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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The Importance Of Empire - Biden, Inclusivity, And The Weakness Of American Culture

Culture does matter, insisted  Lawrence Harrison one of the first outspoken advocates for considering culture as an important factor in economic development and geopolitical strength.  Those countries which have a strong, well-defined, universally respected ethnical core – like China - will prevail; while those which do not will flounder in search of a national identity, an ethos, a raison d’etre; and in so doing will lose traction to those who have always  had one. 

The "Confucian" countries (more accurately the countries strongly influenced by Chinese culture, which also embraces, in addition to Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and ancestor worship) all share substantially in the universal culture of progress: education, achievement, work ethic, merit, and frugality are all highly valued in the East Asian societies. 

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The United States, declared Harrison, is among those who flounder.  It has wandered far from the Enlightenment principles of the Founding Fathers enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  It has long ceased to be the nation that Jefferson and Hamilton envisaged – one that embraced the enduring philosophical premises of England and incorporated them as part of the ethos of the new, optimistic, and adventurous republic.  On the contrary it has become a legalistic, procedural country obsessed with rights and liberties without the ethical and moral core to give them context.

A Chinese exchange student studied in the United States for a year in the mid-90s just as China was beginning to implement its most dramatic economic reforms.  At this time, before the economic revolution had taken hold, China was still a developing country as it had been for centuries.  As the West accelerated from the 19th to the 20th century and became an industrialized power, China lagged far behind.  “We have culture”, said the student. “Thousands of years, many powerful dynasties from Xia Dynasty 4000 years ago.  Evolved religion, Confucius, art, philosophy, culture.  Why are we so backward?”

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The young man only had to wait a few years to see how this history and culture would provide the foundation for rapid economic development; for there was no doubt that China’s cultural, historic core would be the foundation on which practical, secular progress would be built.

A culture built around Confucian principles of respect for elders and tradition, wisdom, loyalty, discipline, and trustworthiness coalesced easily around newly-enunciated programs of national reform.  A culture which had millennia of ‘authoritarian’ Mandarin rule would not find the centralized programs of the Politburo intolerable, especially since the economic changes implemented promoted economic development.

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Russia’s rapid return to geopolitical power and influence was similarly motivated by cultural nationalism – a desire, if only implied, to return to the reign of the Tsars and the power and glory of the Russian Empire.  

History was not simply a chronicle of past events, but a recording of sacred events.  Russia was never just a country defined by geographical borders and, like many in Europe, ruled by monarchy.  It was different, unique.  Its Empire was more lustrous than even that of Louis XIV.  Its art, music, literature, and philosophy were of a higher, more sophisticated order.  It was an Arctic kingdom, strong, resilient, and dominant because of the harshness and unforgiving nature of its land.  St. Petersburg was an imperial city more elegant, refined, and beautiful than Versailles.

Harrison has argued that not only does culture matter, but that it is organic, substantial, and innate.  Even those with only a vague recollection of the facts of Russian or Chinese history have over the centuries come to incorporate its ethos.  It cannot be forgotten.  

Two hundred-and-fifty years of American history is nothing compared to the thousands of years of China, Russia, and India; or the Turkish legacy of Genghis Khan and the Ottomans; or the lesser-known but equally dominant imperial history of Korea and Vietnam.  The reigns of these countries lasted for centuries, whereas the original cultural ethos of Jefferson was soon lost on the frontier and on Wall Street.  Principle soon gave way to procedure. Individualism, free enterprise, and entrepreneurialism – concepts without purpose except their own continuance – became the culture. 

Dodsworth, a novel by Sinclair Lewis tells the story of a good, principled, Middle American businessman and his socially ambitious, cultural ignorant wife and the tragedy that follows.  Lewis, critical of Fran Dodsworth’s petty pretentions, fanciful dalliances, and blindness to anything of substance or principle, sets much of the novel in Europe among the wealthy, aristocratic leisure class. He is critical only of the parvenu Fran and not the European culture to which she aspires.  

