25 January 2010

Why I am proud to be a Westerner

But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

- Reg in Monty Python’s Life of Brian

It’s hip nowadays to proclaim oneself a global citizen, thereby impressing others with one’s espousal of an inclusive, non-judgemental, live-and-let-live philosophy which studiously avoids allegiance to a particular culture. Yet contrary to the nomadic airs they affect, global citizens actually do have preferences when it comes to where they put down roots, or at least stay for longer than the typical sight-seeing holiday. Curiously, they tend to be permanent residents of countries with longstanding traditions of democracy, the rule of law, liberalism and respect for human rights.

I'll be blunt. Citizens of Western (Euro-Anglo-American) countries owe their enviable quality of life to values endemic to Western culture, whether they recognise it or not. From the imperfect democracies of ancient Greece, the legal and political inventions of the Romans, the English Magna Carta, the pan-European Enlightenment, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the Constitution of the United States of America, the abolishment of slavery, the extension of universal suffrage to all men and women, through to the feminist and civil rights movements of the last century, the history of Western civilization is, despite frequent shameful setbacks, a dogged progression towards greater freedom, prosperity and well-being for not only its native sons and daughters, but also for foreigners who adopt Western values. Despite postmodern denials of objective truths, the rapid and often enthusiastic embrace of Western traditions by non-Westerners, particularly in law, science, economics and politics, testify to their veracity and efficacy.

When it comes to certain Western moral standards pertaining to civil liberties, there is no doubt about their universal validity. Saying that it’s wrong to jail someone because they criticised their government is about as factual a statement as saying that light travels at 299,792,458 metres per second. If you’re reading this, you’re most likely a member of a liberal, democratic, prosperous society, a beneficiary of freedoms formulated and fought for long ago by Western thinkers, leaders, workers and soldiers. And if you aren’t a member of such a society, I’ll bet that you’d rather be on my side of the Berlin Wall. Or at least you’d wish that conditions on your side were similar to those on mine. Hence the telling observation that throughout the last two-hundred years more people have migrated, defected or simply fled to Western countries than have left them for non-Western ones.

Without denying the merits – and reality – of a multi-polar global order, the West should rightly promote its traditions of humanism, secularism, liberalism and democracy around the world because the evidence strongly indicates that wherever these values are introduced, people flourish. Conversely, countries that lack such Western influences tend to rank low on any reputable well-being index. While the West surely didn’t invent the criteria for human flourishing, Euro-Anglo-American men and women were the first to codify laws and enact policies that actually met the necessary conditions for human happiness, welfare and security.

Anti-Western regimes like China, North Korea, Iran and Russia with their appalling record of human rights abuses, or fundamentalist Islamic societies with their medieval, sexist atrocities, or Venezuela’s Chavezian socialism with its dysfunction and hypocrisy, all represent less-than-appealing alternatives to a culture that has its generous share of critics, denouncers and discontents. Yes, the critics are often right. The West is not perfect, far from it. But in its very own DNA lies the fix to its many flaws. The capacity of the West for self-appraisal and self-correction stems from its cultural reverence for freedom of thought, the accountability of those in power, the rule of law, the separation of religion and state, and the sovereignty of the individual citizen. With human nature being what it is, no other set of values satisfies the natural desires of people as amply as that of Western civilization.

Imagine this: two-thousand years from now, the comedic heirs of Monty Python write a satirical sketch in which a character glibly asks, “What has the West ever done for us?” Let’s hope that the future audience will laugh for the same reason we now laugh at Reg’s remark in Life of Brian; because of its irony.



  1. The gloss of this piece quickly chipped away under very little scrutiny like cheap enamel on fake jewelry. The utter lack of any definition of 'West' sneakily avoiding the complexity of this topic was the first bell for caution. The subsequent breathtaking lack of depth and alarming selectivity in examples of 'Western-ness' (Colonialism anyone? The various kinds of oppression preceding the emancipatory movements preceding the glorified movements that you've cited...Forgot about those?) and really, the lack of analysis all too easily forgotten phenomena which have clearly tipped the balance in favour of 'Western' liberalism and its various 'successes' really weakened this essay. The only merit that I can see is in the well crafted language and clear attempt to provoke. But in the end, this really left me feeling rather cheated by the promise of this piece, like when you find out fairly quickly that your date is but a blow-up doll. Darrick, you can do better than this.

  2. Excuse me, "utter lack of any definition of 'West'"? I made it quite clear that the West refers to a predominantly Euro-Anglo-American culture - ethnic, geographic and memetic/ideological. Unless millions of journalists, politicians, pundits, academics and laymen have been misusing the term 'the West' for the last hundred years, I think this is quite an accurate label to apply to the culture(s) being discussed.

