The West: Unique, Not Universal

Courtesy Reuters


In recent years Westerners have reassured themselves and irritated others by expounding the notion that the culture of the West is and ought to be the culture of the world. This conceit takes two forms. One is the Coca-colonization thesis. Its proponents claim that Western, and more specifically American, popular culture is enveloping the world: American food, clothing, pop music, movies, and consumer goods are more and more enthusiastically embraced by people on every continent. The other has to do with modernization. It claims not only that the West has led the world to modern society, but that as people in other civilizations modernize they also westernize, abandoning their traditional values, institutions, and customs and adopting those that prevail in the West. Both theses project the image of an emerging homogeneous, universally Western world -- and both are to varying degrees misguided, arrogant, false, and dangerous.

Advocates of the Coca-colonization thesis identify culture with the consumption of material goods. The heart of a culture, however, involves language, religion, values, traditions, and customs. Drinking Coca-Cola does not make Russians think like Americans any more than eating sushi makes Americans think like Japanese. Throughout human history, fads and material goods have spread from one society to another without significantly altering the basic culture of the recipient society. Enthusiasms for various items of Chinese, Hindu, and other cultures have periodically swept the Western world, with no discernible lasting spillover. The argument that the spread of pop culture and consumer goods around the world represents the triumph of Western civilization depreciates the strength of other cultures while trivializing Western culture by identifying it with fatty foods, faded pants, and fizzy drinks. The essence of Western culture is the Magna Carta, not the Magna Mac.

The modernization argument is intellectually more serious than the Coca-colonization thesis, but equally flawed. The tremendous expansion of scientific and engineering knowledge that occurred in the nineteenth century allowed humans to control and shape their environment in

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