UB Faculty Member’s Book Examines Road To Utopia

By Mary Beth Spina

Release Date: April 7, 2000 This content is archived.


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UB faculty member John Mohawk recounts the all-too-familiar saga of man’s inhumanity in the pursuit of utopia in his new book, 'Utopian Legacies.'

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The road to utopia throughout Western civilization all too often has begun with what appeared to be someone's good intentions only to lead to tragic, shameful legacies for generations, a University at Buffalo faculty member says.

In his new book, "Utopian Legacies: A History of Conquest and Oppression in the Western World" (2000, Clear Light Publishers) John C. Mohawk, UB associate professor of American studies, recounts the continuing, all-too-familiar and often-bloody saga of man's inhumanity in the pursuit of utopia.

This tragic legacy of war, hunger, poverty, injustice, ethnic cleansing and wholesale murder will continue, Mohawk predicts, as long as mankind stubbornly refuses to embrace tolerance for diversity and respect for others.

The well-known history and events covered in the book span from ancient-Greek times to the present.

But Mohawk tells the story in the context of utopian social movements, pursuit of the ideal existence and historical record.

"The Garden of Eden, the Republic, the Workers' Paradise and similar utopian visions have existed since antiquity in most -- if not all -- of the world's cultures, and have played a very important role in the history of Western civilization," notes Mohawk, a member of the Seneca Nation.

Indeed, they have played a very important role in the history of Western civilization, particularly during some of its darkest moments when people have been confronted with ideas they found enormously appealing.

"But these powerfully attractive ideas propelled people into adventures that brought them into conflict with others and a too-often-tragic result of annihilation or near annihilation of the other, or of themselves," he observes.

Throughout history, untold numbers of the 4,000-5,000 identified cultures have, at one time or another, sought to create what they envisioned as their own version of a utopia -- a word that literally means "no place" -- or an ideal society.

But most have had little impact on Western civilization because they created their vision for themselves, disinclined to aggressively force it on others, Mohawk writes.

He points out that utopian ideologies propose that there "has existed now, exists somewhere or could exist in the future a perfect society, an existence in which all human needs are satisfied, all problems are solved and everyone's life is fulfilled."

Pursuit of utopian goals, which require material and non-material resources, and their achievement is "such a splendid objective" that followers are inclined to believe that nothing should stand in the way of acquiring the necessary resources.

Toward this end, Mohawk paints a picture of a brutal, tragic and pitiful parade throughout Western civilization -- of indigenous peoples driven from their lands or captured and forced into slavery, of opponents who disappear, never to be seen again or later turn up in mass graves.

"There is no reason to doubt that people are capable of embracing an imaginary perfect world -- a utopia," says Mohawk, "while pursuing materialistic objectives."

The utopian vision is primary; the methods to gain necessary resources to achieve utopia are secondary -- a means to an end, he says.

Western utopianism should be viewed in the context of Western history and culture, and not as a series of isolated movements that can be dismissed as aberrations, he explains.

"They are not aberrations -- these movements are so woven into the fabric of the culture that to consider them in isolation from the conditions that produced them would not only diminish their importance, but deprive us of information critical to an understanding of the world we inherit," he explains.