Cultural Imperial Hubris

In Christopher Carr’s Off the Cuff regarding Al Jazeera journalists jailed in Egypt, Tod and Notme had a small exchange that piqued my interest and started a mental log rolling.  We as westerners feel that freedom of the press in incredibly important. Do Egyptians?  The reason I am asking this is because we who come from an Enlightenment culture assume many things of others in society.  And these assumptions can, to the untrained/unbelieving eye look like cultural imperialism/whitesplaining when applied outside the west, to borrow terms that are often used by the left in our political debate.

“I’d say it’d make sense for it to keep you up at night because the enlightenment is what it takes and looking back on our enlightenment what precipitated it? Blood, a great deal or blood and war. Hundreds of years of it.Now other societies seem to move up the ladder faster now that there’s a previous example, so maybe the Middle East/Islamic Society will only take decades of wars? If so then even the optimistic position is pretty damn depressing.”

That is from esteemed commentor North, in Tods post Why Do We Continue To Trust These [people]?  But as non-western groups did go through periods of increadible bloodshed, but in the end did not come to the enlightenment, what are we, who charish the ideals of equility, freedom of speech and other liberal goals, to do with societies that don’t share those beliefs?

Take for example sweat shops.  We can look at them and think of horrors such as the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, but do the people of Bangladesh or Nigeria need to learn the lessons of those horrors on their own, and come up with their own answers?  Or should we implement top down solutions from the safety of the west, possibly eliminating jobs as the country starts to climb the economic ladder?  Will they see this as another form of Colonialism, keeping them in the global poorhouse?  Because indeed, I, as a libertarian, do see this as another form of Colonialism, or whitesplaining/cultural imperialism.  Now I realise that both Nigeria and Bangladesh are former colonies, but does that change the equation, or does is show greater paternalism?  Does it change if the example is moved to Thailand?

This is not a call to change your beliefs.  This is not to accuse anyone of stupidity.  What I am asking is if this is indeed whitesplaining/colonialism/cultural imperialism or not.  And if not, why not?

 

 

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86 thoughts on “Cultural Imperial Hubris

  1. whitesplaining/colonialism/cultural imperialism are all loaded words with clear negative meanings so its hard to start with them. In some cases it may be overbearing for us to insist other cultures abide by our values. However that doesn’t always mean it is wrong. We may be appalled by how women are treated in Saudi Arabia which we could take as a reason to limit our dealings or support them. Is that trying to boss them arround? Well yeah. I think the answer lies in the murky area that depends on the issue at hand ( murder is worse then McD’s on the corner), how much we are trying to change a country against their will and the power that country has to resist. I don’t think there is one answer to these questions, it depends on the context. But people prefer simple ideological answers so that leads the debate in one kind of direction.

    It is also possible the answer is something like “that is fine for you to do that, but we think it’s wrong so we’re not supporting it in any way.”

    Also is the tricky problem of who defines what is the Belief of the Culture. If we ask Saudi men what the people in their culture want, they might tell us that their women are happy with what they are given so buzz off. The women might say differently. Culture don’t have spokespeople who deliver the Official Beliefs. Often times the people speaking for the culture are speaking for their power and not for everybody.

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    • Thanks
      This is what I was getting at in the other thread, but didn’t want to derail it further. And while I know that the terms are loaded, they tend to get bandied around in various places and seemed to be a good way to get to think about the issue.

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    • This exactly. I would generally fall on the side of respecting differing cultural norms, but there are very definite limits. For instance, I really don’t care if signing the petition against this makes me a cultural imperialist:

      http://www.amnesty.org.au/action/action/37881/?utm_source=FBPAGE&utm_medium=social&utm_content=20150901051500&utm_campaign=CIC672_20150901

      Baghap India:
      An unelected all-male village council in India has ordered that 23-year-old Meenakshi Kumari and her 15-year-old sister be raped and paraded naked.

      The ‘sentence’ was handed down as punishment after their brother eloped with a married woman.

      The supreme court of India has branded their decrees illegal, yet in some states they continue to operate – and their punishments are carried out.

      The whole family, including the eloped woman, are at risk of reprisals. A brother of the sisters, Sumit Kumar, said, “In the panchayat [village council], the Jat decision is final. They don’t listen to us. The police don’t listen to us. The police said anyone can be murdered now.”

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      • There were also riots a few years ago because Hindu nationalists were angry at young urban couples going on dates on Valentine’s Day. One problem with the entire anti-colonial ideology is that it turned a perfectly valid political point, imperialism sucks and countries should be run by the people who live there rather than foreigners, into a really dumb argument that all sorts of Westernization are bad. This has given opponents of civil liberties and human rights a great argument for some really evil things.

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  2. This comes down to a huge tension when it comes to what we agree ought to have primacy.

    Is it the society?
    Then you get one set of answers. (This set of answers tends to be conservativish insofar as they tend to support some kind of stasis.)

    Is it the individual?
    Then you get one very different set of answers. (One that tends to be liberalish insofar as diversity becomes one of the main foci.)

    What is a culture *FOR*?

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  3. I think this is a tricky and difficult question.

    I used to belong to another Internet group that was probably a bit more educationally and socio-economically diverse than OT. There were a lot of people in the group who had this kind of experience when they turned 18 and/or were dropped off for college, “HAPPY Birthday son/daughter. Good luck. Now Give us the keys to our house. You are on your own”

    Most of these people seemed to come from working class backgrounds and/or ANGLO-origin backgrounds.

