How The West Was Won


Some­one re­cently linked me to Bryan Ca­plan’s post A Hardy Weed: How Tra­di­tion­al­ists Un­der­es­ti­mate Western Civ. He ar­gues that “west­ern civ­i­liza­tion”’s sup­posed defen­ders don’t give it enough credit. They’re always wor­ry­ing about it be­ing threat­ened by Is­lam or China or De­gen­er­acy or what­ever, but in fact west­ern civ­i­liza­tion can not only hold its own against these threats but ac­tively out­com­petes them:

The frag­ility the­sis is flat wrong. There is ab­solutely no rea­son to think that Western civ­i­liza­tion is more frag­ile than Asian civ­i­liza­tion, Is­lamic civ­i­liza­tion, or any other promi­nent ri­vals. At min­i­mum, Western civ­i­liza­tion can and does per­pet­u­ate it­self the stan­dard way: sheer con­for­mity and sta­tus quo bias.

But say­ing that Western civ­i­liza­tion is no more frag­ile than other cul­tures is a gross un­der­state­ment. The truth is that Western civ­i­liza­tion is tak­ing over the globe. In vir­tu­ally any fair fight, it steadily triumphs. Why? Be­cause, as fans of Western civ ought to know, Western civ is bet­ter. 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.

A big part of the West’s strength, I has­ten to add, is its open­ness to awe­some­ness. When it en­coun­ters com­pet­ing cul­tures, it glee­fully iden­ti­fies com­peti­tors’ best traits – then adopts them as its own. By the time Western cul­ture com­mands the globe, it will have ap­pro­pri­ated the best fea­tures of Asian and Is­lamic cul­ture. Even its nom­i­nal de­trac­tors will be West­ern­ized in all but name. Pic­ture how con­tem­po­rary Chris­tian fun­da­men­tal­ists’ con­sumerism and gen­der roles would have hor­rified Luther or Calvin. Western civ is a good win­ner. It doesn’t de­mand to­tal sur­ren­der. It doesn’t make fans of com­pet­ing cul­tures for­mally re­cant their er­rors. It just tempts them in a hun­dred differ­ent ways un­til they tac­itly con­vert.

Tra­di­tion­al­ists’ laments for Western civ­i­liza­tion deeply puz­zle me. Yes, it’s easy to dwell on set­backs. In a world of seven billion peo­ple, you can’t ex­pect Western cul­ture to win ev­ery­where ev­ery­day. But do tra­di­tion­al­ists se­ri­ously be­lieve that fresh­man Western civ classes are the wall stand­ing be­tween us and bar­barism? Have they re­ally failed to no­tice the fact that Western civ­i­liza­tion flour­ishes all over the globe, even when hos­tile gov­ern­ments fight it tooth and nail? It is time for the friends of Western civ­i­liza­tion to learn a les­son from its en­e­mies: Western civ is a hardy weed. Given half a chance, it sur­vives, spreads, and con­quers. Peace­fully.

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 in­volved 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.

An anal­ogy: natur­opaths like to use the term “west­ern medicine” to re­fer to the ev­i­dence-based medicine of drugs and surg­eries you would get at your lo­cal hos­pi­tal. They con­trast this with tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, which it has some­what re­placed, ap­par­ently a symp­tom of the “west­ern­iza­tion” of Chi­nese and In­dian so­cieties.

But “west­ern medicine” is just medicine that works. It hap­pens to be west­ern be­cause the West had a tech­nolog­i­cal head start, and so dis­cov­ered most of the medicine that works first. But there’s noth­ing cul­turally west­ern about it; there’s noth­ing Chris­tian or Greco-Ro­man about us­ing peni­cillin to deal with a bac­te­rial in­fec­tion. In­deed, “west­ern medicine” re­placed the tra­di­tional medicine of Europe – Hip­pocrates’ four hu­mors – be­fore it started threat­en­ing the tra­di­tional medicines of China or In­dia. So-called “west­ern medicine” is an in­hu­man perfect con­struct from be­yond the void, sum­moned by Western­ers, which ate tra­di­tional Western medicine first and is now pro­ceed­ing to eat the rest of the world.

