Profound conversations of our time

9th May 1997 at 01:00
AT CENTURY'SEND. Edited by Nathan Gardels. Wolfhound Pounds 18.99

From time to time, a judgment stops the reader dead in his unthinking tracks, writes Roy Hattersley

The facts are, in themselves, depressing enough. "China has helped Algeria build a nuclear reactor suitable for nuclear weapons research. . . . North Korea has a nuclear weapons programme - it has sold advanced missiles and missile technology to Syria and Iran." But the explanation of the strange relationship between "the arms suppliers of East Africa and their Islamic customers" is more disturbing still. According to Samuel P Huntingdon, former presidential adviser and head of the Harvard Institute for Strategic Studies, Muslim and Confucian are united by their "philosophical opposition to Western liberalism".

Time after time At Century's End returns to the theme of the East's rejection of Western values. Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of Singapore for 32 years, insisted that it is unreasonable to expect the sudden universal acceptance of "democracy and human rights as defined by AmericaIValues are formed out of the history and experience of a people." Nelson Mandela takes the opposite view. "There cannot be one system for Africa and another for the world. If there is a single lesson to be drawn from Africa's post-colonial history, it is that accountable government is good government." But then, as a new generation of African militants will insist, Mandela is, in outlook and attitude, the product of Western civilisation.

At Century's End proclaims its cultural identity with equal clarity. The "great minds" that "reflect on our times" boast diverse origins - Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Francois Mitterrand, Shimon Peres and Filipe Gonz lez among them. But the book to which they contribute has "made in the USA" stamped on every page. Now that the Soviet Union is divided into nations with their own internal preoccupations, only America spends time and academic talent assembling world views on the future of mankind. The result often seems pretentious to the more reticent Anglo-Saxon intellect. For the subjects seem too vast and profound to be dealt with adequately in the format which At Century's End provides. The book is not a collection of essays but an anthology of conversations recorded for original publication in New Perspectives Quarterly. But from time to time, a judgment stops the reader dead in his unthinking tracks, "Modernism, born in Europe", says Takeshi Umehara, "has already played itself out in principle. Accordingly, societies that have been built on modernism are destined to collapse."

If that sounds like the prejudice of a Japanese philosopher, turn again to Sam Huntingdon of the White House.

In Japan one hears talk of "re-Asianisation". Nehru's multicultural secularism threatens to be supplanted by the fervour of "Hinduisation" of India. The failure of Arab nationalism and socialism fuels the burgeoning movement for "re-Islamisation" in the Middle East.

The point - which just about survives the synthetic verbs - is undeniable.Modernisation and growing contact between diverse cultures has separated people from their traditional identities. We all drink Coca Cola now. The state is no longer the primary object of cultural loyalty. Its place has been taken by "religion and a return to roots".

The problem with At Century's End, as is often the case with profound works which have been dictated into a tape recorder, is the failure to offer convincing solutions to the problems which it describes. Inevitably, some of the contributors believe that salvation depends on abandoning the obsession with material improvement. Solzhenitsyn thinks that it was a mistake to believe that "human nature would become gentler with progress", blames television and the telephone for "jerking us from the natural flow of our life" and calls for the acceptance of "sacrifice and self denial". That might be called the Saint Jerome formula for the good life. No doubt it worked in the wilderness. It would be no good here and now. It is not even the morally right doctrine for the century's end. Only economic growth can solve the problems of the developing world.

Octavia Paz, the Mexican Nobel Prize-winner, makes a related, but to my mind far more interesting, historical point. Modern society is obsessed with the idea of the future: planning against next year's famine, investing in faster growth, preparing for a healthy old age. "For medieval societies, the important thing was eternity - time outside timeIThe point was to save one's soul and not to try to save the world." I am not sure where that judgment takes us. And, if it is true, it seems to me that it confirms my belief that the world has improved. For pre-occupation with self has given way to concern for the community.

But neither the inadequacy of the remedies nor the ambiguity of the philosophy matters. At Century's End bursts with interesting ideas. It is not easy reading, but persistence is rewarded.

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