Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cultural Superiority

From BBC News:

"The body of a 20-year-old Iraqi girl turned up recently in a small
Sunni town south of Tikrit. Her own family had killed her.

She had been having an affair with her cousin, but that was not the
problem: cousins often marry in this part of the world. But they had
decided to have sex and he had persuaded her to let him film this
"just for us".

Of course, he could not resist showing the tape to his friends, to boast.

The pictures started to circulate in this small town and her family
found out the couple had been sleeping together.

Honour demanded that they murder her - not him, naturally.

The US army officer telling me this story said his soldiers had wanted
to find the boy involved and give him a good beating.

The officer, too, was furious, but also resigned to the situation.
After more than a year here, he knew only too well that Salahaddin
province was never going to be Kansas. "


Some cultures are better than others. This is a simple fact. By any
standard of value you care to name, a civilization that organizes
itself by Enlightenment values* is superior to a civilization that
organizes itself by primitive tribal superstitions and taboos. It has
been hundreds of years since this kind of thing happened with any
regularity in Western society.

Clearly, there are a lot of things we still need to improve. We are
still dealing with the effects of a history of brutality, repression,
and toxic social structures. But at least it is mostly history. In
America, this kind of savagery is a tragedy. In most of the rest of
the world, it is a statistic.

I know that, in many cases, the USA is not the best exemplar of
Enlightenment values. And there are many social issues, like the
liberty/equality trade-off, where there is no unequivocably superior
state of existence. I would estimate that America is the fifth or
sixth best country on the planet, in terms of culture. There are a
few places that are a little better, about dozen that are about equal,
and a couple dozen that are almost as good. Most of the rest are
cesspools of violence, corruption, and rotten habits of thought.

This does not imply that the people who live in those cultures are
inherently worse than us. People are people, all driven by the same
basic psychology. There is no racial difference in overall mental
ability or tendency toward violence. But people are all very
malleable. They soak up the culture they are born into. People who
are born into bad cultures will usually become bad, and the only way
to fix that is to change the culture.

This has been done. Before 1945, Japan was a fascist, militarist,
god-emperor-worshiping theocracy that sent its young men on suicide
bombing missions. We changed that by breaking the existing power
structure and imposing liberal democracy by force. It was the biggest
social experiment ever attempted, and it worked.

Of course, the situation in Japan was much more friendly to outside
change. The culture and power structures were very centralized, while
Iraq has a horribly complicated web of small-scale, local, tribal
power structures. But the fact that we have been unwilling and unable
to change the culture in Iraq for the better can be seen as a symptom
of the decline of our civilization.

Most of the mess in Iraq is the failure to commit sufficient resources
to the job. War is hell. It should only be undertaken in order to
avoid an even worse hell. If you do go to war, you must go in with
excellent strategy and overwhelming force, so as to end it as quickly
as possible. A half-assed war is the worst possible option, because
it generates all of the problems of war, and it costs more in the long
run, and it fails to change the world in your favor.

But the bigger problem is that Americans have lost confidence in the
values of our civilization, forgotten what they are, or, even worse,
actively opposed them**. In the late 1940's, nobody had any
complaints about forcing Japan to accept a constitution that was
mostly a copy of ours. It was seen as the natural and inevitable
thing to do. Partly this was due to racism and egotism, but there was
also the justified belief that our way of organizing society was
better for all of the people in society. We should recover this
belief, and celebrate it.

A lot of people might read this post and think of me as a bigot. It
is true that a vast number of bigoted people in our history have
talked like this, and that a sense of superiority is a very dangerous
thing. But if you have something valuable, you should treasure it.
Our culture is a rare and valuable thing. I am not a superior human
being because I was born into our culture. I am just lucky. And I
want every human being in the future to share my good fortune.

*Reason, the scientific method, rule of law, respect for life and
liberty, legal protection of individual rights and freedoms

**There was once a time when being a liberal meant that you were
trying to make society better. Now, it seems like being a liberal
means saying that no society is better than any other. There are far
too many people who exaggerate the problems in our society while
ignoring the far worse problems elsewhere.

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