October 30, 2003

UNARGUABLE? (via Mike Daley):

Are Suicide Bombings Morally Defensible? (RICHARD WOLIN, Chronicle of Higher Education)

In recent weeks a publishing scandal involving charges of anti-Semitism has dominated the feuilleton sections of leading German dailies. The debate has embroiled one of the nation's most respected publishing houses, the Frankfurt-based, left-liberal firm of Suhrkamp Verlag. It has also implicated the world-renowned philosopher J├╝rgen Habermas for having made a controversial publishing recommendation. More generally, the dispute raises an issue of fundamental importance concerning the ground rules of the continuing, fractious debate over Middle East politics -- an issue familiar to American academics: At what point does vigorous criticism of Israeli policy dovetail with rank anti-Semitism?

At the center of the maelstrom in Germany is a slim volume by the philosopher Ted Honderich, who until his retirement taught at University College London. The book, After the Terror, is an attempt to reassess global politics in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Written in an offhand, chatty style, its main point -- unarguable, as far as it goes -- is that first-world nations bear responsibility for third-world nations' impoverishment.

Whahappen? In what conceivable sense is that "unarguable"? Third World nations were, for the most part, impoverished when the first world found them, were they not?

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 30, 2003 10:23 PM

Well, no, not historically.

When Portugal "found" India, Portugal was hardly a first-world nation, while India was at the tippytop.

When Columbus landed on Hispaniola, the honors were about even. The Spaniards had iron and ships but were ravenous. The Indians had a lesser technology but were well-fed.

I think though, that if you move "when they found" forward to the heyday of European colonialism -- I think this is what both you and Wolin are thinking of -- then you are right, Orrin, and he is wrong.

More to the point, why are third world countries still poor? They have the benefit of all the discoveries that made the first world rich, for free; yet they are unable even to lift themselves up to the material level of England in 1920 -- a pretty dismal goal, looked at from 2003.

It's a spiritual or moral failure on their part. It cannot be ascribed to a mere lack of technic.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 31, 2003 12:22 AM

I'm with Harry. But an even better question is how many "Third-World" countries are much worse off than they were 30 years ago? Probably at least 25 or more, not counting collapses like the USSR, Argentina, Peru, Zimbabwe, etc. That can't be our fault, no matter what some academics think.

Posted by: jim hamlen at October 31, 2003 1:03 AM

Mr. Eager:

Watch the use of the word spiitual. I almost fell off my chair in surprise.

Posted by: Buttercup at October 31, 2003 6:45 AM

To answer Harry's good question, one of the main reasons so many third world countries are still poor is that they listen to the likes of Honderich. Whether in politics, career, marriage, community or whatever, those who blame others for all their ills almost always fail.

And like Buttercup, I'm still marvelling. Harry, are you feeling ok?

Posted by: Peter B at October 31, 2003 6:57 AM

By any measure--life expectancy, technology, etc.--the native were living at levels that were centuries behind the Westerners who found them.

Posted by: OJ at October 31, 2003 7:51 AM

The more statist, bureacratic, centralized and left-oriented a country the more corrupt and backward. The free institutions which support the liberal constitutionalism we take for granted in the "anglosphere" are the prerequistites for economic success. Blaming the west for the troubles in the so-called third world is a vestige of old style zero-sum mercantilism. If the jerks in power couldn't blame the west they'd have to take responsibility. We can't have that. They might have to work for a living.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 31, 2003 9:48 AM

Modern western culture has - Orrin notwithstanding ;) - deeply ingrained in it an idea of progress, a self-fulfilling prophecy that things will be better than they were.

I was stuck by the title of Lewis' "What went wrong", referring to the decline of the Arab world. The answer, of course, is that nothing went wrong - they're just as advanced now as they were in the 12th century, or perhaps even a bit more.

Westerners - Americans most of all, I think - tend to think of progress as a law of nature, but in fact it's a historical anomoly.

Posted by: Mike Earl at October 31, 2003 10:06 AM


That is a very good point and one that conservatives have trouble with at times, but it doesn't explain the resentment that arises among the ones who don't progress for the ones that do. If the natural order is societies that don't progress materially, and who don't particularly feel to urge to, does that mean the mere existence of a more developed society is offensive in that it leads to envy and resentment? If so, doesn't that mean economic progress is a kind of original sin and Honderich and the left have it all backwards?

Posted by: Peter B at October 31, 2003 11:30 AM

Peter -

I think the problem is not that they aren't interested in progress, but that they think it nonsensical. If you believe your civilization is ideal, there's no need for progress; but a civilization which is demonstrably more advanced presents a terrible problem. You can either attempt to copy their advances while maintaining the essence of your own culture, or demonize them and denigrate their accomplishments.

Posted by: Mike Earl at October 31, 2003 12:21 PM

I said "spiritual" not "spooktual."

Even materialists can have civic spirit.

More to the point here, those backward societies have chosen a spiritual path in the religious sense as well as or instead of the civic sense. And it has failed them.

Africans, once they realized they were not going to catch up the Europe materially (this happened in the '70s), started talking about being important in the world through the impact of "African spirituality."

Repeated instances of cannibalism etc. pretty much killed off that idea. Now African has no material or spiritual capital.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 31, 2003 1:17 PM

Fortunately for Africa, it is starting to believe in capital transfers.

Posted by: Peter B at October 31, 2003 1:54 PM


I think it is a slander to say that Africans chose the mystical path because they couldn't compete, or decided not to try. What stopped them? Seko, Kuanda, Amin, ad nauseum. South Africa did fine, and is still trying to stick to a reasonable economy. But Mugabe has absolutely ruined his country in just 22 years. It will take them at least that long to recover (like China after the Red Guards). And any statements made by most African 'leaders' about their nation's importance or contribution are just worthless. All they know about worth is stored in various basements in Geneva and Zurich.

Posted by: jim hamlen at October 31, 2003 2:34 PM

Sure it does and that spirituality--imported from the West--will save it:


Posted by: OJ at October 31, 2003 2:43 PM

Peter -

Why, just yesterday I got an email from a Nigerian wanting my assistance to transfer some capital...

Posted by: Mike Earl at October 31, 2003 2:51 PM


Very well played. :)

Posted by: Peter B at November 1, 2003 8:23 AM