Friday, April 06, 2007

Cultures hardwired for failure


Review of:

"The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save it from Itself" By Lawrence E. Harrison

"America Alone" By Mark Steyn

THERE is a moment of cultural dissonance towards the end of Stephen Ambrose's book, Band of Brothers, his hugely popular World War II history of the men from Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the US 101st Airborne Division. The Americans, who had jumped into Normandy, toughed out the siege of Bastogne and muscled their way into Adolf Hitler's Eagle's Nest, unexpectedly found themselves admiring the spirit and tenacity of the German people. Their army defeated, their empire in ruins, their most treasured myth of the Aryan superman exploded by a mongrel alliance, the Germans nevertheless wasted no time in applying themselves to the mission of rebuilding and recovery, in stark contrast with the French civilians the troopers had encountered earlier in the war. In some ways, the men of Easy Company found the Germans to be ``just like us''.

Lawrence E. Harrison would not have found the comparison odious or even surprising. For the former US aid official, now a senior research fellow specialising in culture and development at Tufts University in Massachusetts, the Americans had stumbled across a cultural connection running much deeper than the violent fracture that separated the Nazi super state from the world's foremost liberal democracy. With everything stripped from them by a war they had initiated, the German people were forced to fall back on the few sources of strength that could be summoned from their bedrock culture. In 1945 this meant making neat piles of the burning rubble that had been their homes. Within two decades it delivered them an economic miracle.

Even in East Germany, where the dead hand of socialism lay so heavily, the national character traits of efficiency, hard work and punctuality delivered a standard of living that was observably higher than anyone else enjoyed or endured behind the Iron Curtain, even if it did lag far behind the West.

Lest anyone accuse Harrison of espousing some sort of Protestant bigotry, he also points out that the Japanese, firebombed and nuked into a modern stone age, drew on a deep well of Confucian virtue through the same period to create their own story of redemption.

Until recently Japan and Germany were cited by the champions of the war in Iraq as examples of how democracy could be transplanted into a society with no experience of anything but tyranny. Like Britney Spears, that particular theory ain't looking quite so tasty these days. But the core lesson of Harrison's book, which has ignited a willing and occasionally furious debate in the US, is that the transplant theory was not necessarily wrong. It's just that in some patients rejection is inevitable.

To reduce Harrison's argument to a hard little bullet of contention: some cultures are doomed to fail. The corollary of this unforgiving and most politically incorrect conclusion is that some cultures are almost bound to succeed. They are -- deep breath, now -- better.

At this point, before a legion of readers turn on Harrison as some sort of neocon ideologue preaching a gospel of Western superiority -- a less bloodthirsty version of, say, Victor Davis Hanson in Why the West has Won: Carnage and Culture from Salamis to Vietnam -- they should understand that he is less the author of this book than its co-ordinator. The Central Liberal Truth is a compendium of reflections on and simple restatement of original research carried out by more than 60 contributors -- some would say co-conspirators -- across dozens of nations. Beside the many academic researchers represented here, Harrison has called on the efforts of journalists, business people, aid officials, politicians and development specialists. They attempt to answer the vexed question of how those societies that appear irretrievably damned might be raised out of the sinkholes of madness, desolation and despair to which they have been consigned.

The discourse does not always run smoothly, with some of the more delicious moments to be had when what might be thought of as a dominant paradigm of cultural relativism confronts the bleak realities of failed cultures. Indeed, the price of admission to this debate is almost immediately recouped by the exchange between University of Chicago cultural anthropologist Richard Shweder and Cameroonian economist Daniel Etounga Manguelle.

Shweder's world view has been described as a cultural absolutism, a belief in the supreme ethical value of all cultures, except perhaps the West's. He had complained of ``disgruntled insiders'' from the Third World, that is, people such as Manguelle, running down their own cultures for the edification of the ``global-hopping managers of the world system''. Whitey, to be blunt about it.

Contrasting his own, superior claim to speak on behalf of the downtrodden, Shweder asked: ``After all, whose voice is more `indigenous'? The voice of a Western-educated MBA or PhD from Dakar or Delhi, who looks down on his or her own cultural traditions and looks up to the US for intellectual or moral guidance and material aid? Or the voice of a `Western' scholar who does years of fieldwork in rural villages in Africa or Asia and understands and sees value in the traditions of others?''