“Western cul­ture” is no more re­lated to the ge­o­graph­i­cal west than west­ern medicine. Peo­ple who com­plain about west­ern cul­ture tak­ing over their coun­try always man­age to bring up Coca-Cola. But in what sense is Coca-Cola cul­turally west­ern? It’s an Ethiopian bean mixed with a Colom­bian leaf mixed with car­bon­ated wa­ter and lots and lots of sugar. An Amer­i­can was the first per­son to dis­cover that this com­bi­na­tion tasted re­ally good – our tech­nolog­i­cal/​eco­nomic head start en­sured that. But in a world where Amer­ica never ex­isted, even­tu­ally some Ja­panese or Ara­bian chemist would have found that sugar-filled fizzy drinks were re­ally tasty. It was a dis­cov­ery wait­ing to be plucked out of the void, like peni­cillin. Amer­ica sum­moned it but did not cre­ate it. If west­ern medicine is just medicine that works, soda pop is just re­fresh­ment that works.

The same is true of more in­tel­lec­tual “prod­ucts”. Ca­plan notes that for­eign­ers con­sume west­ern gen­der norms, but these cer­tainly aren’t gen­der norms that would have been rec­og­niz­able to Cicero, St. Au­gus­tine, Henry VIII, or even Voltaire. They’re gen­der norms that sprung up in the af­ter­math of the In­dus­trial Revolu­tion and its tur­bu­lent in­ter­mix­ing of the do­mes­tic and pub­lic economies. They arose be­cause they worked. The West was the first re­gion to in­dus­tri­al­ize and re­al­ize those were the gen­der norms that worked for in­dus­trial so­cieties, and as China and Ara­bia in­dus­tri­al­ize they’re go­ing to find the same thing.

Ca­plan writes:

A big part of the West’s strength, I has­ten to add, is its open­ness to awe­some­ness. When it en­coun­ters com­pet­ing cul­tures, it glee­fully iden­ti­fies com­peti­tors’ best traits – then adopts them as its own. By the time Western cul­ture com­mands the globe, it will have ap­pro­pri­ated the best fea­tures of Asian and Is­lamic cul­ture.

Cer­tainly he’s point­ing at a real phe­nomenon – sushi has spread al­most as rapidly as Coke. But in what sense has sushi been “west­ern­ized”? Yes, Europe has adopted sushi. But so have China, In­dia, and Africa. Sushi is an­other re­fresh­ment that works, a crack in the nar­ra­tive that what’s go­ing on is “west­ern­iza­tion” in any mean­ingful sense.

Here’s what I think is go­ing on. Maybe ev­ery cul­ture is the grad­ual ac­cu­mu­la­tion of use­ful en­vi­ron­men­tal adap­ta­tions com­bined with ran­dom memetic drift. But this is usu­ally a grad­ual pro­cess with plenty of room for ev­ery­body to ad­just and lo­cal pe­cu­liar­i­ties to seep in. The In­dus­trial Revolu­tion caused such rapid change that the pro­cess be­come qual­i­ta­tively differ­ent, a fran­tic search for bet­ter adap­ta­tions to an en­vi­ron­ment that was it­self chang­ing al­most as fast as peo­ple could un­der­stand it.

The In­dus­trial Revolu­tion also changed the way cul­ture was spa­tially dis­tributed. When the fastest mode of trans­porta­tion is the horse, and the postal sys­tem is fre­quently am­bushed by Huns, al­most all cul­ture is lo­cal cul­ture. England de­vel­ops a cul­ture, France de­vel­ops a cul­ture, Spain de­vel­ops a cul­ture. Geo­graphic, lan­guage, and poli­ti­cal bar­ri­ers keep these from in­ter­mix­ing too much. Add rapid com­mu­ni­ca­tion – even at the level of a good postal ser­vice – and the equa­tion be­gins to change. In the 17th cen­tury, philoso­phers were re­mark­ing (in Latin, the uni­ver­sal lan­guage!) about how Descartes from France had more in com­mon with Leib­niz from Ger­many than ei­ther of them did with the av­er­age French­man or Ger­man. Nowa­days I cer­tainly have more in com­mon with SSC read­ers in Fin­land than I do with my next-door neigh­bor whom I’ve never met.

