Thursday, February 4, 2010

Optimism and Pessimism

In his new book, Sonic Boom: Globalization at Mach Speed (Random House, 2009), author Gregg Easterbrook writes:
Western ideals -- free economics, freedom of speech, personal dignity, rationality, consent of the governed -- are spreading across the continents at the most rapid rate they ever have spread. The world seems to face two possible outcomes. Either the Western philosophy of life will fail when applied to the world as a whole, or it will succeed. If the former, the immediate global future may turn bleak. If the latter, there will be a Sonic Boom.

Easterbrook celebrates his own ostentatious optimism in this book, even though he was still writing it when the recent economic meltdown went into full swing. I appreciate and generally ascribe to this kind of optimism. I laugh at those conspiracy theorists who suppose that the world is secretly controlled by John Davison Rockefeller and Cecil John Rhodes (never mind they died in 1937 and 1902, respectively), or that airport scanners are really a plot to create pornography for the private consumption of horny TSA officers, so the complete dissolution of the Bill of Rights must be right around the corner.

However, I'd really have to give even odds on Easterbrook's two possible outcomes. From at least the late Nineteenth Century, our so-called Western philosophy of life has contained the seeds of its own destruction. Those seeds are the abandonment of spiritual wisdom in deference to brute physical force and radical materialism.

They were scattered by the winds of war in 1860-65, and in 1914-18. And they germinated in 1938-45 at Wannsee, Dachau and Auschwitz; in 1947-53 at Foggy Bottom; and later in Lubyanka Square, Basel, Langley and Indianapolis.

By the 1980's psychiatry as we now know it was in full flower: An individual human being is a brain, and that's all, dammit! A basket of chemical reactions, a machine. There is no free will, love, honor or purpose. People do not intend, they do not agree, learn or create, but merely react biochemically. The only sensible way to understand or deal with people, the ultimate way to handle them, is by manipulating or fine-tuning chemicals in brains.

If the world is forced or defrauded into adopting our psychiatry, the Western philosophy of life will certainly fail. There will be no point, we might as well all shoot each other, or commit each other to places like Elgin Mental Health Concentration Center to be "treated" whether we like it or not.

But if China will just continue its "rebuke of mental illness" (see my post from January 8, 2010), maybe there's a good chance we'll still quote Homer, Plato, Aquinas, Shakespeare, Jefferson and Twain a thousand years from now.

I supppose it's an even bet.

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