The Adversary Culture
The perverse anti-Westernism of the cultural elite
Address to: Summer Sounds Symposium
Punga Cove, New Zealand
February 11 2006
For the past three decades and more, many of the leading opinion makers in our universities, the media and the arts have regarded Western culture as, at best, something to be ashamed of, or at worst, something to be opposed. Before the 1960s, if Western intellectuals reflected on the long-term achievements of their culture, they explained it in terms of its own evolution: the inheritance of ancient Greece, Rome and Christianity, tempered by the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the scientific and industrial revolutions. Even a radical critique like Marxism was primarily an internal affair, intent on fulfilling what it imagined to be the destiny of the West, taking its history to what it thought would be a higher level.
Today, however, such thinking is dismissed by the prevailing intelligentsia as triumphalist. Western political and economic dominance is more commonly explained not by its internal dynamics but by its external behaviour, especially its rivalry and aggression towards other cultures. Western success has purportedly been at their expense. Instead of pushing for internal reform or revolution, this new radicalism constitutes an overwhelmingly negative critique of Western civilization itself.
According to this ideology, instead of attempting to globalise its values, the West should stay in its own cultural backyard. Values like universal human rights, individualism and liberalism are regarded merely as ethnocentric products of Western history. The scientific knowledge that the West has produced is simply one of many “ways of knowing”. In place of Western universalism, this critique offers cultural relativism, a concept that regards the West not as the pinnacle of human achievement to date, but as simply one of many equally valid cultural systems.
Cultural relativism claims there are no absolute standards for assessing human culture. Hence all cultures should be regarded as equal, though different. It comes in two varieties: soft and hard.
The soft version now prevails in aesthetics. Take a university course in literary criticism or art theory and you will now find traditional standards no longer apply. Italian opera can no longer be regarded as superior to Chinese opera. The theatre of Shakespeare was not better than that of Kabuki, only different.
The hard version comes from the social sciences and from cultural studies. Cultural practices from which most Westerners instinctively shrink are now accorded their own integrity, lest the culture that produced them be demeaned.
For instance, although Western feminists once found the overt misogyny of many tribal cultures distasteful, in recent years they have come to respect practices they once condemned. Feminist academics now deny that suttee, the incineration of widows, is barbaric. The Indian-American cultural studies theorist, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak gives suttee an honourable place in Indian culture by comparing it to the Christian tradition of martyrdom. Feminists once denounced the surgical removal of the clitoris of Muslim women as female genital mutilation. Lately, the procedure has been redefined as genital “cutting”, which the literary and art critic Germaine Greer now argues should be recognized as an authentic manifestation of the culture of the Muslim women concerned.
Similarly, the Parisian literary theorist, Tzvetan Todorov, in The Conquest of America (1985), compares Mexican cannibalism to the Christian Eucharist, and the Australian postmodern historian, Greg Dening, in Mr Bligh's Bad Language (1992), declares Polynesian human sacrifice to be the ritual equivalent of British capital punishment.
Something is obviously going terribly wrong here. The logic of relativism is taking Western academics into dark waters. They are now prepared to countenance practices that are obviously cruel, unnatural and life-denying, that is, practices that offend against all they claim to stand for.
To see how decadent these assumptions have become, compare today's relativism to the attitude that prevailed when the culture of the British people was in its ascendancy. Sir Charles Napier, the British Commander-in-chief in India from 1849 to 1851, signed an agreement with local Hindu leaders that he would respect all their customs, except for the practice of suttee. The Hindu leaders protested but Napier was unmoved:
You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.
The moral rationale of cultural relativism is a plea for tolerance and respect of other cultures, no matter how uncomfortable we might be with their beliefs and practices. However, there is one culture conspicuous by its absence from all this. The plea for acceptance and open-mindedness does not extend to Western culture itself, whose history is regarded as little more than a crime against the rest of humanity. The West cannot judge other cultures but must condemn its own.
