Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Western Values and Physical Space

I like reading Andrew Sullivan because he's a gay conservative who refuses to adopt the descriptor "Republican." Sullivan's essays can be shrill at times, but he is also a sharp thinker who admits mistakes, apologizes for going over the top, and even revisits predictions from weeks previous (eating crow if need be). Because he's gay, his relationship with "traditional" conservatives is sometimes rocky-- this has made him, I believe, more of a thinking conservative than, say, the Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler, whom I enjoy, but who is too far right for my modest, saner, nondualist taste. Sullivan also has a knack for spotting trends-- and may even be in the avant-garde, initiating them. For example, his beef against the BBC and his predictions about its possible fall from grace were made months ago; his rants about British citizens having to pay a tax that effectively goes to the BBC, whether the citizens want it to or not, may have helped spark some activism in the UK. Catch his most recent anti-BBC rant here.

Sullivan is also unapologetic about the war effort, and says so in this piece.

My problem here, though, is the same problem I have with Steven Den Beste's justifications for the war: both thinkers may have out-thought the Bush administration, which in my opinion hasn't done nearly as good a job at making its case as the conservative (and some liberal hawk) apologists have. From some of Sullivan's writings, I gather he does have access, through journalistic connections, to a certain degree of inside information. But Den Beste? Not so sure. When you read his bio, you get the impression you're reading a really smart guy who should have inside connections but probably doesn't. His justifications for war make sense, but I have the sneaking suspicion that they're based largely on very educated conjecture and not on any substantive access to real sources inside the Administration. Maybe Den Beste would respond that his conjectures are rather obvious, and people like me are simply too distracted by swirling details to see the deep trends and underlying arguments that are moving events forward.

Den Beste describes himself as "results-oriented" in his thinking. If you read his recent fascinating piece (a lengthy response to an email in which he deals with issues like the Enlightenment, the Reformation, Puritanism, and Islamic fundamentalism), you'll see that, in the case of the Muslim question, his focus is on the issue of Them killing Us. I admire Den Beste's pragmatism, and consider him a bit less triumphalist than Bill Whittle (whose essays I also enjoy). But is the Bush administration "results-oriented" in the same manner as Den Beste? I somehow doubt it. And it makes me wonder how relevant Den Beste's remarks ultimately are. Anyone can provide post hoc justifications; how well they correspond to what's actually been going on inside the Bush camp is another issue entirely. This is most plain to me when Den Beste makes claims about what he views as the Bush adminstration's real motives in Iraq. Not to say I disagree with him: in fact, I agree with a lot of what he's been saying. But can he truly speak with assurance about matters to which the public isn't privy?

Better predictions of complex events arise from having a good grasp of many factors. The more factors you consider, the more accurate your model for prediction will be. There's always the possibility of chaos, of course, and no prediction, viewed in detail, ever truly pans out as formulated. But questions of a prediction's rightness or wrongess are usually relegated to the level of least fine resolution-- the brute "yes/no," for example, of whether we can expect a decrease in terrorism against American interests over the next decade or three. Conservative thinkers like Whittle and Den Beste and Sullivan would argue yes; some would push the argument so far as to say that we're already seeing evidence of a dropoff. Liberals would probably argue no. In my case, my own lingering doubts about unintended consequences make me lean a little more leftward. I think it's far, far too early to speak with assurance about our future security (Den Beste actually agrees that things are tenuous right now). I do, however, strongly agree with the conservatives who say we cannot undertake this effort in Iraq and elsewhere in a half-hearted manner. My agreement stems partly from resignation: war happened, so now we have to move along with the plan.

There is an axiological aspect of this issue that begs consideration. Is it inappropriate-- even cruel-- to wish to impose our values on others? Do we have the right to consider ourselves in the right? Den Beste has this to say:

Let's be clear that the fundamental strategy behind this war isn't totally unprecedented, but its application to the specific situation among the Arabs and Muslims is certainly fraught with uncertainty. It is not at all clear that we'll succeed at this. However, I believe we have no choice but to try, because if we do not then eventually someone will start using nukes and a hell of a lot more people will die.

I am sufficiently convinced of the Enlightenment ideals which inspired the American branch of the movement that I do actually think that we can succeed, and that creation of a liberal democracy in Iraq actually will make the people there more happy and more successful. I do not think that the fact that these ideas will have been imposed on them is a significant problem.

I don't think it's a problem ideologically, since I do not accept the multicultural axiom that cross-cultural pollution is inherently bad. I also don't think it's a practical problem, in the sense that the Arabs will somehow reject these ideas solely because they are foreign.

The evidence to the contrary is too strong. Part of why the extremists hate us is exactly that our ideas have been filtering into their nations and have been embraced by their young people. Their young people want to wear fancy clothes and hang out at the mall and date whoever they want and choose their own husbands and wives. They want to go to night clubs and dance; they want to listen to loud music. This embrace of our culture by their young people is one of the big reasons that the extremists hate us, because we're seducing their young people away.

