The cultural war on Western civilization
reprinted in Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball (eds.) The Survival of Culture: Permanent Values in a Virtual Age, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 2002
In the last week of September, shortly after the terrorist assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, made an extraordinary statement. During a visit to Germany, he declared Western civilization superior to Islam. He said:
We must be aware of the superiority of our civilization, a system that has guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights and - in contrast with Islamic countries - respect for religious and political rights.
The minute he had uttered these words, a bevy of European politicians rushed to denounce him. The Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, said: "I can hardly believe that the Italian Prime Minister made such statements." Spokesman for the European Commission, Jean-Christophe Filori, added: "We certainly don't share the views expressed by Mr Berlusconi." Italy's centre-left opposition spokesman Giovanni Berlinguer called the words "eccentric and dangerous". Within days, Berlusconi was forced to withdraw.
It is true that the statement could have been more diplomatically timed, made as it was while American officials were trying to put together an anti-terrorist coalition of Islamic allies. But there is little doubt it would have generated just as many denials no matter when it was uttered. The statement was extraordinary because, although Western superiority in every major area of human endeavour, especially in political and individual liberty, is patently obvious to everyone, it has become a truth that must not be spoken.
The chief reason is the prevailing ideology of the Western intelligentsia. For the past two decades and more, the leading opinion makers in the media, the universities and the churches have regarded Western superiority as, at best, something to be ashamed of, and at worst, something to be opposed. Until thirty years ago, when 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 the relativism of multiculturalism, 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.
Although originally designed to foster tolerance and respect for other cultures, these sentiments were subsequently captured by the radical left and manipulated to the point of inconsistency. Their 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.
Though commonly known as multiculturalism, this position is defined by its supporters with a series of post prefixes: postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism. However, it is best understood as an anti phenomenon because it defines itself not by what it is for but by what it is against. It is entirely a negation of Western culture and values: whatever the West supports, this anti-West rejects.
The aftermath to September 11 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 Center come crashing down. Stripped of its obligatory jargon, their argument was straightforward: America deserved what it got.
This intellectual response was not couched in terms of Western humanist values. Instead, it represented a descent into the kind of relativism not seen since the days of Lenin and Hitler when class-based and race-based hatreds were morally sanctioned by radical politics. The major difference today is that this time it is not class or race but the whole of Western society that has been relativised.
This anti-Western, multicultural, postcolonial intellectual edifice constitutes a true ideology: it sees the world as an arena of conflict and has a political program to change the world for its own ends. It is formidable in its comprehensiveness and in the number of intellectual fields it encompasses. They include history, literature, the arts, the social sciences, the physical sciences, and the law. It is also formidable in the number of professional and public institutions it has successfully captured and whose agenda it now controls. With the demise of Marxism since the 1980s, it has emerged as its major ideological successor. What follows is a summary of the creed, coupled with some of the more obvious objections to it.
Western culture was founded on aggression towards others: Despite being employed for the purpose of transmitting culture, most of the writers, editors and teachers who advocate this cause are united in their hostility to the cultural traditions that have nurtured them from birth. They see the whole of Western culture since the ancient Greeks as something to be disowned.
The person who did most to establish this interpretation was Edward Said, the Arab-American literary critic employed by Columbia University, New York, and a long-time activist for the Palestinian cause. His influential 1978 book, Orientalism, claimed that, from its classical origins, Western culture had been defined not by its own internal development, but by its long history of antagonism to "the Other", that is, to non-Western cultures.
This motif persists, Said claims, from its origins in Homer right down to the modern period. The desire to rule distant peoples has had a "privileged status" in the West. There has been "something systematic" about its imperial culture that was not evident in other empires. Moreover, while Europe's ability to take over and rule distant colonies might now be a thing of the past, the imperialist imperative lives on today in American foreign and economic policy, where it is validated by Western culture and ideology. Said claims it is still driven, as it was in the nineteenth century, by the West's "untrammelled rapacity, greed and immorality".
In particular, he argues, Western oriental scholarship led Europeans to see Islamic culture as static in both time and place, as "eternal, uniform and incapable of defining itself". This gave Europe a sense of its own cultural and intellectual superiority. It consequently saw itself as a dynamic, innovative, expanding culture and rationalised its imperial ambition not as a form of conquest but as the redemption of a degenerate world.
