Forgive my digression in the midst of a very nice family holiday, but I was drawn to a recent article by former National Post columnist Mark Steyn who goes all apoplectic over the picture of Michelle Obama posted here. Poor Mark. He really does dip his toes in the obtuse and ridiculous, doesn’t he! Desperate to find something to criticize in the sane and restrained foreign policy of the current American government (Bring Back Ronald and his Rayguns!), he lashes out at the First Lady for showing some solidarity with the girls abducted by swinish Muslim rebels in Nigeria.
Finding this a useful starting point, his rhetoric takes flight, condemning all diplomatic nuance as so much perfidious twaddle. Metternich would not be amused, neither would the indefatigable Bismarck, who steered his country to geopolitical prominence from practically nowhere with consummate skill. Without him it wasn’t long before Germany stumbled into the disastrous WW1. But then, as I have noted before, Mark is primarily a social critic with little aptitude for history and those who are fond of his flowery histrionics undoubtedly know even less.
In contradistinction to the disappointing Mark Steyn, here, gentle reader, is how history moves. Eras or epochs have certain central ideas that govern and define them. The illuminating Paulo Freire calls these central ideas “themes.” Marx referred to them as a “theses” and postulated that each era’s thesis was opposed by a competing “antithesis” and through dialectical struggle a new synthesis emerges. Others see these central ideas as a civilization’s narrative; a story it tells itself about who and what it is. However you wish to construct it, theme, thesis or narrative, what characterizes an age is its ideas, not its actions.
Those who fulminate against inaction and the promotion of debate, dialogue, and discussion are missing the point. Attacking Iraq, Afghanistan or Syrian accomplishes the sum total of nothing. They are a meaningless drain on the economies of the world, making a few Machiavellian manipulators rich and marginally slowing the tide of history, but only changing it in the dogma of the dim-witted.
Did Darwin kill anyone? Start any wars? Overthrow any governments? Who has had greater power in writing the narrative of this present age? Did Martin Luther King or his namesake, Martin Luther start wars or movements? Did Marx launch rockets or words? As dismissive as Steyn and others who call for action of any kind so long as it involves invasion or conflict, this is not the way that intelligent and social beings who form civilizations develop. The Obamas apparently understand this
It is undoubtedly comforting to some to think that it will only take one more war to put our enemies in their place and for our way of life to triumph. That is the dream of the adolescent and uninformed. We will not defeat our enemies with war, but with words. It is the strength of ideas, of concepts, of ideologies that turn the tide of history. There is a growing consensus that the kind of neolithic brutality that we see in Syria, in Northern Nigeria, on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is just so yesterday. It doesn’t need action as much as it needs contempt and ridicule. And yes, solidarity with those who are oppressed.