Qustioning the Value of Our Culture – ?

Crazycav "Just remember, inside every zip there’s an American trying to get out."  The crazy cavalry colonel spoke this line on the beach in "Apocalypse Now.  A marine DI said much the same thing in "Full Metal Jacket."  The attitude was so sadly typical of our entrance on the scene in Vietnam.   Maybe one was quoting the other…  In any event, I used to joke about this attitude.  I no longer think it is funny.  In the last year or so I have wandered the country a lot giving talks to college and other audiences.   In doing that it has become more and more clear that many, if not most Americans still, (not the right word) as always (better) have a deeply embedded reflexive belief that mankind is evolving socially toward a unified world culture and that this culture is the culture of the West, more specifically of Anglo North America. 

After a recent talk at a small college, a faculty member in the business sciences asked me if I had really meant to say that the Iraqis and other Middle Easterners did not want to be "us."  When assured that I had meant it, he said that this was most disturbing and that the thought had not occurred to him before.  He continued that such a notion was threatening because, if believed, it would require a re-appraisal of the worth of Western culture. He said that he had always assumed that people who lived in significantly different ways did so either from ignorance or because the structure of their societies functioned to hold them in subservience to a primitive way of life.  He said that if that were not true and in fact most non-Western people wanted a better life in material terms without adopting the values of the West, then much of his life had been lived in error.  "I think of all the foreign students whom I assumed were just waiting for enlightenment."

I asked him, "why can’t you just accept the idea that there are many authentic and legitimate ways of life and forms of governance, and that what is good for us is not necessarily wanted by others?"   I hope he is still wrestling with the issue.  pl

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61 Responses to Qustioning the Value of Our Culture – ?

  1. Andy says:

    My view is that such attitudes are best enlightened through travel. I know my own bubble of American cultural superiority was only burst after spending a some time living overseas and a lot of traveling in various parts of the world. Real travel – travel that forces one to interact with authentic locals (as opposed to those who cater to Western tourists) – seems quite rare for Americans, much less actually living outside the States.

  2. Albertde says:

    Think Bollywood.

  3. TomByrd says:

    In a nutshell, “Globalization” does not equal “Standardization.” Often we, in the West, can learn from those in other cultures…if we’d only keep an open mind. Instead, we hark back to the “Ugly American” tradition of “we know best, so be like us.” Shame.

  4. Cold War Zoomie says:

    Col Lang, why do you hate America?
    OK, to be a little more serious.
    I won’t repeat all my anecdotes backing up your point that not everyone wants to be “us” although it’s tempting to tell my little stories over and over and over again to anyone who will listen. (Why can’t we be single, in our twenties, running around foreign lands forever?)
    I am playing around with a new axiom, or notion, or postulate, or natural law…Hell, I don’t know… whatever you call these things.
    Here’s the first stab at it:
    A nation that has a culture in self-imposed, suspended isolation should have an isolationist foreign policy.
    No value judgments. Just a fact.
    We can call it the Roundhead Postulate…or Notion…or Axiom…you get the idea.
    Being a Roundhead is opposite to Flatheads. And every low ranking enlisted guy understands what it means to be one of these:

  5. Matthias says:

    I’ve been reading your excellent blog for quite some time and finally felt the strong urge to chime in. You have made this point about other cultures not wanting to be like us on many occasions.
    Considering the response of the faculty member, I wanted to emphasize how vast this revelation for many of us is. As a Westerner, I have been conditioned to believe in our “values” of competition and materialism from an early age.
    Only a strong case of midlife crisis, together with a new effort to look at the state of our society after 9/11, I’ve been able to look past this veil.
    It is most liberating to realize that, truly, it is we Westerners who live just as much, or perhaps even more, in such “subservience to a primitive way of life”. I almost feel like an outcast since I have gotten rid of my TV, the prevalent tool of shaping peoples believes, or at least distract them enough to prevent them from forming their own.
    The actions of our current government are a perfect reflection of these twisted values and their illusive superiority.
    If anything, the current world politics are a grand opportunity to find oneself. What baffles me is that philosophers thousands of years ago could already see all this, yet what was passed on from generation to generation has been the same self-destructive egotism.
    All humanity is in the same boat and, unless we learn that it is our differences that are our strengths and not something we need to eliminate, we may as well all sink together with it.

  6. Col., thank you for a most provocative post. I don’t intend to put words into your mouth, but I take away from it the implication that cultures are the ever-changing product of an random-driven universal evolution process, perhaps against a theological backdrop a la Teilhard de Chardin, or maybe a more secular one as in current day complexity theory. In any case I agree with your assessment of the pervasiveness of a cultural chauvinism among typical American citizens. The question I have is this: Do you think such chauvinism is any less dominant in the career American military?

  7. chimneyswift says:

    Col, you do good service in the cause of difficult ideas. As the current drama in the contest for the Democratic nomination shows all too clearly, pluralism is hard. What you are advocating for is essentially a pluralism, although on a global level and not within the “one” culture of the United States.
    The thing that I have noticed about the cultural arrogance you describe is that it seems a kind of echo of the British idea of cultural superiority that was so prevalent in their days of empire. I always thought the English must have been awfully delusional to believe themselves so superior, but now I think that it is simply very hard to imagine living in any other way than oneself.
    In this light, I believe that working towards more truly pluralist culture is one of the greatest services any of us can provide. After all, what is any kind of bigotry but a failure to be able to imagine what it is like to be in another’s point of view, with their priorities and desires and motivations?

