The cantankerous cure

Australian philosopher Simon Longstaff hopes Westerners are nearing the end of what he calls a long age of forgetting. Even in the midst of a digital revolution that's making it ever more difficult for us to delete traces of our individual pasts, Longstaff, the head of the St. James Ethics Centre in Sydney, thinks forgetting who we are collectively is the most powerful threat to Western societies.

No, he's not advocating a Glenn-Beck-style "restoration" or pining away for some glorious lost era that's been stolen from us by some internal enemy. He simply thinks that in the course of hundreds — even thousands — of years, Westerners have forgotten the essence of the ideas on which many of our institutions were founded, be it the corporation, the church, the university or the media.

It's not that we've necessarily lost respect for such institutions but that we're now more aware of their trappings than their essence. The brilliant ideas that gave birth to them are now covered in layers of custom and practice, pomp and circumstance. Something that might have been born of pure insight — an aha! moment, if you will — eventually evolves into institutional structure and form. It develops doctrine and rules and, perhaps worse yet, interests to be protected. It may even give rise to its own architecture, literally: elaborate cathedrals, pompous parliaments, sturdy neoclassical banks. As this happens, we become more fascinated by these institutions' outward form. We gradually forget what they are supposed to be about.

This plays out in a variety of ways. Longstaff sees leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, an institution founded to spread the Gospel of Jesus — who taught that love is more important than institutions and their laws — responding to the sexual abuse scandal by putting its hierarchy and practices above love. He sees players in the financial markets, which were founded to facilitate transactions between parties in the real economy, forgetting their purpose and becoming more interested in making deals with one another. He sees professors at universities — institutions meant to introduce students to the wide world of learning — undermining that ideal by fragmenting knowledge into mutually unintelligible specializations. He sees the media falling away from its purpose of helping citizens to make informed decisions and becoming more interested in tripping up candidates and turning politics into a horse race.

And what does he suggest will get us out of this amnesic stupor? Dangerous ideas. Plausible yet discomfiting notions that force us to consciously ask why our institutions exist and what they should accomplish. He believes that we need to engage ideas that threaten us, threaten everything, in order to find out what we really believe and why.

To that end, Longstaff is one of the founders of a two-day Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney, a sort of countercultural version of the decidedly establishment annual Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colo. Now in its second year, this fall's confab will feature the likes of Pakistani British writer Tariq Ali arguing that Al Qaeda has so changed the world that the West needs to take a lesson, an Australian economist on how economic growth is actually bad for people, and a local writer and an arts administrator attempting to demolish the notion that art makes for a better society (they're for art for art's sake).

If society truly grappled with uncomfortable notions, Longstaff said, "what I suspect is that many times we might come up with answers identical to those forged by our ancestors. The difference will be that for the first time — sometimes in centuries — the answers will be ours, not theirs. We'd know why we do things, and that alone would confer new vitality to our institutions."

I'm not under the illusion that one conference is likely to reinvigorate the Western world. But it can't hurt to foster cantankerous thinking — rather than pat answers, petty orthodoxies and superficial debates.

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