Since the 1960s, academic historians on the left have worked to generate a widespread cynicism about the nature of Western democracies, with the aim of questioning their legitimacy and undermining their ability to command loyalty. Let me demonstrate some of the ways in which national and imperial histories are being used to denigrate Western culture and society and give the nations of the West, especially those descended from Britain, an historical identity of which they can only be ashamed.
Academic historians today argue that all the new white settler societies established under the British Empire in Africa, the Pacific and North America shared the same racist attitudes towards outsiders and dispensed the same degree of violence against indigenous peoples. Today, they often compare the European settler societies with Nazi Germany.
This form of moral equivalence originated in the 1960s in the work of the American political theorist Pierre van den Berghe and his book Race and Racism. He defined all the British settler societies as ‘ herrenvolk democracies'. Herrenvolk is German for “master race”. These societies were egalitarian democracies, van den Berghe conceded, but only for people of their own kind. To preserve egalitarian ideals in the face of their exploitation of the land and labour of the coloured races, the settler democracies defined the latter as less than human. Van den Berghe wrote, these are “regimes such as those of the United States or South Africa that are democratic for the master race but tyrannical for the subordinate groups.”
The attitude to the indigenous people in the colonies, academic historians now assure us, was genocidal. The Australian academic journal Aboriginal History in 2001 published a special “genocide” edition. In their introduction, the editors argued that European colonialism was an even more intrinsically genocidal process than that of Nazi Germany. Using evidence put forward by the American academic Ward Churchill, the editors argue that England was the most “overtly genocidal” of the European colonial powers.
Moreover, they assert, “settler-colonies around the world established during European expansion post-1492 in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina are not only potentially but inherently genocidal.” [their emphasis]
The worst-case scenario in Australia is widely regarded as the island of Tasmania, where a Black War was supposedly fought in the 1820s and 1830s and where the last full-blood Aboriginal person died in 1888, though significant numbers of part Aboriginal descendants survive to this day. The historian Lyndall Ryan says in her 1981 book The Aboriginal Tasmanians that they were the victims of “a conscious policy of genocide”. This is the orthodox opinion among Australian academics.
In 2001 and 2002 I undertook the task of checking the footnotes of the major authors on Tasmania to verify their original sources, I found to my surprise that their interpretation of frontier warfare and genocide was based on invented incidents, concocted footnotes, altered documents and gross exaggeration of the Aboriginal death toll. I could find credible evidence that white settlers had killed a total of 121 Aborigines, mostly in self defence or in hot pursuit of Aborigines who had killed or assaulted white settlers. The rest of the population of about 2000 natives had died from diseases to which their long isolation on their island had given them no immunity, principally influenza, pneumonia and tuberculosis. On top of this, venereal disease rendered most of the women infertile.
The Tasmanian colony had been founded in 1803 in the middle of the British campaign to end the slave trade. Its longest-serving governor was George Arthur, a supporter of William Wilberforce, and who in his previous post in British Honduras had set the colony's indigenous slaves free. His sensitivity to the native question, in fact, was what got him the job in Australia. He wanted to civilize and modernize the Aborigines, not exterminate them. His intentions were not to foster violence towards the Aborigines but to prevent it. The charge of genocide is not only wrong, it is maliciously wrong — the defamation of a good man and a wilful misrepresentation of the truth.
What sort of ethical universe do the people who make this charge inhabit? As I noted, the assertion by the editors of Aboriginal History that the British settler societies were more intrinsically genocidal than Nazi Germany was based on an analysis of colonialism by Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado. Churchill is also treated as a citable authority by three separate authors in the recent anthology Genocide and Settler Society, edited by Dirk Moses of the University of Sydney, who describes Churchill as “a Native American activist and scholar.”
Their reverence for this person is revealing. In February last year, Churchill briefly became America 's most reviled university teacher for declaring that those who died in New York 's World Trade Centre on September 11 2001 had deserved their fate. Churchill wrote:
If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it.
In the ensuing controversy, Churchill was exposed by real American Indians as a fake. The American Indian Grand Governing Council said “Ward Churchill has fraudulently represented himself as an Indian, and a member of the American Indian Movement and … has been masquerading as an Indian for years behind his dark glasses and beaded headband.”
