The Courage to Change

Duly Noted

Self-confidence is needed to propel nations from the past into the future.

As we look back and around, myths appear to be a reoccurring product of all communities, civilizations, nations and religions. This is so because of our addiction to explanations that can create “order” amidst the seeming capriciousness of man’s experiences. This craving for certainty and their incessant repetition sustains myths so that their illusions serve as substitute truths. 

Not surprisingly, also our present kowtows to articles of faith that serve as palliatives and as reassurances of lived collective morality. At present, a significant one of the species is that the encounter between cultures leads to their convergence and that the result is their mutual enrichment. This tale of Green – Left vintage not only ignores reality but also replaces it with an illusion. The concept is that, in the meeting between the rocket scientist and a shaman that invokes the rain god, the involved parties are equal. For that reason, it is incumbent upon the scientist to “show respect” and to adapt. It is rated as racist cultural chauvinism to entertain the thought that if this happens, the rockets might stay on the parched ground.

Serious contemporaries need to raise a question about the meeting of cultures and must ponder whether there is a hierarchy of ways of life. However, an honest answer to the inquiry might be unwelcome. Its implications could collide with the consensus of the opinion makers. Never mind that the general opinion proclaimed by these as correct might not be the view of normal persons that dare to think without the approval of the cultural Czars. The matter is sensitive: Some questions are not raised because those that can determine agendas fear the answers that might emerge. “Do not ask, do not notice, so that you will not have to know” is widespread. It has helped folks living next to camps of annihilation not to notice what would have been disturbing. 

In our time, roughly since the end of the world war and decolonization, a major issue of discourse is the discrepancy in wealth and liberty among the earth’s regions and their nations. What explains the divergent levels of freedom and material welfare? Some global neighborhoods have risen from poverty and closed the developmental gap. At the same time, the remaining cases of poverty show a decline of living standards. Naturally, not for the local elites, but for the masses these control. Regardless of help from abroad, the Zimbabwe clones are abundant and demonstrate staying power. Increasingly, the worlds are drifting apart while the ravine separating them is deepening. On the one side, we find the traditional “advanced” countries. These had at different times and using different strategies set out to achieve their now completed strategic goal. They are joined and rivaled by newcomers that have achieved the same strategic aim to escape underdevelopment through the selective application of dissimilar tools and tactics. 

On the other side of the divide, rest non-developing or retrogressing societies. Some of these are organized as sovereign countries; others are resistant traditionalist enclaves within a progressive context. 

We might assess either of these camps as we seek common elements to explain the record. In that of the achievers –by now a majority of mankind-  there is no common denominator as far as race, religion, ethnicity, history, and natural riches go. The sole common factor is a decision to modernize and to pursue that objective rationally.

If one examines the antecedents of that desire and its pursuit, a starting point appears. Progress begins with merciless self-evaluation. What are the origins of our weakness and inferiority? What is the state of our development relative to others? Which are the deficiencies that cause underdevelopment? To raise these questions and to give honest answers - instead of soothing pats on the shoulder-  requires courage. The advocates of upgrading must confront a self-satisfaction that is rooted in ignorance or relies on blinding past glory. Successful societies have produced leaders that dared to puncture their milieu’s collective myths of national grandeur and contrasted that chimera to reality. 

The architects of awakening risk not being understood and face accusations of treason, of not “understating and appreciating our way”, or to lack patriotism. Initially, challenging soothing myths in the name of realism is generally resented.

Once self-inflicted deficiencies are articulated, a call to the community must follow to change itself. The crutches that make their users feel good about themselves and that convert weaknesses into proofs of moral superiority need to be discarded. No society can close the developmental gap as long as it has not overcome an instinct. Stragglers tend to lick wounds by granting themselves absolution by blaming foreign rule, historic injustice and the discrimination of an unappreciative world. All these might be historically true. Even in that case they do not respond to the challenge of the present and are irrelevant in the structuring of a future that must not be a continuation of the negative past. 

The positioning along the lines of collective success and immobility is determined by having or lacking a resilient culture that is sufficiently self-confident to launch its renewal. It also presupposes an ability to identify traditions to be nurtured and to mark what needs to be modified. Neither running away from the past and local ways, nor defending shortcomings with indiscriminate Jihadist pride is needed.  The key to upgrading demands the courage to imitate what others have invented and the wisdom to proceed selectively. A healthy, poised national tradition allows for cultural learning, permits critique, and it will admit to bad habits. It regards past glory or suffering not as a cushion on which to rest but as an assurance that the community can master its self-transformation. 

Change is a journey into the unknown and that can be frightening to the point of dissuasion. Some group-shared myths serve to deny that there is a world out there that deserves to be joined. Hindering the project to catch up might be that the traits and values to be overcome are seen as the expressions of the virtues of a superior way of life that used to satisfy those that shared it. This surrender of the future for the sake of preserving the past, while psychologically explainable, is and remains a popular strategy of failure.