Right, Left, and Wrong About History

So I was reading this article about how Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the coming of the End of History when the Berlin Wall came down is something that seems, retrospectively, naive and totally mistaken. The article is called Why History Has No End by Victor Davis Hanson and it’s online over at City Journal. Never mind that, in my opinion, one shouldn’t have need of hindsight to see that statement was very foolish. No, I read on anyway… here’s a snippet:

European animosity toward the U.S. also has a snobbish component—an anti-bourgeois disdain that is the dual legacy of Europe’s socialist Left and ancien régime Right. Notice how the latest “nuanced” European criticisms of America often start out on the Left—we’re too hegemonic and don’t care about the aspirations of poor countries—and then, in a blink of an eye, they veer to the aristocratic Right: we’re a motley sort, promoting vulgar food and mass entertainment to corrupt the tastes of nations that have a much more refined tradition. That Europeans now eat at McDonald’s and love Hollywood trash—that’s simply the result of American corporate brainwashing.

Well, I read this and then I think hard. I mean, there is a sense in which I have some eympathy with this apparently European elitist view. Why?

Because of the many things that I can criticize about America and Europe alike, there is one thing I must give Europe: it seems at least to know that there is such a thing as culture. Not all Europeans are cultured, but most Europeans I’ve met seem at least to have some idea that culture does exist. Frenchmen may eat at McDonald’s but they also crave a good brie and some really fine red wine. I think in North America, that other thing is… well, maybe we had it once, but now it’s long gone.

See, I am of the opinion that culture in America has in large part been cannibalized by enterprise. There is no traditional diet left… not like how French people lust after cheese when they can’t get it, like the Frenchmen I know in Korea; not perogies, which not only in Saskatchewan but in Eastern Europe are a staple of many a houseold. (Not to say Canada’s far from America, or like Europe… we have more in common with the USA, but in our small towns you can sometimes escape the influence of the megacorporations a little more… because those places are barely worth investing in.)

Sure, there are great and impressive buildings in North America. There’s even a wonderful cathedral in New Yourk I saw a documentary about. And the Church of St. John the Baptist in Montreal is stunning. But these seem to me to be isolated examples in a wasteland of post-culture. I haven’t gone to Europe but it seems to me the world of the European mind is one with a long history, suffused with events and places of the past as well as of the present. The American imaginary landscape seems to have changed little in the last few hundred years… still boundless vistas and freedom and virtue. Well, for people who are writing about it, anyway. They’re elites themselves, not stuck in mining and steel-towns, and I think theytend to negate the views of many Americans by ignoring them altogether… but that’s for another post.

Anyway, Korea has been a place where I have seen the line more clearly drawn. People have a strong (although sometimes mistaken) sense of what is Korean food, and what is foreign. They tend to be very interested in who among foreigners likes what kind of Korean food. I noticed once when I went to a fast food joint, that there were many many young Koreans there. A friend explained that this was their treat, a way to have something different from the Korean food they always eat at home. I don’t see quite the same distinction in the average North American diet. That food, diet, culture, economics, and power are all tied up together is something I think is more clear to me, though I think most of my Korean friends would not explicitly state the connection. (Most of my Western friends wouldn’t either, unless they were reading Francis Moore Lappé at the time.)

In the novel I am working on, one character simply states her opinion as follows: “People are always whining that Westerners want to kill our Arabic culture and replace it with Western culture. But the fact is, there is no more Western culture anymore. Western culture was just the first to be completely killed off and digested and shat out as consumer culture. The fact that it’s happening to our culture now is a matter of our own choice.” The character, a female Arab student living in the year 2035, is right in her observation that the great Western culture of Europe before the 20th Century is dead… there is nobody now who could be cited as being as stunningly brilliant as Bach or da Vinci, although we’d likely know of him or her if he or she was around, thanks to the speed of telecommunications and the way word spreads these days.

But more important, it’s the way we value—or don’t value—things of culture that make all the difference.

It does not follow in my mind that the EU’s assumption

…that a 35-hour workweek, retirement at 55, ever-longer vacations, extensive welfare benefits, and massive economic regulation can go together with swelling prosperity…

is actually, as Hanson claims, against all economic reason. Rather, I think it stems simply from a rather different experience and understanding of war, of history. American rugged individualism seems to have been suited to a world where history began with the Boston Tea Party. But Europe remembers war, remembers how clearly dangerous and how deeply damaging it is. The German psyche is still scarred, even to the young generation. Buildings all over the continent are defaced by miles of endless scaffolding. Farmers still find detritus of long-long battles in their fields. America, having none of this history, has so much economic impetus to wage war that nothing sways it.

I remember a series of articles I read once, written by Sartre during the War (World War II, that is). Before the conclusion of the war, he was invited to America and toured various places. The first article, written after a tour of a factory and the factory-owned hospital, was titled something like, “The American Worker Is Not Yet the Proletariat”, and while one could simply view this as ideological blindness to a difference in American culture, I prefer to see it as beffudlement as the way Americans thought.

