Friday, February 24, 2006

The Adversary Culture: The perverse anti-Westernism of the cultural elite

Below is just the introduction to a big article by the redoubtable Keith Windschuttle

For the past three decades and more, many of the leading opinion makers in our universities, the media and the arts have regarded Western culture as, at best, something to be ashamed of, or at worst, something to be opposed. Before the 1960s, if 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, the Enlightenment and the scientific and industrial revolutions. Even a radical critique like Marxism was primarily an internal affair, intent on fulfilling what it imagined to be the destiny of the West, taking its history to what it thought would be a higher level.

Today, however, such thinking is dismissed by the prevailing intelligentsia as triumphalist. Western political and economic dominance is more commonly explained not by its internal dynamics but by its external behaviour, especially its rivalry and aggression towards other cultures. Western success has purportedly been at their expense. Instead of pushing for internal reform or revolution, this new radicalism constitutes an overwhelmingly negative critique of Western civilization itself.

According to this ideology, instead of attempting to globalise its values, the West should stay in its own cultural backyard. Values like universal human rights, individualism and liberalism are regarded merely as ethnocentric products of Western history. The scientific knowledge that the West has produced is simply one of many "ways of knowing". In place of Western universalism, this critique offers cultural relativism, a concept that regards the West not as the pinnacle of human achievement to date, but as simply one of many equally valid cultural systems.

Cultural relativism claims there are no absolute standards for assessing human culture. Hence all cultures should be regarded as equal, though different. It comes in two varieties: soft and hard.

The soft version now prevails in aesthetics. Take a university course in literary criticism or art theory and you will now find traditional standards no longer apply. Italian opera can no longer be regarded as superior to Chinese opera. The theatre of Shakespeare was not better than that of Kabuki, only different.

The hard version comes from the social sciences and from cultural studies. Cultural practices from which most Westerners instinctively shrink are now accorded their own integrity, lest the culture that produced them be demeaned.

For instance, although Western feminists once found the overt misogyny of many tribal cultures distasteful, in recent years they have come to respect practices they once condemned. Feminist academics now deny that suttee, the incineration of widows, is barbaric. The Indian-American cultural studies theorist, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak gives suttee an honourable place in Indian culture by comparing it to the Christian tradition of martyrdom. Feminists once denounced the surgical removal of the clitoris of Muslim women as female genital mutilation. Lately, the procedure has been redefined as genital "cutting", which the literary and art critic Germaine Greer now argues should be recognized as an authentic manifestation of the culture of the Muslim women concerned.

Similarly, the Parisian literary theorist, Tzvetan Todorov, in The Conquest of America (1985), compares Mexican cannibalism to the Christian Eucharist, and the Australian postmodern historian, Greg Dening, in Mr Bligh's Bad Language (1992), declares Polynesian human sacrifice to be the ritual equivalent of British capital punishment.

Something is obviously going terribly wrong here. The logic of relativism is taking Western academics into dark waters. They are now prepared to countenance practices that are obviously cruel, unnatural and life-denying, that is, practices that offend against all they claim to stand for.

To see how decadent these assumptions have become, compare today's relativism to the attitude that prevailed when the culture of the British people was in its ascendancy. Sir Charles Napier, the British Commander-in-chief in India from 1849 to 1851, signed an agreement with local Hindu leaders that he would respect all their customs, except for the practice of suttee. The Hindu leaders protested but Napier was unmoved:

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.

The moral rationale of cultural relativism is a plea for tolerance and respect of other cultures, no matter how uncomfortable we might be with their beliefs and practices. However, there is one culture conspicuous by its absence from all this. The plea for acceptance and open-mindedness does not extend to Western culture itself, whose history is regarded as little more than a crime against the rest of humanity. The West cannot judge other cultures but must condemn its own.

Coup against Summers a dubious victory for the politically correct

A plurality of one faculty has brought about an academic coup d'etat against not only Harvard University president Lawrence Summers but also against the majority of students, faculty, and alumni. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which forced Summers's resignation by voting a lack of confidence in him last March and threatening to do so again on Feb. 28, is only one component of Harvard University and is hardly representative of widespread attitudes on the campus toward Summers. The graduate faculties, the students, and the alumni generally supported Summers for his many accomplishments. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences includes, in general, some of the most radical, hard-left elements within Harvard's diverse constituencies. And let there be no mistake about the origin of Summers's problem with that particular faculty: It started as a hard left-center conflict. Summers committed the cardinal sin against the academic hard left: He expressed politically incorrect views regarding gender, race, religion, sexual preference, and the military.

The original no-confidence motion contained an explanatory note that explicitly referenced ''Mr. Summers' apparently ongoing convictions about the capacities and rights not only of women but also of African-Americans, third-world nations, gay people, and colonized peoples." The note also condemned Summers for his 2002 speech in which he said calls from professors and students for divestment from Israel were ''anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent."

Although the explanatory note was eventually removed from the motion, it was the 400-pound gorilla in the room. Summers was being condemned for expressing views deemed offensive by some of the faculty. I personally disagreed with some of Summers's statements, but that is beside the point in an institution committed to academic freedom and diversity of viewpoints.

In the minds of at least some vocal members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, expressing such politically incorrect views is the academic equivalent of provoking Islamic extremists by depicting Prophet Mohammed in a political cartoon. Radical academics do not, of course, burn down buildings, at least not since the 1970s. Instead they introduce motions of no confidence and demand resignations of those who offend their sensibilities (while insisting on complete freedom of speech for those with whom they agree -- free speech for me but not for thee!).

Once the academic bloodletting began, it was difficult to stanch the wound. Everything Summers did, or did not do, became the object of criticism. Not only was the honeymoon over, the divorce had begun, at least in the minds of those determined to get rid of Summers. When he selected a new dean of Arts and Sciences, there were complaints. When the new dean resigned, there were complaints, some from the same faculty members who opposed the original selection.

When Summers recused himself from any investigation of his friend Andre Shleifer for investing in Russian companies while he was consulting about the Russian economy, he was condemned by some who would have condemned him even more vociferously had he not recused himself.

Summers could do no right in the eyes of his radical critics, who could never forgive him for his perceived original sins and who saw an opportunity to build wider coalitions every time Summers took actions that alienated other groups, as a president -- especially an activist and sometimes abrasive president -- will inevitably do. Some less ideological critics of Summers's leadership style then joined the radicals in a cacophony of strange bedfellows, but the core of the opposition always remained the hard left.

It was arrogant in the extreme for a plurality of a single faculty to purport to speak for the entire university, especially when that plurality is out of synch with the mainstream of Harvard. It was dangerous for the corporation to listen primarily to that faculty, without widely consulting other professors, students, and alumni who supported Summers. Now that this plurality of one faculty has succeeded in ousting the president, the most radical elements of Harvard will be emboldened to seek to mold all of Harvard in its image. If they succeed, Harvard will become a less diverse and less interesting institution of learning governed by political-correctness cops of the hard left. This is what happened in many European universities after the violent student protests of the late 1960s. It should not be allowed to happen at Harvard in the wake of the coup d'etat engineered by some in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.


No comments: