Journal of World History 13.2 (2002) 478-480
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Border Crossings. Edited by FRED DALLMAYR. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 1999. Pp. ix + 313. $24.95 (paper).
Great oaks from small acorns grow. Sometimes. It depends on the quality of the acorn. Here, in the idea of inaugurating a global comparative political theory, there is the potential for a mighty intellectual oak; unfortunately, the nut leaves much to be desired. I write this with disappointment, because the idea is excellent. I opened the book with anticipation, looking forward to discovering a new field, deriving not from the "citadel of a global hegemony" (largely dominated by the U.S. and European intellectuals) but from the "voices from across the global spectrum." The book does not deliver. The collection of essays is a ragbag, while the editor's introduction fails to bring the whole together in a manner calculated to begin a new era in political theory —the book's backpage promise. That said, there are rich pickings, but readers should not expect to finish the book knowing how to "do" comparative political theory.
The book is a start, nevertheless, and it is possible to draw out three themes at least that help contribute to the bigger project. First, such a volume can show that many of us in the West have an impoverished knowledge of other political cultures. There is food for thought, for example, in Nancy J. Hirschmann's "Eastern Veiling, Western Freedom?" It illustrates the complexities surrounding veiling, so often the target of Western stereotypes. The article also makes wider points, notably the importance for feminist thinkers—and others—of recognizing that the act of choosing is necessary but not sufficient for freedom. What is also needed is the ability to formulate choices, and this requires the ability to have meaningful power in the construction of contexts. Roxanne L. Euben's "Mapping Modernities, 'Islamic' and 'Western'" also adds knowledge and complexity, comparing differing responses to modernity by various Islamic thinkers. Among its arguments is the apparently paradoxical claim that fundamentalism is an "essentially postmodern" response to the problems of living in a world of radical doubt. I was interested to find out from this article (note 9, p. 31) that there is no word for "fundamentalism" in Arabic; the closest is a word especially coined to approximate the English term.
A second role such a volume can play is to overturn conventional wisdom about unfamiliar political theories. An illustration here is Russell Arben Fox's essay on "Confucianism and Communitarianism in a Liberal Democratic World." Confucianism is usually associated with a particular form of traditionalism embracing strict ideas about hierarchy. Fox argues that while Confucianism does contain the dangers of repression, [End Page 478] it also has the potential for liberating reform, including a reconstructed liberal democracy—and one with the responsibilities and solidarities usually associated with Confucianism. So, at the heart of "Asian values" is a body of belief open to varied interpretations (and hence political possibilities).
A third role for a comparative political theory would be to map out new intellectual pathways. John J. Clarke's article on "Taoist Politics: An Other Way?" attempts this. Those of us with only a passing knowledge of Taoism tend to associate it with a mystical, otherworldly lifestyle. Clarke suggests we should take another look, for he sees in it a distinctive politics: a "thoroughgoing critique of all forms of domination, moving out from traditional political issues of government and social order to pressing questions concerning gender, violence, and our relationship with the natural world." Clarke recognizes that this cannot of itself transform the world, but that it may be an inkling of "considerable enlightenment." Here, though, is the crunch with so much political theory: how does what might be considered a particular enlightenment engage with the world of international politics? How can any enlightenment flourish in an arena of (at least potential) violence and (certainly) particularistic ambition? Faced by bad guys, do we not have to behave like them, in order to survive? Where does the "eternally nameless" Tao (Way) lead in...