There is worth in the old aristocratic, Old World traditions, he writes – a sense of permanence or longevity – and without the aristocracy the cultural history of France, Italy, and England would be lost and forgotten. It matters little to the Count von Obersdorf, one of the aspiring suitors of Fran Dodsworth and her millions, that he does ‘nothing’, that he builds nothing, that he creates nothing.  His job has been inherited and is sacrosanct.  No matter how many elegant affairs he attends, or trips to the Dolomites or the Riviera he takes; no matter how much of his diminishing wealth he spends, he cannot be criticized.  He not only lives in Europe, he is Europe, the cultural brother of Charles de Gaulle who said, ‘L’Etat, c’est moi’ -  I am the embodiment of the new, democratic, free France.  I am France!

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No wonder Fran Dodsworth is befuddled by Kurt Obersdorf’s apologia for European aristocratic values. She sees only titles, chateaux, worldliness, and sophistication, and he sees heritage, cultural responsibility, and historical nationalism. He says

The European, the aristocrat, feels that he is responsible to past generations to carry on the culture they have formed. He feels that graciousness, agreeable manners, loyalty to his own people, are more important than wealth; and he feels that to carry on his tradition, he must have knowledge – much knowledge…

That tradition helps keep us together, understanding each other, no matter how foolish we are and suicide with the Great Wars. However we may oppose it, we are all at heart pan-Europeans. We feel that the real continental Europe is the last refuge of individuality, leisure, privacy, quiet happiness. We think that good talk between intelligent friends in a cafĂ© in Paris or Vienna or Warsaw is more pleasant and important than having septic tanks or electric dish-washing machines. ..But Europe, she believes that a Voltaire, a Beethoven, a Wagner, a Keats, a Leeuwenhoek, a Flaubert, give drama and meaning to life, and that they are worth preserving — they and the people who understand and admire them! Europe, the last refuge, in this Ford-ized world, of personal dignity.

While this all might be somewhat of an exaggeration, it is not far from the truth. European aristocrats do indeed feel an obligation to continue the storied tradition of their ancestors – to preserve, defend, and extend the greatness of European literature, art, and science; and to continue a tradition of elegance, manners, good taste, and sophistication.

Immigration and open borders have begun to change all that.  Those French who, like their Chinese and Russian counterparts who live their country’s imperial history, are becoming fewer and fewer.  France is no longer la fille ainee de l’Eglise – the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church, the nation that defended Europe from the Saracen, Muslim invaders, the intellectual and cultural leader of Europe – but a polyglot nation struggling to find its new identity.  The search will be fruitless, for as can easily be seen in the United States, heterogeneity is the quickest route to a cultural swamp.

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There is of course hope.  Donald Trump did his best to restore a sense of national pride and patriotism – superficial in and of itself, but the first step to an essential national unity. However if  ‘freedom, liberty, and opportunity’ are the only hallmarks of a geopolitically restored nation, the road to restoration will be a long one.  These principles have become nostrums and used in the political divide.  For the Left they mean increased valuation of the oppressed, the underprivileged, the marginalized, and the powerless.  For the Right they mean a return to an ungoverned laissez-faire society.

Jefferson explained that ‘the pursuit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ was not an end in itself but a means to a societal end.  American society could only survive if individualism and enterprise were means to create a better society.

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Joe Biden is making matters hopelessly worse.  His focus on ‘inclusivity’, ‘diversity’, and the reconfiguring of American society into a chaotic, self-centered, self-righteous one based on personal identity is wrongheaded.  It not only increases a divisiveness which weakens the country, but guarantees the fragmentation of American society and culture.  Without an ethos, a cultural identity, a national purpose, then the country might well simply be a holding ground; a place to get a bed and a good meal.

Biden’s ignorance about the nature and salience of empire and imperialism is even more telling.  He dismisses the designs and intents of Putin, Xi, Erdogan, and the Ayatollahs simply as ‘anti-democratic’ political myopia.  Eventually they will see the light and come around to America’s way of thinking. 

Empire is dead only to Biden and his progressive supporters who insist on American exceptionalism despite all indications to the contrary.  Putin and his international colleagues see America’s self righteousness as a weakness.  Inclusivity, diversity, and identity politics can only further corrode American society to their advantage.

Biden is a lost president.  He has neither the intellectual acuity, the philosophical vision, the moral courage, or the political will to reformulate the challenge – to respect America’s growing cultural heterogeneity but not to step back from the country’s foundational moral values and historically correct principles of behavior and governance.

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