Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

A Fatal Helping Hand

I've been reading the copy of Bernard Lewis' The Middle East and the West which was given to me a while ago. Written in 1964, it clearly doesn't deal with the topic in the light of recent events, but since it's mostly dealing with the happenings of the 1700s through the 1950s, that doesn't matter a great deal -- though I definitely want to pick up one of Lewis' more recent books when I'm done with this one.

Two things strike me, which I gather Lewis expands upon in other books:

First, the sense of shock and anger of a civilization which had long regarded itself as far superior to its northern neighbors in battle, culture, learning and religion must have felt to suddenly find that the barbarians next door have (while you weren't watching) sprung far, far ahead in culture, technology and political institutions. The period from 1650 to 1800 saw little progress in the Ottoman world, and incredible change (for good and ill) in northern Europe. When the Ottoman military academies started teaching French and putting Diderot's encyclopedia in their libraries, cultural and political turmoil could not be far away.

Second is a disconcerting feeling that attempts to help a 'less developed' culture are often not merely wasted, but dangerously counter productive. From 1800 to 1918, middle eastern reformers, well versed in the political ideals of the west, tried to introduce representative government and political freedom into the middle east, and failed repeatedly. After World War I, the English and French simply imposed such reforms, in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, with results that were often counter productive.

The natural response to encountering a poorer and more illiberal nation is to wish to provide a measure of material aid and political development, and yet imposing this from without seems to have caused even more trouble than was there to begin with. Is the answer some sort of STNG "prime directive" where one must simply step back and not interfere? That hardly seems right. And yet it's clear that helping can cause a great deal of damage.

One can't help wondering what would have happened in a world where modern Americans and Europeans had suddenly shown up circa 1780 and started pouring money, technology and political advisors into the American and European countries of that time. Would we have still seen the development of American and European democratic institutions and economic progress, or would the continents have sunk into jealous client-state status?

No comments: