Monday, October 06, 2003

Some notes about culture and freedom. This is a subject I could write a long time about, but I will try to keep it to basic ideas….

The September issue of Commentary had a good piece by Arthur Waldron about the Article 23 demonstrations in Hong Kong on July 1st, a day that annihilated a certain amount of the conventional wisdom about Hong Kong and, ultimately, China. Half a million people--eight percent of the entire population of the city--came out to protest the proposed change in Hong Kong's governing council that would have given more dictatorial control to Beijing. The professionals, the experts, the authorities, both inside and outside China were, as one, shocked--they had expected minor, token demonstrations. And one passage jumped out at me

Speaking of her children, a Hong Kong woman married to an American put it this way: “Three days before American Independence Day, I took them to march with me to show them that the half of their heritage that is Chinese cares as much about liberty and human dignity as the half that is American—and what patriotism and love of country really mean.”

Though this question is seemingly everywhere these days, we see it most dramatically in the Middle East, in particular in Iraq. The other day
Paul Wolfowitz alluded to it:

When I hear people say the Arabs are incapable of democracy; Islam is incapable of democracy; I am reminded of hearing exactly the same things 20 years ago, that the South Koreans are incapable of democracy. They've never had it in their history. Confucian culture exalts authoritarianism. They can't do it.

And of course Wolfowitz's point is that the successful multiparty elections in South Korea belie arguments against democracy. There is something familiar about these arguments. We’ve heard them before—but where? All the sophisticated, nuanced points of view aligned together against a “simplistic” belief in democracy. The idea that it was simply cruel and arrogant to try to push “our” version of human rights on people who were unprepared for it. Where have we heard this before?

I remember. It was during the nineteenth century slavery debate. The most common argument of slaveowners and slavetraders was that African slaves were unsuited for freedom and therefore the most merciful thing was to continue the system of chattel slavery. The best reply was that of the great English historian Thomas Babington Macaulay:

Many politicians lay it down as a self-evident proposition, that no people ought to be free till they are fit to use their freedom. The maxim is worthy of the fool in the old story, who resolved not to go into the water till he had learned to swim.

Today the argument is couched in anti-Western rhetoric rather than in the language of racism as it was in the nineteenth century, but it boils down to essentially the same thing: The concepts of democracy and human rights are cultural constructs proprietary to the Western world. Therefore they shouldn’t be “imposed” on non-Western peoples, who are culturally “unsuited” for them.

So we are left with a more abstract question: what is freedom after all? We have two viewpoints. Is freedom just another Western cultural export like McDonald’s, or is it, as the current American president says, “God’s gift to humanity”? The answer, of course, is yes.

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