    I thought this was absolutely nuts. Even if you don’t support your kid for college financially, just letting them go at 18 seems cruel to me. But there seem to be plenty of cultures that consider this a good thing to do because it is supposed to breed independence or what not. On the other hand, there are plenty of cultures where multi-generational living is the norm and/or living at home for university is the norm.

    I suppose one reason to argue that Western style Democracy and civil liberty is important is that it encourages peace and trade. When have two truly functioning democratic countries gone to war with each other? Note the key phrase here is truly functioning so modern day Russia does not count.

    When it comes to the sweatshop stuff, this is an ideological disagreement. There is a strain of thought that says each industrializing nation needs to reinvent the wheel basically and this includes horrible factory conditions for the workers. The left (and I am on this side) argues otherwise and that we can design modernization techniques that don’t require all developing nations to go through the abuses of the Industrial Revolution.

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  4. I think there is a tremendous difference between the issues like freedom of press in non-democratic nations and issues like third-world sweatshops.

    So that we don’t get too far into the Tod-said-somehting-he-didn’t weeds, let me begin with the caveat that sweatshops are bad, and the most egregious ones should not be allowed by which ever government they are under.

    That being said…

    In most third world countries the choice to work in a sweatshop is somewhat voluntary. In many cases, the economies of these places are so depressed that these jobs are sought after, and might in fact actually be preferable to the alternatives. In order to transform an environment to a place where sweat shops are not only a least desirable but perhaps illegal alternative, there are a ton of moving parts that have to be first dealt with: culture, economy, class, training, education, infrastructure, and trade deficits, just to name a few. And all of those have a their own myriad of moving parts that need to be dealt with, assuming that we are going to choose to do so.

    Freedom of the press is a different matter altogether, I would argue, because when we’re talking about freedom of the press in non-democratic countries we’re never talking about things like Clinton’s emails, or even (regardless of what Libertarians might say) those journalists like Greenwald that cover Snowden. In these countries, freedom the press (or lack thereof) is intricately tied with the most fundamental human and civil rights.

    In Egypt, for example the journalists that have been jailed committed the crime of investigating atrocities committed by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on his own people. They have been sentenced to three years of jail for merely asking questions — except of course that it’s entirely possible that they haven’t really be sentenced to just three years. If their fate is similar to those people they chose to report on, there’s a really good chance that they will be tortured, and that their families (if in Egypt) are at peril of being arrested or disappearing as well. Also, it’s not entirely certain that in three years anyone will actually let them go because that’s not what’s happening with people who are caught dissenting too loudly in Egypt right now.

    The case of sweatshops might indeed be a situation of people in a place far away choosing to live in a way white Americans do not like, think is bad for them, and want them to stop.* Whether or not they might actually learn from history and bypass tragedies other countries have suffered — and whether or not that might be a good or bad thing for them in the long run — is a separate question well worth having. But a dictatorship choosing to terrorize its own citizenry (and that is the indeed the purpose despotic regimes curb freedom of the press) is entirely different animal with much less of a moral gray area.

    And while your OP skirts this issue, I think it’s important to note that choosing to supply such a regime with weapons and cash so that it might terrorize its citizenry without fear of consequence is part and parcel of what we choose to talk around whenever we have these conversations. Still, it’s a factor I think always needs to be pointed out, over and over, even if we decide that it’s OK to do because hey, they’re just [insert name of citizens of X nation here] anyway.

    * FTR, I think we actually do the opposite. We like cheap goods, and don’t really care that much what happens to the people that allow us to get them so cheap.

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    • I agree. Workplace risk, I think, tracks inversely with per capita GDP. It even tracks, in this country, with income to some degree, though it’s complicated. Safety costs money. As we grow wealthier, one of the things we spend money on is dying due to accidents less. I have every expectation that this will happen in most economies, unless they adopt slavery.

      Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, due process happen not because of economic forces, but because cultures hop the rails from some other way of doing things.

      It might end up that freedom (as in speech) is cheaper and more economical than locking everything down, because all that vigilance isn’t free (as in beer). But it also takes some getting used to.

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      • It even tracks, in this country, with income to some degree, though it’s complicated.

        Specifically, people with a lot of human capital tend to have higher total compensation, including in the form of lower risk of dying, but at any given level of human capital, people who accept a higher risk of dying tend to earn more.

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  5. Well, I’m not a free-speech absolutist so my moral conscience isn’t rocked by learning that Egypt has imprisoned reporters for speech. Given that, I’m not inclined – temperamentally or for so-called “principled” reasons – have a significant reaction to the news. It’s reminiscent of the Charlie Hebdo incident in that there are multiple frames from which view Egypt’s actions, and one of them is from a purely speech-oriented perspective.

    More to the point of your post, I’d say that taking a robust free-speech line when judging the Egyptian government’s actions doesn’t necessarily entail whitesplainin. I mean, of course it could (and often it does!) but an argument based on pragmatics here – (eg) that imprisoning people who speak critically of government creates a cycle of distrust and increased dissent which gummint not only should not (morally) but cannot (practically) keep pace with via even more arrests. (See, non-ideological and no whitespainin!)

