Cultural Pluralism

At the end of the nineteenth century, James George Frazer published a twelve volume study of various cultural practices from ancient times to our own. The book was titled The Golden Bough and was later brought out in a single volume, much edited, and has had a profound influence on cultural anthropology. Indeed, many regard it as a classic. I recently began to peruse the volume and found the following rather startling passage regarding the treatment of young women in primitive tribes:

“When symptoms of puberty appeared on a girl for the first time, the Guaranis of Southern Brazil, on the borders of Paraguay, used to sew her up in a hammock, leaving only a small opening in it to allow her to breathe. In this condition, wrapt up and shrouded like a corpse, she was kept for two or three days or as long as her symptoms lasted, and during this time she had to endure a most rigorous fast.”

This is only one of the practices enumerated by Frazer; several so-called “primitive” cultures did whatever necessary to seclude these young women from other members of the tribe until they had outgrown their “malady.” This includes the example of young women being secluded for as long as seven years in small tent-like buildings raised off the ground — until it was determined that they were safe to be among the other members of the community. Such passages are among the many Frazer includes by way of enlightening us about the way people have behaved over the centuries. And we might include in this list the ancient practice of Sati in which the husband’s wife is thrown on the funeral pyre at his death. Or it might include clitoridectomies in young women performed by a number of primitive tribes — with no anesthetic and with dull tools — to assure that those women become less promiscuous in their adult years. The list goes on and on.

In our day a postmodern army has taken over the universities and is intent on instructing the young about the crimes that have been committed in the name of Western Civilization; it makes a point of insisting that our civilization is rotten at the core and that, in the name of “cultural diversity,” students should learn about the superiority of other cultures. And all other cultures are ipso facto superior to our own, it is said. I dare say, Frazer’s book is not on the reading list. Nor is any mention made of the practices of the Guaranis. Nor, in all likelihood, are the other practices mentioned above. The idea is to make a point and that point is that Western Civilization is the main, perhaps the only, source of the many ills that have befallen humankind. It is only we, in the West, who are capable of unconscionable behavior to our fellow humans.

I am as aware as anyone else of the atrocities that have been committed — and indeed are even today committed — by our culture. I am aware of slavery and the abominable treatment of women and children for so many years; I am also aware of the genocide that was practiced against the native people of this continent in order to bring “civilization” to the New World. I am aware of the atrocities that are committed, even today  in the name of capitalism and “freedom” that have resulted in the widespread poverty of millions of people in this country alone in order that a few can become terribly wealthy. I am, in general, aware of the sins committed by Western Civilization as it spread across the globe in an attempt to “civilize” the rest of the world.

But I am also aware that capitalism has made it possible for many to have so much more than they would otherwise have; that Western medicine has prolonged life and made us healthier than humans ever were before. I am aware of the beauty and the magnificence of the cathedrals that tower far into the sky in the name of God and “peace on earth,” and of the hundreds of thousands of beautiful works of art that are displayed around the world. As noted, I am also aware that the things we have done in the name of civilization are in many cases unconscionable. And it is this awareness, which applies to our own culture no less than it does to others equally barbarous, that is the result of the lessons that have been learned as Western Civilization was aborning. That includes the awareness of human rights — the rights of ALL humans. It also includes the awareness that such practices as Sati and clitoridectomies in young women are barbaric and violate universal moral principles such as the rights of all humans not to suffer needlessly. Finally, this awareness has raised moral outrage to a fever pitch in this country over the forced separation of children from their parents who seek asylum, forcing our would-be dictator to rescind his order and alter his plans — or so he says. That is to say, the awareness itself is the major prize of Western Civilization.

If we are going to teach young Americans to be more aware of the shortcomings of their own culture, it behooves us to also teach them of the strengths of their culture along with the shortcomings of other cultures. There is no such thing as “cultural superiority.” No culture on earth is without its errors, blunders, and atrocities. Ours is not unique in that regard.

