Why the West Went Ahead of the Rest

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What makes societies poor and what makes them rich? What makes a certain society accumulate wealth, create complex social relationships and productive institutions, minimize conflicts, and build a creative, happy population? On the other hand, what makes a society either fail to produce a surplus or quickly dissipate it or misuse it for self-destructive purposes, leaving the populace in chronic conflict and wretchedness?

For reasons unfathomable to an external, rational observer, many societies that could develop in a healthy way never really do, continuing instead to wallow in sadistic lose-lose paradigms of existence. The observer may keep saying that all such a society needs is a few minor institutional adjustments — in education, law, democracy, free-market economics, or property rights — and it will be on a rapid upward path. To his dismay, this proves impossible. If the expected institutional adjustments are made, the situation often gets worse and, ironically, the people’s predicament becomes even more institutionalized.

Considering the various reasons why European civilization went so far ahead of the rest is perhaps the best way to isolate the ingredients that make for a successful civilization. This isn’t, however, an easy task.

Guns, germs, steel, and six killer applications

In Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond says that environmental differences — not intellectual, moral, or genetic ones — created certain opportunities and necessities for social evolution that led to the superiority of the West. Westerners were early in settling down to an agrarian economy, perhaps because they had more access than other peoples to suitable plants and animals. Agriculture created food surpluses, freeing some people for activities other than mere sustenance. Specialization allowed them to build different competencies — guns, steel, and tools — thus amplifying positive feedback loops. The large Eurasian landmass allowed them to exchange innovations. Access to better domesticated animals gave Westerners advantages in farming, and then in warfare and transportation. The close proximity of humans and animals gradually increased humans’ resistance to germs, giving them huge unexpected advantages in overseas adventures. By themselves, these are small matters, but over centuries, compounding with positive feedbacks, they put the West well ahead of the rest. That is Diamond’s argument.

Many societies that could develop in a healthy way never really do, continuing instead to wallow in sadistic lose-lose paradigms of existence.

Taking a different perspective — and not necessarily contradicting Diamond — another author, Niall Ferguson, in his book Civilization: The West and the Rest, argues that beginning in the 15th century, a few small parts of the western end of Europe developed six powerful new concepts or what he calls “killer applications”: competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic. These “applications” allowed western Europe to surge past all competitors in the East. According to Ferguson, economic competition and political fragmentation fostered capitalism and innovation, both between and within states. Property-owning democracy gave landowners a voice in government. Modern medicine cured diseases and prolonged lives. An industrial revolution, supported by a work ethic and a savings ethic, provided mass-produced goods and sustained innovations. Together, the “killer applications” made the West the preeminent civilization. The contrast between the West and the Rest is evident in many historical examples. While, for instance, Prussia separated church and state and encouraged education based on scientific enquiry, creating a predilection for open enquiry and a scientific attitude, immediately to the east of Prussia religious laws forbade the study of science.

Diamond identifies a plausible, geographical cause of the greatness of the West, while Ferguson makes no attempt to show why the killer applications originated and sustained themselves in that part of the world and not others. But let us move forward in history. All the ingredients that the two authors mention — guns, steel, and the killer applications — have been available to the rest of the world for at least the past two centuries. Given increasingly easier movement and transportation, environmental limitations of the weaker societies should not have been too material. So why did the others fail? Why are so many societies still stuck in low and middle income traps? Japan is the rare large non-Western society that has broken the income trap, but even there cultural oppression is still the norm. Why has even the West started to falter?

I believe that the two authors, despite being mostly correct at certain levels, have not found the root cause of what made the West great. Ferguson does not even make the attempt. Diamond tries, but was likely blocked by political correctness, for he seems disinclined to explore moral or intellectual differences. As a result, he takes an exclusively materialist position. The Eurasian landmass is vast, and many different societies developed within it, with very different levels of sophistication. In what looks like post facto rationalization, Diamond fails to confront what would have been environmental opportunities for non-Western societies — warmer weather, for example — if they had been adequately exploited, as they have not been in many countries in the Middle East and Africa. One might even counterargue that it is hardships and lack of resources that are the true impetus behind the development of our characters, and hence of a better civilization.

Of course, my interest is not to criticize societies as such, but to look for the magic potion some have missed.

Steel and the killer applications: they didn’t work in the Rest

In Congo, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone machetes (remember, “steel”) have been used to kill millions of people. Similar is the case of Soviet Russia, and Cambodia, where as much as 25% of the population was butchered efficiently, by the use of guns. In Mao’s China, love for steel was the jumping-off place for the Great Leap Forward, which led to a famine that killed perhaps 50 million people, destroying capital built up over centuries.

