Is western culture superior?

The ‘My dad is stronger than your dad’ argument

Eighth on the Diplomad’s set of ten favourite lies is the belief that all cultures are equal.

If you’re accused of even thinking that cultures are unequal, then you are branded as a racist, and at State you can have your career ruined. But by any objective measure of success, western civilization is superior. This is actually not racist, since Japan, Singapore, and South Korea have internalized the best of the west, and essentially joined it.[The Diplomad]

The Diplomad, a blog run by United States Foreign Service officers, makes two contentions here: that western civilisation (or western culture) is superior based on all objective measures of success, and those non-Western countries that are exceptions to this have actually joined the West. Wrong, on both counts.

First of all civilisations and cultures cannot be measured objectively because their orientations and objectives can be very different. They are not after the same prize. How do you objectively measure a culture that, for example, strives for Gross National Happiness, against one that guns for improving its Gross National Product? Claims to civilisational superiority are like claims to cultural, religious or racial supremacy — not just politically incorrect, but manifestations of bigotry born out of insufficient understanding and awareness of the larger world. It is to the US State Department’s credit that it does not look upon such views all that favourably.

But if there is no such thing as a superior culture, how then can one explain the observed fact that some countries demonstrate a greater influence over the world than others? The answer lies in a country’s capability to translate its cultural or civilisational values into hard and soft power. And in broad historical terms, this is episodic — Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Indians, Chinese, Arabs and Europeans — each dominated the world during different times in history, before their inevitable decline. There is a lot that is admirable about American culture and civilisation, and to their credit, the leaders of the United States have been able to translate this into global power; but its pole position is not guaranteed in perpetuity. It cannot simply rely on its civilisational strengths to keep it ahead — its leaders and its people need to actively work on converting it into power and influence.

Those non-Western countries that have made it — Japan, South Korea and Singapore — have not suddenly become members of the West. They have modernised their societies and economies, but this has not come at the cost of losing their own culture. Democratic politics and capitalism are not inherently a part of Western civilisation. Adopting these political-economic systems does not make a country a part of the West. Indeed, the Diplomad’s argument is circular: Western civilisation is successful and every successful country becomes a part of the West.

The Diplomad is not the only one to make such assertions about civilisational superiority: when asked about his views on Western civilisation, Mahatma Gandhi famously replied that it would be a good idea. India managed to win its war against British colonial rule in spite of Gandhi’s put-down; America will find it difficult to win its war for the hearts and minds of the Islamic world (or any other world, for that matter) if it proceeds on the basis of cultural supremacy.

25 thoughts on “Is western culture superior?”

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  2. You can have a real objective measure. Where are the people migrating to? If they’re migrating to western countries, instead of going to countries with great “Gross National Happiness”, then you must admit that The Diplomad is into something.

    I think that when they talk about western culture, including Japan, they’re talking about liberal democracy and their values, not about religion or folklore.

  3. Well said, Nitin. There’s also a famous quote from Samuel P. Huntington that springs to mind …

    For my part, I find it disturbing that anyone writing at the Diplomad is the public face of America abroad … these people are so angry and unthinkingly nationalistic … they seem to think that America is invincible and can do no wrong. I love America and most American values, certain of which are universal (which means that they can’t be strictly American values anymore!), but also I believe that other cultures have a lot to offer as well. I think that with respect to India, that’s why so many Americans have sought spiritual solace in Hinduism, for example.

    As for Daniel, I think that is too charitable a view, though I agree that there’s something to be said for “voting with your feet.” But keep in mind that these are people who will tell you to your face that Christianity is superior in every aspect to every other religion in the world, and that democracy is derived from 17th and 18th-century American Protestantism rather than from Greek and Enlightenment philosophy. The movement to redefine our intellectual heritage in an explicitly evangelical Christian manner has been building steam for several decades now. Take a look at this, for instance. These people are real and they are guiding American foreign and domestic policy at the moment. They are complemented by academic-esque works by Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind) and Samuel P. Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, and more recently Who Are We?). In fairness, I expect that a large majority of all Muslims will tell you that Islam is the best religion … ditto for the Hindutva crowd.

  4. Daniel,

    Political & economic systems are but two components of a bigger concept called civilisation. I would agree with the Diplomad if he were to suggest that liberal democratic political system and a free-market economy are better models. But when the term civilisation is used, you cannot ignore the religious, historical, social angles.

    I agree that America draws immigrants because of its political and economic systems; specifically its healthy economy is a magnet for immigrants. In fact, its immigrant-based economy is one reason why America outshines many other countries. But even this does not in any way prove the Diplomad’s contention about cultural supremacy. India gets its share of immigrants from its neighbourhood, so do the Arab countries in the Gulf region. People naturally diffuse towards better economic opportunities.

    Praktike,

    That’s why I call it the ‘my dad is stronger than your dad’ argument. I’m not sure if this happens in the United States, but this is common Indian kindergartens.

  5. For my part, I find it disturbing that anyone writing at the Diplomad is the public face of America abroad … these people are so angry and unthinkingly nationalistic … they seem to think that America is invincible and can do no wrong.

