Book Review: Why the Rest Hates the West by Meic Pearse (2004)

In a certain public square in Third Century Rome, amid the typical bustle of an afternoon market, stands a man, just beginning to talk. He declares that he is going to explain why it is that the Visigoths, the Vandals, the Gauls, the Saxons, and every other barbarian of Europe is rebelling against the Empire, and some are even threatening to sack Rome itself. He starts by making himself clear: it is most adamantly not because they are simply barbarians, unknowable to civilized Romans. That is an imperialist misconception that shows an ignorant, myopic view of culture and politics. Instead, the speaker declares, he will show the real reasons that these “barbarians” wish to not only drive the Romans out of their own territory, but to so cripple the Empire that it can never recover, sacking cities, murdering women and children, burning farms, and slaughtering livestock. Then, when he has his audience’s curiosity piqued, the speaker begins to outline the reasons behind the “barbarians'” hatred of Rome.

 

First, Rome sees the Celts, Gauls, Goths, and so on as Barbarians, simply because they don’t hold to the same preconceptions as the Romans. That is a myopic lie created to make the Romans feel better about their imperialism. Some of those misconceptions include the assumption that superior technology, organization, and order are good things, which everyone ought to want, that, in fact, the values that the Romans hold in highest esteem are actually worth being held in high esteem by everyone, and therefore ought to be spread to (or imposed upon) everyone, and that the Celtic goddess of the Earth should, perhaps, have a minor place on Mount Olympus, but no more. These are all false presuppositions that need to be further examined in light of the values held by the tribes themselves, who, after all, represent a greater percentage of humanity than the citizens of Rome itself.

 

Furthermore, the speaker goes on, their opponents, with their more traditional cultural values, are appalled that we are all, from one end of the Empire to the other, disgustingly wealthy, spending all of our time watching fights to the death at the Colosseum, or holding enormous orgies. Perhaps we can manage to drown out our despair and soullessness that way, but the Northern tribes cannot, and so see through our sham of a culture.

 

Lastly, all that the Empire is or has been can be explained by cultural forces working through history, none of which have anything to do with the rightness or wrongness of exalting “civilization” over “barbarism.” And that is why the barbarians hate the Romans.

 

Why the Rest Hates the West is a little like that.

 

 

* * * 

 

 

In Why the Rest Hates the West (2004), Meic Pearse, a minister and professor of ecclesiastical history, argues that the real reason that the rest of the world hates us is because we deserve it. Then he goes on to explain all the ways in which we deserve it, outlining the history of intellectual and cultural trends in the modern West, beginning with the Reformation, and how those beliefs, values, and behaviors are offensive and barbarous to basically everyone who isn’t us. This, in combination with our inadvertent cultural imperialism, is why (some of) the rest of the world hates “us.” There are several good points about the book, including its overview of Western thought that got us to this point, and the Christian perspective Pearse takes on issues of globalization and changing world cultures. He also briefly brings up a couple of lines of thought that are worth pursuing in more depth, especially the deficit of imagination and historical consciousness many of us possess, that leads to misjudging the seriousness of our enemies. Unfortunately, Why the Rest Hates the West possessed some serious flaws as well, starting with its misleading title (only rarely does Phearse seriously write about anyone outside of the West on their own terms). Also problematic are the extremely vague categorizations of “Western” and “non-Western” worlds, which are nearly interchangeable with “modern,” and perhaps even “civilized,” in combination with equally vague definitions of what makes a society Western. And the language is alarmingly polemic, and sometimes seems to be trying to be downright offensive.

 

Pearse often talks about how selfish, shallow, culturally imperialist, and myopic we of the West are. But who are “we?” Why, the West, of course. And what, exactly, is “the West?” Well, Western Europe, certainly, along with North America. Some other countries are probably Western, but it’s hard to know for certain, because on the issue of who, exactly, is under examination, Pearse manages to be intractably vague. The West may or may not include such countries as Japan and India, who are certainly just as modern as the rest of us, but are not share our cultural history, or Central and South America, who have attributes of both cultural constructs. The phrase “the rest” is even more difficult to grasp, since it ostensibly means everyone who isn’t “us,” whether or not “they” hate “us.”

 

This lack of specificity is wearing, especially when religion enters the picture, because Pearse never seems to acknowledge (or seriously consider) that religions are vastly different from each other, and so misses the true import of one of his own points: that it is import to take cultures and religions seriously, and that they do not all have the same ideals. Speaking about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, he writes “‘religion,’ it is argued, is the ’cause’ of the conflict. The best resolution, such an analysis implies, would be the death – or at least the utter emasculation – of religion around the world. This view fails to take religion seriously, as if agnosticism were somehow ‘obviously’ more rational and peaceful than piety – an idea that the unspeakably bloody twentieth century should have laid to rest” (pg. 26). While I agree that “religion” in general is not at fault, someone who is always sneering at things that Westerners don’t even think to address might be expected to try and avoid that failing in his own work, rather than completely ignoring many people’s actual position. “Religion” is not the issue. Judaism and Islam are, especially Islam. Or they may be – it would be worth an examination. Christian North Africa was not overthrown by Religion, but by Muslims. The Islamic Middle East was not threatened by Religion, but by Christians. That is absolutely crucial to remember. I find it very telling that only four kinds of cultures are ever mentioned: “Christendom,” Islamic nations, Israel, and former communists. There’s nothing about why China may or may not hate the West, or India, or South Africa, or pre-WW11 Japan, or Mongolia. or anyone else for that matter. There they loom, as they have for the past 1700 years – Islam and Christianity (mostly apostate), and filling in the cracks are an odd assortment of statements about people always and everywhere except for here and now, with nothing but the author’s word, and the already debunked “common sense” to uphold them.

