Historical progress: The big picture


Any first-time visitor to South Africa can see that the country is at a crossroads. It is a great land of numerous contrasts — a huge country with deserts and high mountains, beaches and bush. But beneath the grandeur and the wonder, there is palpable tension. Wildlife live in national park systems, while a huge swath of the population lives in 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 sickly trees in front of empty skyscrapers. Masses of poor blacks congregate on the sidewalks, spilling into the streets. Homeless people 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 wine. 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 in school, memorizing facts, inventions, movements and developments in chronological order. Later equals better. Humanity does make mistakes but it has generally learned from them, only to be faced with new challenges. In fact, when movement does occur, it is often cyclical. For example, here in the Czech Republic, entry into the European Union is regarded as a huge step forward. Although 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. We are all familiar with the expression history repeats itself.” But how much does it 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. From the Inquisition and the Thirty Years’ War to the Holocaust, as well as conflicts in the Balkans, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Palestine, we still refuse to learn. 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 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.

— By Martin Jan Stransky, publisher of New Presence magazine. Postview returns next week.


The Prague Post28.8.2003

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