June 5, 2008

What is wrong with the West?

The importance of open discussion will be never stressed enough. I knew, for instance, that in my previous post in response to Man of Roma and about the reasons why “Western civilization is worth fighting for” something essential was missing—but this is just blogging after all! Yet, in his subsequent post my conversation partner took care of reminding me what I consciously missed out on. Which obviously gives me the opportunity to fill the gap. And what was missing was the pars destruens, that is to say no less than what (in my opinion) is wrong with the West, or, paraphrasing the tile of the above mentioned previous post of mine, the why Western civilization isn’t sometimes worth fighting for.

Western leaders, argues Man of Roma, (but I’d prefer to say “some of them”) are talking so much about values, but how much of what they say is sincere and how much is mere propaganda? “I see some decadence advancing in our part of the world,” he says. Let’s take an example, he says, from today’s entertainment field: Hollywood and Bollywood ...

I may be wrong but Bollywood moviegoers seem to entertain themselves in a much healthier way, while American movies (not to mention US video games) are now so painted with blood, stupidities and disgusting violence […] that the final educational result on the public tends in my view towards new forms of barbarism.

I hate the Islamic fascists, as you call them, Rob. And I am not neutral. Quite the contrary. These repulsive people have made the world much worse than it was before. But if we do not understand that some of them are also motivated by some sort of moral disgust towards some ways of the West, we miss an important point.

Let’s take another example, he adds: Bali , Indonesia …

The islamofascists hit Kuta twice in 2002 and 2005 with some bombs and killed hundreds of people, mostly Westerners. I have been to Bali a few times and I believe it is not by chance they hit the Kuta beach area so much.

Bali is the only Hindu island in a country, Indonesia, mostly Muslim. This was symbolic to them, not many doubts about it, but I think a main point was also they hit right a place in Bali (Kuta) where the Westerners most succeeded in totally corrupting the local people who are now selling themselves in various ways for money, while in other parts of this great island the Balinese retain their unbelievable dignity and their incredibly refined cultural values, yes, so refined and unique that even peasants look like princes […].

Well, I’m bound to say that, on this specific issue, I totally agree with MoR. There is also a “dark face” of the Western world, which it skilfully hides behind the guise of “secularism,” or “freedom” and “democracy.” What I’m not sure I can understand is what are or should be the values on behalf of which MoR, who consider himself a relativist, has been (fairly, in my view) criticizing the West. But it would be far too long a story to go into a difficult argument such as that of what is meant by moral relativism—which, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “has the unusual distinction […] of being attributed to others, almost always as a criticism, far more often than it is explicitly professed by anyone.” At the same time I think this is an inescapable issue, so I’ll limit myself to a short version of my core point of view on that matter, which is quite similar to that of the Catholic philosopher Dario Antiseri, professor of social sciences methodology at the Free International University of Social Studies in Rome.

As Antiseri summarized in his recent book, Relativismo, nichilismo, individualismo. Fisiologia o patologia dell’Europa? (Relativism, nihilism, individualism. Physiology or pathology of Europe?), there are people who consider relativism a pathology of the modern world, from which the West seriously suffer, while others see in it the very physiology of the West. But, while pluralism of ethical conceptions, philosophical visions of the world, and religious faiths is an undeniable point of fact, there are people who erroneously maintain that any ethical system is as good as another (“love your neighbor as yourself,” says Antiseri , is something rather different from the imperative: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”). This is what the then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in his pre-conclave address, called “letting oneself be carried here and there by every wind of doctrine,” a surrender to “a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires” (MASS «PRO ELIGENDO ROMANO PONTIFICE», April 18, 2005). Yet, if it is false to maintain that all ethical systems are equal, “one cannot find fault with those who affirm that the supreme values are neither demonstrated theorems nor self-evident and self-founded axioms.” In other words, if by relativism is meant “the impossibility of rationally founding different ethical systems,” relativism cannot be avoided. “Is it possible—rhetorically asks Antiseri—to have an open society, a democratic society, where the right to be in possession of absolute truth and exclusive values has been appropriated?”

This said, there is one more step in my argument: does the above result mean that, being relativism the very physiology of the West, we are condemned to living without deeply held and widely shared values, and consequently to a moral decadence? Great question to get to answer! I’d say that it depends on whether or not non-relativist people—in accordance with the use of the term “relativist” by Joseph Ratzinger—will be “more influential” than their opponents in Western societies. Not that I want to undervalue the role, say, of “pure and tough” secularists, I just think that no society can do without deep religious and spiritual beliefs about ultimate goods (and evils).

To better explain what I mean, I’ll recall Salman Rushdie's famous “bacon sandwiches, kissing in public, short skirts” column in the October 2d 2001 Washington Post, that is the month after the Twin Towers attack. “What are we for? What will we risk our lives to defend?”—asked Rushdie.

The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. In his world-view, he has his absolute certainties, while we are sunk in sybaritic indulgences. To prove him wrong, we must first know that he is wrong. We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world's resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love. These will be our weapons. Not by making war but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them.

Well, when I first read the column, I thought that (apart from literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world's resources, freedom of thought, and, obviously, love) there was some (self-?)irony in those words. Why the hell should I risk my life for the right of kissing in public places and eating bacon sandwiches? I thought that I might give my life for Freedom, which is, in my view, a whole different thing. I thought that I would give my life for Jesus. I thought (and still do) that being both a secularist and a believer is the best choice, though unfortunately not yet a “majority group.”