People need the coherence their culture provides and value it even more than easy parking. ~David Brooks, The New York Times

Who said neocons had a superficial grasp of human nature and society?  See, they know that culture is more important than easy parking–that’s why they were so well-prepared for what we encountered in Iraq.  You know, with all the sophisticated analysis that they put together about ethnic and sectarian differences shaping the political future of the country…and the planning, don’t forget the planning!

But Brooks has a lot more Deep Thought than that (you have to hope that he does):

All cultures have value because they provide coherence, but some cultures foster development while others retard it. Some cultures check corruption, while others permit it. Some cultures focus on the future, while others focus on the past. Some cultures encourage the belief that individuals can control their own destinies, while others encourage fatalism.

Not to lose my keen sense of “moral clarity,” but those who have thought about the problem of culture and the meaning that a people’s culture gives to them would start raising all sorts of objections here.  Take the claim that some cultures foster development and some retard it.  This is true up to a point in an obvious sense (for example, cultures that place a lower priority on material production and consumption tend not to be as highly productive and consumptive as those that do), but it forces you to ask: development into or towards what?  Fukuyama’s Edenic End of History where the liberal democrats lie down with the capitalists?  (People who speak airily about development seem to assume that we are all agreed on what it is that is developing, that it to say literally unfolding before us.  Everyone is supposed to be thrilled when “developers” come to “develop” the town, but into what are they developing it?  Perhaps we like things enveloped as they are.) 

The unstated assumption of every advocate of modernity is that culture fosters or retards development towards modernity-as-we-know-it, which tends to end up offering the not very illuminating explanation that some cultures will not develop into the modern cultures that Western moderns will recognise as sufficiently modern, which is to say that Chinese modernity or Indian modernity will not necessarily be our modernity and so has somehow failed to develop as it should.  There is such an expectation of this kind of uniform development that Islamic modernity, because of its particular antecedents, looks shockingly regressive or “medieval” to a Western modern, as if there were some sort of time warp engulfing entire parts of the planet.  The assumption here is that there is a single standard, a single modernity towards which everyone is or ought to be developing, and cultures that do not keep pace in reaching that state are said to be lacking or deficient.  Mr. Bush’s “single model of human progress” is the thing towards which all cultures, all nations should be moving.  Except that, because of the irreducible and contingent differences in the world’s cultures, this will never happen (thank goodness).

Then take the corruption charge.  Everyone in the West knows what we mean by corruption: taking and soliciting bribes, the abuse of public office for private ends, “pulling strings,” nepotism, etc.  To much of the rest of the world this is only not exactly corruption, but is an inevitable way of getting things done in any society that remains more heavily based on personal, face-to-face dealings, family relationships and personal connections, all of which take precedence in a society without strong institutions.  I am reminded of when I was listening to the commentary on Hotel Rwanda with the director and the hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina, whose story the movie tells (more or less accurately by most accounts), and Rusesabagina repeatedly denied that anyone ever “bribed” anyone else in Rwanda or that he had “bribed” anyone in the course of his efforts to save the people trapped at the hotel from the genocidaires.  He kept insisting that this was not bribery, but simply the way things were done, an ordinary business practise.  It is all very well to say that certain cultures are more prone to corruption, and this is not exactly a false statement so much as it is misleading, because what we are calling corruption (and it may well be very venal, very self-interested and very “inefficient”) is the workings of a society that has not internalised (and perhaps does not wish to internalise) a sense of abstract duty to faceless institutions and adherence to codes of conduct that seem entirely irrational.  After all, why wouldn’t you use your influence and your position to help your immediate family and relatives?  Are you some kind of barbarian?

Because our culture has accustomed us to “rational,” bureaucratic and legalistic ways of doing things, we find all of this very chaotic, unofficial, and “inefficient.”  On the other hand, for normal people around the globe personal requests and favours, rooted in interpersonal relationships, make up the oil that keeps the machinery of business and government running.  Of course, this does make it much harder to “get things done,” but then the obsession to “get things done” is by and large one that is determined by your cultural priorities, as is the Western stigma against officials or businessmen hiring their relatives to work for the state or the firm.  This smacks of corruption and favouritism! 
Whatever happened to meritocracy, after all?  I am personally fond of the 18th century Osnabruecker conservative Justus Moeser’s view (expressed in a short work that he called, I believe, Against Promotion by Merit or something of the sort) that this sort of favouritism and relying on personal relationships is the normal state of human affairs, which people will try to keep going even under a meritocratic system.  Favouritism and personal connections will often prevail over questions of “merit” in any event, even when they are considered inappropriate or even illegal, which will only serve to raise unrealistic expectations that quality work, rather than “who knows who,” will determine outcomes in life.  Everyone who works in any organisation, large or small, knows that this is true.  Most people will also recognise that this sort of false expectation creates all sorts of unhappiness and should be avoided.  Therefore promotion according to merit is a misguided idea, isn’t it?  The Germans were much more interesting before unification, wouldn’t you agree?