  8. Michael singer says:

    Dear PAt,
    The dialogue you describe today is chilling. But isn’t it exactly what you have been saying about the thinking of the Iraq war planners. Why does it have to be either/or?
    Michael Singer

  9. William RAISER says:

    How scary that such a view could be held by a college professor in the US in this day and age!
    Unfortunately, my experience suggests that what you report represents all too well the dominant American view.
    Americans are in for a rude awakening in the coming years. I hope we learn quickly and begin to make positive contributions to the world’s diversity.

  10. Montag says:

    Reminds me of when Edward VII was making his Goodwill Tour of France to counter popular sentiment against the Entente Cordiale. His Aide was astonished at the hostility exhibited by the crowds when they first arrived.
    Aide: “The French don’t seem to like us much, Sir.”
    Edward: “Why should they?”

  11. b says:

    Thanks for that Pat.
    I agree. But I would put this further than “western” believes. There is no such thing as “western”. The values of Swiss, Greek, British, Belgian and the U.S. people are very different when you really look into them.
    This was pampered over by some Hollywood culture and Nato propaganda that is falling apart.
    The ground is tribal. Even within nations. Do Prussians and Bavarians have things in common? Yes, but just as many things part them.
    We have accepted different values within our westphalian nations. Why can’t we accept them outside ?

  12. watcher says:

    It’s a shame people insist on applying some form of manifest destiny on the rest of the world.

  13. Duncan Kinder says:

    Another way of putting it would be to state that expecting all other peoples to adopt Western culture is like expecting all other peoples to speak English.
    The point is that these other languages work quite well; they often rest upon radically different principles than does English.
    Yet, once we have granted that Chinese and Arabic and Urdu and Navajo have communicative and literary potential and accomplishments, it does not thereby strip Shakespeare and Byron and Yeats of their voice.

  14. David W. says:

    I agree with the thesis of this post, and happen to think that the US is merely the most visible practitioner. However, this practice is age-old nationalism/jingoism, which simultaneously comforts/stokes the weak-minded that they are indeed on the right side, and need to look no further. It also makes for a convenient excuse when some non-Americans get invaded and/or killed by Uncle Sam, whether it’s in Iraq or the Phillippines, or the 19th-century American West.
    The American sense of entitlement has always been fed by ‘climbers’ from other cultures, who have learned English and American mores, in order to get closer to the money spigot. This in turn has fed the entitlement, fooling many Americans into saying foolish things like ‘The language of business is English.’ While this may be true during recent history, the mantra-like way it has perpetuated itself through US culture will likely end up hurting the US, as its student culture has taken for granted that the rest of the world ‘wants to speak English.’

  15. Patrick Lang says:

    Minnesota Chuck
    I remember. You are a farmer, right? Mr Jefferson would be happy to know that people like you still exist..
    IMO, today’s army is reflective of the solidly middle class people from whom it is recruited. Most are from middle America.
    They are just the kind of people whom you want to be with in a hard and close fight.
    Having said that I would have to say that with the exception of officers who are specialists in overseas cultural affairs (FAOs) and soldiers from the Special Forces Regiment most officers and soldiers don’t have a clue about the dynamics of foreign cultures and are not especially encouraged to learn more.
    I would like to have someone demonstrate to me that I am wrong about that. pl

  16. Walrus says:

    Amen Col. Lang,
    Attempts by me to question this essentially narcissistic worldview usually end up with me being labelled an “America Hater” and being thrown out of the associated discussion forum.
    But what is really frightening and dangerous about this attitude is that it has engendered an absolutely breathtaking lack of curiosity – and knowledge, about the rest of the world on the part of the average American.
    My view is that the American worldview has been manipulated and deliberately distorted for at least the last fifteen years by a variety of groups that believe that having a well educated and informed American public is not in their best interests.
    For example, Americans are conditioned, like Pavlov’s dogs, to react to certain words:
    – socialism.
    – communism.
    – gun control.
    – Liberalism.
    and now terrorism and Islam.
    If you care to look at an example, you will find the first use of the word “Homeland” to describe continental America, is in the PNAC publication “Project For The New American Century”, it was a simple find an replace operation. That was published around September 2000 and if my memory serves me correctly, President Bush appropriated it and used it in a speech for the first time the following May.
    I can only find one journalist who picked up on this word and called it “Kind of creepy”, as well she might, since its’ close cousins “Motherland” and “Fatherland” had already been appropriated and perverted by the USSR and Hitler respectively because these words are nominatives that mean nothing but generate strong emotions – which was obviously Christol’s or Kagan’s intention – and words DO matter.
    Yes, the American worldview is slowly losing touch with reality, and that is dangerous. In the last few months certain right wing forums are now talking about “Energy Security”, although this has yet to be launched in mainstream media thinkpieces.
    And of course “Energy Security” means blowing the crap out of the Middle East and securing oil for Americas gas guzzlers.
    To put it another way, I’ll bet a donation of Ten Dollars to the charity of your choice that if Bush attacks Iran, the nominative of “Energy Security” will be part of the justification.