    While I did not explicitly mention the dark side of Western history, neither did I deny it in my essay. I may be guilty of truncating all the pain, death and exploitation caused by the West in the short phrase 'shameful setbacks', but this does not invalidate my central argument: that the West has done more good than harm in the last 2000 years, especially so during the last 200. And one major indicator of this is the rising quality - materially and psychologically - of life for more and more people around the world due to social, political, legal, economic and scientific values being more widely adopted, values that have their genesis and/or maturing in the West.

    Forgive me if I reject the canard that complexity and hair-splitting analysis are automatic virtues. Yes, many issues are far more complicated than a Manichean view will accomodate. But there are also issues where one can't be half-pregnant. Exalting complexity can paradoxically serve as a cover for intellectual laziness; 'it's complicated, so let's just leave it at that.' But it takes effort to weigh in the available evidence and to then judge between right and wrong, true and false, beneficial and harmful, and yes, even (gasp!) good and evil.

    Is the history - and legacy - of the West one big messy affair, full of avoidable mistakes and regrettable outcomes? Of course! But the context of my essay was the recognition, defense and celebration of those aspects of Western culture that are true, noble and good. And I will not apologise for my emphatic sentiments.

  3. If we take your definition, which is still very vague, (What exactly IS Western about Western culture, ethnicity etc.--> still needs to be developed) the problem still stands. You do not seem to acknowledge that the 'Western-ness' of what you argue as 'Western' is actually contested. Everything from 'Western' philosophy to 'Western' science has been developed within relations and interactions and influences of the 'East'...And where are you going to draw boundaries between the two.

    I hardly suggest intellectual laziness. In fact, it is for this reason that I point out the weaknesses in your arguments. Indeed, hiding behind complexity is just that, as you say. But reductionism is also just that. Reductionism.

    I think your point about 'weighing in' on an argument is very valid. There is too much fence-sitting. However, evaluating and making a strong argument is very different from proposing a debate on biased terms (e.g. your very broad definition of Western) and then subsequently hammering away the same point in a biased manner, (selectively, ignoring certain important aspects) without making any attempt to show that you have dealt with other fairly significant points of view.

    Again, I think your riposte about this one is weak. You need to give clearer reasons within the text for why you privilege certain sorts of 'Western-ness' and praise these, and explain why you do not do so for other sorts of characteristics which could equally be attributed to the West. Otherwise, your argument just seems a little too conveniently selective.

    If you are confident about your perspective and skillful in your writing, as you seem to be, then it is not so difficult to do these things. Doing so will only strengthen your argument, if you really do it well, and you will still be able to uphold your point.

    More fundamentally, what I am suggesting is that you consider alternatives and don't allow yourself to slide into what may, to many, sound vulgar, and frightfully close to some white, right-wing supremacist pamphlet.

    I send you these comments because, as I said before, I believe that you can do better.

  4. I’m puzzled by your insistence that the term ‘Western’ or ‘the West’ is somehow nearly impossible to define in any meaningful way. Just as a theory that explains everything actually explains nothing, similarly a definition that doesn’t actually define anything isn’t a definition at all. While you’re correct that terms like ‘West(ern)’ and ‘East(ern)’ can be nebulous, and any historical study will indeed show the cross-fertilization that shaped both cultures, the common-sense understanding of what the terms ‘West(ern)’ and ‘East(ern)’ refer to is fairly spot-on. Otherwise why continue using them in popular discourse? Or do writers and speakers need to qualify their usage every single time? You’re right, it’s hard to figure out where to draw the boundary line between West and East. But here’s my point: there is a line, no matter how convoluted, fuzzy, permeable or shifting it may be.

    If you were expecting a balanced essay giving equal weight to the pros and cons of Western culture, of course you’d be disappointed, because this piece was intended as a biased polemic (a tautology, surely!). And to my knowledge, there's no obligation on writers - even amateur hobbyists like myself - to always present school assignment-type arguments. But I accept your fair criticism that I could have done more to address the cons, if only to avoid looking like I was afraid of confronting the dark side of the West. Whether it would have strengthened my argument though, I retain some doubt. I’d be sabotaging my own position after all. But that’s no excuse to be so obviously one-sided and yes, reductionist, I realise that now. Sincerely, I’ll try to do better next time Anna. Not for your sake, of course. ^e^

  5. I think this is right on. THose who actually hate the west are the ones doing the atrocities... all the evils... in fact, I know that in martial arts, the eastern martial artists are taught to hate the west and call western thought inferior..BUT it is not inferior at all. It is good ,analytical and perfect for martial arts too! Prevents the crystallization of styles... and much of western martial arts( take Krav Maga or Savate for an example) are very common sense based and are easy to master in a way where you can win just about any fight....