Said has spawned a school of followers from a variety of intellectual disciplines. One of them is Richard Waswo, who, in his 1997 book, The Founding Legend of Western Civilization, traces the story of the fall of Troy and the founding of Rome by the Trojan survivors to show how it has been represented in Western literature ever since. He calls the story a "legend of perpetual colonisation" that "became the rationale for imperialist attitudes from ancient Rome to Vietnam". He examines the legend from its first expression in The Aeneid , to the Faerie Queene, to the fiction of Joseph Conrad and E. M. Forster, and to its manifestations in the films of John Ford, in the defoliation of Vietnam and in the current policies of the World Bank.
Waswo is not an historian but is Professor of English at the University of Geneva. This has not, however, prevented him from receiving the endorsement of some of America's most celebrated academic historians such as Hayden White, who praises him for having written "a counter-history to the official version, a complete re-reading of the Western canon", and "an indictment of the whole of Western civilization". This last phrase summarises the appeal of the book, not only for aging radicals like White but also for a younger generation of middle-class student protestors. The most prominent among the student rioters against globalisation in Seattle, Washington and Genoa in the past two years were those who learnt their version of Western cultural history at the feet of teachers inspired by authors like Said, Waswo and White.
The claim that Western culture has always defined itself in opposition to others is an assumption that usually goes unquestioned in academic debate today. There is, however, very little to recommend it. Although they have long distinguished themselves from the Barbarians of the world, Europeans do not primarily draw their identity from comparisons with other cultures. Instead, identity comes from their own heritage, from classical Greece, Rome and Christianity. Western identity is overwhelmingly defined by historical references to its earlier selves, rather than by geographical comparisons with others. To claim otherwise is to deny the central thrust of Western education for the past one thousand years.
The argument also displays a highly selective view of imperial history 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 that this thesis defends is no different. The Ottoman Turks ruled most of the Middle East for a thousand years, largely with the concurrence of their Arab subjects. The British and the French displaced them in the nineteenth century, again with the approval of the Arabs, who by then wanted liberation from Ottoman rule. 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. None of this history provokes any censure from the critics of imperialism today, who reserve their reproaches exclusively for the European variety.
Western literature and arts endorse imperialism: Until the last two decades, most people brought up within Western culture believed that its literature, its art and its music were among the glories of its civilization. Western literary criticism once aimed to seek out the genius of its authors and to extol their contribution to defining the human condition. Today, much of the academic debate about the Western literary heritage claims that it is politically contaminated. Some of these charges have long been well known because they offended against the post-1970s ideological triumvirate of gender, race and class: Othello is ethnocentric, Paradise Lost is a feminist tragedy, Jane Eyre is both racist and sexist.
However, Western literature is today most severely rebuked for its support of imperialism. The theorist making this accusation is, again, 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. Said draws on the thesis of the French historical theorist, Michel Foucault, that all knowledge serves the ends of power and that all intellectual disciplines, including literary and art criticism, are politically motivated.
Said argues this has been especially true of the novel, an art form that originated in the eighteenth century when European expansionism knew no boundaries. In his 1993 book Culture and Imperialism he 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 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 acts 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 Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture. They purportedly exhibit the aggressiveness necessitated by the colonial expansion of the European powers. These paintings are primarily 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, the bourgeoisie or some other culpable social class. 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.
Yet such is the authority of the dominant thesis that contemporary writers rush to praise these kinds of analytical crudities. "Readers accustomed to the precision and elegance of Edward Said's analytical prowess," writes the Nobel laureate, Toni Morrison, for the cover blurb of Culture and Imperialism, "will not be disappointed." In return, not surprisingly, Morrison herself earns equally lavish compliments from the same school of criticism.
Of greater concern is the penetration this thesis has achieved in the higher education system. Edward Said is the immediate past president of the Modern Language Association, the principal professional association for teachers of literature at American universities. Publishers of books set for these courses now routinely commission the advocates of such theories to edit and introduce the literary texts that students will study. Penguin Books, for instance, engaged Said himself as editor of its latest edition of Rudyard Kipling's masterpiece, Kim. A like-minded critic was also commissioned to introduce the Penguin Classics edition of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park and to endorse Said's thesis that this quintessentially domestic author was implicated in British imperial expansion.
