Western Culture Is So Wonderful

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Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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  1. Avatar Alex Knapp
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    says:

    Isn’t Islam part of the West?Report

  2. Avatar Pat Cahalan
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    says:

    > “Logically, it has to be one of the three. You don’t get
    > any other choices.”

    No, it doesn’t. But the rest of the dialogue is amusing 🙂Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Pat Cahalan
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      says:

      @Pat Cahalan,

      Not sure I follow. I’m taking it as a given that comparison is possible, and that “I don’t know” is off the table. Were those what you had in mind?Report

      • Avatar BJ in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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        says:

        @Jason Kuznicki,

        Jason, why is “I don’t know” off the table? Couldn’t a reasonable response be that given one’s own cultural indoctrination they recognize that they are not epistemically positioned to be able to adequately judge which culture would, on par, be better? That seems like a perfectly valid response to my lights, and it may even be correct. But it’s certainly at least an option, right? What am I missing?Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to BJ
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          says:

          @BJ,

          “I don’t know” is off the table because even someone who doesn’t know still has to decide. In that sense, it’s functionally equivalent to “they are the same.”

          Also, I don’t believe in it or find it a terribly interesting choice. Would I be happier as a Muslim? Absolutely not. Could an all-powerful God alter my dispositions and habits of mind until I were happy as a Muslim? Of course. But we may freely doubt, and I do, that that person would still be me. I’m a secular westerner. I can hardly think of myself as anything else.Report

          • Avatar Alex Knapp in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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            says:

            @Jason Kuznicki,

            Ah, but there wouldn’t BE a secular West without Islam. Locke was influenced by Averroes and other Islamic Legal theorists who argued for legal equality between the sexes and religious freedom.

            Western science wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Avicenna and al-Jabir.

            It was Muslim scholars who rescued and translated Greek and Roman philosophic, mathematic and scientific texts, enabling them to be re-introduced to the Western world.

            It was Muslim traders who opened up routes with China and led to Europe’s awareness of Chinese goods such as spices, silk, and gunpowder.

            The history of the secular West begins with Islam.Report

            • Avatar Elvis Elvisberg in reply to Alex Knapp
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              says:

              @Alex Knapp,

              I think this is pretty astute. I am pretty glad to live in Christendom circa 21st century. I also recognize that, given Europe’s status as a backwater for about 1000 years after the rise of Christianity, there’s nothing inherent to Christianity, or Islam, or Confucism, or _______, that makes either inherently superior.

              And it’s juvenile and counterproductive to run around talking about how one’s culture is “superior” to others. I mean, in the US, we have the predominant ethnicity up in arms in large part because of a health insurance reform policy that that ethnicity’s party supported up until a couple years ago! Tribalism being what it is, it does little good to poke people in the eye by calling them inferior, in lieu of reasoned point-by-point argumentation.Report

            • Avatar jacobus in reply to Alex Knapp
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              says:

              @Alex Knapp,

              “It was Muslim scholars who rescued and translated Greek and Roman philosophic, mathematic and scientific texts, enabling them to be re-introduced to the Western world.”

              The “Muslims” (whoever they are) get far too much credit for this. The best thing the Muslims ever did to bring ancient texts to the West was to invade Egypt, Anatolia, and the Levant forcing hundreds of Greek-speaking Byzantine scholars into exile in Italy.Report

      • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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        says:

        @Jason Kuznicki,

        I don’t necessarily agree with your given (that a comparison is possible).

        I can state that certain aspects of a particular belief system are bad… but in order for the two of us to have an agreement, when comparing two different particular belief systems, we both have to agree on a ratio method of ranking each different aspect of both belief systems, so that we can sum up a “total bad” vs. “total good” measure.

        I don’t think you can measure this sort of thing with that level of precision. Ordinal is about the best you’re going to get.

        I can say, “I prefer Hinduism to Islam”, but that doesn’t mean objectively that Hinduism is “better”.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Pat Cahalan
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          says:

          @Pat Cahalan, can we do the same with abortion rights?

          Can we say that we prefer freedom of choice to the pro-life position but then go on to say, hey, one isn’t objectively “better” than the other?