It may even be hardships and lack of resources that are the true impetus behind the development of our characters, and hence of a better civilization.

Having fecklessly copied Western forms of governments, these people competed fiercely for political power, routinely expunging their opponents or sending them off to gulags. Later, when the Russian state officially reduced its influence in the economy, what people got were oligopolies. The state gave way, but the free market failed to assert itself. Contrary to popular belief in the West, backward societies have enthusiastically adopted Western legal and educational systems, as well as democracy. But this has usually provided a mere facade of sophistication imposed on tribal instincts and a strong belief in might-as-right.

In India, technology — operating through the internet — has been very effectively used to increase a belief in magic and fairies. When I was growing up, we were shy about discussing astrology and in admitting that we followed a ritualistic religion. Today, revisionism has been so outrageous that a large section of Indian society, particularly the so-called educated class, believes that India had spaceships and ultra-high technology thousands of years ago. Last year, one of the headlines in India’s national media was about the archeological department digging up an area to look for buried gold. What made anyone believe that gold might be lurking underneath? A god-man had a dream in which a king told him where the gold was. Somewhere in the minds of Indians there is an omnipresent deity, a faith so fixed and overpowering that it sets a certain way of thinking and looking at life, pre-empting other possibilities.

Poor societies often have very high levels of consumerism. Just visit the high-growth parts of Africa and Asia. Macau is now a much bigger sin city than Las Vegas. The majority of this world’s luxury goods are consumed by people from poor societies. In large parts of Africa and Asia, people prefer to buy expensive cars and Louis Vuitton bags, at the cost of sharing a room with several others. If you have been to Johannesburg, it is unlikely you were not awed by the number of very expensive cars on the streets.

Quests for truth and spirituality have no place in an ecosystem that does not respect the individual.

So, why have guns and steel and the killer applications not achieved the intended results in non-Western societies? Why have simple implementations of the free-market system not worked as they are supposed to work? Why has the system so often mutated into something completely opposite, something very corrupt? One might even suggest that enforcement of the killer applications has incapacitated the Rest from developing from within something extremely crucial, without which the applications don’t work and often become corrupted.

What did Diamond and Ferguson miss?

The magic potion

The groundwork for Western greatness was laid more than two millennia ago. Seed takes time to germinate, but that does not mean it isn’t doing its work. Seemingly dormant in its effectiveness until the 15th century, the Western seed eventually asserted itself and gained momentum in mainstream society. And the meme in its subtle ways influenced, lubricated, and enabled an explosion of creativity, an accumulation of surplus, an intricate division of labor, a philosophy of individual rights, a reduction in the exploitation of human beings, and an increase in adventurous risk-taking, all working in sync and with increasing social cohesion.

Recently in India I witnessed people negotiating for a young girl’s labor without her participation. The girl had absolutely no concept of her personal identity and hence none about her “rights.” She did not even have to give herself to her predicament; she didn’t know better any better. Today, as I write this, a teenage Jain girl is being driven around the city. She is throwing away money on the streets, which will be picked up by passersby, poor and rich. As an entry to the priesthood, this symbolises her renunciation of material life. Alas, she will have done this without really understanding the shallowness of temptations, ironically making her forever needing to fight against them. Much younger girls have been pushed into priesthood among the Jain, with virtually no possibility of an exit. A few years back one died after 45 days of continual fasting — she was not allowed to pull back from a pledge of a 100-day fast.

Quests for truth and spirituality have no place in an ecosystem that does not respect the individual. The individual becomes the sacrificial goat. No growth, no capacity to wonder, no possibility to image the infinite is possible where the individual lacks sanctity. Individualism does surface, but in very hypocritical ways.

Those who have not seen themselves as individuals must endure lives based on beliefs and faith, immune and virtually blind to reason and evidence.

The magic potion that made the West great, the intellectual “application” that underpins everything else, is the recognition of the sanctity of the individual, and the means by which that understanding has seeped into all the nooks and corners of the West society — its philosophy, its governance, and its social structure. This was the seed that grew and made the West great. This is something that societies outside the West never had.

Reverence for individuality leads to reverence for reason. The person who comes to respect himself as an individual allows himself his own thoughts, feelings, and intelligence. Those who have not seen themselves as individuals must endure lives based on beliefs and faith, immune and virtually blind to reason and evidence.

Ideas have power. They set our limitations, our imaginations, and our visions. The concept of the individual set the West on a totally different path, a path that led toward Diamond’s guns and steel and Ferguson’s killer applications.

