Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Paradoxes of Modernity

It's rare I find the Wash Post op-eds thought provoking, but this column by David Ignatius offers two inadvertent, and counterintuitive consequences of globalization, and the worldwide information technology revolution.

The question Ignatius poses is why with the increase in "connectiveness" between world governments and the global community, is U.S. foreign policy continually beset with messiness, be it the aftermath of the "cartoon" riots, the election of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, the insurgency in Iraq, or the resurgence of fundamentalism, or at least international hostility from the regime in Iran, and so on.

Based on conversations with two international and communications specialists, Ignatius relates two major elements of blowback from increasing international communication and expanding technology.

The first is a tendency for increased trade, technology and communication to widen the divide between the governing and the governed. Governmental, economic and intellectual elites become disconnected from the mass of their populations, setting the stage for major upheavals. Ignatius points back to Iran in 1975 as an example of a country that appeared to be heading successfully into the modern era, only to fall back into medieval Islamic fervor and control. Although Ignatius doesn't go there, and it may not be the case in every society, but the increase in trade and technology has undoubtedly helped widened the gap between the haves and have nots of a society as well, providing an additional source of, yes, class conflict.

The second element is the sad reality that increased technology has too often served as a means whereby ignorance and hate gets spread faster than ever before. Hence the cartoon riots. Ignatius also points readers to the "American blogosphere", having in mind no doubt the responses that poor ombudswoman, Deborah Howell experienced several weeks ago when the Washington Post was caught peddling GOP talking points regarding Jack Abramoff.

Ignatius's complaints about the "American blogosphere" aside, I couldn't help but think that not only do these two elements of connectiveness apply in a negative way just on the "Arab street" or in other parts of the world, but that America itself is a confusing picture of modernity and medievalism colliding. I'm thinking in particular of the rising influence of Christian fundamentalists. Conservatives have been quick and happy to point out that so-called liberal or moderate denominations are stagnating while conservative evangelical churches have been t thriving. While education is increasing, consumer goods more abundant, and developments in science and medicine increasing exponentially, America is at the same time becoming more ignorant and paranoid. The events of 911 obviously had a great impact on the American mood, much for the worse. The dominance of Fox News and her cable imitators have poisoned the well further, although Roger Ailes might validly argue that his network's success is the result of the public mood, rather than a cause of it.

In any event, we seem to be faced with both rapidly expanding technological prowess and education wherewithall at the same time we're busy reverting to 13th century feudalism in our religious dogma and international reactiveness.

A disturbing confirmation of this troubling trend and paradox is China. It's a gospel tenet of utmost sanctity in educated circles that free markets and capitalism lead to greater economic growth and prosperity, which in turn begets political pluralism and democratic freedoms.

But while near enough to truthiness in some cases, China has been a glaring exception, as recent reports about the roles played by Internet giants Yahoo! and Google in China have indicated. Although loosening the grip of the Communist Party's rigid economic dogma in China, Beijing's leaders appear more determined than ever to prevent the next evolution of political liberalization to accompany its economic one.

The disturbing implication is that the U.S. could continue to get richer and more technologically savy, free trade, globalization and all, and still takes steps backward politically, back into the pre-modern era that so many conservatives, especially religious ones, seem only too eager that we embrace at their behest.

One final area of discomfort concerns The Emerging Democratic Majority thesis put forward a few years ago by political scientists John Judis and Ruy Teixeira. The authors basically contend that demographic and labor force trends are moving the Democrats way; the proportion of minorities is increasing, the shift to a knowledge-based economy, and increasing levels of education, among other factors, will help liberalize the future electorate, if not in name, at least in partisan outcomes.

While there is undoubtedly some basis for optimism from increasing education, urbanization, and so on, a political scientist observing the political scene in the 1970's could have been forgiven if he or she had forecast much of the same thing for our own era. Civil Rights reforms had enfranchised large numbers of African-Americans. The voting age was just about to be lowered to 18. Women would continue to enter the labor force better educated and in greater numbers than ever before. More people, thanks to federal aid, were going to college. More people were waiting longer to marry and have children, and on and on. But the last three decades have been, at least in partisan terms, Republican instead of Democratic. Meanwhile, while Republicans have gained across the country, the culture, thanks in part to a changing economy, has gotten more liberal. As Thomas Franks notes in What's the Matter with Kansas?, the conservatives' cultural war has been a bust. Abortion continues. Gays are more accepted. Trashy TV still sells (just ask Fox).

Everything is Paradoxical.

No comments: