No Shortcuts to the “End of History”
Ryszard Kapuscinski, a member of NPQ’s advisory board until his death in 2007 and war correspondent extraordinaire, was one of the great observers of the last half of the 20th Century. His classic works of literary journalism include “The Emperor,” “Shah of Shahs” and “Imperium.” His reflections here are excerpted from a conversation with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels at Kapuscinski’s booklined attic studio in a quiet Warsaw suburb in early February 1997.
WARSAW—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 vacuum 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 this 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 the Pragmatic Moment | What, then, will become of intellectuals in pragmatic societies? Intellectuals are the makers of culture. And amid all the disillusion 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 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.