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THE SECOND MILLENNIUM
by
Deepak Lal
 

The second millennium begins at the end of this year. This provides a good time to take stock, and compare how the world has changed and India's place in it, since the last millennium.

I was in London for the millennial celebrations, but not thank heavens in the Dome. Watching the events inside this vast plastic hangar on television, a number of thoughts arose. The first was the inappropriateness of the events the organisers had chosen to celebrate Britain's new millennium. It was a mishmash of this and that- classical music, popular music, acrobatics, ballet, and most astonishing of all a finale consisting of near naked samba dancers who seemed to have just arrived from a carnival in Rio. If a touch of feathers was thought to be appropriate to celebrate the 'multiculturalism' and 'inclusiveness' so loved by the appartchiks of New Labour, there are no doubt many parts of the Queen's far flung Commonwealth domain who could have provided a more appropriate dance troupe, than one which- if anything- seemed to be celebrating Portugal's millennium rather than Britain's- and there's the rub.

For in millennial perspective this last one is above all Britain's, and even more so that of Western Christendom. This is best seen by asking which civilization was in the ascendant at the end of the first millennium? The answer, of course, is Islam- and India was to be in its thrall for the next 700 years, till Britain added it as the jewel in its crown.

The historian Felipe Fernando-Armesto, (in his book Millennium) describes the world surveyed by the Syrian geographer al-Muqaddasi at the turn of the first millennium after Christ: "The Islam he beheld was spread like a pavilion under the tent of the sky, erected as if for some great ceremonial occasion, arrayed with great cities in the role of princes, these were attended by chamberlains, lords and foot soldiers, whose parts were played by provincial capitals, towns and villages respectively. The cities were linked not only by the obvious elements of a common culture..but also by commerce and in many cases reciprocal political obligations. The strict political unity which had once characterized Islam had been shattered in the tenth century...yet a sense of comity survived, and travellers could feel at home throughout the Dar al-Islam- or to use an image popular with poets- in a garden of Islam, cultivated,1 walled against the world, yielding for its privileged occupants, shades and tastes of paradise." (p.35)

It would have been unimaginable then that, the rump of Christendom would be able to rise, by using the ideas and technologies that the Arabs had brought from the Orient to the West, and aided by the two medieval Papal`revolutions (I have discussed in earlier columns) to begin that ascent - imperceptible at first, but gaining pace by the middle ages, and unstoppable by the middle of the millennium - which was to make Western Christendom the dominant civilization by its end. In that ascent, the role played by the inhabitants of a small, cold, natural resource poor offshore island on the western fringe of Eurasia was decisive- however improbable it may have seemed in 1000 AD. For from the 16th century with the slowly rolling industrial revolution and its victories against the other potential leaders of the growing Western dynamic- Spain and France- England and its progeny in its far flung Empire - particularly in North America- have created what we now see as the modern globalized world economy, which offers the hope of global prosperity and hopefully peace for all of mankind. The end of the second millennium therefore above all marks the victory of Western Christendom and in particular of the English speaking peoples of the world. This is what should have been celebrated in the Dome and in the cities of the centre of the new Imperium- the USA. But it was not, and the reasons why not, maybe instructive.

In Britain to have properly celebrated its millennium would inevitably have meant looking at the glories of its empire. But since Woodrow Wilson's attack on empires they have- unjustly as I have argued before- had a bad name. New Labour, moreover, has been persuaded by the revisionist historians (like Linda Colley: Britons) that the very United Kingdom is an English imperial construct, and in this post Imperial age can and should be deconstructed, which of course New Labour has begun to do with a vengeance. Celebrating the glories of Britain's imperial past could hardly fit in with this 'modernizing' enterprise. Second, and equally important is the European issue. One major difference between Britain and its continental neighbors is that their past- in particular the most recent- is so horrendous, that historical amnesia is necessary for the mental health of their populations. Removing historical memory is therefore also an essential element in the European project, and the Blairites - however unconsciously- have seemingly adopted it. Hence the travesty of what was presented in the Dome.

But what of America? Being a mere stripling in historical time, it has always taken a jaundiced view of any history. But until its recent supremacy became manifest, there was always some kow-towing to the values of their seemingly more civilized cousins in Europe - at least among its educated elites. One paradoxical effect of the triumphalism current today, arising from America's undoubted economic and military might, is that, even its best and the brightest are largely ignorant and uninterested in much of the world outside. This was always true of the majority, but there was an elite trained in its famous research universities- which still remain one of its glories- which was comparable in its knowledge of the world with those trained at Oxbridge. But with the decline in the quality of its secondary schools, this is no longer feasible, as even at these elite universities the majority of students are innocent of any geography and history. It is this growing US insularity which poses the most important long term threat to the current US domination. Its effects through domestic politics are spilling over into its global role- as witness what happened in November in Seattle (the subject of my next column).

For, just as at the end of the last millennium the very dominance of Islam led to complacency and what I have elsewhere (Unintended Consequences) described as the closing of the Muslim mind, there is a danger that this growing insularity and closing of the American mind could lead to a similar turn in its fortunes.

Might the next millennia then be that of the two sleeping Asian giants- China and India? This seems hardly likely at the moment given their current problems of reversing their past dirigisme to eliminate their historical mass poverty, and holding their respective imperial polities together. But there is one historical analogy which might cheer some Indian hearts. Just as the flame of the Graeco-Roman civilization, destroyed by the barbarian invasions, was kept alive in isolated Christian monasteries with the cultural intermediation of Arab scholars, is it too fanciful to expect that with the closing of the Western mind, the torch of this civilization will be kept alive in the equivalent of their monastic outposts - the few elite universities in India. Already when I lecture at these and compare their students general knowledge with that of the elite students at my top 10 research university in the US, there can be no doubt of whose minds are closed and open. If only the State can get off the backs of its people, India - as one of the largest English speaking countries of the world- might still be the one to carry forth this Western spark when the new barbarians have succeed in destroying it from within, in the current seats of this civilization. Such were the thoughts that the crass display in the Dome aroused in at least this one breast of Indian origin.

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