Sunday 6 March 2011

The West does not exist

Since Hidden Harmonies decided to do a somewhat bizarre piece on what they believe "the West" to be, including this delightfully weird passage comparing media in general to criminals who must be kept under lock and key:

"So, what is the “Western media?” For one, they pride themselves on being a “free press.” We all know “free” criminals commit crimes, so most of us are immuned to their self-professed higher moral ground. But, the Western public largely buys into that. The Western media also share a peculiar trait of crusading for these ideologies: “freedom,” “democracy,” and “human rights.”"

I thought I'd put in my tuppence worth on this as well.

As a geopolitical entity, "the West" has existed and been written about since at least the start of the medieval age times, when the Great Schism divided Orthodox Eastern Europe from Catholic western Europe. However, what does it mean in modern terms?

Firstly and most obviously, it means Western Europe, Australasia, and North America. Western Europe because it is the original home of Western Christianity, and North America and Australasia because they were colonised by countries in Western Europe. However, what of Latin America, the very name of which requires it to be an off-shoot of Western Europe? At least according to the statements of two modern-day Latin American leaders, they do not consider their countries to be part of the same grouping.

Things get even more murky when one looks at the countries which are also regularly lumped in with "the West" in commentary on the internet. Perhaps the ESWN blog is not the best source on what exactly "the West" is, but a recent post in which "境外媒体" (roughly "external media") appears to have been translated as "Western media" despite, as Richard Burger pointed out, many of reports being from organisations based in Asia, is about par for the course.

Even the dreaded "Western" media seems a bit hazy on what "the West" actually is. When it comes to "Westernisation", you often see things being cited as evidence of "Westernisation" which should rightly be referred to as "modernisation" (i.e., mobile phones, the internet, mass-produced clothing) since they carry little or no intrinsic cultural meaning and are merely indicative of technological progress.

Finally, many of the things people use to identify "the West" are no longer true or exclusively true of many countries which are traditionally identified with it. Whilst "Christian" values are often said to be a hallmark of "the West", in many countries non-believers form the largest grouping. "Democracy" is often said to be intrinsically western, yet many countries with cultures highly dissimilar to that found in Europe and America (Taiwan, Japan, India) are democratic.

My solution to this is the easiest one: The West no longer exists. Whilst we can be relatively certain what phrases like "the Western Powers" refer to (i.e., France, Germany, the US, and the UK), "the West" itself is too vague a concept to be useful.


Porfiriy said...

Cheers to this post. One of the absolute vital necessities for maintaining the trope of some sort of conspiratorial-level oppression against China by a conglomerate of her Western enemies is precisely the assumption that there is some sort of monolithic coherence to "the West." It's an extremely irritating constant across all China apologists that the "West" is out there and is out to "get" China.

It escapes me how a bunch of disparate media corporations could possibly pose any sort of existential threat to a nation that has the complete ability to enforce its sovereignty (or in my opinion: a single political party with the complete ability OVER-enforce its exclusive interests) within its borders. One of the grandest ironies within the patterns of ideas used by China apologists is that they are, in a way, subscribing to this "Sick Man of Asia" trope - that somehow China is intrinsically more vulnerable or weaker vis-a-vis "Western" media.

I would go so far as to argue that "illusionary siege mentalities" are actually one of the key public relations strategies for powerful, entrenched political forces that have to set up smokescreens for what are essentially political platforms and systems that go against the interests of citizens and constituents. Take, for example, the Republican Party - there is something quite uncanny about how the GOP can rally massive support among lower-class whites in non-urban areas, but then again, perhaps we can understand their willingness to vote for a Party that lowers taxes for the fabulously wealthy at the expense of social systems the poor often rely on when there's this alarmist, paranoid mentality that "Muslims/liberals/socialists are out to get you." Likewise, you have the CCP, which has a glaring track record of brutalizing the most vulnerable in Chinese society, but they build their legitimacy on economic growth - which is faltering, not necessarily by any fault of the Party but simply due to diminishing returns - and also on the idea that they are the vanguard preventing another "Century of Humiliation" at the hands of "the West." I expect that as economic growth becomes less and less of a pillar of legitimacy that we'll see more "West is out to get us" hooplah, like when that Chinese fishing trawler rammed a Japanese military vessel. (Japan? As part of the West? Right)

Conversely, it's not trope-building to say that there is ONE government, ONE party enforcing its interests WITHIN the boundaries of the PRC - because it's true, and because that's what the Party itself says about its own rule. When a lawyer gets beaten within an inch of death by guoanbu thugs, yes, it is fair to lay blame at the feet of "the monolithic Party" because the Party maintains absolute control and it states that it maintains absolute control. The tendency among China apologists is to respond to accusations against China by pointing out that "x" also occurs in "the West". Thus it's not surprising to see that accusations against a monolithic government's crimes within China are met with accusations that some monolithic entity "The West" - is out doing "bad things" too!