    ALsotoo, I think the nationality of the reporters is relevant here. If they were non-Egyptians reporting on stuff taking place within Egypt it seems to me Egypt may be justified in imprisoning them (if it violates their already established laws, say). If they were Egyptians, then it seems to me things get murkier since their status as citizens of Egypt grants them a legitimacy to criticize gummint which can’t be discounted off-hand (even tho they were, let’s say, in fact violating those laws). From CC’s linky, it seems that both foreigners and citizens were sentenced to the same prison terms.

    As one last thought, I’m sorta with ya that insofar as Egyptians desire legal protections for speech they need to get their ass in gear and make those changes happen. It’s certainly not up to us, or the west generally, to impose those types of values/legal protections on them (I don’t even know what that would mean, to be honest). Given that, I’m not sure how to square a certain type of western-based judgment that Egypt is somehow failing, or wrong, to censor expression when that value hasn’t yet gained sufficient internal support to become protected via legislation.

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    • Does one have to be a free speech absolutist to get awfully disturbed about locking up journalists? This strikes me as an easy call compared to the various other discussions about free speech we have on this site.

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      • No, I suppose not. But it seems to me like the two things go hand in hand. (That is, FSAism and OUTRAGE over this).

        I only mentioned it because it’s from where my thinking devolves on this and similar issues.

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  6. , this is a reply to you.
    “I think there is a tremendous difference between the issues like freedom of press in non-democratic nations and issues like third-world sweatshops.” I am not so sure that there is, from a post enlightenment standard. Both rely very heavily on “other people matter” as a first principle. And while that is one that I subscribe to, I think we assume to much about other cultures to take it for granted.

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    • Here is the difference:

      In Taiwan, people want to work in a Nike factory, even if we might look at that factory and say, “Well, I would never agree to work there.” Telling them we know better wha they should want might well be patronizing. Not listening to what they tell you they want can be rather un-empathitic.

      In Egypt, however, no one is really asking to be detained without charges, to be disappeared, and to have their families jailed for no other reason than the familial relationship. Saying that’s terrible that they have to live through that isn’t a sign of being patronizing, it’s a sign being empathetic.

      One is (or at least night be) a situation of Americans whitesplaining what is best for foreigners. The other is not. In fact, i would argue that telling yourself that what’s happening in Egypt is probably what those people really want anyway is itself a kind of whitesplaining.

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      • I think another distinction in the two concepts is that when westerners criticize exploitative sweatshop practices, we’re limiting most (certainly not all!) of our criticism to Western companies who’ve outsourced to those type of regions. That is, we’re not trying to impose our cultural views on China (or the Chinese, for example) but on Nike and Coca-Cola and etc.

        Adding: whereas by contrast, when Westerners get all antsy in their pantsy about certain nations’ domestic free speech protections or lack there of, we’re talking about something insidious in their domestic culture. (To take it to the extreme!)

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        • And adding to that (since Aaron is raising some very good questions here), insofar as westerners make consumption choices based on their view of sweatshop practices fully generally, they’re not necessarily advocating for top-down solutions, or any of that. They’re using the market to incentivize better corporate treatment of employees. Granted, folks who make these types of choices may not garner as much attention as folks who stand in the town square shouting at the top of their lungs, but they are out there.

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          • I dunno Still, a lot of people who complain about sweatshops and the like are generally not satisfied with the conclusion “And therefore western consumers should be encouraged to not buy products from companies that use those kinds of labor methods”*. Among sweatshop opponents that’s mighty weak tea and I usually hear stuff like “and therefore companies that use this kind of labor should not be permitted to sell their products in the developed world,” or “and therefore trade agreements with these sweatshop allowing nations should specify that they not allow these practices” or many variations on top down impositions.

            *I, for one, think this first conclusion is a deeply moral and internally consistent one and have no criticisms of it.

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      • Your go-to example for a third-world country is about thirty years out of date. Taiwan is now a high-middle-income country in exchange-rate terms (above Greece and Portugal), and richer than most European countries in PPP-adjusted terms.

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      • Well, I agree 100% with you on the former, but am not so sure on the latter. And, again, for the record I am a huge believer of free speech/free press. But if I were to go to Egypt I am submitting to the ways of that country, and the ways of its peoples. Now, you will say that at least one of the Journos was Egyptian, and from where I stand, did feel that they have the right. But do the majority of its peoples agree? And if they don’t who are we to tell them “this is super important.”

        And as far as me telling/asking myself that, and THAT is whiteslpaining, well, I think we have come to part of the problem, in that EVERYTHING I tell my self is whitesplaining. That is because I am white. But what you are also saying it that there are things above white/non-whitesplaining. And those are “super important” But those super important things might differ for someone with different politics, in a different era, no?

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        • “But those super important things might differ for someone with different politics, in a different era, no?”

          In this particular case, only if we are defining “different politics” as the kind that allows you to hold the gun pointed at everyone else. In Egypt, if you are in politics you are either with the leader’s party or you are imprisoned or killed.

          Seriously, I don’t know how saying that’s bad is whitesplaining. Was Stalinism just cultural differences? Was the Cultural Revolution? Was Sadam’s genocidal mass gassing of the Kurds?

          Of course the people in power holding the guns killing and imprisoning the less desirables think it’s good, reasonable policy. That’s not an Egyptian culture thing; it’s pretty universal.

