Curing the incuriosity of the East...
by Greg Swann
Intrepid weblogger Billy Beck pointed me to this 'Why Do They Hate Us?' piece by John Derbyshire in The New Criterion. I think Derbyshire was padding his thesis to a pre-set length; the article is long, rambling and unfocused. Funny in places, though. Like this:
Try to imagine that your own notion of life in the United States was constructed entirely from American movies and TV programs. You would perceive my country as being inhabited by a mix of gigantic, steroid-enhanced basketball stars, exquisitely beautiful young people with perfect teeth and musculature, gangsters, detectives, lawyers, and freakish pop singers. We live in palatial apartments, do very little work, sleep around a lot, and get our way mainly by murdering each other.
Beck was intrigued by a different part of the article, in which Derbyshire detailed an aborted engagement to speak before a party of Chinese media bigwigs who were visiting Washington just at the time of the World Trade Center attacks:
The Chinese media types came over on September 8th. They were in a room together with some State Department minders, receiving some kind of cultural acclimitization, when the World Trade Center was hit. There was a TV set in the room, and everyone got to see the second plane hit. When this happened, some of the Chinese party stood up and cheered.
We were told about Palestinians cheering the murders and destruction on that awful day, of course, and, in a softer voice, about rejoicing in mosques all across the Western world. But this is the first I've heard about delight among Chinese about the 9/11 attacks. Still, the Chinese are surely of the East in the way I divide things: At all their varying levels of modernity, no one would accuse them of being profoundly influenced by Hellenic philosophy.
But for a seemingly contrary point of view, consider this article from The Washington Post, which decries a double irony: First that the Chinese Communist government would permit the staging of a play based on George Orwell's 1945 novel Animal Farm, and second that this radically anti-communist fare would fail to draw an audience.
Why this indifference? One reason: The Chinese are too busy to think about what they euphemistically call "the big things of the nation." The unprecedented opportunities presented by China's economic reforms have concentrated people on getting rich, not making revolution, be it democratic, Cultural or otherwise.
American libertarians have always loved tiny Hong Kong, and it could be argued that tiny Hong Kong is devouring, a nibble at a time, the immensity of mainland China. This is good news for Hong Kong, and very good news for Taiwan, which, by the time it is assimilated back into China, may find a China much more congenial to entrepreneurial freedom than the China it fled in 1949.
Yet none of this is actually good news, where 'the good' has a particular and absolute meaning in Western philosophy. As we are wise, we are children of Socrates, who everywhere reminds us that "the unexamined life is not worth living." But in that same Post article we find this:
"In the eyes of the post-communist personality," Wang Xiaoying, a professor at Hong Kong University writes, "there is 'communist' morality and there is naked self-interest, but nothing in between. Thus the abandonment of communism means . . . farewell to all values and scruples." What's left, she says, is a "frenzied scramble for money or pleasure."
China--and the Southeast Asia generally--may have been conquered by Britney Spears. Islam most emphatically has not. But no part of the East has fallen to the inconquerable arguments of Socrates.
In an article called "Learning about the other" in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, scholar Abdel-Moneim Said offers some interesting opinions about what makes America different from Islam. Some of his arguments are sound, most are wide of the mark. But what makes his treatise interesting is that it exists at all. There are few buildings large enough to contain all the books written about Islam by Westerners. By contrast, books written by Muslims about the West are very few in number, and virtually all of them are concerned with practical matters: Mastering a technology, or, especially, mastering the Western technology of war-making.
From a Western perspective, Islam is amazingly incurious about the West--or about any alternatives to Islam. Said says as much: "[A]rabs have an incredibly poor knowledge and understanding of the US government and society." Much of his article is devoted not to opinion or to prognostication but simply to a retailing of trivial facts about Americans. His belief, clearly, is that his readership knows nothing of significance about the United States.
And Islam--and the East in toto--is not just incurious about the West. The East is incurious as such. Robert A. Heinlein wrote about humanity's "monkey curiosity," but it would seem that this affliction is found only among Hellenic monkeys. It is common to cite a Golden Age of Islam, but as Dr. Serge Trifkovic argues in Frontpage Magazine, this was a manifestation more of non-Muslims and demi-heretics than of the truly faithful of Islam. Many fine minds can be found in the East, past and present, but the epistemological methodology of Aristotle--search, discovery, categorization, distinction, discrimination, re-categorization, et cetera ad infinitum--is found only in the West. A post-communist China may be focused outward. Islam (and many another Eastern sect) is focused eternally inward. Only Hellenism brings that which is without within, in her sciences, and that which is within without, in her arts.
