-Ism and Isn’t: The Introspective Conscience of the West

I’m not sure when I first heard the word multi-culturalism, but I am pretty sure that it has been around for almost half my life. So have the words pluralism, globalism, inclusivism, and Eurocentrism, along, of course, with lesser -isms that define the way we are supposed to look at the world. Some of these are of almost exclusively academic–which is to say almost no interest—postmodernism, for example; some with political-social and theological valence: racism, sexism, speciesism, denialism, creationism. I am losing track.

The main thing to remember is that -ism words can mean good things, bad things or just things depending on what noun (or adjective) they are attached to. Capitalism and communism are economic things, gradually giving way to an unpredictable monster called consumerism. Racism and sexism and Eurocentrism are bad things. Pluralism and inclusivism are good things. Multiculturalism and globalism are things. Postmodernism may be a good thing or a bad thing or just a thing, and if you take it seriously it doesn’t matter which it is.


I am pushing for a new term to describe gun-lovers, hoplotism (from the Greek for weapon), but then we would need a word to describe the people who oppose them—and we already have that: citizens.

About seven years ago a student of mine at Wells College, an ardent proponent of Native American land claims in Onondaga, New York (near Syracuse and Ithaca), wrote the following sentence. “I am a squatter on the land of the Onondaga people, a citizen of a multicultural, pluralistic society that has denied them their rights, their traditions and their sacred ground because of our shameful insistence on Eurocentrism.” It’s a poor sentence: what she really means is that the European settlers, mainly British and French, grabbed land from the Seneca, Mohawk and Iroquois people and that the colonists, reinvented as citizen landowners, mindful that the Onondaga people sided with the British during the Revolution, did not treat them well after Independence. It’s also true that the Indian nations grabbed land from each other, and false that the Europeans “introduced” war and squabbling to the indigenous peoples.

Anyway, what bothers me about this kind of thinking and writing is not just that it is C+ work but that its author probably thinks it is solid A-quality stuff because the sentiments it expresses are generally agreed to be accurate, or, what is more important, politically altruistic. It is part of what the postmodern klatch that dominates conversation in our universities calls “narrative” and we all know that all narratives are relatively true, relative, that is, to who is speaking. That being the case, can I put my red pen back in the drawer and have a drink?
But there is actually something more worrying about the loose-use of the -isms to build up or destroy (or preclude) argument.

I used to laugh when students challenged me on a point by saying, “Whoa—that is so Eurocentric,” because, after all, the whole direction of modern western intellectual culture has been to get us to recognize that particular sin, along with androcentrism and heterosexism.

I considered myself redeemed—twice born, washed in the flood of Foucault & Co. I felt this way until one day I asked a sluggish third year seminar class, “What do you mean by that? What does Eurocentrism mean?” Perhaps it was my edginess that caused the sudden silence to fall over the usually happy group. But I think it was something deeper, more deeply troubling. I don’t think they knew what they meant. They had been told that when they weren’t sure what to blame for some indeterminate injustice to blame Eurocentrism, just as the world over the last sixty years has learned the philippic Blame America—which, to be honest, it sometimes needs to do. I once suggested that insurance companies change the phrase ‘acts of God’ to ‘acts of America’ to describe lightening, flood, earthquake and storm. No one replied to my suggestion.

I am becoming worried that the code and shortcuts we use are enemies of critical thinking—a term much abused in its own right, especially in the academy—rather than tools to be used in the careful analysis of ideas. Where in our lexicon are words like Sinocentric, Afrocentric, iconoclasticentric (objecting to the Eurocentrism of the western canon), homocentric, and gynocentric? Nobody seriously suggests that these words be added to an already overstocked stew. Because even a moment’s reflection will tell us that a lot of the ‘discourse’ that people have been labeling ‘political correctness’ for at least a decade (trendy word warning!) privileges the critique over solutions to the problem and often doesn’t acknowledge the existence of a well-reasoned opposing viewpoint. -Isms have always been about the insiders; flail and squirm as you like, it is difficult to escape their incisive cultural power.

