Monday, November 1, 2010

Turning away

Great civilizations choose decline, more often than you'd think.  It's not so much that they choose decline, as the ruling elite would rather have power and a slow decline than robust cultural strength that puts their status at risk.  Unsurprisingly, the more entrenched the elite, the more able they are to lock in the decline.

I Want a New Left writes about the end of science in the Islamic world.  That world saved ancient science and philosophy in the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome, but turned its back on both around 1100 A.D.  It was, of course, about who gets - and keeps - power:
Eventually the Mu‘tazilites lost this battle. The Ash‘arites and their allies, once in control, had an enormous effect on the subsequent history of the Muslim world. Al-Ghazali, their most brilliant exponent, argued as a skeptic like Descartes, except that unlike Descartes, he never found an initial starting point from which he could advance using reason. Instead, he used mysticism to guarantee the truth of the Qur’an. He also blew to smithereens the Aristotelian assumptions used by the philosophers of his day, and although several decades later Averroes (ibn Rushd) tried to counter al-Ghazali’s influence and reconcile reason with Islam, the damage was done.

And what damage it was. The basic idea that God could change his mind at any time, because he was not bound by anything (not even by promises he had made) meant that there was no natural order as we know it. Everything that happened happened because God willed it.
From there, it was a long, slow slide downhill until the European Powers picked apart the corpse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I.

But no culture did self-immolation like China.  The Middle Kingdom was an absolutist society, with Imperial Bureaucrats at the top running the show.  It was the first true experiment in rule by an actual intellectual elite, and its record is deplorable:

Gunpowder and firearms, mechanical watches and clocks (the high tech of the 17th and 18th centuries), great oceangoing ships capable of sailing to Africa - the list of Chinese firsts is impressively long.  I wrote of one of these, a while back:
Between 1405 and 1433, the Chinese Ming dynasty sent a series of exploration voyages to southeast Asia, India, and even Africa. While the Portuguese under Prince Henry struggled down the western coast of Africa in their tiny caravels, huge Chinese treasure ships sailed to Calicut and Mogadishu.

And then they were gone, as if they had never existed.

What has stymied generations of apologetic historians of China is why did Europe first equal, then pass, then far leave behind the areas where China had once led.  Where the Middle Kingdom had once innovated and led the way, it had turned away from early success.  Instead of Chinese ships ruling the spice trade in the Bay of Bengal, it was European gunboats blasting open the gates to the Celestial Kingdom itself.

Internal politics among the Mandarin bureaucracy chose to turn away, to maintain their faction's power.  Hard won knowledge from these ventures was destroyed when a different faction assumed power, and China gradually fell asleep.

Our own elites show no reluctance to follow this same path.  Larry Summers was expelled from his post as President of Harvard University for challenging too-comfortable notions.  Juan Williams was expelled from NPR for doing the same.  As the Long March Through The Institutions has completely captured the institutions, the intellectual elite find that their field of intellectual investigation has shrunk.  They are hemmed in by victorious forces that have chosen not to more fully investigate the Universe, but to preserve (temporary) political power.

There are two ways to look at the current political landscape.  The first is that an anti-intellectual TEA Party - a mob of "know nothings" - are unworthily trying to seize the levers of control.  The second is that the Tea Party recognizes - consciously or not - that our elites have turned away from the path that had led to our success.  Pretty clearly, I subscribe to the second.

But ponder how pathetically weak that first view is.  How it is framed, not in an attempt to understand how the world actually works, but in the trappings of power.  Sarah Palin's gunboats are even now sailing into the mouth of the Yangtze, and all our "elites" can say is that society doesn't need those new-fangled guns.  Their intellectual Middle Kingdom is complete, whole, serene.  For another day, at least.


Sherm said...

You have to wonder - What will be the equivalent of the sinking of the USS Panay?

DirtCrashr said...

Post full of WIN! ThoughI would say that Juan Williams wasn't expelled for challenging comfortable notions but worse, because his appearances on Fox News had become a frequent source of embarrassment to NPR. The Media Mandrins must maintain their comfortable abode in the Magic Middle Kingdom.

Joe said...

Excellent post.

Chris said...

That adds a bit of meaning to the Boxer Rebellion, don't it?