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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, December 30, 2001

Do battling civilizations mean changes at home?

By John Griffin

When the history is written, this year and 2002 could go down as pivotal for our world. Hawai'i, as usual, has its own subplot within the larger drama.

For now, the Sept. 11 tragedy and aftermath shadows all. It shocked us into the 21st century. But I am also thinking of how that relates to developments under way over the past dozen years.

Certainly, 2001 dramatized those ongoing trends. Now the coming year will indicate how well we will meet the major problems of our time. Thus Americans are living on what's called a hinge of history.

Two theories first advanced by distinguished and sometimes controversial political scientists in the early 1990s continue to seem useful as starting points, even though I realize times change and every world development can't fit neatly into some concept.

One is titled "Jihad vs. McWorld," by political scientist Benjamin Barber of Rutgers University. His main point is that the two axial and clashing principles of our age are tribalism and globalism — and that both may be threatening to democracy.

"The planet is falling precipitantly apart and coming reluctantly together at the same moment," Barber wrote in an acclaimed magazine article and 1995 book.

He used jihad in its broad sense, not just an Islamic holy war but the religious and other cultural clashes exemplified by Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, Israel and Palestine, some nation-states in Africa and elsewhere. Such "retribalization" may involve narrow nationalism or the zealotry of militant fundamentalist religion.

Osama bin Laden has taken this jihad aspect to new heights and depths with his brand of extreme Islam, declaring war on Western culture and its influence.

The American reaction has been mixed. On one hand, we have sought to globalize the anti-terrorism struggle with international allies, a worthy effort. On the other, our people have reacted with a burst of patriotism and purpose, which to me makes the point that tribalism is not all bad. At least enlightened nationalism still has its purposes.

Some might redefine Barber's title as "Traditionalists vs. Modernizers." Which is kind to both extremes.

Globalism, or the McWorld movement, if you will, had been a more muted issue amid the news of war and terror. But this drive for one commercially homogenous global network was in trouble before the horror of Sept. 11 added to a worldwide recession.

As I have written before, globalism as a world economic trend may be inevitable. (Barber thinks it will eventually outdo tribalism.) But globalism is not synonymous with democracy, and reforms are needed to lessen abuses. So some see McWorld as stalled at a crossroads.

The second theory, labeled "Clash of Civilizations," is by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington. He says the fundamental conflicts in this era will not be primarily ideological or economic but cultural collisions between Western, Islamic and Asian systems of thought and governance.

Like "Jihad vs. McWorld," "Clash of Civilizations" is an engaging shorthand title easy to denounce as simplistic and for ignoring the conflicts that often take place within cultures. But a long article in the December Atlantic Monthly by author Robert Kaplan makes the point that Huntington's early '90s ideas seem terribly vindicated by current events.

Kaplan also notes that Huntington's essentially liberal ideas are subtler than some critics think, including these points:

The fact that the world is modernizing does not mean it is Westernizing. Our pushing of parliamentary democracy and free markets can clash with Islam and China. The West may be declining in relative influence as Asia expands and Islam's numbers grow. Peoples or states may now band together more because of cultural similarities than ideological ones.

One of the key questions for 2002 is how well the superpower United States can adjust to this new world which most Americans (including the Bush administration) didn't seem to recognize before Sept. 11. In that sense, Afghanistan may turn out to be the easy part. We need both strength and what some have called tough-minded humility.

Huntington also says that in the changing multi-polar world of civilizations, Americans must reaffirm their Western identity. That does not go down well with those of us in Hawai'i, California or elsewhere in the nation who seek both preservation and blending of East-West and North-South cultures rather than a pure Western identity.

Agreed, no theory fits everything or is right in every way. But that doesn't mean they don't apply in some important ways or are not useful as measuring points to stimulate thought and debate, including for Hawai'i with its special conditions.

Hawai'i, for example, is fortunate in minimizing racial strife. But we do have our forms of tribalism and group identity that must be blended into our overall society. Hawaiian sovereignty, a muted issue for the past year or more, remains both desirable in some form and a challenge.

Some have long called Hawai'i's multi-racial blending a model for the nation. I like the idea, but I have also come around to think we are too special and remote. California with its size and population may be a model, although every region will be different.

What Hawai'i can be is a congenial meeting ground for others to come here and ponder or debate and maybe resolve some clashes of civilizations or destructive jihads. This as we both adjust our economy to McWorld and work to preserve what makes us special.

So is Hawai'i within itself on some hinge of history, large or smaller?

Two articles on these pages a week ago indicated we could be. One, by columnist Dave Shapiro, made the point that Ben Caye-tano has been a good governor in crisis years but has not had the time, money or skill to move Hawai'i into a needed new era. Editorial page editor Jerry Burris noted how some of our more exciting developments are taking place outside the state Capitol, where this over-centralized state has looked too much for ideas and leadership.

Thus, for Hawai'i, the new year with its major elections and chances for new leadership and economic recovery and other change could be one of history's turning points. Maybe it could be a 21st-century version of the 1950s, when these islands began the revolution of change that has fallen into the rust, inertia, and old-boyism we see today.

Or 2002 could be another failure if new leadership doesn't emerge and capture the minds and hearts of Islanders who for too long have settled for less than the best.

I'd say the odds are 50-50.