Someone recently linked me to Bryan Caplan’s post A Hardy Weed: How Traditionalists Underestimate Western Civ. He argues that “western civilization”‘s supposed defenders don’t give it enough credit. They’re always worrying about it being threatened by Islam or China or Degeneracy or whatever, but in fact western civilization can not only hold its own against these threats but actively outcompetes them:
The fragility thesis is flat wrong. There is absolutely no reason to think that Western civilization is more fragile than Asian civilization, Islamic civilization, or any other prominent rivals. At minimum, Western civilization can and does perpetuate itself the standard way: sheer conformity and status quo bias.
But saying that Western civilization is no more fragile than other cultures is a gross understatement. The truth is that Western civilization is taking over the globe. In virtually any fair fight, it steadily triumphs. Why? Because, as fans of Western civ ought to know, Western civ is better. Given a choice, young people choose Western consumerism, gender norms, and entertainment. Anti-Western governments from Beijing to Tehran know this this to be true: Without draconian censorship and social regulation, “Westoxification” will win.
A big part of the West’s strength, I hasten to add, is its openness to awesomeness. When it encounters competing cultures, it gleefully identifies competitors’ best traits – then adopts them as its own. By the time Western culture commands the globe, it will have appropriated the best features of Asian and Islamic culture. Even its nominal detractors will be Westernized in all but name. Picture how contemporary Christian fundamentalists’ consumerism and gender roles would have horrified Luther or Calvin. Western civ is a good winner. It doesn’t demand total surrender. It doesn’t make fans of competing cultures formally recant their errors. It just tempts them in a hundred different ways until they tacitly convert.
Traditionalists’ laments for Western civilization deeply puzzle me. Yes, it’s easy to dwell on setbacks. In a world of seven billion people, you can’t expect Western culture to win everywhere everyday. But do traditionalists seriously believe that freshman Western civ classes are the wall standing between us and barbarism? Have they really failed to notice the fact that Western civilization flourishes all over the globe, even when hostile governments fight it tooth and nail? It is time for the friends of Western civilization to learn a lesson from its enemies: Western civ is a hardy weed. Given half a chance, it survives, spreads, and conquers. Peacefully.
I worry that Caplan is eliding the important summoner/demon distinction. This is an easy distinction to miss, since demons often kill their summoners and wear their skin. But in this case, he’s become hopelessly confused without it.
I am pretty sure there was, at one point, such a thing as western civilization. I think it involved things like dancing around maypoles and copying Latin manuscripts. At some point Thor might have been involved. That civilization is dead. It summoned an alien entity from beyond the void which devoured its summoner and is proceeding to eat the rest of the world.
An analogy: naturopaths like to use the term “western medicine” to refer to the evidence-based medicine of drugs and surgeries you would get at your local hospital. They contrast this with traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, which it has somewhat replaced, apparently a symptom of the “westernization” of Chinese and Indian societies.
But “western medicine” is just medicine that works. It happens to be western because the West had a technological head start, and so discovered most of the medicine that works first. But there’s nothing culturally western about it; there’s nothing Christian or Greco-Roman about using penicillin to deal with a bacterial infection. Indeed, “western medicine” replaced the traditional medicine of Europe – Hippocrates’ four humors – before it started threatening the traditional medicines of China or India. So-called “western medicine” is an inhuman perfect construct from beyond the void, summoned by Westerners, which ate traditional Western medicine first and is now proceeding to eat the rest of the world.
“Western culture” is no more related to the geographical west than western medicine. People who complain about western culture taking over their country always manage to bring up Coca-Cola. But in what sense is Coca-Cola culturally western? It’s an Ethiopian bean mixed with a Colombian leaf mixed with carbonated water and lots and lots of sugar. An American was the first person to discover that this combination tasted really good – our technological/economic head start ensured that. But in a world where America never existed, eventually some Japanese or Arabian chemist would have found that sugar-filled fizzy drinks were really tasty. It was a discovery waiting to be plucked out of the void, like penicillin. America summoned it but did not create it. If western medicine is just medicine that works, soda pop is just refreshment that works.