The Western economic system exploits the rest of the world: According to this ideology, Western prosperity is based on ill-gotten gains. Globalisation, its adherents claim, is a euphemism for American imperialism. The poverty of the Third World is purportedly entrenched by debts from the International Monetary Fund and the free market policies of the World Trade Organisation. Hence, students and trade unionists riot outside the meetings that decide these policies, and church leaders sermonize us to forgive the debt.
Some of this argument is made in historical terms. The capital that funded the industrial revolution, some authors claim, derived from the twin exploitations of colonialism and slavery. Edward Said still cites the work of the Trinidad Marxist, Eric Williams, who argued in Capitalism and Slavery (1944) that profits from the transport and sale of slaves made a substantial contribution to financing the industrial revolution in Britain. Hence, all those subsequent generations of Europeans who have enjoyed the standards of living provided by industrialism have done so from capital accumulated on the backs of black slave labour.
Another celebrated author in the same genre is Andre Gunder Frank whose book ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (1998) rejects the thesis that European entrepreneurship, ingenuity and technological innovation were responsible for the commercial and industrial revolutions between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. "Europe did not pull itself up by its own economic bootstraps," Frank writes, "and it was certainly not thanks to any kind of European 'exceptionalism', of rationality, institutions, entrepreneurship, technology, geniality, in a word - of race". Instead, he claims: "Europe climbed up on the back of Asia, then stood on Asian shoulders - temporarily."
Both these arguments, however, are untenable. Some revisionist historians of British colonialism have recently overturned them. In the newly published Oxford History of the British Empire, for instance, David Richardson analyses the contribution of the slave trade to the industrialism in Britain and finds profits from slaving voyages contributed less than one per cent of total domestic investment in Britain at the time. In other words, slavery was irrelevant to the industrial revolution.
Similarly, the profits from British investments in its empire in the nineteenth century were not exploitative. Historians such as P. J. Marshall, P. G. Cain and A. G. Hopkins have shown British investment benefited India, Africa and South America considerably. It provided the infrastructure of ports, roads, railways and communications that allowed them access to the modern world.
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 kickstart provided by European colonial investment can no longer be blamed on the West. Those who have chosen to emulate the Western model, such as Japan, 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. In Japan's case, the model allowed it to rise from the ashes of total defeat to become a world power in less than forty years.
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. For example, after independence in 1947, India's flirtation with the Soviet bloc and with socialist economics needlessly condemned the country to Third World status, and consigned much of its population to humiliating poverty. Had India chosen the Japanese path, it could have been by now a much greater power than China. It is only in the past decade, with the partial adoption of the liberal economic policies of the capitalist West, that its fortunes have begun to turn around.
Elsewhere in the Third World, American policies of granting and lending money, of setting up factories there and of importing the goods they produce, cannot plausibly be regarded as imperialist exploitation. If it were, the countries involved would hardly be holding out their hands for more. Nor would they be recording the economic growth rates that are the envy of all those who lack the same American investment.
Victimhood should prevail over individualism: Western individualism is another of the targets of this ideology. It regards individualism as both the cause and effect of capitalism, which in its turn produced the imperialism that now oppresses the wretched of the earth. Individualism is also regarded as deriving from such ethnocentric Enlightenment constructs as human rights. It is the one great barrier to a collectivist solution for humankind. So individualism has to go.
In its place, the creed offers victimhood. Its political constituency comprises those it defines -- by whatever stretch of the imagination this might take -- as the underdogs and the marginals of society. Within Western countries, this includes ethnic and racial minorities, women, homosexuals, indigenous peoples, the exiled, the poor, the incarcerated and the insane. Beyond Western society, it includes the masses of the Third World.
It is in pursuit of this political objective that much of the recent revision of the history curriculum has been done. Western history is no longer to be judged by the record of its achievements. Instead, it is to become a story of the struggle of its victims against oppression and discrimination, and of how they have risen to challenge their exploiters. Consequently, the purpose of teaching history becomes to "empower" its victims.
One of the key intellectual concepts of victimhood is that of exile. As the number of refugees, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants around the world mounts, so does the number of exiles. In fact, this is one quality many Western academics believe they have in common with those who now crowd their borders. There are two dimensions to this identification. On the one hand, these intellectuals assume for themselves the role of spokesmen for the poor, the weak and the disadvantaged. They denounce the governments and powerful interests they claim have produced the desperation of the exiles.
