Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Politically Incorrect Triumph of Western Civilization (part 5 of 5): Conclusion

The next time you read about a primitive culture that sacrifices virgins to appease their gods, you may reflect that we were once no different, or you may crack a smug smile, thinking how much smarter and more evolved we are. Both these reflexes would be correct, but not for the most obvious reasons. Our society has evolved to better values, but not because we are inherently better. We are simply lucky to live in a place and time where human morality and institutions have advanced.

This leads us to the politically incorrect conclusion that today’s Western society is a superior society to live in, both better than itself several hundred years ago and better than other societies on Earth today. Refusing to acknowledge this is tantamount to saying that the lives of people in other countries are inherently less valuable or important than those of western citizens, and so it doesn’t matter if their rights are violated. If you truly love human freedom and liberty, it is your duty to uphold them everywhere.

The Politically Incorrect Triumph of Western Civilization (part 4 of 5): Modern Times

Western Civilization has also adapted itself as times have changed. Initially focused on laissez-faire capitalism, the Great Depression brought about a change in the “default” mode of operation of a Western Government, introducing the concept of the welfare state, as Franklin Roosevelt added “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” to the basic freedoms to be enjoyed by humans everywhere.

The genius of liberal democracy has been to combine the two kinds of freedoms important to human well-being and happiness: political freedom and economic freedom. True political freedom is a relatively recent innovation, since most societies throughout history had some form of monarchy or autocracy and severe restrictions on freedom of speech, but it is essential to advancing the marketplace for ideas. Political freedom includes social freedoms such as the right to privacy, freedom from arbitrary search and seizure, and the right to assembly. Economic freedom gives people an incentive to hard work and has proven to be the best way of raising the human standard of living: China has become immensely richer over the last 30 years by embracing the market, as has every successful nation before it. By helping out the worse-off, social democracy also helps to equalize opportunity for all, an essential ingredient of true economic freedom.

Ironically, those most willing to tout the superiority of Western Civilization, modern conservatives, are those least likely to insist on the things that make it unique. They are more likely to push the value of the Judeo-Christian faith, rather than the religious tolerance and appeal to reason that has made the West so special and successful. They have constantly pushed back on rights for minorities, women and gays, even though the respect and expansion of individual rights has been the major difference between the West and the rest. And they are involved in embarrassing denials of science such as teaching creationism in schools and refusing the reality of global warming, which fly in the face of our most up-to-date knowledge.

On the flip side, modern liberals are guilty of two sins. The first is to choose idealism over pragmatism, seeing the state as the solution to all woes even though history speaks strongly to the contrary. The history of the 20th century shows quite well that strong states, be they socialist or nationalistic, quickly descend into totalitarianism. This is not just due to a couple of bad apples: it is the nature of the beast, what Hayek called “The Road to Serfdom”. The other is to refuse to pass judgment due to moral relativism. Female genital mutilation cannot be excused as “just a primitive tradition”, and dictatorial Asian governments are not simply upholding Confucian values. The sins of the West, from the Holocaust to Hiroshima to Guantanamo Bay, are no retort: even though our society does not always live up to our values is no reason not to uphold our values.

There is nothing inherently special about western culture that allows it to support these ideals: it is foolish to think that Chinese or Arabs are incapable of liberal democracy. If Christianity is the key, why did it take 1800 years for a true democracy to emerge in the West? How has India managed a vibrant democracy for the last 60 years, despite widespread poverty and a melting pot of cultures and religions? How did Japan beat the west at its own capitalist game? The West just got there first, probably by accident of history. But the values are universal, and can be promoted as such.

Societies cannot undergo these changes overnight. Today, there is a strong tendency to push for elections in foreign countries, assuming that this will lead to democracy taking root. This is like planting a seed in a concrete floor and expecting it to grow. Liberal democracy requires many ingredients, including an educated population, strong institutions, and sources of information independent of the government. It took the west centuries to get here: there have been dictatorships in the last 60 years in Germany, Spain and Greece, and even today terrorism and security are used as excuses to curtail civil liberties. Worse yet, western countries have been hypocrites in foreign lands, toppling governments and installing pro-western dictatorships because it suited their economic needs or they wanted to combat communism. But the change can take place, and it is worth undergoing. Economic freedom can lead to political freedom, as the recent transitions of South Korea and Taiwan demonstrate, and as China will demonstrate sometime in the next 100 years. The natural state of people is liberty.

