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
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
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
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?