Im­proved trade and com­mu­ni­ca­tion net­works cre­ated a rapid flow of ideas from one big com­mer­cial cen­ter to an­other. Things that worked – west­ern medicine, Coca-Cola, egal­i­tar­ian gen­der norms, sushi – spread along the trade net­works and started out­com­pet­ing things that didn’t. It hap­pened in the west first, but not in any kind of a black-and-white way. Places were in­ducted into the uni­ver­sal cul­ture in pro­por­tion to their par­ti­ci­pa­tion in global trade; Shang­hai was in­fected be­fore West Kerry; Dubai is fur­ther gone than Alabama. The great fi­nan­cial cap­i­tals be­came a sin­gle cul­tural re­gion in the same way that “England” or “France” had been a cul­tural re­gion in the olden times, grad­u­ally con­verg­ing on more and more ideas that worked in their new eco­nomic situ­a­tion.

Let me say again that this uni­ver­sal cul­ture, though it started in the West, was west­ern only in the most cos­metic ways. If China or the Cal­iphate had in­dus­tri­al­ized first, they would have been the ones who de­vel­oped it, and it would have been much the same. The new so­das and medicines and gen­der norms in­vented in Beijing or Bagh­dad would have spread through­out the world, and they would have looked very fa­mil­iar. The best way to in­dus­tri­al­ize is the best way to in­dus­tri­al­ize.


Some­thing Ca­plan was point­ing to­wards but never re­ally said out­right: uni­ver­sal cul­ture is by defi­ni­tion the only cul­ture that can sur­vive with­out cen­sor­ship.

He writes in his post:

The truth is that Western civ­i­liza­tion is tak­ing over the globe. In vir­tu­ally any fair fight, it steadily triumphs. Why? Be­cause, as fans of Western civ ought to know, Western civ is bet­ter. 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.

Univer­sal cul­ture is the col­lec­tion of the most com­pet­i­tive ideas and prod­ucts. Coca-Cola spreads be­cause it tastes bet­ter than what­ever peo­ple were drink­ing be­fore. Egal­i­tar­ian gen­der norms spread be­cause they’re more pop­u­lar and like­able than their pre­de­ces­sors. If there was some­thing that out­com­peted Coca-Cola, then that would be the offi­cial soda of uni­ver­sal cul­ture and Coca-Cola would be con­signed to the scrapheap of his­tory.

The only rea­son uni­ver­sal cul­ture doesn’t out­com­pete ev­ery­thing else in­stantly and achieve fix­a­tion around the globe is bar­ri­ers to com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Some of those bar­ri­ers are nat­u­ral – Ti­bet sur­vived uni­ver­sal­iza­tion for a long time be­cause no­body could get to it. Some­times the bar­rier is time – uni­ver­sal cul­ture can’t as­similate ev­ery lit­tle hill and valley in­stantly. Other times there are no nat­u­ral bar­ri­ers, and then your choice is to ei­ther ac­cept as­simila­tion into uni­ver­sal cul­ture, or put up some form of cen­sor­ship.

Imag­ine that Ti­bet wants to pro­tect its tra­di­tional drink of yak’s milk. The Dalai Lama re­quests that ev­ery­one con­tinue to drink yak’s milk. But Coca-Cola tastes much bet­ter than yak’s milk, and ev­ery­one knows this. So it be­comes a co­or­di­na­tion prob­lem: even if in­di­vi­d­ual Ti­be­tans would pre­fer that their neigh­bors all drink yak’s milk to pre­serve the cul­ture, they want to drink Coca-Cola. The only way yak’s milk stays pop­u­lar is if the Dalai Lama bans Coca-Cola from the coun­try.

But west­ern­ers aren’t ban­ning yak’s milk to “pro­tect” their cul­tures. They don’t have to. Univer­sal cul­ture is high-en­tropy; it’s already in its ground state and will sur­vive and spread with­out help. All other cul­tures are low-en­tropy; they sur­vive only if some­one keeps push­ing en­ergy into the sys­tem to pro­tect them. It could be the Dalai Lama ban­ning Coca-Cola. It could be the Académie Française re­mov­ing English words from the lan­guage. It could be the se­cret po­lice kil­ling any­one who speaks out against Com­rade Stalin. But if you want any­thing other than uni­ver­sal cul­ture, you bet­ter ei­ther be sur­rounded by some very high moun­tains, or be will­ing to get your hands dirty.

There’s one more sense in which uni­ver­sal cul­ture is high-en­tropy; I think it might be the only cul­ture that can re­ally sur­vive high lev­els of im­mi­gra­tion.

