Skip to comments.Defending Western Civilization
Posted on 12/06/2001 11:58:05 AM PST by Jean S
PADDINGTON, Australia, Nov. 30 (UPI) -- "We must be aware of the superiority of our civilization, a system that has guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights and -- in contrast with Islamic countries -- respect for religious and political rights." -- Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.
To compare Western civilization with the others is a thankless task. For a start, it is unnecessary because Western superiority doesn't need advocates. It speaks for itself. Moreover, to do so is insensitive because the comparison provides a reminder that non-Western cultures are inferior. To state this is tasteless, even though almost everyone knows it is true.
The contest is not even close. It is hard to think of one major area of human activity where the West comes second. The West is best in health, wealth, art, music, literature, sport, industry, business, science, technology, military strength, human rights, liberty, and equality, critical thought and political stability.
No one with any knowledge of these fields could seriously think otherwise. For instance, it is plain to anyone familiar with music, medicine or politics, that Italian opera is much better than Chinese opera, that European doctors can cure many more diseases than Buddhist shamans, that the Constitution of the United States guarantees more freedom than any Islamic state. The examples could be multiplied ad infinitum.
The West, of course, is far from perfect, and it has slipped badly on social indices in recent decades, especially in family breakdown, drug abuse and standards of public education. Nonetheless, the rest of the world is still voting with its feet. Almost no one wants to migrate to any of the other major civilizations, but people wait in countless queues to leave them for the West.
So why the shock and horror when Silvio Berlusconi stated the obvious? Why did so many Western politicians rush to denounce him? The Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, said: "I can hardly believe that the Italian Prime Minister made such statements." Spokesman for the European Commission, Jean-Christophe Filori, added: "We certainly don't share the views expressed by Mr Berlusconi." Within days, he was forced to withdraw.
The Italian prime minister's statement could have been more diplomatically timed, made as it was while American officials were trying to put together an anti-terrorist coalition of Islamic allies. But there is little doubt he would have generated just as many denials no matter when he uttered the sentiment, for Western superiority has become a truth that must not be spoken.The chief reason is that the Western liberal intelligentsia wants us To feel guilty about our success. Until 30 years ago, when Western intellectuals reflected on the long-term achievements of their culture, they explained it in terms of its own evolution: the inheritance of ancient Greece, Rome and Christianity, tempered by the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Today, however, among our leading opinion makers in the media, the universities and the churches, it is more commonly explained in terms of its rivalry and aggression toward other cultures. Our success has purportedly been at their expense.
The belief is now widespread that Western prosperity is based onill-gotten gains. Some of these are explained in historical terms. The capital that funded the industrial revolution, some authors claim, derived from the twin exploitations of colonialism and slavery. Other accounts blame present policies. Globalization, many academics charge, is a euphemism for American imperialism. The poverty of the Third World, we are told, is entrenched by debts from the International Monetary Fund and the free-market policies of the World Trade Organization.
Hence, students and trade unionists riot outside the meetings that decide these policies, and church leaders sermonize us to forgive the debt. The intelligentsia widely regards Western success as inherently sinful. We are urged to redeem ourselves not only by changing our policies toward the non-West but also by acknowledging our sins and denying our superiority.
We are told to adopt the ethics of moral equivalence and culturalrelativism. Under these rules, all cultures are equal though different. No culture can judge another because there are no universal standards.
Instead of attempting to globalize its values, the West is told to stay in its own cultural backyard and leave others to find their own way in the world. The problem with this position is that the inferiority of the non-West derives from the very fact that it has been largely left to fend for itself for the past half-century.European imperialism ended 50 years ago. Subsequent American policies of granting and lending money to the Third World, of setting up factories there and of importing the goods they produce cannot plausibly be regarded as imperialist exploitation. If it were, the countries involved would hardly be holding out their hands for more.
The historical argument is also untenable. Some revisionist historians of British colonialism have recently calculated, for instance, that profits from the slave trade contributed less than one percent of total domestic investment in Britain at the time. In other words, slavery was irrelevant to the industrial revolution. Nor were the profits from colonial enterprises exploitative. Instead, European investment in Asia, Africa and the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries benefited those countries considerably. It provided the infrastructure of ports, roads, railways and communications that allowed them access to the modern world.
The fact that many of these countries have not progressed beyond the kick-start provided by European colonial investment can no longer be blamed on the West. Those who have chosen to emulate the Western model -- such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore -- have shown that it is possible to transform a backward Third World country into a prosperous, modern, liberal democratic nation in as little as two generations. In Japan's case, the model allowed it to rise from the ashes of total defeat to become a world power in less than 40 years.
Those countries that still wallow in destitution and underdevelopment do so not because of Western imperialism, racism or oppression, but because of policies they have largely chosen themselves. By pretending this is not so-- by rebuking those like Berlusconi, who speak the truth about their condition -- we do them no favors. Those who endorse cultural relativism might assist the current leaders of Islam to save face, but by inhibiting the reform of their culture they help perpetuate the poverty and humiliation of their populations.
Western liberals should give up their guilt trip, abandon their quest for moral redemption and stop apologizing for the success of their own civilization. This doesn't mean we should start bragging, but it does mean we should stop taking seriously those critics who seek to morally disarm us and demean our achievements.
Their contentions not only weaken our own resolve, they also fuel rage among their political counterparts in non-Western countries where they obstruct the solutions that are so obviously there for the taking. To become modernized and civilized, non-Western countries do not have to adopt the whole of Western culture. They can achieve the outcome on their own cultural terms, as the Japanese, Taiwanese and Koreans have done. But they should stop blaming the West for problems of their own making. They should take responsibility for themselves and start acting as independent people rather than the perpetual victims the Western intelligentsia would prefer them to be.
Keith Windschuttle is a historian whose most recent book is "The Killing of History: How literary critics and social theorists are murdering our past" (Encounter Books, 2000).
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