March 25, 2006

SEN'S COMMON SENSE (via Tom Corcoran):

Democracy Isn't 'Western': Cultural determinists should look beyond Ancient Greece. (AMARTYA SEN, March 24, 2006, Opinion Journal)

The belief in the allegedly "Western" nature of democracy is often linked to the early practice of voting and elections in Greece, especially in Athens. Democracy involves more than balloting, but even in the history of voting there would be a classificatory arbitrariness in defining civilizations in largely racial terms. In this way of looking at civilizational categories, no great difficulty is seen in considering the descendants of, say, Goths and Visigoths as proper inheritors of the Greek tradition ("they are all Europeans," we are told). But there is reluctance in taking note of the Greek intellectual links with other civilizations to the east or south of Greece, despite the greater interest that the Greeks themselves showed in talking to Iranians, or Indians, or Egyptians (rather than in chatting up the Ostrogoths).

Since traditions of public reasoning can be found in nearly all countries, modern democracy can build on the dialogic part of the common human inheritance. In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela describes how influenced he was, as a boy, by seeing the democratic nature of the proceedings of the meetings that were held in his home town: "Everyone who wanted to speak did so. It was democracy in its purest form. There may have been a hierarchy of importance among the speakers, but everyone was heard, chief and subject, warrior and medicine man, shopkeeper and farmer, landowner and laborer." Mr. Mandela could combine his modern ideas about democracy with emphasizing the supportive part of the native tradition, in a way that Gandhi had done in India, and that is the way cultures adapt and develop to respond to modernity. Mr. Mandela's quest for democracy and freedom did not emerge from any Western "imposition."

Similarly, the history of Muslims includes a variety of traditions, not all of which are just religious or "Islamic" in any obvious sense. The work of Arab and Iranian mathematicians, from the eighth century onward reflects a largely nonreligious tradition. Depending on politics, which varied between one Muslim ruler and another, there is also quite a history of tolerance and of public discussion, on which the pursuit of a modern democracy can draw. For example, the emperor Saladin, who fought valiantly for Islam in the Crusades in the 12th century, could offer, without any contradiction, an honored place in his Egyptian royal court to Maimonides, as that distinguished Jewish philosopher fled an intolerant Europe. When, at the turn of the 16th century, the heretic Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Campo dei Fiori in Rome, the Great Mughal emperor Akbar (who was born a Muslim and died a Muslim) had just finished, in Agra, his large project of legally codifying minority rights, including religious freedom for all, along with championing regular discussions between followers of Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and other beliefs (including atheism).

Cultural dynamics does not have to build something from absolutely nothing, nor need the future be rigidly tied to majoritarian beliefs today or the power of the contemporary orthodoxy. To see Iranian dissidents who want a fully democratic Iran not as Iranian advocates but as "ambassadors of Western values" would be to add insult to injury, aside from neglecting parts of Iranian history (including the practice of democracy in Susa or Shushan in southwest Iran 2,000 years ago). The diversity of the human past and the freedoms of the contemporary world give us much more choice than cultural determinists acknowledge. This is particularly important to emphasize since the illusion of cultural destiny can extract a heavy price in the continued impoverishment of human lives and liberties.


Because a false belief that the End of History is an organic outgrowth of their own traditions may speed these cultures towards it, we ought to encourage ideas like this, even though they're complete nonsense. There's no need to rub their faces in the fact that only the Judeo-Christian Anglo-American model works.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 25, 2006 8:25 AM
Comments

Odd how all these ancients were such luminaries and their descendants didn't have a written language. Maybe effect does come before cause?

Posted by: erp at March 25, 2006 10:41 AM

Does the full article include mention the Iroquoi, and how our U.S.Constitution is based on their culture and heritage?

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at March 25, 2006 11:28 AM

Don't forget that the Nazis thought that the the people of Atlantis, the pyramid-builders of Egypt, and Jesus Christ were all German.

Similarly, there are people today who are so confused and besotted as to hold that monotheism, and all art, science and philosophy, as well as Jesus Christ and the wonders of the ancients were the products of black Africa.

Of course it is all childish nonsense, but I cannot concur that it may be indulged without harm.

For one thing, such myths enable the continuation of benighted atavism. They encourage resentment, allowing those in need of "reformation" to blame their afflictions on the "devils" or the "Crusaders" or anything other than their own surpassed institutions.

Another ground for rejecting the pathetic fallacies of non-Western culture it that by entertaining them we blunt our own elan and morale. We must continue to believe in the exceptional rightness of our ways of thinking and acting in order to help the rest struggle slowly to the light.

Posted by: Lou Gots at March 25, 2006 12:24 PM

Nothing wrong with organizing your society around resentment--we resented the British even when we were.

Posted by: oj at March 25, 2006 12:27 PM

oj-

Resenting injustice or arbitrary rule is one thing, resenting the success of the 'other' as if at your expense is nuttiness, particularly when delusions are employed in the service of the insanity. That's what rationalist 'isms' are all about. The American colonists were more than happy to compete with their cousins under equitable conditions. In commerce AND war.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at March 25, 2006 1:38 PM

No, they weren't. They resented Britain for expecting remuneration for providing their security. It worked out fine.

