The big picture

Even after a few hours, a first-time visitor to the Republic of South Africa can see that the country is at a crossroads. It is a land of numerous contrasts, a huge country, a great land, with deserts and high mountains, beaches and bush. But underneath the grandeur and the wonder, there is palpable tension. The world’s most multitudinous wildlife live in perfect national park systems, while a huge swath of the population lives in abject poverty, acquiring the AIDS virus at a rate of 1,000 people per day. Central Johannesburg is filled with mounds of garbage, some of it hanging from the now sickly trees that stand in front of the now empty 70-story skyscrapers. Masses of black poor congregate on the sidewalks, spilling into the streets. Homeless vagrants and drug pushers catch naps in front of the Central Court building. Apartheid has been lifted, but there is not a white person in sight. They are in the suburbs, or running the large farms. A billboard shows an old Dutch-style Boer home, with a nice white family sipping premium wine from their vineyard. But the sign at the crossroads points to an uncertain future, or to implosion and collapse. South Africa is slipping. 

In Europe and North America, we believe that history marches forward, and with it, progress. We are taught that way in school, memorizing facts, inventions, movements, and developments via chronological order. Later generally equals better, at least in some sense of the word. Modern man does make mistakes, but has generally learned from them, only to be faced with new challenges. Globalization is one of them. We all move forward. 

Not really. As Henry Kissinger wrote recently, on planet Earth, civilization has developed, and will develop, according to various harmonograms. Speaking generally, North America and Europe are in the 21st Century, South America and China are in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Arab world is somewhere in the 17th century with parts of it now retreating, and the Third World is slowly moving out of the middle ages. It is not just time that moves at different speeds under different conditions, but entire cultures, nations, and civilizations. 

In fact, when movement does occur, it is often cyclical. For example, here in the Czech Republic entry into the EU, a multinational organization, is regarded as a huge step forward. Though the fanfare is justified, the Czech people have essentially always existed as part of multinational organizations: the Soviet, Habsburg, Holy Roman, Roman, and Greater Moravian empires are but a few examples, each of which ensured the survival of the Czech nation in their own way. 

We are all familiar with the term “History repeats itself.” But this begs the question, how much does it really go forward? For example, just as was the case in the past centuries, the great majority of conflicts in the world today continue to be based on religious differences. In fact, from the point of human death and suffering, the institutionalization of religion and the resultant killing of people based on their religious beliefs, can be viewed as man’s greatest blunder. From the Inquisition and the Thirty Years’ War to the Holocaust, Balkans, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Palestine, we still refuse to learn. 

Yet even today, in Europe, the West, and the Middle East, we continue to define limits narrowly, from the inside out. Alternatives are framed by the terrorist suicide bomber on the one hand, and far-reaching initiatives that focus on “restoration of democracy,” or “self-governance” on the other. However, when placed against the Big Picture, such thinking loses most of its relevance. The same holds true of our Western notion of seemingly simple concepts such as “victory” and “progress”. The failure to recognize this and act accordingly has been, and still is, the greatest fault of Europe and the developed West. 


The New Presenceautumn 2003

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