Today's date:
Spring 2007

Some Last Thoughts

Ryszard Kapuscinski, the literary journalist who wrote such works as The Emperor and Shah of Shahs, died in Warsaw in January after a long bout with cancer. He was a long-time fan of, contributor and editorial advisor to NPQ. Below are excerpts from a conversation with him published as part of our Summing Up the Century series in 1997.

Warsaw — Once you leave the pockets of international hotels, airports and banks the rest of the planet is a very quiet, very dull and very slow-moving place. Most people are just watching over their herds and living off their little vegetable plot.

Speed and wealth go together. This is disastrous because it means the gap between the rich and the poor, which at the middle part of the century we thought would diminish, is becoming permanent—and larger. All the growth theories from the 1950s about the developing world "taking off" and catching up came to nothing, at least outside of remarkable Asia.

It turns out that the main fact of the present era is neither nuclear weapons nor the clash of civilizations. It is inequality on a global scale. Curiously, though, against the old Marxist suppositions, it is an inequality that hasn't produced aggressive rebellion in what we used to call the " Third World." It is an inequality which the majority now accepts as part of reality.

In the 1950s and 1960s during the euphoria of decolonization, the Third World leaders and their followers imagined they could attack and dismantle the divide between the rich and the poor, North and South, in some vast anti-imperialist revolt. Thirty-some years later bitter experience has taught people this is a dead end. The leaders are discredited and the people disillusioned.

So, they have changed their tactic to slow penetration through migration. Person by person, family by family, they seek and find a small place in the developed world. They clean houses and pick strawberries in California, they sell trinkets to tourists in front of the Pantheon in Rome or the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

These small acts of penetration that add up to mass migration are not a matter of ideology but of survival instinct.

And when these people make it to the developed world, they stick to themselves. They don't organize themselves to seek power within their host society. Whether Poles in Canada, Turks in Germany or Koreans in America, they tend their shops and do their jobs. They are obedient, calm and quiet, happy with their small lives in a strange place.

This penetration is changing the complexion of Europe just as it has in America. One hot summer night in Paris, I took a bus from the airport into town. Passing through an African section of Paris, I could have been in Lagos. In 1996 I was in the Rotterdam railway station at about 10 at night. There were two white people, the exchange cashier and me. Everyone else was black. It was like a rail station in Nairobi.

This phenomenon will mark our future. People will stay. They will have children, and the children will go to school and then to work. Their penetration will have become permanent and result in a society of mixed civilizations.

For most of the world, there is really no future. Hopelessness is the companion of this great division between rich and poor on the planet.

It seems that we have no imagination left to solve this problem of poverty of the majority. Surely hunger can be liquidated in this place or that with a rush of humanitarian aid.

But all the computers in the world, with all their data, contribute nothing to eliminating mass poverty. One is tempted to conclude that the imagination of the human being is limited. Once this imagination built splendid cathedrals. But it is exhausted in the face of this problem.

No Shortcut to the Future | If there is any lesson from all the failed revolutions of the 20th century, from communism, Pan-African or Pan Arab socialism, it is that there is no shortcut to the future. The ideological path to utopia is cheating. It is unworkable, impractical.

Consequently, history has arrived at its Pragmatic Moment. People try to do what works. They do what they can.

This absence of framing ideas can be dangerous because it can be filled with hatred and suspicion. But the world at large, from richest to poorest, has moved beyond ideology. It seems impossible in our state of disillusion that any mass of people can be mobilized behind one set of ideas. And that is positive. People are thus destined to stay a middle course, a pragmatic way which takes small steps forward depending on what works and what doesn't. The era of great leaps and futile dreams is over.

Intellectuals in a Pragmatic Society | What, then, will become of intellectuals in pragmatic societies? Intellectuals are the makers of culture. And amid all the disillusions of the 20th century, the culture of a given people is what has endured as the remaining pillar in the ruins of states and ideologies.

The role of the intellectuals will also be especially important as watchdogs of media manipulation, of the selection and shaping of information. Their essential role will be to say what is not said, to point out what is not pointed out, to talk about the part of reality that may not make its way into the blockbuster movie or that cannot be squeezed onto the TV screen.

Any selection of information is censorship. It can be authoritarian and administrative, as it was in the old Soviet Union or as it is in China today. Or it can come as a consequence of consumer choice and producer pandering to the kind of mass taste that ensures blockbuster results at the box office.

Both forms of selection obliterate the truth about reality. The role of intellectuals is to pierce the veil of censorship of either variety.