January 30, 2005
Growing up in a family that valued radicalism and so-called free thought, my impression of the West was that it was a fairly pluralistic place, where the proverbial thousand flowers bloomed. That changed a bit when I became a Christian at 13. As my faith developed, I became more and more aware of the common assumptions that secular post-enlightenment societies share, but, all the same, I did have a sense of a great diversity of views around me.
More recently, when I was doing my doctorate at Oxford University, I began to reassess this view. I wondered whether it might be possible to describe Westerners (at least young ‘up and coming’ ones) as having a fairly tight set of core values. This conviction grew after I had three experiences.
Experience Number One, the style of debating at the Oxford Union, which is the student debating society, left a marked impression on me. Many students seemed to be concerned only with political implications of issues, and appeals to morality, in so far as there were any, tended to draw their legitimacy from international law or human rights. Asking questions about the basis for these laws and rights was just impossible. I had expected that my own Christian opinions would not be welcome, but I had not realized just how narrow the scope of much of the debating was.
In the end, I approached one of the leaders of the Union, after dark of course. He told me that most undergraduates arrive at Oxford with an uncritical espousal of democracy and Free-market Liberalism (what is called Economic Rationalism in Australia).
For Experience Number Two, I had a chance meeting with a senior figure in European Buddhism as we travelled together on a bus from Heathrow to Oxford. As he spoke, I was intrigued at how secular he appeared: one cherished Buddhist belief after another was tossed aside as he explained his attempts to get the most worthy human rights and values out of this religion without being ensnared by anything remotely other-worldly. Eventually, I put it to him that he was a secular humanist who just used Buddhism to provide some kind of ethical anchor. He immediately agreed with this. I began to feel a sense of deja vu. The narrow set of values of the 20-something year-old Oxford rhetoricians seemed to be marching on other, older world views by completely re-defining their central concerns.
Finally, September 11, which occurred two days before I handed in my thesis, provided my Experience Number Three. S9/11 has led to a growing questioning of how the West stands in relation to other cultures, but the taxonomy of cultures has not really caught up. I am reminded of Sartre’s novel Nausea, where the anti-hero, Roquentin, in a moment of existential angst, cannot get the words to stick to seats anymore:
Things have broken free from their names, they are there, grotesque, stubborn, gigantic, and it seems ridiculous to call them seats or say anything about them: I am in the midst of Things, which cannot be given names. Alone, wordless, defenceless, they surround me, under me behind me, above me.
In the post September 11 environment labels like ‘right’ and ‘left’ seem to hang limp off their targets, and then fall off. Is it possible to find new ways of describing the cultural distinctiveness of the West?
I take as my starting point the observation of the Oxford Union Leader that the cohort of people arriving at university are pro-democratic and market driven. Whatever may be said of Western culture, it is certainly pro-democratic. The praises of democracy ring out everywhere. It is valued so highly that it is sometimes even possible to get away with appealing to it in an argument, as though the joy of unfettered expression was itself a logical point. For example, the US President often met critics prior to the Iraq war with the incisive ‘I love democracy’, as though that settled the issue. Now I do not wish to rubbish democracy; it is very successful at preventing a small minority oppressing the majority, and it allows all kinds of views to be aired without fear of reprisal. It seems that democracy, like good grammar, is a vehicle to clear communication. But imagine if an articulate critic of the Iraq war was met with the response ‘I love good grammar’. Would that have settled the issue any more effectively?
More fundamentally, democracy cannot shield us from what Stephen Boyden (ANU) has called cultural mal-adaptions. Presumably, a democratically elected ancient Chinese or Mayan government would have approved of foot-binding, and, human torture and sacrifice. Boyden believes that the whole Western world is at this time in the grip of ‘ever-more-ism’, with catastrophic environmental effects. If he is even partly correct, it is a tribute to the fact that something need not be true, just because all democratically-elected governments believe it.
But America plans to vigorously export democracy, as they are doing in Iraq as I write.
In the West, the organization of economic affairs has come to be governed by Free Market Liberalism. This extols the virtues of trading as many goods and services as possible in markets, thereby making the most of prices as signals.
But markets are only part of the story: the motives of individuals are important. A towering figure in the imagination of many an economic theorist, homo economicus, or Economic Man, is a fairly unpleasant fellow to have around. He is almost always thinking of himself, and when he does think of others there is a tantalizing ambiguity about his motives; some economists are exploring altruism in a meaningful way, while most others are busy debunking altruism as yet another example of enlightened self-interest.
The cultural effect of Economic Rationalism is on one level straightforward. To speak against selfishness is now simply viewed as misguided. When mediated by markets, selfishness is both good for society and good for the individual.
Adam Smith, the father of economics, long ago spoke of the providential way in which selfishness can turn out for good. Gordon Gecko’s famous “Greed is good” quote from Wall Street is admittedly crude, but it is not a bad paraphrase of how Smith is often understood. Some people, and some Christians, can put up with the economic way of thinking if selfishness is genuinely transformed into stewardship (i.e. using resources well so that one can serve), or if it mainly confined to the commercial world.