  17. J.T. Davis says:

    a faculty member in the business sciences asked me if I had really meant to say that the Iraqis and other Middle Easterners did not want to be “us.”
    I have to wonder what a guy in the “business sciences” woud know about enlightenment and how much of his own notions of American history and culture are more a product of myth than historical fact.
    Great post, Colonel.
    This short speech by historian Forrest McDonald given to some economists in 2006 might surprise the business science guy.
    Forrest McDonald, “The Founding Fathers and the Economic Order”

  18. J.T. Davis says:

    Forgot to include this.
    George Washington did write this (From Wiki):
    Washington was an early supporter of religious toleration and freedom of religion. In 1775, he ordered that his troops not show anti-Catholic sentiments by burning the pope in effigy on Guy Fawkes Night. When hiring workmen for Mount Vernon, he wrote to his agent, “If they be good workmen, they may be from Asia, Africa, or Europe; they may be Mohammedans (Muslims), Jews, or Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists.”

  19. Ramojus says:

    I concur with Andy’s comment.
    I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao in 1978 thru 1980 and traveled through SE Asia upon completion of my commitment. I can honestly say that I was immersed in the SE Asian culture. My experiences there cause me to fully agree with Col. Lange’s point of view and this post.
    When asked about my Peace Corps experience, I tell people that; “I saw more in two plus years over there than I have seen in twenty years over here”. The isolation/insulation of the average American is a very sad thing.

  20. jr786 says:

    The opening sentence of the National Security Strategy of the United States, 2002 (NSS), reads: “The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise”.
    This summation crams most of the ideological ‘key words’ of the last 60 years into one triumphal sentence: struggles, forces, liberty, freedom and victory tumble over each other in a rush to arrive at the ‘single model for sustainable success’ that won the cold war, given by the formula – ‘freedom, democracy and free enterprise’, i.e. capitalism. With history safely covered, the document proceeds with a visionary program for the future:
    In the twenty-first century, only nations that share a commitment to protecting basic human rights and guaranteeing political and economic freedom will be able to unleash the potential of their people and assure their future prosperity. People everywhere want to be able to speak freely; choose who will govern them; worship as they please; educate their children—male and female; own property; and enjoy the benefits of their labor. These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society—and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages.
    ‘Right and true for every person, in every society…across the ages’. The blatant political Perennialism of this document follows the transformation of social, political and economic concepts into what have become the secular commandments of the Universal Ideology of the bourgeoisie; one feels that Jacob Riis would approve of them. This is not meant to minimize the value of these things, which have become necessary tools for life in the 21st century, but rather to emphasize that they were not such tools in other centuries, or necessarily in other places today.
    If university professors don’t understand that then we really are doomed.

  21. pbrownlee says:

    To echo Andy, in Australia we get this sort of thing ALL the time that “this (i.e. Oz) is the greatest country in the world; Australians the greatest/best/most-in-all-things-decent people” and so on.
    If one should question in an way, however mildly, this creepy provincialism by asking “where else have you been?”, “what languages do you know?”, “what ‘foreign’ (i.e. not US , UK or even Australian) movies or TV do you watch?” there is often a kind of bewilderment or shock, as if one had questioned (and maybe one has) all the essential virtues.
    Nearly always, it turns out that the noisiest “patriots” base these assessments on virtually total ignorance of other cultures/places/languages/literatures/people.
    This is very fertile ground for those wanting to demonise “the other”, especially the increasingly powerful “other” and this may not have escaped culturally retarded politicians and their consiglieri in the MSM.
    I know quite a few Australians (including some relatively senior media ginks) who travel only to the UK and US — with maybe France thrown in very occasionally for exoticism) and seem to think it literally incredible that you might want to visit Beirut, say, or Bulawayo in addition to — or, more shockingly, instead of — Buffalo or Burbank or anything with Disney in the title.
    To want to go back to those “strange” places seems completely inexplicable.
    Only in cuisine do other cultures seem acceptable — and then frequently in an Anglo version unknown to those poor natives back home.
    However, there may be some hopeful signs — US and Russia in sandwich battle — http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7391893.stm

  22. Fred says:

    I believe the concern should not be with ignorance, but with willful ignorance. We should be especially concerned with the growth of home schooling movement that is more concerned with cultural isolation/indocrination than with quality of education.

  23. Ed Webb says:

    I can’t wholeheartedly leap to the defense of US college professors en masse, but many colleges and universities, and many professors, do have more cultural awareness than this and are trying to educate Americans accordingly. It is relatively easy for me, as a Brit who lived and worked for many years in the Middle East, to shake students out of their blinkered rut while I have them captive in the classroom. Many of my US-born colleagues make similar efforts. We are helped even more when speakers from outside the US (when they can get through the border), and speakers like Col Lang who have spent time out in the world, take the time not only to come to campus to deliver a speech but also to engage directly with students and faculty in debate and small-group discussion. (We have an Iraqi scholar visiting campus all this semester, which has been a revelation to many, many students.)
    My concern is that even in the relatively conducive circumstances of an internationally-focused liberal arts college, there are some students who will not hear. And much of that comes down to the sort of deep conditioning to which Walrus refers. I will continue to do what I can to innoculate and/or deprogram. But until we can bring about more responsible mass media and more enlightened public school education, it’s just drops in a very large ocean.

