Friday, April 20, 2007

Exporting Democracy II: 'Radical Hope'?

In the April 26 NYROB, Charles Taylor reviews Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation by Jonathan Lear. If you have time, take a look at the review; this précis only scratches the surface. The book addresses how the Crow tribe--and in particular Chief Plenty Coups--dealt with losing an entire culture and the full set of possibilities associated with it:
A culture's disappearing means that a people's situation is so changed that the actions that had crucial significance are no longer possible in that radical sense. It is not just that you may be forbidden to try them and may be severely punished for attempting to do so; but worse, you can no longer even try them. You can't draw lines or die while trying to defend them. You find yourself in a circumstance where, as Lear puts it, "the very acts themselves have ceased to make sense."
But the book is about hope, after all; seeking guidance, Chief Plenty Coups went to the woods, where he dreamed that the Crow need to remain open to the possibility of unimagined new frameworks for living. Taylor, again:
But here we have something more extreme than uncertainty: the very shape of this hope remained to be defined. The dream told the Crow that the old standards of courage and shame were going to lose their validity. And yet they would not be left completely adrift in a world without meaning and direction; new standards would emerge if they learned to watch and observe like the Chickadee. Lear writes:
What makes this hope radical is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.
In his conclusion, Taylor generalizes Lear's concept of radical hope, applying it optimistically to his own fears regarding the contemporary eradication of cultures around the world; maybe, he thinks, just maybe (despite the fact that "a world civilization, highly unified economically, politically, and in communications, has exacted, and will go on exacting, a tremendous human cost in the death or near death of cultures") he can be hopeful, too.
The hope is "radical," because it is virtually impossible to say beforehand what the shape of this new kind of life will be. This has to emerge in specific new forms, drawing on the particular cultural resources of each society. There is no general formula, except utterly empty, formal ones, like: "find a novel solution from within your own traditions." The notion that there could be a how-to manual for this kind of creative initiative is close to absurd.

In spite of that, a powerful stream of thought and policy in our society persists in thinking in such hortatory ways. There is, for example, the notion that so-called experts can be dispatched to teach societies that have been living for centuries under authoritarian rule how to become democracies. Some even think that it's obvious how to do this—just hold elections. All people, we are told, desire "freedom"; we just have to remove the bad guys who are stopping them from having it. The naive, destructive rhetoric of the Bush administration is an extreme case, but many less crude versions of the same idea underpin Western policies of development.

The lingering and scary question, here, is: isn't the Bush administration itself engaged in some kind of 'radical hope'? Taylor and Lear would point out that the Bush people are hoping for something they can--however incompletely, however foolishly--conceptualize: it is, instead, what we have all along known it was: simply radical stupidity.

1 comment:

troutsky said...

A very fine line, isnt it? The Crow leader may have had something that comes with living in the natural world, imagination,which we as a "modern" civilization are losing. John Lennons question.Research shows children experiencing a smaller and smaller range of musical tones.Limits become more and more concrete as regards the popular imagination (Ill leave out the fields of science and mathematics) so that the normative is the consensus between A and B. Hard on a culture.