I’ve been won­der­ing for a long time – how come groups that want to pro­tect their tra­di­tional cul­tures worry about im­mi­gra­tion? After all, San Fran­cisco is fre­quently said to have a thriv­ing gay cul­ture. There’s a strong Ha­sidic Jewish cul­ture in New York City. Every­one agrees that the US has some­thing called “black cul­ture”, al­though there’s de­bate over ex­actly what it en­tails. But only 6% of San Fran­cisco is gay. Only 1% of New York­ers are Ha­sidim. Only about 11% of Amer­i­cans are black. So these groups have all man­aged to main­tain strong cul­tures while be­ing vastly out­num­bered by peo­ple who are differ­ent from them.

So why is any­one con­cerned about im­mi­gra­tion threat­en­ing their cul­ture? Sup­pose that Ti­bet was ut­terly over­whelmed by im­mi­grants, tens of mil­lions of them. No mat­ter how many peo­ple you im­port, Ti­be­tan peo­ple couldn’t pos­si­bly get more out­num­bered in their own coun­try than gays, Ha­sidim, and blacks already are. But those groups hold on to their cul­tures just fine. Wouldn’t we ex­pect Ti­be­tans (or Amer­i­cans, or English peo­ple) to do the same?

I’m still not to­tally sure about the an­swer to this one, but once again I think it makes more sense when we re­al­ize that Ti­bet is com­pet­ing not against Western cul­ture, but against uni­ver­sal cul­ture.

And here, uni­ver­sal cul­ture is go­ing to win, sim­ply be­cause it’s de­signed to deal with di­verse mul­ti­cul­tural en­vi­ron­ments. Re­mem­ber, differ­ent strate­gies can suc­ceed in differ­ent equil­ibria. In a world full of auto-co­op­er­a­tors, defect-bot hits the jack­pot. In a world full of tit-for-tat-play­ers, defect-bot crashes and burns. Like­wise, in a world where ev­ery­body else fol­lows Ti­be­tan cul­ture, Ti­be­tan cul­ture may do very well. In a world where there are lots of differ­ent cul­tures all mixed to­gether, Ti­be­tan cul­ture might not have any idea what to do.

(one more hy­po­thet­i­cal, to clar­ify what I’m talk­ing about – imag­ine a cul­ture where the color of some­one’s clothes tells you a lot of things about them – for ex­am­ple, any­one wear­ing red is a pros­ti­tute. This may work well as long as ev­ery­one fol­lows the cul­ture. If you mix it 50-50 with an­other cul­ture that doesn’t have this norm, then things go down­hill quickly; you propo­si­tion a lady wear­ing red, only to get pep­per sprayed in the eye. Even­tu­ally the first cul­ture gives up and stops try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate mes­sages through cloth­ing color.)

I think uni­ver­sal cul­ture has done a re­ally good job adapt­ing to this through a strat­egy of so­cial at­om­iza­tion; ev­ery­body does their own thing in their own home, and the com­mu­nity ex­ists to pro­tect them and perform some low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor func­tions that ev­ery­one can agree on. This is a re­ally good way to run a mul­ti­cul­tural so­ciety with­out caus­ing any con­flict, but it re­quires a very spe­cific set of cul­tural norms and so­cial tech­nolo­gies to work prop­erly, and only uni­ver­sal cul­ture has de­vel­oped these enough to pull it off.

Be­cause uni­ver­sal cul­ture is bet­ter at deal­ing with mul­ti­cul­tural so­cieties, the more im­mi­grants there are, the more likely ev­ery­one will just de­fault to uni­ver­sal cul­ture in pub­lic spaces. And even­tu­ally the pub­lic space will creep fur­ther and fur­ther un­til uni­ver­sal cul­ture be­comes the norm.

If you don’t un­der­stand the differ­ence be­tween west­ern cul­ture and uni­ver­sal cul­ture, this looks like the im­mi­grants as­similat­ing – “Oh, be­fore these peo­ple were Chi­nese peo­ple be­hav­ing in their for­eign Chi­nese way, but now they’re Western­ers just like us.” Once you make the dis­tinc­tion, it looks like both Chi­nese peo­ple and tra­di­tional Amer­i­cans as­similat­ing into uni­ver­sal cul­ture in or­der to share a com­mon ground – with this be­ing in­visi­ble to peo­ple who are already as­similated into uni­ver­sal cul­ture, to whom it just looks “nor­mal”.