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          • “Seriously, I don’t know how saying that’s bad is whitesplaining. Was Stalinism just cultural differences? Was the Cultural Revolution?”

            I am not saying it is What I am saying is that can be used to justify a lot (Stalin! Mao! Mass Murder on a Grand Scale!) in the proxy war on Communism back in the day (it ain’t colonialism if we are stopping the next cultural revolution!) Granted that is a bit of a stretch and it goes without saying that it isn’t what you are saying, but that line of argument can justify a lot.

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          • The universality you menton is very important. Corruption of power isn’t a cultural problem, its a human problem. I think the discussion is conflating two separate questions. The first question is whether or not there are certain universal values or truths (or in the language of the enlightenment human rights). The second is whether or not one society has the moral authority (without getting into questions of competency) to impose those values on another.

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            • I do not think that we need to answer the question of whether there are universal values or not. Unless we can prove without a doubt that one religion is the true religion than what humans do really doesn’t matter that much. What we can prove is that some values have better results than others. In a materialistic universe, neither Enlightened Liberalism or Strictest Calvinism (or Islam) might be correct and universal in a cosmological sense but most of us would agree that Enlightened Liberalism tends to result in less bloodshed and chaos. This makes it more right than Strictest Calvinism even if it isn’t really universal.

              As to whether there is a right to impose. Again that question can be answered pragmatically. Human history is filled with examples that demonstrate that attempts to impose a moral system of any sort tends to fail regardless of the moral system. This doesn’t mean that societies with Enlightened Liberalism have to allow the illiberal to go free and do what we will. We might not be able to impose liberalism but we can limit the damage caused by illiberalism through various means short of war like containment.

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              • I don’t think the comparison of a political philosophy to religions, which are at least to some degree based on the supernatural, is apples to apples. There’s also more to this than the pragmatic (your comment itself includes the value that bloodshed and chaos are bad).

                Look at the example of China which has been able to develop at a rapid pace economically but remains repressive politically. This isn’t to say they don’t have plenty of problems and of course they’re not fully industrialized but based on their example I think it’s feasible that a society could be stable, economically prosperous, and still illiberal politically.

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                • There have been plenty of stable, economically prosperous, and illiberal countries. China is an interesting example though. The political system is undemocratic and some of the social policy is highly authoritarian when it comes to political and religious liberties and even reproductive choice. At the same time, China isn’t illiberal in the same way that countries in the Middle East are. You can live a relatively Westernized, materialistic and pleasure seeking lifestyle in China without getting in trouble. There aren’t Modesty Police that seek to control virtue like those that exist in Saudi Arabia, Iran, or other Muslim countries.

                  When most people talk about illiberalism, we aren’t just referring to a lack of political and civil rights. We are talking about the ability to impose a moral code of behavior on others like making women dress modestly in public or forbidding public or even private displays of affection.

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                  • Even in the Middle East ‘illiberal’ is nation specific. Pre-revolution Syria had probably the most permissive culture in the region and yet the most authoritarian government with the most pervasive surveillance state.

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                    • If you exclude Israel than the most permissible cultures in the MENA are Lebanon, Tunis, and Morocco. The Assad family wasn’t particularly intent on enforcing Islamic morality but they weren’t up for allowing liberal social mores to flourish either. Things like honor killings occurred in Assad-era Syria.

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                  • I’m a bit confused by your response. We both agree that a society could be stable/prosperous without civil liberties (or being socially liberal). If that’s true then what’s the pragmatic case you referenced for, say, freedom of speech or freedom of the press? By pragmatic I mean something we can’t do without in order to make a society function, as opposed to just something we value.

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                    • Could I request some examples of societies that have been stable and prosperous without civil liberties or liberalism? The timeframe I’m thinking of is about a century or so though frankly I think I’m being rather generous in allowing such a short standard for stability.

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                      • Given the time frame you’re insisting on, you’ll have similar difficulties producing examples of stable and prosperous societies with “civil liberties or liberalism.”

                        The main exceptions will be highly exceptional exceptions. In the case of the US and Great Britain, the question of which is cart, which is horse, remains quite open: Was the American version of liberalism, for example, what produced American prosperity and relative stability, or have American prosperity and relative stability been what allowed for the continuation and progressive expansion of American liberalism?

                        I don’t think there is a one-sided answer to that question. I also emphasize “relative” in relation to “stability” because the American variation on “Enlightenment Liberalism” was born in revolutionary war, and has continually been at war and has depended on wars – including major wars of world-historical significance and scope – for its further state-level consolidation.

                        Seen more broadly, LeeEsq’s claim that “Enlightened Liberalism tends to result in less bloodshed and chaos” is, frankly, ludicrous. From the first efforts to form new governments on the basis of “Enlightenment Liberalism,” the history is one of revolution, war, genocide, and massive de-stabilization of pre-existing social, political, and economic orders worldwide.

                        You can argue that all of that was “historically necessary,” or on balance for the good, or you can adopt some version of a No True Liberalsman thesis, in which all of the famously-massively disruptive effects of the adoption of liberal ideals are someone else’s fault, but, however you proceed, we neither have nor could have some objective proof that the establishment of liberal or liberal democratic order produces prosperity and stability . What we can perhaps say is that there are indications that, all things beings equal – which for better or for worse, things never are – a liberal democratic model adjusted reasonably for local conditions produces a potentially stable or at least self-correcting and prosperous or prosperity-maximizing system for governing a literate mass society.