It well may be that a critique of the critique is unnecessary and that the mere mention of words like ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘Eurocentrism’ suggests the need to change attitudes, awareness, agendas, and political reality. What’s past isn’t prologue: it’s wrong. ‘Reality’ is a good choice of words because so many -isms evoke the notion that there are certain things we need to wake up to, that half of any population at any given time is asleep whilst the really attentive and politically engaged are wide awake. And however correct the asseveration of an -ism may be when applied to anything, it is not mathematical correctness. Surely (human beings being the imperfect creatures we are) there are degrees of racism, sexism, and Eurocentrism?

But that is not exactly my point. My point is that our students are learning that these words have a withering, non-negotiable, self-evidential truth-value. And that is the death of thinking. It is the opposite of critical thinking.

I want them to see more and sloganeer less: to think not just about what they are saying but what other people, untouched by the native (naïve?) liberalism of the Western university are saying. Their commitment to oversimplification is such that they actually believe that the country that introduced the –isms to world attention and discussion is alone and unique (and singularly guilty) in perpetuating the bad -isms that make the good -isms necessary.

The list I’ve just given is long, so let me just focus on my student’s use of the word “multiculturalism” and its next of kin, “pluralism” and her theory that she is an intruder who needs to apologize for the sins of her fathers and mothers, or change her name to Crying River.

I have spent the last three years in China. Despite its insecurity as a bumbling, aggressive giant trying to behave like a friendly bear, China is not a pluralistic country. Its population is 95% mono-ethnic, and so too (despite what you may have learned) is its language. Mandarin (standard Chinese or Pǔtōnghuà) is spoken by 93% of the people (the Han) and only about 6% of the population belong to one of the 57 recognized ethnic minorities who inhabit the country. This makes China, along with its neighbor Japan, one of the least pluralistic or “multicultural” nations on earth. Only the principates of the Middle East can claim to be more incestuously and genetically cohesive, and we know how they treat الأجانب –outsiders.

Where I am located, I seldom see another European face. I am gawked at, pointed at, jostled (deliberately) and occasionally laughed at by swarthy workers (yes there is still that class in China, and they are a very significant part of the population) and sometimes even groups inside the university gates (where I am also treated kindly and generously). The reaction of the ordinary folk is so obvious that it does not bother me at all. I have come to take it as a compliment. Somewhere in the recesses of my Teutonic brain I probably think racialist thoughts: words like wog, chink and gook flash across my mind. They are probably saying (to be overheard) yángguǐzi (洋鬼子), which has about the same emotional lode as “nigger”, but it is easy to ignore and to smile back at them, which they find incredibly stupid of me. Being an American I am naturally interested in the psychological roots of their reaction—what phobia through yonder visage breaks?—but I know that there are parts of the psyche of the Middle Kingdom that will be forever inscrutable to me. Last year I was astonished on a May Day outing to see the same sort of people ridiculing monkeys at the Beijing Zoo and throwing used cardboard cups at polar bears.

Why do I mention this? Because the West—Europe, its colonies and its modern offspring, like America–is so obsessed with doing penance for its checkered and beastly history that it has forgotten two very important points: First, it created modernity. That is no small feat. Most of what we call science, democracy, and cultural progress comes from the West. To put this negatively, it did not come from the East, or South Asia, nor from Africa and there are perfectly good historical reasons for why this is true. Some of these reasons are tied to isolation. Some are linked to religion. Few however have anything to do with colonialism: which is to say, colonialism did not cause isolation and backwardness to happen, it exploited it. It profited from it. It was not fair race. It was not even a race.

I am not impugning the contributions of these distaff geographical regions and societies to the history of humankind, century’s yore. It is the first response of multicultural zealots to say, What about –the printing press, paper, gunpowder, surgery, and a litany of other achievements. No one wants to forget these contributions, and we should always keep them in grateful view, whether or not they influenced western technology or not. But just for the record: China did not invent the printing press and the circumference of the earth and the theory of evolution are not in the Qur’an. Let’s get that straight.