On the other hand, intellectuals can share their trauma because, deep down, they are exiles too. Radical intellectuals claim to know what it is like to be psychically banished, to feel displaced, uncertain of their identities, uncommitted to any location. These feelings even extend to those who still live in the country of their birth but who, because of their ethnic or sexual identity, sense they do not quite belong. One fashionable feminist book about a number of Australian women writers is entitled Exiles at Home.
Edward Said claims exile is the real condition of the modern intellectual. Indeed, he says, he knows it at first hand. "My own experience of these matters," he says in Orientalism, "are in part what made me write this book." Like many of his kind, however, Said's claims are self-indulgent fabrications. He is the son of a wealthy Arab-American businessman, and grew up in Cairo in a household with a butler, two drivers and a bevy of servants. He spent his teenage years at an exclusive American private boarding school. He later invented an identity as a Palestinian refugee, a persona that allowed him full exile status:
The life of an Arab Palestinian in the West, particularly in America, is disheartening. There exists here an almost unanimous consensus that politically he does not exist, and when it is allowed that he does, it is either as a nuisance or as an Oriental. The web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanising ideology holding in the Arab or the Muslim is very strong indeed, and it is this web which every Palestinian has come to feel as his uniquely punishing destiny.
Similarly, the Parisian poststructuralist feminist celebrity, Hélène Cixious, complains in a memoir about her adolescent travails as an Algerian Jewish girl in the French colony:
I saw how the white, superior, plutocratic, civilised world funded its power on the repression of populations who had suddenly become "invisible", like proletarians, immigrant workers, minorities who are not the right "colour". Women. Invisible as humans. I saw that the great, noble, "advanced" countries established themselves by expelling what was "strange".
Despite the discrimination and oppression Said and Cixious claim to have suffered, they fail to mention that this same white plutocracy gave both of them tenured university posts that put them among the most materially and occupationally privileged human beings on the planet. Nor do they acknowledge that both enjoy the added indulgence of the freedom to make whatever criticisms they fancy of the countries that sustain them.
The careers of Said and Cixious demonstrate that, while it is one thing for a Western academic to pretend to speak on behalf of the wretched of the earth, it is an even smarter tactic to claim to be one of the wretched yourself. This way you not only become an articulate symbol of all that suffering but you disarm your critics. Your words become sacrosanct. Anyone who doubts you or dares to challenge your claims thereby reveals himself as bigoted and uncaring. You are beyond censure.
The West must be "provincialised": One of the most prominent fields of study produced by this ideology is postcolonialism. This is an intellectual movement focussed primarily on the study of history and literature, although it is usually conducted at such an arcane level of theory that former students of either history or literature would find their subjects unrecognisable. Postcolonial social theorists and critics have gained a major foothold in academic life in the United States.
One of the leading tendencies within postcolonialism is the Subaltern group of Indian historians or, more accurately, Indian theorists about history. In 1994, the American Historical Review, the journal of the leading professional association, devoted an issue to them. The Subalterns took their name from a phrase coined by the Italian Marxist theorist, Antonio Gramsci. Their Indian origins lay in the 1960s middle class Marxist movement, the Naxalites, who emulated the Red Guards of Mao-tse-tung's China by assassinating landlords and police in Bihar province and West Bengal. A number of the movement's members subsequently moved to America and Australia where they gained academic positions teaching history.
Although they address historical topics, the Subalterns offer a radical critique of the discipline, which they see not as a methodology that can be applied to any society but as an ethnocentric product of European culture. History, they assert, is an artefact of the Western nation state. Contesting the imperialism of the West involves contesting its version of history as well. India, of course, gained its independence fifty years ago so one might have thought there has since been plenty of opportunity for its historians to go their own way. The Subalterns insist, however, that they still need to struggle to liberate themselves from European modes of thought, especially English historiography.
Rather than arguing the point at home in India, these theorists choose to do it in the Western education system. Indeed, one reason why there are now so many Indian academics employed in the humanities departments of American universities is because of the network of influence provided by the postcolonial movement.