                        The rest of this is, to say the least, a highly complex discussion. If you really want to get into it, I’d recommend Fukuyama’s two volumes on the Origins of Political Order, which present a vast survey of world history and attempt a systematic and comprehensive review of the best thinking on the subject, and attempt to derive as simple and coherent a set of theoretical models as possible.

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                        • That’s a good retort CK but even with your weaker claim, that liberal democratic models are self correcting and have superior stability than the alternatives (which is closer to my point), our current Liberal alternative; China; is 61 years old and has had 8 Chairmen. The US is 216 years old and has had 43 peaceful* and orderly transitions (of their executive).

                          *I’m leaving one out on account of the Civil War.

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                          • As I noted, the U.S. is a very highly exceptional case, since over its history (216 years? – 1799? – I’d say 1787 so 228 but who’s counting I guess), it has changed from a fractious assemblage of 13 minor states or statelets to a continent-spanning empire of global reach. “Peaceful and orderly transitions” of designated “executives” seems like a rather narrow definition of stability.

                            Anyway, I’m not sure you’re getting my main point, which isn’t a retort, but skepticism over whether the groundwork for this discussion has been clearly enough laid for us to arrive at useful conclusions. I say this despite the fact that I generally agree with you or share your outlook at least regarding the role of violence in historical change. It’s something, however, that for the very sake of the liberal order as a less violent one at least for us we look away from.

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                            • Well absolutely those are excellent points, but really my point was that our various illiberal flavors of any given generation are all generally very short lived projects and they usually collapse from their internal contradictions more than they are collapsed by rivals from the outside.

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                              • I generally agree with you on that, too. We don’t know where China is going. For that matter, we don’t know where Europe or individual European states, or Japan, Singapore, or Botswana is going. We can’t be sure exactly where we are going, for that matter.

                                The meaning and likely future of post-Mao China is one of the major questions for Fukuyama, while the political history of China is a major reference throughout both volumes of his book. He agrees with us that exactly what China will eventually serve as an example of is far from clear.

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                                • Well I’m far from an expert on China but anyone paying close attention to it would not be pointing at it as an exemplar of non-liberal stability and development but rather would be holding their breath and chewing on their hat brim in terror*. I certainly am.

                                  *Not in terror of, terror for.

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                    • I think the issue is what do we mean by an illiberal society. By illiberal I mean something more than just a lack of civil liberties and democracy as we understand them in the West. I mean that the society and government enforces traditional and popular conceptions of morality through various methods like the enforcement of traditional gender roles and sexuality.

                      For me a truer example of an illiberal society is something like Saudi Arabia where there are morality police ensuring that everybody lives according to strictest Islam as much as possible rather than the China of 2015. A woman in the present day PRC could generally dress how she wants without getting put in jail and could pursue a career outside being a wife and mother. This isn’t possible in Saudi Arabia.

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                      • Fair enough but isn’t that moving this kind of far away from the original discussion about whether or not there’s a pragmatic justification for civil liberties (or general liberalism) that isn’t ultimately value based?

                        Granted as I’m typing this I think part of the problem with the discussion may be a lack of defined terms..

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                • China needs to last for at least a century under their current system before I think they can stand as a good example. Anyone closely examining the Chinese system would observe that if the wheels haven’t come off it yet they sure as hell are wobbling hard.

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  7. Tod Kelly: * FTR, I think we actually do the opposite. We like cheap goods, and don’t really care that much what happens to the people that allow us to get them so cheap.

    In fact, we do both, because “we” are hundreds of millions of people acting independently.

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  8. I wrote about this in the past but one of the big problems that liberal democracies always had is what to do with illiberal people within them. The entire basis of liberalism is that there is not one version of the good life but multiple versions and that people should be allowed to live their life as they want, for the most part, while quietly discussing their version of the good life with their neighbors. It took centuries of philosophical thought plus general tiredness about the Catholic-Protestant wars to come up with liberalism.

    There have always been people in the West who have not accepted liberalism. They demanded their way or the high way. They existed on the right and the left. Liberalism never really came up with good solution for this issue. You can’t really force liberalism on people but illiberal people can certainly cause much suffering if there are enough of them.

    In a globalized world, we are dealing with the problems of liberal cultures and illiberal cultures having to interact. The 19th and early 20th century really demonstrates that you can’t force cultures to adopt liberalism anymore than you can force individuals. Yet, recent events show that if illiberal societies get out of hand than they are able to cause much suffering within and without. It is a problem without a good solution.

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  9. Sweatshop is as sweatshop does. You might say “that’s a really shit job that no person should ever have to do”, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad, harmful job, it just means you wouldn’t do it. There was a whole TV show about shit jobs that no person should ever have to do (and yet people were doing them anyway, right here in America in fact.)

    That’s not to say that bad, harmful jobs ought to be accepted. Like, we know that continuous exposure to fine particulates causes permanent lung damage. We know that repetitive strain injuries occur and are debilitating. We know that abusive timekeeping and workforce-management practices lead to aberrant behavior (i.e. locking the doors to keep the workers from leaving early, and when there’s a fire they all burn to death.)

