The Possibility of Progress

WILLIAM PFAFF

December 23, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- Widened war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and probably in Serbia now seems certain. The Western governments have done their best this year to ignore the terrible events in the former Yugoslavia, and the implications of Serbia's radical defiance of the rules of civilized conduct all had thought established in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in the West, after what happened between 1940 and 1945.

We find this belief was wrong. In this region time was suspended by Soviet occupation or Communist indoctrination, and mentalities prove not greatly changed from what they were when our last ''racial'' war began, under the auspices of Adolf Hitler.

This goes against the modern Western convention, which assumes the existence of political progress. A century ago progress scarcely seemed open to question. From the French Enlightenment and the Declaration of Human Rights, through Charles Darwin's demonstration of evolution in the animal order, to the popular emancipations and reforms with which this century began, few doubted that men and women were becoming better, and society marching forward.

Even those skeptical of moral improvement in man himself had to recognize the institutional progress taking place in society, in parallel with imposing strides in scientific knowledge and technology.

Then came World War I, and its insensate and seemingly interminable slaughters. An unprecedented phenomenon followed, the totalitarian state and society. And then another war, a racial and genocidal one that ended with one totalitarianism still in place, half of Europe under its control. Institutional ''progress'' in society had proved to be movement in more than one direction.

Since the war, the recovery of democratic Europe and the creation of a Western moral as well as economic community, together with democratizing reforms elsewhere, and then the implosion of the Soviet system, victim of its own evil, seemed once again to justify at least a guarded belief in progress.

But what progress? In the moral nature of man? The events of the last year in what was Yugoslavia must surely disabuse the most confident. One can comprehend the disorders of Somalia or the struggle in Liberia as part of an old history of fearful power struggles in backward societies. Communal conflict in the Sudan or Sri Lanka or India are connected with the struggle of people to understand religious truth and make it prevail, and thus are comprehensible in terms of the paradoxes by which good intentions are connected with evil.

But the sadistic and capricious individual cruelties, mass rapes and random torture among old neighbors and acquaintances, arbitrary destruction, loosed in the former Yugoslavia this year sends the case for progress reeling. Or so it seems to me. I do not mean that the combatants in Yugoslavia are uniquely evil. Quite the contrary. I think they have shown what the rest of us are capable of. The demonstration is a deep shock. They have shown us how fragile and provisional are the institutional and cultural defenses we possess against our own capacity for evil.

A Christian finds in this a reason to observe Christmas this year in fear and humility, looking for consolation in the meaning of Christmas itself, that of a divine intervention into history to allow men and women to transcend this terrible and frightening freedom we possess to become our worst self.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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