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...a sweatshop of moxie

Monday, February 21, 2005

How the West Was Hated

What spare time I have is devoted to internetting (as my father rather dismissively puts it), reading books and watching films.

This weekend was especially bumpy time-wise, but I did manage to gobble up another thin essay-book, this time by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit called Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies.

How to tell apart a critic of the West -- its value systems, its shared histories, and its ultimate lessons --, who are many, with a hater of the West, which seem at times lately, many more?

It would seem a monumental book would be in order, and yet Buruma & Margalit attack the topic with laser precision in less than 200 pages.

An Occidentalist, a word which should be in more common-usage, is a person who believes the West veers from insipid, harmful, immoral or evil, depending on degrees of distaste.

If, as the authors say, Western values centre around civilisation, freedom and peace (note how they omit equality), do Occidentalists then prefer a state of lawlessness, slavery or subjugation, and warfare?

In the chapter, "Heroes and Merchants", they posit that Occidentalists might just do, even if I believe the great bulk of people do not consciously understand this. Few human beings have as their goal to be a slave, or to live in anarchy, and yet, some do.

How else could one explain that some people accept the unacceptable (such as your country being held ransom by a madman like Pol Pot) where others do not? But more of that later.

The merchant, first exemplified by the British, that nation of shopkeepers in the infamous slur of Napoleon, longs for peace, since his will to live is stronger than his will to die -- which is seen as aristocratic, a literally noble ideal. To sacrifice oneself for a higher cause is the pre-eminent anti-bourgeois goal.

Slavery or subjugation enters into the picture as a form of hierarchy -- a natural order of things, with one leader ideally, or leaders rather than pluralities in charge. Pluralities are messy, and by definition, egalitarian in spirit. For those seeking simplicity and assurances, it's better to be a slave than to be free.

A central theme is Komfortismus, that dread burger-state of dull self-satisfaction and need for tranquility -- this is the worst possible "soft" result of Western culture, since it emasculates and brings the woman into physical equality with men, which warfare clearly would not. The authors don't state this baldly as I have, but that is the gist in my opinion.

Another theme is the lessening ties of religion in Western culture, which paradoxically is seen as both good and bad, in equal measures by Occidentalists and Westerners alike.

Although I find this topic extremely to my taste, which I will revisit frequently in this blog, I will not delve deeper today than to say the following:

A lot of the hatred and lack of understanding of Western culture revolves around Capitalism, and the fact that religion plays little or no rôle in our State ideal, especially topical to the many world fundamentalists, with their jaundiced understanding of the West.

It is curious then that Americans, a people not religious so much as comfortable with religiosity, are the targets of special hatred.

Do these anti-Westerners fail to grasp the fact that without a place for religion in American life, as personalised as it is to each of us and without official sanction of any kind, actually tempers the Merchant Komfortismus? This actually makes the lie that Americans are ruled by the almighty dollar, when it is other peoples who chase after money as a drowning man would a raft, which religious ideals sometimes act as counterweight to.

America would be the temple of greed, venal and naked in its ambitions, as it is imagined now by so many countless people, without this anti-modern ideal -- the fact that yes, religion is separate from Church and State, but not necessarily from Church and Society.

And it is this very injection of religiosity that perhaps makes Americans more ready to fight (and yes for some, to die) for the preservation of their ideals than other Westerners.

This is something which Occidentalists, who deride Westerners as weak or godless, do not fully grasp regarding their special enemy, the United States.

It's not that they have a kamikaze or terrorist will to die, but that in defending their country (which in reality means their way of life), many Americans are willing to die without so much as a nod to their Komfortismus. No amount of money is worth the price of their beliefs, secular or religious. Capitalism is not their God.

In this, by and large in the modern age, Americans are very different from Europeans -- especially the Germans and the French, the utmost proponents of laïcisme.

As the President of the US tours Europe, where his hosts often have fetishised his Christianity, it would be well to remember that the West can be as Occidentalist as many others around the world.

The worst kind of hatred is the kind which stems not from understanding too well, but understanding too little all the while thinking you understand too well.

Underestimating your foe is worse than losing to him, because when you do, you have only yourself to blame.

And hating the West has more than a few roots in self-hatred.


  • Thank you. A very good comment. However, I think the statement about our religiosity is not quite correct. We are a very religious nation. Extremely so. What is not apparent is the fact that we have so many religions to be religious about in the United States. It can be confusing for those who idealize a uniform faith from border to border.

    The 19th Century was characterized by industrialization and nationalism, the 20th by science and secular political philosophies. The 21st, religion and global trade. If you do not understand the incredible energy religion unleashes, you will have a difficult time navigating among the rocks and shoals in the sea ahead.

    Dale Andersen

    By Blogger Playwrighter, at Mon Feb 21, 09:21:00 pm GMT-5  

  • Thank you for your commentary, first and foremost.

    Although you are more correct than I to say that Americans are very religious, Dale, I still think it's important to note that for millions, religion plays no role in their lives.

