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Are Our Civilisations Clashing?

Former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford says Donald Trump’s recent approach raises some interesting questions…

 On 6 July in Warsaw, US President Donald Trump gave a rousing speech that went down well in some quarters, but rather less well in others.

The passages that won praise and obloquy alike focused on ‘civilisational’ issues:

This continent no longer confronts the specter of communism. But today we’re in the West, and we have to say there are dire threats to our security and to our way of life. You see what’s happening out there. They are threats. We will confront them. We will win. But they are threats. (Applause.)

The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost?  Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders?  Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilisation in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?

US commentator Peter Beinart called these words “shocking”:

Trump’s sentence only makes sense as a statement of racial and religious paranoia. The ‘south’ and ‘east’ only threaten the West’s ‘survival’ if you see non-white, non-Christian immigrants as invaders. They only threaten the West’s ‘survival’ if by ‘West’ you mean white, Christian hegemony.

Margaret Thatcher’s speechwriter John O’Sullivan pushed back:

The British and American wings of Western civilisation are particularly flagrant cases of magpie culture. But that is what distinguishes them from other cultures and civilisations that have a more purist and protectionist approach to the preservation of their own cultural practices and identity.

We absorb innumerable cultural insights along with the people who bring them in their luggage, and they become part of us along with the more obvious traditional influences, which the newcomers themselves absorb in their own cultural DNA …

American culture and the Western civilisation of which it is manifestly a part are the opposite of exclusionary and racist. They are absorbent and racially open.

President Trump’s speech helpfully gave a long list of Western values and practices:

The world has never known anything like our community of nations. We write symphonies. We pursue innovation. We reward brilliance. We strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works of art that honour God. We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression. (Applause.)

We empower women as pillars of our society and of our success. We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the center of our lives.

And we debate everything. We challenge everything. We seek to know everything so that we can better know ourselves. (Applause.)

And above all, we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom. That is who we are.

To which one might add other broad principles. Checks and balances. Democracy. Some separation of Church and State. A sense of fair play. Free markets. Limited state power. Consent of the governed. And so on.

Yes, it’s easy to spot manifold examples of any of these principles either being subject to all sorts of pesky qualifications, or not being upheld in practice. But there’s no denying that in themselves and as a bloc of profound ideas they represent something colossal and astonishingly productive.

It’s also not difficult to spot civilisations and beliefs that disagree with some or all of those principles as principles. For example, hundreds of millions of people in the ‘Muslim world’, the ‘African world’ and the ‘Russian world’ each might offer a different list of things that they think civilisation should mean in theory and practice. This in part is why the ambitious UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are such a hotch-potch of contradictory ideas. Any UN resolution that wins the support of every state on earth must make messy compromises between radically diverging civilisational ideas of what’s important – and what matters.

Take the case of the Canadian singer called Justin Bieber, whose own civilisational values are nothing if not bold:

I want my world to be fun. No parents, no rules, no nothing. Like, no one can stop me. No one can stop me.

Like, the ‘Chinese world’ has begged to differ and denied Mr Bieber access to its territory:

In order to maintain order in the Chinese market and purify the Chinese performance environment, it is not suitable to bring in badly behaved entertainers.

There in a nutshell is a Clash of Civilisations. In the Western World, badly behaved entertainers are glorified. Indeed, entertainers compete to see who can behave the worst, as that makes them more money. Remember how the Sex Pistols were adored all the more when they spat on their fans? As the Yorkshire World puts it, ‘where there’s muck there’s brass.’

In the Chinese World, different deep values apply. Note the very words used in that official statement: ‘order’ and ‘purity’. To progressive Western ears they sound positively oppressive.

Zhang Lihua at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center explains the traditional values that “influence the psyche of the Chinese people”:

Benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom, honesty, loyalty and filial piety.

We Westerners reading that list might see it as worthy enough, give or take ‘filial piety’. But it seems somehow conservative, perhaps even submissive and fatalistic. Where are individual freedom and creativity?

Mind you, ‘loyalty’ too is problematic these days if it gets entangled with shockingly paranoid Trumpist patriotism. Zhang Lihua blithely explains loyalty in terms that would be furiously denounced if a Western leader used this language:

Loyalty stresses service to the motherland. It is an emotion and a value that evolves from blood ties … in cases of foreign invasion citizens should exert all efforts to protect their country as they would protect their own homes.

Blood ties! Purity! Good grief! The idea that our personal and cultural identity – maybe our very civilisation – are in part innate and might be ‘diluted’ by the presence in our midst of people with different blood?

That sounds downright evil now. Yet such ideas run deep. It was only in 1967 that the US Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a Virginia law banning marriage between people classified as ‘white’ and ‘coloured.’ It took Alabama another 33 years to remove lingering ‘anti-miscegenation’ language from its own state constitution. Around the world all sorts of formal and informal norms still influence who marries whom, and how far inter-racial and inter-religious relationships are acceptable.

Thus the Great Issue of our times. If globalisation in part means mass migration, on what basis might those who don’t accept a host country’s vision of civilisation be allowed to enter and settle?

The legal rules are usually clear enough: a migrant moving from country X into country Y has to accept country Y’s rules: when in Rome, do as the Romans do. But what if within the space offered by those rules separate and very different community values start to apply?

In the UK there is sharp debate about the consequences for some Pakistani communities of cousins marrying cousins and having an abnormally high rate of disabled children. UK and US authorities are facing novel problems over female genital mutilation among some immigrant communities. It’s against the law, but happening anyway. How to stop it? Is trying to stop it ‘culturally insensitive,’ if not an abuse of those communities’ human rights?

Back to President Trump in Poland:

Our own fight for the West does not begin on the battlefield — it begins with our minds, our wills, and our souls … I declare today for the world to hear that the West will never, ever be broken. Our values will prevail. Our people will thrive. And our civilization will triumph.

Hmm. Never ever is a long time. As we know from history, ‘civilisations’ come and go. Greek and Roman civilisations; Aztec and Inca civilisations. All gone. And what does President Trump mean when he proclaims that Western values will ‘prevail’, nay ‘triumph’? If Western civilisation is winning are other civilisations losing?

That said, what if most Poles want to keep Poland ‘Polish’, just as most Chinese people might want to keep China ‘Chinese’? Do ‘Polish civilisation’ or ‘Japanese civilisation’ count for nothing? Diligent Diplomat magazine readers know that it all boils down to two questions:

Who decides? Who decides who decides?


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