Thursday, April 13, 2006

Can Ideas Kill Civilizations?

Typically, civilizations collapse by being overrun from the outside – the Roman empire, the Byzantine empire, the sacking of Baghdad by Mongols that ended the Abbasid caliphate. Ideas do not typically loom large in these events – instead they are all-too-normal struggles between populations on the rise and societies in decline, hunkered down behind high walls and faded glories.

But the modern era has been one of at least nominally idea-driven wars, especially grand ideas about historical inevitability and justice. This is especially true in the West. The American and French Revolutions, the colonial eras and the mission civilisatrice, and the Cold War all had grand ideological visions shoring them up. To be sure, there is much evidence that different episodes in these struggles were motivated by lucre rather than ideas, but there is no denying that people rallied to these causes substantially because they were persuaded in the inherent justice of them rather than simply because of some baser desire for treasure. The European upheavals of 1848 and 1968 can also plausibly be cast in this light. Ironically, while most of these ideas both good and bad came out of the West, much of the burden of the latter was borne by those in places very far away, whose societies were torn apart by those such as Mao Zedong and Pol Pot who were entranced by them. (Pol Pot, who presided over the Khmer Rouge regime that exterminated perhaps one-fifth of Cambodia’s population, came to Marxism during his youth, which he spent in France.)

But it is interesting to note that one of the main ideas dominating intellectual discourse in the West now has far more potential to damage the West, perhaps fatally, than other places. That is because the idea (or fusion of ideas) serves primarily to instill unappeasable doubt in the minds of those who live in the West about the merits of their own civilization. Call it what you like – relativism, multiculturalism, post-modernism. But it is a toxic brew that has the peculiar effect of causing Westerners to believe that their civilization is at best an equal among many and at worst a unique plague on the planet.

The fuzzy mix of ideas includes several notions. Relativism holds that no one in one culture can pass judgment on the ethics of practices of other cultures, that no one in one culture (save, perhaps, the highly credentialed intellectuals making the argument) can even understand how other cultures really work. It is often traced to the early-twentieth-century cultural anthropologist Franz Boas, and was made irretrievably political by the literary critic Edward Said in his classic work Orientalism, which held that Western understanding of the Middle East was mainly a justification for imperialism, and certainly had no particular claim to “truth.” And a related notion is the one commonly known as postmodernism, which holds that objective reality is unknowable to the human mind but looks irreconcilably different to each observer. The idea that one could understand Islamism or Chinese philosophy or the “true meaning” of The Scarlet Letter is a fiction, because words have no fixed anchor in reality. (The biologist Edward O. Wilson once sarcastically dismissed postmodernism, with its contempt for the whole notion of scholarly inquiry, as the idea (I paraphrase) that “No words have any objective meaning. Except the ones I just said.”) Ultimately, these ideas have metastasized into an instinctive rejection of any policy that benefits the West, or of defense of Western cultural principles.

This pattern was on display most vividly in the recent episode over the Danish cartoons of Muhammad. Some of the cartoons were offensive to anyone who wishes (as I do) not to mock others’ religious beliefs, but some were innocuous depictions that were offensive only because they violated Muslim religious traditions (in some Islamic traditions he cannot be depicted, although there are many examples from Islamic architecture in earlier centuries in which he is), even though non-Muslims are not bound by these traditions. At a discussion of the controversy I heard a local journalist compare them to child pornography, and indicate that his paper did not need to show the cartoons to discuss the obviously newsworthy global dispute over them. But both the production and display of child pornography are illegal; the depiction of religious imagery is not. Freedom of thought and of the press in particular is a core Western value, and avoiding offense to various sectarian groups is not. And so perhaps the instinct should be to defend freedom of expression first, and worry about the consequences of offense (by firing editors and closing down websites, say, as has happened in France and Sweden) only after that principle is secure. In the days after Sept. 11 the university I work at went through an absurdly angry discussion over the propriety of students and employees placing American flags along the side of the higway abutting campus. Numerous faculty members expressed concern either that foreign students (most of whom came from countries where love of their own society was seen as normal) would be offended or threatened or that to plant them would be an angry display of nationalism. The notion that one might for good reason want to show solidarity for the victims, the military defending our society and thus and the virtues of it was hardly to be seen.