 

The reason why a culture is reprehensible, and the reasons why it is opposed may well have little to do with each other. Pearse, no matter how much he may protest, is only repeating the conventional wisdom in saying that most modern countries are reprehensible in doing nothing to oppose crumbling families, sexual promiscuity, rudeness, lack of self-control, selfishness, superficiality, waste, unwillingness to assume personal responsibility for things, apathy, timidity, bad taste, and so on. To the extent that each of us exhibits some or all of those characteristics, we really need to get over ourselves, and acquire a few choice virtues. Even a willingness to admit that there are such things as virtues and vices, and that people ought to try to support the one and root out the other would be a good start. And if other cultures have managed to hold on to some of the virtues that are less than common around here, perhaps we should take a closer look at what they are doing right (and, conversely, what we are doing wrong). If Muslims are really more modest, and Taoists are really more humble, then it would certainly behoove us to try to pay attention to that, and gain such modesty and humility for ourselves.

 

But I can’t help thinking that Pearse is going about things the wrong way. some of those deep cultural roots he’s always talking about go into the primal loves and loyalties of humanity – does he forget that Westerners have them as well? There’s a sense in which a man must love a thing before he can reform it – otherwise he’s only going to replace it, which is no good at all. To the extent that a terrorist, for instance, really hates the West, he is hardly likely to care if we reform – if we become more traditional and more moral – because he really does hate that we exist. He very likely hates the very things that we love, along with the things that we are ashamed of – that we believe in freedom and democracy, for instance. He may very well hate Israel because it exists, and would continue to hate it no matter what they did, short of ceasing to exist, or changing so drastically that they might as well have ceased to exist. Love and hate are spiritual things that may begin in this or that attribute, but end up going far beyond them. And so it is of enormous importance whether a person really hates a civilization, or whether he merely hates what it’s doing at present, or feels threatened by it. To the extent that a man really hates a country or a civilization, in its essence, then there’s really no more to be said by the targets of his wrath, other than perhaps to plan an adequate defense. In another case, if someone is really on the outside, with no love or loyalty, then it is well perhaps to take his suggestions, to the extent that they are reasonable, but beyond that, his opinion on the matter is hardly likely to matter much. But if he should really love his country, and want it to change because it’s terrible when something beloved loses the full strength of its beauty – well then, perhaps there’s hope after all, both for change, and to inspire others. I am reminded by something Chesterton said, in a chapter of Orthodoxy titled The Flag of the World:

 

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing — say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is THEIRS, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

 

 

In sharp contrast to the warmth and dismay that comes from people who love a thing and want to see it change, is much of the rhetoric of Why the Rest Hates the West:

 

The truth is that we, in our hyperprosperity, may be able to live without meaning, faith, or purpose, filling our threescore year and ten with a variety of entertainments – but most of the world cannot. If economics is implicated in the conflict, it is mostly in an ironic sense: only an abundance of riches such as no previous generation has know could possibly console us for the emptiness of our lives, the absence of stable families and relationships, and the lack of any overarching purpose. And even within us, the pampered babies that populate the West, something – a rather big something – keeps rebelling against the hollowness of it all. But then our next consumer goodie comes along and keeps us happy and distracted for the next five minutes. Normal people (that is, the rest of the world), however, cannot exist without real meaning, without religion anchored in something deeper than existentialism and bland niceness, without a culture rooted deep in the soil of the place where they live. Yet it is these things that globalization threatens to demolish. And we wonder why they are angry? (Pearse, pg. 29)

 

 

Reading the above passage I cannot help but wonder: who does he know, and of what does he speak with love? I tend to think of my friends – many of them unexceptional middle-class Americans. They take their God and their country seriously, and are highly involved with their families, have nice but modest material holdings, and spend their time working, reading, cooking, sewing, going to church, praying, talking, and behaving basically as humans tend to when they’re decently educated and not in desperate straits. Most of us could do better – we’re too lazy, or tepid, or timid sometimes. We don’t love actively enough, and think too much of ourselves. But I can’t see the extravagant rhetoric quoted above reflected in anyone I can think of, whom I’ve ever actually met. It’s like the Roman from earlier accusing the entire population of being as shockingly bad as the most decadent aristocrat. It’s a distortion, and speaks of neither knowledge nor love.

 

In the end, I find that among the many alarming tendencies of the deeply flawed yet lovable culture of the West, one of the more prevalent is an enormous moral timidity. We can’t say if we’re doing rightly or not, so perhaps popular opinion will help. But if what we do is good, then it should hardly matter who hates us, and why, because people always oppose good things. People often oppose bad things as well, so opposition means little either way. Discriminating between right and wrong is difficult at any time or place within this fallen world, but especially so once the internal censor is locked onto “discrimination” at an enemy to be eradicated. A pervasive fear of judgmentalism paralyzes good judgment. Finally, confused and befuddled at not having any method of discernment at all, nobody to accuse of anything but ourselves, and even then, we can only find fault within a narrowly circumscribed range of possibilities, preferably having to do with disenfranchising someone who hates us. Pearse admits to all of the above. In fact, he goes out of his way to bring it up. Yet I cannot help but surmising that he’s just as deep in the bog of political correctness as those he seeks to criticize (as he might agree, as he usually uses “we” and “us,” including himself and his readers in the picture). Having noticed the problem, you’d think he’d try to climb out. Not yet. A little poetry would help clear the air. Or someone he admires. Or something worth dying for. Until then, we have, once again, another look at why the West hates the West, with a few observations of Islam thrown in. And a lot of conventional wisdom.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s