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Militant Multiculturalism

I have held forth on a number of occasions (too many, some might say) about the battles going on in the Higher Education since at least the 1960s when the wheels started to fall off. The battles take many faces but occur under the umbrella term “postmodernism,” a new age that will replace the old. One of those faces is that of “multiculturalism,” which has become increasingly militant and focuses on an attack against Western Civilization — regarded as the source of all major problems now confronting the world. It began with an attack on the “establishment” in the 1960s and expanded to take in the whole of Western Civilization, especially during the Viet Nam war, because of  the West’s consistent pattern of aggression and exploitation in an attempt to bring other peoples to their knees and force them to yield up their treasure  — exacerbated  by the presumption of greatness on the part of Western Europe and America and Western art, literature, and philosophy, in particular.

It’s a movement that is well intended, to be sure, though it tends to dwell all too intently on the failures of the Western way of looking at the world. To be sure, there have been terrible mistakes, such as genocide, greed, slavery, pointless wars, and intolerance of other ways of looking the world. But in the tossing out process something precious is being glossed over and in the tizzy to replace the old with the new some important elements are being ignored or forgotten altogether.

Beaten down by this attack, for example, are the “Great Books” of Western Civilization which are now regarded as the villains in the drama, the source of the ideas that have made our culture rotten at the core — though one must wonder how many the zealots have bothered to read any of those books. Indeed, it is mainly dwindling numbers of old geezers such as myself who continue to spit into the wind while defenders of the New Age proudly display their ignorance and triumph in their new-won victories. Their goal is to “rid the world of colonial oppression,” to convert students to one way of thinking, toss out the old, and pave the way to a new and more open way of engaging the world in an effort at what its called “globalization.” And they are winning. Indeed, they may have already won.

One of the old geezers to have joined the battle in a rear-guard effort save the humanities — where these battles have been fought for the most part — is Anthony Kronman of Yale University who has written a book that describes the battles in some detail in an effort to save what remains and perhaps even to resuscitate the humanities as they lie dying in agony from self-inflicted wounds. His book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges And Universities Have Given Up On the Meaning of Life, points out some of the many ironies of the attack on the tradition that is being replaced. To begin with, there is the fact that replacing our culture with another, presumably superior, culture would require a total immersion in that culture, which is not possible — even in theory — for American students who have spent their lives inculcating scraps from the very culture they hope to displace. Furthermore, the attack on Western Civilization draws on the categories and ideals of that very civilization which also provides the intellectual framework, such as it is, for that attack. And ironically those ideas and ideals are endemic to most, if not all, of the cultures that are regarded by the militants as superior to our own from whence they arose. As Kronman points out:

“The ideals of individual freedom and toleration; of democratic government; of respect for the rights of minorities and for human rights generally; a reliance on markets as a mechanism for the organization of economic life and the recognition of the need for markets to be regulated by a supervenient political authority; a reliance, in the political realm, on the methods of bureaucratic administration, with its formal functions and legal separation of office from officeholder; an acceptance of the truths of modern science and the ubiquitous employment of its technical products: all these provide, in many parts of the world, the existing foundations of political, social, and economic life, and where they do not, they are viewed as aspirational goals toward which everyone has the strongest moral and material reasons to strive.  . . . all of them, all of these distinctively modern ideas and institutions, are of Western origin. . . . The ideas and institutions of the West, liberated from the accidental limits of their historical beginnings, have become the common possession of humanity.”

Moreover, as Kronman points out,

“The idea of tolerance [which the militants champion] finds support in many traditions, especially religious ones. But only in the modern West did it become — fitfully, hesitantly, but with increasing clarity and determination– an axiom of political life.”

I have often noted that we seem to be throwing out the baby with the bath water, but those who would do the throwing couldn’t care less as they reach left and right for the latest Western evil to be tossed. However, while there are indeed many reasons to feel disdain for our past, even terrible, mistakes that we in the West have made, there are also so many things that are worth saving and preserving. To be sure, the universities should be open to new ideas and make the students aware of the many cultures around the world other than their own — all of which also have made mistakes, by the way. But at the same time they should seek to preserve the best of what we have all learned from our own past in order to pass those things along. Healthy criticism is a good thing along with honest appraisal and a weighing of pros and cons, but a hysterical rejection of all things Western in the name of “tolerance” is itself the most intolerant view one can possibly exhibit.

