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Beyond the Promised Land: The Movement and the Myth

by David F. Noble

The ancient Greeks felt the need to poison Socrates for his unorthodox philosophical beliefs. We don’t go quite that far any more, but being a gadfly still has its disadvantages. Just ask David F. Noble.

The controversial historian of technology, science, and education has gotten himself fired by both MIT and the Smithsonian Institution. He’s had an appointment to Simon Fraser University blocked by administrators there. At York University, where he is currently a professor, he has been attacked as “anti-science” and “anti-intellectual” by the university’s president. In 2004, he was criticized as anti-Semitic for arguing that York’s fundraising arm was unduly influenced by pro-Israel activists who were trying to suppress campus Palestinian groups.

Noble’s new book will no doubt find many people to offend. It is, after all, a broadside against Western religion – not to mention the rest of Western society. But readers willing to engage with this idiosyncratic and contrarian thinker will be rewarded: Noble’s arguments are thought-provoking, and for all its fire the writing is beautifully meticulous.

In ancient times, Noble argues at the beginning of his concise treatise, humanity had a basic understanding of the fact that our lives take place wholly in the earthly realm. Immortality is an attractive idea, but an ultimately destructive illusion, as works like the Epic of Gilgamesh demonstrate. With the arrival of Judaism, however, came the concept of exile – the belief that real life would come with a return to the promised land at some future day, an idea that was adapted and popularized by Christianity.

With the coming of the Enlightenment, the idea of the promised land became objectified‚ in the form of a quasi-religious belief in progress. History, in this view, is a system laid out by God, directing us toward ultimate perfection in some hazy, ever-elusive future. Technology is God’s gift to help us carry out this grand plan, as are free markets – the latter directed, quite literally, by the deity’s invisible hand.

Against this tradition, which Noble sees as culminating in contemporary market fundamentalism, the author looks for counter-movements. Marxism he dismisses as simply another version of the promised land myth – merely substituting for the capitalist paradise an equally false socialist one. Rather, he turns to Bakunin and Nietzsche, whom he sees as harbingers of a third way: a modern return to the wisdom of Gilgamesh, acknowledging that life is all about the here-and-now.

In a breathtaking final leap, he moves from these thinkers – by way of existentialism and the civil rights movement – to the contemporary anti-globalization movement, which he sees as the West’s best chance to finally defeat the distortions of the promised land myth.

The mark of talent in a historian is an ability to simultaneously narrate – to tell what happened – and to offer an intelligent theory of the events’ significance. Noble succeeds remarkably well in this regard, managing to be simultaneously both accessible and sophisticated. He expects readers to have a basic understanding of Western history, but beyond this requirement he’s clearly aiming at the generalist reader. Offering countless examples to back up his ideas, he presents a rich collection of quotations from thinkers as diverse as Joachim of Fiore, Comte, and Sartre. Even the rock band Rage Against the Machine gets a few lines. His discussion of current events – the Zapatista movement, the “Battle of Seattle” – is both bold and instructive.

The book’s comparison of the fight over globalization with the 19th-century battles in Britain over the Corn Laws and the Poor Laws is especially strong, and the outcome of the earlier movement is telling (the architects of the brutal “reforms” were left scratching their heads over the absence of positive economic effects).

At times, Noble’s argument seems to have a lot in common – structurally at least – with the very idea he’s attacking. After all, he sees humanity as moving from an ideal state of oneness through a series of fallen epochs, to the brink of a return to the ideal. Clearly, that is part of the point. Noble is self-consciously offering us millenarianism turned inside out. And yet his failure to explore the nuances here feels like an omission. Ditto his lack of interest in the psychological appeal of the idea of progress – surely this isn’t just a case of elites imposing their warped ideals on an unlucky population? And what if we did manage to free ourselves from the illusion of a future heaven on earth? What would the world look like at that point?

To be sure, Noble dodges questions, invites counter-arguments, occasionally flirts with the offensive. I told you he was a gadfly, didn’t I?