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2, 4, 6, 8–Okay, The Numbers Were Not A Good Idea

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So, to get back to where I was yesterday–Henry’s book isn’t actually about literature, or even the arts, specifically.  He has something to say about them, but it’s in passing.  His major bone of contention is what we would now call “multicutluralism,” which is an approach to cultural diversity that says that all culturals are equal to all others, that no culture can be called superior to any other.

Part of the problem I’m having trying to think of a way to talk about this is in the fact that the words are all vague or inadequate.  By that, I mean the words to define what it is we’re talking about.

“Culture” is one of those things that’s so broad in its general usage as to be almost useless.  People say “Western culture” when what they mean is “Western Civilization,” but also when what they mean is “the way people in the West live now.”  People talk about the “culture” of the “knitting community.”  They also talk about “the culture of consumption,” meaning a lifestyle thread within the larger “culture” that is distinct and…I don’t know.  Totalizing?

Henry tends to use “culture” almost as a synonym for civilization, but not quite, which makes things difficult to sort out sometimes.

His point, however, is that some cultures are superior to others, and some are inferior to others. 

Outside of diehard ideologues, I don’t think much of anybody would find this a controversial idea.  Even those of us who don’t want to say so, because it would be rude and hurt other people’s feelings, tend to think that a culture that favors FGM, the right of men to beat their wives and the banishment of women from public life is inferior to one that accords women equal economic, political and social rights with men.

For myself, in terms of modern cultures, what always strikes me about the Islamic states now in existence is the extent to which they are unable to maintain themselves in any meaningful way.  Places like Saudi Arabia have lots of money, bought from sales of oil.  And they have modern, well-functioning hospitals, impressive architecture, everything you could want technologically–but by and large the have to hire Europeans, Americans and Australians to build and run these things.

This is not, obviously, some genetic defect on the part of the people of these countries, making them incapable of learning science and technology.  Saudis and Iranians who come here to live often do very well as doctors and engineers.  The people who remain at home, however, seem to either not want, or to be in some way culturally prevented from, scientific and technoloigical achievement.  Or even scientific and technological functioning.

The other thing that strikes me about cultures as they now exist on the planet is the extent to which they can be divided into those that do, and those that do not, contribute to global welfare.

This–like the scientific and technological stuff above–is not necessarily a function of the wealth of the countries or cultures involved.  There are poor states all along the Pacific rim that provide goods and services to the rest of the world at prices cheap enough to bring comfort and entertainment to people who might otherwise not be able to afford it.

More importantly, though, there are cultures that produce technological innovation, medical and other scientific discovery, books and movies and music and other artworks–whose output positively affects the lives of people in hundreds of different ways.

There are others that produce little or nothing of this kind of thing. 

And I would say that the societies who do are superior, at least on that measure, to the ones that don’t.

The worry, of course–the reason why so many people shy away from this kind of judgment–is that if we acknowledge that one culture is better than another, we will also be endorsing the idea that the first culture has the right (or maybe even the obligation) to invade and conquer the second.

After all, wouldn’t it be just for the second culture’s own good?

I do not, personally, understand why this needs to be so.  Of course, lots of people think it’s necessary to forcibly intervene when they see somebody acting in a way that “isn’t good for him,” but I’ve never had that particular kink. 

And there is nothing intrinsic to acknowleging relative values to different cultures that requires anybody to intervene to “fix” the ones that are less than ideal.

Henry, to be fair, does not suggest that we should do any such thing.

What he does say, in his list of things that make one civlization/culure superior to another, is that a superior civilization keeps its citizens “safe,” in the sense of keeping them from being invaded and taken over by some other civilization.

In other words, that any conquered culture is–by the very fact that it has been conquered–inferior to the culture that conquers it.

And that’s an idea I keep running around a lot.

Henry’s attributes of a superior civilization comprise the following:

1) It “promotes the liberty of its citizens”  That is–it “fends off invaders”  So the issue in contention here is the first one.

2) “provides a comfortable life, relatively free from want, for a plupart of its citizens”   I find the “relatively” here very interesting. 

3) “promotes modern science, medicine and hygiene and otherwise maximizes the health, comfort and longevity of its citizens”

4) “produces permanent artifacts that express esthetic and humanistic principles appreciated by other cultures”  There’s a lot in that one.  The “appreciated by other cultures” thing is a potential can of worms.  But I’ll get there.

5) “provides widespread, rigorous general education and ensures a generally meritocratic admissions system, so that the chief talents of each generation will be fully exploited”

6) “expands, by trade or cultural imperialism or conquest or all of the above, and will find its tenets embraced by the erstwhile captives even when the era of expansion is over”

7) “organizes itself hierarchically, tends toward central authority, and overcomes tribal and regional divisions, all without suppressing the individual opportunity for self-expression and advancement”

It’s an interesting list, and I’ve tried to quote it directly rather than paraphrasing it, so that I’m as accurate as I can be.

But it’s worth thinking about–and the problem with it are even more worth thinking about.

And I may do that tomorrow.

Written by janeh

June 10th, 2010 at 6:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to '2, 4, 6, 8–Okay, The Numbers Were Not A Good Idea'

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  1. My copy of Henry arrived today. If I sidetrack rereading THE MASTER AND MARGARITA, I can comment comprehensively tomorrow. I may not. Henry just isn’t that interesting.

    Please note that he doesn’t just not “appear” to be a conservative. He makes a great parade in his first chapter of his credentials as a liberal Democrat, and goes out of his way to slander individual Republicans for matters having nothing to do with his theme. Indeed, it’s hard to come up with a policy he’s denouncing not introduced by a politician he supported. (You have to be a bit unreflective to both denounce racial quotas and announce that Hubert Humphrey is one of your heroes.)

    His discussions of pre-Columbian America and Columbus Day don’t quite reach that duty of cultural intervention you describe–but I can see how you could get there from where he stands.

    As for the attributes of a superior culture, I think “attributes” is exactly the right word. I don’t think they DEFINE a sort of culture at all. They’re things Henry likes, so a culture is superior–to Henry–if they do the things he likes. Only (6) I think, has some serious validity as a measure of cultures and not likes and dislikes, and that only in part. When people who don’t have to do so adopt a culture, or aspects of a culture, this is a worthwhile measure of cultural superiority.

    You could play around with the rest of the laundry list all day. Is Egyptian culture inferior to Hittite because it seldom ventured far from the Nile Valley (6), or superior because stone pyramids outlast mud-brick cities (4)? Is Iron Age Britain superior to Iron Age southern Africa because screen savers are more likely to be Stonehenge than Great Zimbabwe? Surely there are better measures of relative worth.

    (1) and (7) are stumbling around toward a workable definition of civilization or culture itself–that to be a distinct civilization, it has to be able to enforce some standard of behavior–not necessarily with billy clubs, but in some fashion. (Being blackballed from the best clubs might work.)

    But just a reminder about defining cultural superiority by fending off invaders–it’s temporary. As surely as every one of us that breathes will someday be put into the earth, every nation, empire or civilization has a day of reckoning ahead. I do not believe that the current Afghan War will be America’s–or the West’s–Syracuse Expedition, but if it is not, there is surely an Adrianople, a Manzikert or a Rocroi in our future nonetheless. All the labor, treasure and lives we spend on our armies and police are to postpone that day, not to prevent it.

    I don’t think such a thing makes a culture “inferior” any more than Abraham Lincoln is inferior to John Wilkes Booth for being killed by him. But it is a measure of a great culture that after such events, something comes forth from the ashes.


    10 Jun 10 at 5:44 pm

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