Thursday, February 28, 2008

Three Cheers for Cultural Chauvinism

Lawrence Harrison of Tufts University and author of The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It From Itself looks at the assumptions of our nation's multicultural moment and finds much not to like. In an essay in Christian Science Monitor Harrison observes that:

Since the 1960s, multiculturalism has become a dominant feature of the political and intellectual landscape of the West. But multiculturalism rests on a frail foundation: cultural relativism, the notion that no culture is better or worse than any other - it is merely different.

When it comes to democratic continuity, social justice, and prosperity, some cultures do far better than others. Research at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, summarized in my book, makes this clear.

Extensive data suggest that the champions of progress are the Nordic countries - Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden - where, for example, universal literacy was a substantial reality in the 19th century. By contrast, no Arab country today is democratic, and female illiteracy in some Arab countries exceeds 50 percent.

Culture isn't about genes or race; it's about values, beliefs, and attitudes. Culture matters because it influences a society's receptivity to democracy, justice, entrepreneurship, and free-market institutions.

A key component of a successful democratic transition is trust, a particularly important cultural factor for social justice and prosperity. Trust in others reduces the cost of economic transactions, and democratic stability depends on it.

Trust is periodically measured in 80-odd countries by the World Values Survey. The Nordic countries enjoy very high levels of trust: 58 to67 percent of respondents in four of these countries believe that most people can be trusted, compared with 11 percent of Algerians and 3 percent of Brazilians.

The high levels of identification and trust in Nordic societies reflect their homogeneity; common Lutheran antecedents, including a rigorous ethical code and heavy emphasis on education; and a consequent sense of the nation as one big family imbued with the golden rule.

Again, culture matters - race doesn't. The ethnic roots of both Haiti and Barbados lie in the Dahomey region of West Africa. The history of Haiti, independent in 1804 in the wake of a slave uprising against the French colonists, is one of corrupt, incompetent leadership; illiteracy; and poverty. Barbados, which gained its independence from the British in 1966, is today a prosperous democracy of "Afro-Saxons."

In other words, all cultures are not equally good, and some are clearly superior to others. Harrison draws important and doleful conclusions from this fact concerning our efforts in Iraq and our failure to get a handle on immigration. Read the rest of his piece at the link.