Without respect for reason (which cannot happen without the individual), killer applications can only be accepted on faith and belief, further complicating tribal instincts and confusing society even more, making people more irrational by burdening them with more beliefs. Only the rational individual has the capacity for moral behavior, for self-responsibility. If he sees himself as a part of a collective, he rationalizes his “immoral” behavior as something that works for the greater good. He then has no reason for self-reflection. He even lacks a true sense of wonder and mystery. And he has no balance. In such a case, killer applications cannot work in sync, except by default, and then only for a short period.

Training people to aspire for the highest might be similar in its immediate outcome to training them to sacrifice themselves for the larger good. But there is morality in the former. The latter crushes them or makes them hypocritical. The culture of discussion, of real discourse about ideas and philosophy, is alien to most societies outside the West. But knowledge and wisdom do not accumulate in either a person or a society that lacks this culture. Over centuries the net effect has been enormous.

People who have grown up recognizing others as individuals, as entities with their own wishes, inclinations, and free will, may have a problem understanding the possibility of anything else. But this recognition has been by far the biggest achievement of the West, something that most of the world is still grappling with. For those indoctrinated in other ways, there is so much adverse mental superstructure, so many invested emotions and unconscious motives, that getting to the recognition of the individual is an immensely difficult and challenging, almost impossible, job. I have spent decades painfully unburdening myself from the conditioning that many Western children are never really burdened with. Indeed I envy them.

But did the West not trade in slaves, colonize the rest of the world, and give minimal rights to the women in its own societies? Of course it did. But it is always a mistake to judge people of the past on the basis of what we know better. However gross and crude recognition of the individual was two millennia back, it was a path-breaking achievement. Alas, having failed to conceptualize the sanctity of the individual, billions around the world today still live no better lives than those of animals.

Individuality: the East did not get it; the West is losing it

The West’s chosen religion centered on a man born in a normal family, not among the kings. Perhaps Greek and Roman philosophy created an environment of rationality conducive to the emergence of Christ. The New Testament emphasised the idea of the individual. Its subliminal message is for the individual to take responsibility and grow. The emphasis in regard to salvation is on the individual, not the community. The locus of morality is the individual, not the society using the individual as a sacrificial goat.

One might argue that the concept of the individual came as a result of Protestant Christianity. Or perhaps Thomas Aquinas was the reason. But my view is that these were visible signs of the germination of a path-breaking idea. The idea of the sanctity of the individual had taken firm roots in the West long before the Reformation started.

The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution never really happened outside the West; and without a respect for the individual, and hence without a concept of reason, deeply embedded in a culture, the killer applications may be copied but are not understood and do not stick. They often mutate into something completely different and are used in very corrupt ways.

Islamic madrasas have a bad name for indoctrinating children. But this happens in most of the East, all the way to Japan. Children are destroyed from very early on. Through consistent humiliation, the force-feeding of facts, and various other means, their individuality is prevented from coming to the surface. Enforcing killer applications on such cultures merely burdens them with more beliefs and faiths, exhausting them emotionally and psychologically even more. No wonder suicide rates are so high in Japan and South Korea.

The grand vision of life and humanity is being replaced by hedonism and peer pressure, for that is all that collectivists see.

This way of doing things cannot change until the societies of the East adopt the primacy and sanctity of the individual. Again, to a distant observer this may look easy, but there is a massive superstructure of beliefs and faith that must fall apart before individualism can be inculcated. Resistance within society and even within the individual will be huge. And before this, people will need to recognize the very concept of individualism. That is truly the biggest acquisition a society can make — seemingly easy for an outsider, but extraordinarily difficult for those who suffer from the lack of it. Centuries may be required for a society to develop an individualist culture.

The West’s emergence was no simple task. But now the West is retracing its steps.

Like termites, cultural-Marxist values have been eating the West from within. For several generations they have been changing the nature of Western civilization by slowly but insidiously discouraging self-responsibility and the concept of the individual. The grand vision of life and humanity is being replaced by hedonism and peer pressure, for that is all that collectivists see. For these constrained minds, the ultimate utopia is a society in which everyone looks and behaves the same. Women see themselves as liberated only if they participate in the rat-race to break the so-called corporate glass ceiling, often contrary to their true desires or instincts. Lacking touch with their inner selves, they copy what others do, including sending their children to industrial daycares, to inculcate the ways of the collective. They exist in a trance. Ironically, with their own individuality destroyed, people then look for satisfaction through external sources and their chosen celebrities. Increasingly it is the vulgar elements — the Miley Cyruses and Kim Kardashians — that are chosen. This is no surprise. How can you see quality if you don’t have it within you? And you cannot have quality if there is no “you.” The suffocated voice of one’s individuality then asserts itself in corrupt ways through mindless materialism, a craving for power, and vicarious living. The six killer applications malfunction, the way they have in the East.

