The West

2003-08-14

Of late I've read The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel Huntington (something of a modern sequel to Carroll Quigley's classic investigation The Evolution of Civilizations) and two books by Bernard Lewis on Islam: The Crisis of Islam and What Went Wrong?. Huntington argues that "The West" is in decline and has been for decades, whereas other civilizations (especially Sinic civilization centered on China and Islamic civilization) are ascendant. Given the importance of his thesis, it's surprising how little evidence he adduces for his claims. Certainly the West is less dominant than it used to be -- that makes perfect sense given that many parts of the world are modernizing fast thanks to Western innovations (though, as Lewis shows, the Islamic countries are mostly not in this group). But a funny thing often happens on the way to modernization: lo and behold, people's attitudes become more Western! Yes, every culture and civilization is different, and to a large extent we live in a multicivilizational world; but Huntington's notion (ascribed to Westernizers) that uniquely Western ideas like individualism could triumph unaltered in any other culture is a straw man, and does violence to the spread of ideas. Those who wish to maintain their own cultural traditions like to say that they are "modernizing" instead of "Westernizing", but in reality the border between the two is nonexistent. Thus the absurdity of (for example) Western clothing being considered good "modernization" for men in Turkey or Iran, but bad "Westernization" for women. Lewis notes that things like watches and clocks, printing presses, and competitive sports were all once considered Western (bad) in the Islamic world, but are now accepted as modern (good). Similarly, there are no longer any Islamic defenders of slavery, even though anti-slavery advocates were once considered apostates. Times change and so do ideas -- and the ideas that get accepted turn out, more often than not, to be Western. Could it be that's because so-called Western ideas are better? What a radical concept!


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