And so the practical effect of these ideas is important. An entire generation of those who manufacture opinions (in the universities and in the press) and who work in government ministries has come of age in the era of Western self-doubt. Once upon a time, a correction was probably necessary. If one is to learn about colonialism, it is important to learn about the atrocities, which reached their nadir in places like the Spanish New World and the Belgian Congo. And it is important to know about colonialism as a violation of self-government. But of course a truly educated person knows that invasions of one society by another are the norm in human history, and European colonialism just one species in this vast genus of human activity. And so it would be useful for students to learn the history of Western colonialism in comparison to those of other empires – the Arab empire, the Aztec empire, and so on. While it is true that the British in India distorted the Indian economy and committed atrocities (in the Amritsar Massacre of 1919 Indian soldiers under their command shot somewhere between 379 and 1800 unarmed men, women and children who had done nothing but gather in public), they also campaigned vigorously against female infanticide, as documented extensively in the recent book Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population), and against suttee. They left India the legacy of their common law and democratic conditions, which have served India well subsequently. And Gandhi’s justifiably lauded peaceful campaign against the British worked only because the British were his targets; the victims of the janjaweed in Sudan or those targeted by other colonial empires are not so fortunate. (Similarly, the restraint that Israelis show in their war against Palestinians in comparison to that shown by Palestinians not just against Israelis but against other Palestinians is too little commented upon. Had the Palestinians launched a Gandhi-style campaign of nonviolent resistance years ago they would’ve had their state by now. But they did not, and the opportunity is gone.) And so once upon a time the relativists were right to emphasize the underplayed sins of the West; but we have long since moved past that point, to perhaps move into a future of abandonment of any claim that any of the West’s contributions to humanity – science, democratic liberalism, freedom of commerce – are humanity’s common property only because the West was in a position to bequeath them.

The World Values Survey is an ongoing project that measures attitudes in a variety of countries. Among many other things, they ask people how proud they are to be whatever nationality they are. Here are some percentages from various countries answering “very,” the highest level, ranked from greatest to least:
Saudi Arabia73.4

As in so many things, the U.S. and Canada are outliers among Western nations. (A cynic might argue that Canadians get an artificial patriotism bump through their ability to define themselves as Not America.) The low percentage in China is also interesting, belying the popular conception of that nation as full of budding nationalists looking to throw their weight around as China rises. But what is most striking is how little love of society there is among European nations. There is of course such a thing as too much patriotism, and one could explain the German result by a systematic effort since the end of the war (started by the American authorities) to prevent a re-emergence of Nazism. But how does one explain such low levels in countries like Sweden and Holland compared to, say Morocco and Peru? Can it really be objectively true that European societies have contributed so much less to humanity than these other places? Even in more recent years the Swedes could take pride in the “Swedish model” of the welfare state that scrubs away all life’s insecurities, or the Dutch could revel in their reputation as the world’s most tolerant country. But they don’t. And I suspect that this is because of a long-term intrusion of the idea of Western self-doubt beyond the point of reason, which grew out of a laudable urge to see the world as it is rather than through a fog of distorted patriotism but has become something much worse.

And that change has been unfortunate. One could imagine, for example, that instead of a civilization collapsing from without it could collapse from within. It could refuse to propagate itself because of a loss of confidence in the future. It could admit huge numbers of immigrants from very different civilizations but fail to offer them opportunity in a vibrant, job-creating economy or full participation in society on equal terms with the natives. It could refuse to assimilate them and instead keep them on display for the benefit of the natives through a set of zoo-animal multicultural policies. And then it could wake up and find one day that the civilization and the values it produced are gone, and the newcomers have remade it around them while they slept.

But that would never happen.


Blogger JasonSpalding said...

Why do the unemployed Palestinians stay living in a battle zone?

6:08 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

Presumably because they feel their interest is served by staying there. The Palestinian and wider Arab leadership have created a belief that by holding out they can get it all - right of return, maybe even the elimination of Israel. This is crazy of course, but Palestine, like most Arab societies, is not known as a place where ideas compete very freely.

In the meantime, as I argued awhile back, the Palestinians have built a welfare culture dependent entirely on foreign largesse, which allows them in turn to keep the fantasy of total victory over Israel alive.

9:39 AM  

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