Many years ago when I was young, idealistic and – not to put too fine a point on it – an idiot, I truly believed that ideas, beliefs (like democracy) could drive action, states, life. I thought that if you had the right attitude then, by golly, the right institutions and governments would follow. As I said, I was an idiot. Most 17-year-olds are.
I now know that it is lives and who we are, how we are, how we live that drives the systems we adhere to. What does that mean? Well, it means that the Bush Doctrine of heading into Iraq post 9-11 to bring democracy into the region – democracy deprived as those poor Iraqis were – then all would fall into place, like a jigsaw puzzle opening up into its full splendour of a sunset over the Rockies.
But it’s not like that.
People’s lives, whether they have enough to eat, a place to live; whether their children can go to school, safely, and come home after without being blown up; it is having decent work under reasonable conditions, living in a place where you can make a life for yourself: it is these that then give rise to political and moral beliefs.
Years ago a psychologist by the name of Kohler (I think that was his name, my lamentable memory) spoke of the slow process through which true moral understanding develops. Another psychologist, Maslowe, spoke of the hierarchy of needs and how it is only after the fundamentals are satisfied is one able to concern oneself with abstract concepts like ethical societies or an ecological metaphor for life. One can only become a person with genuine global, ecological concerns required living in a world where one’s other more basic needs like food and shelter are met.
But we don’t talk much of development or developmental processes these days. Early education is under attack (no matter how much the school day is extended) and our reverence is focused on the gene and its so-called blueprint. Well, if you believe that it’s all there, ready to go, in your genes then why the hell would you even think about development, learning, the ways in which an individual evolves into that wonderful Jewish notion of a mensch?
To care about things larger than oneself one needs to have the basics and the knowledge that more is out there if one applies oneself. This is what the Arab Spring is about and this is what the guardians of terror and nitpickers at airports do not get. As long as entire regions of the globe only see the good life in movies downloaded from the internet or from satellite television – never in their own lives – there will be terrorism and people willing to die because they have nothing to lose.
That was the real lesson of 9/11. Or ought to have been.