If the narrow issue is one of our own survival and self-interest, then I don't think any American, liberal or conservative, can argue that the propagation of American values is a bad thing.

But is "embrace of our culture" the same as "embrace of our values"? Could Den Beste et al. be conflating the two?

Whether Western values do in fact take root in societies that have undergone so-called "nation building" is, in my opinion, open to question. Since I'm living in Seoul, I'll use South Korea (and what little I know about Japan) as a case study.

Den Beste and others have highlighted countries like Japan and Germany and South Korea as positive examples of nation building. This argument was, in fact, trotted out as an early rebuttal to liberal worrywarts who, like me (please don't call me politically liberal, though I don't mind being accused of religious liberalism), had grave doubts about the consequences of war and nation building. If Den Beste's judgment is rooted in his estimation of how compliant these countries have become-- i.e., how resistant to war against the US-- then of course he is correct that nation-building has led to results in the US's favor.

Is a country's apparent docility the only yardstick by which to measure a situation, though? I won't argue against the case of Germany. Germany, being a Western country, already shares so many values with America that Den Beste's argument seems to hold. But Japan... or South Korea?

Evidence of Westernization is all around me here in Seoul. The architecture of the tall buildings, the design of the better PC-bahng (Net cafes), the clothing fashion, the pop music-- so much reeks of Western rip-off or borrowing. Korean women (and some men) undergo surgery to widen their eyes. Everyone seems intent on dyeing their hair so that it's anything but the natural black (which, by the way, I favor, ladies! black is beautiful!). Colored contacts, which I began to see in Seoul in the mid-90s, are still alive and kicking. American market penetration is deep in terms of fast food (and the concomitant fast food culture), cinema (American films still dominate the market, though Korean films are rapidly gaining prestige... mainly because the filmmakers have begun adopting American cinematic techniques), and even language. A Chinese classmate of mine complained last year about how modern Korean includes too many English loan words. Too bad! Free exchange of ideas can lead to linguistic cross-pollination and accelerated linguistic evolution. This is only natural. Merken Sie gut, Frankreich!

But do the above examples of Westernization constitute compelling evidence of a sea change in societal values?

I would argue not that no such sea change is visible, but that it's not nearly as deep as some would contend. The evidence of my daily interactions leads me to believe that Koreans remain thoroughly Korean in terms of their deeper values and outlook. The Confucian ethic probably has more to do with social cohesion in both South Korea and Japan than does some recently-internalized Western notion of "rule of law," for example. A lot of this is reinforced by the nature of the Korean and Japanese languages, which both evolved to accommodate notions of social hierarchy. And ask any disgruntled expatriate teacher in Japan or Korea about how Japanese and Korean bosses regard paper contracts! The role of logos in East Asian society is nothing like it is in the West, and that's a values issue.

A lot of this is also reinforced by something only tangentially addressed by Bill Whittle, but not by Den Beste at all (from what little I've read): the question of geographical spaciousness and how it affects values.

Bill Whittle's excellent two-part essay "Trinity" deals with what he considers to be the three most important factors at work in American cultural robustness: capitalism, freedom, and (Yankee) ingenuity. But his essay's introduction is a wonderfully romantic evocation of spaciousness. The big sky, the loud music, the long, open road, the rocket testing-- it's all about space.

Freedom as Americans know it implies more than just the soul's room to breathe. It's the body's room to breathe as well. Witness the problems that arise in packed American movie theaters, or in American traffic jams, or in broken-down subway cars during rush hour, when Americans are forced into situations where they find themselves jammed together and unable to do much other than vocalize. All that loudness, that exuberant individualism, very quickly curdles into its dark side: the churlishness, childishness, and selfishness of people who, thanks to a culturally reinforced sense of entitlement, keep on acting as if they exist in large tracts of personal space.

I see this as problematic, especially in crowded sections of America-- big cities, or the coasts in general, for example. Americans on the whole are not culturally prepared to deal with being confined-- with actual space restrictions. Violence in the big cities is emblematic of this problem, though the problem is by no means restricted to the big cities. The libertarian notion that we should all be free to do as we please contains a caveat that's hard for many Americans to swallow: so long as what we're not harming anyone else.

The calculus of harm is something we as Americans engage in all the time. We have to, as new situations arise. Do I blare the music out of my car stereo in a traffic jam, windows down, saying fuck-you to the world? There's always the risk that someone else will think they have the "right" to undertake physical action to keep me from enjoying my "right" to be an asshole. Same with movie theaters. How much whispering or talking is OK? When does it cross the border from annoying to rude to obnoxious?

