Apr 18, 2006


Martin Jacques complains that the West--and the US in particular--has no respect for other cultures and just wants to shove democracy down Iraq's non-Western throat.
I have just read Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. It is a classic. Published in 1947, it analyses the nature of Japanese culture. Almost 60 years and many books later, it remains a seminal work. Like all great works of scholarship, the book manages to transcend the time and era in which it was written, ageing in certain obvious respects, but retaining much of its insight and relevance. If you want to make sense of Japan, Benedict's book is as good a place to start as any. Here, though, I am interested in the origins and purpose of the book.

In June 1944, as the American offensive against Japan began to bear fruit, Benedict, a cultural anthropologist, was assigned by the US office of war administration to work on a project to try and understand Japan as the US began to contemplate the challenge that would be posed by its defeat, occupation and subsequent administration. Her book is written with a complete absence of judgmental attitude or sense of superiority, which one might expect; she treats Japan's culture as of equal merit, virtue and logic to that of the US. In other words, its tone and approach could not be more different from the present US attitude towards Iraq or that country's arrogant and condescending manner towards the rest of the world.

This prompts a deeper question: has the world, since then, gone backwards? Has the effect of globalisation been to promote a less respectful and more intolerant attitude in the west, and certainly on the part of the US, towards other cultures, religions and societies?

Benedict may have treated Japan's culture on an equal footing with ours but that didn't stop General MacArthur from ditching its Meiji Constitution and having his staff write one that he liked better. A constitution "that has governed Japanese affairs ever since without the change of a comma." Which leads me to think that maybe our first mistake was not having General Tommy Franks draw up the new Iraqi Constitution as soon as he got himself settled in at his new digs inside the Green Zone.

Needless to say, Jacques doesn't see it that way. This democracy promotion business is just Western hubris. A hubris made worse by globalization.
[G]lobalisation has brought with it a new kind of western hubris - present in Europe in a relatively benign form, manifest in the US in the belligerent manner befitting a superpower: that western values and arrangements should be those of the world; that they are of universal application and merit. At the heart of globalisation is a new kind of intolerance in the west towards other cultures, traditions and values, less brutal than in the era of colonialism, but more comprehensive and totalitarian.

The idea that each culture is possessed of its own specific wisdom and characteristics, its own novelty and uniqueness, born of its own individual struggle over thousands of years to cope with nature and circumstance, has been drowned out by the hue and cry that the world is now one, that the western model - neoliberal markets, democracy and the rest - is the template for all.
The colonials had the right idea, see.
[The colonials] made no pretence, however, at seeking to make their countries like ours: their enlightenment, as the colonial attitude would have it, depended on our physical presence. In no instance, for example, were they regarded as suitable for democracy, except where there was racial affinity, with white settler majorities, as in Australia and Canada. In contrast, the underlying assumption with globalisation is that the whole world is moving in the same direction, towards the same destination: it is becoming, and should become, more and more like the west. Where once democracy was not suitable for anyone else, now everyone is required to adopt it, with all its western-style accoutrements.
Back then, we knew the wogs didn't have what it takes to govern themselves.

Via Eric.

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