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Its the Culture, Stupid!


May 29, 2008  

...when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, (Sherlock Holmes)
British mystery author & physician (1859 - 1930)

When Bill Clinton ran for President in 1992, the campaign famously centered on the slogan, "Its the Economy, Stupid." It was a clever conceit, aided and abetted by the MSM successfully depicting the slowing economy under George HW Bush as a disastrous recession (only surpassed by the current economic slowdown) and Bush's out of touch appearance of insouciance.

For the election of 2008, although the economy is likely to be a major focus of the MSM, it might be more accurate to depict our current straits as related to the culture rather than the economy. First of all, almost all of our current crises reflect the increasingly interconnected nature of the global economic system. Areas that are achieving tremendous success by virtue of their oil and gas reserves are areas of extreme stress with ripple effects extending throughout their immediate neighborhood and effecting the entire world.

George Friedman at Stratfor, wonders if the Saudi Arabian's extreme wealth can become a force for stability and an ad hoc, and denied, alliance with Israel against the worst of the Islamist radicals.

The Geopolitics of $130 Oil

Suddenly, the regional dynamics have changed. The Saudi royal family is secure against any threats. They can buy peace on the Peninsula. The high price of oil makes even Iraqis think that it might be time to pump more oil rather than fight. Certainly the Iranians, Saudis and Kuwaitis are thinking of ways of getting into the action, and all have the means and geography to benefit from an Iraqi oil renaissance. The war in Iraq did not begin over oil — a point we have made many times — but it might well be brought under control because of oil.

For the United States, the situation is largely a push. The United States is an oil importer, but its relative vulnerability to high energy prices is nothing like it was in 1973, during the Arab oil embargo. De-industrialization has clearly had its upside. At the same time, the United States is a food exporter, along with Canada, Australia, Argentina and others. Higher grain prices help the United States. The shifts will not change the status of the United States, but they might create a new dynamic in the Gulf region that could change the framework of the Iraqi war.

Much of George Friedman's reasoning is persuasive but in order for his conjecture to prove out, the Arabs, perhaps especially including the Saudis, must resolve their core ambivalence about the modern world, and that is where questions about culture become prominent. Although it is tempting, and ultimately quite optimistic, to believe that economics trumps all, in fact, culture and its ideological offspring have managed to derail economies on occasions too numerous to mention, and the Arab internal conflicts, in conjunction with Western irresolution, will keep the risks high for quite some time to come.

One of the men I admire most has written a new book directly addressing the West's fecklessness.

In Rediscovering the Will to Win, Jonathan Tobin reviews Nathan Scharansky's new and important book, Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy:

In "Defending Identity", which was co-written by Shira Wolosky Weiss and edited by Dermer, Sharansky points out that while a universalist appeal to individualism rings true to us, Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah have spent the last several years illustrating that a group identity that transcends economics or the value of life itself is a lethal foe of democracy.

At the same time as this rise of deadly Islamic extremism, Western intellectuals have increasingly come to see religion and nationalism as antithetical to freedom. The problem is that, if we make the mistake of seeing them as being a primitive poison that is itself the cause of violence, the West will be robbing itself of the tools with which we can defend our values. [Emphasis mine-SW]

Identity can be, Sharansky argues, a "force for good," not merely an ideology of evil. "Strong identities are as valuable to a well-functioning society as they are to … well-functioning individuals."

More to the point, "without identity, a democracy becomes incapable of defending the values it holds most dear."

The current situation in Europe, where democracies seem at times to be unwilling or unable to stand up against Islamist cultural and political forces, illustrates this all too well.

The collapse of ideas like colonialism, that were once associated with European empires, has allowed "post-identity" thinking to trash national feelings, as well as faith. But rather than this rejection of Europe's cultural norms helping its democratic culture to prosper, it has rendered it defenseless in the face of aggressive and self-confident Muslim immigrants.

This trend has led to a virtual collapse of the cause of human rights around the world. Not only are many Western intellectuals and academics now largely uninterested in bringing the benefits of liberty to places where Islamo-fascists and local authoritarians rule, many have actively allied themselves with the cause of those who want to destroy existing democracies.

That is the only way to understand the willingness of so many in the West to support Palestinians, whose worldview is the complete opposite of what these liberal thinkers themselves supposedly espouse.

Coincident to Tobin's review, Roger Cohen has written a piece for the New York Times that is a perfect encapsulation of the boomer narcissism that can not imagine a world that does not revolve around them. His piece would be silly if not for the fact that the heir apparent of the neo-Marxist, vapid narcissistic revolutionary posturing of 1968 is now a strong contender for the United States Presidency.

The Year That Changed the World

There are many strands to the annus mirabilis of 1968 — the Prague Spring, the Paris barricades, Flower Power — but all involved an uprising against a stifling postwar order. In what the author Paul Berman has called “an incoherent fraternity,” idealism provided what coherence there was.

“It’s forbidden to forbid,” proclaimed Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the French-born German Jew who led the May ’68 Paris uprising. His slogan, silly-looking now, was less important than his border-crossing identity, a rebuke to countless European silences, prejudices, taboos, lies and murders.

That Cohen can conflate hippie protests against the Vietnam War with Czechs actually risking their lives to fight tyranny is a measure of his unconscious arrogance, but also reflects the loss of ability to differentiate the important from the trivial. Cohen ends his piece with a bit of grandiosity and incoherence:

... the cultural changes unleashed in the United States in 1968 as anti-Vietnam protests raged, and the Civil Rights Movement unfurled, and hippies put flowers in their hair, opened up society in ways neither Richard Nixon nor the murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could reverse. One legacy, 40 years on, is the first serious possibility, in Barack Obama, of an African-American president.

