Are Some Cultures Superior?

Heather Mac Donald brilliantly reports at National Review on the grotesque response to University of Pennsylvania Professor Amy Wax's defense of bourgeois values.

I don’t shrink from the word ‘superior’” with regard to Anglo-Protestant cultural norms, Prof. Wax told a student newspaper. “Everyone wants to come to the countries that exemplify” these values. “Everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans.”

Western governments have undoubtedly committed crimes, she said, but it would be a mistake to reject what is good in those countries because of their historical flaws. “Bourgeois values aren’t just for white people,” she had said. “The irony is: Bourgeois values can help minorities get ahead.”

Predictably, various student moblets denounced Prof. Wax for promulgating white supremacy, e.g., the Penn graduate students' organization GET-UP, which detected “presence of toxic racist, sexist, homophobic attitudes on campus.” The “superiority of one race over others is not an academic debate we have in the 21st century,” GET-UP wrote. “It is racism masquerading as science.”

Of course, Prof. Wax said nothing of the kind. No matter: When they burn witches, they don't parse paragraphs. I wholeheartedly agree with Prof. Wax, but I would put the matter a bit differently, per my 2011 book How Civilizations Die.

Are some cultures superior to others? We should choose our words carefully.

The linguists estimate that nearly 150,000 languages have been spoken on planet Earth since the dawn of man, of which a few thousand are left (half are spoken by a few hundred tribesmen in New Guinea). Of these, all but a few hundred will be gone in a century or two. Of the dead languages, we have intelligible records of fewer than 30. We can read Egyptian hieroglyphs and Minoan Linear B, but not Etruscan. Most of the languages left no writing for us to decipher in any case. Nearly 150,000 cultures with their lullabies, warrior chants, religious hymns, and love songs have vanished. All the tenderness, courage, passion, patriotism, and piety that motivated the lives of these peoples is gone forever. We hear not an echo of their lives, only Mephisto's taunt that to be past is the same as never having been.

Are these cultures the equals of Sanskrit, Chinese, Hebrew, or Greek?

We know the details of the family story of Abraham and the gossip of the Athenian Agora of the 5th Century B.C.E., and the battles and intrigues of the royal families of ancient India and the musings of ancient Chinese philosophers.

But should we use the word superior? At least in part, that is in the eyes of the beholder. The German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) wrote:

Just as every individual must reckon with his eventual death, the peoples of the world foresee their eventual extinction, be it however distant in time. Indeed, the love of the peoples for their own nationhood is sweet and pregnant with the presentiment of death. Love is only surpassing sweet when it is directed toward a mortal object, and the secret of this ultimate sweetness only is defined by the bitterness of death. Thus the peoples of the world foresee a time when their land with its rivers and mountains still lies under heaven as it does today, but other people dwell there; when their language is entombed in books, and their laws and customers have lost their living power.