TCS Daily

The Dangers of Forgetfulness

By Lee Harris - April 18, 2003 12:00 AM

The looting in Iraq appears to have shocked public opinion in the United States.

This is worrisome.

Not the looting itself, but the fact that the looting would could possibly come as a surprise to us. Because it shows just how much we Americans underestimate the challenge facing any society that wishes to achieve a reasonable balance of order and freedom.

Now the reason that we underestimate the magnitude of this challenge is simple-we have completely forgotten that there is a challenge here in the first place. We have come to believe that human beings naturally and spontaneously organize themselves into cooperative groups because this is the way we do things, and the way that we have always done things for as long as any of us can remember.

Thus we are victims of a dangerous illusion-an illusion brought about by the success of the civilization of which we are the beneficiaries.

But we are by no means the first such victims.

In the fourteenth century, the Arab philosopher of history, Ibn Khaldun, became the first person to notice the tendency of civilized men to take for granted the complex and peculiar historical conditions that permitted them to behave as civilized men, a pervasive phenomenon that he called "forgetfulness," a kind of collective and cultural amnesia that renders its victims unable to fathom the immense obstacles that have to be overcome before men can achieve the kind of spontaneous social cooperation that is the essence of civilized life.

And the first of these immense obstacles is human nature itself.

This is because mankind's natural tendency is to group itself into tribes, to divide the world into Us and Them based on kinship and consanguinity. Within the Us group there is cooperation, but between Us and Them there exists only enmity-a pattern repeated through most of human history, and one that is quite alive in much of the world today.

But we all know what a world divided up in this matter is like. It is a world of great charm, on the one hand, and yet a world of immense brutality, on the other. It is the world that was discovered by the first explorers in Brazil in the 1500's, the native Indian population of which became the prototype of the Noble Savage, and whose charm was manifested in his willingness to share both food and females with welcomed strangers, but whose brutality was no less evidenced by those joyous festivals in which he dined on the flesh of his vanquished neighbors.

How did we ever get from there to here?

That is the question that our forgetfulness obscures from our view-the sheer improbability that men could ever find a way of overcoming the world of the tribe.

Now to us in our normal politics, this forgetfulness poses little danger. We are so far removed from the tribal stage of consciousness that it plays only a marginal and clearly atavistic role in our political affairs. But in dealing with a country like Iraq such forgetfulness can be fatal-both to our best intentions and to that country's future.

This was an issue that Jean-Jacques Rousseau took up in his work The Social Contract, where he posed the problem like this:

If an aggregation of human beings come together to form a new political community where one had not existed previously, what is it that makes these human beings want to form such a community with each other, and not with someone else?

Or, to use the case of Iraq, why exactly should the Kurds in the North want to live in the same political community with the Shi'ites of the South?

Our answer to this question is a product of our own forgetfulness-that is to say, we are prone to respond to this question by saying, "Well, the Kurds should want to live with the Shi'ites because they are both one people and they should want to live together in peace and harmony."

But are they one people?

Yes, by our categories they are, because we define them both in terms of the national state that they occupy. But this manner of classifying them as one people is entirely artificial, and is totally dependent on a set of arbitrary conventions that may have little, if any, significance to the parties involved. They simply may not see themselves as one people because they do not feel themselves to be one people.

And here is the underlying fallacy of so much of the talk about democracy in Iraq. It assumes that there is such a thing as THE Iraqi people; but this is precisely the point in question. Is there an Iraqi people in the sense in which there is an American people?

A people exists in the imagination, and not in geography books. A people must first feel itself as a people before it can act like one. And that is the challenge we are facing. How do we get the people of Iraq to begin to imagine themselves as one nation, and not simply as a host of warring tribes-and, even worse, a multitude of competing individuals, each out to grab whatever he can at the expense of those around him?

Saddam Hussein's regime used terror to create an illusion of social unity where none in fact existed. It forced divergent tribes not to be at each other's throats by threatening to cut off their heads, just as it made the average man behave lawfully purely out of a fear, and not out of respect for the law-for where do you learn respect for law where there is none?

The result is that, with the removal of the threat of terror, everything has all at once become permissible. Not because the peoples of Iraq are uniquely given to anarchy, but simply because they are human beings who have for thirty years been treated like children, and who have forgotten whatever habits of the heart once guided them and kept them without the bounds of civilized life.

The task we have set ourselves will be difficult at best; but if we remain victims of forgetfulness, it will not be difficult, but impossible.

And if the looting can teach us-and the people of Iraq-to remember these fundamental truths, it may in retrospect appear to be a blessing and not a curse.

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