It’s been funny to hear the leader of Iran talking about his nation’s natural right to exploit the secrets of nuclear physics and join the global technological vanguard. His basic argument is “You can’t stop progress” even though stopping progress, I recall, is the great goal of his theocracy. Fundamentalist Islamic futurism? Can such a strange cultural particle exist, even for a half an instant in a cyclotron? Perhaps the man should speak more carefully, lest he unwittingly split the nucleus of the system he’s trying to hold together.

The Chinese regime, in its drive to ultra-modernize while simultaneously pushing back the Internet, is falling into paradox as well (with the paid collusion of Google and Yahoo, a few of whose brightest engineering minds have been challenged, one supposes, with the task of un-enriching the Web’s uranium into a stabler, safer element: gold). China, an upside-down version of Iran, is proclaiming the dangers of one type of progress while staking its fortunes on progress in general. Its rulers, like most rulers, have confused defending themselves with helping everyone else. I’d wager that many of them truly think that intellectual stagnation is the key to material forward motion.

These are the sort of internal contradictions that both Marxist dialecticians and Jeffersonian idealists are taught to regard as unsustainable. Nuclear medievalism. Know-nothing modernism. Managing such schizophrenic systems would seem to require an exhausting clamp-down that’s bound to produce, eventually, a revitalizing reformation. We assume that such projects’ illogic spells their doom. And we further assume that in the rational West (or whatever we’re calling our special realm these days that doesn’t sound too culturally arrogant but still conveys our sense of moral excellence) we need only to wait, well armed, until they fail.

But will we, as I fear in my darker moments, fail with them? Maybe our own grinding inner contradictions are as ruinous as theirs. Aside from the strident Biblical literalists who seek to purify a Constitution that they would never have been inclined to write, we believe in progress and we pursue it, too and yet our liberalism feels at times like a high-interest loan from the idealogues. Blessed by fate with the oil we can’t stop drinking and endowed by history with the serf-classes whose products we can’t stop playing with, they take our bank notes and invest them in our bonds so that we can print more notes to hand them. To earn a few notes back and tip our trade imbalance less steeply their way, we sell them devices to suppress the liberty that commerce theoretically unleashes. Tanks and riot gear they can make themselves or obtain from fellow anti-democrats, but state-of-the-art self-hobbling search engines they have to buy from freedom-loving us.

Economists may see a synergy here. Others may detect a vortex. When the broad-minded grow used to living large by buying things on credit from the narrow-minded -- and then try to work off their mounting debts by servicing those narrow-minds -- the whole gang risks succumbing to dysfunction. McWorld? That sounds to cheerful. McPurgatory?

Which still may beat the other course: stepping back from the transactions, standing on first principles, and risking blowing one another up.

There’s a third way, I trust, and perhaps a fourth and fifth way. And I’m hoping that someone will explain them.



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