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.
The tactic of targeting individuals who criticise Islam has been very effective in Holland. In early 2005, the Dutch law professor and newspaper columnist Paul Cliteur announced he would no longer write or speak in public because of death threats to his wife and children. For similar reasons, the former Iranian academic and newspaper writer, Afshin Ellian, who lectures at the University of Leiden, now has a bodyguard accompanying him on campus at all times. Every morning the building where he teaches is swept by security services.
This personal terrorism affects not just those directly under threat, but all writers and intellectuals. Most are unable to afford the security costs and the state cannot protect them all. The result is that they are silenced by self-censorship.
This is why the debate over the Danish cartoons is so important. To date, the response has been mixed. Newspapers in Norway, Germany, France, New Zealand and Australia have reproduced the cartoons in defiance of the violence that has been perpetrated in Middle Eastern countries and threatened in many Western countries by crowds with signs such as: “Slay those who insult Islam.” “Butcher those who mock Islam.” and “Be prepared for the real holocaust.”
But many Western politicians have urged appeasement. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said: “The republication of these cartoons has been unnecessary, it has been insensitive, it has been disrespectful and it has been wrong.” In New Zealand, Prime Minister Helen Clark accused the newspapers involved of “bad manners”. In Australia, Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock urged newspapers not to act “gratuitously with a view to try and provoke a response”.
The real problem here was not the Western newspapers who published the cartoons but the Islamic response to them. Our political leaders did not blame the latter but turned the responsibility onto ourselves. Enclosed by a mindset of cultural relativism, most Westerners are loath to censure Muslims who go on violent rampages, burn down embassies and threaten death to their fellow citizens. Many of us regard this as somehow understandable, even acceptable, since we have no right to judge another religion and culture.
The truth is that the riots, the arson, the death threats were not spontaneous outbursts from passionate religious believers but were carefully stage-managed by Muslim leaders. The imams of the Danish Muslim community consciously ignited the response some four months after the cartoons were published. They travelled to the Middle East where they generated support for a campaign quite deliberately targeted at Western culture’s principle of freedom of expression.
Their real aim is not religious respect but cultural change in the West. They want to prevent criticism of its Muslim minority and accord that group special privilege not available to the faithful of other religions. Instead of them changing to integrate into our way of life, they want to force us to change to accept their way of life.
Muslim rage over the cartoons is not an isolated issue that would have been confined to Denmark and would have gone away if nobody had republished them. It is simply one more step in a campaign that has already included assassination, death threats and the curtailment of criticism. And our response, yet again, has been one more white flag in the surrender of Western cultural values that we have been making since Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie in 1989.
The Western concept of freedom of speech is not an absolute. The limits that should be imposed by good taste, social responsibility and respect for others will always be a matter for debate. But this is a debate that needs to be conducted within Western culture, not imposed on it from outside by threats of death and violence by those who want to put an end to all free debate.
The concepts of free enquiry and free expression and the right to criticise entrenched beliefs are things we take so much for granted they are almost part of the air we breathe. We need to recognise them as distinctly Western phenomena. They were never produced by Confucian or Hindu culture. Under Islam, the idea of objective inquiry had a brief life in the fourteenth century but was never heard of again. In the twentieth century, the first thing that every single communist government in the world did was suppress it.
But without this concept, the world would not be as it is today. There would have been no Copernicus, Galileo, Newton or Darwin. All of these thinkers profoundly offended the conventional wisdom of their day, and at great personal risk, in some cases to their lives but in all cases to their reputations and careers. But because they inherited a culture that valued free inquiry and free expression, it gave them the strength to continue.
Today, we live in an age of barbarism and decadence. There are barbarians outside the walls who want to destroy us and there is a decadent culture within. We are only getting what we deserve. The relentless critique of the West which has engaged our academic left and cultural elite since the 1960s has emboldened our adversaries and at the same time sapped our will to resist.
The consequences of this adversary culture are all around us. The way to oppose it, however, is less clear. The survival of the Western principles of free inquiry and free expression now depend entirely on whether we have the intelligence to understand their true value and the will to face down their enemies.
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