How’s it going with the Universal Cultural Takeover? Part I

Link post

Warning: this is a long post, split over two parts. Part II is here.

David Reinstein points me at a 2016 exchange between Bryan Caplan and Scott Alexander over a fine point of nomenclature: is the culture that is taking over the world “Western” or “universal”? Here’s Scott Alexander’s key point:

I worry that Caplan is eliding the important summoner/​demon distinction. This is an easy distinction to miss, since demons often kill their summoners and wear their skin. But in this case, he’s become hopelessly confused without it.

I am pretty sure there was, at one point, such a thing as Western civilization. I think it included things like dancing around maypoles and copying Latin manuscripts. At some point Thor might have been involved. That civilization is dead. It summoned an alien entity from beyond the void which devoured its summoner and is proceeding to eat the rest of the world.

I love Scott Alexander’s writing. His post is thought-provoking, sharp and completely wrong-headed. In fact, I’ll put both articles forward as 21st-century versions of The End of History or Norman Angell’s Great Illusion: confident predictions which turned out wildly mistaken.


On the Today Programme, the general defending Lakshargah is calm. “The Taliban are unable to take this city given the number of casualties that they have sustained…. Last week, the Taliban casualty rate in Helmand was 70, our casualty rate was 1”. He calls the presenter “Martha” in clipped Transatlantic. I get an uncomfortable feeling: there are two ways to look at that statistic. Are the Taliban losing? Or are they just more willing to take casualties?

Next up is a former interpreter for the Brits with a different perspective. Thick Afghan accent. “The city is almost 95% fallen into the Taliban hands… There is dead bodies in every street…. I’ve changed places three times…. My own house which I left yesterday, it has been captured by Taliban, and they are living there, and they were asking for me.”

“Is Coke Western culture?”

Or is it universal culture, as Alexander says? But we can skip this question, because Coke isn’t culture. As a concept, “culture” is notoriously slippery and expansive. Biologists have the best definition: behaviours that are not built-in, but learned from conspecifics. That’s big and broad, but it still has cutting power. So, Coke isn’t culture: it’s a brown fizzy drink in cans. “Liking sweet stuff” also isn’t culture: it’s natural, everyone does it, no learning required.

Many things round Coke might be culture: the recipe for Coke, advertisements for Coke, showing off by drinking Coke, using Coke as a metonym for Western civilization. Those are all cultural, but they’re also unimportant.

The argument “Western civilization conquers all” gains strength if Western civilization is put in a big basket including all the products made by Western firms. But as Samuel Huntington pointed out long ago:

The essence of Western civilization is the Magna Carta, not the Magna Mac. The fact that non-Westerners may bite into the latter has no implications for their accepting the former….

Somewhere in the Middle East a half-dozen young men could well be dressed in jeans, listening to rap, and, between their bows to Mecca, putting together a bomb to blow up an American airliner.

How’s it working out for you?

Culture survives by reproducing itself. Ultimately it can only do this by aiding its bearers in reproducing themselves. The Shakers, who condemned all sexual relations as sinful, made beautiful furniture, but as Wikipedia puts it, “many… Shaker settlements are now museums”.

Western or universal culture is not doing that. The headline measures are plain enough: total fertility rates of 1.8 for the US, 1.59 for Western Europe, 1.3 ish in the Mediterrean countries. This is not only “Western”, for sure: 1.26 for Singapore, 1.33 for Japan, 1.24 for South Korea.

These headline numbers underestimate the problem. The prime way in which modern countries inculcate their cultures is through their formal education systems. And it is precisely the most educated who have the fewest children.

I’m going to a Christening tomorrow with the old gang from university. We’re middle-aged now. I can just count up:

𝍠𝍠𝍠𝍠𝍠𝍠𝍠𝍠𝍠𝍠𝍠 10 friends

𝍠𝍠𝍠𝍠𝍠𝍠𝍠𝍠𝍠𝍠𝍠 11 children

= 1.1.

Inheriting the earth

That is still not the whole story. Of those 11 children, 5 come from Jewish families — a culture of which parts have resolutely refused to be eaten by the demon. In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Penitent, a disillusioned New York businessman turns away from secular culture to the faith of his fathers:

Up to that day I had been a reader of books, magazines, and newspapers. I had often felt that what I was reading was a deadly poison…. Everything that I read followed the same theme—the world was and will always be ruled by might and falsehood, and there was nothing to be done about it…. Suddenly I heard myself reciting words filled with holy optimism. Instead of starting the day with tales of theft and murder, lust and rape, obscenity and revenge, I had started the day with words about justice, sanctity, a God who had granted men understanding and who will revive the dead and reward the just. I had discovered that I didn’t have to start the day by swallowing venom.

