Sunday, February 24, 2008

A culture is a terrible thing to waste

Here's a lesson in cultural decline. Consider one of the greatest natural scientists ("natural philosophers") of the Arabic-Persian golden age, Alhacen of Basra, who lived in the later 900s (see here and here). Then contrast with this flat-earth theorist of present-day Iraq (video clip requires WMP).

What a difference a millennium makes.

This may seem like just shooting fish in a barrel. But here's a serious point: in the West, we're used to progress - the future is better than the past. In our conceited arrogance, we even think progress is automatic, like getting on an UP escalator.

In fact, progress is anything but automatic. It needs the right conditions. We've had those in the West since the late Middle Ages, with some occasional, if terrible, interruptions. The right conditions are always under threat from ideologues, fanatics, and people with obsessive fixed ideas.

Now imagine you live in a land of regress: the past is better than the future. The regress may have been going on for so long - say, seven or eight centuries - that it seems automatic. Of course, that's not right either. But in your land of regress, there are people - including some important and powerful people - with a vested interest in decline. Turning things around seems threatening to them. To make their point, they even get violent.

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