It's not uncommon to find breathtaking chutzpah and inverse racism on the academic Left, but it's not quite so often that you get a rejoinder as powerful and succinct as Manguelle's. Identifying himself as one of Shweder's disgruntled insiders with ``some diffidence'', as this would mark him out as being less indigenous than the white man from Chicago, the Cameroonian replied with deadly sarcasm: ``We Africans really enjoy living in shanty towns where there isn't enough food, health care or education for our children. Furthermore, our corrupt chieftaincy political systems are really marvellous and have permitted countries like Mobutu's Zaire to earn us international prestige and respect.

``Moreover, it would certainly be boring if free democratic elections were organised all over Africa. Were that to happen, we would no longer be real Africans, and by losing our identity -- and our authoritarianism, our bloody civil wars, our illiteracy, our 45 years life expectancy -- we would be letting down not only ourselves but also those Western anthropologists who study us so sympathetically and understand that we can't be expected to behave like human beings who seek dignity ...

``We are Africans, and our identity matters! So let us fight for it with the full support of those Western scholars who have the wisdom and courage to acknowledge that Africans belong to a different world.''

Different worlds and their relative merits are the unavoidable reality of this book. Argentinian scholar and journalist Mariano Grondona provides the basis for a typology that can help to distinguish between those cultures that are resistant to progress and development and those that are more favourably disposed.

Harrison and three other participants in the project expanded Grondona's matrix to cover 25 indices such as a culture's attitude to such practical concerns as education, the role of women, the importance of frugality and the creation of wealth. Other, less tangible matters can also be of prime importance, however. Whether a culture or religion encourages a fatalist view of destiny can have a profound effect on how its inhabitants or practitioners view and act in the world.

Haiti, for instance, by any measure -- and Harrison deploys a lot of them -- is a benighted hellhole. A complex blend of factors underlie this, but partly to blame is the influence of voodoo over the island's people. Not only does it nurture irrationality, according to Harrison and his researchers, ``it also nurtures a sense of impotence and fatalism and discourages the entrepreneurial vocation. It focuses on the present not the future. It is also essentially without ethical content.''

The Central Liberal Truth is replete with harsh, unforgiving judgments such as this, occasionally sounding like the toughest of tough-love counsellors in an international Narcanon meeting. The Protestant ethic is one reason why Protestant countries, including Australia, enjoy vast material advantages over other countries. Catholic countries, particularly those in Latin America, lag economically. The Islamic world lags even further.

``The development of black identity [in the US] among teens often entails learning to process mainstream America as an alien realm deserving of contempt,'' Harrison writes. Everyone in Italy expects everyone else to act unfairly, and thus nobody has any incentive to do so themselves. Costa Rican parents really need to get their act together. The United Fruit Company was good for South America.

There is little compromise here, but neither is there bigotry. The value judgments that Harrison and his colleagues make are backed up by tonnages of empirical data. And although the purpose of the project is avowedly economic -- the authors are concerned with the material betterment of demonstrably poor societies -- there is an irreducibly political element.

That some cultures are better, much better, than others at realising the full potential of their members is not simply a conclusion of The Central Liberal Truth, it is a defining premise. White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants are a major beneficiary of this self-evident truth, but so too are Jews and anyone lucky enough to be born into a Confucian society. On the other hand, Catholics, Muslims and voodoo practitioners start their race with some heavy handicaps. As Louis Nowra pointed out in last month's ALR, so do many Aborigines, especially women and children.

Religion, of course, is not the end of the culture story and secular cultural factors can be decisive, such as, for instance, the Nordic passion for open, flattened, consultative political structures, or the emergence of key leaders at crucial junctures such as Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew or Spain's King Juan Carlos. Nonetheless, religion haunts this book, as it does the modern world in a way not seen since the Age of Reason dawned.


Religion is less a ghost in the machine of Mark Steyn's America Alone than a screaming banshee at the gates of the civilised world. For Steyn, however, only one faith, Islam, is worth worrying about because it remains the only major religion with an avowed partiality for violent conquest. Like Harrison, Steyn is unapologetic in pushing his revealed truths, but he is not fair. Balance is not the operating principle of America Alone, unless it's deployed to comic effect.

``Yes, yes I know Islam is very varied,'' he concedes at one point, ``and Riyadh has a vibrant gay scene, and the Khartoum Feminist Publishing Collective now has so many members they've rented lavish offices above the clitorectomy clinic.''

Steyn is less a disinterested academic than a wild-eyed prophet with a story to sell, that story being the death of European civilisation from the combined effects of cultural ennui and the rise of an aggressive, confident successor population, the radical Muslims of Londonistan and Eurabia. The Canadian author is infinitely more entertaining to read than Harrison, being one of the funniest commentators working the mainstream media but, oddly, reading him is also more dispiriting.

