Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Imperialism and Social Progress

Recently my blog has been mainly links.  I haven't cut loose with a nice long rant in some time.  But a friend and I were recently discussing the ideals of social progress, and how they relate to 19th century imperialism.  The topic, by coincidence, matches up with my last post.  So here goes:

The conventional wisdom today is that the 19th century Americans, British, and Europeans were just a gang of greedy predators in their relations with the rest of the world.  A lot of them were, but there were a lot of good people who really were trying to make the world better.  And they actually did manage to do a lot of good.  We should learn from this period, and figure out how to copy their successes without making the same mistakes.

They saw that they lived in the best society that the world had ever seen.  By our standards, it was horribly backwards, but they were more intellectually, socially, and financially free than any large-scale society in human history before that time.  It was only natural to try to 'share the wealth' and spread the values and institutions that let them live such good lives.

Slavery, for example, was endemic in almost the entire planet before the British made a deliberate and coordinated attempt to eradicate it.  They mostly succeeded.  They also did a good job of spreading things like independent legal systems and the rule of law.

I know that I am in a minority when I say this, and it goes against everything that most modern academics hold true, but I believe that that some cultures are better than other cultures, and the good cultures should be spread for the benefit of mankind. 

When I say that one way of life is better, it simply means that people choose that way of life over the alternatives.  It is not a judgment from my personal value system, it is an observation of people's actions.  Most people want to live in societies characterized by personal liberty and rule of law.  The people who do not want freedom are usually those few who are currently in a position to unfairly dominate other members of their society.

Yes, the Americans and the Europeans were arrogant.  Yes, they were blinded by their wealth, power, and feelings of superiority.  Yes, those noble ideals were often used as an excuse for exploitation.  But they had the idea that they could make the world a better place, that some things were just wrong and needed to be stopped, and that good people should not tolerate evil and savagery. 

I believe that most people in Western democracies have lost that kind of thinking, and the world is worse because of it.

Of course, it doesn't help my case that a lot of people who think like this today are clumsy fools.  You can't just change someone else's culture with a couple years of military occupation.  People have to see a good culture working properly in order to appreciate it.  We need to fix up our own mess, make ourselves better, and stop sacrificing our ideals for money and short-term political gain.  How can we hope to improve conditions in the Third World when there are pockets of third-world hellishness within the borders of our own country?

But the good news is that, when you look at the big picture, the good cultures are winning.  Almost all of the world pretends to be democratic, and most of the world actually is.  There are less wars and less violence today than at any time in recorded history.  Individuals have more access to information and more ability to make choices.  Corruption is declining.  People are, generally, more tolerant and less xenophobic.  The list of arbitrary social rules that you have to follow is steadily decreasing.  The ability of small powerful cliques to exclude and marginalize people is eroding.  Science is winning its centuries-long battle against superstition. 

That mass of ignorance, primitive mental processes, harmful actions, and lack of general morality that I call 'savagery' is in decline.  But we need to make the process happen faster, and keep guarding against regression.  The current economic mess threatens to bring out the worst in people.  Focus on what will make your society a good place to live, and fight for those ideals.

1 comment:

Esther said...

It wasn't all Brits, nor 19th century; don't forget the missionaries in Cañada and La Florida, the Conquistadors, the race for Africa, etc.
I do feel a bit ill when I consider deliberately forcing another culture to end their practices, partly as a person, partly as an anthropologist. I'm not convinced such change should ever be forced, even if the culture is viewed as utterly backward and 'savage.' I might even go so far as to say a nation/group should not go into another sovereign nation or culture and force change, even for things anathema in the West like cannibalism (unless they actively seek your citizens for dinnertime) or treating specific inhabitants like Osu/Untouchables. That's not to say it's not a good idea to send ambassadors to talk and exchange thoughts- great, actually. Besides forcing ideals on others being against this country's founding principles, when change is forced, I think it can really screw with the societies under scrutiny, because it upsets the balances already had in place, and it can take a very long time (if ever) for them to reconstitute the old balance with the new, perhaps longer than if they had been left alone.

Change through leading by example, I could totally get behind that; a much more gradual, organic, process with occasional speed-racers (like traders bringing in coca-cola, especially if the cola comes with stories) could be much less detrimental to the lives of the citizens, allows them choice, and provide a deeper understanding of what works.