Jackson Doughart
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By what right do we lecture Russia about civilization?

Prince Arthur Herald, 13 May 2014

I wish to make a short point about cultural relativism, that much-trumpeted insult that conservatives hurl regularly at the Left. They (we?—one can never be too sure) do so with reason much of the time, as proved by several flagrant examples—e.g. feminist apologies for the Islamic face veil, “liberal” condemnations of our narrow warnings against rule by the Quranic fist, or the excusing of Third World persecutors of ethnic minorities, women, and the religiously heterodox—all of which are eventually presented as an offering to the faux idol of blind tolerance called Diversity.

That a serious and thoughtful person rightly feels no shame in subjecting these things to condemnation, which no doubt involves the “imposition” of foreign terms of civility onto societies where they are alien, should not be cause for the complete jettison of cultural sovereignty. Such was a major implication of the international order emanating from the peace at Westphalia in 1648, where it was agreed that European states would not interfere in the internal (mostly religious) affairs of one another, as they most sordidly had in the Thirty Years War. The combination of Westphalian sovereignty plus the more recent defenses of national self-determination, equaling a basic respect for differences between societies, should make us pause before whipping into a moralistic rage about what happens by decree of cultural norm and custom elsewhere. Blind tolerance? Certainly not—just a reasonable recognition that keeping a healthy distance from the internal business of other countries is a major underpinning of the stable system of international relations.

This is an important point because of the eagerness and frequency with which many of today’s conservatives reprobate the evils of relativism. Surely the logical extreme of these categorical preachments would be a refusal to compromise with any difference in moral opinion whatsoever, which is not something that I actually hear these people saying. Clearly they have a compromise in mind as well, which they might do well to acknowledge explicitly, along with the recognition that not everyone who disagrees with them is fellow traveler with fascism. Yet the Right’s obsession with relativism relates closely to a companion problem: namely, the starting assumption that we in the West have the unquestionably superior culture and civilization, and that it is just a matter of deciding whether to rub the inferiors’ faces in this fact or to give them a rhetorical free pass for their presumed barbarity.

Such a claim of precedence must be duly demonstrated, however, and I fear that the relativism police may be relying on this point as an article of faith. One potential example of this mindset is Tom Stringham’s article here in the PAH last week. That his piece was partially styled as a criticism of me is not important; I’d just like to draw attention to how the belief in Western cultural supremacy is employed for argumentative effect, particularly in the present Russia-Ukraine affair.

Tom—as we’re friends I refer to him by his first name—offers three reasons for which the West is correct in deciding to “take the side of Arseniy Yatsenyuk and his allies in Ukraine, and to oppose his enemies, which include Vladimir Putin.” First, he asserts that “cold warring” looms between the West and Russia because Mister Putin is attempting to fill Russia into the former borders of the Soviet Union. “[D]oes anyone really doubt that this is Putin’s ambition?” he assuredly writes. Second, he thinks that since “a unipolar world is better than a bipolar world,” Western involvement is needed to counter “a Putinist neo-Soviet republic [which] would likely make for civilizational decay with grand bellicosity.” In other words, the West needs to engage in this squabble in order to prevent Russia from getting too close to the US and its allies in the hierarchy of states, not because of any pressing material interest.

I disagree with both of these points, including the assumption that the principal animator of the present unrest is Russian revanchism. But the most contentious point he makes is the following:

Western civilization is superior to Russian civilization, and it is only sensible to promote the better when the two conflict. While I am the last to be a fundamentalist about Western liberalism, or to treat it uncritically, I recognize, simply by force of history, the obvious fruits of each society’s approach to government, culture, and the economy.

I’ll take it as settled that Western countries are more politically advanced at present than the Russian Federation, though who knows what may have happened if we had been subject to seventy years of the most inhuman and ideological power experiment in history, as had been the Russians. But it must nevertheless be acknowledged that Tom’s remark goes far beyond recognizing the liberal West’s finer political and economic models.

First, he seems to be saying that the two civilizations are conflicting naturally in Ukraine, when in fact the hoisting of “our side” into this crisis was very much of our volition. It is a bit much to encourage and support a pro-Western putsch in a part-Eastern Orthodox, part-Eastern-Rite Catholic country in Eastern Europe with no sustained history of independence or democracy, through much seduction by European Union money and the carrot of eventual membership, and then claim that you’ve had a horse in the race from the beginning.

Secondly, civilization involves much more than the political institutions of elections, parliaments, and supreme courts. I would argue that an equally important measure is cultural production—the contributions that a people makes to the arts, which are a gift not only to its own society but also—as aptly indicated by calling the sum of such contributions the Humanities—to the learned adults and developing youth of other countries including our own. We seem to forget that Russia is the country of Dostoevsky, of Chekhov, of Tolstoy, of Nabokov, and of Tchaikovsky. There is a strong argument to be made for Russian artists being superior to the West’s, but even if this were untrue, we would still owe respect to the accomplishments of Russian culture.

This is especially the case when one considers the cultural backslide now being experienced here in the West. Political correctness, cultural Marxism, the mass practice of drug taking, the disgusting and snowballing BDS movement against Israel, the nearly-complete untethering of common culture, civic literacy, and private life from our own tradition of artistic contribution: these are the forces now on the rise to no apparent challenge. Do these things annul the literary and artistic achievements of our forebears? One would hope not, but this would seem to be the standard that we are now impressing upon the Russians.

So let’s wait fifty years and see how the West turns out. Perhaps the Russians, or more plausibly the Chinese, will be on our doorstep one day, replaying our bellicose and arrogant words back to us, and lecturing us about our civilizational inferiority. We will doubtless remind them of our poets, philosophers, and great statesmen of the past, insisting that we not be written off in a ploy of self-serving, ephemeral, and disingenuous comparison. God knows what they’ll say in response, but don’t be surprised if it has something to do with relativism.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com