The Politically Incorrect Triumph of Western Civilization (part 3 of 5): Religion

Many have credited the advance of Western civilization to its Judeo-Christian heritage, and there is no question that the history of the two is inextricably intertwined. But most of the progress of Western Civilization over its impressive 300 years has occurred when it has distanced itself from the church: truly representative government could not emerge until the separation of church and state. One of the great philosophical advances of the Enlightenment was that morality could be arrived at through human reason, not only by divine decree, which has allowed values to progress beyond those of the Torah and the Bible. Religion has stood in the way of almost every major discovery that has advanced our knowledge of the world, including Copernicus’ heliocentric model, Galileo’s astronomical observations, and most memorably the theory of evolution that has explained the origin of mankind. Even today, religious conservatives still fight to keep evolution out of classrooms, on the basis that it contradicts religious doctrine.

Religion has been more helpful on the front of values: the first people who lobbied for the abolition of slavery were driven in large part by their faith, believing that no such treatment of human beings could be morally justified, and charity towards the less fortunate has almost always been spearheaded by faith. On the flip side, the Catholic Church in particular has often been an obstacle to the equal rights of women, despite Christians’ constant claims that “Jesus hung out with women”.

One of the biggest contributions of religion to western values has been accidental: the wars of religion in 17th century Europe, and the fact that the American colonies were largely populated by people fleeing religious persecution, taught those people the importance of the separation of church and state and religious tolerance. This has been a key ingredient in creating a society that has been a magnet for the best and brightest from all over the world, which has helped it maintain its economic and technical edge.

The Politically Incorrect Triumph of Western Civilization (part 2 of 5): Origins

The ideals that have led to modern Western Civilization have their root in the Enlightenment. Many great thinkers such as John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Paine and Voltaire established the bases of what is now known as classical liberalism, stressing the importance of individual freedom and natural rights. These thinkers were the inspiration behind both the American and French revolutions, and the framers of the US constitution which began with the most important phrase in the modern world: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” As history shows, the practice didn’t follow the theory: both blacks and women didn’t achieve truly equal rights until the 20th century, but the cat of freedom had been let out of the bag, never to return.

At around the same time, another parallel revolution was taking place: the industrial revolution, which brought about a huge increase in economic growth and reorganized the economy around a capitalist market. Only a few years earlier, Adam Smith had just written “The Wealth of Nations”, and his ideas were about to be put into practice. A functioning market economy is yet another innovation of the Western world.

These two institutions – liberal democracy and the capitalist market – have been the twin engines of western domination over the last 300 years. They give legitimacy to the government in its people’s eyes and give people ownership of the fruits of their labor. They entrench the fundamental rights of human beings in the institutions of society.

The Politically Incorrect Triumph of Western Civilization (part 1 of 5): Introduction

Of all the views that modern leftists have been accused of holding, few are as problematic as that of moral relativism. Moral relativism is the position that ethics do not reflect objective truths, and therefore that there is no true right or wrong. There are many problems with this position, one of the major ones being that nobody really believes it. While there is a solid case for cultural relativism (seeing other cultures, religions or traditions as being as valid as one’s own), no one would look at a society where murder, assault and theft were rampant and assume that it’s “just another way of doing things”. There are certain values that are objectively better than others. Freedom, caring and equality are better than slavery and destruction. A society that works to the benefit of all its members and provides security is better than one in which the few may exploit the many and people fear for their lives. There is no way around it.

Of all the societies and civilizations that have emerged throughout history, the Western Civilization of the last 300 years is the one that has embodied the most evolved and progressive values. This has not been, by any stretch, an unblemished record: dozens of wars, the Holocaust, and slavery have all been products of the Western world, to its shame. But it is the first society to have organized itself successfully based on the universal guiding principal of human behavior, the Golden Rule. Among the concepts we owe to Western Civilization are the freedom and dignity of the individual, freedom of religion, equality of all people, gender equality, property rights, free markets, judicial independence, liberal democracy, the power of human reason, and the separation of church and state. Not a bad list.