Skip to comments.How the West was one (Abandoning fundamental truths has made us vulnerable to terrorism)
Posted on 08/05/2005 8:53:39 PM PDT by naturalman1975
THE London bombings are the latest reminder that Western cities are now the target for a global Islamic death cult. The most influential characterisation of what has happened since September 11 is that of The Clash of Civilisations author Samuel Huntington from a decade earlier. We have entered an age when the main conflicts are no longer between power blocs or ideologies, as in the Cold War, or even nations. They are between civilisations.
In this context, it is worth clarifying the ways in which civilisations -- and cultures -- are necessarily different and the ways in which they are not. I want to argue against the Huntington view that a clash is inevitable. This does not, however, lend support to the "universal brotherhood of mankind" perspective. That perspective assumes that all humans are the same. So, if only they would come to share common values and a common culture, then there would be no more conflict. Such a world is neither possible nor ideal.
At issue are fundamental questions about truth and belief. It is necessary to distinguish different types, or levels, of truth. There are three.
The base level is that of facts. Such as: Yesterday, I had lunch at 1 o'clock. It is true but of no significance. A life story that is little more than a compendium of such banal facts is hardly worth living.
There is a middle order of truth: the ethical order. It is composed of the moral laws that constrain behaviour, the commandments or "thou shalt nots". Many of these are petty, such as the rules of politeness, and these vary from one society to another.
The backbone of the ethical order is a body of cardinal laws. They are universal: they are found in every society. They include thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not strike or damage another human without due cause; thou shalt protect the innocent; thou shalt not betray trust; and thou shalt not lie about important things. These laws constrain all humans, except those we classify as psychopaths: people who transgress significant interdicts without conscience.
Furthermore, all societies esteem courage and scorn cowardice. A film clip of an adult jumping into a torrent to save a drowning child will be understood in all cultures, with admiration expressed for the courage of the adult.
There are also important laws governing other roles and conduct. There is the good mother, the good father, the responsible leader, and moral support for doing a job justice.
What varies from one society or culture to another is the circumstances under which it is permitted to break one of the cardinal laws. Some societies, for instance, have permitted infanticide under the rationalisation that the baby is not yet human, so the normal prohibition on murder does not apply.
In the West, the recognition that all humans are equal in terms of the cardinal moral laws and some of their derivatives has come to be called universal human rights. They apply irrespective of tribe, ethnicity, age, sex, status, wealth or power.
This is an exceptional historical development. Humans have generally been tribal. The tribal view constrains me to treat members of my tribe, nation or culture justly but apply looser standards to those outside. Outsiders -- distinguished disparagingly as barbarians, gentiles, heathens, infidels, savages and so forth -- are legitimate prey to my self-interest. It is only in the past half-century that a belief in universal human rights has become predominant in the West. This is one of Western civilisation's great achievements. It has its sources in the teachings of Jesus and in classical Greek philosophy, consolidated in the European Enlightenment and, since then, developed into a staple of the liberal-democratic political form.
It may prove a precarious achievement. Further terrorist attacks on Western cities will test multicultural tolerance. France, with a large Muslim minority, is particularly vulnerable.
Technically speaking, our modern tolerances are not cultural. They are moral. This takes me to the next stage of the argument.
The third and highest order of truth is metaphysical. This is the order of capital-T Truths. The central task of every culture is to provide convincing answers to the big questions about the human condition. They are questions of meaning: specifically, where do I come from, what should I do with my life and what happens to me when I die?
The answers are provided through stories, what the Aborigines call Dreaming stories. These are archetypal narratives from long ago that provide structures of meaning and ideal character types through which individuals may make sense of their life. Each generation needs to retell these timeless stories in ways that speak to it.
Popular culture, from Hollywood to television soap opera, taps into these stories. The classical themes are endlessly reworked: of the hero, romance, duty, fate, evil, tragedy and redemption.
Here, every culture is different. It is a core and incontrovertible difference. The archetypes of Western culture are particular and unique, coming from Homer and Greek tragedy, and from the four accounts of the life of Jesus. They are very different, for example, from Aboriginal Dreaming stories. They are different from the foundation body of Hindu stories in the Mahabharata, despite some strong parallels.