The same is true of more intellectual “products”. Caplan notes that foreigners consume western gender norms, but these certainly aren’t gender norms that would have been recognizable to Cicero, St. Augustine, Henry VIII, or even Voltaire. They’re gender norms that sprung up in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution and its turbulent intermixing of the domestic and public economies. They arose because they worked. The West was the first region to industrialize and realize those were the gender norms that worked for industrial societies, and as China and Arabia industrialize they’re going to find the same thing.
A big part of the West’s strength, I hasten to add, is its openness to awesomeness. When it encounters competing cultures, it gleefully identifies competitors’ best traits – then adopts them as its own. By the time Western culture commands the globe, it will have appropriated the best features of Asian and Islamic culture.
Certainly he’s pointing at a real phenomenon – sushi has spread almost as rapidly as Coke. But in what sense has sushi been “westernized”? Yes, Europe has adopted sushi. But so have China, India, and Africa. Sushi is another refreshment that works, a crack in the narrative that what’s going on is “westernization” in any meaningful sense.
Here’s what I think is going on. Maybe every culture is the gradual accumulation of useful environmental adaptations combined with random memetic drift. But this is usually a gradual process with plenty of room for everybody to adjust and local peculiarities to seep in. The Industrial Revolution caused such rapid change that the process become qualitatively different, a frantic search for better adaptations to an environment that was itself changing almost as fast as people could understand it.
The Industrial Revolution also changed the way culture was spatially distributed. When the fastest mode of transportation is the horse, and the postal system is frequently ambushed by Huns, almost all culture is local culture. England develops a culture, France develops a culture, Spain develops a culture. Geographic, language, and political barriers keep these from intermixing too much. Add rapid communication – even at the level of a good postal service – and the equation begins to change. In the 17th century, philosophers were remarking (in Latin, the universal language!) about how Descartes from France had more in common with Leibniz from Germany than either of them did with the average Frenchman or German. Nowadays I certainly have more in common with SSC readers in Finland than I do with my next-door neighbor whom I’ve never met.
Improved trade and communication networks created a rapid flow of ideas from one big commercial center to another. Things that worked – western medicine, Coca-Cola, egalitarian gender norms, sushi – spread along the trade networks and started outcompeting things that didn’t. It happened in the west first, but not in any kind of a black-and-white way. Places were inducted into the universal culture in proportion to their participation in global trade; Shanghai was infected before West Kerry; Dubai is further gone than Alabama. The great financial capitals became a single cultural region in the same way that “England” or “France” had been a cultural region in the olden times, gradually converging on more and more ideas that worked in their new economic situation.
Let me say again that this universal culture, though it started in the West, was western only in the most cosmetic ways. If China or the Caliphate had industrialized first, they would have been the ones who developed it, and it would have been much the same. The new sodas and medicines and gender norms invented in Beijing or Baghdad would have spread throughout the world, and they would have looked very familiar. The best way to industrialize is the best way to industrialize.
Something Caplan was pointing towards but never really said outright: universal culture is by definition the only culture that can survive without censorship.
He writes in his post:
The truth is that Western civilization is taking over the globe. In virtually any fair fight, it steadily triumphs. Why? Because, as fans of Western civ ought to know, Western civ is better. Given a choice, young people choose Western consumerism, gender norms, and entertainment. Anti-Western governments from Beijing to Tehran know this this to be true: Without draconian censorship and social regulation, “Westoxification” will win.
Universal culture is the collection of the most competitive ideas and products. Coca-Cola spreads because it tastes better than whatever people were drinking before. Egalitarian gender norms spread because they’re more popular and likeable than their predecessors. If there was something that outcompeted Coca-Cola, then that would be the official soda of universal culture and Coca-Cola would be consigned to the scrapheap of history.
The only reason universal culture doesn’t outcompete everything else instantly and achieve fixation around the globe is barriers to communication. Some of those barriers are natural – Tibet survived universalization for a long time because nobody could get to it. Sometimes the barrier is time – universal culture can’t assimilate every little hill and valley instantly. Other times there are no natural barriers, and then your choice is to either accept assimilation into universal culture, or put up some form of censorship.