It doesn’t take a leap of faith to understand why, despite globalization and free trade, the East has mostly imported the vulgar, collectivist elements of the West. What is lacking is the magic potion — the sanctity of the individual.

rsquo;t doing its work. Seemingly dormant in its effectiveness until the 15th century, the Western seed eventually asserted itself and gained momentum in mainstream society. And the meme in its subtle ways influenced, lubricated, and enabled an explosion of creativity, an accumulation of surplus, an intricate division of labor, a philosophy of individual rights, a reduction in the exploitation of human beings, and an increase in adventurous risk-taking, all working in sync and with increasing social cohesion.




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Sugar Daddies, Sky Fairies, and Flying Spaghetti Monsters

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America’s self-appointed sophisticates like to ridicule religious believers as devotees of the “Sky Fairy,” or of an entity of cartoon-superheroic magnificence they call “the Flying Spaghetti Monster.” Those too enlightened for such foolishness assure us that they are the grownups in the country, and therefore above silly superstitions. Yet curiously, many of them retain absolute, childlike faith in big government as the solver of every problem and the savior from all evil.

Statists on both sides of the spectrum tend to a blind trust of information they get from their official propagandists. To borrow a wonderful phrase from our editor, Stephen Cox, they gobble it up like fish food. Many of the same people look down their noses at those silly Christians, whose core beliefs come from the Bible. But Fox, MSNBC, and NPR have only been around for a few decades. The Bible has endured for thousands of years.

Like a good many Americans, I don’t question whether the president cares about the right things. I question whether he knows what the hell he’s doing.

This is not to say that, in my opinion, people don’t get some odd ideas from Holy Writ. We see these notions floating around in the cultural atmosphere, like leftover bubbles from The Lawrence Welk Show. I get as much pleasure in pointing, laughing, and popping bubbles as anybody else. But to suggest that the basic ideas are less credible than this week’s talking points by the rah-rah media strikes me as nothing short of absurd.

The big story last month was the donnybrook between Hobby Lobby and the Obamacare cops. The Green family, who own majority interest in the Hobby Lobby corporation, caused widespread sophisticate outrage. In their fidelity to the dictates of their “Imaginary Friend,” the Greens sought an exemption from providing certain forms of birth control in employees’ health plans. Our president meanwhile seeks to bestow healthcare on the huddled masses, but certain people’s benighted religious views keep getting in the way!

The concept of a Supreme Being who created the cosmos and has abided since the beginning of time strikes the enlightened ones as laughable. But the competence of an elected official not born until 1961, and only elected in 2008, cannot — dare not — be questioned. The Obama Administration and its minions Know Best. How can we be sure of this? Because they care about the right things.

Like a good many Americans, I don’t question whether the president cares about the right things. I question whether he knows what the hell he’s doing. But surely I am deluded. The Sky Fairy has blinded me with sparkle-dust.

My general impression of those who seek political power, particularly high office, is that they aren’t very nice people. They appear, to me, to be concerned with little more than self-promotion and blind ambition. They have an amazing propensity to say exactly what they think their “base” wants to hear. But no matter what they say, they always end up doing what serves themselves and their own glorious careers. I don’t know why that makes me gullible, or any sillier than those who “ooh” and “aah” over the Great Enlighteneds’ every utterance as if it thundered down from Mount Olympus.

The god of the so-called sophisticates is something even loftier than our exalted leaders. It is Sugar Daddy, the all-knowing, all-seeing, infinitely powerful bringer of all that is right, good, and utterly unquestionable. “We’re not worrrrthy! Pray forgive us if we ever — for a millisecond — questioned your wisdom. In your divine awesomeness, call down no drones to smite us!”

Now, that sounds pretty out-there to me. But then again, I’m no sophisticate. Clearly I’m incapable of understanding.

Trusting the government to fix its own messes seems, to me, a prospect considerably more dubious than relying on Gomer Pyle to fix the family car. Goofy as he was, Gomer usually knew how to get that vehicle humming again. Too bad he isn’t running for president. With his cousin Goober as a running-mate, he’d be at least as credible as the geniuses we’ll undoubtedly have to choose from in 2016.

Yet all will be presumed, by their legions of fans, to know what they’re doing. In fact, to know better than everybody else. The Rube Goldberg contraption of the state grows to ever more monstrous proportions, but the gruesome sitcom of power piled upon power continues to entrance many Americans. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is dismissed as hoary, tired, and in need of retirement; but Sugar Daddy is ever young and virile. In his present incarnation, he even wears cool sunglasses and shoots hoops with NBA stars.