I stress these points be­cause the in­cor­rect model of “for­eign cul­tures be­ing West­ern­ized” casts Western cul­ture as the ag­gres­sor, whereas 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.

Our so­ciety is gen­er­ally in fa­vor of small, far-away, or ex­otic groups try­ing to main­tain their cul­ture. We think it’s great that the Hopi are try­ing to get the next gen­er­a­tion to par­ti­ci­pate in the tra­di­tional dances. We sup­port the Ti­be­tans’ at­tempt to main­tain their cul­ture in the face of pres­sure from China. We pro­mote black cul­ture, gay cul­ture, et cetera. We think of it as a tragedy when the dom­i­nant cul­ture man­ages to take over and de­stroy one of these smaller cul­tures. For ex­am­ple, when white Amer­i­can ed­u­ca­tors taught Na­tive Amer­i­can chil­dren to iden­tify with white Amer­i­can cul­ture and ig­nore the old ways, that was in­ap­pro­pri­ate and in some senses “geno­ci­dal” if the aim was to de­stroy Na­tive Amer­i­cans as a sep­a­rate peo­ple. We get ex­cited by the story of Bhutan, the tiny Hi­malayan king­dom try­ing to pre­serve its nat­u­ral and hu­man en­vi­ron­ment and pre­vent its own McDonaldiza­tion. We tend to be es­pe­cially up­set when the de­struc­tion of cul­tures hap­pens in the con­text of colo­nial­ism, ie a large and pow­er­ful coun­try try­ing to take over and elimi­nate the cul­ture of a smaller coun­try. Some ex­am­ples in­clude the English in Ire­land, the English in In­dia, the English in Africa, and ba­si­cally the English any­where.

One of the most com­mon jus­tifi­ca­tions for colo­nial­ism is that a more ad­vanced and en­light­ened so­ciety is tak­ing over an evil and op­pres­sive so­ciety. For ex­am­ple, when China in­vaded Ti­bet, they said that this was be­cause Ti­bet was a feu­dal hel­l­hole where most of the peo­ple were liv­ing in ab­ject slav­ery and where peo­ple who protested the rule of the lamas were pun­ished by hav­ing their eyes gouged out (true!). They de­clared the an­niver­sary of their con­quest “Serfs Eman­ci­pa­tion Day” and force the Ti­be­tans to cel­e­brate it ev­ery year. They say that any­one who op­poses the Chi­nese, sup­ports the Dalai Lama, or flies the old Ti­be­tan flag is al­lied with the old feu­dal lords and wants to cel­e­brate a cul­ture based around serf­dom and op­pres­sion.

But 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. If any­body were to say that, for ex­am­ple, Na­tive Amer­i­cans are poor and ig­no­rant, have a dumb re­li­gion with all sorts of un­prov­able “spirits”, used to be in­volved in a lot of kil­ling and raid­ing and slave-tak­ing – and so we need to burn down their cul­ture and raise their chil­dren in our own su­pe­rior cul­ture – that per­son would be in­cred­ibly racist and they would not be worth listen­ing to. 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. Although we laugh at the Chi­nese claim that the only rea­son a Ti­be­tan could iden­tify with their own cul­ture and want to fly its flag is be­cause they sup­port serf­dom and eye-goug­ing, we solemnly nod along with our own cul­ture’s claim that the only rea­son a South­erner could iden­tify with their own cul­ture and want to fly its flag is be­cause they sup­port racism and slav­ery.

(one ques­tion I got on the post linked above was why its de­scrip­tion of Amer­i­can tribes seemed to fit other coun­tries so well. I think the an­swer is be­cause most coun­tries’ poli­tics are cen­tered around the con­flict be­tween more-uni­ver­sal­ized and less-uni­ver­sal­ized seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion.)

