Tuesday, October 24, 2006

America Alone: An excerpt on cultural confidence 

Earlier this evening I finished Mark Steyn's excellent book, America Alone, which I hope to review in some detail within the next couple of days. Before I hit the hay after a long day, however, I wanted to share the opening paragraphs of the last chapter, which address one of Steyn's core themes, the collapse of Western cultural confidence:

This book isn't an argument for more war, more bombing, or more killing, but for more will. In a culturally confident age, the British in India were faced with the practice of "suttee" -- the tradition of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. General Sir Charles Napier was impeccably multicultural: "You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours."

India today is better off without suttee. If you don't agree with that, if you think that's just dead-white-male Eurocentrism, fine. But I don't think you really do believe that. Non-judgmental multiculturalism is an obvious fraud, and was subliminally accepted on that basis. After all, most adherents to the idea that all cultures are equal don't want to live in anything but an advanced Western society. Multiculturalism means your kid has to learn some wretched tribal dirge for the school holiday concert instead of getting to sing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," or that your holistic masseuse uses techniques developed from Native American spirituality, but not that you or anyone you care about should have to live in an African or Native American society. It's a quintessential piece of progressive humbug. But if you think you genuinely believe that suttee is just an exampleof the rich, vibrant tapestry of indigenous cultures, you ought to consider what your pleasant suburb would be like if 25, 30, 48 percent of the people around you really believed in it too. Multiculturalism was conceived by the Western elites not to celebrate all cultures but to deny their own: it is, thus, the real suicide bomb.

The rest of us -- the ones who think you can make judgments about competing cultures on liberty, religious freedom, the rule of law -- need to recover the cultural cool that General Napier demonstrated.

Read the whole thing.


By Blogger GreenmanTim, at Tue Oct 24, 11:52:00 PM:

One of the very best classes I ever had in high school was on 20th century history and in which we researched and then role-played the trial of Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Nazi's "Final Solution." I was on the defense team that argued that Eichmann was no monster by the standards of the German nation of his day and doing good as he understood it: the ultimate bureaucrat but not a sadist and impossible to judge by external standards. We used a twisted sort of cultural relativism to call into question the morality of the court and to actually acquit him, and then were appalled by what we had done. That was, I believe, the real lesson of the class, one our instructor intended for us to discover all along.  

By Blogger DEC, at Wed Oct 25, 12:46:00 AM:

Actually, there were two recent cases of "suttee" in India. In one case, a widow jumped on the funeral pyre of her dead husband. In the other case, a cobra crawled into the funeral pyre of a dead cobra (in front of a number of human witnesses).

The first one might not bother the political left. But the second one probably would.  

By Anonymous davod, at Wed Oct 25, 05:42:00 AM:


You see the same arguments played out everyday by lawyers and the media.  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Wed Oct 25, 01:00:00 PM:

"Multiculturalism was conceived by the Western elites not to celebrate all cultures but to deny their own"

Brilliant. I have long thought that much of the drive behind multiculturalism is an attempt to provide cover for escape from one aspect of it. This varies for individuals: one may wish to escape being associated with popular culture (usually exemplified by McDonalds, Wal-Mart, or NASCAR); another may wish to be freed of traditional relgious practice or sexual mores; a third may dislike that a free market does not reward individuals in accord with their own rankings of value. To accomplish this one goal, they have ceded all values in theory. When others come and wish to discard those values they secretly or unknowingly did wish to retain, they are left with no defense.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Oct 25, 03:49:00 PM:

Dear Tigerhawk,

This is the second time I have read you use the example of suttee and General Napiers. While I agree it is a wonderful example, can you give me any others where imposing Western values/traditions/thought on a people has provided such a tangible benefit?  

By Anonymous drbfg, at Wed Oct 25, 03:56:00 PM:

The first one [suttee] might not bother the political left.

Please back the truck up a skosh while I go find my eyes, which rolled so much they actually fell out of my head. While appreciation of aspects of other cultures might be an attribute of the left (although I do not believe it to be exclusive to the left necessarily), any indication that members of the political left prioritize other cultures' identity above the real lives of people living in those cultures is, at best, misinformed.