Likewise, the sacred sites of culture vary from Mecca to the River Ganges, from Rome to Mt Fuji. What they represent is not negotiable.
The West's great weakness in the past century or so has been in the domain of high culture. The mainstream of literature, art, music and philosophy has largely abandoned its mission to retell the timeless stories in new ways and to interpret them. It has betrayed its responsibility to help people make sense of their lives and times. Through its relativisms, surrealisms, deconstructionisms and postmodernisms, it has denied that there are fundamental truths. It has often even denied that there are universal moral laws.
The strength and independence of all cultures is in everybody's interest. As Aboriginal wisdom puts it, if you lose your Dreaming you die. Insecurity about belief tends to breed a range of pathologies, including fanaticism. The July7 London suicide bombers were four young men living in the West, stranded between cultures, some of their families apparently integrating well. The four had reacted to cultural rootlessness by taking to a fundamentalist extreme. The September 11 terrorists looked on the outside like successful young American businessmen.
What about civilisation? Huntington's conception is blurred. Western civilisation today stands on three legs. There is Helleno-Christian culture, the Western Dreaming. There is modern industrialised society, the product of the English Industrial Revolution and the ever-evolving capitalist economic system. And there is the political form of liberal democracy.
Radical Islam attacks all three legs. It is hostile to Western culture. This is partly out of difference, but mainly out of a perception of modern decadence. It observes loose morals, low standards of public decency and a self-indulgent, profane consumerism. Osama bin Laden challenged: if all you in the West believe in is symbolised by the skyscraper and a cosmopolitan city such as New York, then I can bring your culture down. He added that soft living had made the US cowardly: the moment its troops suffered casualties, they would be withdrawn. (In this case, the incumbent presidency has proved him wrong.)
Radical Islam is, second, envious of the power that has come with industrialisation. Bernard Lewis, the foremost Western scholar of Islam, argues that the Arab world has stagnated economically, socially and culturally for half a millennium. It has watched while the West has remorselessly gained in power, prosperity and influence. Al-Qa'ida is driven by power envy.
On September 11 its targets were not religious or cultural sites, as one may have expected: the Vatican, Westminster Abbey or an American synagogue. They were the centres and symbols of Western financial, military and political power. It is as if they had been selected from a Marxist revolutionary handbook.
Al-Qa'ida is also driven by a lust for death and destruction. Bin Laden is unlike Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in that he has showed no inclination to rebuild Muslim societies. His is a passion for destruction. In this there are, again, parallels with Western Marxism. Both share a paranoid delusion that if the enemy -- in one case capitalism, in the other the West -- is comprehensively destroyed, then miraculously the dreamed-of Promised Land will shoot forth from the ashes. Were al-Qa'ida to paralyse the West, the truth is that, in the ensuing global depression, the Middle East would be the first region to plunge into anarchy and poverty.
Third, radical Islam feels threatened by democracy. It is megalomaniac in ideology and practice. The world view of bin Laden is theocratic. Its ideal is pan-Islam, with all Muslim people and territories united under one head: the ancient caliph resurrected in the 21st century. Al-Qa'ida is feudal in structure and Stalinist in its political ideals. It is indifferent to how many people it kills and whether they are Muslim.
Theocratic Islam rejects the separation of church and state that has been crucial to Western development. Without this separation, it is doubtful that Western science would have flourished. The technological innovations that made possible the Industrial Revolution also would not have happened.
Similarly, the modern Western defence of universal human rights depends on the recognition that they are independent from culture in the big sense. Culture is the preserve of churches, or at least it was in the West when the churches were still capable of retelling the archetypal stories.
Universal moral laws derive from a quite different source. They are constitutive of the human condition. They form a central component of being human, irrespective of tribe or culture. The state must endorse cardinal moral laws, whatever the views of any churches or other religious bodies.
Bin Laden accuses the West of continuing the medieval Crusades. The accusation is false. The Christian Crusaders rode under the flag of culture. So does al-Qa'ida today. Human rights were held in contempt by the Crusaders, as they are by Islamo-fascists.