  24. Babak Makkinejad says:

    US is not unique in this; a Westerner could have been in Saudi Arabia in 1980s and be asked by his cab driver why he was not a Muslim.
    The disturbing thing about the incident that Col. Lang has related is that the fellow could not plead cultural or educational deficiency.

  25. Mongoose says:

    Most unfortunately I think this is a losing or lost cause. No matter how large or small the cultural differences, university students generally believe that everyone wants “to be like us.” I teach World and European history and almost to a person, students can’t imagine themselves outside the small box that is their culture. Most every attempt to encourage students to imagine things other than they’ve already experienced them meets with a dumbfounded expression that seems to say “but of course that’s not really true.” Trying to get students to learn to understand that which they cannot embrace may not seem too daunting but it is, in fact, too often the case. Of course it doesn’t help when our “leaders” repeat ad nauseum shibboleths about the “other,” i.e., that “terrorists,” or Muslims, or whomever wants nothing more than to destroy “our way of life” (whatever the may mean).

  26. Dave of Maryland says:

    College is the reward for being good in high school.
    College graduation is the reward for being good in college.
    Therefore college graduates are superior to everyone else.

  27. Andy says:

    Col. Lang,
    You said,

    Having said that I would have to say that with the exception of officers who are specialists in overseas cultural affairs (FAOs) and soldiers from the Special Forces Regiment most officers and soldiers don’t have a clue about the dynamics of foreign cultures and are not especially encouraged to learn more.
    I would like to have someone demonstrate to me that I am wrong about that. pl

    I can not demonstrate you are wrong, but I sense that things are changing for the better somewhat. The military at all levels is taking culture more seriously and even the Air Force (!!) has instituted curriculum on both language and cultural/area studies for officers in the various PME career courses. I believe the other services are making similar changes. Additionally, there’s the plan, currently in testing, to offer sabbaticals to military personnel for up to three years. There would be no requirement for cultural study, but it would be a good opportunity for those so inclined.
    From a personal perspective, my military-related travel certainly was helpful in my transformation as it exposed me to more cultures than I would have been able to otherwise. Sadly, too many of my compatriots were simply military versions of “ugly Americans.”

    To echo Andy, in Australia we get this sort of thing ALL the time that “this (i.e. Oz) is the greatest country in the world; Australians the greatest/best/most-in-all-things-decent people” and so on.

    Well, I’m inclined to agree with them! I’ve visited Australia four times and love it there, but I admit I’m probably biased.

  28. larrybob says:

    wither Montreal? will it be bypassed by mankind’s evolution?

  29. “ignorance or because the structure of their societies functioned to hold them in subservience to a primitive way of life”
    I chuckled at the unintentional irony implicit in this primitive statement, a statement infused with both magical and tribal facets, even if made by a ‘westerner.’
    Sometime before 40,000 bce there was no culture anywhere and so I presume those necessary conditions for a unitary mankind won’t be making a comeback.
    Assuming that one knows something before one has even made an inquiry is a great problem of course.

  30. When do you think we will adopt the Euro/Yen as official currency? US dollar now is worth less than $.10 of the 1970 dollar. My guess is that 95% of Americans still think the US dollar is world’s strongest currency. Exposure to its true value can only come from travel.

  31. FB Ali says:

    The discussion on this topic has focused on the folly of Americans believing that everyone else is dying to be like them – or should be, if they had their wits about them. The real shocker (for Americans) should be that vast numbers of intelligent, well-educated, cultured and well-informed people all around the world view what the USA has recently become with horror and revulsion. It is not just a question of them preferring their own systems and values; instead, it is a total absence of any reason to believe that your model is worth emulating.
    The fine words – freedom, democracy, free enterprise, individuality, etc – are all seen to be empty rhetoric or worse in the light of US actions, and the functioning of your institutions – the administration, the Congress, the judiciary, the media, the corporate system, political parties, churches. To most of these observers there seems to be a sickness affecting America; why would they wish to acquire it, too?
    Yet, among these same people, those who know individual Americans, or are familiar with your history and literature, and the many worthy causes that Americans have stood for and fought for, find themselves torn between what America has now become and what it once was. What tempers their current revulsion is the knowledge that there lies a goodness and decency inside most of the individual Americans they know, which is also often manifested in the workings of your society (in spite of the rot and corruption that infects many of its structures). They have the hope that the clouds that have darkened the American landscape in the recent past will one day disperse, and allow your country to resume its rightful place in the comity of nations.
    This happening will not cause people elsewhere to want to “become” Americans, but it will certainly enable them to accept the USA, once again, as a worthy partner, perhaps a leader, in the effort to make this a better world.

