The Culture Wars

Denmark is stealing the world’s headlines as never before. Neither royal weddings nor winning the Euro Cup in 1992 gave us the same sustained media attention. And for once, we’d probably rather be without it. All because of some cartoons in a newspaper. World War I was initiated on a thinner premise than this. What’s going on?

Obviously, this is not just about some irreverent drawings. History will be the judge, but my guess is that we will come to see this in the grander course of global developments in the early 21st century. For better or worse, this is war. Not a new war, but another instalment in the ongoing conflict of the present. The U.S. Administration calls it the War on Terror, but I think we need an upgrading of terms. It’s not as simple as that. This isn’t merely a war on terror. Nor is it a crusade of Christianity vs. Islam, nor is it even a war of democracy vs. dictatorship. I believe it is a case of liberalism and modernity vs. fundamentalism. Call it the Culture Wars.

Liberalism emerged in Europe and America in the 18th century, but its roots probably go back further. Central is the notion of indivduals’ rights to express themselves freely and seek their own fortune without interference from the state (of course with respect to other indiviuals’ right to the same). Key figures include John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill and Thomas Jefferson. The French Revolution (1789) and the Declaration of Independence (1776) were the first torch-bearers of these thoughts, which have since become the basis for most of the ‘Western’ world.

What fuels the current crisis is, first, the right to freedom of speech, and second, that peculiar blend of tolerance toward differing opinions and a deep-rooted disrespect of authorities. Everyone has the right to his opinion, but everyone else has the right to disagree with him. This is evident both in the US and Europe, and this pluralism is at heart of our societies.

On the other hand, you have fundamentalism. This is dangerous ground, because I would in some ways probably be labelled one myself. For example, I believe in Creation and the literal, historical, second coming of Christ. But I try my best to respect and understand opposing views. Fundamentalism is not so much what you believe, but how you believe. Anthony Giddens writes:

”Fundamentalism is beleaguered tradition. It is tradition defended in the traditional way – by reference to ritual truth – in a globalising world that asks for reasons. Fundamentalism, therefore, has nothing to do with the context of beliefs, religious or otherwise. What matters is how the truth of beliefs is defended or asserted.” (Anthony Giddens: Runaway World, p. 49)

It seems like an unsolvable conflict of interest. Full-blood fundamentalism is monistic and asserts itself as the only truth; everything else is flawed, at best. Liberalism can harbour all thoughts, except the thought that all other thoughts are false.

What then shall we do? Giddens continues:

“Yet fundamentalism isn’t just the antithesis of globalising modernity, but poses questions to it. The most basic one is this: can we live in a world where nothing is sacred? I have to say, in conclusion, that I don’t think we can. Cosmopolitans, of whom I count myself one, have to make plain that tolerance and dialogue can themselves be guided by values of a universal kind.” (Anthony Giddens: Runaway World, p. 50)

I agree that values are needed. Tolerance and dialogue are indeed central to our civilisation. Only by holding on to these can we have any hope of peaceful solutions to difficult crises.

One of my favourite commentators, Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek, writes in this week’s issue:

“Recent months have only highlighted that promoting democracy and promoting liberty in the Middle East are separate projects. Both have their place. But the latter – promoting the forces of political, economic and social liberty – is the more difficult and more important task.” (Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek, February 13, 2006, p. 15)

Another question remains: is it at all our task as westerners to change the world according to our values? Wouldn’t that be inflicting alien ideals on otherwise harmonious societies? Biased as I may be, my answer is a resounding: Yes – we should promote these ideals. I believe that liberty (in the broadest sense) is essential in forging a better life for the individual and a healthier and more peaceful society.

Furthermore, I hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

War? I certainly hope not, and I admit my outlook may be bleaker than called for. Tolerance cannot be defended with swords. Only by embracing respect can we have any hope of spreading it.

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2 responses to “The Culture Wars

  1. It would seem that in Europe the clash is between liberalism and fundamentalism. However in the Middle East the clash is between fundamentalists – Jews and Christians vs. Muslims. And we must understand the fundamentalist Muslims see liberals as being on the side of the fundamentalist Christians, whether the liberals like it or not.

    It’s a very tricky situation, and I’m not sure how or if the liberals will be able to reach out to the fundamentalist Muslim world.

  2. Good comment, Dave, and a valid point that the clash is not solely two-sided. Often it’s tempting to try and portray everything as black and white–and our counterparts will do the same, although our palettes may be different.

    There are lots of potential conflicts out there–between liberal/fundamentalist Muslims, liberal/fundamentalist Christians, Euorepean/American Christians, you name it. And of course, if you see the world in black and white, everything you disagree with belongs to the same conspiracy or Axis of Evil.

    It’s obviously not that simple, and about reaching out to another culture… well, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?–>

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