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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Geographic Determinism, a choice

Robert Kaplan, in “the revenge of geography” - May / June 2009 issue of FP (Foreign Policy) states that the key insight of the last two decades is that there are worse things in the world than extreme tyranny – and that “in Iraq we brought them about our-selves.”  Universalism and its political nemesis, realism, like any label is meant to signify a coded word understood without explanation or investigation as to its wisdom.  It is without content and without history, therefore it is usually devoid of ethical value and because it is naive fails to factor in human greed and malice.

When we value order above freedom (Kaplan states that the former is a prerequisite for the latter) we have to ask what cost are we prepared to pay for a peace that is at best a temporary state of affairs and at worst a smokescreen, a dagger held at arms length and kept from our hearts by the finite strength of our determination alone.

Conflict and instability are usually driven by insecurity and change.  The motivation is often a feeling of threat, either from forces internal to the society or external forces outside of their immediate control. Historically the Special Interest Groups that have felt most threatened have been those privileged groups with the most to lose: The Church, Islamism, a controlling class (ecclesiastic, military, middle or upper).

The exploitation of a few over the destiny of the many has been a common theme throughout human history – kings and dictators who justified their rule by divine right or mission rather than by cynical terror and a lust for absolute power.

In past millennia a sense of injustice has rarely been anything other than a cover for naked aggression and economic rape. And whether the few that ruled were the royal family and their attendant aristocracy such as in Britain or some tribal leader abusing the myths of a possible past glory the results have rarely benefited anyone but those enjoying the fruits of power.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the human experience is that with all the damage and all the pain we have suffered we have allowed our leaders to exploit us.  But the tribe is a safety net – it may be fictitious but we still cling to it as if it can truly protect us from the avarice and corrosive vision of our leaders.  It is only the checks and balances of democratic society that prevents or (we hope) mitigates against our leaders worst excesses and provides a consequence when they abuse the power they have taken from us.

The tribe may number a few hundred people only or in the tens of millions, such as within the racial group (for instance the Arabs, Turks and Persians of the Near East).  But it is the exploitation of the tribe that condemns it to anarchy and misery. The modern nation state has been disintegrating since modern times began simply because it is an artificial construct usually built with illogical boundaries.

Abnegation of the individuals’ right to specificality is the nightmare scenario for both the far right and the far left.  Syncretism and exogamy deny the racist and the religious bigot their doctrinal purity as well as corrupting their specific superiority and controlling group identity.  A sense of injustice is exploited by those for whom a weakening of identity disempowers the group.

Robert Kaplan states that for the realist the central question in foreign affairs is: “who can do what to whom?” He then says that “of all the unsavory truths in which realism is rooted, the bluntest, most uncomfortable, and most deterministic of all is geography.” (P98)

He states that “rather than eliminating the relevance of geography, globalization is reinforcing it”.  Instability defined by geographic irrelevance and tribal identity has always reinforced the group in spite of artificially contrived social conditioning and the randomness of imperial brutality and colonial greed.

The relevance of geography to society if Kaplan is correct is more than just its reinforcement as a result of globalization.  The fragmentation of the nation state and its supersession by naturally defined boundaries built around the tribe, the race or the ethnic entity is dependent on the altruism of the leaders of the various nation states and sub administrators.  This returns us to the altruistic intent of the ruling clique.  Its control within democratic society is the only means by which we may be able to discourage abuse and corruption.

The historical narrative can be turned on its head but only if the will within the society to be changed exists.  Geographic determinism may be all the rage in India and China (though he omits the Near East) but it presupposes the end of European and American history.

True universalism perfects humanity through its celebration of the absorptive capacity of the human being.  If we are incapable of peaceful bipolar cultural pluralism then physical and cultural assimilation where both the society and the minority become undifferentiated are the only other choice that does not involve continuous conflict. Either that or ultimately we will have an end to the nation state and a return to culturally uniform globally policed geographically segregated geopolitical entities. The imperial pretensions of modern Arab, Persian (Iran) and Ottoman (Turkish) nations are not diminished by their massive geographical sizes.

Geographical determinism assumes that causally predetermined behavior is unchangeable.

By accepting the theory of geographical determinism we either appease the barbarians pounding at the gates of civilized society or abandon entire regions to fragmentation and 21st century geographical Darwinism. In which case, the paradox of Globalization is increasing global disintegration and international isolationism in which fear is the determinant for exclusion and the reason.

It is not the compression of space that has created the opportunities for pathologically violent ideologies. Throughout history it has been the dissemination of ideas and the implantation of such ideas in fertile minds that has created the opportunities for mass psychosis. Crowd psychology is nothing new. What is new is the speed with which sensational and even monstrous stories can and do become fact in the minds of the masses.

Communications are the beast that threatens world peace because they cannot be easily controlled. If physical borders matter, then in the world of ideas they are now virtual. If we cannot control the hearts of humankind, we can and must bring equality to the limitless void of the virtual world. Through it, ideas can be made respectable and if a pass card is needed to access the pornographic world of the bigot then we can define what is acceptable and quarantine the unacceptable.

What Mr. Kaplan describes as the dictates of geography meeting the battle of ideas is actually a vulnerability that can be exploited by both sides. History is no guarantee of survival.  It is the tyranny of ideas that compels us to act irrationally and similarly it is the fear of the oppression of ideas that can bring us back from the precipice, at least, when we are determined and strong enough to ridicule them.

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