          How about the whole debate over women learning to read?Report

          • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Jaybird
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            says:

            @Jaybird,

            “Can we say that we prefer freedom of choice to the pro-life position but then go on to say, hey, one isn’t objectively “better” than the other?”

            That seems to be a difficult prospect for about 3/4 of the country to swallow. I don’t necessarily have a problem with it myself. Two principles in tension can both be pretty good principles, overall, when taken as principles in a vacuum, it’s where they are in tension that we have to choose one over the other. That doesn’t necessarily have to make it “better”. I might choose the freedom of choice over the pro-life position, but choose the pro-life position over a victim’s right’s position when it comes to the death penalty. That, also, doesn’t make freedom of choice “better” than the death penalty. No ratio interval, no transitive property.

            “How about the whole debate over women learning to read?”

            This is one that I can state is outright bad; but I have as an operating axiom that self-education is across all populations a qualitative good. Along with genital mutilation and a host of other independent factors in many other societies (and, to be fair, in our own as well), banning a group from access to knowledge seems of little purpose except to aggregate power in the hands of the not-group. What I’m not comfortable with is then sitting down and saying, “See, America is so much more awesomer than these other guys because we don’t do that, and they do.”

            Because we do plenty of horrible shit, too. We can cast a judgment on a process without (erroneously) generalizing it to a judgment on a whole society.Report

      • Avatar Jay Daniel in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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        says:

        @Jason Kuznicki,
        Comparison is possible, but I think when asked such a question, it is particularly important that one state his criteria for comparison. If I say Cheddar is better than Velveeta, but the sole criteria driving my cheese preferences is superior melting ability, I might not get a job as a food critic.

        I say this as someone who thinks western culture is superior to Islam. However, I am aware that my “higher order” values and preferences are both self-referential (as a secular westerner) and also not shared by much of humanity.

        all THAT being said, I’m perfectly comfortable saying as a secular westerner that I believe western culture is superior to Islam, and based on that belief, I am willing to expend some significant amount of effort/energy to preserve western culture — particularly the increasingly secular sphere within it.Report

  3. Avatar gregiank
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    says:

    Thinking what you like is better isn’t bigotry. Thinking people who don’t agree with what you like are therefor all less human, less deserving of decent treatment and can be globally judged by one aspect of themselves is bigotry.Report

  4. Avatar E.C. Gach
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    says:

    Two things seem reasonable. First, when saying one prefers Western “culture” to Islamic “culture,” it seems to imply that one must either wholesale reject/accept the other. What makes more sense is to say, principle/value/characteristic X associated with a given culture, I prefer/think is better/etc.

    Second, while objective evaluation is hard, no matter what culture we are born into, we are all bound by the natural laws that seem to guide action on this planet and in this universe. With measurable phenomona as a shared reference point, we can agree medically/scientifically and so on whether certain actions and attitudes lead to certain other outcomes.Report

  5. Avatar Will H.
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    says:

    This is really the issue of first generation immigrants.
    The first generation tries hard to adopt a new culture.
    About the third generation in, they start reaching back.

    And so it is with Islam.
    Same with ‘cafeteria Catholics.’
    When there’s no longer an issue of “How Islamic are you?” within a vibrant culture, those features are easily assimilated.
    The covenant itself is paramount.
    Whether your shoes or pointy or rounded is unable to move the covenant one way or the other.
    If you wear a sash rather than a belt, the covenant itself is the same.
    These items you name are not distinguishing features.Report

  6. Avatar Lyle
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    says:

    Which Islam are we speaking of the one in Grenada spain in the 10th century, the one in Constantinople in the 18th or the one in Saudi Arabia today? Those are three different societies. In the 10 century the Jews had it best in Grenada, and I suspect that in the 18th century the Jews had it better in the Ottoman Empire than in West Europe. (Recall the people of the book concept). If you talk of todays Saudi or Iranian point of view its a completlye different matter. Just like comparing Mass in the 17th century to Europe today.Report

    • Avatar Lyle in reply to Lyle
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      says:

      @Lyle, By Mass I meant the state in New England.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Lyle
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      says:

      @Lyle, In general terms I agree with what you’re saying, but in Grenada it somewhat depended on who was in charge. The quality of governance in Islamic states has tended to vary widely, and often depending on the rulers in question. For instance, compare Akbar the Great to the other Mughal Emperors (or even Akbar as a young man).

