what sort of unity is being imposed?
The unity that is imposing itself upon us has political, economic, cultural as well psychological implications.
On the political level, it is a unity of interests, and, as usual in such matters, there are winners and losers here. Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein are losers, they both failed to understand the nature and limits of the new post-Soviet geopolitical realities, the first regressing to an outmoded nationalistic thought, the second falling prey to imperial delusions of a Medievalistic nature.
On the other hand, Nelson Mandela and Vladimir Putin are winners, both having managed to accommodate themselves to the established World Order despite their dislike of it. Mandela, in fact, seems to be fundamentally opposed to the emerging order, unlike Putin who is simply not satisfied with Russia’s lot and share in it. Both men, however, have chosen to work from within the established system in the hope of eventually influencing it. Neither opted for the adoption of the kind of nihilistic schemes that were espoused by Milosevic and Hussein.
On the economic level, transnational corporations are simply buying up and dividing the world between themselves, leaving no chance to developing countries to stand on their own feet. However, one should not single out transnational corporations for blame in this. Responsibility for the failure of many developing economies in rising up the challenges of development and modernization should also be borne by the governments, peoples and intellectual and professional elites of these countries.
In the Arab World, for instance, the failure of the process of modernization in producing viable economic entities was not due to any lack of appropriate natural or human resources. Rather, it was the lack of proper deployment of these resources by the ruling class, the endemic corruption of that class, the persistence and even revival of traditional modes of governance, the general lack of intellectual honesty and integrity among the Arab intelligentsia (with few exceptions), and the fundamentalist backlash related to all of the above and to Modernity itself, that should receive a greater share of the blame. The Arab World had had ample opportunity to rebuild and modernize itself after the end of the European imperialistic venture therein. Its failure to take advantage of that is one of the key reasons why transnational corporations today are so capable of marginalizing it as an economic force. The same analysis applies to many other regions in the world.
On the cultural level, the global attraction of American pop culture is problematic for even other western societies, as European fears in this regard testify. But the success of American pop culture is a natural outcome of its continuous interest in meeting and accommodating popular tastes. At the age of democratization, popular tastes cannot be disdained anymore, nor can people be preached at and told what constitutes good taste and what does not. Education and the dissemination of knowledge in this situation can no longer happen in that old fashioned way where the difference between educator and educated is perceived in a meritorious sense. There is a need here for both the educators and the educated to take part in the learning process on an equal par. The role of the educator in this situation is that of a facilitator and a communicator of knowledge not that of a preacher or a master.
As for the intellectuals, the artists in particular, it should be stressed here that their traditional well-nigh innate aloofness and disdain of the “masses,” is something that needs to be tempered by a growing realization that, these days, the “masses” can no longer be ignored, for they are the ones who will eventually sit in ultimate judgment of all intellectual activities. What might help make matters a bit easier to accept here is that the “masses” are no longer, if indeed they have ever been, that homogenous group of people that share similar aesthetic likes and dislikes.
As such, democratization will only increase the global intellectual fermentation taking place on all levels and in all fields. The success of American pop culture, its deficiencies and shortcomings apart, is in many ways a testament to this fact. Eventually, of course, and as is the case with European pop culture, American pop culture will be inoculated with the necessary aesthetic effusions coming from other cultures, which will eventually make it more representative. In the final analysis, American Culture is indeed the product of an amalgamation and interaction of cultures. Just as Islamic culture was in the medieval times, and European culture in the Renaissance and thereafter.
On a psychological level, the unification currently taking place in the world could be viewed as a unification in terms of average expectations. Indeed, more and more people around the world tend to betray similar expectations with regard to what constitute a good and dignified life. They all want a comparable measure of political, economic and social security. The fact that these expectations are not being fulfilled to similar degrees all over the world is one of the major sources of the frustration, anger and hate we are witnessing today in the developing world.
We speak about human rights all the time and have indeed been speaking about them for decades now to the extant that the term, and the concept in its essence, have become well-nigh universally accepted, and sometimes even co-opted, which is, in essence, another testimony as to its acceptance by a certain critical number of people, for people do not co-opt useless and unknown ideas and notions. Nonetheless, the fact remains that most countries in the developing world today, not to mention certain social strata in the developed world itself, still witness tremendous abuses of human rights, and that the developed world is playing an important part in supporting this state of affairs.
These contradictions, which might stem simply from the fact that the unification taking place is not yet complete, go to the heart of the various political and social problems we are witnessing today in many parts of the world. What we need today, therefore, is a process of homogenizing living standards throughout the world. And though, such a process is not necessarily synonymous with cultural homogenization, it will most probably be accompanied by an element thereof. Still, the emphasis here is on material living standards in correspondence to the material, perhaps even consumerist, expectations and aspirations that most people on Earth today seem to hold dear.
So, “are we all Americans now?” as some are asking today. Well, I don’t think this is the right question really, since it gives Americans an almost inherently central role in the ongoing process of modernization and unification. The apparent centrality of the American role in the making of the current World Order is, however, a transient phenomenon. The US is simply playing the role commensurate with its size and potential in a global process in which we all have our roles to play, even if they be passive, rejectionist or uninspiringly mimicking.
The right question should, therefore, be: are we all ONE now? One in some realistic sense and not only in accordance with some vague philosophical notion. And my answer is: No we are not yet. But we seem to be heading in that direction, a fact that is shaking, undermining and otherwise challenging the very essence of our sense of identity. We are still, it seems, at that stage in the process where we find ourselves as equally attracted as repulsed by the looming unity. For though our expectations seem to have been homogenized, our interests are far from being so.
The challenge ahead of us, then, is to move forward from the already achieved unity of expectations to the long hoped for, at least by idealists like me, unity of interests.
Is such a unity achievable? Well, a realistic idealist knows that there are no guarantees. But, now that a certain unity of expectations seems to have been universally achieved, we have, in fact, no choice but to pursue a unity of interests as well, or suffer the consequences of the potential implosion.
A presentation giving during Bridging the Cultural Gap II Conference – “Towards a Cosmopolitan Society,” organized and hosted by the Danish Pen at Louisiana, Denmark on November 30 – December 1, 2002. The session during which the presentation was made was titled: Are We All Americans Now?