We could even look at this as a form of colo­nial­ism – if Brexit sup­port­ers and op­po­nents lived on two differ­ent is­lands and had differ­ent col­ored skin, then peo­ple in Lon­don say­ing things like “Th­ese peo­ple are so but­thurt that we’re de­stroy­ing their so-called ‘cul­ture’, but they’re re­ally just a bunch of ig­no­rant rubes, and they don’t re­al­ize they need us elites to keep their coun­try run­ning, so screw them,” would sound a lot more sinister. The in­sis­tence that they tol­er­ate un­wanted im­mi­gra­tion into their lands would look a lot like how China is try­ing to de­stroy Ti­bet by ex­port­ing mil­lions of peo­ple to it in the hopes they will even­tu­ally out­num­ber the re­calc­i­trant na­tive Ti­be­tans (if you don’t be­lieve me, be­lieve the Dalai Lama, who ap­par­ently has the same per­spec­tive). The claim that they’re con­fused bout their own eco­nomic self-in­ter­est would give way to dis­cus­sions of Bhutan style “gross na­tional hap­piness”.

(I get ac­cused of be­ing crypto-con­ser­va­tive around here ev­ery so of­ten, but I think I’m just tak­ing my anti-colo­nial­ism po­si­tion to its log­i­cal con­clu­sion. A liberal get­ting up­set about how other liber­als are treat­ing con­ser­va­tives, doesn’t be­come con­ser­va­tive him­self, any more than an Amer­i­can get­ting up­set about how other Amer­i­cans treat Iraqis be­comes an Iraqi.)

And I worry that con­fus­ing “uni­ver­sal cul­ture” with “Western cul­ture” le­gi­t­imizes this weird dou­ble stan­dard. If uni­ver­sal cul­ture and Western cul­ture are the same thing, then Western cul­ture doesn’t need pro­tec­tion – as Ca­plan points out, it’s the gi­ant un­stop­pable wave of progress sweep­ing over ev­ery­thing else. Or maybe it doesn’t de­serve pro­tec­tion – af­ter all, it’s the colo­nial­ist ide­ol­ogy that tried to de­stroy lo­cal cul­tures and set it­self up as supreme. If Western cul­ture is already su­per-strong and has a his­tory of try­ing to take over ev­ery­where else, then surely ad­vo­cat­ing “pro­tect­ing Western cul­ture” must be a code phrase for some­thing more sinister. We can sym­pa­thize with for­eign cul­tures like the Ti­be­tans who are ac­tu­ally un­der threat, but sym­pa­thiz­ing with any Western cul­ture in any way would just be le­gi­t­imiz­ing ag­gres­sion.

But I would ar­gue that it’s uni­ver­sal cul­ture which is the gi­ant un­stop­pable wave of progress, and that it was uni­ver­sal cul­ture that was re­spon­si­ble for coloniz­ing other cul­tures and re­plac­ing them with it­self. And uni­ver­sal cul­ture’s con­tin­u­ing at­tempts to sub­ju­gate the last unas­similated rem­nants of tra­di­tional west­ern cul­ture are just part of this trend.


I am mostly just on the side of con­sis­tency. After that I have no idea what to do.

One ar­gu­ment is that we should con­sis­tently sup­port tra­di­tional cul­tures’ at­tempts to defend them­selves against uni­ver­sal cul­ture. Sup­port the Na­tive Amer­i­cans’ abil­ity to prac­tice their old ways, sup­port tra­di­tional Sibe­ri­ans try­ing to re­turn to their shaman­is­tic roots, sup­port Aus­tralian Abo­rigines’ rights to con­tinue the old rit­u­als, sup­port Ti­be­tans’ rights to prac­tice Va­jrayana Bud­dhism, and sup­port ru­ral Bri­tish peo­ple try­ing to pro­tect Ye Olde England from the changes as­so­ci­ated with in­creased im­mi­gra­tion. For most peo­ple, this would mean ex­tend­ing the com­pas­sion that they feel to the Abo­rigines, peas­ants, and Ti­be­tans to ap­ply to the Bri­tish as well.

But an­other ar­gu­ment is that we should con­sis­tently sup­port uni­ver­sal cul­ture’s at­tempt to im­pose progress on tra­di­tional cul­tures. Maybe we should tell the Na­tive Amer­i­cans that if they em­braced global cap­i­tal­ism, they could have a tac­que­ria, sushi restau­rant, and ke­bab place all on the same street in their reser­va­tion. Maybe we should tell the Abo­rigines that mod­ern sci­ence says the Dream­time is a myth they need to stop cling­ing to dumb dis­proven ideas. Maybe we should tell the Ti­be­tans that Va­jrayana Bud­dhism is too in­tol­er­ant of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. Take our con­vic­tion that ru­ral Englan­ders are just racist and xeno­pho­bic and ill-in­formed, and ex­tend that to ev­ery­one else who’s try­ing to re­sist a way of life that’s ob­jec­tively bet­ter.

