The Zeitgeist in a nutshell

In his new book “The Liberal Case for Israel,” Jonathan Miller takes on what he describes so well as “the Orwellian dystopia that is our political discourse today.” I was reminded of Miller’s great formulation when I came across an admirably succinct summary of how this Orwellian dystopia developed in a recent blog post by Gil Troy. Addressing the still ongoing controversy about Mitt Romney’s reference to culture as an explanation for Israel’s economic success, Troy tackles the question “Why Can’t We Talk About Culture?”

“For centuries, a triumphalist narrative dominated Western civilization. Europeans, Americans, and Australians took great pride in their culture as the cause of their political stability, widespread freedoms, economic success, overall sophistication, and world power. Unfortunately, that narrative fed an arrogance that encouraged some of the Western world’s great sins, including racism, colonialism and imperialism. Following World War II, and particularly during the 1960s, there was a welcome backlash against these Western crimes.

But this salutary revolution, like so many revolutions, overstepped, and resulted in the Great Inversion. Many Western elites, who once believed their civilization could do no wrong, started believing their culture could do no right. Simultaneously, […] Israel went from being perceived as a country that was above reproach to being broadly considered a country that was beneath contempt. This new Western phenomenon of self-criticism, built on a strong Jewish orientation toward internalizing guilt, was easy prey for an equal and opposite Third World and Arab orientation toward assigning blame.”

I have some reservations about describing racism, colonialism and imperialism as “the Western world’s great sins” – and therefore I also wouldn’t think in terms of a “welcome backlash against these Western crimes.” Since I’ve had the chance to see quite a bit of the world, I’m absolutely sure that racism isn’t just a Western sin; similarly, while colonialism and imperialism are modern terms that are generally used for Western conquests or subjugations in the past four centuries, it is obvious that there were empires long before the modern West emerged and that non-Western empires also existed after Western powers expanded. Moreover, since this blog’s focus is on Israel and the Middle East, it’s worthwhile noting that there was of course such a thing as Islamic imperialism; indeed, judging from a campaign rally for Egypt’s new president, it seems that there are still lots of people who dream of an Islamic Caliphate.

One could argue that by describing racism, colonialism and imperialism as “the Western world’s great sins,” Gil Troy demonstrates that he himself is affected by the double standards that he outlines so succinctly. Yet, I think he managed to capture in these few lines a crucial dynamic that remains a powerful influence on the Zeitgeist.

Troy offers another gem by quoting Daniel Patrick Moynihan on the question of the role of culture for the success of a society:

“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

2 responses to “The Zeitgeist in a nutshell

  1. The outgrowth of the west’s mea culpa about colonialism is the disastrous concept of cultural relativism. Sadly it is a cancer that has infected the body politic and liberalism to the point that we can no longer honestly discuss the truth.

    • Maybe there is a broader realization re. this problem — just recently, I came across this observation:
      “The Hannah Arendt Center has been highlighting the ever-increasing tendency of politicians—not to mention academics and others—to replace argument with an attack on the facts. At last Fall’s Conference on “Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts,” we began with the premise that:

      We face today a crisis of fact. Facts, as Hannah Arendt saw, are all around us being reduced to opinions; and opinions masquerade as facts. As fact and opinion blur together, the very idea of factual truth falls away. And increasingly the belief in and aspiration for factual truth is being expunged from political argument.”

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