On the latter, Economic Man is no longer content to stay in the commercial world. Recently, he has been attempting to widen his sphere of influence. Following the work of Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker, he has decided to enter into the estate of marriage. The Becker research program has sought to explain marriage, the decision to have children, and the decision to divorce, using the tools of cost benefit analysis, and a market for so-called ‘marital goods’. One can only wish him well in his own marriage as the tantalizing ambiguity of his motives becomes clear to his wife, or wives.
So, to summarize the comments made by the Oxford Union leader, undergraduates arrive with more interest in the fact that the majority can decide things, than what that majority might actually decide. And, with a quiet confidence that selfishness is a positive virtue, at least when it is under the discipline of the market.
I myself think that there is more to generalize about Western Culture than this, but before I go onto that, I want to raise a puzzle.
Contrary to the impressions of many Muslims, Christianity is certainly out of fashion in the West, at least, the kind of Christianity that is not captive to the state. What is so puzzling about this is that, relative to the end of the C19th, a number of developments have made it a lot easier to argue for. As one philosopher put it, the battle to keep Christianity respected in the academy was fought, and lost, in the C19th.
At that time:
Many things could be debated at this point, but I want to pursue the idea that Christianity is unpopular because the West is preoccupied with other things, namely power and sex.
At the end of the Second World War, everyone was horrified at the images of the concentration camps. Those of a philosophical bent could not help noticing the inspiration that the Nazis drew from Nietzsche, and Der Ubermensch ‘the Overman’, the towering figure whose supremacy over other men was as decisive as the supremacy of humanity over animals. In a characteristically clear way, his longing for the evolutionary leap towards the Overman came hand-in-hand with his contempt for Christianity:
While it would be unfair to align his thoughts directly with the Nazi’s – his creative sister did much of the damage here—I think Christians would be comfortable saying they both listened to the same voice.
Nazi images are still with us today; while I stayed in the UK, the airplay of documentaries of the Second World War gave me the impression that I ought to be listening more carefully for air-raid sirens. But I think the Second World War is a powerful memory in popular culture everywhere in the West, providing a strong platform for the pursuit of human rights. Indeed the Charter of the UN was written partly with this in mind.
But Auschwitz was not the last image. Before long, in 1955, a collection of photographs was compiled under the glowingly optimistic title ‘the Family of Man’. Despite the innocent beauty of these images, it is hard to doubt there was an element of denial in the exhibition verse:
Christians are surprised by neither the Auschwitz images nor the beautiful family photos. They are used to affirming both the wonder of creation, and the tragedy of the fall. But how have these images been resolved in secular Western culture? I suspect that they have hardly been resolved at all. The only resolution one can point to is a kind of historical compromise coming out of a dialectic process. Nietzsche/Hitler was the thesis, the Allied victory in the Second World was the antithesis, but what is the synthesis?
Perhaps the synthesis could be described as post-Nazi or post-Nietzschean, because being post is not the same as being anti. For example, part of being post-modern is to lose faith in some of the things of the modern world (for example, the presumption of progress) while not losing faith in others (for example, the gadgets of science). In a similar way, the West is Post-Nazi or post-Nietzschean in the sense that it has lost faith in the militarism and genocide of the Nazis, but without giving the whole thing away.
First, there is the obsession with personal power and rights. We in the West love power talk. To improve the lot of any group is not to serve them (for that is patronizing) but to empower them. For a recent echo of Nietzsche, consider the ’48 Laws of Power’ by Greene and Elffers.
Second, the West still cherishes the vision of the Master Race, or the Overman. This cherished ideal surfaces in two key ways. First, there is the focus on medical perfectibility, physical beauty and sexual dexterity. Increasingly, genetic engineering, rather than death camps, holds out the promise of the healthy and (in two new twists) Sexy Over-Person. Supermodel Beverly Johnson expresses what passes as a social conscience in today’s West: “Everyone should have enough money to get plastic surgery”.
The West by and large has a low view of marriage, being anti-Christian, and its key concerns are with empowerment and sexual dexterity, instead of service and care, being post-Nietzschean. These two features have made the entry of Economic Man into the realm of relationships much easier, for he is troubled neither by spiritual concerns nor altruism. Certainly, the feminist writer Shumaleth Firestone, writing in the early 70s, was not alone in advocating the increased eroticism of society: “Why has all joy and excitement been concentrated, driven into one narrow, difficult-to-find alley of human experience [marriage], and all the rest laid waste?”
As the French Army marched around Europe during the Napoleonic wars, it had as its slogan ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’. What should the Western armies, corporations and Uberwesen mit Sexappeal say now as they roam around the globe?
Perhaps ‘Democracy, Economy, Empower Me’?
How could Christianity, with its suffering-servant hero, ever get a hearing in a culture like this?
Dr Gordon Menzies is Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Technology in Sydney.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Zarathustra's Prologue and Zarathustra's Discourses, III.
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