      The Ottomans, to be most honest, tended towards the “divide-and-rule” method, and were really more pragmatic than loyal to any religious group under them. To some, this is taken as pluralism, but it was really more that they just wanted to collect their taxes and keep down anti-Turk revolts.

      But, indeed, European Jews often found the Turks easier to live under than the Christian Kings. A fascinating example is Salonika, where Jews nearly became the majority population under the Ottomans and after, before being nearly wiped out when the Nazis invaded.

      We tend not to like empires and imperialism, but comparing the Ottoman Empire to some of the “nation-states” that came out of it suggests that one benefit to them is that they require obediance from heterogeneous subjects, instead of demanding assimilation to a homogeneous majority “nation”.Report

      • Avatar Lyle in reply to Rufus F.
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        says:

        @Rufus F., Indeed, just like what keep Yugoslavia together was fear of Tito, once he left the scene the country fell apart. Iraq is going the same way. Countries without national identities seem to need strongmen to keep them from flying apart.Report

  7. Avatar Christopher Carr
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    says:

    Isn’t that essentially the same criticism leveled against Rawls’s veil of ignorance; that forcing us to choose would require depriving us of so much information about ourselves that we cease to be capable of rationality?

    As an American living in and writing about Japan, speaking Japanese in my daily life (outside of comments at the League and posts on my own site basically) with a Japanese wife and stepson and two young daughters of mixed ethnicity, this question is near and dear to my heart.

    For practical reasons, my wife and I have decided to continue our lives in America and not in Japan: as parents, we’re not really making this choice for ourselves so much as we’re making it for our children. I can earn more money in America, and, frankly the Japanese school system is a nightmare. I would probably allow my children to enlist in the military before sending them to public schools in Japan. The third principle reason why we’ve chosen America over Japan is because children of mixed ethnicity are seen as “foreigners” in Japan, whereas children of mixed ethnicity in America are, well, every American.

    I think it is this sort of subjective practicality and not “the specialness of America and her journey” that brings most immigrants to the United States; the promise of material prosperity, a wide range of opportunities and choice; cultural and ethnic plurality. Those things are special and must be protected for our country to remain objectively great.

    That being said, there are some aspects of Japanese culture (and I’m sure any culture) which are objectively superior to American culture. If you leave your wallet in a bar in Japan, it will be there the next day (if someone doesn’t bring it to your house first) with all the cash still inside; there is little to no chance of ever getting into a fight or even a shouting match with anyone for any reason – if there is an incident, people fall all over themselves to take personal responsibility for their part in whatever misunderstanding occurred; and perhaps most importantly, I can buy beer whenever I want, sit on a park bench, and drink it without anyone disapproving let alone being ticketed and/or arrested. I will never ever receive bad service anywhere.

    Of course there are objectively bad things too: bullying is not only tolerated but encouraged in some places; Japanese women are effectively barred from anything but motherhood (minus a few politicians and professionals); conformity is centrally mandated and the system is crumbling; even daily life requires a convoluted shitstorm of certificates and permits; not working or studying way way past the margins of reasonable returns is seen as shameless laziness; people are generally abandoned by all when it is not convenient to help them. (This list excludes the problems that I face uniquely as a foreigner. And the treatment I get as a white foreigner from the United States is infinitely better than the treatment received by ethnic Chinese and Koreans living in Japan.)

    Ultimately it seems like the essential difference between the two cultures is that America values “freedom”; Japan values “peace” (kind of a bad translation for the Japanese term “heiwa”, but it’s the best I can think of right now). That isn’t to say that America doesn’t value peace and Japan doesn’t value freedom; it is merely to say that when the two are in conflict, American culture chooses freedom and Japanese culture chooses peace.

    I couldn’t imagine many Americans choosing to tolerate a bully or to see following the crowd for its own sake as a virtue, but that is exactly what Japanese norms proscribe. That is to say, I couldn’t imagine many Americans choosing Japanese norms over those they were taught as children and still value as adults. Conversely, I couldn’t imagine many Japanese accepting American norms like the toleration of wasteful behavior, a general sloppiness or impatience when it comes to activities not considered essential to certain desired ends, or religious imperialism especially.