I am sort of torn on this.

On the one hand, uni­ver­sal cul­ture is ob­jec­tively bet­ter. Its sci­ence is more cor­rect, its econ­omy will grow faster, its soft drinks are more re­fresh­ing, its poli­ti­cal sys­tems are (nec­es­sar­ily) freer, and it is (in a cer­tain spe­cific sense) what ev­ery­body would se­lect if given a free choice. It also seems morally bet­ter. The Ti­be­tans did gouge out the eyes of would-be-run­away serfs. I re­al­ize the cir­cu­lar­ity of say­ing that uni­ver­sal cul­ture is ob­jec­tively morally bet­ter based on it seem­ing so to me, a uni­ver­sal cul­ture mem­ber – but I am pre­pared to sus­pend that para­dox in fa­vor of not want­ing peo­ple’s eyes gouged out for re­sist­ing slav­ery.

On the other hand, I think that “uni­ver­sal cul­ture is what ev­ery so­ciety would se­lect if given the op­por­tu­nity” is less of a knock-down point than it would seem. Heroin use is some­thing ev­ery so­ciety would se­lect if given the op­por­tu­nity. That is, if no­body placed “cen­sor­ship” on the spread of heroin, it would rapidly spread from coun­try to coun­try, be­com­ing a ma­jor part of that coun­try’s so­ciety. In­stead, we im­ple­ment an al­most au­thor­i­tar­ian level of con­trol on it, be­cause we know that even though it would be very widely adopted, it’s not some­thing that is good for any­body in the long term. An op­po­nent of uni­ver­sal cul­ture could say it has the same prop­erty.

Things get even worse when you re­mem­ber that cul­tures are multi-agent games and each agent pur­su­ing its own self-in­ter­est might be a dis­aster for the whole. Pol­lu­tion is a good ex­am­ple of this; if the best car is very pol­lut­ing, and one car worth of pol­lu­tion is min­i­mal but many cars’ worth of pol­lu­tion is toxic, then ab­sent good co­or­di­na­tion mechanisms ev­ery­one will choose the best car even though ev­ery­one would pre­fer a world where no­body (in­clud­ing them) had the best car. I may have writ­ten about this be­fore.

I’m con­stantly in­trigued (though always a lit­tle skep­ti­cal) by claims that “prim­i­tive” cul­tures live hap­pier and more satis­fy­ing lives than our own. I know of sev­eral of this type. First, hap­piness sur­veys that tend to find Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries do­ing as well or bet­ter than much richer and more ad­vanced Euro­pean coun­tries. Se­cond, the ev­i­dence from the Amish, whose chil­dren are al­lowed to ex­pe­rience the mod­ern cul­ture around them but who usu­ally pre­fer to stay in Amish so­ciety. Third, Ax­tell’s pa­per on pris­oner ex­changes be­tween early US colon­ists and Na­tive Amer­i­cans; colon­ists cap­tured by the na­tives al­most always wanted to stay and live with the na­tives; na­tives cap­tured by the colon­ists never wanted to stay and live with the colon­ists. Many peo­ple have re­marked on how more cul­turally ho­moge­nous coun­tries seem hap­pier. Bhutan it­self might be ev­i­dence here, al­though I’ve seen wildly differ­ent claims on where it falls on hap­piness sur­veys. I’ve also talked be­fore about how China’s hap­piness level stayed sta­ble or even dropped dur­ing its pe­riod of rapid de­vel­op­ment.

(on the other hand, there’s also a lot of coun­terev­i­dence. More demo­cratic coun­tries seem to be hap­pier, and democ­ra­cies will gen­er­ally be the low-cen­sor­ship coun­tries that get more as­similated into uni­ver­sal cul­ture. Free mar­ket economies are hap­pier. Some stud­ies say that more liberal coun­tries are hap­pier. And there’s a com­pli­cated but pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ship be­tween na­tional hap­piness and wealth.)

