April 17, 2005

Are We Really Better?

In A Study of History, Arnold J. Toynbee writes of the "misconception of the 'unity of civilization'":

"The misleading feature is the fact that, in modern times,* our own Western Civilization has cast the net of its economic system all around the World, and this economic unification on a Western basis has been followed by a political unification on the same basis which has gone almost as far; for though the conquests of Western armies and governments have been neither as extensive nor as thorough as the conquests of Western manufacturers and technicians, it is nevertheless a fact that all states of the contemporary world form part of a single political system of western origin.

"These are striking facts, but to regard them as evidence of the unity of civilization is a superficial view. While the economic and political maps have now been westernized, the cultural map remains substantially what is was before our Western Society started its career of economic and political conquest. On the cultural plane, for those who have eyes to see, the lineaments of the four living non-Western civilizations are still clear. But many have not such eyes; and their outlook is illustrated in the use of the English word 'natives' and of equivalent words in other Western languages.

"When we Westerners call people 'natives' we implicitly take the cultural colour out of our perception of them. We see them as wild animals infesting the country in which we happen to come across them, as part of the local flora and fauna and not as men of like passions with ourselves. So long as we think of them as 'natives' we may exterminate them or, as is more likely to-day, domesticate them and honestly (perhaps not altogether mistakenly) believe that we are improving the breed, but we do not begin to understand them."

* This was first published in 1946.

I think that Toynbee's words here exposes the blindfolds that so many pundits wear. When I hear people saying such things as:

"There are three fundamental respects in which Western culture is objectively the best. These are the core values or core achievements of Western civilization, and what made America great."
  -- Edwin A. Locke, Ayn Rand Institute
"We should honor Western civilization not for the ethnocentric reason that some of us happen to have European ancestors but because it is the objectively superior culture."
  -- Michael S. Berliner, Ayn Rand Institute
"We should be conscious of the superiority of our civilization, which consists of a value system that has given people widespread prosperity in those countries that embrace it, and guarantees respect for human rights and religion. This respect certainly does not exist in Islamic countries."
  -- Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
"There's not a single category of enlightened governance in which the West broadly speaking isn't superior to the Islamic world—again, broadly speaking."
  -- Jonah Goldberg, National Review Online

The world is a spectrum of peoples from one 'end' of the world to the other, but who can say that one people is "better" than another?

Who can say that a person living in New York with apartment, cable television, a computer, etc. is "better" in any way than someone living in, say, the Amazon, without any "modern" technology?

Certainly, the amount of or sophistication of materials one is surrounded with is not a measure of the importance of a person, let alone a people.

What of having a government? The New Yorker may be part of a representative democracy, and the Amazonian part of an idyllic system that lacks written laws of any kind. But what is a "government?" Can it not simply be the way a society gets along?

It need not be written down.

Or perhaps it is that we have books, art, intellectual pursuits, etc., where they have simple art and story-telling. Given the extraordinary value now placed on historical artifacts I find this thought to be quite ridiculous.

That Native Americans did not invent the wheel we are told is an example of their inferiority. Since they had no pack animals other than dogs they never had reason to go beyond the travois.

Only those whose understanding of "Indians" fails to go beyond movies would give merit to this.

Try as I may, I cannot come up with anything, any part of a people's culture, that would set them above others.

I chose the comparison of a New Yorker and an Amazonian as the two ends of the material and governmental spectrum. The conclusion I draw is that if two cultures are living peaceful, free, satisfying lives then the economic systems (amount of technology) and the government (amount of written laws) do not make the case that one is in any way "better" than the other.

What then of the making of war upon one's neighbor? What sticks out from the minds of the pundits of Western Civilization these days is that "we" only make war because we have to at times to suppress fascism, dictators and genocide--the World Wars and the conflicts in Bosnia and the Gulf given as examples. Anyone who reads history though knows that the history of the rise of Western Civilization has been one based upon conquest by war.

The U.S. in particular has its own history of invasion, annexation and dictator creation, little as it may be mentioned.

All fascist dictators of modern history have been products of Western Civilization. And, as many pointed out in the past regarding Germany's and Japan's warring phases, the German and the Japanese people were not to blame, their leaders were.

(Alas, today, very few in the U.S. point out that the people of the middle east are not to blame. In fact, many pundits these days specifically blame the Muslim religion.)

As for the civilizations of the New World, the pundits are quick to point out that there was cannibalism and human sacrifice. But beyond few ritual or war based instances of cannibalism, and the limited systems of sacrifice by the Aztecs and Mayans, these two aspects of the New World were no worse than those of witch burnings and institutionalized, generational systems of slavery of England, Europe and America.

At any point in history can anyone say that of all the separate peoples across the wide spectrum of civilizations that one is better than all the rest?

It boils down to a vile, supremacist view based upon mythological ideals of greatness solely on material conquest and accomplishments. (We got a man on the moon first so therefore we were better than the Russians for example.)

It can only be the amount of tolerance and justice that a society has towards all people that could be used in any way as a measure of it's worth.

(C) 2005-2013, Greg Jennings