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  10. I think there’s a reasonable conversation to be had about freedoms and culture, of course, but the sweatshop issue has some major differences, most notably that we’re already responsible, to some degree, for the conditions in some of them. That is, Western companies that sell products to Western consumers are the ones paying next to nothing for shirts from Bangladeshi factories in severely overcrowded, dilapidated buildings ripe for collapse. If influencing the behavior of factory-owners in these circumstances amounts to colonialism, well then we’re already acting as colonialists. Hell, it’s our behavior that created an economy in which working in a sweat shop is for some the best option. Then, once we’ve done it, any further behavior in an effort to make factories safer or increase wages is colonialism? It seems convenient that anti-colonialism turns out to serve capital!

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    • I’d agree and say that there are productive and moral responses and there are also colonialism/whitesplaining responses that are likely to be unproductive.
      Off the top of my head I’d consider productive responses to be:
      -Advocating for companies to use humane production standards and using publicity, market shaming and advocating for consumers to choose humanely produced products to pressure companies to do so.
      -Advocating for developing nations governments to adopt humane labor condition standards and supporting native movements within those nations when they attempt to obtain or enforce those standards (the Bangladeshi Factories, for instance, were illegal by Bangladesh codes, the inspectors/enforcers had simply been paid off).
      -Advocating for unionization in developing world countries, lending support both moral and financial to unions in developing world countries.

      I’d consider paternalistic/colonialist responses to be more along the lines of these things:
      -Imposing trade barriers against developing nations that require some level of labor standards which are determined by an outside body or group of people.
      -Seeking to impose a global labor standard through some transnational organization where developing countries have a disproportionately small voice.
      -Seeking to force companies to adhere to developed world labor standards in their global operations through regulation or criminal prosecution.

      That’s just off the cuff but the difference in my mind is that we should encourage and try to help people in developing countries to achieve and demand higher levels of workplace safety but that we cross the line when we try and parachute in and do it for them. That’s the economic equivalent of “being greeted as liberators” in my mind; of course we prosperous white first world nations people know what’s better for people in developing countries than they do.

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      • I was with you until your last bullet. I have no problem using legal means to get American companies to adhere to, if not American standards, some labor standards in their global operations, or perhaps more effectively, holding them legally liable for what happens in their overseas factories as a result of negligence.

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        • I confess, I paused over that one but wanted to match my first three with a latter three.

          I struggle with that one a bit because on principle I’m shakily neutral to sympathetic on it but in practice I suspect that it’s functionally unenforceable without a cooperative stable trade partner government and if you have a cooperative stable trade partner government then history suggests that you’re roughly one generation away from the sweatshops fleeing from that nation organically as its economy develops.

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          • I definitely get, er, liberal (I’m leaving out a prefix for fear of derailment) justification for letting things be, for the sake of future economic development, but I fear that justification precludes many of the other steps, including, but not limited to, encouraging the organization of labor. That is, once your argument against a step is, “It might get in the way of economic progress,” assuming (perhaps correctly) that sweat shops comprise one of the first steps on an (almost) inevitable economic climb that will be good for everyone, that argument can be used against every other form of influence. It is, in fact, the argument that in past conversations about sweatshops has dominated one side of the discussion, in response to any suggested influence.

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            • I embrace the neoliberal label though I consider myself a reconstructed one since I am firmly of the opinion that there’re entire families of government services that obviously cannot be privatized and that there’re many other areas, prisons for instance, where privatization was an unambiguous failure. So feel free to call me one.

              My point was actually even narrower than that in that I fear that with a typical semi dysfunctional developing world government trying to hold corporations accountable al la that third bullet point will be either entirely ineffective or would yield merely an expensive department of international labor enforcement jet-setting about to a series of Potemkin villages costing much and achieving little. Whereas with a partner government that was honest and accountable the sweat shops would be on their way out anyhow so why bother?

              In my own worldview sweatshops and poor labor standards are rather like acne; horrible awful inhumane acne but something that every country that’s developed to economic adulthood has gone through. I’m all for trying to speed up the transition of nations through that acne phase but I worry that in trying to fight the acne we risk losing sight of the big picture and end up preventing nations from growing up at all.

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  11. If you’ll stand for sweatshops, at least have the balls to do it proper.
    Walk into a pediatric burn ward, and see what you’re supporting.

    Oh, and if you really want to support child labor, let me know. I know a great glassware company.
    But a sweatshop isn’t fun and games, and these kids don’t have lives to get back to.

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  12. We as westerners feel that freedom of the press in incredibly important.

    We do?

    Al-Haj’s ordeal began when Pakistani police arrested him in December 2001 while on his way to Afghanistan as a cameraman with an Al Jazeera crew. They detained only him, over some alleged irregularity with his passport, and handed him over three weeks later to US forces, which sent him to Bagram air base in Afghanistan, where, according to Amnesty International, he was severely mistreated.His interrogations in Afghanistan repeatedly focused on his employer. “They were constantly asking me about Al Jazeera and whether it had links with Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda,” recalls al-Haj. US authorities have often cited his job at Al Jazeera as a reason why they considered him a danger.

    Al-Haj was flown to Cuba in June 2002. According to Amnesty International, he was repeatedly beaten, subjected to racist abuse and denied medicine, with military dogs used to intimidate him. When he and other detainees began a protest hunger strike in 2003, he was placed in isolation and taken to the harshest camp in Guantánamo.

