In the most recent issue of Commonweal, William Pfaff takes dead aim at the assumption of “progress,” which consciously or unconsciously underlies most American arguments both for and against the war in Iraq. He is right to do so.
When we interpret historical events according to some abstract Hegelian principle of “freedom” or “progress,” we tend to confuse necessary realities with contingent ones and to over simplify global conflicts between radically different societies, re-narrating them as battles between good (i.e. progressive or modern) and bad (i.e. reactionary or non-modern) states.
Pfaff is right to expose the too often unquestioned assumption that the U.S. represents the final good, that is, “the end of history,” and the notion that all people desire to live in Western democracies just like ours. Case in point, people should read the Iraqi constitution. It is not just like ours. It establishes, by and large, an Islamic Republic.
Perhaps, Pfaff puts it best when he speaks as a Catholic, “I do not believe in human progress. As a Christian, I expect no such collective improvement.” The twentieth century and the horrors of WWII should have disabused us long ago of any nineteenth century Utopian notions of individual and collective moral progress, and yet, if we were to learn from the past, well, then, that would be a kind of progress, wouldn’t it?