Certain markets may be global, but culture is not. It used to be said that we all live in one vast global village - I think they meant global shopping mall. But the idea that we are all cosmopolitan, that we have similar values and attitudes around the world, is a complete chimera.
As many scholars have shown - and recent events in Egypt, Libya and Syria reiterate - humans do not 'think globally'. Local, national and regional culture, religion and politics are not ready to be swept into a waste bin labeled 'History'. Sociologists and psychologists, who have studied the way different nations think, always find the same pattern - a common Western template (by Western I mean Europe and North America, plus Australasia), and a handful of other less homogeneous regional patterns of thought. The latter are usually classified, with varying degrees of credibility and manipulation, into categories such as Chinese, Japanese, Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, African, Orthodox-Russian, and Latin American. The thesis of a clash of civilizations propounded by Samuel Huntington was ingenious but forced, exaggerating the degree of similarity within each so-called civilization and the necessity for the civilizations to clash. As historian Niall Ferguson has said, the Middle East exhibits more a 'civilization of clashes' than a 'clash of civilizations'.
So if those of us in the West can't really claim to be citizens of the world - because there is no world civilization - how should we view our identity? I think we need a 'big' identity and a 'small' one. The latter could be local or regional or national. But the big one? I vote for Western identity. It has five compelling advantages.
First, Western identity is grounded in a common history and geography, and a set of national identities that have many crossovers and similarities.
Second, it goes with the flow of historical, economic and political events in the last 150 years - the unification of Europe as a trading entity, with increasingly fungible residence rights; the similarities and overlaps of how business is conducted; the relative eclipse of corruption; the long-term decline in violence and crime within the West (notwithstanding popular misconceptions to the contrary); the growth in the depth of democratic institutions and attitudes; increasingly equal treatment of women and minorities; the relatively frictionless coexistence of religions with the secular state; and the intertwining of Western political, economic and military organizations and alliances. For sure, there are deeply-felt differences on all these issues within the West, but there is less conflict on them than there used to be; and there is vastly more consensus and common ground than there is within other civilizations, or between the West and the Rest.
Third, Western identity reflects the reality that there is a common mentality shared by all Westerners and not shared by non-Westerners.
Fourth, Western identity is broad and tolerant enough to allow for the celebration of ethnic, local and national differences, and of various sub-national and transnational European and American identities, while also being robust enough to mean something. Western identity is 'ethnically ecumenical' - it does not detract from Hispanic, black, Jewish, Irish, Anglo-Saxon, or any other North American or European identity; and it certainly does not pit one group against another, or Americans against Europeans. It allows all these groups and many others to feel deeply about their diverse identities without having to deny the need for broader community associations.
Finally, Western identity has substantial ethical and social content, asserting the reality of a common community, a sense of being rooted geographically, with a rich cultural heritage centred on ideals of human worth, responsibility, and potential. Western identity allows everyone, of whatever political, religious or lifestyle affiliation, to feel part of an inclusive community that embraces diversity and individuality, yet which is bigger than any individual and therefore helps to give meaning to his or her life.
Identity matters. In the last century, nationalism inflicted untold misery in Europe, leading to terrible wars and barbaric regimes. In contrast to nationalism, red in tooth and claw, Western civilization rests on the similar 'ideas' of Europe and America as communities of free, compassionate and responsible individuals. If those values are to go forward, and a positive sense of peace-loving communities is to be maintained, those of us who are citizens of the West need to find a space in our hearts and minds for allegiance to the West, to the combination and alliance of America and Europe and other ex-European settlements.
What are the alternatives? Either a form of identity that divides the West, or no common collective identity at all. Both would be very bad news.
In our book Suicide of the West, Chris Smith - Lord Smith of Finsbury, the distinguished UK Culture Minister in Tony Blair's government - and I explored six different reasons why the West is so powerful and so different from other civilizations. In two weeks' time I will look at the first reason - Christianity - and draw some surprising conclusions. Thereafter, every two weeks, I will go through each of the other five reasons - optimism, science, economic growth, liberalism, and individualism.
Next week's blog will be on a completely different subject. From now on, my blogs will be posted on Tuesdays every week. Have a good week!
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