Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Western Civilization, Love It or Hate It

Since perhaps the middle of the twentieth century, Western Civilization has been controversial. Since long before that, the term has been somewhat ambiguous: 'western' is a geographical denotation, but also a relative one. Given that Dakar, and all of Senegal, is west of Portugal, it is not clear that Western Civilization is in the west. Given that Jerusalem, Babylon, and all of Mesopotamia is east of Europe, it is not clear how these cradles of Western Civilization are in any sense in the West.

It is equally problematic to refer to this heritage as 'European culture' or the 'Judeo-Christian tradition' - it is certainly not limited to Europe, as it is found in North and South America and in Australia; it does not find its origin in Europe, as neither Hammurabi nor Moses, neither Jesus nor Cyrus ever set foot in Europe. While this heritage finds its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is also the case that many deists, agnostics, and atheists have embraced the values of this heritage, as have adherents to belief systems like scientology and other lesser-known sects and religions.

However ambiguous its name may be, there is no ambiguity about the hatred directed toward it. It has become not only fashionable, but in some situations required, to speak dismissively of the West: students are encouraged to study literature by ignoring Shakespeare and Chaucer and praising Frantz Fanon. Michelangelo and Mozart, Bach and Dürer are ignored precisely because they were traditionally studied. Although the allegedly academic authorities who encourage this repudiation of the West are often ignorant of the cultures of Asia and Africa, they embrace the a priori assumption that such cultures are superior to the West simply because they are not the West.

Whether we label it irony, or label it merely self-contradiction, those whose hatred of the West is most vocal are also usually those who most loudly proclaim their adherence to the values which are peculiar to the western heritage. Wherever they are found in the world, movements such as the abolition of slavery or the legal equality of women trace their roots to the West.

When Moses revised Hammurabi's standards and proclaimed that it is equally wrong for a husband or a wife to commit adultery, and when he expressed the notion that slaves were humans with rights and that slavery should eventually come to an end, seeds were sown that grew in 1215 A.D., when the Magna Carta endorsed women's rights to self-determination, and in 1869, when women began voting in Wyoming, long before the nineteenth amendment was superfluously ratified. These seeds also grew when the abolitionist movement grew so strong in the mid-1700's in North America that the emancipation of slaves became inevitable.

The West is the unique source of individual liberty and personal freedom; that is its nature. That other cultures offer a critique of the West is the result of their having embraced the West's gift of critical thought. That academics in the West critique the West is the result of their embracing the West's gift of intellectual freedom. Much of this was expressed by the French thinker Jacques Ellul in his book The Betrayal of the West. He writes:

Let me repeat: I am not criticizing or rejecting other civilizations and societies; I have deep admiration for the institutions of the Bantu and other peoples (the Chinese among them) and for the inventions and poetry and architecture of the Arabs. I do not claim at all that the West is superior. In fact, I think it absurd to lay claim to superiority of any kind in these matters. What criterion would you apply? What scale of values would you use? I would add that the greatest fault of the West since the seventeenth century has been precisely its belief in its own unqualified superiority in all areas.

The adversaries of the West allege that the West is guilty of a sense of superiority vis-a-vis other cultures. While there certainly have been a few chauvinists among the thinkers of the West, in general the West has demonstrated a friendly curiosity about the rest of the world.

By contrast, the most deeply-seated sense of superiority is to be found precisely among those who denounce the West; they confidently proclaim it inferior to any other world culture, despite their ignorance of other cultures. It was during the allegedly xenophobic heyday of Western Civilization that university students in large numbers eagerly studied Sanskrit, Nubian, and Ge'ez (the ancient language of Ethiopia). Now that multi-culturalism, a misnomer because it omits the serious study of any culture and embraces simply the denunciation of one culture, has influenced the university, one is hard-pressed to find any opportunity to study such languages.

The West's unique ability to examine itself critically has led to reform movements and revolutions of various kinds. But this same ability, carried to an irrational extreme, yields merely a bizarre form of cultural self-hatred.

The thing, then, that I am protesting against is the silly attitude of western intellectuals in hating their own world and then illogically exalting all other civilizations. Ask yourself this question: If the Chinese have done away with binding the feet of women, and if the Moroccans, Turks, and Algerians have begun to liberate their women, whence did the impulse to these moves come from? From the West, and nowhere else! Who invented the "rights of man"? The same holds for the elimination of exploitation. Where did the move to socialism originate? In Europe, and in Europe alone. The Chinese, like the Algerians, are inspired by western thinking as they move toward socialism. Marx was not Chinese, nor was Robespierre an Arab. How easily the intellectuals forget this! The whole of the modern world, for better or for worse, is following a western model; no one imposed it on others, they have adopted it themselves, and enthusiastically.

When areas of the world were colonies of the West, and desired to throw off the yoke of colonization, that desire was seen as just only through the lens of western values, and the impetus to anti-colonial revolution came exclusively from western thinkers. People suffered for long centuries under non-western despots, with no explicit way to formulate their desire for freedom, and with no way to organize that desire. Once exposed to western thought, they were able to articulate and act upon a value system which included liberty. Paradoxically, they obtained that value system from the very colonists whom they overthrew.

The West is not perfect; the West committed its share of crimes and sins against humanity. But the West has bestowed unique gifts, not only upon its own, but upon the entire planet.