  32. izzet says:

    I am not surprized: It is called modernism.
    This kind of world/life perception is not specific to Americans, even to Westerners. It is a by product of Modernism. I can confirm that most of the educated people in my country see the world as the same way. That’s because they had a western education in a non-western country longing to be like the West. This education entrenched ideas of Modernism into their minds such a way that as Col Lang describes when they are faced with an alternative world view they feel like they lived all their lives in error and pyschologically inclined to deny transform their thinking.
    To be more specific, modernism tells us that there is a Truth out there independent of us. It is very Platonic in this sense. Because of scientific achievements and enlightment West has discovered the path going to the one and only good life for any society. Their wealth, technological superiority, and international power proves that. Evolution is also understood very linear in this frame. For instance, most of us believed or still believe that evolution always results in progress and the end result is our species. In reality, of course, there is no hierarchy of species and evolution is about co-dependency. But when you applied these two ideas to societies, it is natural to believe that every society would sooner or later evolve into an ideal state and Western societies and their leader America are closer to this ideal state. So every society should follow their footsteps since there is no need to rediscover America. Just copy what they have done with minor modifications for your own culture.
    Second half of the 20th century taught us that there are deep flaws in this world view and actually life doesn’t work that way. We make up our reality ourselves, we don’t just discover an ideal Reality out there somewhere. Younger generations who grew up in a more postmodern world are more eager to embrace this kind of world view, i.e. cultural relativism. It is much harder for the older generations whether be American, European, or western educated Eastern.

  33. Bobo says:

    If one does not have knowledge, or have had experience, with another culture then one will revert to his surrounding cultures mindset. Thus the situation in the USA.
    I would wager that less than 1 in 250 US Citizens has spent time overseas living or assimilating into another countries culture.
    Once you have had that experience, then you can see value in that countries culture and even see how your own culture could be improved. Certainly you will come away with broader horizons.
    Now I know the bulk of the posters on this site have had that experience but how that knowledge can be imparted on the others and sink in, is the question.

  34. watcher says:

    It’s a shame people insist on applying some form of manifest destiny on the rest of the world.

  35. Buzz says:

    Even worse, a lot of “us” here in America also don’t want to become the “us” that our commercial culture is telling us we should embrace. I’m no extremist but I have become thoroughly disgusted by our worshipping of The Golden Calf and where that has led us.

  36. Grimgrin says:

    jr786 : “People everywhere want to be able to speak freely; choose who will govern them; worship as they please; educate their children—male and female; own property; and enjoy the benefits of their labor.”
    I think this statement is more or less true. Give or take local prejudices about gender.
    However getting from that statement to the idea that this means that given enough time all societies will turn into America requires you to make (or rather to ignore) two huge logical errors.
    The first is assuming that the if the quoted statement is true, then it implies that everyone wants everyone else to have those things. Particularly when everyone else makes different w.r.t. leadership, property, education and worship in particular. Given how loudly many Americans are and have been opposed to a pluralistic society, this is an odd mistake to make.
    The second mistake is that it assumes that the very specific political choices that America has made for itself are also logical consequences of the first statement. I suppose it’s what happens when you spend 50 years calling the head of your executive branch “The leader of the free world”.
    Now as a Anglo-Canadian I will say that at various times in our history we’ve been no less shy about imposing our culture, it’s just we’re not really strong enough to do that anymore. To anyone. So the desire to impose your way of life on others is hardly unique to either great powers or Americans.

  37. rpugh2 says:

    Pithy and concise comments on the cultural wall that we erect to justify our worldview and imperial designs.
    I have an 18 year old son who has been studying biology and Arabic in high school. He was the proud and fortunate recipient of a State department funded scholarhip to study Arabic in Marrakesh last Summer. The program was an attempt to create the next generation of American youth who would be comfortable living and working in the Middle East. He lived with a local very traditional host family (with 15 members) and it was an amazing experience. A suburban American kid immersed in the other. He was proud when the local beggars on the street would banter with him in Arabic, to him a sign of acceptance.
    We need more programs like this. An investment in the future.

  38. kao-hsien-chih says:

    Personally, I tend to think there are always some components of other cultures that nearly everyone finds fascinating, appreciates, and even imitate to some degree. However, very few want to do so at the expense of disposing of their own culture, the way they do business among their own people, in a manner of speaking. I wonder if the former feeds the misconception that everyone really wants to be “like us,” that it extends beyond mere liking and/or fascination.

  39. J.T. Davis says:

    Off topic but I wondered if you had seen this short piece by Phil Giraldi in The American conservative?
    I don’t like to engage in this speculation but Giraldi is someone I do pay attention to now.
    War With Iran Might Be Closer Than You Think
    Posted on May 9th, 2008 by Philip Giraldi
    There is considerable speculation and buzz in Washington today suggesting that the National Security Council has agreed in principle to proceed with plans to attack an Iranian al-Qods-run camp that is believed to be training Iraqi militants…

  40. Happy Jack says:

    I asked him, “why can’t you just accept the idea that there are many authentic and legitimate ways of life and forms of governance, and that what is good for us is not necessarily wanted by others?” I hope he is still wrestling with the issue. pl
    I hope he isn’t teaching at Franklin and Marshall. If he is, he must not venture off campus very often. Either that, or he only knows “the ways of the English” and hates ShooFly pie.

  41. Cloned Poster says:

    Would/has/maybe the Obama team contact Col. Lang for a post in State?

  42. Arun says:

    “Ivory Tower” does describe the reality of situation of many university professors.

  43. Arun says:

    Also reminds me of a line from an Hindi movie that goes something like this – “What! You don’t know who he is? Back home he is world-famous.”

    Scroll past the photographs here, to read about how Germans and Americans (mis)perceive each other.