One of the benefits of learning another language--learning its grammar and history and literature, as opposed to learning how to find the bathrooms at the train station--is the discovery that different people think differently. A language forms a community, including those who know it and excluding those who don't. But before that, a language is the map to the mind of the person who speaks it, who thinks in it, who lives within it--who lives within the culture demarcated by that language. Richard Mitchell has written compellingly on this, and, of course, George Orwell taught us more than we want to know about how language determines what we can think about as such. The East is incurious because the languages of its various cultures lack a concept, a fundamental idea, that is ubiquitous in the West.
The multi-culturist idea--the claim that all human cultures are equal or at least equally moral--is a ploy by communists and their unwitting minions to undermine Western culture. The West is not just better but much better than any alternatives to it. This is evidenced not alone by the fact that, even in its present state--neglected, decayed and unloved--it is still the only reliable buttress against the communist total-state.
Libertarians--by which I simply mean lovers of human liberty--are often to be found among the unwitting victims of the multi-culturist gambit, alas. It feels so classically liberal, after all, to accept and embrace differences, to 'celebrate diversity' as the communist propaganda commands. The 'diversity' being celebrated, practically speaking, amounts to little more than a taste for exotic ethnic restaurants and a predilection for esoteric decorator items. And while this may in fact originate in a genuine, well-meant xenophilia, it is usually accompanied by an aversion to the xenophobia of the more fanatical kind of Christians. Communism long-ago perfected anti-anti-communism as a technique for recruiting the kind of decent, well-intentioned people Vladimir Lenin called "useful idiots".
But Christianity and Christendom and Judaism are not the West. They are hybrids, transplants, grafts of Western branches onto Eastern roots. In the end, Mohammed Atta sitting enraptured in a strip club is not fundamentally different from St. Jerome furtively devouring Vergil: Both are violating not the conclusions of their own minds, free of external restraints, but the proscriptions of holy writ, received and unquestionable.
The Eastern roots of the Judeo-Christian faiths are exposed plainly enough in Genesis III, the story of Adam and Eve being cast out from a default state of moral perfection for having eaten of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That is, Adam and Eve were incapable of sin while they were uncomprehending beasts, but they and all of humanity came to be fallen--guilty, malum in se, ab initio, inherently sinful without having committed any sin or crime--at the instant they became human beings, rational animals. This is the bedrock proscription of the East, the one that precedes and makes possible all of the many, many thousands of incomprehensible proscriptions of the East, the fundamental arbitrary limitation upon the mind that makes all those other arbitrary limitations not only possible but endurable to the illimitable human mind:
Thou Shalt Not Think.
Why is the East incurious? Because the East is culturally incurious, that's why. I've written about this in another context, in Defusing the Unabomber. In that essay, I included Oriental cultures within my idea of the West, essentially defining the West as any place from which one could place a telephone call. This was an error on my part. The higher cultures of the East are substantially higher civilizations than hunter-gatherer clans, but they share with the primitives the essential characteristic of non-Western cultures: Their core philosophies, superficially variegated, are all fundamentally alike--fixed, inflexible, not to be questioned or altered in any way.
I don't think it is possible to argue what is natural for human cultures: Everything about us is artificial--man-made. But it is certainly possible to detail what is normal in human civilizations. What is normal in human cultures is what we find both in hunter-gatherer clans and in the seemingly advanced cultures of the East--an impenetrable, imperturbable incuriosity that seems to us to be completely impossible. But, in fact, they are the statistical norm, while we are, to them, the improbable if not completely impossible deviation. Why, Derbyshire asks, do we seem like aliens to them? It's because we are aliens. Why do they hate us, no matter how much we might want to be liked? In no small measure, it's because we are The Other, the abominable infidel, the thing that cannot possibly even exist, much less prosper.
The essence of non-Western cultures, which is to say all cultures except our own, is to solve some exigent problem with the absolute minimum necessary quantity of cognition--and then to stop thinking, ideally forever. We think that Genesis III is just a story, but every story is the expression of an ideal. The ideal human being in every non-Western culture is a thing that emulates, as much as possible, the behavior of an uncomprehending beast. The normal problem a primitive culture confronts is simply the problem of survival, and the 'technology' of the hunter-gatherer clan will be the exact amount of prior cognition necessary to sustain the clan at its default status and population. This received wisdom is essentially arbitrary; it is not discovered by any method we would call rational, and it is only accidentally correspondent to what we would call the facts of reality. To attempt to question or alter the core doctrine of the culture in any way is to invite homicide, which murder would be defended by the doctrine as being not just morally justified but metaphysically essential for the continued survival of the group. Primitive cultures change only when their external circumstances change so much that their extant 'technology' is insufficient to meet their survival needs. Sometimes they adapt to their new conditions--and then once again stop thinking, ideally forever. Most often they disappear, either by extinction or by assimilation into other, superficially different but fundamentally identical civilizations.