The French remembered a long history of serfdom under illegitimate rulers who used claims based on bloodline, on religion, and on naked force, to safeguard their ownership of France and all within its borders, including the lives of all the people. They remembered that even the French Revolution did not really succeed in destroying this form of rule, but rather fomented the supplanting of old oppressors by new ones. And they remembered the long battle against the new oppressors. They learned that by banding together, they could survive and fight back against exclusion, manipulation, and being taken advantage of.

Sounds familiar, as it sounds like the situation in Saskatchewan of what would later become the mainstream socialist party in Canadian politics, the NDP (New Democratic Party). While these people did not have a history to draw on, they did have a hard situation in the thirties, and they realized that using a kind of institutionalized form of the very natural interdependence which was so central to their lives as settlers and farmers only made good sense, as an ignored and irrelevant group on the periphery of their nation.

This is not to valiantly defend all that the NDP, or the French (and other Europeans) do. It is to question how sincere, aware, and informed the opinions are of someone who thinks that a 35-hour workweek, retirement at 55, and other quality-of-citizens’-life goals in the EU are “utopian”.

It would do us all well, if we think these goals are utopian, to ask ourselves what the most important things in life are. Time, family, friends, and personal happiness come in at the top of my list. Making shitloads of money for an ungrateful employer isn’t even on the list. And I think the EU’s goals are therefore much more humane. America’s goals are great if you don’t mind living without much of a culture beyond that available in the venues of consumption, without any personal engagement with politics to speak of, without in fact much of anything besides work and the ubiquitous drugs of the modern world: alcohol, mediated experience, and the myth of fairytale love. But that, again, is for another post, on another day.

In any case, I would like to echo Swedenborg in saying that The End has already come, for us Westerners, anyway, and nobody saw it happen. It happened long ago, and we’re living in the time after the end. Western civilization is in the main dead, and what we’re living in is some kind of new society, slapped onto the ruins of Western society but made of gyprock instead of marble. It’s Consumerist Society, and like it or not, the rest of the world seems to be choosing it too, for better or worse, at a frightening pace. And for me, those humanist goals of the EU aren’t utopian, any more than life in a nation like America is a utopian goal for someone stuck somewhere in the North Korean countryside. Both goals are realizable, with enough struggle, intelligence, and sacrifice.

2 thoughts on “Right, Left, and Wrong About History

  1. I’m not sure that Western Civilization is dead. Certain expressions of it’s vigor are no longer apparent but that has much to do with a shift of focus from the church to mammon. Much of Western culture has been predicated by a symbiotic relationship with the church as arbiter of power over borders, morals, ethics, politics and money. The churches sway over the fate of populations has waned due to a number of factors, not least of all the spreading hegemony of empirical science. Cultural expressions have changed their face in response to this ‘pseudo-mechanization’ of our role within the universe. They may be less focal, in terms of specific people radically altering the face of culture, in the traditional and popular spheres of culture; music, sculpture, painting, literature, cinema/photography (at a push) but their widespread use among populations has increased by powers. I have a feeling that science heroes have transplanted the heroes of ‘art’.
    To attempt to define the relationships between cultural elements over time is difficult. If you were to stae that Chinese culture had died, where would you point the finger. Mao, no, earlier, later.
    Did Greek culture end with the burning of Pythagoras perhaps. The burning (three times) of the Library of Alexandria. The introduction of the printing press. The birth of the camera. Is Egyptian cultural life poorer now than at the time of the Pharoahs.
    It would be justifiable to say yes to all of the above. Other than that the present lack of cultural richness that is agreed upon can be found in contemporary records from all of those periods. We are forever stubbing out toe on the edge of the end of the world.
    Interesting also is the scapegoating of American culture as the ebb point of Western Civilization. An ironic standpoint that defines American Culture as Western Civilization, an imperialism that is wondrous to behold. Of course each cultural period has a forerunner that sets the tone for others. This was predicated by land bridges earlier if we are to talk about cultural influence over time. Water played a roll in the transfer of cultural styles but long time distances ‘defended’ local cultural colour. There are no distances anymore.
    Can culture be defined as the sum of all knowledge held by a populace throughout it’s social structures. If so I think what we are seeing is similar to a dumburst. A low water mark, if we continue to scapegoat low western cultural expression, has been reached because the number of those plugged in to said culture is exponentialy larger than the any time in human history. As the water fills the new valley the levels rise. What’s interseting at this point in human history is that no one culture can be lost to time before the rest of the world has been made aware of it on their tv’s.
    Rambled a bit there, sorry. Off to apply for a job at the Malaysian Embassy in Sweden. I’m morally conflicted considering the outgoing leader is an anti-semite of the first order. Tax free dosh calls though.

    Science and money – empire state building and the lost twin towers.


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