After all, it has been the "feminazis" (in the oh-so-gentile discourse of the right, per Ms. Noonan) who have demonstrated public outrage about conditions for the women under the burkas and veils discussed here, and who have tried to obtain governmental and NGO help to combat more damaging cultural traditions such as female genital mutilation and dowry death. We have also appealed for family planning funds in Africa, funds which would be for the birth control as well as for education, because using birth control is not part of the tribal cultures in many parts of that continent. On a rather current note about where we feminists are taking issue with the treatment of women in other cultures, we're the ones complaining these days about sexual slavery and tourism in cultures where it has become a established enough so as to rival tradition -- and certainly where the cultural place of women permits such treatment (areas of SE Asia, as well as parts of the Eastern bloc, as examples). So I'm not quite seeing where leftists are deserving of this caricature in which we'd care not at all about a cultural tradition in which a woman would be burned alive for fear of cultural imperialism.

I am, however, gratified to see folks on the right demonstrate an interest in the plight of oppressed women, and I do not wish to dampen that interest by making more than a defense of my side of the aisle. It's nice to see this common ground, so my point is really to indicate that this ground is, in fact, common. To that end, I would hope that this interest would extend beyond the mere cultural markings of women's oppression to the actual oppressive nature of women's lives around the globe.

For what it's worth, and I recognize that my opinion on the issue resonates little with what is typically written on the subject from either side, I have always felt that multiculturalism was a way to see in other cultures what we could learn to improve in ourselves. No need to throw out the baby with the bathwater, of course, but sometimes it's good to give the baby a bath. Part of the wonder and excitement of the American experience is betterment, and I think part of why our culture is not improving itself at the rate it used to is our collective complacency. Looking to other cultures seemed to me like a way to reinvigorate what we can do as a country, as a culture, and to do so both using our strength as an immigrant-fueled nation ("Hey, what do you do where you're from? Should we do that here?") and finding ways to build bridges with the rest of the world ("Hey, look! We do that too! Thanks!"), in each case remaining uniquely "American."

Because of that feeling, I've never really understood the hostility to multiculturalism. I suppose I should read this book, and I look forward to TH's review, but if American culture is worth anything, it can withstand comparison to the rest of the cultures of the world (and count me in for an enthusiastic "Hell, yeah!" vote of confidence in that regard). Hell, even when we screw up absorbing another culture, we come up with something pretty great (as anyone who has had a Chicago-style hot dog can attest). I'm sure we do need more cultural confidence, but I say that because I think if we were more confident we would be less troubled by criticism and more willing to seek out ways to improve.  

By Blogger skipsailing, at Wed Oct 25, 04:03:00 PM:

Its all about guilt. We are barraged incessantly with guilt grenades.

Recently we got the Americans are X percent of the world and consume Y percent of the (insert commodity here). these messages are designed to induce a sense of guilt.

The message is repeated incessantly, especially by our critics. We Americans, they say, should feel guilty for any number of reasons. For example, the indians, the slaves, our refusal to buy Dixie Chicks CD's and on and on and on.

the problem is that guilt can be a handy emotion but its a lousy source of motivation. We feel guilty about all sorts of stuff so we engage in all sorts of stupid activities.

Affirmative action comes to mind immediately. So does all this multi culti crap. the simple fact is that every immigrant wave that has washed up on our shores contained people who had to fight hard to wrest the benefits of our society for themselves.

We discriminated against every single one of them, every chance we got. Recall that scene in "Tombstone" where the budding young politician proudly proclaims that he president of anti Chinese league.

How about "No Irish need apply"? Our society didn't suffer because of this, those actions were in fact an important aspect of the assimilation process. The motivation for the new immgrant went like this: "The sooner I stop looking like a Guinea the better my life will be."

but now we are told that this was bad, we weren't being "enlightened" So along comes this soothing balm. Let's just say that everybody is OK, and then we'll be OK. OK? We won't have to feel guilty, we can just all feel warm and wonderful.

Well as we've now learned everybody is NOT OK. The Muslims have created very, very un OK people. And we are faced with two issues: first how to eliminate the overt threat to our existence posed by these un OK muslims and next, how to shake off the self imposed shackles of guilt so we can survive.  

By Anonymous drbfg, at Wed Oct 25, 06:51:00 PM:

Recall that scene in "Tombstone" where the budding young politician proudly proclaims that he president of anti Chinese league.