The aim of their project is to use postmodernist and poststructuralist literary analysis to deconstruct historical documents to recover the voice of the colonial oppressed who, because they were illiterate, left no documents of their own. They want to recover the authentic voice of Indian peasants, bandits and others of low caste and to rewrite them into history. While English historians have generally regarded Mahatma Ghandi and the Congress Party as the leaders of the nationalist struggle against British imperialism, postcolonial historians want to argue that it was actually the work of the Indian lower orders.
In using postmodernism and poststructuralism, the postcolonialists are adopting theoretical tools used by other radical ideologues. The journal Postcolonial Studies describes their political alliances and connections.
Postcolonialism has much in common with other related critical endeavours -- such as women's studies and gay/lesbian studies -- classified under the rubric of the "new humanities". Marked by an underlying scepticism, these closely aligned projects find their shared intellectual vocation in a determined opposition to coercive knowledge systems and, concomitantly, in a committed pursuit and recovery of those ways of knowing which have been occluded -- or, in Foucault's terminology "subjugated" -- by the epistemic accidents of history. Given its particular inheritance, postcolonialism has directed its own critical antagonism toward the universalising knowledge claims of "western civilization".
In other words, although it claims to eschew Western culture, the methodology of the postcolonial critique derives from one radical stream of the West itself. The members of this movement want to reject the West but all they are doing is choosing one aspect of its intellectual culture, European poststructuralist theory, over another, English historiography.
Some of them do recognise this dilemma. Dipesh Chakrabarty, a Subaltern historian recently appointed to a personal chair at the University of Chicago, has written a book called Provincialising Europe (2000), whose title neatly summarises the intellectual ambitions of the movement. Provincialising means to "re-read the European philosophers of modernity in order to show up the parochialism of their imagination".
Chakrabarty also wants to transcend the limits of the methodological assumptions of European forms of investigation. For instance, he wants to incorporate the magical beliefs of traditional India into its history, not as categories to be observed sceptically but as living historical presences. However, he is too committed to the modern intellect to believe in magic himself so the best he can do is revert to the language of the German Nietzschean philosopher, Martin Heidegger, and recommend his hermeneutic analysis of "particular ways of being-in-the-world". In short, Chakrabarty would rather withdraw into arcane and largely irrelevant theoretical speculation than adopt the contaminated tools of English historiography.
Despite the substantial academic and publishing resources now being invested in it, and despite its claim to be showing both Indians and other oppressed peoples how to recover their own epistemological independence, postcolonialism is a profoundly backward intellectual movement. There is nothing about it that is innovatively non-Western or, indeed, original in any way. To use a favourite term of one of its other gurus, the University of Chicago literary theorist Homi Bhabha, it is yet another example of colonial "mimicry" of the West. Only, in this case, it shuns the most positive aspects of the Western intellectual tradition in order to mimic the worst.
Western values are culturally relative: In 1987, the American philosopher Allan Bloom opened his withering dissection of the faults of the higher education system, The Closing of the American Mind, with the observation of the triumph of relativism. "There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of," he remarked, "almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative." In the face of the various claims to truth and the divergent ways of life that characterise modern society, higher education had responded, Bloom argued, by promoting the idea that the real danger was the true believer. This, he noted with bitter irony, was "the great insight of our times".
The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.
More than a decade on, Bloom's observation not only continues to be confirmed but relativism has become institutionalised in the higher education sector and is now taught as a formal doctrine. This is accomplished both through broad intellectual tendencies such as postmodernism and poststructuralism as well as in particular curriculum areas such as cultural studies, anthropology, literary theory, women's studies, the sociology of science, and the history and philosophy of science.
One of the intellectual devices by which this has been accomplished is through a change in the meaning of the term "culture". Until recent decades, this term was widely used in the sense established by Matthew Arnold in his great nineteenth century tract, Culture and Anarchy, where it meant "the best that has been thought and said". His concept of artistic excellence and of its critical appreciation by an educated elite provided the principal rationale for the teaching of the humanities for the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.
At the same time, however, the discipline of anthropology had its own meaning for the term. Anthropologists used culture in the sense defined by the nineteenth century German romantic movement, by which it meant the whole way of life of a distinct people. As academic politics after the 1960s succumbed to a fierce kind of egalitarianism in which excellence and elitism became pejorative terms, the Arnoldian definition lost its position. The belief that all cultures were equal took its place.