I don't propose answers to these questions; I merely highlight them as examples of the problems that arise when a notion of personal freedom is too closely associated with the need for physical space in which to enact/enjoy that freedom. Freedom as Americans envision it includes more than a wide gamut of opportunities or a chance at self-fulfillment or liberty of self-expression; it inevitably includes a notion of physical space. This commodity, of course, isn't infinite.

Moving to what I really want to talk about, then...

Nation building doesn't strike me as having fundamentally changed countries like Japan and South Korea. Or, more accurately: if fundamental changes have occurred, they're not as far-reaching as we think they are. Korean Confucianism, despite its many flaws (I certainly feel for the women in Korean society), is in my opinion a better social system for people who live in crowded conditions than the American paradigm. Conformism and the social orientation that puts group before self, tendencies we Americans view with horror, have their salutary uses. Hierarchalism does as well. Should Korean society evolve so far toward the Western paradigm that Korean youth (quite a few of whom already travel in motorcycle gangs and so forth in imitation of some Western stereotype) end up living the same kind of loud lifestyle that Bill Whittle would praise-- windows open, music blaring, shooting madly down the expressway, middle finger gleefully aimed at the world? I am watching with interest as tiny, jam-packed South Korea's 48,000,000 people deal with Western (specifically American) culture, and with equal interest as America begins to realize that its population of 300,000,000 is... a helluva lotta loud people. The coasts are already getting crowded; some experts view the Eastern Seaboard as a proto-megalopolis.

Perhaps on some collective, atavistic level, the Korean and Japanese societies are so possessed of the Confucian meme that the meme will fight to survive as Western values encroach. I doubt we'll see the dethronement of Confucianistic thinking anytime soon-- not even as women continue to make their gains. I do foresee severe problems, though, as the values change while the population density remains high. By the same token, I foresee severe problems in America, as the values remain the same but the population density inexorably increases. Physical space, which varies in part as a function of population, is a crucial factor in the values question. Are Western (read: American) values good for everybody? Could American values have arisen as they did in a country that was more crowded or had far unfriendlier terrain?

What complicates matters further as we turn our attention to Islam/Iraq is that Muslim culture, despite Den Beste's protestations to the contrary, brooks no secularism. It might have been either VD Hanson or John Derbyshire on the NRO site who used the adjective "creepy" to describe the Muslim obsession with Western products, even as they publicly hold to a theocratic ideology and decry secularist values. I agreed with that adjective "creepy," initially, but I'm not so sure how apropos it is anymore. It occurs to me that many of the countries that have appropriated our products, our pop music, our way of doing cinema, etc., have not really appropriated our core values. The Muslim case is therefore not unique or surprising in that regard.

But since I do agree that there is something highly dysfunctional currently operating in many Muslim cultures, I also agree with Den Beste et al. that we should remain deeply committed to the current project: the simultaneous war on terror and nation building in Iraq. I do not, however, feel our chances for definitive success in Iraq are high. Asian culture probably has an easier time dealing with (or even ignoring) Western secularism because its view of religion isn't the same as the Judeo-Christo-Muslim one. Conceptual and ideological lines are not clearly drawn in Asian philosophy and religion; a Chinese can claim without self-contradiction to be Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian all at once. Mainstream Christians in East Asia have a harder time making such claims, but Christianity in Asia is by no means immune to the ambient syncretism of the region. But as one of my best friends observed, "Islam does not play well with others." This exclusivist tendency, very visible in the "great" monotheisms and quite prominent in both mainstream and fundamentalist Islam, has to be completely changed. Many people are calling for a "Muslim Reformation." Will Muslims listen to this call and agree?

Where Den Beste sees young Muslims grabbing at Western values, I see them grabbing only at the fruits of Western culture-- at products, certain behaviors, certain privileges taken for granted in Western societies, all without any deep appreciation for what underlies Western culture: a profoundly different value system that, in my opinion, must somehow be put in place in the Muslim world for our project to make any lasting difference. Can this be done top-down? I don't know. But even as I root for the project's success, I have to admit I'm not as confident as some people are.

I realize that it's not correct to speak of culture and values as if they are totally discrete phenomena. I guess what I'm trying to say is that East Asia isn't a good analogy for the Muslim experiment, both because the Asians in question have not been fundamentally altered by nation building, and because in a Muslim country like Iraq, the issue of how to inject secularism into a determinedly nonsecularist society is going to require much more thought and effort than our project leaders and optimistic pundits currently believe. While I agree on many levels with the likes of Den Beste, Sullivan, and Whittle, I also have to take their rhetoric with a grain of salt.

[UPDATE, August 15th: If you take a gander at Stephen Hunter's review of Kevin Costner's newest movie, "Open Range," you'll get a wee bit of confirmation of my thesis. Hunter writes: The myth that underlies "Open Range" is the primal American definition of freedom as space. We're a people who like to move about. When we see an empty horizon, we yearn to know what's beyond it.]

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