Well, before we start changing our culture based on The Gospel According to Tombstone, you may want to refresh your memory. I recall that the politician making that proclamation was Sheriff Behan, who was, in the parlance of our times, a moral relativist. Predictably, he sided with the bad guys in the end and lost his sexy girlfriend along the way. In doing so, he did "butch up" some, but only in a rather dandy, Village-People-esque manner. His was not a happy ending, so I think the movie is at best neutral about the efficacy and morality of xenophobia (or maybe just race-baiting -- hard to say).  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Wed Oct 25, 08:13:00 PM:

This is the second time I have read you use the example of suttee and General Napiers. While I agree it is a wonderful example, can you give me any others where imposing Western values/traditions/thought on a people has provided such a tangible benefit?

Actually, I never have, so your post sent me on a mission. One of my co-bloggers did write a post on that subject, which made me realize that Steyn had recycled the anecdote in his book.

As for your substantive question, may I suggest English Common Law? Excluding economies based entirely on mineral extraction, Common Law jurisdictions have done decidedly better than other legal systems. The Common Law, honest judges, and other institutions of government have been an enormous gift to more than a billion people, and largely had to be rammed down their throats.

What else? How about the end of human sacrifice? The Europeans ended that popular practice among the Mesoamericans. Slavery? An African and Arab invention. True, Westerners made it more efficient before they abolished it, but in the end it was abolished everywhere that Western powers imposed their will, and not in many places where they did not. The list goes on.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Wed Oct 25, 08:47:00 PM:

Don't forget such gems as the scientific method, or representative government. The very *concept* of Progress, the idea that society can be advanced in a beneficial and meaningful way, is a Western invention.  

By Anonymous Phrizz11, at Thu Oct 26, 10:21:00 AM:

I'm sorry skip but that post was hilarious, even for you! I mean, wow, I've never actually seen a defense of xenophobia as being "important for the assimilation process." I mean, come on, oppression builds character right? Just ask black people how grateful they are to the KKK, who showed them so much tough love and helped them integrate so much in the south. Lynchings sure build the character of a minority group!

How can you even take yourself seriously?  

By Blogger skipsailing, at Thu Oct 26, 01:51:00 PM:

I see, so what you're saying here phrizz is that anyone who demands that people who come to America become Americans is a racist?

did I get that right?

Your bigotry is showing boyo.  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Thu Oct 26, 09:46:00 PM:

phrizz11 makes everything into a false dichotomy. If you take any position he dislikes, he accuses you of the morst extreme of that view.

It's 'cuz he caint argue with ideas as they are.  

By Anonymous Phrizz11, at Fri Oct 27, 12:03:00 PM:

AVI and skip: quote me, and show me when I said/did those things. I quote my opponentns in a debate, and attempt to actually argue against the positions that they have taken as I understand them. If I am not doing so, I appreciate clarification so I can understand better. You both are just calling me names, and not actually debating anything, or contributing anything constructive.

If I were snarky, I'd say that's about par for the course.  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Sat Oct 28, 07:18:00 AM:

phrizz11 - "xenophobia," "oppression," comparisons to the KKK.

If these didn't jump out at you as your exaggeration of the ideas presented by skipsailing, enough so that you defended yourself by claiming even when challenged that you had done no such thing, then I despair of you seeing your words objectively in the future. Yes, it must seem like mere insult to you. It is likely that to you the choice of such words seems like mere dramatic writing, or the natural extension of what others have said.

I have certainly been in pockets of the American liberal subculture where that type of offhand reductionism is just common speech, and it is certainly not unkown on the right as well. But whenever you use that technique for cynical humor, you run the risk of oversimplifying to the point of false dichotomy.

Not everything short of what you prefer is "xenophobia." Not every difficulty for immigrants is "oppression." Not every person who wants immigrants to do more of the adjusting than the society that receives it also wants to lynch them.

As a father of two sons from Romania, for whom I worked very hard to help them both assimilate and keep their Romanian identity, I know a little something about the topic at hand. You would be wise not to assume that everyone who takes a contrary stance to your own matches your caricature of them.


By Anonymous Phrizz11, at Sat Oct 28, 12:01:00 PM:

AVI: Thank you, I appreciate your clarification. I just don't happen to believe that "NINA" was at all beneficial in the long or short term for Irish immigrants. Nor did skip present any reservations about the degree of difficulty he desired for immigrants, as you did.  

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