When it all comes down to it I think it's illustrative that China apologists have to invent a boogeyman, and even when that boogeyman is fabricated the "scariest" thing they can come up with are Pakistani, Filipino, and Taiwanese (the west) news outlets mislabeling photos. Conversely, people like myself who are critical of the Party can point to a trail of well documented abuses and brazen violations of human rights ,AND, very importantly, attribute these violations to a single political entity which exists and which officially declares its existence as the sole political force operating within PRC borders.

Gilman Grundy said...

@Porfiriy - Agree on all counts. However, there are certainly people in Europe and America who also ascribe to the view that Europe, North America, and the Antipodes form a monolithic civilisational block. The most obvious are the followers of the late Samuel Huntingdon and his "clash-of-civilisations" theory. On top of this we can put those who identify the 'Judeo-Christian inheritance' as the defining cultural genome of the Euro-Antipodo-American world, to the exclusion of the Muslim faith, which is by any measure an Abrahamic faith of equal standing to Judaism and Chrisitianity.

In truth, of course, Europe, the Americas, and Australasia do share a common cultural inheritance and "the West" is as good a name as any for this. The problem is that the term has been so abused as to become, for all intents and purposes, meaningless.

Unknown said...

Hidden Harmonies seems to be a circle of people who love China (from a safe distance) but otherwise do not understand the issues, "Eastern" or "Western", that they are writing about. (Pug-ster's energetic participation is never a good sign for a blog.)

The best they ever achieve is weak-tea, yes-man version of the CCP party line.


Gilman Grundy said...

Okay, so I've been on HH's case a lot recently, but that doesn't stop me reading them. There's something of the strange pleasure you get from watching some slow-motion disaster unwind itself in reading their posts.

Unknown said...

I agree on the guilty pleasure aspect of reading HH, and I do credit them for being generally civil.

But they are really only one half screwdriver turn away from unintended parody -- in fact, in my first encounter with a Raventhorn post, I thought I was reading a clever pisstake on fenqing logic.

justrecently said...

1. Hidden Harmonies seems to be a circle of people who love China (from a safe distance)

@ KT: I can't see how one could put it better than this. @ FOARP: Besides, while the "West" topic deserves discussion, I think that in general, HH is getting waaaay too much attention. They started the way sectarians usually do, with an "open-minded" let's-dialogue approach, and became more and more agitated over time. I guess it's this little psychological drama which keeps attracting you, FOARP, DC. ;-)

2. In truth, of course, Europe, the Americas, and Australasia do share a common cultural inheritance and "the West" is as good a name as any for this. The problem is that the term has been so abused as to become, for all intents and purposes, meaningless.

People who want to abuse the term will abuse it anyway - and people who are too stupid or too uninformed to understand the motivation of that game will always join the abuse. I do refer to the continents you mentioned as the West myself - what I'm trying to avoid is the impression that human rights would only be for the West, or that they were made by the West. People who risk their lives for them in all necks of the globe prove such an assumption wrong.
Human rights have been established, and re-established, time and again, in many different places, in the West and elsewhere. And they need to be re-established in certain areas of American life these days, when it comes to the "Patriot Act" or Guantanamo, in Germany when it comes to the way scientologists or members of parties left of the Social Democrats are - frequently or at times - treated here, and for China, certain fundamental rights have become an existential issue even for the regime itself. If people don't get their democratic rights even on a local level, power-abuse will continue to create exactly the environment the state security is supposed to suppress.

I have no problem with the idea that different civilizations may shape human rights in different ways. I'd rather call someones bluff when his definition of human rights becomes a mere justification for the rule of a certain class or party, or when I'm getting the impression that identity issues, projections, or mortifications, rather than thought, are driving his or her argumentation.

