Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Babel - and the real problem of Globalisation

There is something, I suspect, in most of us that is uneasy about the process of globalisation. Of course we recognise many of the benefits it brings - such as the ease of movement around the globe (if, of course, you hold the right sort of passport), improved communications, and the inability of despotic regimes to do their evil work without being noticed. Being part of a global community helps us to celebrate with 'hands across the sea' such events as this week's celebrations of 100 years of the Scouting Movement (whose local celebration I shall be attending in about an hour's time, here in Emsworth).
But with these positive aspects come many dangers. Anti-globalisation campaigners point out to us the problems of a 'McWorld' in which different cultures are watered down by the all pervasive power of the dollar, and in which poor people can quickly become wage-slaves to wealthy international corporations.

But according to Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, those are not the real problems of globalisation. In his profound and fascinating book 'The Dignity of Difference', Sacks outlines traditional philosophical views of the nature of humanity - beginning with Plato... and then compares them with the Hebrew Bible's (a.k.a. the 'Old Testament') wisdom on the subject.

According to Sacks, Plato (and all the western philosophers who followed him) sought to find universal truths about the nature of Man. Philosophy, he argues, "focuses on what we have in common: rationality (Kant), emotion (Hume), or our desire for pleasure and aversion to pain (Bentham)." (Sacks, 2002, page 56).

Against this universalism of western philosophical thought comes the striking realisation that the Bible resists such ideas. Instead, the Bible celebrates difference. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the story of the Tower of Babel - an illustration of which adorns the cover of Sack's book. "The men on the plain at Shinar make a technological discovery. They learn how to make bricks by drying clay. As after so many other technological advances, they immediately conclude that they now have the power of gods. They are no longer subject to nature. They have become its masters. They will storm the heavens" Like so many civilisations which came after it, the builders of Babel "attempt to impose an artificial unity on divinely created diversity" (Sacks p.52).

As an ancient Jewish teaching puts it: "When a human being makes many coins in the same mint, they all come out the same. God also makes every person in the same image - His image - and each is different." (Sacks p.60)

Plato sought the universality of the perfect mathematical form, the archetype of all things...the perfect bird, the perfect leaf, the perfect political state (hence his book "The Republic"). But God creates 250,000 different types of leaves, and 9,000 different types of bird. He revels in diversity. As a Christian I would add to Sack's essentially Jewish thought that God himself reveals himself as diversity incarnate, in the form of the Trinity.

So the real problem of globalisation is that it assumes that there will be one way, one path, to world peace and world prosperity. By forcing the whole planet into an essential American/British understanding of the way things should be done (the 'McWorld' as Benjamin Barber has called it). Such a project utterly fails to build on humanity's greatest strength - the sheer wonder and potential of a diverse population.

Sadly - there is not space here to say more. I do, however, heartily recommend Sack's book for anyone who wants to think deeper about these things.

Tom



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