What I am saying is that the West created modernity. One of the reasons we may be forgiven for being Eurocentric is that we have been the caretakers of modernity for a long time, and even created post-modernity to castigate ourselves for inventing it.

And the West did this by developing what Krister Stendahl, a former dean of the Harvard Divinity School, called “the introspective conscience of the west.”

Technology followed the opening of the mind to the world and the world to the mind, and this seems to have happened in the period we call the renaissance and the “age of discovery.” It was an intellectual, geographical, religious, and social revolution that did not happen anywhere else, finalized in the rejection of monarchial and biblical authority and the political revolutions, oft-admired but never successfully duplicated, in France and America. I am not sure that it could have happened anywhere else, because like all unique things it did not happen anywhere else and the conditions were not ripe for it having happened anywhere else. Even in Europe, outside England, its happening was almost sacrificed to the gods of pagan antiquity, especially Teutonic ones, and their hatreds. But her children saved her from her past.
I am going to be blunt and outrageous: most of the world does not have this introspective conscience. China does not have it. Japan does not have it. India does not have it. Africa does not have it. The Middle East and the Islamic world do not have it.

Hold fire, Ye soldiers of Multicultural Rectitude: I am not saying these cultures don’t have traditions of learning and wisdom and spiritual insight. I am saying that there is something they did not have. The West has it because its history is the history of how this conscience and its institutions developed, in a self-critical way from tribe, to kingdom, to nation-state, to democratic nations, and from the rule of divinely anointed hereditary kings and princely bishops to elected, secular authority.

Put flatly, it means that most of the world outside the West did not generate the critical interchanges that led finally to old Europe becoming modern Europe, a growing process that (as we all know) was not characterized by peace, love and understanding but by bloody battles and heated philosophical discussions and fierce political rivalries leading not to religious hegemony (like the Ottoman Empire) or a political crackdown (like Communist-style nationalism) but to freedom of conscience and action. Indeed Stendahl sees this as being foreshadowed in the missionary journeys of Paul the apostle who forged alliances between Athens, Rome and Jerusalem, the first ecumenical movement, a pre-global globalism, that was then gradually secularized through the progress of Christianity and it civilizing power to become the synthesis that we call the West.

Something like Stendahl’s thesis was reiterated by none other than Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, reminding Europe of its debts to Christianity, a reminder that was so nuanced (or seemed so wrong) that most people took hardly any notice at all.

But regardless of whether Stendhal and Benedict were right, I am sure that only Europe, itself evolved from tribal confederations, linguistic confusion, and two millennia of ideological and religious contests, made it happen. We can argue endlessly over debts, but not over proceeds.

Someone asked me recently why America achieved so much more in the short 250 years of its existence than Europe had achieved in the previous 2000 years and China in the previous ‘5000’ [sic]. The answer is simple: By the time America happened, all the preliminary work had been done. It was a new country—not a new civilization. It began with the printing press, books, ships, telescopes, even, thanks to itinerant refugees from Cambridge, a college–and the accumulated wisdom of Europe; it didn’t need to invent it.

It did lack one thing Europe had, which made it easier for progress to be made: It had no fealty to the past.

But it is also true that while other countries throw around the mantra of multiculturalism, America in terms of size, diversity complexity and ethnicity is the most pluralistic country on the planet. Media attention to its racists, yahoos and bigots sometimes tempts its critics to think that modern America is a lot like 1950’s South Africa; but no one who really knows the country thinks this. It’s just that the media is part of the process of contrition that the country uses to acknowledge the perdurance of its sins.

