How to make an intellectual wasteland

January 24, 2021

Three-quarters of a century is a long time to make an intellectual wasteland. Perhaps, you can do it in just a few years, provided you remain persistent in your attempts. And what attempts? You...

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Three-quarters of a century is a long time to make an intellectual wasteland. Perhaps, you can do it in just a few years, provided you remain persistent in your attempts. And what attempts? You don’t need major efforts if the minds where an intellectual urge supposedly thrives are already poisoned.

If there are uncertainties on the land you live, you may start by turning back to the certainties of the Golden Age. Well, uncertainties are everywhere and each society responds to them in its peculiar way. In those societies where state institutions are not stuck in the past, they allow successive governments and the people to look to the future. That means the land is moistened and softened for some new ideas to sprout. The seedlings are protected, and if there are inclement weather conditions, you raise the seedling in the greenhouse.

But for that, your intention should be clear. If the intent is to cultivate the harvest of innovation, you need plenty of patience and tolerance to face the uncertainties that your people will learn to resolve. Since that may result in people’s empowerment, an alternative path is to lead – or rather mislead – your people to the certainties of the Golden Age, which probably never existed. Doing so you don’t need to struggle much; you simply ask people to reflect on their distant past that is hard to verify – and goad them to keep locking back.

An intellectually fertile nation is conscious of its history but does not live in it. An intellectual wasteland is where you cannot challenge historical accounts. There is nobody left to question the dominant ideas and ideologies. Whenever some mischievous people refuse to remain regressive, there are others who have been trained to teach the ‘troublemakers’ a lesson. An intellectual wasteland is full of zombies who are unable to think but are able to attack and eat all those who love light. Since the past is another country and is shrouded in darkness, zombies love that darkness.

The Golden Age is where our ancestors lived like kings and queens; they marched across the globe with swords in their hands and religious sentiments in their minds. They terminated dissent wherever it raised its head. They built skull towers of infidels, and not so infidels. They butchered traitors – and suspected traitors – because that’s how you build an empire. Even if there was a Golden Age, our heroes are not Muslim authors, intellectuals, scientists, and thinkers. We don’t make dramas and teleplays on Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Rushd, because that will not make an intellectual wasteland.

We want to revert back to the so-called Golden Age where warriors galore and metaphysics – not physics – prevails. Paranormal and supernatural forces descend to guide the gullible. Risk-taking is allowed, but only in military adventures, not in cerebral ones. The intellectual wasteland inhibits all blooming flowers and you see stumps of felled trees all over. If you have such an ideal, make sure there is no room for academic excellence and curiosity and you relegate them to a subordinate role. The vision of a wasteland is the vision of a place where merely old-fashioned thinking prospers, and pigmies outnumber and stymie towering thinkers.

Thinkers are a dangerous breed for a wasteland so you discourage, and even dismember, them even if they are holding a candle in a faraway place. Abort all flights of imagination that may lead to a broader vision. A tunnel vision is best for an intellectual wasteland so allow people to consider only one part of the problem or situation. Try to forge a single set of opinions among the masses and sacrifice diversity at the altar of uniformity: be it the diversity of creed, ethnicity, or nationality. Banish the brave and cultivate the coward who is compliant.

To create an intellectual wasteland you glorify oppressive leaders, and project them as the strongmen we need. They are the ones who can crush the people’s rage against injustices. If the inhabitants of your wasteland despair of their plight, promise them change. If they complain that the promised change was not for the better, target those who expose you. An intellectual who says that the promised Golden Age was a hoax is trying to disseminate discontent. Nobody can protect such thinkers and they are not welcome in the wasteland. Society must eliminate their potency for thinking.

Oppression leads to paranoia, but that is all right. Anxiety and beliefs of conspiracy are the best companions of the paranoid, so facilitating an infusion of anxiety and beliefs of conspiracy are ideal fertilizing agents for an intellectual wasteland. Such land is ripe with delusions and fear, and promoting them is a good idea. The more delusional people become, the more they are bereft of rational thinking. Inculcate fear so that they remain irrational. Such irrationality you can also promote by stifling the liberal and progressive media, both electronic and print.

Civil society is an anathema to intellectual wastelands; be it Egypt, Pakistan or Turkey, the potentates are all powerful. These potentates see no use for the civil society, which to them is counterproductive. Any flicker of dissent must be snuffed out fast. That’s why an intellectual wasteland does not allow the civil society to spread its wings. If somebody is much given to learning and thinking, he or she is a menace to your wasteland. Let intellectual contraction become the new normal so that regression continues in the whole population.

Liberal democracy is not compatible with the wasteland; in fact, it tries to transform the wasteland. That is why it is advisable to defame the democrats and denigrate liberal democracy, especially if it is of a parliamentary sort. Democracy and respect for human rights take a back seat, so be it. Such luxuries are for citizens, but wastelands have subjects, not citizens. If there has to be any revival, it must not be of any blue sort. The revival of the ignorant and the glum is all you need, go for it.

Let the ignorant sashay up the stairs of power, where they can have a stupendous view of the intellectual wasteland. For obvious and odious reasons, they fail to see the wasteland, while they savour the canapés with their guests. They know that they are shaping history, but they know not in what distorted manner. One reason why intellect is hard to conquer is that it tries to protect itself by resistance; the resistance that is not regressive but progressive, so the ignorant dig marshes to bog the intellect down, and they keep doing it decade after decade.

To make an intellectual wasteland you may also issue puritanical decrees to suck the joy out of life. Evolution – be it biological or intellectual – is against the norms, so discourage it. Turn heroes into villains, and the other way round. Populate the land with villains and eulogize them so that their flaws become virtues. Weave myths, and build universities to teach those myths. Delineate the contours of a so-called spiritual life, and ask people to follow it. When the people start pining for it, intoxicate them with more of it.

Lastly, an intellectual wasteland cannot be complete without a penumbra of informers; carefully cultivate them and build an image of their invincibility. They must have an obsessive need to be at the scene of all intellectual activities. They must spot all the intellectual leading lights of society and inform on them.

These are the sure ways of making an intellectual wasteland. If you do all these you are more likely to succeed. But remember: a wasteland is a barren land, where nothing grows. And if that happens, the makers of the wasteland too can’t survive for long.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.


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