Bryan Caplan:

Given a choice, young people choose Western consumerism, gender norms, and entertainment. Anti-Western governments from Beijing to Tehran know this this to be true: Without draconian censorship and social regulation, “Westoxification” will win.

How’s that story working out in Tel Aviv?

Ultra-Orthodox Judaism is not a one-off. As Eric Kaufmann points out in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? religious cultures which haven’t been “eaten by the demon” are doing fine.

In all parts of the world, fundamentalist fertility exceeds moderate religious fertility, which in turn outpaces secular fertility.

Sometimes explicitly, self-consciously so. Some of the most extreme fundamentalist groups eschew conversion in favour of reproduction. They have quit persuading people on to their ark, and are getting ready to float.

probably the most subversive and effective strategy we might undertake would be one of militant fecundity: abundant, relentless, exuberant, and defiant child-bearing.

[Theologian David Bentley Hart, quoted in Kaufmann p. 97.]

Maybe universal culture can win by spreading, faster than “uneaten” cultures can win by reproducing? (Cultural evolutionary theory calls this horizontal transmission.) No way. First, for the simple mechanical reason that if universal culture brings up fewer children, then there are fewer sources for it to spread from.

…evolutionary theorists brought up far more scientific arguments – but committed believers in supernatural agents brought up far more children.

[Blume, Michael, ‘The Reproductive Benefits of Religious Affiliation’, in The Biological Evolution of Religious Mind and Behavior, ed. E. Voland and W. Schiefenhövel (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2009), p. 125. Cited in Kaufmann pp. 271-272.]

Second, because shrinking groups lose prestige. Some ideas spread because they are better (Scotch whisky has gone round the globe, haggis has not) but many ideas spread by association with success (businessmen round the world wear ties, so as to look like rich people). Western ideas spread widely in the twentieth century.


Because they were obviously better, or because the West was winning?


An inventory

Let’s survey how some important Western ideas are doing.

LGBTQetc. For a movement that started by fighting criminalization, the widespread acceptance of gay marriage is an extraordinary achievement. But it’s widespread, not universal. In fact, it’s widespread in the West, not really anywhere else, in particular not in the Asian countries where most humans live.

Gay marriage around the world. Source: Wikipedia.

Gay marriage might be a high point, because where else is there to go? Apparently into increasingly controversial and sometimes ridiculous arguments. Even in 2016 Scott Alexander’s post gave transgender toilets as an example of a non-issue. My university’s Vice-Chancellor, whose name I don’t presently recall, now signs off his emails “Pronouns: he/​him”. Do you think he still will in ten years’ time? Five? Two? The traditional logic of activism is “first they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”. Someone seems to have put this sequence in reverse.

You could interpret this shift as a sign of success: movements that have managed to push society in one direction keep pushing, even if they maybe sometimes push too far. There is also a more pessimistic interpretation. When the Second Coming failed to arrive on October 22, 1844, the expectant Millerites did not fall apart. Instead, many of them doubled down; from this group came both the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventists. Extremism can result from success, but it can also feed on itself, as moderates are put off and peel away.

Feminism. Feminism is probably the West’s most powerful and successful idea of the past century. But there is no guarantee that the end state of the feminist wave will be the same in all countries. And even within the Western “homelands”, those religious groups that have most children are also often the least feminist. By the way, when China rolled out the red carpet for a delegation from the Taliban, part of their offer was: no hassle about gender relations.

Democracy has been in retreat for a decade. Part of that is geopolitical, as countries slip back from the “grey area” towards full-blown authoritarian rule. Another part is ideological. Democracy is viewed with increasing skepticism by intellectual elites. Two themes now run in parallel through our political science literature: democracy is in danger (How Democracies Die, How Democracy Ends, On Tyranny, Twilight of Democracy) and democracy ain’t that great (Against Democracy, 10% Less Democracy, Democracy for Realists). While most Westerners retain a nominal commitment to democracy, they also treat actual politicians and electoral campaigns with derision. Isn’t that what a crumbling ideal looks like?

The inheritors

My mother, in Peshawar on 9/​11, was made to come home by her family, much against her will. Later a friend’s daughter came over from Pakistan to study in Liverpool. First contact with Scousers brought shock. “They have no values!” she told us. “No culture!” Of course, we disagreed.