Compared even to multicultural Britain, the master of the post-colonial sweepstakes in terms of its rule of very un-European places, only about 10% of Britons identify as “non-white”. In America, the number who officially identify as white is now a scant 63%. And the number of Americans who speak Spanish as their first language has risen to 50,000,000 in a country of 313,000,000 people. If questions like immigration, colour, and (even) the fate of native Americans seem large and sloppily handled to the rest of the world, it is because the rest of the world is not as multicultural as America. I cannot tell you how many of my foreign chums who pride themselves on their anti-American credentials are flabbergasted by the ‘phenomenon’ of Barack Obama and look merely confused when I say he must be a pawn of the Republicans. America is, after all, an inside joke.

China is not multicultural. It is not interested in becoming multicultural. It is happy that the West beats its chest for the mistakes of ‘Eurocentrism’, just as the Middle East about ten years ago was rapturous over Edward Said’s theory, in Orientalism, of The Other, a catchy thesis that completely ignored the otherization and demonization of the West by Arab and Asian elites in general. –That is, until they need to go shopping.

The East does not want the West’s defeat: it wants its own success. China wants the victory of the Han people over a stumbling and fumbling confederacy of western powers. Its history tells us that such differences create weakness and that weaknesses can be exploited for gain–indeed, the whole modern history of China has been based on the dominance of unity and sameness. It does this through propaganda, censorship, a tightly controlled entertainment media and a constipated and illiberal university system; through promoting itself as the ‘soft power’ country, the country you can love and trust, and whose Destiny (China’s real god, a Hegelian-Marxist idol with stone feet set deep in its history) is to rule the world benevolently.

Because the Middle East and its minions are tied to a religious mandate, the West is a cultural problem. As events of the last fifteen years have shown, the Islamic world does want the cultural defeat of the West as a means of confirming their teleology—their view of history as being in the hands of God. It cannot do this (as China can) economically. It cannot do it philosophically or apologetically (the West is where all the Christians are, or what remains of them). So they are reduced to the patterns of violence we call terrorism. Moreover, the contemporary Islamic world, despite its piety and zealotries, has more in common with the West than with Asia and a long history of conflict, especially with China.

We may well live to see the defeat of the West happen, in economic terms. But if so, this will not represent the triumph of multiculturalism; it will be the triumph of a myopic, self-interested and determined mono-culture over the West. It will be the West emplacing in power, through its penance towards the sins of the past, a part of the world which feels little remorse about anything. And like the Germany of 1929 is determined to recover from its ‘century of [European] humiliation’.

The East does not necessarily want violence, and China, for example, eschews it and in view of its patchy history in fighting foreign powers probably fears it. Violence, as in war, is always unpredictable and the aftermath of modern wars is hard to assess—viz. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. Modern Europe seems to have lost its appetite for war. China (as China) has never won one. Nor really has the Islamic world since the fall of Constantinople in 1452. Only the United States seems to retain something of the Old World love of burning powder and the rockets’ red glare.

What the East wants is the end of the West as the center of gravity, economy and culture. And what they cannot understand, and regard as ignorant, is that sometimes the West wants it too, wants it for catharsis, cleansing, restoration. Freedom of expression means freedom of critique, and the West’s vaunted openness and almost pathological willingness to dissect itself in public—especially America—is usually mistaken for foolishness, weakness, and a public declaration of inferiority.

Our students need to know this, too. The West has learned from Paul the apostle to the gentiles—the West–no less that we are all sinners looking for redemption. There are a thousand variations on this theme, most of them since the Renaissance secular. In the old calculus, this redemption came from God, who stood before and above the nations with his scale. But in the post-Christian and secular world, there are only nations, and their scales are not weighted towards justice.

But this is not a broadside against monocultures. We have to be honest, that some nations and states are still homogeneous. Their ties are family ties often reinforced by the strong bonds of religion and language. For those who have not traveled, the West, especially America and Britain, is not in the old sense a land of opportunity (or hope and glory) but a concept that overshadows these traditional patriotic, ethnic and religious ties.