I also think that it might be rea­son­able to have con­tinu­a­tion of your own cul­ture as a ter­mi­nal goal, even if you know your cul­ture is “worse” in some way than what would re­place it. There’s a tran­shu­man­ist joke – “In­stead of pro­tect­ing hu­man val­ues, why not re­pro­gram hu­mans to like hy­dro­gen? After all, there’s a lot of hy­dro­gen.” There’s way more hy­dro­gen than beau­tiful art, or star-crossed ro­mances, or ex­cit­ing ad­ven­tures. A hu­man who likes beau­tiful art, star-crossed ro­mances, and ex­cit­ing ad­ven­tures is in some sense “worse” than a hu­man who likes hy­dro­gen, since it would be much harder for her to achieve her goals and she would prob­a­bly be much less happy. But know­ing this does not make me any hap­pier about the idea of be­ing re­pro­grammed in fa­vor of hy­dro­gen-re­lated goals. My own value sys­tem might not be ob­jec­tively the best, or even very good, but it’s my value sys­tem and I want to keep it and you can’t take it away from me. I am an in­di­vi­d­u­al­ist and I think of this on an in­di­vi­d­ual level, but I could also see hav­ing this self-preser­va­tion-against-op­ti­mal­ity urge for my com­mu­nity and its val­ues.

(I’ve some­times heard this called Love­craf­tian parochial­ism, based on H.P. Love­craft’s philos­o­phy that the uni­verse is vast and in­com­pre­hen­si­ble and anti-hu­man, and you’ve got to draw the line be­tween Self and Other some­where, so you might as well draw the line at 1920s Prov­i­dence, Rhode Is­land, and call ev­ery­where else from Bos­ton all the way to the un­speak­able abyss-city of Y’ha-nth­lei just differ­ent de­grees of hor­rible­ness.)

Over­all I am not 100% con­vinced ei­ther way. Maybe some tra­di­tional cul­tures are worse than uni­ver­sal cul­ture and oth­ers are bet­ter? Mostly the con­fu­sion makes me want to err on the side of al­low­ing peo­ple to go ei­ther di­rec­tion as they see fit, bar­ring atroc­i­ties. Which are of course hard to define.

I like the Jewish idea of the Noahide Laws, where the Jews say “We are not go­ing to im­pose our val­ues on any­one else…ex­cept these seven val­ues which we think are in­cred­ibly im­por­tant and break­ing them is to­tally be­yond the pale.” Some­times I wish uni­ver­sal cul­ture would just es­tab­lish a cou­ple of clear Noahide Laws – two of them could be “no slav­ery” and “no eye-goug­ing” – and then agree to bomb/​sanc­tion/​drone any cul­ture that breaks them while leav­ing other cul­tures alone. On the other hand, I also un­der­stand uni­ver­sal cul­ture well enough to know that two min­utes af­ter the first set of Noahide Laws were es­tab­lished, some­body would pro­pose amend­ing them to in­clude some­thing about how ev­ery cul­ture must pro­tect trans­gen­der bath­room rights or else be cleansed from the face of the Earth by fire and sword. I’m not sure how to pre­vent this, or if pre­vent­ing it is even de­sir­able. This seems like the same ques­tion as the origi­nal ques­tion, only one meta-level up and with­out any clear in­tu­ition to help me solve it. I guess this is an­other rea­son I con­tinue to be at­tracted to the idea of Archipelago.

But I think that none of this makes sense un­less we aban­don the idea that “uni­ver­sal cul­ture” and “west­ern cul­ture” are one and the same. I think when Ca­plan’s de­bate op­po­nent talked about “pro­tect­ing Western cul­ture”, he was refer­ring to some­thing gen­uinely frag­ile and threat­ened.

I also think he prob­a­bly cheated by say­ing we needed to pro­tect it be­cause it was re­spon­si­ble for so many great ad­vances, like Coca-Cola and egal­i­tar­ian gen­der norms. I don’t think that’s fair. I think it’s a cul­ture much like Ti­be­tan or In­dian cul­ture, pretty neat in its own way, pos­si­bly ex­tra in­ter­est­ing as the first cul­ture to learn the art of sum­mon­ing en­tities from be­yond the void. Mostly I’m just happy that it ex­ists in the same way I’m happy that pan­das and go­rillas ex­ist, a ba­sic delight in the di­ver­sity of the world. I think it can be defended in those terms with­out hav­ing to re­solve the de­bate on how many of its achieve­ments are truly its own.