The threat Islam poses to Western/​“universal” culture isn’t from suicide-bombing loons and Inspire magazine. Those are just, if you like, an exuberant side-effect. The threat is the prosperous Islamic — or Mormon or Orthodox — family, which sends its daughters to medical school, buys a widescreen TV for the living room, and has absolutely no intention of “Westernizing”, any more than 19th-century Victorians would have “Turkified”. Why embrace failure?

Rednecks vs. redskins

Objects in the rear view mirror may seem farther away than they really are. As history moves forward, the picture below stops looking like “a meeting between modern and primitive peoples” and starts looking like “a meeting between two primitive peoples”. Look at the funny costumes and the strange headdresses!

Gertrude Bell with Ibn Saud

From that it is an easy step to putting everything before [your birth year minus 20] into the same basket: traditional cultures threatened by universal culture. Scott Alexander:

… the model of “every culture is being universalized” finds Western culture to be as much a victim as anywhere else. Coca-Cola might have replaced traditional yak’s milk in Mongolia, but it also replaced traditional apple cider in America. A Hopi Indian saddened that her children no longer know the old ritual dances differs little from a Southern Baptist incensed that her kids no longer go to church. Universal values have triumphed over both.

Not all these things are the same! In particular, “traditional Western” culture is not just the site where universal culture happened to turn up, it was part of the process that brought it into being.

  • Scientific advances have been made several times in history, but sustained scientific progress was never made until the sixteenth century. Stephen Gaukroger, who clearly knows more about the history of science than anyone else, thinks that science (“natural philosophy”) was sustained by its role in supporting Christian theology.

  • Jürgen Habermas thought that the modern public sphere, where democratic policy ideas are debated, was born in the 18th century coffee house. Nope, it was a century earlier, during religious arguments between Puritans and others, and David Zaret will tell you about it.

  • And there’s Joel Mokyr’s arguments about the cultural origins of modern economic growth.

This is about more than bragging rights. Capitalism and modernity don’t just turn up (they didn’t turn up for the previous six thousand years of civilization). They needed conditions for their creation. Now it is certainly possible that, as Alexander says, “Universal culture is high-entropy; it’s already in its ground state and will survive and spread without help”, or, to mix scientific metaphors, that modern economic growth has gone exothermic and needs no further cultural inputs. But an alternative view is the Daniel Bell one, that capitalism requires non-capitalistic support — that being a consumer of capitalist goods might ultimately make it harder to be a producer of those goods. Drinking Coca-Cola is natural! Bottling Coca-Cola may not be.

If you put all traditional cultures into one box, and modern universal culture into another, then you will worry about the threat to traditional cultures, from a kind of anthropologist’s/​zookeeper’s point of view…

I’m just happy that [Western culture] exists in the same way I’m happy that pandas and gorillas exist, a basic delight in the diversity of the world.

… and you will include traditional Western culture in that, and these ideas may get mixed up with contemporary concerns with the Left Behind and Elegies to Hillbillies:

… opponents of colonialism tend to believe that cultures are valuable and need to be protected in and of themselves. This is true even if the culture is very poor, if the culture consists of people who aren’t very well-educated by Western standards, even if they believe in religions that we think are stupid, even if those cultures have unsavory histories, et cetera. We tend to allow such cultures to resist outside influences, and we even celebrate such resistance…. We celebrate when cultures choose preservation of their traditional lifestyles over mere economic growth, like Bhutan’s gross national happiness program.

This is true in every case except with the cultures we consider our outgroups – in the US, white Southern fundamentalist Christian Republicans; in the UK, white rural working-class leave voters. In both cases, their ignorance is treated as worthy of mockery, their religion is treated as stupidity and failure to understand science, their poverty makes them “trailer trash”, their rejection of economic-growth-at-all-costs means they are too stupid to understand the stakes, and their desire to protect their obviously inferior culture makes them xenophobic and racist.

I agree with the sentiment. But I think this view has it backwards. Hillbilly society has deep problems, but hillbilly culture is doing fine. (I mean, they got a US President elected.) It is the culture of modern elites, the culture of New York, London and Silicon Valley — modern liberalism, with its silliness and glories — that is under threat. De te fabula narratur! The story is about you!

Part II will try to improve our understanding of what is actually going on. It will unmask the “summoner-eating demon” as an old friend, sketch the rise and fall of Western culture narrowly defined, and explain where we are today and where we might be going.