The mysterious East reacts to the otherness of America with a mixture of grudging admiration, petulance, suspicion–and safeguards in the form of critical media, internet and social media censorship, sometimes outright hostility—like the Filipinos exercising their right to throw eggs at Mr Obama (at a safe remove) a few days ago, a right which would be denied these protesters but for their having been hatched in a Pacific nursery of American democracy. Chinese cameras were quick to record and broadcast the incident, which would have been strictly and vigorously prevented in Beijing. I want my students to understand why, not just to side with or against the egg-throwers. Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini and Mao tse Dng were never pelted with eggs, at least not when they were in charge.

Our students must learn the sins of the past. After all, it is what we, the sons and daughters of Europe, did to slaves, and Jews, and aboriginal people and Serbs and Turks that helped to shape this introspective conscience in Europe and much of central Asia, especially Russia. I will not make the obvious point that our habit of confession and remorse goes back much further than that, to the crucifixion, or to Paul’s “The good I would do, I do not do; but the evil that I would not do—that is what I do.”

But we also need to teach them that We Are Not Rousseau. The cult of the untouched, noble, unaffected, anti-social savage was a myth of grand proportions and should have stayed confined to the 18th century. Even Shakespeare seems to have known better (over a hundred years earlier) when the west didn’t know much about the native peoples of the New World: Caliban is not noble; he is jealous and vicious. But he is a mixture of who he is by nature and what his master has made him. We all are.

Our students must discover, however, that their own introspection and remorse is not enough in the real world, in the world of ideas and action. Their responsibility is more complex. Vast numbers of people on earth do not value the ideals of pluralism, inclusivism, multiculturalism. Even refugees from North Africa who risk life and limb on rafts to get to the coast of Spain have no idea what they are getting into, and (as the European states are finding more and more) neither do the escapees and wannabes of Pakistan, the ‘burger’ who occupy the inner cities of ‘Mancusistan’ (Manchester, UK) and Waltham Forest (North London), where Muslim patrols try to enforce Sharia on the locals. They wanted out, but they are not sure about being in. Is it ‘Eurocentric’ to say that they seem to be missing some crucial existential point?

Vast numbers from these monocultures of language, ethnicity or religion regard western values as sexy and exciting, desirable and dangerous. They ‘want’ it but they are afraid they will go to hell if they take it. That in part is what 9-11 was all about—an attack on the secular icons of western society, as poignant in its way as the burning of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem by Roman pagans would have been in the year 70 AD. The ruling elite of China have no such compunction: they simply want it because they are convinced that Sina Magna crouches towards Beijing to be born.

Which is to say that to teach students slogans without teaching them how we came to value these words and what historical events shaped our particular consciousness of the world is a poor way to teach human values. If the West is at all special—let’s avoid the word ‘exceptional’—it is because it has succeeded more or less, and from time to time, in providing a general critique of its sins.

It has done this by developing a tradition of tolerance for good ideas. It’s done this by insisting that in the contest between personal freedom and the unquestioned domination of the state, it is best to err on the side of personal freedom—especially in matters of free speech, which is always preferable to revolution and war. It has done this in permitting religion to develop without interference while insisting that the work of government has to be kept separate from religious control, even in questions of morality. In multiple ways, the values of tolerance, freedom, and the ‘spirit’ of reason have permitted a unique kind of democracy to flourish in the West while permitting the western democracies to pursue their visions in different and sometimes conflicting ways.

Our students have to get beyond the critique of colonialism and Eurocentrism to a fuller understanding of the complete narrative—which has to be read before it can be critiqued or dismissed. And I am sorry to say that to be ignorant of the classics and the so-called western ‘canon’ is to avoid this responsibility—an unthinkable intellectual crime in China, Japan, or the Islamic world in terms of their own canons sand culture. They need to understand that their right of dissent, free inquiry and free expression, does not arise from the monocultural thinking of Said’s Other, the mystical monotonous East. It comes from the uniquely Western values that make it possible for them to say both passionately critical things and profoundly silly things without worrying about the consequences.