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  13. I… really hate to have to do this, but… freedom of the press is an attribute of a country.
    Like graft, or corruption, or having good workers (don’t laugh, some workers are really horrid, and it’s cultural).

    Do you really think INTEL gives a flying fuck about anything other than making a profit?
    How about Google? IBM? American Apparel?

    Like it or not, imperialist or not, the corporations have the power, and countries who refuse to create environments where corporations can flourish are Losers.

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  14. Aaron, I do have a quibble on your response to my musings on the enlightenment. You do aptly observe that other cultures have gone through similar long periods of bloodshed but did not come to our standards of enlightenment. I would retort that other cultures have not precisely done so. Islam, Christianity’s younger brother faith, was a relatively limber and dynamic faith during the time that Christianity was calcifying and then splintering into disparate sects. They went into that same calcifying splintering phase later than Christianity did and now I am of the opinion that they are right now poised in the position that Christianity had during the great religious wars that ravaged Europe and led to the Enlightenment. So Islam at least seems to be following in its big brother faith’s footsteps*.

    The far east, of course, has suffered massive histories of bloodshed but (and again I’m not a historian) their societies were very prone to large centralized states and their conflicts were primarily political in nature rather than religiously motivated. Interestingly the far east cultures tend to take to a lot of enlightenment values like fish to water** whenever some external shock cracks them out of their habitual modes.

    So no, the big nonwestern cultures haven’t actually gone through that specific pre-enlightenment phase that Western culture did, though Middle Eastern cultures seem to be hip deep in it right now.

    *Judaism, the Daddy of the Abrahamic faiths doesn’t count; Judaism is not really an evangelistically expansionist faith. Jews are about being a club and being the most awesome club in the world but Christians and Muslims are about bringing the whole world into the club (whether the world likes it or not).
    **Though with a very different communalism/ anti-individualism flavor to it; though it remains to be seen if the anti-individualism endures or is merely a dissipating cultural residue.

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    • Perhaps one of the most compelling pieces of evidence that “Enlightenment,” as we conceive it, is neither inevitable nor permanent nor tied to a single tradition, is the fact that the Islamic world went through a sort of intellectual Enlightenment period before Europe had even thought about emerging from the Dark Ages.

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      • Absolutely and a very excellent and important point. The Muslims basically taught a number of things that the west had discovered and forgotten (under the Romans) back to the west (along with enhancements Islamic scholars had developed). Math and chemistry, IIRC, were some of the big ones.

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    • Well said, and I would say you are correct on all of that. Especially about Islam being in the middle of a schism right now.

      So, not just the bloodshed is necessary for the Enlightenment (and its values), but something else is needed. But what? I am bearing in mind that in the ’70’s the Islamic world had a massive turning, from embracing western culture to embracing a more fundamentalist worldview (the schism.) And while we see that as possibly a bad thing, I would be willing to bet that they don’t.

      I guess that I am wondering if you can’t force it, lest inciting a backlash, which would be devastating for all involved (especially those at the margins of society.) In other words, we don’t know what is going to happen with the schism. Will it create the Islamic Enlightenment? Or?

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      • Well, as I am pretty sympathetic to the weak version of the Fukuyama end of History position I would posit that worst case scenario is that an exhausted, blood soaked Middle East with their religious fanatic population discredited or dead and with the prosperous liberal world as a stark contrast, would finally embrace enlightenment liberalism.

        If there’s an alternative I don’t think it’s been discovered yet; none of the current alternative contenders on the menu seem to have any credit left.

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    • It would be nice if we can get Enlightened Liberalism in Islamic countries without having to go through the Thirty Years War with more people and deadly weapons.

      I think that there are some actual structural differences that would make getting to Enlightened Liberalism much more difficult in Muslim majority countries or Islam itself than Christian countries. The first is that Islamic conservatives and reactionaries have the benefit of seeing how liberalism led to secularization in Christianity and Judaism. This means they know they need to fight against it to keep Islamic piety and identity up from their perspective.

      The conditions aren’t right for Islamic liberalism to appear in countries where Muslims are a minority like European ones or to a lesser extent, the United States. Henrich Heine referred to baptism as the “entry ticket into European civilization.” Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox Judaism were created so Jews could assimilate and acculturate into European countries without having to get baptized. In modern discourse, assimilation and acculturation are seen as dirty things that evil white people are imposing on people of color. It flies against multi-cultural discourse. Young Muslims in Europe either do not want to assimilate or acculturate into European civilization or those that do are seen as some sort of traitors. Since the social conditions that favored the creation of liberal Judaism do not exist for Muslims in Europe than creating liberal Islam is hard. It is a bit more possible in the United States and Canada but most less religious Muslims seem just to adopt straight up secularism.

      In the Islamic world, the Greco-Roman philosophers that provided an alternative to Christianity and eventually contributed to Enlightened liberalism in the West have much more of a limited impact. The Arab thinkers that reached outside of Islam tended to be more attracted to the anti-liberal philosophers on the left and the right in formulating their ideas. Current Islamic political thought is responding to a political environment where anti-liberal ideas from the West were more popular with those in and outside of power than liberal ideas.

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      • Well my theory/fear is that absent truly historic and horrific intra-Islamic bloodshed and murder the Islamic thinkers who’re inclined to enlightenment values haven’t arose or risen to prominence yet.