  44. Clifford Kiracofe says:

    It may be that US citizens had a better knowledge of geography and foreign affairs say around 1800. One might argue it has been downhill since World War II as geography has been deemphasized and foreign “news” has been very very heavily “managed” in the service of the “American Century.”
    I have seen a study of the US press comparing 1800/early 1800s to the late 1960s per column inches devoted to foreign news. Much higher percentage way back when. Today newspapers and the newsmedia are part of the entertainment complex and the White House (either party) dezinformatsia complex.
    Students out of high school today generally are weak in geographic knowledge and the ability to conceptualize in spatial geographic terms.
    Over a decade ago, Col. Tom Davis of our History Dept at VMI caused a rethink which led to the replacement of the standard “Western Civilization” introductory course for all students to “World History.” An excellent change particularly for any cadet intending to commission and deploy abroad.
    “World History” as a subdiscipline has been gaining strength over the past decade and now is often offered at the High School/Secondary School level. Basically, it looks at the development of ALL civilizations/complex societies and their interactions over time.
    An additional trend is to place US history within global context/World History as was traditionally done. So this is a revival of older traditional method. Presentation of the United States as the center of the universe is more a post World War II/Cold War phenomenon.
    We use the Bentley-Ziegler text, “Traditions and Encounters,” from McGraw Hill which is a leading text. You can examine it here and draw your own conclusions.
    One aspect of World History which I emphasize to students is the development of “long distance trade” by land and by sea. Seeing an overhead projection of trade routes between ancient Egypt and India, or the Silk Routes can have a certain effect.
    At the college and university level there is ample opportunity for study abroad. There are all manner of exchange programs, semester programs, summer school programs and the like around the world for college level students. Scholarships for foreign study are also available. I recommend foreign study to students I think are mature enough and competent enough for it.
    This is the website for the World History Assocition composed of college, university, and high school/secondary school level teachers, including myself.

  45. Clifford Kiracofe says:

    The World History Association website address was deleted in my last post. Here it is:
    Here is the website fo the Institute for International Education:
    Here is the website for the Council for International Educational Exchange:
    FB Ali and Buzz, All,
    It is not surprising that many around the world hold the US in some contempt and revulsion. The situation in our country today is a national disgrace and a betrayal of our traditional principles. It may be our undoing…
    The reason the United States does not “seem itself” lately (and NOT just under Bush43) is that a certain elite is pushing hard to convert our Constitutional Republic into a Fascist State. This is not new, the roots go to the 1920s and 1930s in Wall Street and the media (Luce and Hearst in particular). This aspect of our history has been forgotten. See Wiki entry for “American Liberty League” and draw your own conclusions:
    Ask yourself what are two powerful party kingpins –George Shultz, the Republican and Felix Rohaytn, the Democrat — REALLY up to? The Neocons are just low level hires in a much bigger game.
    By the way, Billy Graham was created by Hearst and Luce….wonder why… the program is Fascism without anti-semitism, a “modern” American variant of European Fascism. Theocracy is an instrument and a cover for Caesarism in more than one culture.

  46. D Bulow says:

    Maybe the prof was joking.

  47. David W. says:

    A parallel question leading to the same answer may be, “why do ‘they’ hold Noam Chomsky in such disdain?” Chomsky, originally being a linguist, has always viewed US culture as just one of many, and thus, his political/economic critiques of the US are through a much clearer prism, one unclouded by jingoistic sentiment. Which makes for some uncomfortable revelations.
    He has had Uncle Sam’s number for many years now, including his most recent book (afaik), What We Say Goes–Which may well explain why his name is mud amongst the Beltway media pygmy courtiers.
    Per Clifford’s allusion, the US ruling elite is a bipartisan affair, and one who’s roots stretch back through US history to the very beginning. I highly suggest Howard Zinn’s seminal book, A People’s History of the United States as a definitive historical telling of how the US ruling elite have manipulated the US ship of state to serve their own interests, usually at the neglect of the ‘common people,’ both domestic and abroad. (as a bonus to SST readers who are Civil War buffs, Zinn gives a unique perspective to why that war was really fought).
    Within this context, the goal of the educational system is to prepare the student for work, know their ‘place’ in society, and to impress a set of values that maintain the status quo, which carries the banner of patriotism, and indeed the force of the entire country. This is made visible in such sentiments as ‘xxx is vital to US interests.’
    I would finally add that the Liberal Arts concept is an antitode to this (indeed, it is where I learned about US involvement in Central America and eventually Iran/Contra, while my peers were taking Business Management 101 courses). Which probably explains the conservative elite’s hostility towards Liberal Arts education.

  48. bstr says:

    Is there one best way to live as a human being? Certainly we can recognize situations or environments in which survival, let alone the ability to flourish, would be doubtful. I do not imply that Col. Lang’s concept of cultural fitness is realitivstic. However, is it impossible to suppose a universal culture that frames the best possible way of life? I think that many would say that it is not possible, that the confines of time and place make it impossible. But that does not cause the question “How are we to live?” moot.

