The West's Long Tradition of Exalting Non-Western Cultures

Sometimes to understand one's own era you have to immerse yourself in another. I pick up my copy of Paul Edmonds' Peacocks and Pagodas as an example. This -- though you've probably never heard of it -- seems the best-regarded book ever written on the people and society of Burma. You may know it as Myanmar. What could be more esoteric, and yet profoundly revealing, about much broader issues?

My copy is a first edition from 1924 and in its long life and travels it once belonged to T.N. Jayavelu, Antiquarian Bookseller of Choolai, Madras, India. But now it resides on a low rickety table in Tel Aviv, at the top of the pile of books I am reading. My text for today's sermon comes from the first three pages only. We are nowadays used to the notion -- or at least used to having it pounded into us -- that Westerners were historically racist and imperialist, only recently having become enlightened in the age of "political correctness."

And, to paraphrase the Rudyard Kipling poem (and well-known song) about the road to Mandalay, it suddenly dawns on you like thunder that the contemporary conventional wisdom about how people in the West thought about the rest of the world just isn't true.

In fact, precisely because most of the West has long been characterized by freedom of speech, democracy, and Enlightenment values, there has always been debate about any shortcomings of our own societies or countries, along with a willingness to recognize the values of others. For example, anti-slavery views were powerful in the pre-1861 north (even more proportionally so in England, which fought against slavery elsewhere), while there was tremendous sympathy for those now called Native Americans. One is welcome to cheer on the "good guys" of past history but not to pretend that American or Western history is a succession of bad guys.

Indeed, there has always been a strong strain in Western civilization -- certainly stronger than anywhere else -- which wanted to understand and did appreciate other cultures. Thus, Edmonds, writing at the height of the British Empire, states at the outset:

The Englishman believes that wealth is better than happiness, or at least synonymous with it. The [Burmese] knows that happiness is better than wealth.

His starting point, then, is that the Burmese are superior. If the European claims that the Burmese are "lazy and shiftless," Edmonds responds that their "reasonable thriftlessness" is a virtue because they give charity, build religious buildings, or pay for festivals. "In consequence there is in Burma no such growing gulf between rich and poor, with all its resultant misery and discontent, as there is in England and America."

Nowadays, when no remark is safe from being distorted, a silly (probably academic) critic would see this as patronizing the Burmese. Yet there is a long Western tradition -- Jean-Jacques Rousseau was just one of many belonging to it; Rudyard Kipling, too -- of viewing other civilizations as superior to the West. Or, at least, the West could learn some valuable lessons from them. This easily ascertainable fact has been buried in the age of Edward Said, who has persuaded people that everything is on the other side.

But there is also a problem in Edmonds' analysis. For if people do not put a high priority on achieving wealth (with the well-known negative fallout from that world view), they are unlikely to achieve higher living standards, better technology, and other things that also produce a lot of blessings. Accepting the validity and indigenous nature of non-Western societies also means understanding that their lack of wealth and progress are due to those very characteristics and not to the ravages of Western imperialism.

Which brings us to page three, where Edmonds writes, after noting the rise of a Burmese nationalist movement:

Whether the Burmese are capable of governing the country themselves with a parliament chosen by popular vote is a very doubtful question. Educated Burmese with whom I have talked say that they can. The English residents, almost to a man, say that they cannot.

Nowadays, one would instantly characterize this as a bigoted imperialistic statement. Yet to examine Burma over the last half-century would bear out the fact that the English residents were right. Even if there is no theoretical justification for their belief, in practice that is precisely what happened.

Of course, George Orwell, in his book on Burma, showed the British could be beastly there, though the fact that most of the nationalist movement in World War Two became agents of Japanese imperialism -- which treated their people worse -- doesn't make them any better. But, again, this was a long time ago.

Thus, there are few countries where Western intervention or even involvement has been less pronounced than in Burma during the last half-century. Consequently, it should be very hard -- though no doubt there are many willing to try among believers in the rather silly ideology that dominates so much of Western intellectual life and too much of academic discourse -- to pin this one on the West. The local dictatorship is pretty corrupt, at times brutal, and has wacky economic theories along with a system that seems -- like many Third World counterparts -- based on Western leftist and communist doctrines.

More than twenty years ago, when I wrote an analysis of Third World dictatorships in terms of their internal evolution -- Modern Dictators -- a reviewer disallowed all my points (naturally without explaining them to the readership) by explaining that all the dictatorships were due to the West, so why bother analyzing them?

Even if Western influence is responsible for the specific person in power, of course, the reason for the system as a whole should be quite another matter. People, with some exceptions, are largely responsible for the course of their own histories; local political cultures are mainly the source for their own governmental systems.

At the same time, while the West may suffer from ignorance, its thinking and acting sectors certainly spend a lot of time trying to do better. What Edmonds says on page three of his book is the refrain of thousands of university classes, books, lectures, and documentaries. Indeed, if this huge volume of empathetic and explanatory work had any effect, its complaint could hardly be true:

The average Englishman or American is slow to realize that an outlook different from his own is even possible; to bring him to see life through Oriental eyes, though ever so dimply, is an achievement which fully justifies a certain amount of exaggeration.

Certainly, two hundred years of effort at trying to raise this average must have had some effect, given the fact that much of Western academia, journalism, and literature have been engaged in a continuous effort in that direction for a heck of a long time.

Provincialism and arrogance can be found in every country, society, and civilization. One might merely note the U.S. senator of a half-century ago who voiced the hope that China might rise up and up to reach the heights of his native Kansas City. Of course, in saying this, the very narrow-minded, jingoistic politician was also expressing the rather non-racist belief that the Chinese were equal human beings and capable of achieving anything.

Western civilization isn't so bad. It keeps trying to understand others and give them a fair shake, which is more than can be said for many of the others.

Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA) Center, at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzilia, Israel. His latest book is The Truth About Syria.