    I’d put good money on their personalities being a little more complicated than they appear on their blog. They remind me of how I was in Uzbekistan a lot of ways. For myself, the tone was largely a reaction to crap I had to put up with and the difficulties of living in another culture. Also, it was reserved for use in the company of Americans or certain other expats. When I had my public diplomacy hat on (which was whenever I was in the company of host country nationals), I was a very different person. I should also add that if you can find me a Foreign Service Officer who doesn’t take their tone from time to time, I’ll show you a Foreign Service Officer who doesn’t spend much time with host country nationals.

    As for the issue at hand, you are right, Nitin, to point out that the civilizational superiority argument is silly. It is more a question of political and economic systems, which I would consider cultural products. Even within “Western civilization,” the elements that the Diplomad says countries like Japan have imported were foreign to Southern Europe until not too long ago.

  6. I think we should have a yardstick first, to come to a conclusion which culture is superior.Every culture has its +ive and -ive sides.

    I dont think there is no wrong in japan,singapore or south korea adopting the western culture.A closer look at the older cultures would reveal that they have adopted each other.There has been so much exchange and adoption among different cultures going on for a long time.I think that it is a progressive step.If not there would have been one superior culture and groups of primitive people in the other part of the world hunting and living in caves.But i do agree that it doesn’t make them a western civilization.

    http://jackofall.blogspot.com

  7. Nice post. Besides the point that places like Japan, South Korea, etc. have retained many elements of their traditional cultures (and one can expect India and China to do the same as they develop), there’s also the fact that Western lands have taken in all kinds of non-Western influences in terms of food, technology, popular culture, etc. Saying that Japan is Western because of its embrace of democracy and free markets makes as little sense as suggesting that an American eating Indian food while watching a Japanese anime cartoon in a home furnished using feng shui isn’t a Westerner.

    praktike,

    Based on what I’ve read about the State Department, the views of the Diplomad are firmly in the minority at Foggy Bottom. Not that that’s an entrely good thing – it’s their ideological enemies who bear a lot of the responsibility for the devil’s bargains that American has struck with various dictatorships around the world.

  8. Like I said (twice for reasons I can’t comprehend) sepoy, all the touchy-feely diplomats (or any other kind of “International” for that matter) I’ve ever met is someone who doesn’t get out much. And, building off of what Eric said about their views being in the minority, yes, most diplomats don’t really get out much.

  9. prak —

    don’t get too bent out of shape out by the Commentary article. He’s even further round the bend than Podhoretz, and that’s saying something. Every time your head starts exploding when you read this drek, just remember the Woody Allen line: if you combined Dissent and Commentary, you’d have Dysentery.

  10. I find this happening quite a fair amount with diplomats in Karachi. Ironically enough, it’s the non-diplomatic expatriates who’re the most diplomatic and tactful, and who have the least amount of angst when it comes to the “My country’s bigger than yours!” attitude. The diplomats can’t wait to get out of here, the nons cry when their terms are up.













  11. It is ridiculous to think that western culture is superior. This is a myth and should be understood in order to be able to reject it. All cultures have their good and bad aspects. Like eastern cultures and other cultures western culture has also its fair share of yukkies.

    You need time to realise this and an open mind otherwise no argument can justify anything. Your roots are your culture. Leave your roots and you dry up so if you are from the east or other areas of the world never think that your culture has nothing to offer infact it is the nutrition for your roots. absorb other cultures to flower and blossom but never ever give up your roots for they are the real thing.?

  12. much has been written about both western culture and philosphy i.e. occidental and its comparative merits and demerits, in relation to the oriental philosphy and culture, by emminent people.it has been a study in contrast as the occidental’s materialistic path will have to come a long way to understand the oriental’s spiritual way of life. diplomad may have to experiment
    like others before coming to a much clearer understanding about divergent cultures.

  13. Dear Acorn:

    Is western culture superior? The Diplomad was not trying to make a cultural statement. They were talking about which system is better for the individual to meet their full potential. Religous issues aside, the Diplomad makes a very logical case to the superiority of western culture. Why else does everyone try to migrate to the U.S. or other western cultures? Money is what makes people happy; it gives you choices. No matter your religion. The capitalist system allows every individual to work toward a goal. The more capitalist the better. Based on these ideas, the Diplomad is correct. Western culture provides a better model for success. As the Diplomad said, even cultures not akin to the west have adopted western capitalist methods and have become better societies. Note that no sane person expects instant happiness. Success must be achieved by hard work.

  14. Mark,

    The Diplomad’s definition of culture and civilisation, limited to economics and politics, is myopic and narrow. Instead of restricting himself to the superiority of a liberal democratic & capitalistic system he overstretches. The myopia shows.

    Here’s a thought: western cultural accomplisments were carried out in both liberal democratic capitalist countries and autocracies and communist countries.

  15. What a bunch of silly pundits bandying socio-political terms.

    The West’s civilizational foundation is the Judeo-Christian separation of sacred and profane — providing the West with a moral metric.

    Eastern cultures favor a self-flattering sacredness of all living things — a stealth nihilism behind all that choking temple incense.

    The West,therefore, translates existential guilt into Christian guilt — worked-off as real-time achievements.

    The Eastern mind is manipulated by shame — taking flight into a fantasy escape of over-idealizing self and devaluing the other.

    The East, therefore, perpetually rides the coat-tail of the West — while secretly burning with a Marxian envy.

    Don’t fool yourselves: The West is best.

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