  49. psd says:

    Funny. I always thought the purpose of a liberal arts education was to expose us to the wider world, especially to those of us who–for one reason or another–were unable to travel to other parts of the world and get the experience firsthand. I’d like to think that in my case, it took, because although my travels have been limited to North America, I’ve never felt that American culture is for everyone or that it is THE answer for what ails the world. I knew that we Americans were truly in trouble when the word “homeland” reared its ugly head. And I fear that things will get a lot worse for us before they get better. Any country that seems to eat their young so willingly is certainly destroying its future.

  50. Babak Makkinejad says:

    It was Jakob Burkhardt that observed that the ingredient of all human societies were the same; only different aspects were emphasized at different times and places.
    Following his line of thinking, one is led to the conclusion that the best that can be hoped or achieved is a sympathetic and liberal understanding of other peoples, epochs, and places.
    Jakob Burkhardt was man whose time has not yet arrived.

  51. Cieran says:

    My apologies for the long-windedness of this, but hopefully what follows will be judged worthwhile…
    As a university professor myself, I’ll start by apologizing for the American-exceptionalist attitudes that led Colonel Lang to his comments about my profession.
    But I think the discussions here risk mixing up two separate threads of thought, namely cultural and technological.
    The notion that inside every human being is an ugly American wanting to get out is just plain stupid, and reflects a wrong-headed cultural world view that is fed by many institutions in the U.S., including corporate media entities and many so-called Christian institutions. This cultural myopia likely has roots in the modernist movement, as others have asserted here and in previous threads, and might be remedied by post-modern principles (tho I doubt the cure will be found there).
    But there is a separate aspect to other nations wanting to be like Americans, and that is their desire for those technologies that support our lifestyle in the industrialized world. Those physical fruits of modernism are not particularly cultural in nature, and have much more utility to the world’s citizens than empty promises of “democracy” or “freedom”.
    For but one example, when Nasrallah asserted this week that the Lebanese cabinet had declared war on his organization, he was talking about government threats to his fiber-optic communications system built with technology invented right here in the good old US of A, and in that regard he was implicitly stating that Hezbollah did indeed want to be “like us”, tho not in a cultural sense. He wanted to be like us in having access to western technology (or at least the western technology that possesses some utility for his organization — I’m not convinced he desires acceess to chrome automotive bling or the latest varieties of fast food).
    America has many attributes worth imitating, including an ability to dream up technological marvels that can prolong life and improve its quality, and plenty of the world’s people would love to be more like us in terms of our access to clean water, reliable power, and effective health care.
    The American-exceptionalist approach to handling these desires for technology is that the whole world should gain these benefits of American modernism as part of a larger package that includes a pro-western government composed of equal parts plutocracy and kleptocracy, and that acceptance of such western technology and culture is best gained at the business end of a modern US-built weapon.
    Which is why we end up where we are, with the US as both source of technological inspiration and cultural exasperation. The real question here is how can we help the world on the appropriate-technological front without trying to destroy it on the cultural front, and we aren’t doing a very good job of that, especially lately.
    My own professorial approach to this is that whenever possible, I work to send my over-achieving students to remote corners of the world where the local folk desire some well-defined parts of Americana, e.g., potable water supplies, or bridges to span those rivers that block the route to the nearest hospital, or perhaps even quasi-cultural gifts such as building practices that are cost-effectively realized with local materials but don’t kill much the population when an earthquake strikes.
    It’s not much, but it’s a start, and at least we try to change only that which needs changing.

  52. Patrick Lang says:

    What profession is it that you belong to? Are you a political scientist? If so, I offer you my symapathy. I surely did attack them. Are you a business school teacher? I did not attack them.
    Your comment is misguided. My remarks have to do with all the aspects of modernity other than technology. If you think that a Western mindset and Western values are necessary to master technology, then you are mistaken. pl

  53. Cieran says:

    Colonel Lang:
    I am not a political scientist… that is a field that I am effectively allergic to, in fact. I am an engineer by training, and have worked in national security circles for much of my long professional career. I have labored to create both weapons and targets.
    I am also a serious student of the history of science and technology.
    And if I could summarize the single most important concept I have learned about that field it would be that the conditions for creating truly wonderful technology are very difficult to maintain, so that while all of humanity seems to have some capacity for craft, the kind of societies which can carry out the more miraculous varieties of it (e.g., fiber-optic communication networks such as Hezbollah’s) are few and far between.
    I happen to know a fair amount about fiber-optic communications, in fact, and this is just one field where I am awed by the incredible set of coincidences that were required to bring this truly wonderful technology into being.
    I am definitely not an American exceptionalist, however, and my apology for your business-faculty acquaintance is sincere. Your post made me wince, actually.
    In fact, I am genuinely concerned that when the history of this era is written, it will likely be noted that it was the end of American leadership in science and technology, because we increasingly seem to value the opposite conditions to those which foster innovation of the highest caliber. e.g., our increasing inability to think straight as a nation, our continuing lack of appreciation for epistemology, our lack of financial support for public education at all levels, and the intrusion of government and religion into spheres of science, e.g., stem-cell research, climate change, creationism, etc.
    And my comments may indeed be misguided (you are the better judge of that), but I was not referring to the particulars of your remarks except in terms of an apology from those of us in academia — my comments were directed at this thread as a whole, and in particular the question lurking in the background of what exactly other world cultures might perceive that is of value from the American experience.
    In other words, I would consider not your question “…and that what is good for us is not necessarily wanted by others?” but instead the related question of “is there good within us that is wanted by others?”.
    I suspect that what Bush and Cheney think the world wants from America does not bear much resemblance to what anyone really does want from us. I imagine that the people of Iraq would prefer that we share our know-how of how to generate electricity 24/7 much more than we share our peculiar penchant for empire.
    Finally, I do not believe that western values are at all necessary for the mastery of technology (as world history amply documents), but I will gladly debate the assertion that the last few centuries of American culture have proven to be a singularly-fertile ground for producing useful inventions, such as have seldom been seen in the history of humanity. Exactly why that is true is one of the mysteries of our age, I suspect.
    Thanks for your questions. As always, they make us think, and that is perhaps your greatest gift here.