As witty and even savagely humorous as he can be, Steyn is at heart a pessimist. His task is to awaken readers to what he sees as an inevitable disaster, with all of the medieval bloodletting and horror that Europe thought itself beyond. Unlike Harrison, he doesn't see radical Islam as a culture that is amenable to reform, in the same way, for example, that Kemal Attaturk built the modern, secular Turkish state on the bones of the Ottoman Empire.

Indeed, if anyone needs reforming in Steyn's opinion it is the weak, flabby, intellectually bankrupt citizens of countries such as France, who have neither the will nor desire to rouse themselves from the mass grave they've stumbled into. They will not even acknowledge there is a problem, preferring to characterise the intifada in France towards the end of 2005 as being nothing more than the work of disaffected ``youths''.

When Steyn pointed out the media's reluctance to identify the rioters as Muslim, he was flooded with emails arguing ``there is no Islamist component, they're not the madrassa crowd, they may be Muslim but they're secular and Westernised and into drugs and rap and meaningless sex with no emotional commitment, and rioting and looting and torching and trashing just like any healthy Western teenagers''.

He replied generally that given the demographic destiny of France was already settled, one day the rioting ``youths'' would be on the beach at St Tropez, ``and if you and your infidel whore happen to be lying there wearing nothing but two coats of Ambre Solaire when they show up, you better hope that the BBC and CNN are right about there being no religio-ethno-cultural component to their `grievances'''.

As different as they are in execution and intent, these two books do attack the same shibboleth of multiculturalism, Harrison's implicitly, Steyn's explicitly. For the latter writer extreme multicultural policy is a yawning breach in the castle wall through which our enemies will charge. Steyn isn't silly enough to foretell of a new caliph, riding at the head of a vast army and sweeping across the plains of Europe. But he does see the possibility of a new caliphate stretching from Iberia to Arabia in a couple of generations, as demographic trends play out and old, Christian, rationalist Europe simply lies down and dies.

Harrison, on the other hand, is less alarmist, but no less willing to compromise on the idea that to succeed, some cultures must change so fundamentally that they would no longer be recognisable to their current inhabitants. It might be to outsiders, perhaps, who see exotic culture in terms of funny headdress or interesting little restaurants, but not to those who see themselves as keepers of the faith.

One of the strengths of the West, as widely defined, including even those Catholic countries with which Harrison finds fault, is that they remain open systems. Even Ireland, whose people were suffered to backwardness for centuries by the influence of the church, has drawn on countervailing Western cultural strengths, such as rationality and openness to critique, and has reformed. In the process the Irish have grown much wealthier but more tellingly, they have also become more confident, and no longer export their children around the world.

It may be that the assault on extreme multiculturalism, as personified by academics such as Shweder, has moved on from cultural warriors such as Steyn or the phalanx of reactionary opinionistas in this country who share his views but not his skill in expressing them. It may be that after 9/11 the true professionals have moved in on this debate, people such as Harrison and his researchers, whose work involves much more than cheap and obvious and very funny shots at easy targets like Shiek Taj Din al-Hilali.

For as tough as Steyn talks, or quips, it is professionals such as Harrison who will redefine the debate over multiculturalism, shining a hot, bright spotlight on its many faults as well as its demonstrated benefits.

The above article appeared in "The Australian" on April 5, 2007

U.K.: Prolonged daycare harms young kids

Children in full-time nursery care are more likely to display antisocial tendencies and anxiety than those who stay at home or attend part-time, a government study has found. An evaluation of a 370 million pound government neighbourhood nurseries scheme found that toddlers spending more than seven hours a day in daycare were more prone to be bossy, tease other children, stamp their feet, obstruct other playmates and get anxious when toys or refreshments were being handed round. The research, from the University of Oxford and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has reignited the debate on whether overexposure to formal childcare is bad for children, and is likely to spark fresh concerns over whether government pressure on new parents to return to work is eroding family life.

The results coincided yesterday with a warning from teachers that children were in danger of becoming institutionalised as a result of government plans to offer "wraparound" daycare that would allow pupils to spend 50 hours a week in school. Under the Government's "extended services" agenda, all schools will have to open from 8am to 6pm to give state school pupils the same opportunities as those in the private sector.

Cecily Hanlon, a nursery level teacher from Leeds, questioned whether the policy was alienating children from their families. "It is possible to access full daycare from the age of three months and then spend most of childhood there," she told the annual conference of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in Bournemouth. "Will the extended schools agenda and the increasing provision of holiday pay schemes further erode family ties? Are parents being led to believe that the best thing for their children is to be in peer groups looked after by other people?"