This notion of cultural relativism entailed a radical re-thinking of Western intellectual life. In aesthetic criticism, it meant traditional standards had to be jettisoned. Italian opera could no longer be regarded as superior to Chinese opera. The theatre of Shakespeare was not better than that of Kabuki, only different.
In political thought, the pursuit of universal values such as human rights became suspect. Rather than principles that were eternal or self-evident, cultural relativists said these values were bound by their own time and space. They were simply the ethno-centric products of the eighteenth century European Enlightenment. Instead of human rights, the fashionable term became social justice. Human rights not only derive from the West but they have also been written down in declarations and laws, so it is possible to check what they mean. Social justice lacks these qualities but this gives it the advantage of meaning whatever you want it to. Moreover, there is no way of ever telling when it is satisfied. Social justice thus offers an unlimited vista of political appeal.
The major problems for the acceptance of cultural relativism have come from its source in anthropology. Cultural practices from which most Westerners instinctively shrink, such as cannibalism, human sacrifice, the incineration of widows and female genital mutilation, have had to be accorded their own integrity, lest the culture that produced them be demeaned.
This has not been easy but the feminist movement has been the leader in coming to the rescue. Although they initially found the overt misogyny of many tribal cultures distasteful, feminists in recent years have come to respect practices they once condemned. Feminist academics now deny that sati is barbaric. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak gives it an honourable place in Indian culture by comparing it to the Christian tradition of martyrdom. Female genital mutilation has been redefined as genital "cutting", which Germaine Greer 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), compared cannibalism to the Christian Eucharist, and the Australian postmodern historian, Greg Dening, in Mr Bligh's Bad Language (1992), declared human sacrifice to be the ritual equivalent of capital punishment.
To any outside observer, something is obviously going terribly wrong here. The logic of their 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.
The reality is that if all cultures are relative then we are faced with moral nihilism. If values are always expressions of something called culture, and there are no universal moral principles, then no culture can itself be subjected to any values, because there could be no trans-cultural values to stand in judgement over any particular culture. Cultural relativism, in short, approves any cultural practice at all, no matter how barbaric. It is a philosophy of anything goes.
Moreover, cultural relativists are faced with two other unresolvable dilemmas. They endorse as legitimate other cultures that do not return the compliment. Some other cultures, of which the best known is Islam, will have no truck with relativism of any kind. The devout are totally confident of the universalism of their own beliefs, which derive from the dictates of God, an absolute authority who is external to the world and its cultures. They regard a position such as Western cultural relativism as profoundly mistaken and, moreover, insulting. Relativism devalues their faith because it reduces it to merely one of many equally valid systems of meaning. So, entailed within cultural relativism is, first, an endorsement of absolutisms that deny it, and, second, a demeaning attitude to cultures it claims to respect.
Western knowledge is culturally relative: Despite the overwhelming success of the scientific methods developed in Europe from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, the critics of Western culture still insist that truth is relative. Western knowledge is only one kind of knowledge and Western methodologies are only one of the "ways of knowing".
There are a number of sources of this cognitive relativism but the most popular is that of the French Nietzschean theorist, Michael Foucault, who argues that truth and objectivity are Western conceits. All knowledge is bound by culture, he claims. Within each culture, knowledge is generated for political purposes. Hence, Western knowledge is politically beholden to the powerful. To signify this interconnectivity, Foucault calls it "power/knowledge".
This is a congenial argument for postcolonial historians. They believe that Western empirical methods were among the forces that subjugated the Orient, so they regard empiricism and its quest for objective knowledge as a form of imperialism. This is why they are so enamoured of the subjective hermeneutics, or literary interpretations, that prevail in postmodernism and cultural studies. Objectivity equals domination; subjectivism equals intercultural equality and respect.
If taken seriously, this means that science can no longer be regarded as a universal method for discovering truths. Moreover, it means that any reasonably coherent doctrine or body of beliefs can produce "truths" of its own. Science is thus reduced to one belief system among many. This view is especially popular within the fields of cultural studies and the sociology of knowledge where science is invariably termed "Western science", in order to differentiate it from its ostensible competitors. As one of Australia's leading academic sociologists, R. W. Connell, has put it:
The idea that Western rationality must produce universally valid knowledge increasingly appears doubtful. It is, on the face of it, ethnocentric. Certain Muslim philosophers point to the possibility of grounding science in different assumptions about the world, specifically those made by Islam, and thus develop the concept of Islamic science.