The banner heading the Western incursion into Iraq proclaims freedom and democracy. George W. Bush has no interest in converting the Middle East to Christianity. His ideal is that of the Jeffersonian enlightenment.
It will likely be a decade before a balanced judgment can be made about Iraq. I am not concerned here with whether the American neo-conservative assumption will prove correct, that the West only needs to take freedom and democracy to the oppressed and they will respond. Recent events elsewhere in the Middle East, notably in Lebanon, suggest the assumption may be right. But it is still early days. And idealism as a motive in politics is prone to triggering dangerous unforeseen consequences.
There is a case for the West exporting its civilisation, but only two of the three legs of the tripod. Above all, this applies to democracy and universal human rights. Whether there is justification for doing this by force is a separate issue.
In relation to the second leg, the more a modernised economy spreads beyond the Western sphere, the less of a civilisation clash there is likely to be. Prosperity is an antidote to conflict. And successful modernisation occurs principally through international trade.
As for the third leg of the tripod, there is no case for exporting culture in the high sense. On the contrary. Thankfully, the age of Western states backing missionary Christianity seems to be over, although there are churches, especially in the US, that remain wedded to the evangelical mission of visiting pagan lands to convert souls.
In the wake of September 11, a serious internal multicultural challenge has risen for Western democracies. It has been further inflamed by the London bombings. What should we tolerate and not tolerate within our societies? Again, the tripod is a useful guide.
The economic leg supporting our civilisation is not at issue. In any case, the maelstrom of creation and destruction that is the modern capitalist economy obeys its own inscrutable logic. Further, most people who move to the West from other civilisations are drawn by the prosperity and comfort generated by industrialised economies.
They are also attracted by the stability underpinned by liberal democracy. Indeed, it is the combination of democracy and capitalism that means that most things related to leading a materially fulfilling life, in a country such as Australia, work. For anyone coming from the unindustrialised world, it matters that jobs get done, supermarkets are full, telecommunications function and hygiene is good.
A democracy must apply its laws to everyone, irrespective of cultural orientation. This is uncontroversial. In addition, every citizen, in effect, takes an oath to an unwritten social contract. Citizenship brings with it responsibilities. These include respecting and obeying the prevailing ethos of the society.
Ethos is hard to spell out clearly. We are usually forced to do so only when problems arise. As one example: in Australia, public opinion has been effective in reducing, even eliminating, ethnic brawling at soccer matches. It is un-Australian. More topically, we are being precipitated by the London bombings into a process of expanding laws against inciting violence to prohibit incitement to terrorism.
One aspect of being an immigrant is that you are a guest. There is obligation to respect the laws of the house you enter. The hosts, too, are under the obligations of their laws of hospitality. In the case of soccer hooliganism and preaching jihad from local mosques, the host society is right to impose its ethos.
What about the third, cultural leg of the tripod? There is no case for reducing religious tolerance. It is fundamental to liberal democracy and the separation of church and state that all citizens be free to set up churches as they wish and worship how they choose. Our democracy guarantees enough social stability to allow freedom of culture.
A problem would arise, however, for any Western society were a majority of its citizens -- or even a large minority -- to become, say, Muslim. Even here, restricting religious affiliation would not be the answer. For one, it is impractical. Belief, in any deep sense, is not susceptible to prohibition or to force.
Such a civilisation problem, even emergency, could develop only because of weakness within, not threat from without. An inability to maintain the vitality of a culture's Dreaming, in the West, has fed the kind of compulsive consumerism that bin Laden mocked.
But the reality is that the crisis of meaning can be countered only by a return to the West's cultural roots.
It is the business of each culture, at home in its backyard, to cultivate its singular understandings of mortal life. It is the business of all humans, wherever they dwell, to defend cardinal moral laws and universal human rights. Then civilisations will be more likely to cohabit than clash.
John Carroll is professor of sociology at La Trobe University. His most recent book is The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited.
Since when is anyone constrained to protect the innocent? Wise guy author here.
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