Sunday, October 23, 2005

which is superior?

It was a debate that preoccupied us Georgetown freshmen in the grungy, second-floor lounge of St. Mary's dorm one night. Someone brought up the question of whether Eastern or Western civilization was "superior." One of my friends, Paul, a fantastically smart dude from Nebraska (and yeah, he had to live that down because Georgetown students hail primarily from New Joisey and New Yawk), took up the flag for the West, while another friend of mine, an equally IQ'ed Filipino named Andrew, made a case for the superiority of Eastern civilization.

I was just out of high school, fresh from Dungeons and Dragons geekdom, and still thinking about life in D&D terms. I remember listening in awe as these two titans, Paul and Andrew, went at it with more than the usual gusto, argument and counterargument, like wizards firing spells at each other from separate mountaintops.

But what they actually said now escapes me, and it's one of my greatest regrets that I didn't know as much then as I know now about both Eastern and Western civilization.

Which is superior? Despite the knowledge and wisdom I've gained, I can't say I have an answer. What's an objective measure of superiority?

Population? In that case, the East wins, but in a global comparison it's really the entire Third World that wins.

Quality of life? Notice that many elements in the East actively reject the Western lifestyle. How, then, to measure quality of life? In terms of general happiness? Can one measure happiness accurately? (I remember an Intro to Philo class in which the prof jokingly introduced us to a unit of measure called a "hedon.")

Technological superiority? The West arguably wins that one, but East and West make different sorts of innovations these days.

Global dominance? Here, too, we've got another hard-to-define term. Dominating how? In terms of cultural influence, China and Japan have marketed their cultures (which, if we're to be fair, are actually huge amalgams of multfarious subcultures) quite effectively in the West, to the point that folks on America's coasts think nothing of eating "Peking Duck Pizza" at the local California Pizza Kitchen, renting a martial arts video game, strolling over to the art shop to buy a calligraphic scroll or two, getting a Chinese character tattoo, flopping down to read a bit of the I Ching* or the Tao Te Ching, then calling up Su Hyeon to go see a Hong Kong-influenced flick like "The Matrix" or a samurai-influenced flick like "Star Wars." The above is happening even as Asians strap on their neckties and business suits and head off to work using transportation technology invented in the West. Is "dominance" even the correct term to describe this gleeful cross-pollination of memes?

Financial stability? Given the way America currently mocks Western Europe's economic woes and blames its quasi- (or fully) socialist economy for those problems, the West isn't even on the same page about how financially stable it is. And the East... we keep seeing bubbles in the various Eastern economies, proudly inflating and disastrously bursting, but there's definite progress, too. The current Chinese rise is likely a bubble, but this doesn't mean the Chinese population will willingly allow itself ever again to tolerate standards of living that made sense twenty years ago. China's hitched itself to the Progress bandwagon, to be sure, as have Korea and Japan.

Military power? Interesting question. We're not really sure who might win a nuclear conflict. In terms of sheer manpower, the East comes out on top, but they'd have a hell of a time moving those armies, say, across Russia to attack Western Europe, or moving them across the Pacific to attack the US. In terms of force projection, the West, especially as exemplified by the US, wins.

Values? Good Lord, another sticky question! As someone brought up in the West, I naturally find certain Asian values backward and inferior, but Asians view the West in much the same way.

Westerners deplore Asian cronyism, hierarchicalism, and Confucianistic rigidity. Westerners also deplore what they see as a general lack of principled behavior in the East. But is the West corruption-free and totally principled? Do we not have our own bizarre "rigidities"?

Easterners often complain about the West's "the law is the law" stance, one that seems, at times, to be almost inhuman in its absolutism. And don't traditional Asians have a point about the West's overall view of family? Westerners fire back that Asians are heading down the same path: Asian movies reflect changing values (more nude lesbians! woohoo!), Eastern countries' divorce rates are increasing, etc.

Cultures aren't immiscible. Quite the contrary! I think it was the Yangban's blog on which it was noted, long ago, that Easterners and Westerners often seem to be trying to turn into each other. A similar, half-joking conclusion was reached by Dr. Richard Nisbett in his book The Geography of Thought, which makes East/West psychocultural comparisons.

I could go on, but you get the picture-- assessing "superiority" isn't as easy as it sounds. Maybe we should use some sort of eschatological criterion: which civilization will be left standing in the end? But even this criterion seems rather vague: if the civilizations are cross-pollinating so furiously in our mediatized global village, will the remaining civilization consider itself Eastern, Western... or something else, something different, that makes no reference to compass points?

*Everybody who pronounces I Ching as "eye-tching" should be shot. You're closer if you say "eejing." And note: the "j," in Chinese romanization, doesn't denote a French "j." Beijing is not "Bay-zhing"; it's "Bay-djing."