More importantly, a University of New Mexico specialist in Indian law, John Lavelle, accused Churchill of fabricating evidence in no less than six books and eleven published academic articles.
That the work of such a moral bankrupt and scholarly charlatan could be paraded as weighty commentary by the editors of Australia 's leading journal in Aboriginal history is a good indication of what an intellectual shambles this subject has become.
The anti-colonialism of these historians is also highly selective in that it ignores empires other than those of Europe. The truth is that all great civilizations have absorbed other peoples, sometimes in harmony, sometimes by the sword. The Islamic world, so often portrayed today as victims of British or American or Israeli imperialism, is hardly innocent. The Ottoman Turks conquered and ruled most of the Middle East for a thousand years. The British and the French displaced them in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, with the approval of the Arabs who by then wanted liberation from Ottoman rule. In India, Muslims from Arabia and Persia were imperial overlords for eight centuries until the British arrived. The British overthrew Muslim rule, with the active co-operation and grateful applause of the Hindu population.
The Arabs themselves were not indigenous to most of the regions they now populate. Before the Turks, they were an imperial power who arose out of the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century to conquer the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and Southern Europe where they either subjugated or slaughtered the local population. None of this history provokes any censure from the critics of imperialism today, who reserve their reproaches exclusively for the European variety.
Until the 1960s, most people brought up within Western culture believed that its literature, its art and its music were among the glories of its civilization. Today, much of the academic debate about the Western literary heritage claims that it is politically contaminated. Some of these charges are well known because they offended against the ideological triumvirate of gender, race and class: Othello is ethnocentric, Paradise Lost is a feminist tragedy, Jane Eyre is both racist and sexist.
Western literature is today most severely rebuked for its alleged support of imperialism. The theorist making this accusation is the late Edward Said. He claims the flowering of European literature since the sixteenth century either directly endorsed or provided a supportive environment for the expansion of Europe in the same period.
In his book Culture and Imperialism Said claims that, of all modern literary forms, it is the novel that has been most culpable in reproducing and advocating the power relations of empire. His critique encompasses not only novels that are overtly about imperial affairs, such as those of Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling, but even the work of such apparently domestic writers as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. One of Jane Austen's characters in Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram, owns a sugar plantation in the Caribbean, so this implicates her in support of slavery, Said claims. In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens despatches one of his characters to Australia and another to Egypt, so the fact that he thinks like this makes him an imperialist author, too.
Said extends his critique to opera, which he describes as an art form “that belongs equally to the history of culture and the historical experience of overseas domination”. Because Giuseppe Verdi's Aida is set in ancient Egypt, Said claims it fosters military aggression towards the Orient. It contains “imperialist structures of attitude and reference” that act as an “anaesthetic” on European audiences, leading them to ignore the brutality that accompanied their conquest of other countries.
Equally culpable are European paintings of the Orient, even those of Delacroix and Ingres, which critics once thought portrayed the region in romantically admiring terms. Instead, art critics who follow Said now use them as examples of subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Islamic people and their culture. These paintings are purportedly a reflection of European arrogance and Western prejudices: “the idea of Oriental decay, the subjection of women, an unaccountable legal system — pictorial rhetoric that served a subtle imperialist agenda”.
Presented like this, stripped of their theoretical obfuscation, the ideas are transparently crude. They resemble the reductionism of one-time Marxist criticism, which invariably saw Western art and literature as expressions of “nothing but” the venal interests of the ruling class or the bourgeoisie. They also stretch interpretation beyond credulity.
The idea that, because Jane Austen presents one plantation-owning character, of whom heroine, plot and author all plainly disapprove, she thereby becomes a handmaiden of imperialism and slavery, is to misunderstand both the novel and the biography of its author, who was an ardent opponent of the slave trade. Similarly, to argue that because Charles Dickens uses some overseas locations as convenient off-stage sites to advance his plots, he thereby become an advocate of empire, is to give him attitudes he never expressed. To claim that the art form of opera or the romantic indulgence of the nineteenth century Orientalist school of painting derives from the European experience of overseas domination is to make an ideological misreading of them all.