Imagine that Tibet wants to protect its traditional drink of yak’s milk. The Dalai Lama requests that everyone continue to drink yak’s milk. But Coca-Cola tastes much better than yak’s milk, and everyone knows this. So it becomes a coordination problem: even if individual Tibetans would prefer that their neighbors all drink yak’s milk to preserve the culture, they want to drink Coca-Cola. The only way yak’s milk stays popular is if the Dalai Lama bans Coca-Cola from the country.
But westerners aren’t banning yak’s milk to “protect” their cultures. They don’t have to. Universal culture is high-entropy; it’s already in its ground state and will survive and spread without help. All other cultures are low-entropy; they survive only if someone keeps pushing energy into the system to protect them. It could be the Dalai Lama banning Coca-Cola. It could be the Académie Française removing English words from the language. It could be the secret police killing anyone who speaks out against Comrade Stalin. But if you want anything other than universal culture, you better either be surrounded by some very high mountains, or be willing to get your hands dirty.
There’s one more sense in which universal culture is high-entropy; I think it might be the only culture that can really survive high levels of immigration.
I’ve been wondering for a long time – how come groups that want to protect their traditional cultures worry about immigration? After all, San Francisco is frequently said to have a thriving gay culture. There’s a strong Hasidic Jewish culture in New York City. Everyone agrees that the US has something called “black culture”, although there’s debate over exactly what it entails. But only 6% of San Francisco is gay. Only 1% of New Yorkers are Hasidim. Only about 11% of Americans are black. So these groups have all managed to maintain strong cultures while being vastly outnumbered by people who are different from them.
So why is anyone concerned about immigration threatening their culture? Suppose that Tibet was utterly overwhelmed by immigrants, tens of millions of them. No matter how many people you import, Tibetan people couldn’t possibly get more outnumbered in their own country than gays, Hasidim, and blacks already are. But those groups hold on to their cultures just fine. Wouldn’t we expect Tibetans (or Americans, or English people) to do the same?
I’m still not totally sure about the answer to this one, but once again I think it makes more sense when we realize that Tibet is competing not against Western culture, but against universal culture.
And here, universal culture is going to win, simply because it’s designed to deal with diverse multicultural environments. Remember, different strategies can succeed in different equilibria. In a world full of auto-cooperators, defect-bot hits the jackpot. In a world full of tit-for-tat-players, defect-bot crashes and burns. Likewise, in a world where everybody else follows Tibetan culture, Tibetan culture may do very well. In a world where there are lots of different cultures all mixed together, Tibetan culture might not have any idea what to do.
(one more hypothetical, to clarify what I’m talking about – imagine a culture where the color of someone’s clothes tells you a lot of things about them – for example, anyone wearing red is a prostitute. This may work well as long as everyone follows the culture. If you mix it 50-50 with another culture that doesn’t have this norm, then things go downhill quickly; you proposition a lady wearing red, only to get pepper sprayed in the eye. Eventually the first culture gives up and stops trying to communicate messages through clothing color.)
I think universal culture has done a really good job adapting to this through a strategy of social atomization; everybody does their own thing in their own home, and the community exists to protect them and perform some lowest common denominator functions that everyone can agree on. This is a really good way to run a multicultural society without causing any conflict, but it requires a very specific set of cultural norms and social technologies to work properly, and only universal culture has developed these enough to pull it off.
Because universal culture is better at dealing with multicultural societies, the more immigrants there are, the more likely everyone will just default to universal culture in public spaces. And eventually the public space will creep further and further until universal culture becomes the norm.
If you don’t understand the difference between western culture and universal culture, this looks like the immigrants assimilating – “Oh, before these people were Chinese people behaving in their foreign Chinese way, but now they’re Westerners just like us.” Once you make the distinction, it looks like both Chinese people and traditional Americans assimilating into universal culture in order to share a common ground – with this being invisible to people who are already assimilated into universal culture, to whom it just looks “normal”.
