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     Jan 6, 2009
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Overcoming ethnicity
By Spengler

Never have things been better for one half of humankind, and never have things been worse for the other. An old joke divides the world into two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don't.

The decisive divide in today's world lies between nations that have a future, and nations that don't. Contrary to the prevailing pragmatism, which demands that we take every society on its own terms, an objective criterion has emerged that does not easily fade in the wash, namely the desire to live.

Samuel Huntington, who died last December 27, did the world an enormous service by changing the subject, away from comparative social systems, to civilizations based on religion. His 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order reintroduced a radically tragic dimension into geopolitics that statesmen have yet to embrace. "The Iraq war was the 

supreme expression of the belief that Islamic civilizations are not different from Western ones in any fundamental way. It was the expression not of a hard-headed doctrine but of a woolly-minded one and, as such, a repudiation of ideas Huntington held his whole life," Christopher Caldwell observed in the Financial Times on January 2.

After boldly introducing the subject, Huntington unfortunately left the next set of questions to forage for themselves. That great incompatibilities exist between some civilizations and others is an important insight. Why do some civilizations, for example "Confucian" (that is, Chinese) and Western seem highly compatible, while others, such as Western and Islamic, appear condemned to clash? A three-stage answer is required to answer the great question that Huntington left open. First, why do civilizations exist? Second, by what criteria can we judge their success or failure? Third, why should their goals conflict with each other?

I submit that the basis for our great civilizations (Judeo-Christian, Chinese, Hindu, Orthodox Christian, Islamic) is existential. Civilizations exist because men wish to overcome death, and have learned that ties of blood and language are not sufficient to win immortality. They require a form of social organization that rises above mere ethnicity, that promises a higher form of continuity between the dead and the yet unborn. But supplanting the ties of blood and language is a daunting task at which most civilizations ultimately fail.

Half of the world's population now lives in three supra-ethnic states, that is, states in which citizenship has no ethnic connotation. These are China, India and the United States. The three great supra-ethnic states are internally stable and have little cause for conflict anywhere on their borders, let alone with each other. Empires have existed throughout recorded history, but always with fragile borders and mortal conflict with their rivals.

In addition to the 3 billion inhabitants of China, India and the United States, we may add nearly another billion people on China's periphery whose prospects for peace and prosperity are robust thanks to the strength of the supra-ethnic states. This is a great turn for the better in the blood-soaked history of humankind. During the long darkness of prehistory, two-fifths of males could expect to die violently in every generation. War has overshadowed human society throughout all of history, but less so today than ever before. Most of humanity lives in states where each man may sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there is none to make him afraid.

In other parts of the world life is less secure than it ever has been. For the first time in recorded history, most of the world's peoples are failing of their desire to live. All right-thinking people believe in "the equal rights of nations large and small", in the words of the United Nations charter, in short, that every nation and every culture has equal rights to recognition, security and dignity. The UN charter responded to the predation of powerful empires on nations that very much wanted to live. Today the existential threat to most of the world's peoples comes not from without, but from within. A majority of Earth's cultures is at risk of demographic death.

Half of the world's languages will disappear by the end of the 21st century, and up to 90% by the end of the 22nd. The majority of these are spoken by a few hundred people each in the New Guinea highlands, and the rest scattered around the pockets of humanity left behind by the global economy. A small army of ethnologists is trying to record and analyze the thousands of languages that will fall silent forever during the next two or three generations.

It is not only the languages of primitive peoples that are endangered. Countries in which communism extirpated religion face catastrophic rates of population decline. A century from now, a geriatric remnant may be the only speakers of Latvian, Estonian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Georgian and other secondary but significant Western languages. Several countries that once formed part of the Soviet Union are projected to lose almost half of their total population by the middle of the present century, including Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and the Baltic states - and Russia itself is not far behind. For that matter, half of Japan's population will be older than 60 by mid-century.

The prospective extinction of nations, cultures and languages has become the leading source of instability for the 21st century. Never before in human history have so many people held their lives so cheap. Among other things, this explains why suicide has become a widespread technique of war-fighting for the first time. The phenomenon has become so widespread that it begs for a neologism. For lack of a better word we shall call it "ethno-suicide".

Europe is at peace for the first time in its history, such that the bestselling book on current European history is James Sheehan's, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? A better question is: "Where have all the Europeans gone?" Europe is at peace but not secure, for most European nations have birthrates so low that they will lose economic viability within the next 50 to 100 years.

Wealthy Europe stands on the same side of a global divide with the endangered peoples of the New Guinea highlands and the disappearing languages of the Siberian taiga. Europe is ill at ease over the attenuation of its culture in the face of mass immigration from the Middle East and Africa, an immigration that the Old World requires to replace its own declining ranks, but that threatens to destroy its identity. Radical Islam would be a minor footnote if not for the possibility that Europe may be ruled by a Muslim majority a century hence, and that the Islamicization of Europe may give new impulse to a religion that elsewhere is immured in economic backwardness.

Why have so many branches of the human family lost the will to live? And what does the despair of Stone Age peoples in New Guinea have in common with the despair of modern peoples who choose not to reproduce? The answer, I believe, is that mortality becomes unbearable in the face of modernity. Sentience of morality distinguishes us from lower animals. From the sentience of mortality arises culture - the capacity to order our behavior consciously rather than by instinct.

Unlike animals, human beings require more than progeny: they require progeny who remember them. To overcome mortality we create culture, a dialogue among generations that links the dead with the yet unborn. Even the Neanderthals buried their dead with grave-gifts, a token of belief of life beyond the grave. Whether or not we pray to a personal god or confess a particular religion, the existential question remains the same. Without the hope of immortality we cannot bear mortality. Cultures that have lost the hope of immortality also lose the will to live.

Culture is the stuff out of which we weave the perception of immortality. With sad frequency, ethnic groups will die rather than abandon their way of life. Historic tragedy occurs on the grand scale when economic or strategic circumstances undercut the material conditions of the life of a people, which nonetheless cannot accept assimilation into another culture. That is when entire peoples fight to the death.

We cannot make a future for ourselves without our past. All cultures worship at the shrine of their ancestors. They exist to ward off the presentiment of death. Breaking continuity with the past implies that our lives have no meaning past our own physical existence. If we do not continue the lives of those who preceded us, nor prepare the lives of those who will follow us, then we are defined by our physical existence and nothing more. In that case we will seek to maximize our pleasure. It is perfectly possible for entire peoples to live only for their own pleasure and feel nothing for their prospective obliteration. How else should we explain fertility rates in Europe and Japan at barely half of replacement? 

Continued 1 2 


1. South Asia descends into terror's vortex

2. Waking from Lever-Lever Land

3. Pakistan's spies reined in

4. Loaned, sold, gone - and doomed

5. Palestine and Israel: A ring of terror tightens

6. Illusory dollars for a real crisis

7. Why Pakistan's military is gun shy

8. The highs and lows of Sino-US relations

(Dec 24, 2008 - Jan 4, 2009)


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