Is western civilization worth defending?

The science, culture and philosophy of the West have been embraced around the world. And millions still flock to our shores

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“An anthropologist is someone who respects the distinctive values of every culture but his own. We in the West are all anthropologists now.”

– Roger Kimball, The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of America

Soon after arriving at McGill University in 1968 from a year of ethnographic field research in Iran, I met an intelligent and sincere young man, an anthropology student, who told me that North American culture was the most corrupt culture in the world.

I asked him where else had he been in the world, where presumably he had found less corrupt cultures. He said he had not been anyplace else, perhaps taking my point that he didn’t really have evidence for a comparative judgment.

Our ‘counterculture’ cultural revolution of the 1960s was formative, and has set the tone for social criticism and condemnation ever since. Reverse ethnocentrism, rejection of one’s own people, country or culture, has ever since been the rule of the land, at least in universities and among self-appointed intellectuals and cultural critics.

In the subsequent half century, rebellious students have themselves become teachers, professors, journalists, lawyers, legislators and judges. That means that many among our elite assume negative judgments against our heritage cultures, and strive to counter and block our traditional principles and institutions.

Before exploring the criticisms that purportedly justify a condemnation of the West, let’s examine some of the contributions of the West to the world.

The European Enlightenment expanded the realm of knowledge from sacred texts and traditional understanding through the application of human senses of observation to gather new information about the world. The human senses were extended through the technological innovations of telescopes and microscopes. New working assumptions, such as the hypothesis that the phenomena of nature operated according to natural laws and were constant through history, contributed to the development of empirical and theoretical science.

Observation and experimentation provided a new basis for scientific knowledge, stimulating technological innovation. The social corollary was that knowledge had become open to criticism and disputation, theories and hypotheses had to be tested by evidence. Contrary positions were no longer heresy, but important parts of scientific debate.

Science invented in the West has become universal science.

During the 18th century, western European countries, especially England, made innovations and inventions that transformed economic production. During the first half of the 18th century, there was an agricultural revolution based on a scientific approach to cultivation and rearing livestock. The second half of the century saw the industrial revolution based on steam engines and factories, the initiation of mass production.

These innovations and inventions were the West’s gift to the world. They have been borrowed, adopted and adapted by countries and cultures around the world.

One consequence of the agricultural and industrial revolutions was that is was now cheaper and easier to produce things than it was to take them from other people, as had been the case throughout most of history. For example, slave labour was no longer necessary to produce a surplus, and England banned the slave trade at the beginning of the 19th century.

Industrial development was made possible by capitalism.

Civil and human rights in state societies are inventions of the West. Individuals are no longer subjects of the ruling authority, but are citizens with rights. The institutions of modern Western governments are democratic, with legislatures and many executives, and in some cases judges, elected in popular elections.

The civil rights of equality before the law and of having a voice in one’s government are complemented by the human rights of free speech and conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of movement, freedom of choice in marriage, and the many other basic rights set out by the United Nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Western literature, art, music and architecture have been borrowed by countries and cultures around the world.

Western universities overwhelmingly remain the top educational institutions in the world, as demonstrated annually by the various ranking systems.

Yet the West is accused by critics among its own people of many sins: imperialism, class oppression, sexism, racism, slavery and religious intolerance.

The dominant theory today among university social sciences and humanities professors is called “postcolonial theory.” It argues that the world was a peaceful and egalitarian place with people mixing beneficently and happily until the evil imperialists from Europe – the British, French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese – invaded the peaceful peoples of the world, murdering some and exploiting the remainder. Allegedly, cultural institutions of the wider world, such as castes in India and tribes in North America, the Middle East and Africa, were invented and imposed upon luckless conquered populations in order to divide them so they couldn’t resist the ruthless western imperialists.

This make-believe postcolonial theory is based on a wilful blindness to the facts of history. Imperialism was a major phenomenon of world history for millennia prior to the venturing forth of the Europeans in the 16th century.

So the impression that postcolonialists wish to impart, that imperialism was uniquely a product of the West, that western imperialism was uniquely evil, and that it corrupted through violence and imposition a peaceful and happy world, has no basis in historical reality.

Postcolonialism exhibits a double standard: the West is condemned for its imperialism, but Asian, African, and pre-Columbian American (Aztec and Inka) empires are ignored. This theory also offers a racism of low expectations in describing non-Western cultures and societies solely as victims, lacking in their own agency, subject only to the will of their Western conquerors. Postmodernism is false history.

The West is also condemned as a slaving society. Of course, slaving around the world predated western involvement in the Atlantic slave trade. It was common in virtually all ancient societies.

Capitalism is, of course, the main target of anti-western critics. Its sin is unequal distribution of wealth, which violates the utopian idea of equal economic outcomes for all. This extreme idea of economic equality authorizes the condemnation of the wealthy, whether or not these people are wealthy because they’ve earned their income. Critics, inspired by Marxism, regard capitalism as based on class exploitation, rather than upon the efforts of individuals and the risks that they take.

Critics favour the redistribution of wealth, without considering the production of this wealth. Advocates of socialism abound in the West, yet what we know of socialism in the real world, as opposed to utopian fantasies, is the socialism of the U.S.S.R., Mao’s China, Cuba, North Korea and today’s Venezuela, and the picture is one of scarcity of goods and poverty in the context of political despotism.

In fact, the capitalist countries have the highest earned standard of living in the world, and the average person with a modern house with running water, sanitation, and appliances, and multiple high horsepower vehicles, has a standard of living not dreamed of by kings and queens a few hundred years ago.

Western Civilization is also bitterly and continually condemned for patriarchy, the authority and power of men to control women. Yet it is in the West that feminists have successfully claimed their rights, where gender equality is a dominant value, and increasingly institutionalized. Even as they condemn the West for anti-female sexism, they close their eyes to the continued and systematic oppression and violation of women elsewhere, in the Middle East, South and East Asia, and Africa, far beyond anything seen in the West.

Where does the anti-West double standard come from?

The refusal to criticize other societies and cultures for things that only the West is criticized for doing is the result of cultural relativism.

In fact, everyone judges others by their own values. This is true of all individuals and also true of all cultures.

Western literature, art, music, and architecture are disregarded on feminist and racial grounds. That the awesome accomplishments of western scientists, philosophers, writers, and artists are dismissed on sex and racial grounds is more a commentary on those criticizing than on western culture. These anti-western judgments on the basis of sex and race are deeply illiberal.

The treatment of human beings as members of categories, rather than complex individuals, is inhumane and a common cause of atrocities. This is very backward thinking.

Ibn Warraq, an escapee from the Islamic world, has written a book entitled Why the West is Best. For centuries, immigrants have flowed to the West, escaping from Asia and Africa. Those are real life choices, often entailing great effort, discomfort and risk. Immigrants to Canada and the U.S. in past centuries assimilated to western culture, striving to become Canadians and Americans.

What does that tell us about whether western civilization is worth defending?

Philip Carl Salzman is a professor of Anthropology at McGill University and a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.


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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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