Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Western Cultural Superiority Complex

It is claimed that George Bernard Shaw said "...patriotism is the belief that your country is superior to all others simply because you were born in it..." It's an arresting challenge but the feeling of nationalistic superiority is probably more complex. I knew a young fellow Texan, a graduate of Texas A&M who worshiped the idea of the greatness of Texas but didn't really know specifically why he held such a view. It was my contention that he learned that view by osmosis from the Texas culture into which he was born and reared. The fact that Texas was a Republic with a war of independence and is so damn big may be a key to this braggadocios air.

Texans are not the only ones with a bloated sense of pride. Most of the world thinks that Americans are inflicted with the same virus of unbalanced pride in the United States. The very idea of questioning such patriotism is near to treason in the minds of lots of North Americans. What if that sense of pride causes us to force our culture on others? How could we continue to be so smug?

It is not my wish to describe in detail this many faceted malady. It is rather to explore it's origins. Most would agree that it is European. But how did it begin? Certainly not in the "dark ages". Europe was a hideous place then; filth, superstition, and ignorance. What was there to be proud of? When the black death enveloped European cities in the 13th century, their panic and prejudice exploded and they murdered Jews by the thousands thinking the plague came from god's displeasure at the mere presence of such infidels and especially from the fact that many made their living from the evil practice of usury.

But things changed. Some apparently brilliant individuals from Europe began to sail the seas discovering new worlds. The list is long. Columbus, Vespucci, Coronado, Cortes, Drake, De Soto, and on and on...all Europeans. Virtually all of these world explorers came home and published their thrilling accounts of the wonders of discovery. Suddenly Europeans had something to be proud of. But it all got quickly out of hand.

The pride in the accomplishments of these brave explorers turned into arrogance; into the belief that of all the people on the face of the earth, Europeans were the smartest, the bravest, the chosen of god if you will, to rule the earth. They came to believe that their culture was superior, their art, religion, languages, technology all were superior to all other cultures and peoples. What's worse, they came to believe that all other peoples were barbarians compared to Europeans. Other peoples were savages, animals. Artistic depictions of the inhabitants of the new world showed that they were not human but had cloven hooves and horned heads.

What followed in the wake of these beliefs was a violent European conquest of the known world. It proceeded through several centuries culminating in the British Empire, a vast worldwide colonial empire; among other European empires. It was believed that the resulting massive wealth and power was no accident and in their view it was the stamp of divine design.Going out from Europe and into the "inferior world" was European religions, culture, and law. The idea was to remake the rest of the world in the image of Europe. However in reality it began the 600 year destruction of peoples and cultures around the world. It was the exploitation of global wealth which flowed from the other continents of the world to Europe.

Has our pride turn to arrogance? Some time around the First World War, the United States of America became the wealthiest nation in the world by means of the exploitation of the natural resources of the North American continent taken from the Native Americans by conquest,and from Mexico by force. That wealth was enhanced by more than 200 years of slave labor. Today that single nation views itself as the single greatest nation with the best form of government, culture, system of justice, and capitalistic business practices. Now we are the center of the universe! Wall street is the center of the world. The American Dollar rises to the top as good as gold. We are the chosen of god! It is "manifest destiny" that we are the saviors of the world it is claimed. The interest of The United States is the most important issue! Are we attempting to make the world in our image...for the purpose of bringing the world's wealth to us?

The fact that this phenomenon was 600 years in the making doesn't make it one worth keeping. It should be changed. Europeans and especially North Americans should not be so damn ignorant! We are dunces and ignoramuses if we think that we are superior or that god chose us to be superior to others. It will be changed. It is in the process of change now. We are behind the curve. This change should not be feared but embraced. We can relax and leave the nations of the world to run their own affairs. If we have the means to assist them, we should. There's no need to make war on everyone...just calmly quietly defend our land.

We could regain our soul. Transformed we could hold justifiable pride.


Dave in Texas said...

The notion of "American Exceptional-ism" has deep roots, as Judson writes. Exaggerated national pride - or nationalism - is common to essentially all nation-states. It is also true, as Judson writes, that the British (and to a lesser extent the other European powers) also embraced a similar grandiose view of themselves before our turn came. It was Kipling who, during the British effort to do in Afghanistan that which the US is currently and stupidly attempting, coined the phrase "white man's burden" to describe the arrogant notion that all people of the world must hew to the British definition of civilization.

Not all of the early leaders of the US conformed to the notion of "manifest destiny," first made official policy by James Monroe. Washington warned against it. In particular John Quincy Adams wrote and spoke against it, specifically condemning the notion that other people should be compelled by force of arms to conform to the US model of politics, economics and culture.

Of course, those compelled by greed and a desire for ever more power prevailed, notably beginning with the invasion of Mexico in 1846 and continuing now n the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan.

Can we find in our racist roots and absorption in capitalism unbounded a path to free ourselves from what is now quite obviously a horrible set of beliefs that have inflicted pain, suffering and massive death around the world? If we look to history for an answer, I suspect few will like what they find. With no exception of note, nations that have allowed their inherent nationalism to spin out of control have only rid themselves of that self-destructive addiction in the same manner required of most addicts - they had to hit rock bottom. Is that, then, our true "Manifest Destiny?"

Kevin Jang said...

During the same time that Europe was facing what many call the "Dark Ages", due to the onslaught of non-Christian barbarian tribes and the state of technological development in those days, one also has to note that a lot of the civilizations and societies which are now mocked or criticized by the western world and the USA as "primitive" or "under-developed", such as the Asia Minor region (Byzantine/Ottoman empire), Tang to Ming China (from the 6th to the 15th centuries) were highly developed in their own rights with a literate culture of their own.

The idea of 'western superiority', or 'American exceptionalism' only breeds in the one who believes in it a wrongheaded sense of arrogance towards others, including those of other cultures. It is also one of the motivating factors behind some of the military endeavors of the USA abroad which caused it to suffer economic and financial setbacks to their country's financial system, with money from their national coffers drawn to sustain wars and military projects which only end up as humanitarian crises.