Richard Martin, of Invicta Grammar School in Leeds, said the debate was not about criticising working parents. He supported a motion passed by the conference calling for more research on the effects of the Government's extended services policies. "It does worry me when you hear stories of infants of only a few months being cared for in a nursery for ten hours a day, five days a week, 48 weeks a year," he said. Shirley Crowther, of Sowerby village Church of England primary school in Calderdale, West Yorkshire, was concerned about the pressure on parents to use wraparound childcare. "It's the parents who should be wrapping their children in their loving arms and not expect other people to do it for them," she said.

But Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, said that it was "ludicrous" to suggest that mothers were harming their children by going to work. Expanding childcare provision and subsidies was a way of ensuring that children from deprived backgrounds got the best start in life, he said. He did not accept that all mothers should stay at home to look after their children and said that two years of good early care could boost development by up to six months at the age of 5. "What we are trying to do is to ensure that parents, mothers in particular, have a choice . . . and have an opportunity to combine their professional life with other commitments," he said.

There has been a long line of reports suggesting that children who spend a long time in daycare are more likely to show behavioural problems. The latest study, led by Kathy Sylva and Sandra Mathers at the University of Oxford, examined 810 children in 100 neighbourhood nurseries and identified a "tipping point" in time spent at daycare for behavioural issues. Children who attended for 30 hours or more a week were rated as more antisocial, while children who attended for 35 hours or more displayed more worried and upset behaviour.

The report said that putting toddlers in mixed age groups was upsetting for the emotional adjustment of those aged under 3®. Teresa Smith, one of the report's principal researchers, said that parents should not be too anxious about the findings as there were some positives. Children who spent a long time in daycare tended to be more confident and sociable.


British "safety" fanaticism hurting kids

Hobby clubs have become victims of "heavy-handed" child protection rules, according to a report that has found that many are now closing their doors to young people. Some of the most popular clubs in Britain, which teach adults and children to fly model aeroplanes or climb mountains, routinely tell all under18s that they must be accompanied by a parent if they want to attend. They are also running out of volunteers prepared to coach younger people because of the mountain of checks and paper-work that are now required.

The research was conducted by the Manifesto Club, a group that campaigns against red tape, which examined how Britain's 780 model-aircraft clubs were coping with new child protection laws. Josie Appleton, author of the report, said that most of the clubs would not now allow children to attend without a parent in tow, and that this had led to a collapse in attendance among under-18s. "Clubs reported that the number of under18s attending has plummeted from about ten or twenty to one or two, or even none, following their decision to require parents to come too," Ms Appleton said. She said that the Government could not possibly achieve its ambition of getting more teenagers to join sports and hobby clubs unless it changed child protection laws.

The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, which comes into force next year, requires hobby clubs to conduct Criminal Records Bureau checks on all coaches and volunteers, or face a fine of 5,000 pounds. They must also appoint a child welfare officer, who must be trained for the role. Coaches must complete forms on why they wish to work with children and provide two written references from "persons of responsibility" that must then be checked.

John Bridgett, a member of the Retford Model Flying Club in Nottinghamshire, said that almost all the under-18s had left his club. "Due to the ridiculous situation now, not only must parents remain with their children but they too must join as a member of our flying club," he said. "The net result is that junior membership has declined from fifteen down to one over a two-year period." Stuart McFarlane, the chairman of a flying club in Shropshire, said that no one was prepared to allow criminal-record checks, "hardly surprising when we discovered that the CRB had made a few mistakes and wrongly labelled people". He also said that no one was prepared to become a child welfare officer.

Ms Appleton said that although her research concentrated on model-aircraft clubs, other clubs were complaining bitterly. Young mountaineers, for example, were finding it difficult to find adults to accompany them on expeditions. Cameron McNeish, editor of The Great Outdoors magazine, said that it was virtually impossible to find volunteers to take young people mountaineering. "How do young people get experience of winter routes to-day? When I was a kid you joined a club and there was always someone who was willing to take young people out. Clubs don't do that any more as they are scared of the litigation and paedophilia angle."

The Manifesto Club started to examine the impact that the laws were having on hobby clubs after it was contacted by a number of model-aircraft flyers. "Over two or three years child protection policies have meant that flying clubs have closed their doors to children," the report concluded. "As clubs keep children out, and adults become wary of helping them, young people are deprived of experiences that would help them develop into adults."



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For times when is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here.


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