Under Attack

I often wonder how many people outside the Academy realize (or care?) how severe the attack on Western Civilization is within the Academy as students and faculty on a growing number of campuses across the country have determined that Western Civilization is the source of most of the world’s  problems today.  Indeed, I wonder how many people within the Academy are aware of the seriousness of the problem.

In a recent acceptance speech at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni annual banquet, one of the recipients of their “Philip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education,” Ms Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Fellow at the John Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, paints a bleak picture indeed. She cites a battle at Stanford University in 2016 in which a group of students sought to reinstate a course requirement in “Western Civilization” that had been eradicated 25 years ago. The attempt was overwhelmingly rejected by the student body.

“In the run-up to the vote, one Stanford student [a young woman in this case] wrote in the Stanford Daily that ‘a Western Civ requirement would necessitate that our education be centered on upholding white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism, and all other oppressive systems that flow from Western civilizations.'”

The ignorance of this student’s comment beggars belief and, sad to say, it is a view that is shared by what many think is the majority of students (and faculty) on today’s campuses. Let’s take a look at this comment.

To begin with, one course requirement would not result in an education “centered” on Western Civilization. The is what logicians call a “straw man” and it is a fallacy. The young lady would know this if she knew more about Western Civilization, since logic was first formalized by Aristotle and later refined by the Schoolastics during the Middle Ages. In any event, even if the course were required, it would not comprise the whole of the students’ study for his or her four years. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that there could not also be a requirement in “Eastern Civilization” as well. But, more to the point, the comment ignores the benefits of Western Civilization that this student has chosen to ignore — if, indeed, she was aware of them. I speak of such things as women’s equality, the abolition of slavery, individual freedom, religious tolerance, and freedom of expression (which makes possible ignorant comments like that of the student in question). As Ms Ali points out:

“One cannot dismiss the sum total of Western Civilization without losing one’s moral compass. And one cannot participate meaningfully in the battle of ideas raging in the world today while dismissing the value of Western Civilization as a whole.”

While there are many things to note and regret about the luggage that has been brought with them by folks who have struggled to create what we call “Western Civilization,” and here we would have to acknowledge the half-truth hidden in the rhetoric of the Stanford student, we must insist upon a wider perspective and note the extraordinary beauty in Western art, the intellectual triumphs, the moral gains (as noted above) that form the warp and woof of Western Civilization. Perspective, when speaking of such a large issue, is essential. And this student has lost hers entirely (if she ever had it to begin with). To take an obvious example, capitalism, for all its faults, has made it possible for this particular student to attend one of the most prestigious universities in the world. She bites the hand that feeds her.

As one who has read, taught, and defended the Great Books of the Western World I have an obvious bias against this sort of blanket condemnation. But even if this were not the case, the intolerance built into the ignorant comment by this student would be disquieting. After all, college is a place where one broadens one’s mind, not shrinks it — ideally. And the comment reflects the growing attitude on many college campuses across the country that results in the exclusion of certain “types” of speakers from appearing on campus, because they represent views that are regarded as unacceptable. This includes Ms Ali who was denied access to Brandeis University by militant students and faculty  after initially being invited to speak about the crisis within Islam and receive an honorary degree. It is an attitude that has also resulted in the prohibition against saying certain words or thinking certain thoughts, an attitude that reflects a fascist approach to eduction — if this is not, in fact, a contradiction in terms. The “battle of ideas” requires that we keep an open mind.

My concerns are obvious to anyone who has read any of my blogs. But I do not think they are misplaced or even exaggerated. Higher education is supposed to be a place where the students do not learn certain things, necessarily, but they learn to use their minds to determine which things are worth knowing and which things are not. And a blanket condemnation of the whole of “Western Civilization” by a group of students at Stanford University who, we may assume, know little or nothing about that which they reject, is nothing short of presumptuous, if not arrogant. And the fact that the faculty at Stanford did not take the lead in determining which courses were to be required in the first place is also to be regretted, but not surprising in an age in which the students and the children are mistaken for those who should lead rather than follow. And here we have a graphic example of why they should not be allowed to lead.