    When I think of people and religion (specifically in America), I think of a whole swath of people who are not

    1- Fanatical Church-goers
    2- Don't keep their sacraments or to the letter of their faiths
    3- Don't hang around especially religious people

    But for all that, their religion is alive in their hearts, as convenient as it may seem to more faithful adherents.

    What I am therefore arguing is that you don't have to be one of these born-again or Orthodox types which the media seem to have a morbid fascination (probably because so many of them have little or no use for organised religions in their life, it's always seemed to me), to be classified as religious.

    But that for all that, you feel that religion is there as a guide and backdrop to your life.

    To excise it from society, as the French have done from theirs, e.g., is deny something normal and positive, which gives a greater meaning than the materialism which (coincidentally) both Occidentalists and Marxists rail against.

    Take away the religiosity of Americans, more than their religions, and the rat race just got that more meaner.


    By Blogger vbspurs, at Tue Feb 22, 02:42:00 am GMT-5  

  • I think you might enjoy the book 'Guns, Germs, and Steel.'

    From WordIQ:

    "Occidental means generally "western". It is a traditional designation (especially when capitalized) for anything belonging to the Occident or West — the western part of the classical world (Europe) and the New World, and especially of its society."


    From my Merriam-Webster, paraphrased :

    From Occident meaning West, from Latin via Middle English occidens - the direction of the sunset.

    In English, an Occidentalist is someone who studies Western society.

    I'm not surprised that the 'Haters of the West' start out with the premise that we are "insipid, harmful, immoral or evil, depending on degrees of distaste" and then from there proceed to confusion and misunderstanding.

    Neither Pol Pot nor Hirohito ruled an Occidental country. Hitler did, Castro does. There are instances of horror in every culture.

    It's interesting that the authors use a word like 'Komfortismus' rather than conformity. Yep, that's America: land of conformity, where we all think the same, worship the same, dress the same, and vote the same.

    Imagine the horror of having to live in a safe, quiet suburb in a 4 bedroom home on a half-acre lot, with not much to do but watch your 72 channels of TV, go out to dinner at chain restaurants, and the main limitation on your options is your imagination. Hey, humanity must be protected from this.

    A Japanese friend told me there is a saying in Japan: "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down." I replied "In America, the nail that sticks up probably lives in LA & is driving a Porsche - because her husband took the Mercedes into the shop for an oil change." She liked that idea.

    I think a lot of the source of hatred of the Occident is envy. People like nice things, and the West has more nice things - like freedom, equality, and where 'poor' people like me have 4 TV's and problems like obesity from too much food and problems like trying to decide where I can put another bookcase because the other 6 are full (I'd claim I was going to try restraint, but I just bought another 17 books this weekend at a charity fundraiser - for $12.25. I justify it by my Enjoyment Index: It will take me about 40 hours to read these; estimate 30 hours current pleasure and 20 hours of future pleasure from the ideas. Back when I had a job, it took me 22 minutes to earn that money - a very high ratio of pleasure/toil. Oops - off-topic.)

    (Personal note: I suppose I can justify the TV's in my room & the guest room, and the one in the living room is a given, but that one that's been in the closet for the past 6 years has got to go.)

    So here's my take: these 'Occidentalists' look over here and say: "Those people are more free than us. They have nicer stuff than us. Women there are people and not things. Few there, aside from soldiers, have suffered from war. But our culture is better because. . . um. . . Yeah! We are more spiritual and their 'culture' is lame and should be banned - except for our elite's access to their books, cars, food, products, movies, and TV programs. Even our elite rejects their 'football.'"

    They blame religion because it's the only option that they have left. The richness of the West is not due to our virtue, mostly - it's the huge richness of our land and a few accidents of history. Had Hitler or Stalin won, it would not be hate directed towards us - it would be pity, or maybe an army.

    I read a story in the Wall Street Journal. She (He? Not sure.) wrote "I was walking down a street in Istanbul and a man looked at me and yelled 'Yankee go home!' Pause. And then he added 'And take me with you!'" Sure, the WSJ has a known bias, but I'll bet most the boat people - both SE Asian & Cuban - would agree.

    Another story:

    At the family reunion in Montana I remarked to my cousin Greg (he farms about 2000 acres) that he was very fit for someone pushing 50, and farming did have some benefits (money isn't one of them). He said no, he built a gym in his basement 5 years ago because the machines do all the work. I said 'Well, at least you get to steer.' Not really, he replied - he just drives around the outside of the field at the start, and then the GPS navigation in his tractor, combine, or swather did the rest of the driving.

    Let us save the world's farmers from such idleness.

    On the bright side, it gives him enough time to be a lay Catholic preacher every other week (Mass sans Communion - it's a geographically large parish with only one priest). I don't think capitalism has harmed his spirituality.

    I'm not really sure what swather is, but I think it has something to do with hay. Now I'm really off-topic.

    Anyway, to quote Mark Twain: "Sorry to write such a long letter, but I didn't have time to write a shorter one."

    By Anonymous David D, at Sun Mar 06, 07:06:00 pm GMT-5  

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