Aida, for instance, is a story of star-crossed lovers set in 3000 BC amidst a war between the Egyptians and the Abyssinians, in which the Egyptians triumph. To claim that it sanctifies nineteenth century European imperialism against Egypt in which, this time, the Egyptians lose, is to abandon any sense of either perspective or logic.
As well as aesthetics, there is an economic dimension to this ideology. It believes Western prosperity is based on ill-gotten gains. We are rich because they are poor. Western imperialism exploited what is now the Third World and made the industrial revolution through the wealth it purloined.
One of the most celebrated authors in this genre is Andre Gunder Frank whose book ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (1998) denies that the industrial revolution was the product of European entrepreneurship, ingenuity and technological innovation. “ Europe did not pull itself up by its own economic bootstraps,” Frank writes. Instead, he claims: “Europe climbed up on the back of Asia, then stood on Asian shoulders — temporarily.”
Fortunately, we now have an analysis that convincingly demolishes claims of this kind. Niall Ferguson's 2003 book Empire is a history of British imperialism which demonstrates that Britain 's imperial record is not merely nothing to be ashamed of, but was a positive force that “made the modern world”. The history of the empire was characterized by the global spread of trade and wealth, technological and cultural modernization, and the growth of liberalism and democracy.
Imperialism encouraged investors to put their money in developing economies, places that would otherwise have been sites of great risk. The extension of the British empire into the less developed world had the effect of reducing this risk by imposing some form of British rule.
When the British Empire was at the peak of its influence, it was a much greater force for international investment in the underdeveloped world than any of today's institutions. In 1913, some 25 per cent of the world stock of capital was invested in poor countries. By 1997 that figure was only 5 per cent.
Britain exported to the world the systems of finance, transportation and manufacturing that it had developed at home. Rather than a form of plunder that depleted the economies that came under its influence, British imperialism injected many of the institutions of modernisation into the territories it controlled. British investment financed the development not only of white dominions in North America, Australasia and South America, but also India, Africa and east Asia. It provided the infrastructure of ports, roads, railways and communications that allowed these regions access to the modern world, plus a legal system to ensure that the commerce thereby generated was orderly.
European imperialism ended in the 1940s and 1950s. The non-West has now had half a century to try its own economic prescriptions. The fact that many of these countries have not progressed beyond the kick-start provided by European colonial investment can no longer be blamed on the West. Those who have chosen to emulate the Western model, such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, have shown that it is possible to transform a backward Third World country into a prosperous, modern, liberal democratic nation in as little as two generations. Those countries that still wallow in destitution and underdevelopment do so not because of Western imperialism, racism or oppression, but because of policies they have largely chosen themselves by socialist planning or had forced upon them by civil war and revolution.
The anti-Westernism of which I am speaking is not only about the past but has as much to say about current affairs.
The aftermath to the assaults on New York and Washington on September 11 2001 provided a stark illustration of its values. Within days of the terrorist assault, a number of influential Western intellectuals, including Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag and youthful counterparts such as Naomi Klein of the anti-globalisation protest movement, responded in ways that, morally and symbolically, were no different to the celebrations of the crowds on the streets of Palestine and Islamabad who cheered as they watched the towers of the World Trade Centre come crashing down. Stripped of its obligatory jargon, their argument was straightforward: America deserved what it got.
Perhaps the worst single response to September 11 was made, I am sorry to say, by an Australian. In his column in the London magazine New Statesman, John Pilger said the real terrorists were not Muslim radicals but the Americans themselves. Pilger wrote:
If the attacks on America have their source in the Islamic world, who can be surprised? … Far from being the terrorists of the world, the Islamic peoples have been its victims — that is, the victims of American fundamentalism, whose power, in all its forms — military, strategic and economic — is the greatest source of terrorism on earth.