Our politicians are taken deadly seriously by many, but if they’re going to act like adolescents, that’s exactly how they deserve to be seen.

I believe I’ll sit out this enthusiasm. I can’t get worked up about the controversy over whether the First Lady has buff arms or a big butt. Nor do I get teary-eyed thinking about the First Daughter’s high school prom, or outraged because she and her sister attend private school. They are just human beings like the rest of us. When the Presidential Family became our version of the Windsors, they were not elevated to the Heavens, but merely added to the cast of the sitcom.

When I was in high school, the Student Council candidates divided themselves into two parties: Kiss and P-Nut. At the time I found it absurd. Us kids, pretending to be real politicians! Now I see the Democrats and the Republicans morphing, more and more, into Kiss and P-Nut. They are taken deadly seriously by many, but if they’re going to act like adolescents, I think that’s exactly how they deserve to be seen.

Too bad, however, that they’re not wrangling over whether ice cream should be served in the cafeteria, instead of waging wars, jeopardizing our future, and taking our money to pay for their grand schemes. At least on the Student Council, they wouldn’t be out of their league. Nor would we be expected to pay them endless tribute and trust them with our lives.

The Sky Fairy and the Flying Spaghetti Monster are looking better all the time.




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Tim Tebow's Secret Handshake

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This weekend, the Denver Broncos face off against the heavily-favored New England Patriots in the second round of the NFL championship playoffs. The game is worthy of note because it means another week of pop culture fixation on Denver quarterback Tim Tebow.

Even if you don’t follow professional football, you’ve probably heard of Tebow. The former University of Florida star has crossed over into mainstream culture reference. Some of the popular interest focuses on his unconventional mechanics and style of play; most of it focuses on his devout — and conspicuously proclaimed — Christian faith. His practice of kneeling in prayer before and after games has been copied (and mocked) widely.

As long as he keeps any jihadi impulses to himself, I care little about another man’s religious beliefs. Nor do I share the contempt that some atheists have for the faithful. Generally, I agree with the spirit of Pascal’s Wager: lacking conclusive data, I would be arrogant to assert or deny the existence of an omnipotent diety.

Musing on the metaphysical qualities of God isn’t the point of this reflection, though. The strong reaction to one football player’s public shows of piety renders my diffidence . . . insufficient.

Tebow doesn’t mind proselytizing. In fact, he — like many of his coreligionists — believes that promoting God is essential to serving God. His logic goes something like this: God gave Tebow athletic talent and charisma not because He cares who wins a given game but because fame on the football field creates a bigger platform for Tebow’s message of devotion. So, Tebow believes he is obligated to use his media access to reach out to others more effectively than conventional preachers can. Doing so, he plays into the biases and neuroses of the statist Left . . . and neither side seems to mind.

The establishment Left has had many cultural victories; one of these is the effective blurring of people’s personal and political lives. This blurring is a major reason that Tebow shoulders more political connotation than any other sports celebrity in recent years. But “the personal is political” trivializes and cheapens political discourse. It reducesto stale cliché debates that should be vibrant and essential.

Tebow courts this clichéd response. While still a college player, he filmed a television ad for an anti-abortion advocacy group. The ad was sophisticated and avoided strident words or tone. The already-famous athlete and his mother talked about health troubles she’d experienced while expecting him; she implied that another woman might have chosen to have an abortion. And they ended by making a pitch for choosing life.

The usual gang of idiots in the popular media — the execrable Bill Maher, the fey Jon Stewart, the undeservedly self-impressed Rachel Maddow — rose to the bait and have taken turns pillorying Tebow. But all of this is a kind of Kabuki ritual. The outrage is canned, the excess seems calculated. The TV people make cheap points with their core audiences; the Christian athlete gets a red badge of courage with his.

I’ve long been interested in the “secret handshake” that some public figures signal — perhaps instinctively — to the public. Whether that public is adoring or loathing. To me, Bill Clinton remains the master signaler of our times; he conveyed loyalty to the statist Left, even though his actions sometimes betrayed their faith. The pop singer Madonna does it, too; she conveys much more than she actually delivers on stage.

The current president has some of this — but seems more passive and less masterful than Slick Willie or the Material Girl.

Tebow is very good at this signaling. His recent success on the football field is, as he says, only part of a more-ambitious agenda. His opposite number on the Patriots — future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady — may be better at his job. But Tebow’s playing a bigger game.




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