By means of theological and pseudo-philosophical Rube Goldberg machines so bizarre they would be comical, were they not so tragic, the higher cultures of the East manage to retain this aboriginal anti-epistemology, even as they adapt to the division-of-labor, to the high energy use, to the elaborate record-keeping, and to the vast populations made possible by that uniquely Western technology, reason. Indoctrinated from birth never to question theocratic or autocratic authority, the people of the East mimic Western behavior without being able to duplicate it--or even understand it. The reason is unreason, of course. We are as much the alien to the Muslims or the Chinese as we are to Mitchell's hypothesized Jiukiukwe. They question nothing that matters in their arbitrary doctrines, and we question everything.
And there is the rub. As I write this, the West is about to go to war with the East. No one speaks of it that way, but that's the truth of it. We will take Iraq, and Iran may well fall into our laps as a bonus. If there isn't a Las Vegas betting line on the fall of Saudi Arabia, it's symptomatic of nothing but a dearth of imagination. Mere territory is no problem at all. Islam is still licking its wounds from being rebuffed at Vienna in 1683, after all. As the recent fatwa of Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi betrays, its loss of Andalusia in the Spains in 1492 is still a live issue. In very important ways Islam simply has no idea how overmatched it is by now.
The problem is, winning shooting wars will accomplish very little. Our war with the East is cultural. Even the best-intentioned multi-culturalism is a smug and superior and supercilious lie: "We are so very magnanimous that we call you our equals, even though in reality we see you as insignificant worms." But we can no longer entertain even an admittedly false pretense of cultural equality. The West is not simply better than non-Western cultures, it is vastly, fundamentally better. Hellenic culture is the only truly human civilization, the only one for which human reason, not animal stultification, is the ideal. We must defend the West's superiority, completely and immediately, or we will lose it forever.
The first job, of course, is defending it to ourselves, and that by itself may prove to be too much for what remains in the ruins of the West--neglected, decayed and unloved. What ails Western culture is not too little of the East, but entirely too much of it--for entirely too long. What can the Christians or the Jews say when Islam demands that we accept--without question--divine, received wisdom? When Islam demands that we submerge the ego? When Islam demands that we defer to the community? When Islam demands that we make charity our first concern? What base premise can they cite to distinguish their core dogma fundamentally from that of Islam? What can the communists and their unwitting minions say? In what way can they challenge the contention that Islam is the culmination of every premise they hold? In what possible way can the East resist itself...?
The West will not be cured by imbibing more of the poison that is killing it. Until we can stand up and be what are--rationalists, egoists, individualists, capitalists--we will not survive the cultural onslaughts of the East--nor should we. But ours is an engine crafted by Archimedes: Sound exertions are vastly amplified. So our next chore, assuming we can find the courage to dare to be Westerners, is the cultural conquest of the East.
Yes, it's anti-multi-culturalism. Or better yet, simply Hellenism, the Hellenism that held on to everything that mattered in the Mediterranean world long after Athens fell, long after Rome fell, long after Mecca fell. The Hellenism that endured the hatred of the Christians and the fears of the Muslims and emerged triumphant from the depredations of both of those Eastern theocracies. The Hellenism that is the sole fountainhead of all the riches in which we are so delightedly drenched, the riches of the body, the riches of the mind, and the riches of the spirit.
This is the gift we must bear to the East, to the people who hate us and fear us, who at the most basic level do not understand how we can even exist. If we are to survive, if the last, best hope for human life is to survive on Earth, we must conquer and convert them. Not to our doctrine, but to our habit-of-mind; not to yet another arbitrary dogma, received and unquestionable, but to reason, to persuasion, to rational conviction. To the eternally incurious East we must bring not Ayn Rand's dollar sign but rather the unrelenting question mark of Socrates. For the frontier of the West, the only human civilization on Earth, is demarcated by a single word:
Why must I accept this received doctrine when its only claim to worth is that it did not originate in my own mind and is not comprehensible to my reason? Why must I must honor everyone and anyone so long as it is not myself? Why must I affect to believe that everyone's rights matter except my own? Why must I reap only what I have not produced and keep nothing that I have earned?
Why must I defile the incomparable gift of the human mind with dogma that can never be comprehended, can never be defended in reason, but can only be memorized, unquestioningly and inalterably?
Why am I doomed from birth to an unexamined life--to an unexaminable life? Why am I--a human being, the measure of all things--condemned to endure the entire span of my irreplaceable life as a pitiable and contemptible and risible pantomime of an uncomprehending beast?
That one word is the seed of the West, the sine qua non from which the vast tree that is Hellenic culture was grown, the fundamental concept that is missing from every non-Western culture. Our brothers and sisters of the East want desperately to be good--where 'the good' has a particular and absolute meaning in Western philosophy. But they were robbed of their curiosity, robbed from birth of the means of discovering the good. We must return to them their rightful legacy, the rational human mind. Not for their sake but for our own.
As we are wise, as we wish to survive, as we deserve to thrive, we must sow the seed of the West.