But let's not worry about how CCP proxies will abuse the term. If you take the trouble and try to find another term, and they'll abuse it, just as well. I'd prefer to discuss what the West is, about what may be specifically Western, and about what is universal, rather than Western. Or in other words, I'd keep explaining my view to those who are prepared to listen, and I'd keep listening to anyone who argues in good faith himself.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why you bother to deny the existence of the notion, or attribute the notion of "the West" as some kind of Chinese creation, but your theory is ridiculous.

The notion is obviously created by the "West" itself, and prevailed by the "West" as a symbol of cultural identity and colonial superiority (hence, it is not applied to Latin America, which used to be colonies of the West).

If it is "irrating" to you now that the term is being used against the "West" in China, to remind people of the shame filled past of the "West", then deal with it.

It's even more ridiculous that you managed to bring the GOP into your argument.

GOP's class warfare argument is based upon paranoia. Chinese suspicion of the "West" is based upon HISTORICAL fact!

The CCP's rally cry against the "West" is effective, because the "West" does not bother to try to undo its past, and try to deny its past, or pretend it didn't exist, or that people should just forget about it.

(Sort of like what you are doing now).

Well, Sorry, Chinese people don't forget history that easily.

Irritating to you? Again, deal with it. The more you try to say "oh the West does not exist", People know you are just fooling yourself.

"Never mind the man behind the curtain", you say? LOL!

Porfiriy said...

I mean, look at the guy, he starts of with a resounding intellectual enfilade - a Wikipedia article. One that doesn't mean Wikipedia's own quality standards (see the warning on the top) and draws heavily from Huntington whose theories have taken a heavy beating from serious scholars who have followed him. Your start is extremely problematic. First of all, I can link to Wikipedia articles on the luminiferous aether and the Loch Ness monster, what the hell does that prove? Secondly, if you bothered reading the links you posted (posting to Wikipedia articles without reading them is a common affliction of China apologists):

"Accordingly, the basic definition of what constitutes "the West" varies, expanding and contracting over time, in relation to various historical circumstances. Ideally, each nation as it exists today should determine if they are a part of this classification instead of this being judged by outside individuals. Each nation has distinct peoples, languages, and influences."

Right. Moron.

Also, fixed this for you:

GOP's class warfare argument is based upon paranoia. Chinese suspicion of the "West" is based upon paranoia.


"The CCP's rally cry against the "West" is effective, because the "West" does not bother to try to undo its past, and try to deny its past, or pretend it didn't exist, or that people should just forget about it."

No, actually, I received a full education on the history of colonialism in my education. In a Western country. So, actually, no undoing, no hiding, and no pretending that it doesn't exist. You'll be hard pressed, on the other hand, to see Chinese children educated about historical events that happened a matter of 3 or 4 decades ago. That's undoing, hiding, and pretending it doesn't exist.

Finally, it bears mentioning that I'm from a country that was a former colony of Western Europe. I'm not white - I'm one of those colonized colored types like you. Actually my country was far more brutalized than anything that ever happened in China (I learned this in school mind you. They didn't hide it from me). Yeah, but we don't complain about it and blame all our problems on the West ANYWHERE to the extent that you Chinese do. BOO HOO. Cry me a river.

The only reason Chinese people complain about it and blame the West way more than any other former colonies (wait, China was never ACTUALLY COLONIZED) is because it's a smokescreen for the CCP's failed policies.

Anonymous said...

Western can be useful. In fact to deny this is to hobble English.
This term Western is not the geographical term western. Like the words China, the Orient or the East, the words West or the Occident are cultural terms with pertinent but nonetheless non-essential historic/geographic references.
It can be usefully said that a central tenet on which the structure of meaning in Western languages, or culture, is founded is monotheism, which with the associated imperialist, racist and nationalist notions implies that both Islam and, intriguingly, a core element in Japan are solidly Western.
There is and has long been a chauvinistic attempt to impose the premises of Western meaning onto Chinese or the East and hiding the word that can reveal the source of this hinders understanding.
That meaning is inextricably bound to intention indicates that the terms West or East refer to states of flux and we need all the assets we have to navigate or float in this flux.
Finally, there is a great deal to admire on this blog but the sectarian, bully-boy element is not admirable. Fixing meaning and denying its flow turns disagreement into a spiteful and degrading battle for dominance.

Faithfully, Pig

justrecently said...

So Japan and the Middle East, plus the muslim regions of South-East Asia would be Western... Fascinating stuff.

But it's getting late.

Good night.