The English radical feminist Beatrix Campbell engaged in the same kind of blame shifting. She claimed “the victims of September 11 are also the architects of a mess of their own making”. In other words, those killed by the terrorists — including the women and children — brought their deaths upon themselves.
In fact, feminist authors were more prominent than most in blaming the United States for the attacks. One of the most publicised responses was made in Canada at a Women's Resistance Conference where a former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, Sunera Thobani, directed her comments not at the Al Qaeda network but at the Bush administration. Thobani told a cheering audience that they should oppose the American war on terrorism. She said women must
reject this kind of jingoistic militarism and recognise that as the most heinous form of patriarchal racist violence that we're seeing on the globe today… There will be no emancipation for women anywhere on this planet until the Western domination of this planet is ended.
September 11 also gave some feminists the opportunity to apply their theoretical assumptions to the symbolism of the events. A columnist for the London Times, Mary Ann Sieghart, said she was struck by how the attack left men much angrier and emotional than women. The reason, she said, was:
The twin towers are two huge phallic symbols, populated with mainly men, most of whom are in the macho business of making money. They were then attacked by two more phallic symbols — jet airliners — and soon after are cut to their bases … How much more emasculating could a terrorist's action be?
These comments derive, of course, from the well-known feminist insight that a phallic symbol is anything longer than it is wide.
Another female contributor was the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, who used the attacks to allow all of her hitherto suppressed anti-American bile to come to the surface. She said Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush were moral equivalents. She denounced America 's
chilling disregard for non-American lives, its barbarous military interventions, its support for despotic and dictatorial regimes, its merciless economic agenda that has munched through the economies of poor countries like a cloud of locusts.
It was left to novelist Salman Rushdie to rescue the reputation of the subcontinent's literary community. Rushdie said:
Let's be clear about why this anti-American onslaught is such appalling rubbish. Terrorism is the murder of the innocent; this time it was mass murder. To excuse such an atrocity by blaming US government policies is to deny the basic idea of all morality: that individuals are responsible for their actions. Furthermore, terrorism is not the pursuit of legitimate complaints by illegitimate means. The terrorist wraps himself in the world's grievances to cloak his true motives.
As no one should need reminding, Rushdie was the first target in the contemporary rise of Islamic radicalism. In 1989 he was the subject of a death edict by Iran 's Ayatollah Khomeini for satirising the prophet Mohammad in his novel The Satanic Verses. A number of Muslims living in the West declared they were willing to carry out the death sentence on behalf of their religion.
While a number of Western writers gave Rushdie vocal support and pointed out how such a fatwa offended the very core of Western culture, its right to free expression and free enquiry. But prominent politicians took a different line.
President George Bush Snr adopted the moral equivalence and cultural relativism of the prevailing political class, declaring both the death edict and the novel equally “offensive”. Former president Jimmy Carter responded with a call for Americans to be “sensitive to the concern and anger” of Muslims.
Rushdie had to spend the next decade in disguise, living in secret locations, under police protection. He announced he had become a Muslim convert, but even this was not enough to have the fatwa withdrawn. No one else followed him by writing a novel criticising Mohammad.
More recently, when a Pakistani writer living in the West decided to write a book, Why I Am Not a Muslim, rejecting Islam and praising Western culture, he knew he had to adopt the pseudonym, Ibn Warraq, and keep his identity secret.
In Holland, the former Somali woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, wrote a book, The Son Factory, about the Muslim oppression of women. The book generated a spate of death threats. Although she subsequently became a member of parliament, the threats to her life mean she still lives under permanent armed guard in a secret government safe house.
The death threats Hirsi Ali received were genuine. Police later found she was at the top of a hit list of Dutch public figures. The assassin Mohammed Bouyeri had her as his preferred victim but, when he couldn't reach her, he went to the name second on the hit list, the filmmaker Theo van Gogh. Bouyeri shot, stabbed and almost beheaded van Gogh, whose offence had been to collaborate with Hirsi Ali on a film entitled Submission critical of Muslim violence towards women.