    Essentially, I think the bigoted aspect of this debate lies in not seeing the conflict as a conflict of values, but as a conflict of races and their works. I can say that I believe freedom is a superior value to peace. In that sense, since I’ve explained how I interpret the question, I can say that America is superior without being bigoted. But if I’m talking about some sort of undefined, amorphous aggregate of the whole, it’s difficult to make any sort of logical judgment at all without coming across as glib, unthinking and reflexive. In that case, I can be nothing but bigoted.Report

  8. Avatar Rufus F.
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    says:

    Okay, I know this is a (cough) somewhat controversial opinion, but having studied the topic for the last few years (it’s mildly dissertation-related) I’m really starting to see Islam as belonging to western culture.Report

    • Avatar Transplanted Lawyer in reply to Rufus F.
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      says:

      @Rufus F., of course it is. Islam is monotheistic and within the Abrahamic tradition, same as Judaism or Christianity. The bulk of its moral commandments parallel those found in holy books of the other two western monotheistic traditions. Like Judaism and Christianity, its holy books and traditions represent a snapshot of a culture in the time and place of the religion’s founding; like Judaism and Christianity, it has some scholars and clerics who strive to extract timeless principles from those ancient words and apply them to the modern world, who conflict with the louder and more visible fanatics who insist on the literal truth of the ancient holy books. Like the other monotheistic religions, it purports to provide comprehensive rules for life and lends itself to the assistance of clever political leaders while demanding exclusive adherence to its tenets and beliefs.

      Compare this to the non-exclusive nature of Eastern religious beliefs such as Hinduism, Taoism, or Buddhism; the incompatibility of the focus on inner life and mystical experience with the exercise of political power and legalism inherent in those Eastern religious traditions; and the explicit rejection of literalism permeating scholarly and monastic examination of those manners of thought.

      My guess is that you’ve covered all this, and more, in your dissertation. And probably in greater depth. I’m just saying, I feel you on this one.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Transplanted Lawyer
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        @Transplanted Lawyer, Well, I sort of don’t need to cover it in the dissertaion. I just needed to learn Islamic history in some depth. Incidentally, if anyone would like to learn Islamic history in an easily-accessible form, Karen Armstrong’s “Islam, a Short History” is a good, quick read.

        And part of that history is exactly what you’re talking about. The Mediterranean was always an exchange route- sort of a large switchboard in which cultures flowed freely, especially among merchants, in spite of all the wars. (Sometimes because of them) An example of this would be Herdotus’s claim (which I don’t buy actually) that the Greek gods were imports from Egypt. Of course, consider that Saint Augustine was a Berber whose parents found Christ in North Africa, while he had to go to Italy and back. Anyway, just compare this sort of acculturation to religions like Taoism that really did develop in isolation from Europe, and it’s hard to buy the “east-vs-west” narrative of Islam.

        Besides, something that many Muslims like to forget is that, without Judaism, there would be no Islam. Muhammad is trying, in my opinion, to import what he knows of the Jewish and Christian traditions to the Arabian Penninsula. And that’s exactly how the Quran reads- like someone who has heard preaching from Jews and Christians and is trying to recall what he’s heard. I think this attempt at importing “foreign” ideas explains some of the vehemence he experienced from the “pagan” tribes in Mecca. Meanwhile, I think he fully expected the few Jews there to support him, which explains some of his own vehemence against the Jewish tribe that attacked and was, subsequently, wiped out by his followers.

        After that, it was 15 centuries of these monotheistic communities borrowing freely from each other, while warring and pretending to be each other’s antithesis. The perfect example of this borrowing, of course, is Aristotle, who we can still read today mainly because the Arabs wanted to read him when Christian Europe did not. Crazy as it sounds now, part of the radicaliasm of Aquinas was his love for Aristotle who had just recently been “imported” from the Arabs.

        Maybe an uglier example would be Islamic radicalism, which owes much more than anyone wants to admit to European ideas- not just fascist, although that too, but also left-bank anticolonialism.Report

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