The 'Provincial'West

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I
am currently on a six week grand tour of Europe that I’ve dubbed
the Holy Roman
Empire Tour
since the bulk of the trip is in former parts of
that sprawling, complicated medieval federation of kingdoms. After
only visiting the first ancient Greek settlement on Sicily, Naxos,
as well as Rome and Florence, I find myself puzzling again over
the contemporary attack on European (i.e. Western) culture. (I’ve
found my personal favourite town, by the way, right next to Naxos.
Its so great I’ve decided to keep it to myself, so I’m not telling
you the name.)

The
contemporary charges against Western culture are many and varied,
but the one that is really puzzling me is that the West is insufficiently
interested in diverse cultures and out to destroy them. The solution
offered to this ill seems to be to de-emphasize
or even abolish traditional Western learning
(about Greece,
Rome, Christianity etc.) and replace it with Womens Studies, studies
of a very African Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, etc. The charge
against the West, in a word, is that it is provincial, blinded
to the rich cultural treasures all around by its patriarchalism,
Christian monotheism and general Western arrogance.

What
confuses me so much about this charge is that it doesn’t seem to
be at all true.

The
Vatican Museum in Rome, for example, must surely be one of the centers
of patriarchal, Christian, Western evil. Yet what I found there
didn’t quite fit the provincial stereotype. The persecutions of
pagan Rome being fresh in the long memory of the Catholic church,
you would think they would destroy any memory of this bitter enemy
(as, say, ancient South American kingdoms were in the habit of doing.)
Instead, huge halls of the Museum are filled with the best of Roman
art and culture. Similarly with the Greeks and even the Egyptians,
(including a spell from their Book of the Dead… A bit too broad-minded
of the Vatican if you ask me.)

In
all this, the Vatican shows itself to be culturally liberal in the
old sense of the word. Someone who was liberal in this sense was
judiciously open-minded to the best of other cultures and points
of view, generously giving the benefit of the doubt to things at
first strange and alarming. To be culturally liberal now seems to
merely mean being undiscriminating, taking the twisted, evil & mediocre
along with the good from whatever source. This changes the meaning
of liberal from an attribute of cultivated wisdom to one of foolishness,
an attitude on par with welcoming
change without regard to what sort of change it is
.

Personally
I’m glad that the Christian West was judiciously open-minded towards
these ancient cultures, preserving Homer & Cicero while not continuing
to bury live servants with dead leaders like the Pharoahs or force
slaves to fight to the death like the Romans.

In
Florence, with all its great Renaissance figures, I was reminded
of how the West does not just borrow from safely dead cultures.
Navigation technology, many ancient Greek writings and much else
had been preserved or discovered by the great Saracen Empire. First
Mediterranean Europeans and then the rest of Europe were glad to
adopt all this from their Muslim foes.

And
this culturally liberal attitude continues to this day among Christians
in the West. My family and church have long supported the mission
organization New Tribes Mission.
They specialize in learning the language of tribes that have no
written language. They spend years, sometimes decades, learning
the language from the tribe, giving the people an alphabet and then
translating the Bible into the tribes language, (historically one
of the surest ways to have a language preserved). Without their
work, many tribal languages and cultures would be lost.

Reverend
Edmund Opitz, a grand old man of the liberty movement, once sent
me an article of his on the importance of the liberal (or libertarian)
arts. Among other things, he argued that those with a firm and confident
grounding in their own culture are the ones in the best position
to truly appreciate and learn from other cultures. I have learned
the truth of this in recent years in my close friendship with a
man from the south of India. Working together shortly after he arrived
in the U.S., he found our non-discriminatingly liberal co-workers
confusing and could find little common ground with them as someone
who took the morals, traditions and religion of his own ancient
culture very seriously. He quickly latched on to me and, later,
my parents as people who took life seriously. Despite my narrow,
intolerant Christian attitude towards his Hinduism, we spend wonderful
hours together educating each other about our respective cultures.

So
if I am correct that the Christian West has long excelled at appreciating
other cultures, what does this new multicultural movement bring
to the table? As far as I can tell, only one really new thing: the
desire to destroy a culture, namely the Western culture.

For
myself, in part because I want to appreciate the best that the multitude
of cultures has to offer, I will continue to deepen my knowledge
of the patriarchal, Christian and not so provincial heritage of
the West.

July
3, 2001

Stephen
W. Carson [send him mail]
works as a software engineer, studies political economy at the
graduate level at Washington University, and works with inner
city children in St. Louis through a ministry of his church. See
his reviews of Films on
Liberty
.

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