Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The West's Good, the West's Evil

Common sense tells us that no civilization is perfect, that no society will be perfect, and that no culture can be perfect. Humans, and the world in which we live, are flawed.

By the same token, every human tradition contains something good, and every nation contains something praiseworthy. So we may issue no blanket condemnations, nor may we offer general approval. People and their institutions remain a mix of good and evil.

Sadly, however, as the old proverb tells us, common sense is not common. People still make the error of idealizing one culture and demonizing another. Starting in the second half of the twentieth century, the general trend of thought in many schools, colleges, and universities has been to dismiss that conglomerate known as Western Civilization. Students have been directed away writers, thinkers, and artists who have been part of that cultural tradition.

At the mildest, people like Shakespeare, Chaucer, Bach, Brahms, Leibniz, Descartes, Dürer, and Michelangelo have been classified as tired, stale, and irrelevant. At the worst, they've been tagged as hypocritical, oppressive, and chauvinistic.

The tendency to demonize one culture seems often to coincide with the tendency to idealize another culture: a drive to establish a clear and distinct dualism. Thus those who dismiss Western Civilization seem to praise blindly some other society. The blindness in their praise is the product of ignorance. Anti-western academics praise them merely because they are not western.

Non-western cultures have praiseworthy aspects, and have created artifacts and texts worth studying. But those who proudly proclaim, under the banner of multiculturalism, their affection for these other civilizations generally have little or no knowledge of them. A class titled "Non-Western Civ" usually teaches little about non-western civilizations, but rather is merely a vehicle for a critique of, or even a verbal assault on, the West.

Scholars who seriously study Sanskrit literature or Confucianism, who study the grammar of Nubian or Ge'ez, have both a knowledge of and an affection for these non-western cultures, but do not do so merely as a way to insult the West.

Those who know little about any culture, and loudly proclaim their multiculturalism, are in fact anti-cultural, desiring to instruct their students only in how to disparage the West, and not to be conversant with the treasures of any culture, East, West, or other.

Into this fray steps French scholar Jacques Ellul, who argues for an even-handed treatment. The West has done both good and evil; other cultures have done both good and evil. The standard practice of contemporary academics of painting the West as bad and the non-West as good is simple-minded and intellectually lazy. To assume the opposite view would be equally wrong: we cannot portray the West as good and other cultures as backward. Ellul writes:

I shall not wax lyrical about the greatness and benefactions of the West. Above all, I shall not offer a defense of the material goods Europe brought to the colonies. We've heard that kind of defense too often: "We built roads, hospitals, schools, and dams; we dug the oil wells . . . ." And the reason I shall say nothing of this invasion by the technological society is that I think it to be the West's greatest crime, as I have said at length elsewhere. The worst thing of all is that we exported our rationalist approach to things, our "science," our conception of the state, our bureaucracy, our nationalist ideology. It is this, far more surely than anything else, that has destroyed the other cultures of the world and shunted the history of the entire world onto a single track.

Ellul argues for a different approach. Since we know that no culture is ideally virtuous, and no cultural damnably evil, let us analyze each civilization to identify both its strengths and its weaknesses - both its crimes and its nobility. Any culture will have plenty of both.

But is that all we can say of the West? No, the essential, central, undeniable fact is that the West was the first civilization in history to focus attention on the individual and on freedom. Nothing can rob us of the praise due us for that. We have been guilty of denials and betrayals (of these we shall be saying something more), we have committed crimes, but we have also caused the whole of mankind to take a gigantic step forward and to leave its childhood behind.

And so we have the West's sins and the West's blessings. Perhaps the greatest sin of the West is the promulgation of the technological society - by which Ellul indicates something more than merely the existence of machines and electronic devices. The least significant aspect of the technological society is the existence of transistors and microchips, of airplanes and radios. The more powerful, and arguably more harmful, aspect of the technological society lies in the psychology of technique - the technological man subordinates all areas of life to the concept of technique. This devitalizes and alienates humans.

Another sin of the West is the great leveling, by which the world becomes more homogenous. Everywhere one now finds blue jeans, Coca-Cola, Elvis Presley, and McDonald's. In this homogenizing, we have lost cultural treasures.

But if the West is guilty of these sins, it has also bestowed certain benefits on mankind. The fair-minded scholar will admit this, and many contemporary academics will not.

Ellul notes two main achievements of the West: the concept of the individual and the concept of freedom. Each of these requires volumes of unpacking.

If we examine societies prior to the rise of Western Civilization, or those which existed simultaneously but without significant contact with Western Civilization, the emphasis on the corporate at the expense of the individual is clear. Whether in ancient Mesopotamia, or in later centuries in China and India, the significance of the individual was minimal. This is manifested in the lack of record-keeping. Names of ordinary people - their births, marriages, and deaths - were not seen as data worth preserving. The anonymous grave and the scattered ashes left no trace.

In the West, the individual's name was a matter of public record, and preserving it was a communal duty. The individual human being was more than merely a cell in a corporate whole.

The West's other main contribution, freedom, was assigned to the individual. Certainly, the West did not embody perfect political liberty; it sinned greatly against that concept. But it also exclusively produced that concept. The West crystalized and expressed the concept of freedom so well that it has been embraced by other cultures.

The West failed to purely instantiate personal freedom - in fact, the West committed a wide variety of crimes against freedom. But it was also in the West that such things were identified as crimes. Only the West saw slavery as wrong, even as it committed slavery. Only the West saw torture as inhumane, even as it committed torture. These insights are the West's gift to the rest of the world.