From Prague to Paris to Chicago, cracks were papered over when the fervor subsided. But sexuality (The Pill went on sale in France in 1967 and was in wide use in America by 1968), religion, race and freedom would not be lived again in quite the same way. Walls were undermined.

That summer of ‘68, I was in a vast crowd in London’s sunlit Hyde Park listening to Pink Floyd’s free concert:

One inch of love is one inch of shadow
Love is the shadow that ripens the wine
Set the controls for the heart of the sun!

Right on! Anything seemed possible, even the strange, agreeable sensation of Sarah Sarsfield’s toes mingling with mine. Possibility was that year’s richest legacy, beyond every utopian illusion.

Now, I love the music of Pink Floyd, but the "anything (that) seemed possible" was an expression of narcissistic self-involvement uber alles, not a reflection of a commitment to the culture that allowed my generation economic, physical, sexual, and social freedom and security never seen before by such a large cohort.

One off-shoot of the rejection of convention (ie, limits) that epitomized the narcissism of the boomers was a near nihilistic insistence that all "authentic" cultures were to be idealized and our own culture devalued. This led directly to the post-modern multi-cultural morass in which much of the West is currently enmeshed.

In his article yesterday about The Moral Challenge of Globalization, Robert Samuelson made an extremely important case that much of the West has become seriously misguided in their assessment of our current crises:

What's the world's greatest moral challenge, as judged by its capacity to inflict human tragedy? It is not, I think, global warming, whose effects -- if they become as grim as predicted -- will occur over many years and provide societies time to adapt. A plausible case can be made for preventing nuclear proliferation, which threatens untold deaths and a collapse of the world economy. But the most urgent present moral challenge, I submit, is the most obvious: global poverty.

There are roughly 6 billion people now alive; in 2004, perhaps 2.5 billion survived on $2 a day or less, says the World Bank. By 2050, the world may grow by another 3 billion; many will be similarly impoverished. What's baffling and frustrating about extreme poverty is that much of the world has eliminated it. In 1800, almost everyone was desperately poor. But the developed world has essentially abolished starvation, homelessness and material deprivation.[image]

The solution to being poor is getting rich. It's economic growth. We know this. The mystery is why all societies have not adopted the obvious remedies. 

Samuelson discusses the findings of a 21-member Commission on Growth and Development and uses their findings to argue in favor of globalization. It is a convincing argument to anyone who has even a smattering of economic knowledge, yet it is also an argument that repels those who prefer the security of their narcissistic cocoon to the risks of competition on a global scale. The fact that attempting to eschew such competition will beggar all is denied or ignored. However, Samuelson's salient point, for the purposes of this post, is his recognition that the explanations favored by the Commission are incomplete:

-- strong trade and, usually, an eagerness to attract foreign investment;

-- political stability and "capable" governments "committed" to economic growth, though not necessarily democracy (China, South Korea and Indonesia all grew with authoritarian regimes);

-- high rates of saving and investment, usually at least 25 percent of national income;

-- economic stability, keeping government budgets and inflation under control and avoiding a broad collapse in production;

-- a willingness to "let markets allocate resources," meaning that governments didn't try to run industry.

Of course, qualifications abound. Some countries succeeded with high inflation, 15 percent to 30 percent. Led by Japan, Asian countries pursued export-led growth with undervalued exchange rates that favored some industries over others. Good government is relative; some fast-growing societies tolerated much corruption. Still, broad lessons are clear.

One is: Globalization works. ...

A second is: Outside benevolence can't rescue countries from poverty. ...

The hard question (which the panel ducks) is why all societies haven't adopted them. One reason is politics; some regimes are more interested in preserving their power and privileges than in promoting growth. But the larger answer, I think, is culture, as Lawrence Harrison of Tufts University argues. Traditional values, social systems or religious views are often hostile to risk-taking, wealth accumulation and economic growth. In his latest book ("The Central Liberal Truth"), Harrison contends that politics can alter culture, but it isn't easy. [Emphasis mine-SW]

Samuelson is correct that culture can stultify development. That is the impetus for my work on the Arab Mind. However, replacing traditional successful culture with a dreary mix of personal gratifications and empty quasi-Marxist slogans is quite capable of derailing progress in ways that we might prefer not to think about but which are already taking place in Europe, where their demographic suicide may yet be preceded by overt surrender.

The Arab world looks back to an idealized past in response to the dislocations of modernity (compounded by their cultural/religious tendencies.) The West idealizes a licentious narcissism which frightens the very people who are on the cusp of modernity. At the same time, the West devalues those traditional values that have given our culture its core strength that enable us to tolerate and adapt to rapid change, the hallmark of the modern world. Our loss of faith in our culture and the Arab fear of losing their culture to dystopian Western dissolution strengthens the very forces which we are fighting.

We cannot help the Arab world find a new synthesis by denigrating our own.

May 29, 2008 | Permalink


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Henryk Broder in "Kein Kreig Nirgends" tells of a young German guy who was in New York on 9/11.
After he returned he was asked about his experience on TV. He sai that he got over the attack pretty quickly, within a few days, but what continued to haunt him were all the American flags. He grew up on Danny Cohn-Bendit's philosophy.

Posted by: expat | May 29, 2008 at 02:03 PM


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