  54. frank durkee says:

    Significant and or radical changes in technology and their spread have serious effects on all the cultures they impact. Note the cultural shifts around stone, iron, etc. Or steam, electricity, the internal combustion engine and so on. Individual cultures will react in idocyncratic ways which will embody the internal complexity of the culture and the nature of the situation in which that culture is embedded. Jaque Elull, a French thinker of the mid-20th century pointed out that the key value of the modern technological era was to seek the “most efficient means to acomphlish any task”. This cuts at the heart of most cultures of any long standing duration, even our own. We are facing choices that were unimaginable to our parents and are still for vast swaths of the worlds cultures. Whatever the response of any individual culture those technological advances will have to be dealt with. Note that rejection is a mode of dealing. So technology and how cultures respond to it, including our own, may well be the only common denominator in the divergent cultural responses. and lest we forget each culture will have divergent and conflicted internal responses.
    Perhaps it is appropriate to close this with Jared Diamond’s point that Civilization and therefore all cultures save perhaps the Bushman’s, are kleptocracies.
    What this points to is multiplicity of response both between and with in cultures and the continuing need to know a respect those variations, their incarnated values, and their human outcomes.

  55. Carl Osgood says:

    I’d like to know which “Western Culture” that faculty member was talking about. There’s the one that brought forth our Republic with its Constitution in defense of the dignity of every human being. Then there’s the one that saddled our Republic with the scourge of slavery and just about every other evil that has afflicted our plant. Unfortunately, most non-Western cultures have more familiarity with that other one, primarily through European colonialism, than our original one, though they always looked to our original culture (which seems to be hard to find these days) for the key to their own futures.

  56. John says:

    And of course, there is that famous Gandhi quote which reflects his training as a lawyer in the British Empire:
    “What do I think of Western civilization?
    I think it would be a very good idea.”
    Mohandas Gandhi

  57. yogi-one says:

    Good one, Col. Lang!
    The world is getting smaller, and the cultures are coming more and more into closer contact.
    Eventually, if we keep populating, and getting faster travel means and communications technologies, the one world culture is an inevitability.
    But that doesn’t mean it will be bland, or dominated by one cultural model.
    The USA, having been so dominant since WWII, will of course be an influence, even as the British, French, and Spanish cultures continued to be influences in many nations long after their empires had waned.
    But the Chinese and Indian cultures will also be big influences on the 21st century globe.
    People may not want to be Americans, and why should they? But the USA in the last half of the 20th century symbolized things which are not culture specific: the dream of a materially well-off life, the dream of readily available education for all citizens, and an open political system that tolerates debate of the issues.
    I think the world has seen that we have kind of fallen off the track of truly standing for those things. or, to be more specific, what I have personally witnessed is that people still love Americans, but they have seen how our leadership has caved into selfish corporate and political interests over the last few decades.
    Nevertheless, the aforementioned values are still desired by the people of the world, whether or not those values have an American face plastered over it.
    The new face of those values looks a lot more Asian or South Asian.
    China has shown how to go from third world status to economic powerhouse in one or two generations, and all the other Asian countries are trying to learn how to do that.
    India has shown that educating your people and giving them technical expertise can establish your nation on the world stage.
    And India has shown that a huge Asian country can maintain a (mostly) peaceful pluralistic democracy, imperfect though it may be in their case.
    I think the world is looking at their examples now as much as to American or even European models.

  58. BellesLettres says:

    Few Americans possess the ability to empathize with humans from other cultures. Robert Olen Butler’s stories are a good starting point for discussing what it’s like to be an “alien” in America–whether Vietnamese or a space alien.

  59. Matthew says:

    Col>: The worth of our culture is what WE think it has. Being liked is nice–but optional.
    When did we get to be such self-loathing, praise-seeking weenies???

  60. taters says:

    Viceroy Paul Bremer comes to mind.
    I can’t recall where I read that Iraqi tribesmen were being lectured on the virtues of Jeffersonian democracy – in English. The criteria for being a “lecturer” was party loyalty. And if you had experience on the Bush-Cheney FL 2000 recount team, so much the better.

  61. Boots says:

    There are two basic differences collectivist vs. non-collectivist beliefs/deisres. Everyone has a certain goal for material comfort and a belief who is in charge of their destiny. The difference is who you belive is maily resposible, yourself or society. The USA socitey developed from rugged individualist mores of a settler society. Most of the rest of the world developed from some sort of authoratarian society which lends itself to the collectivist mentality i.e. society leads the individual. There are still many in the USA who are looking for the government to make their lives better…human nature.

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