I stress these points because the incorrect model of “foreign cultures being Westernized” casts Western culture as the aggressor, whereas the model of “every culture is being universalized” finds Western culture to be as much a victim as anywhere else. Coca-Cola might have replaced traditional yak’s milk in Mongolia, but it also replaced traditional apple cider in America. A Hopi Indian saddened that her children no longer know the old ritual dances differs little from a Southern Baptist incensed that her kids no longer go to church. Universal values have triumphed over both.
Our society is generally in favor of small, far-away, or exotic groups trying to maintain their culture. We think it’s great that the Hopi are trying to get the next generation to participate in the traditional dances. We support the Tibetans’ attempt to maintain their culture in the face of pressure from China. We promote black culture, gay culture, et cetera. We think of it as a tragedy when the dominant culture manages to take over and destroy one of these smaller cultures. For example, when white American educators taught Native American children to identify with white American culture and ignore the old ways, that was inappropriate and in some senses “genocidal” if the aim was to destroy Native Americans as a separate people. We get excited by the story of Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan kingdom trying to preserve its natural and human environment and prevent its own McDonaldization. We tend to be especially upset when the destruction of cultures happens in the context of colonialism, ie a large and powerful country trying to take over and eliminate the culture of a smaller country. Some examples include the English in Ireland, the English in India, the English in Africa, and basically the English anywhere.
One of the most common justifications for colonialism is that a more advanced and enlightened society is taking over an evil and oppressive society. For example, when China invaded Tibet, they said that this was because Tibet was a feudal hellhole where most of the people were living in abject slavery and where people who protested the rule of the lamas were punished by having their eyes gouged out (true!). They declared the anniversary of their conquest “Serfs Emancipation Day” and force the Tibetans to celebrate it every year. They say that anyone who opposes the Chinese, supports the Dalai Lama, or flies the old Tibetan flag is allied with the old feudal lords and wants to celebrate a culture based around serfdom and oppression.
But opponents of colonialism tend to believe that cultures are valuable and need to be protected in and of themselves. This is true even if the culture is very poor, if the culture consists of people who aren’t very well-educated by Western standards, even if they believe in religions that we think are stupid, even if those cultures have unsavory histories, et cetera. We tend to allow such cultures to resist outside influences, and we even celebrate such resistance. If anybody were to say that, for example, Native Americans are poor and ignorant, have a dumb religion with all sorts of unprovable “spirits”, used to be involved in a lot of killing and raiding and slave-taking – and so we need to burn down their culture and raise their children in our own superior culture – that person would be incredibly racist and they would not be worth listening to. We celebrate when cultures choose preservation of their traditional lifestyles over mere economic growth, like Bhutan’s gross national happiness program.
This is true in every case except with the cultures we consider our outgroups – in the US, white Southern fundamentalist Christian Republicans; in the UK, white rural working-class leave voters. In both cases, their ignorance is treated as worthy of mockery, their religion is treated as stupidity and failure to understand science, their poverty makes them “trailer trash”, their rejection of economic-growth-at-all-costs means they are too stupid to understand the stakes, and their desire to protect their obviously inferior culture makes them xenophobic and racist. Although we laugh at the Chinese claim that the only reason a Tibetan could identify with their own culture and want to fly its flag is because they support serfdom and eye-gouging, we solemnly nod along with our own culture’s claim that the only reason a Southerner could identify with their own culture and want to fly its flag is because they support racism and slavery.
(one question I got on the post linked above was why its description of American tribes seemed to fit other countries so well. I think the answer is because most countries’ politics are centered around the conflict between more-universalized and less-universalized segments of the population.)
We could even look at this as a form of colonialism – if Brexit supporters and opponents lived on two different islands and had different colored skin, then people in London saying things like “These people are so butthurt that we’re destroying their so-called ‘culture’, but they’re really just a bunch of ignorant rubes, and they don’t realize they need us elites to keep their country running, so screw them,” would sound a lot more sinister. The insistence that they tolerate unwanted immigration into their lands would look a lot like how China is trying to destroy Tibet by exporting millions of people to it in the hopes they will eventually outnumber the recalcitrant native Tibetans (if you don’t believe me, believe the Dalai Lama, who apparently has the same perspective). The claim that they’re confused bout their own economic self-interest would give way to discussions of Bhutan style “gross national happiness”.
