Where did the optimism go?

December 14, 1993|By Flora Lewis

THE depression in Western societies has become much more than economic.

There is a Spenglerian sense of cultural decline, of a loss of capacity to keep countries going in the way we expect of them.

Only a few years after the collapse of communism brought such a feeling of historic vindication, both optimism and self-confidence have melted away.

The West, like the East, is now facing the colossal bill left by the Cold War, which includes moral and psychological questions about the assumptions on which free societies are based.

The drug culture, crime, the dissolution of family structure, a bleak sense of futility before life's challenges have been accumulating for a long time.

But now all these failings are seen as adding up to a crisis that puts the backbone of Western civilization in doubt.

The "clash of civilizations," the next world conflict predicted by Prof. Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard, resonates with the thrill of a horror movie, offering new disasters, new enemies to chase away the boredom Francis Fukuyama foresaw with the arrival of the "end of history."

When President Jiang Zemin of China lectures President Clinton on the arrogance of Western insistence that human rights are universal, many are prepared to wonder again what they mean by progress.

But this comes just when more and more people in traditional societies are asking why they can't break the cycles of suffering, the ageless rhythms of oppression.

The film "Farewell My Concubine," made in China and then banned there, is an anguished cry at the discovery that even the most dramatic, rapid upheavals only perpetuate the pain when the old methods of oppressive hierarchy are unchanged.

A film for French TV based on the book "The South Slope of Liberty," written by two Egyptian intellectuals who use the pseudonym Mahmoud Hussein, identifies recognition of the individual as the key to freedom.

They understand the comforts of the traditional all-embracing community and how much it hurts to accept individual responsibility, self-reliance, the need for personal initiative. But they argue that this is the only way to emerge from the misery to which so many have so long been condemned to resign themselves.

This isn't a clash of civilizations; it's a convergence demanding a reconciliation before the old dilemma of individual and community.

Humans are social animals and can't face the travail of life and the indifference of nature without support from other humans. But it takes the liberty for individual effort to release innovation, dynamism, the energy to turn hope into fulfillment.

Professor Huntington speaks correctly of the universal aspiration for modernity, but he argues that non-Western civilizations want to modernize to gain Western-style economic and military power without "Westernizing" -- that is, without diffusing political power.

That is an illusion of those in power. The West developed the welfare state and the social safety net to replace the kind of repressive communities that keep the individual down.

But it hasn't been enough to lift those left behind in a desperate underclass.

Now, in Western societies, the fear is spreading that their assurance can't even be maintained in the face of competition from cheap, unprotected labor that has no rights.

There is a mutual interest in developing a more adequate philosophy to encompass the ideas of freedom and community.

The force of the West's example created the attraction of "modernity," a tarnished example in many ways but not beyond the capacity of free society to refresh.

The aspirations of the rest of the world are not for some other kind of civilization but for a better version of the common search for freedom in community.

Flora Lewis is senior columnist of the New York Times.

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