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        • Wait, for both y’all’s posts, wasn’t all of Western Thought stored on a server a few centuries in the Islamic world (with an addition backup thumb drive in Ireland) when the Western World was undergoing a system reboot on either side of 1000 CE?

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          • Yes, in my original comment I noted that, with a “backup/alternative” present that one can hope that the Middle East will not have to reinvent the wheel. But you can get a much smaller number than a hundred years and it’d still be a pretty bleakly long timeframe from the point of view of an ordinary person.

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        • There have actually been more than a few Arab and Muslim liberals in the squishy liberal sense of the term. They just tend to be heavily marginalized in the Arab and Muslim worlds and inadvertently marginalized in the West because they are seen as colonial stooges and get associated with political conservatives. Radical chic has not done the Muslim world many favors.

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      • ” Current Islamic political thought is responding to a political environment where anti-liberal ideas from the West were more popular with those in and outside of power than liberal ideas.”

        Could you unpack that a bit? Whom, both Liberal and anti-Liberal? And how are they being presented? Below you say ” They just tend to be heavily marginalized in the Arab and Muslim worlds and inadvertently marginalized in the West because they are seen as colonial stooges and get associated with political conservatives.” But that is rather vague.

        I do think this is an important thread to follow though, as it could help unlock repeated problems.

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        • The Arab secular thinkers of the early and mid-20th century were writing at the time that Communism and Fascism were both very popular among the intellectual set in Europe. Most of us would agree that both Communism and Fascism are anti-liberal philosophies. Arab nationalist thought was influenced by some of the worst examples of European thought at the time. Reading about Michel Aflaq and the origins of Baathism on Wikipedia is instructive on how messed up Arab nationalist thought is.

          Modern Political Islam was also founded in the early 20th century as a more religious response to colonialism rather than secular Arab nationalists. Since the Arab nationalists were inspired by the more radical and anti-liberal forms of European thought than naturally Political Islam also developed into an anti-liberal political form rather than Islamic equivalent of European Christian Democracy or American liberal Protestantism. Since there was no real liberal movement in the Muslim world, Islam grew radical rather than liberal.

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  15. What I am asking is if this is indeed whitesplaining/colonialism/cultural imperialism or not. And if not, why not?

    No, not whitesplaining/colonialism/cultural imperialism. A commenter upthread has already made the point that culture isn’t a unitary thing and any number of people claim ownership of cultural heritages. The point I’d like to focus on is the fact that in the wake of WWII governments around the world committed themselves to a notion of universal human rights. Institutions like the United Nations (and re: sweatshops, the International Labor Organization) were established to further elaborate on what was meant by this notion. And thus we have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a number of major human rights treaties that further elaborate what is meant by the shorthand of ‘human dignity’ and ‘human rights’ and further spell out the meanings for women’s rights, children’s rights, etc. Freedom of expression is certainly in that mix.* And these treaties are widely ratified – including by Egypt, who ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1982.

    And to me, it is wholly fair to say to the Egyptian government you made these commitments now it is your responsibility to live up to them. And beyond that, address ourselves – whether inside or outside of any given country – as to how these human rights should be realized. And the same way it took the US more than two centuries and significant social movements before coming close to living up to promises made at its founding, it will take pressure from within and without to get various governments that currently abuse human rights to move towards living up to those commitments.

    I’d add that the West doesn’t have such a special place given the track record of abuses both before and after the establishing of the international human rights regime, and the fact that one can find the elements of what became the international human rights regime post-WWII in multiple cultures and on multiple continents. That is to say, human dignity as expressed in the international human rights regime doesn’t belong to any single continent or single culture. And if anything, it is hubris to say that its origins are located exclusively in the West.

    * Here for instance, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”

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  16. This article from Slate is probably a near perfect example of what Aaron David is talking about. Basically it is about two transgender, men to women, converts to Islam told that they can’t pray in the women’s section of the mosque unless they could prove they are anatomically female. The sense of bewilderment in both the converts and the writer of the article is obvious. They simply can’t understand why a Muslim mosque is insisting on enforcing traditional gender roles and rules as they always interpreted them rather than embracing modern LGBT values and interpretations on these issues. If this were to happen to a transgender convert to Orthodox Judaism or at a Christian church than the synagogue or church in question would just be denounced as a retrograde ideological patriarchal institution. But a mosque? Muslims are people of color, they are supposed to be by nature progressive under certain strains of vulgar liberal thought. Things like this should not happen.

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2015/09/01/transgender_muslim_kicked_out_of_women_s_section_in_tempe_arizona.html

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  19. Hmm. Having read the article, I am dubious as to whether the reaction would be any different for a church or synagogue than for a mosque. (“What these mosques, synagogues, and churches really need to do is educate.” [emphasis mine]) The only difference may be that there are more options for Christian (and in some areas, Jewish) trans women who wish to worship, which probably leads to a self-selection away from the more conservative churches and synagogues, and therefore fewer similar instances about which to opine.

    I think the author is fully aware that there are conservative elements in all 3 Abrahamic religions, and would be equally disappointed, but not surprised, to see them react similarly. If the author is guilty of anything, it is a naive belief that these conservative religious denominations will come around once they’ve learned more about trans people. Perhaps I am too cynical, but I have my doubts.

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