Sunday, July 02, 2006

Those secular ideologies

Take a seat, swallow that coffee, and prepare yourself before reading the first sentence of Jim Hoagland's piece in today's Post:
A half-century dominated by the secular ideologies of capitalism, communism and physics has given way to a time of religious backlash provoked by the uncertainties and menaces of vertiginous modernization.
Yes, children, physics is a secular ideology. Either the means of production should be allocated according to market forces, they should be owned by the workers for the benefit of all, or force equals mass times acceleration.

One must choose. Of course.

And I suppose he'd take Barack Obama's speech as proof of that claim. He quotes Obama saying:
Now, this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy [of sacred scripture]. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality.
Persuade people about a common reality, eh? What field of human endeavor seeks to understand our common reality? Ask John Dewey about that, and he'd have known that we're talking about scientific pragmatism. Communism and capitalism adhere to unverifiable personal (unshared) assumptions about the nature of people, history, and morality. As such, they are unable to reach any synthesis but death or peaceful coexistence. Science, because it is the study of our shared reality is capable of synthesis. I can convince you that physics works because I can show it to you. We share that experience, and so long as we both value a commitment to reality, physics is the same for everyone.

The "religious backlash" is not about physics. The analogy to communism is intriguing, however.

People certainly thrive on conflict. Constructivists in political science have developed a post-modern theory about how people and nations forge identities, and how those identities lead to wars. The fundamental principle is that we define binary groups, Self and Other. Self always competes with Other.

In the '60s, as colonies struck out on their own, they sought to identify themselves. Those that felt ill-served by the West sought out the "Other" to their former colonial masters, and found communism. Western radicals who wanted to rebel against the strictures of their society had been doing the same for a century.

Then communism fell. The vaunted "Arab Street" (which we'll take to be largely parallel to what would formerly have been called the proletariat) was still pissed at the West, and not without cause. And rallying around the smoke-stained hulk of the Soviet Union was foolish. The post-Cold War West sought a new way to identify its "Self-ness" as did the developing world and the Arab Street.

Religions exist to comfort and support. In Africa, in the Middle East, and in much of Asia, Islam is growing because mosques and Muslim communities are providing the larger community with services they need. In lawless parts of Africa, the imposition of Sharia could sound like an OK idea. Churches provide a similar support network in the US. Both provide not just spiritual or physical support, but ideological support. We see that from fights over creationism or Christmas trees on public property, and on to the fights in Afghanistan or the Sudan.

To identify this as an essentially religious battle is to miss the point. We've propped up undemocratic leaders in developing countries for centuries. Of course there is a big chunk of the world that views the West as "Other." Until we find ways of reaching out to those nations and showing that we consider them to be part of our Self, they'll always find new ways of characterizing what makes them separate from us, and these fights will keep on keeping on.

Leave physic out of it.