Posted by: oj at March 25, 2006 1:42 PM

The colonists did OK with security before and after independance. They didn't like being taxed for European wars.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at March 25, 2006 2:06 PM

Sure, the French were Europeans, but the war was here. We also relied on the British navy to secure our commercial routes long after we were "independent." We were basically their Canada until the Civil War made us the leading military power in the world. And we aped their political system but pretended it sprang from Zeus's skull. Resented the hell out of them all the while....

Posted by: oj at March 25, 2006 2:11 PM

oj: You know very well that the American Revolution had almost nothing to do with cultural resentment as it was practiced by Boxer-Leninism and is now expressed in multiculturalism, Hesperophobia and Islamicism.

Our beef with the British was actually the opposite of cultural resentment, in that we were objecting to not having been afforded the rights of Englshmen.

The paranoiac resentment we are seeing now is based on fantasies of lost glory and dreams of cultural and, yes, racial revanchism.

Posted by: Lou Gots at March 25, 2006 5:45 PM

Yes, ours was a different resentment, but even more shallow and petty.

Posted by: oj at March 25, 2006 5:49 PM

You're a piece of work,oj.

You're welcome.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at March 25, 2006 6:19 PM

Tom:

Given the hissy fit we threw over paying taxes to fund our own defense imagine what we'd haqve done had they treated us the way they did their colonies in the Middle East, then handed us over to dictators? The Tea Party wouldn't have been a lark.

Posted by: oj at March 25, 2006 6:26 PM

We were British, for pete's sake. They wanted the 'huge tracts of land', so to speak, and the perogatives of Empire without sharing the power. dealing with fairly severe restrictions on trade while limiting our customers and trading partners to British monopolies was charateristic of the status as colonies. Mercantilistic economic policies were dumb then and dumber now but that was the policy of the Empire. Americans were not free and equal trading partners with the home country. The taxes were just the proverbial straw.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at March 25, 2006 6:56 PM

Yes, so imagine being a people who had all that put upon them but were treated like scum besides? we rebelled over trivia. Hard to argue with folks being anrier over real oppression.

Posted by: oj at March 25, 2006 8:28 PM

It was a rebellion for grown-ups over distinct political and economic principles. The type of 'oppression' you speak about would not have been possible in the American colonies. People who are oppressed to such a degree usually have a history of being oppressed and allowing it to continue.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at March 25, 2006 10:36 PM

Except they hadn't been until they were colonized by a technologically superior culture, which is what caused such psychic disruption.

Posted by: oj at March 26, 2006 7:29 AM

oj-

They were opressed from the get-go under the doctrines of Islam. It is a total system focussed on this world, not the next. Rules about war-making, raiding, hostage taking, the distribution of 'booty' and the civil treatment of criminals, slaves, women and 'unbelievers' predominate. It's called the religion of submission for a reason. Since it makes little distinction bewteen the temporal and the eternal it contains the seed of totalitariaism completely dependent on the temperamnet of the ruler. The predominate theme of early Islam is war. Proving ones spiritual bona fides through behavior in battle and pleasing the Prophet is a bit oppressive, don't you think?

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at March 26, 2006 9:59 AM

Yes, Christianiuty added those elements later, only after it took temporal power. So it may be a bit harder to Reform Islam than it was the Church.

Posted by: oj at March 26, 2006 10:03 AM

Yes, Christianity always has the teachings of Christ to return to. Islam has Mohammad.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at March 26, 2006 10:32 AM

No, both have God.

Posted by: oj at March 26, 2006 10:36 AM

And history is bunk.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at March 26, 2006 11:50 AM

No, History is over.

Posted by: oj at March 26, 2006 12:55 PM

You're a brilliant guy, oj, but this 'end of history' thing is such a waste of time. The appearance of human nature was 'the end', and the struggle will always be with us.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at March 26, 2006 1:24 PM

Tom:

That's biology, not history.

Posted by: oj at March 26, 2006 4:56 PM

oj-

You're becoming quite the determinist.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at March 26, 2006 6:39 PM

Creationist.

Posted by: oj at March 26, 2006 7:42 PM

*sighs* You're a contrarian, OJ.

My understanding was that the Colonies wanted to elect a representative for themselves in Parliament. "No taxation without representation" was the battle cry, IIRC.

Posted by: Ptah at March 26, 2006 8:32 PM

P:

Yes, that was enough to cause us to revolt.

Posted by: oj at March 26, 2006 8:56 PM

Getting back to the article, I want to point out that:

"For example, the emperor Saladin, who fought valiantly for Islam in the Crusades in the 12th century, could offer, without any contradiction, an honored place in his Egyptian royal court to Maimonides, as that distinguished Jewish philosopher fled an intolerant Europe."

The intolerant Europe Maimonides fled was the Muslim Almohad Dynasty who conquered Spain from their homeland in Africa.

"When, at the turn of the 16th century, the heretic Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Campo dei Fiori in Rome, the Great Mughal emperor Akbar (who was born a Muslim and died a Muslim) had just finished, in Agra, his large project of legally codifying minority rights, including religious freedom for all, along with championing regular discussions between followers of Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and other beliefs (including atheism)."

Which is why orthodox Muslims consider Akbar a heretic and apostate. Akbar created a new syncretic religion called Din-i-Ilahi.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at March 27, 2006 1:56 PM

Good post, Chris.

Posted by: Eugene S. at March 28, 2006 7:14 AM
« THE MOMMY PROFESSORIATE: | Main | THEY OOGAED WHEN THEY SHOULD HAVE BOOGAED (via Tom Corcoran): »