The tactic of targeting individuals who criticise Islam has been very effective in Holland. In early 2005, the Dutch law professor and newspaper columnist Paul Cliteur, who has openly criticised Islam on television, announced he would no longer do so because of the threat of violence. For similar reasons, the former Iranian academic and newspaper writer, Afshin Ellian, who lectures at the University of Leiden, now has a bodyguard accompanying him on campus at all times. Every morning the building where he teaches is swept by security services.
This personal terrorism affects not just those directly under threat, but all writers and intellectuals. Most are unable to afford the security costs and the state cannot protect them all. The result is that they are silenced by self-censorship.
This is why the debate over the Danish cartoons is so important. To date, the response has been mixed. Newspapers in Norway, Germany, France, New Zealand and Australia have reproduced the cartoons in defiance of the violence that has been perpetrated in Middle Eastern countries and threatened in many Western countries by crowds with signs such as: “Slay those who insult Islam.” “Butcher those who mock Islam.” and “Be prepared for the real holocaust.”
But many Western politicians have urged appeasement. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said: “The republication of these cartoons has been unnecessary, it has been insensitive, it has been disrespectful and it has been wrong.” In New Zealand, Prime Minister Helen Clark accused the newspapers involved of “bad manners”. In Australia, Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock urged newspapers not to act “gratuitously with a view to try and provoke a response”.
The real problem here was not the Western newspapers who published the cartoons but the Islamic response to them. Our political leaders did not blame the latter but turned the responsibility onto ourselves. Enclosed by a mindset of cultural relativism, most Westerners are loath to censure Muslims who go on violent rampages, burn down embassies and threaten death to their fellow citizens. Many of us regard this as somehow understandable, even acceptable, since we have no right to judge another religion and culture.
The truth is that the riots, the arson, the death threats were not spontaneous outbursts from passionate religious believers but were carefully stage-managed by Muslim leaders. The imams of the Danish Muslim community consciously ignited the response some four months after the cartoons were published. They travelled to the Middle East where they generated support for a campaign quite deliberately targeted at Western culture's principle of freedom of expression.
Their real aim is not religious respect but cultural change in the West. They want to prevent criticism of its Muslim minority and accord that group special privilege not available to the faithful of other religions. Instead of them changing to integrate into our way of life, they want to force us to change to accept their way of life.
Muslim rage over the cartoons is not an isolated issue that would have been confined to Denmark and would have gone away if nobody had republished them. It is simply one more step in a campaign that has already included assassination, death threats and the curtailment of criticism. And our response, yet again, has been one more white flag in the surrender of Western cultural values that we have been making since Khomeini's fatwa against Rushdie in 1989.
The Western concept of freedom of speech is not an absolute. The limits that should be imposed by good taste, social responsibility and respect for others will always be a matter for debate. But this is a debate that needs to be conducted within Western culture, not imposed on it from outside by threats of death and violence by those who want to put an end to all free debate.
The concepts of free enquiry and free expression and the right to criticise entrenched beliefs are things we take so much for granted they are almost part of the air we breathe. We need to recognise them as distinctly Western phenomena. They were never produced by Confucian or Hindu culture. Under Islam, the idea of objective inquiry had a brief life in the fourteenth century but was never heard of again. In the twentieth century, the first thing that every single communist government in the world did was suppress it.
But without this concept, the world would not be as it is today. There would have been no Copernicus, Galileo, Newton or Darwin. All of these thinkers profoundly offended the conventional wisdom of their day, and at great personal risk, in some cases to their lives but in all cases to their reputations and careers. But because they inherited a culture that valued free inquiry and free expression, it gave them the strength to continue.
Today, we live in an age of barbarism and decadence. There are barbarians outside the walls who want to destroy us and there is a decadent culture within. We are only getting what we deserve. The relentless critique of the West which has engaged our academic left and cultural elite since the 1960s has emboldened our adversaries and at the same time sapped our will to resist.
The consequences of this adversary culture are all around us. The way to oppose it, however, is less clear. The survival of the Western principles of free inquiry and free expression now depend entirely on whether we have the intelligence to understand their true value and the will to face down their enemies.