02 February 2008

Let us all praise suitable dreams

I realised, this morning, on reading an untitled post by Thinking Through My Fingers, that I'd been sloppy in my writing of "End of Empires" a few days ago.

My starry eyed "shining house on the hill" comment (quoting, of course, former US president Ronald Reagan) was intended as reference to a very particular delusion suffered by imperial centre populations everywhere and everywhen. This delusion convinces them that the empire is built upon moral principles, maintained by reason and goodness, from the foundations upwards to the fluttering pennants on the soaring towers. They, the citizens of the imperial centre, are a beacon of sweetness and light in a dark world uplifted by the existence of its glow. The reality towards which they need to move is realisation that empires are built upon the subjection of others, maintained by misery and pain, with any benefit to the empire being a coincidental side effect of self interest at the centre.

In the more general case I am, in fact, very much in favour of idealism, and grateful to TTMF for reminding me of the fact. I am (probably with justice) frequently accused of being too much of a starry eyed dreamer myself. (I also, incidentally, approve of trying to "grow freedom everywhere" ... but grow, please note - not ram forcibly into the first available orifice.)

I don't think there is a necessary conflict between the two stances. I would like the people in the imperial centre to abandon their delusion, yes ... but then, having looked with open and clear eyes at what they are, to start demanding that actions be retargetted to the benefit of human beings (regardless of society or geography) instead of empire.

Very often, that will mean leaving well alone - letting others sort out their own affairs. Very often, though, it will mean acting. TTMF offers one example: genocides.

The US could, with a fraction of the (financial or human) cost expended in Iraq, intervene to prevent some instances.

A less fraught example is disease. The cost of supplying mosquito nets to every person in Africa would be a pinprick compared to the cost so far in Iraq. A month's US military expenditure (or, if you prefer, just under two months for the EU, nine for the UK), if reallocated, could eliminate 95% of preventable disease across the globe - and illiteracy too.

Everything, as TTMF rightly says, starts with a dream. But it has to be the right dream. The problem with empires is that they start with dreams of greed and power, so they continue in the same vein and everything is downhill from there on.

A legitimate question thrown at idealists like me is: "that's all very well ... but, in the real world where you want us to live, why would rich populations pay out for the good of strangers the sort of money they currently pay for a combination of defence and the securing of further wealth?" Fair enough, and it deserves an answer. My reply would be that a world rescued from starvation and disease, given education and clean water, would be a better and more profitable community of trading partners ... and would also contain many fewer enemies against whom defence and security were needed. As my fifth grade teacher, Mrs Fatchen, told us: you'll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar[1]. It would achieve the same ends, for a fraction of the economic cost.

The reduction in social cost would not be chicken feed either. To no longer live in constant fear of another 9/11 on the one hand, or the attention of Homeland Security on the other is not to be sneezed at.

Then there are all those young men and women who, instead of dying in remote countries, can become business people or teachers or pop singers or grocers or footballers or realtors or just layabout bums but still alive. I'm not so starry eyed as to think that the military can be dispensed with in my brave new world; but it could be smaller, cheaper, more focussed on defence rather than long range implementation of imperial power, and (who knows) play a rôle in the occasional stopping of genocide.

I share TTMF's advocacy of starry eyed dreams, and look forward to more of them. It's self delusions of sainthood as fig leaves for rapaciousness that we need to grow away from.

  1. There's a certain irony in Mrs Fatchen being the vector for delivery of this phrase into my young mind. Mrs Fatchen was a distinctly vinegary sadist, who somehow managed to believe that our cowed behaviour in her class was a result of affection and respect. Mrs Fatchen was, in other words, a good metaphor for imperial centre delusions...

No comments: