Monday, March 07, 2011

6/100: The 'Battle' of Ideas

Tony Blair calls Global Higher Education the front line in the battle of ideas. [See Here]

He is unduly combative: That's him. The global higher education can be seen as a more collaborative venture than the one-upmanship that Blair suggests. I shall argue that continued superiority of the West, the thing that Blair wants to protect, is not good for anyone, not even for the West.

I know this would be counter-intuitive in this age of resurgent China. Public discussion in the West is about how to keep ahead of China, India and other 'emerging' powers, and the idea that the only way to do that is to be ahead in terms of the knowledge economy is well accepted. The growing young Indian middle class would invariably take over all the jobs that can be offshored, and the cheap Chinese migrant workers will make the world's goods - so the thinking goes - the only way the 'West' can stop becoming a wasteland of unemployment and stagnation (just as China and India have been for last 200 years) is by winning the battle of ideas.

But this very notion goes against the deeply-held European faith in progress, that history just does not repeat itself but moves forward. There is no reason why we must have a replay of the industrial revolution, where every surplus was sucked out of Asia and turned into industrial raw material in the West, leaving a wasteland behind. Today, a sort of balance of power, between military and industrial, is emerging, and the world is a much more coordinated, better governed place. The naked exploitation of the nineteenth century kind is impossible today. Yes, a nation could still be exploited by pseudo-democracies, where a cozy elite is installed in return of giving away the natural resources to the 'imperial' masters, but this is unlikely to continue for too long: No American support could sustain Hosni Mubarak, and no Italian patronage will be enough for Quadaffi.

But for this unfounded fears of losing supremacy, breaks have been put on the knowledge economy for far too long. Human knowledge should not progress at the rate of what the Cambridge academics, sitting in their offices, can produce; it should also embrace the street innovations coming out Manila, Delhi and Rio. By keeping people out, by seeing the world in terms of a zero-sum game of getting there first, we continue to increase human waste and misery. While the environmental apocalypse may be near or far, no one will deny that we live in a world of scarce resources. We can ill-afford to keep wasting human ideas, just because they may spring up at wrong places.

Tony Blair's key point is directed against Islamic fundamentalism. It is interesting that he says that at the very time when Arab Street is revolting against the cozy compromise of political servitude in return of the continuation of theocratic autocracy that Blair and his friends allowed the Middle East monarchs. Also, it is tempting to see the plight of the Leytonstone Imam who had to retract his endorsements of Darwinism somewhat [See here] as the fault-line between civilizations, as Blair's statement seems to imply; however, only a few years back, a sitting British Prime Minister, Tony Blair himself, saw merit in creationism and suggested that it should be included in school curricula [See here]

Based on these falsely constructed perceptions, we are racing into wars where there isn't one. By whipping up this 'knowledge war' thing, Tony Blair may be positioning ourselves for IRAQ-2 but there is no threat as far as we can see.

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