(I get accused of being crypto-conservative around here every so often, but I think I’m just taking my anti-colonialism position to its logical conclusion. A liberal getting upset about how other liberals are treating conservatives, doesn’t become conservative himself, any more than an American getting upset about how other Americans treat Iraqis becomes an Iraqi.)
And I worry that confusing “universal culture” with “Western culture” legitimizes this weird double standard. If universal culture and Western culture are the same thing, then Western culture doesn’t need protection – as Caplan points out, it’s the giant unstoppable wave of progress sweeping over everything else. Or maybe it doesn’t deserve protection – after all, it’s the colonialist ideology that tried to destroy local cultures and set itself up as supreme. If Western culture is already super-strong and has a history of trying to take over everywhere else, then surely advocating “protecting Western culture” must be a code phrase for something more sinister. We can sympathize with foreign cultures like the Tibetans who are actually under threat, but sympathizing with any Western culture in any way would just be legitimizing aggression.
But I would argue that it’s universal culture which is the giant unstoppable wave of progress, and that it was universal culture that was responsible for colonizing other cultures and replacing them with itself. And universal culture’s continuing attempts to subjugate the last unassimilated remnants of traditional western culture are just part of this trend.
I am mostly just on the side of consistency. After that I have no idea what to do.
One argument is that we should consistently support traditional cultures’ attempts to defend themselves against universal culture. Support the Native Americans’ ability to practice their old ways, support traditional Siberians trying to return to their shamanistic roots, support Australian Aborigines’ rights to continue the old rituals, support Tibetans’ rights to practice Vajrayana Buddhism, and support rural British people trying to protect Ye Olde England from the changes associated with increased immigration. For most people, this would mean extending the compassion that they feel to the Aborigines, peasants, and Tibetans to apply to the British as well.
But another argument is that we should consistently support universal culture’s attempt to impose progress on traditional cultures. Maybe we should tell the Native Americans that if they embraced global capitalism, they could have a tacqueria, sushi restaurant, and kebab place all on the same street in their reservation. Maybe we should tell the Aborigines that modern science says the Dreamtime is a myth they need to stop clinging to dumb disproven ideas. Maybe we should tell the Tibetans that Vajrayana Buddhism is too intolerant of homosexuality. Take our conviction that rural Englanders are just racist and xenophobic and ill-informed, and extend that to everyone else who’s trying to resist a way of life that’s objectively better.
I am sort of torn on this.
On the one hand, universal culture is objectively better. Its science is more correct, its economy will grow faster, its soft drinks are more refreshing, its political systems are (necessarily) freer, and it is (in a certain specific sense) what everybody would select if given a free choice. It also seems morally better. The Tibetans did gouge out the eyes of would-be-runaway serfs. I realize the circularity of saying that universal culture is objectively morally better based on it seeming so to me, a universal culture member – but I am prepared to suspend that paradox in favor of not wanting people’s eyes gouged out for resisting slavery.
On the other hand, I think that “universal culture is what every society would select if given the opportunity” is less of a knock-down point than it would seem. Heroin use is something every society would select if given the opportunity. That is, if nobody placed “censorship” on the spread of heroin, it would rapidly spread from country to country, becoming a major part of that country’s society. Instead, we implement an almost authoritarian level of control on it, because we know that even though it would be very widely adopted, it’s not something that is good for anybody in the long term. An opponent of universal culture could say it has the same property.
Things get even worse when you remember that cultures are multi-agent games and each agent pursuing its own self-interest might be a disaster for the whole. Pollution is a good example of this; if the best car is very polluting, and one car worth of pollution is minimal but many cars’ worth of pollution is toxic, then absent good coordination mechanisms everyone will choose the best car even though everyone would prefer a world where nobody (including them) had the best car. I may have written about this before.
