MARCH OF THE IDEA
ROBERT J. LEWIS
unselfish belief in the idea --
something you can set up,
bow down before,
and offer a sacrifice to . . .
is the predominance of an idea
which draws after it this train of cities and institutions.
Let us rise into another idea;
they will disappear.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
of reason is shown
by the existence of so many different
is it that the human brain is so receptive to ideas, many of
them fatuous, untested, having no basis in reality? Dangle one
on a line and in no time you’ll have school of fish fighting
over the first bite. Superstitions – and we all entertain
and act upon them -- reinforce the suspicion that reason is
powerless against even the most ludicrous.
quick glance at the history of ideas suggests that the mind
functions less as a sieve and more as a repository or coliseum
where winner takes all. The fittest idea will exercise a significant
influence over those in whom it has been implanted.
idea begins as a seedling -- in the mind of its creator -- that
best answers to the existentials of a particular time, place
and situation. Perceived advantage and/or self-interest underlie
the advent of all ideas. An idea’s success will be judged
in terms of its ability to self-replicate and disseminate. An
idea that is not shared is not yet an idea in any meaningful
distinguished early man from his primitive antecedents was the
disposition to formulate and be informed by, surrender to ideas.
was a time when thunder and lightening were merely weather events
until someone proposed they were the speech of gods -- an idea
that continues to resonate with the meteorologically challenged.
was a time when Christianity didn’t exist. And then one
day someone submitted that a woman, let’s call her Mary,
without the benefit sexual intercourse, gave birth to a son
who turned out to be the Son of God, who allegedly died for
our sins and was subsequently resurrected. On the surface, the
idea sounds a bit far fetched; but today, 2,000 years hence,
millions of people subscribe to the notion of immaculate conception
and that Jesus Christ is, de facto, the Son of God.
The ready acceptance of the above speaks not so much to the
unskeptical nature of the mind but the very nature and limitations
of human intelligence since the believer is prepared to pay
the ultimate sacrifice in defense of propositions that would
normally elicit a chorus of guffaws if the results weren’t
so gruesome. Since the resurrection, an estimated 90 million
have died in defense of Christianity.
India, under the auspices of Hinduism, someone decided that
killing a cow was the same as killing a Brahmin (the high priest).
In no time, the cow came to be regarded as sacred, and in the
midst of plenty, in the midst of protein, millions die of inanition.
was a time, in Mesoamerica, when a mother and father, swollen
with pride, would watch on as the high priest plunged a knife
into their daughter and ripped out her heart. Word got out that
the gods required human sacrifice and being chosen was the highest
honour that could be bestowed on a family. A tough sell? Apparently
not. Long before Pol Pot turned his jungles into the killings
fields, the Aztecs had turned their green spaces into red places.
Haiti, someone floats the notion that it’s possible to
put a hex or take revenge on someone by sticking a pin into
a voodoo doll so long as it has a lock of the intended’s
hair. Absurd you say? I’ll be meeting with Stephen Harper’s
barber later in the day.
an upwardly mobile politician decides that the world will be
a better place once a particular race or ethnic group is eliminated.
The demonization process begins, a persuasive benefits versus
costs analysis is advanced, the good idea spreads like a prairie
fire in a wind and in no time a genocide is under way.
the long history of ideas, the majority of them, like the latest
fashion, come and go, or acquire legitimacy and prestige after
having survived an arduous winnowing process; but what remains
constant in man’s complex and often baffling relationship
to ideas is his innate susceptibility to them.
it is in the vital interest of the individual to perceive reality
for what it is in its truth, to distinguish between friend and
foe, to live and not die, why has natural selection favoured
a species that so readily, if not reflexively, accepts, as fact,
ideas that not only constitute an affront to reason but often
place the bearer of the idea in mortal danger?
humans are, for all intents and purposes, defenseless against
the next good idea on the block forces the conclusion that to
be possessed or taken over by an idea confers a range of comforts
that both mind and body deem essential. Psychological and physiological
indices indicate that humans would rather dwell in harmony than
not, and that sharing in an idea satisfies this primordial desideratum.
The very basis of community is founded on the concept of unity
through common purpose, with the idea serving as catalyst and
connective tissue. Like lawn bowling, it’s not so much
the game but the community it engenders and predicts our participation
since it is the means to an end we employ to defend against
being alone in the crowd.
once upon a time there was a species that was not receptive
to ideas, it didn’t survive because it couldn’t
generate the requisite numbers required to safeguard a vital
natural resource or territory. According to Desmond Morris (The
Naked Ape), the most significant event in human evolution
was the emergence of the super-tribe, which predated the town,
the city and the megacity. Without the idea, its binding properties,
the individual, severed from the compactness of the tribe and
its certainties, would have not been able to overcome his estrangement
and gut mistrust of strangers in whose midst he suddenly found
himself. The idea was the great enabler, allowing for the emergence
of a new social order founded on common purpose.