This claim, however, is no different from some of the more grotesque historical examples of relativism in science: for instance, the conflict between "Aryan" and "Jewish physics", which set back German science under the Nazi regime, and the claims by the Marxist plant geneticist, T. D. Lysenko, to have developed a "proletarian" approach to science, in opposition to "bourgeois" science. The application of Lysenko's methods to agriculture not only produced a series of disastrous crop failures in the USSR in the 1930s and 1940s, but was partly responsible for the Chinese famine of 1958-62, the worst in human history, which caused the deaths of between thirty and forty million people during the so-called Great Leap Forward.
One can only wish that, instead of deploying armaments produced by Western technology, the present armed forces and terrorist cells of some Islamic countries heed the advice of the postcolonial theorists and adopt the inventions of Muslim science instead. The most recent Muslim innovation in armaments was the Mameluke curved sabre of the fourteenth century.
The truth is that the scientific method developed by the West is a universal method and its success is sufficient to refute any theory about the relativism of truth. Western science makes genuine discoveries. Western knowledge works, and none of the others do with remotely the same effectiveness. To say this, however, is not to be ethnocentric. Western knowledge has nothing whatever to do with racism, or the elevation of one segment of humanity over another. It endorses a style of knowledge and its implementation, not any particular race of people or ethnic group. This style of knowledge did, of course, have to emerge somewhere and at some time, and to this extent it certainly has links with the Western intellectual tradition. It emerged in this social context, but it is clearly accessible to people of any background. Far from being bound by Western culture, Western science belongs to the whole of humanity.
Culture prevails over civilization: When Silvio Berlusconi spoke of Western civilization rather than Western culture, he was reviving terminology that cultural relativism has rendered uncomfortable. The term "civilization" is not archaic but is actually a concept from the modern era. The word did not come into use until the 1770s. The first time it entered Dr Johnson's English dictionary was the fourth edition of 1772, and it was only accepted by the dictionary of the French Academy in 1798.
Civilization was a concept born in the European Enlightenment and was identified principally with societies that were based on reason, that were open to new ideas, and that looked to the wider world for inspiration. In Germany at the same time, the romantic movement arose in opposition to this. Instead of reason as the basis of social organization, romanticism emphasised organic connections to the land and the virtues of closed rather than open communities. Civilization implied there was a hierarchy of human societies and that there were some who had not made the grade. Civilization meant establishing a polity on rational principles like liberalism and democracy whereas romanticism emphasized the bloodlines of ethnicity and race.
"Civilization" was in common use for the next two centuries. However, it became one of the first casualties of the culture wars of the post-Vietnam War era. After the 1970s it was widely regarded as politically incorrect. Subsequently, it took on an embarrassed and apologetic demeanour and was retained primarily as token usage.
In its place, the romantic concept of culture as a whole way of life came to prevail. Such a view was a direct result of the rise to intellectual prominence of the creed identified here. Its version of culture recognises no hierarchies and no excellence. Western civilization is just another culture. Cultures are beyond good and evil. Accordingly, "cultural studies" is the field that now dominates academic teaching and research in the humanities, in triumph over its adversary, the cultivation of civilization.
Ultimately, this is why Silvio Berlusconi's reference to the superiority of "our civilization" was so shocking and why so many of his European peers reacted in horror. He threw aside the conceptual shroud that had smothered these issues for so long. While Berlusconi's usage was striking, however, it was not original. He was echoing words already used by the American president. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, George W. Bush described the terrorist assaults as "an attack on civilization". This instinctive response was the real breakthrough, and is perhaps the one positive outcome of those terrible events. The assaults left anyone who could think for himself with a sudden clarity of vision about what was at stake. This is why radicals like Susan Sontag went out of their way to mock and subvert Bush's usage, by putting terms like civilization and liberty within scare quotes to undermine their authority, thereby trying, unsuccessfully, to restore the ideological shroud.
We are fortunate there is still a generation that understands the term civilization and is prepared to use it in all its connotations. For it still signifies the yawning chasm that exists between open societies based on universal principles and closed, self-absorbed communities based on relativist, tribal values. If the Western intellectual left had its way, the word would be expunged from memory. If that ever happened, it would be that much harder for the heirs of Western civilization to appreciate all it has achieved and, above all, to be prepared to defend it.