I’m constantly intrigued (though always a little skeptical) by claims that “primitive” cultures live happier and more satisfying lives than our own. I know of several of this type. First, happiness surveys that tend to find Latin American countries doing as well or better than much richer and more advanced European countries. Second, the evidence from the Amish, whose children are allowed to experience the modern culture around them but who usually prefer to stay in Amish society. Third, Axtell’s paper on prisoner exchanges between early US colonists and Native Americans; colonists captured by the natives almost always wanted to stay and live with the natives; natives captured by the colonists never wanted to stay and live with the colonists. Many people have remarked on how more culturally homogenous countries seem happier. Bhutan itself might be evidence here, although I’ve seen wildly different claims on where it falls on happiness surveys. I’ve also talked before about how China’s happiness level stayed stable or even dropped during its period of rapid development.
(on the other hand, there’s also a lot of counterevidence. More democratic countries seem to be happier, and democracies will generally be the low-censorship countries that get more assimilated into universal culture. Free market economies are happier. Some studies say that more liberal countries are happier. And there’s a complicated but positive relationship between national happiness and wealth.)
I also think that it might be reasonable to have continuation of your own culture as a terminal goal, even if you know your culture is “worse” in some way than what would replace it. There’s a transhumanist joke – “Instead of protecting human values, why not reprogram humans to like hydrogen? After all, there’s a lot of hydrogen.” There’s way more hydrogen than beautiful art, or star-crossed romances, or exciting adventures. A human who likes beautiful art, star-crossed romances, and exciting adventures is in some sense “worse” than a human who likes hydrogen, since it would be much harder for her to achieve her goals and she would probably be much less happy. But knowing this does not make me any happier about the idea of being reprogrammed in favor of hydrogen-related goals. My own value system might not be objectively the best, or even very good, but it’s my value system and I want to keep it and you can’t take it away from me. I am an individualist and I think of this on an individual level, but I could also see having this self-preservation-against-optimality urge for my community and its values.
(I’ve sometimes heard this called Lovecraftian parochialism, based on H.P. Lovecraft’s philosophy that the universe is vast and incomprehensible and anti-human, and you’ve got to draw the line between Self and Other somewhere, so you might as well draw the line at 1920s Providence, Rhode Island, and call everywhere else from Boston all the way to the unspeakable abyss-city of Y’ha-nthlei just different degrees of horribleness.)
Overall I am not 100% convinced either way. Maybe some traditional cultures are worse than universal culture and others are better? Mostly the confusion makes me want to err on the side of allowing people to go either direction as they see fit, barring atrocities. Which are of course hard to define.
I like the Jewish idea of the Noahide Laws, where the Jews say “We are not going to impose our values on anyone else…except these seven values which we think are incredibly important and breaking them is totally beyond the pale.” Sometimes I wish universal culture would just establish a couple of clear Noahide Laws – two of them could be “no slavery” and “no eye-gouging” – and then agree to bomb/sanction/drone any culture that breaks them while leaving other cultures alone. On the other hand, I also understand universal culture well enough to know that two minutes after the first set of Noahide Laws were established, somebody would propose amending them to include something about how every culture must protect transgender bathroom rights or else be cleansed from the face of the Earth by fire and sword. I’m not sure how to prevent this, or if preventing it is even desirable. This seems like the same question as the original question, only one meta-level up and without any clear intuition to help me solve it. I guess this is another reason I continue to be attracted to the idea of Archipelago.
But I think that none of this makes sense unless we abandon the idea that “universal culture” and “western culture” are one and the same. I think when Caplan’s debate opponent talked about “protecting Western culture”, he was referring to something genuinely fragile and threatened.
I also think he probably cheated by saying we needed to protect it because it was responsible for so many great advances, like Coca-Cola and egalitarian gender norms. I don’t think that’s fair. I think it’s a culture much like Tibetan or Indian culture, pretty neat in its own way, possibly extra interesting as the first culture to learn the art of summoning entities from beyond the void. Mostly I’m just happy that it exists in the same way I’m happy that pandas and gorillas exist, a basic delight in the diversity of the world. I think it can be defended in those terms without having to resolve the debate on how many of its achievements are truly its own.