to its teleological nuts and bolts, the idea is the seed and
sun of every nation state whose maintenance and defense require
the cooperation of tens of thousands of individuals who share
the same hopes and beliefs. That there exists, in feelings and
actions, solidarity among strangers is the idea’s greatest
precisely because his particular intelligence is exceptionally
suited to the hosting and incubation of ideas, has survived
and flourished like no other species. That so many apparently
ludicrous ideas have played a major role in the human drama
is proof that when warranted, ideas are existentially predisposed
to being subsumed by larger ones whose larger purpose is being
Spengler (1880-1936) proposed in The Decline of the West
that history, in its repetitions, is the outcome of the unequal
relationship between those who author and promulgate ideas and
those who don’t. Since an idea requires a physical host,
a brain that can direct a body politic, every nation state will
consist of a head -- where ideas are birthed -- and essential
moveable body parts without which ideas would remain stillborn.
The head is the command and control center; the individuals
– the mass in whom the idea has been implanted -- are
the raw material. The heads, or heads-of-state, must ensure
that their ideas are effectively instilled in their populations
in order to maintain and defend a territory. The more passive
and docile are those in whom ideas are implanted, the more efficient
and stable will be the nation state.
good citizen or soldier must never be allowed to suspect he
is a pawn in the service of an ambitious king. If this should
happen en masse, should an idea suddenly be questioned
or lose its authority, the dog will suddenly find itself being
wagged by its tail. During the Viet Nam War, the contention
that a distant war was necessary in defense of American interests
lost credibility, and the entire raison d’etre
of the war unraveled.
war is preceded by a war of ideas. With the rise of satellite
communication and the Internet, the nature of war is changing,
fought less with conventional armies and more between the ideas
themselves: cyber wars. In the great clash of civilizations
between the West and Islam, it has become increasingly difficult
for Islam to defend its ideas (its traditional values) against
those of the West. In an earlier period, Islam, owing to its
natural isolation, was immune to Western contagion, but this
is no longer the case. The thick walls inside of which Islam
is ensconced have been breached not by any enemy’s armies
of the night but by western ideas. Traditional Islam is being
undone from within, by its own followers who have been compromised
by repeated exposure to Internet generated western content.
These apostates (infidels) can no longer abide by an ethos that
disdains freedom and democracy, and regards gender inequality
as a law of nature.
Islam is to save itself it will have to reinvent itself by making
concessions to what is non-negotiable in universal values while
championing those categories where it occupies the higher ground:
emphasis on family values and ability to inculcate its morals
and ethics in its citizenry.
light of the wanting numbers in Egypt’s constitutional
referendum, it would be unrealistic to expect Islamists to be
lulled into a false sense of complacency over the stalled Arab
Spring. It wasn’t so long ago there were no numbers, and
then, in a matter of a generation raised on the Internet, the
numbers grew exponentially, which is why the entire world was
caught unawares over what began in Tunis and quickly spread
to Libya, Egypt and Yemen. As long-held beliefs fall into disfavour,
broadband technology predicts that democracy and gender emancipation
will soon be the rule and not exception in the Arab world.
the Arab Spring is only one act in the sometimes sublime, sometimes
sorry saga of human endeavor. For the first time in human history,
man finds himself face to face with an implacable enemy, who
is so close that he is out of focus and hasn’t been properly
perceived much less assessed. This formidable enemy is man himself,
whose cave-contoured, savannah-honed DNA is catastrophically
obsolete in today’s wired world. At the beck and call
of an explosive, untamed primordial energy that is deaf and
blind to everything but its own savage impulse, man can do no
better than pander to his worst instincts while plundering and
imperiling his one and only home -- the good earth.
the destiny (asphyxiation) of the planet and the idea that man,
as he is presently ill-constituted, are inextricably linked,
is it too early or too late to suggest there has been a collective
failure among the world’s heads of state to grant this
conjunction the urgency it deserves? As it stands now, the idea
of global warming is passed around the table like impolite conversation
at a book-of-the-month club meeting, or is conveniently swept
under the lingua obscura native to extreme weather
lab reports and scientific journals, meanwhile the ice caps
are melting “and the water line is rising and all
we do is stand there.”
yet there are reasons for optimism. Since we are living in a
time when it is becoming commonplace for ideas to go viral,
there may come a day when a world wide citizens’ revolt
will compel the Lords of Industry, whose greed and rapacity
is a runaway train, to radically revise their priorities, since
the alternative is the next Book of the Dead where
no adult and child is left behind.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
the bright lights that illuminate our cities billions of stars
have disappeared along with the calm and quiet of the world.
And now a great unholiness rings the earth and the gods that
might save us are nowhere to be found.
idea begins as a single seed in the mind of its maker.