From The Prison Of The 'Isms'

Mister Dooley, a fictional newspaper character at the last turn of the century, described a fanatic as someone who viewed himself as "doing what the Lord would do - if He only had the facts." The century that followed was beset by just such grandiose fanaticism, and it became the bloodiest in all of human history. Will we see a sequel in the century to come? Communism and Nazism are gone, but their suffixes remain. The biggest of the big political questions is whether other malignant "isms" can be held in check. The health of the new century hinges on the answer.

The mother of all isms is utopianism, the belief that some belief structure can bring a perfect world. This has proved to be history's greatest mirage. We've learned the hard way that ideologies imbued with great certitude tend to be dangerous. That's not an argument against firm convictions or even against spreading them. But it does suggest that the world is safer when we are moderating ideology rather than imposing it; when we think for ourselves rather than submit to what the historian Robert Conquest calls "mindslaughter."

The big struggle ahead is between globalism and nationalism, with fundamentalism the wild card. So far, the best logic for the eventual triumph of global thinking is technological: cyberspace knows no borders. Just as 19th-century national technologies such as the transcontinental railroad aided nationalism, so 21st-century international technologies such as the Internet will aid internationalism. To be successful, bad ideologies need to seal off dissent; that's the idea behind totalitarianism. As technology breaches the old self-contained vessels of information, the whole notion of mind control will be much more difficult. It sometimes seems the only big ideology of the future will be what might be called "dot-comism," which, given its endlessly pluralistic nature, is not really an ideology at all. In this century, Marxists and Freud-ians depended on elaborate and exclusionary hierarchies of expertise. In the new world, big-thinking theoretical experts can expect to die a death of a thousand e-mail cuts.

As the Internet expands, some even believe that nations will eventually be replaced by cybercommunities. Or perhaps the struggle will be between artificial intelligence and what we still think of as the real thing, with "humanism" or "bioism" representing a preference for people over machines. In the meantime, technology is essentially neutral - an amplifier of existing ideologies that spreads all modes of thinking: hate and human rights; extreme capitalism and extreme environmentalism; dogmatism and moral relativism.

The isms that would seem most directly threatened by the Internet are nationalism and its economic face, protectionism. If history has proved anything, it's that the economic case for erecting barriers is weak. But for many nations, the political case remains strong. In fact, the more globalization takes hold, the stronger the nationalist reaction is likely to be. This is partly the result of convenient resentment against the United States. If you're trying to hang on to power, from China to Russia to the Middle East, stirring up nationalist fervor is still a good strategy.

And there's a deeper psychological pull. "The need to sanctify our ancestors or leave something for posterity is just not satisfied by global networks," says the writer Jim Sleeper. "They don't satisfy that longing precisely because they're instantaneous." No one has yet picketed in favor of "globalism" (which spellcheck still doesn't even recognize as a word). The war over Kosovo was a setback for sovereignty, but it still has plenty of kick left in it. In fact, the more international the world becomes, the greater the odds of what Sleeper calls "reactive retribalization." Still-incoherent glimmers of that are present in the emerging backlash against free trade. We may find soon that the speed of light is blinding us to powerful older visions.

If nationalism reflects the urge to preserve common heritage, fundamentalism is about spiritual longing in a sinful and materialistic world. While Jewish and Christian fundamentalism are growing, the most potent form is Islamic, dating back to the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. Terrorism remains a major threat in the new century, but many of the fears of Islamic fundamentalism are overblown. The vast majority of the world's 1 billion Muslims are not extremists, and even the extremists are too badly split for a worldwide movement. The doctrinal disputes within Islam, which have already led to political crises in Iran, Algeria and elsewhere, won't end any time soon. Even so, the pace of modernization will keep fundamentalism alive and potentially dangerous.

The second half of the 20th century was less bloody than the first in part because a healthy reaction against communism, nationalism and militarism set in. Racism, which was once a proud and aggressive ideology, has been pushed into the closet. Perhaps the century's most important movement - feminism - has, in the United States, been largely transformed into careerism, while Freudianism has gone pop. Across the world, major ideas are in retreat. The biggest isms in Russia nowadays are alcoholism and cynicism. The latter will, if left untreated, leave societies open to far more malevolent ideas. The best antidote can be found in two more isms - skepticism and idealism. Properly blended, they offer the best hope of charting a well-balanced middle course through the tumult ahead.

From The Prison Of The 'Isms' | News