05 June 2009

Glorifying Your Ancestors: When People Get Stuck in the Past

In his speech in Cairo, President Obama stated:

As a student of history, I also know civilization's debt to Islam. It was Islam at places like Al-Azhar that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe's renaissance and enlightenment.

It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra, our magnetic compass and tools of navigation, our mastery of pens and printing, our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires, timeless poetry and cherished music, elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation.

This part of his speech was no doubt well received in the Muslim world. Statements like this are commonly brought forward by Muslims to assert the value of their culture and history. It is a common refrain stated frequently by Muslims, and is used to excuse their current situation.

But one is compelled to ask, "But what have you done lately?" Relying on the accomplishments of centuries past does not count for much today.

Despite trillions of dollars of oil wealth that has flowed into the middle east, there seems to be little accomplishment in human development, or social or scientific advancement. Consider the staggering amounts of world resources that the Arab world has at their disposal. Where are the world-class institutions of higher learning? Where is the scientific progress? Where are the inventions and consumer products? Where are the innovations in medicine or engineering? Where is the enlightened social and cultural institutions that would be expected from so much financial good fortune? In all, where is the advanced society that should be expected to arise from all that oil wealth? No excuses, please, for the starting point sixty years ago. In that time, the societies of Asia have advanced tremendously in wealth and in human progress.

Instead, in the Middle East, we have barely literate societies, the oppression of women, and either absolute monarchs or petty dictators.

It is not my intent make light of the current situation of Islamic society, but to point out that the Muslim world has gotten stuck in its past, glorifying its ancestors and is failing to progress. It is a situation that occurs in many societies, and even happens in ours, being part of the human condition. We need to recognize it when it happens.

For example, ancient Egypt got stuck in its own past. Early in its history, it was a dynamic society, full of change and discovery. As discoveries were written down, they assumed a life of their own. Society became hidebound. Experimentation stopped, and people began to accept what was written as eternal truth. Further questioning became forgotten, and knowledge and societal development slowed to a halt.

China reached a state of equilibrium, with government structures and literature frozen in place. The Chinese believed they had achieved a perfect and harmonious society. Promotion in government became dependent on the memorization of ancient texts and classical poetry. This was the stagnant state that European powers found, and the Chinese are still catching up with the Western world.

Perhaps the most famous example is Japan. Once power was consolidated in the Shogun, and society was organized, the Japanese saw no need of change, and literally closed themselves off from the rest of the world. It is true that peace largely reigned in Japan during the Shogunate, but at the cost of advancement and development.

Similarly, in the Western World, medieval Christianity became mired in the past, closed themselves mentally from the further development of their religion and society, and became hostile to scientific discovery. Students of history are well versed in the backwardness and poverty that resulted.

But don't feel too superior to the examples above. In our own time and place, there are examples in our society and government of stagnation and ancestor-worship.

Ancestor worship? In our society? You had better believe it. There are situations where we feel compelled to keep things a certain way just because our ancestors set them up that way.

Our ancestors built GM, so it must be good, and preserved forever with little change. Despite the costs, and despite the changing of the world.

Our ancestors built the TVA, so it must be good, and preserved forever with little change. Despite the costs, and despite the changing of the world.

Our ancestors built Social Security, so it must be good, and preserved forever with little change. Despite the costs, and despite the changing of the world.

Our ancestors built the most complex income tax code in the world, so it must be good, and preserved forever with little change. Despite the costs, and despite the changing of the world.


The Republicans are currently stuck in this mind set as well. Reagan, Reagan, Reagan, is all you hear coming from their internal debates. His name is mentioned and all reason stops. The Republicans long for a return to their past, even though the world has changed dramatically. To the current crop of Republicans, it is always 1980, and Reagan is always the answer.

Another example is the two-party system. Why two parties? Everyone complains about it, and is unsatisfied, but change is not allowed to touch this monument to inertia. When you ask why, all you get is "The two party system is and was and shall ever be."

The problem of stagnation and ancestor worship seeps into our minds, so that we don't even know why we do things, just that me must. Recall that our American ancestors were always looking for innovation in government, science, the arts, and in industry. At the time our institutions were created, from our car companies to our government, they were typically wildly radical solutions to the problems of the day.

We must be on guard against ancestor worship, which robs us of our ability to adapt, to change, to grow, and to progress. Think of the resources wasted because we are compelled to preserve corporations that have outlived their purpose. Think of what else that money could have been used for. It could have been used for investing in our future.

Think about the waste, corruption, and fecklessness of our politics, stuck in place for decades. Instead of working on economic problems, the issues facing our shrinking middle class, our deteriorating public finances, reforming our schools, taxes, prisons, or what have you, we have wasteful distractions over social issues.

Our future is crumbling and we are stuck debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

What would our ancestors think of us?

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