Then there is one of most spurious charges of all: some cultures focus on the future, while others focus on the past.  This is fairly tendentious.  All peoples focus on the future; it is only recently that in focusing on the future that any people has thought it necessary to disregard and disrespect the past as virtually worthless.  The only people so far as anyone knows who actually treat the past as if it were the future are the Aymara in Bolivia (their language is apparently actually structured to speak of the past in the future tense), but even here in their fascination with resurrecting the old Aymara ways they are, from their perspective, future-oriented.  Anyone concerned with continuing his family line–which is almost everyone in human history–is focused on the future.  This is not just a question of cultural difference, but of false distinctions being drawn to suit a progressive (or dare we say progressive-globalist?) view of the world.

Then there is the question of autonomy vs. fatalism, which sets things up very nicely for someone who wants to believe he can determine his own destiny.  The alternative is to be fatalistic, which everyone agrees is a Bad Thing, so we must all want to believe that we are in charge of our own destinies.  This is a nice myth, like equality or the idea that all men are born free, but one that no traditional or civilised people has ever truly embraced.  Note that this is very different from believing that man has free will; this is a claim about an individual’s power and the ability to control one’s own future.  Indeed, few cultures ever encourage the belief that “individuals can control their own destinies.”  Imagine what social, moral and religious anarchy that such nonsense would produce!  But we don’t have to imagine it, because the cult of autonomy in the West has already provided it for us. 

Can you think of any more impious idea than the one that “individuals can control their own destinies.”  A God-fearing man knows that he has virtually no “control” over his destiny.  This is part of what old fogies still call “having the fear of God,” and recognising that all things are in the hands of God.  This is not fatalism, which rather importantly has something to do with a belief in Fate (which only people who take astrology seriously actually accept anymore), but a statement about reality.  This is why, incidentally, when people come to traditional or religious cultures and tell the people that they have free choice and can make of themselves whatever they want it typically does not sink in, it does not compute.  What are they choosing?  Into what will they make themselves?  Or, more likely, they will simply go about doing things as they have always done them, corruption and “fatalism” included, on the assumption “being free” means being able to stay more or less as they have been.  The liberators will usually tell them this is wrong and that they have to change a lot of things to “be free,” which must create more than a little confusion. 

Individualism itself glories in uncertainty and confusion, because individualists define these things as being part and parcel of “being free,” but psychologically, spiritually and in all other important ways uncertainty and confusion are crippling and paralysing.  Instilling people with the belief that they are in control of their own destinies, especially when they have been led to believe in the guiding hand of Providence or the will of God, would have to fill many of these people with the utmost sense of despair.  After all, given the uncertainties and accidents of life, what fool really supposes himself to be in control of his own destiny?  If it were true that my destiny were in my hands, I doubt very much that this would be very satisfying; because it is not true and misunderstands the human condition entirely, it is guaranteed to yield little if any happiness. 

The underlying point is that Western culture today in its most secular and modern forms does instill people with this depressing belief in autonomy and individual control (I can already hear the libertarians grinding their teeth), and traditional and religious cultures–many of which do not inculcate a sense of what can fairly be called fatalism as such–will have no place for such a view because it is fundamentally impious and contrary to everything they claim to understand about the world.  Brooks is right that different cultures inculcate different attitudes about control of one’s destiny, but the unspoken assumption is that if only we could get these people to stop being mired in their old fatalistic ideas, then maybe, just maybe, they would stop stealing my parking spaces!

Of course what Brooks’ column achieves more than anything, besides the concluding de rigueur “we must fight terrorism on the beaches, we must fight it in the hills” sentiment, is the confession that cultural change has to come from within a culture–which makes the transformation of the Near East into something other than a war zone something of a non-starter–and that significant cultural differences preclude the happy harmonious coexistence that multiculturalism and “the nation of immigrants” rhetoric presuppose.  Running throughout the column is the notion that, given half a chance, people within any given culture are going to want to change it in the direction of “development and modernization,” which rather misses the essential truth that people in said culture have not taken that path because they are unwilling to give up the things in their culture that truly matter to them for the sake of what they might consider to be a few baubles.  If they could have both, they probably would take both, but since it becomes clear early on that they cannot “have it all” they very reasonably prefer that which means something to them over the depressing modern existence where individuals supposedly control their own destinies.