27.7.05

THESIS, ANTITHESIS. Cox and Forkum are inspired by Mark Steyn columns questioning excessive non-judgementalism and revisiting a government employee attempting to demonstrate cultural competence ... to terrorist ringleader Mohammed Atta.


With the new academic year about to begin, and freshman indoctrination introduction to the New Dispensation already in full swing, it's time for some serious thinking about the use, and abuse, of nonjudgemental and relativist stances in dealing with people who do things differently.

Such stances, which are eminently sensible for the observer who is relying on the hospitality of strangers and wishes to stay alive long enough to return to familiar turf to publish those observations, are less convincing when applied to the behavior of new arrivals, particularly new arrivals with less pacific intentions, in your neighborhood. And when those stances introduce a vulgar form of anthropology into the academy via what used to be called the English department, as well as the nexus of faux-anthropology University Diaries felicitously refers to as "Studies Agglomerations" the academy loses credibility and the common culture becomes coarser.

There are, however, more interesting developments afoot. Start with some serious anthropologists; in this case a group venture called Savage Minds, which has been evaluating the recent taxpayer-assisted television version of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, which I read well before the Fifty Book Challenge came out. (Here is a link to some comments at Catallarchy.) Mr Diamond attempts to explain the prosperity of Eurasia without appeal to biology or unspecified cultural choices, an attempt that Savage Mind member Ozma finds wanting.

This is a punchline about race and history that many white people want desperately to hear. Those dying black kids at the end of the special – we know, because We Are Not Racist, that they don’t deserve what they are getting. They are not inferior. In fact, there but for the grace of god… thus affirming that no one but god has any historical responsibility, and that the world as we know it is a regrettable inevitability. Diamond’s account loudly insists that alea jacta wast (pardon the pig latin conjugation) before we even got going. And it poisonously whispers: mope about colonialism, slavery, capitalism, racism, and predatory neo-imperialism all you want, but these were/are nobody’s fault. This is a wicked cop-out. Worse still, it is a profound insult to all non-Western cultures/societies. It basically says they’re sorta pathetic, but that bless their hearts, they couldn’t/can’t hep it. Such an assertion tramples upon all that anthropology holds dear, and is a sham sort of anti-racism.

My objection to Mr Diamond is that he paid insufficient attention to the rules of trading. A temperate climate with easy technology transfer along parallels is useful, but somebody still has to think about patenting the lever or double-entry bookkeeping or an insurance contract. It is to the topic of neo-imperialism that I wish to turn; readers who would like to follow the anthropological debate will find a collection of links from Kerim of Savage Minds. Professor DeLong offers some observations from the perspective of an economic historian. Henry at Crooked Timber attempts to moderate the debate; there's a spirited bull session in progress.

But the preceding is a deviation from the post I originally set out to write this morning, which was provoked by a couple of columns addressing the motives of jihad bombers. Arnold Kling, writing some weeks ago, draws parallels between today's encroaching globalization and the homesteading of Indian Territory.

As the Napikwans (white men) begin to encroach on the Pikuni lands, some of the Pikunis express their frustration and resentment by scalping and horse-stealing. However, instead of leading to a tit-for-tat response, as in the traditional intra-tribal feuds, these gestures provoke a massacre in which native Americans are annihilated by the whites.

A recent column by William Pfaff makes a similar point.

The liberals and the conservatives of modern Western society firmly believe that. It is inconceivable to them that the traditional world, in which everyone except themselves lives, remains a valid choice for those who live in it.

The modern world is the aggressor, determined - without even seriously thinking about it - to destroy the backward civilizations of everyone else, which it sees as discredited remnants of the past. To destroy them is progress. Progress leads - where?

Here ...

However, deregulation and the globalization of the world economy casually destroyed what already was there: self-sufficient economies functioning within traditional trading patterns, artisanal manufacturing for local or neighboring markets, subsistence agriculture - and the cultural assumptions that went along with all of this.

No Westerner gave much thought to the damage being done. The West was bringing progress. Progress was membership in the world trading system and participation in a global consumer market with cheap goods and mass-produced food promoted by globalized communications.

The downside - destruction of self-sufficient societies and the uprooting and proletarianization of their people - simply seemed inevitable, bringing these people into the modern world and putting them on the road of progress.

With what consequences?

More to the point, when there are young men whose fate has been to be born between modern and traditional worlds - in ghettos in or around London, Madrid, Paris - without any possibility of living fully inside either of those worlds, who should be surprised when they attack what they see as the source of their distress?

Islam now includes tens of millions of young people either born in Western ghettos or sent out of traditional societies to study hyper-modern subjects in what their own civilizations would regard as godless societies.

There is a crucial factor in this that few in the West understand. Modern Western civilization is the product of Western history and culture. The West is what it is because of its past. Nobody imposed foreign ideas on the West. Hence the West is at home in the modern world. The modern world was created by, and belongs to, the West.

But the West is trying to impose not only foreign ideas on everyone else, but ideas that contradict and would destroy the fundamental values and assumptions of non-Western societies.

It says: This is progress. Our progress is your destabilization, the destruction of your cultures, the creation of millions of culturally alienated, deracinated, displaced persons, ripped from their own past to become integrated into a radically materialistic ethic.

It should hardly be surprising that the reaction to this is nihilistic violence.

But was it really true that no Westerner thought about these things? As I read Mr Pfaff's column, the following passages came to mind.

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his "natural superiors," and has left no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous "cash payment." It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of Philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom -- Free Trade....

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.

***

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. ... All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into the air, all that is holy is profaned ...

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world-market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. ... National onesidedness and narrowmindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures there arises a world-literature.

The bourgeoisie ... draws all, even the most barbarian nations into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians' intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization ... it creates a world after its own image.

The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.

The source of that extended passage? A now obscure work called The Communist Manifesto. And how would Messrs. Marx and Engels view the McDonalding of the developing world? No doubt as a necessary evil in order to accelerate the global tension between bourgeois and proletarian. And their view of the resistance to the destruction of traditional societies. Look at those last two paragraphs. Strange times we live in, where a writer (and Mr Pfaff is probably not the only example) of the post-Communist left recognizes the dynamic but not the underlying dialectic at work.

Strange times we live in, indeed.

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