Racism versus Culturism
After I published “Obsevations on Arabs” on the Atlasphere and on my blog, I got a lot of interesting feedback. Many people with experience in the Gulf chimed in with their own observations, mostly in at least qualified agreement. One person objected and pointed out that he had far more experience than I did and had learned Arabic. (I did in fact try to learn Arabic, but after a year in the Kingdom I had learned less Arabic than I had Polish after a month in Poland, for reasons I’ll go into later.) This is a fair objection, since I often stress the importance of experience. For now I’ll just point out that these observations were not only mine, but also distilled from the experience of a great many people working in the Gulf, many of them Sudanese and non-Saudi Arabs, and confirmed by many respondents with a lot of combined experience in the oil states.
I also got called a racist, but I knew that was going to happen.
Gee, how did I know that?
Because anybody who comments on the relative merits of different cultures versus Western Civilization gets called a racist. And any comment even vaguely alluding to differences in human populations gets called a racist. (“People of sub-Saharan African descent on average have darker complexions than people of Northern European descent.” “You’re a RACIST!”)
So, though I plainly stated that I was talking about differences in worldview inculcated by cultural beliefs, education and upbringing (and who said Arabs were a “race” anyway?), it appears I’m a “racist”? Although I don’t recall the commenter asked what my ancestry was.
(Anglo-Celt, with known American Indian and rumored African elements. That is to say, pretty typical for families who have been in America since colonial times. At an academic conference in Europe once, this subject came up in conversation with a European participant. When I ran this down for him, he then happily started referring to me as “multi-racial”. I told him, no, I’m a white American with a very slight but statistically common admixture of American Indian and African. He then accused me of “self-hatred”. You just can’t win with these guys. And by the way, if it makes you happy, though not Jewish myself, I have Jewish relatives and my children are half-Slav.)
When Europeans started venturing to the Americas and Africa, they came in contact with a great many peoples whose cultures had different levels of technological development. Two, or perhaps three explanations were advanced for this. The racialist, culturalist and climate explanations. The racialists held that foreign peoples were not as advanced because they didn’t have it in them to advance. The culturalists held that cultural values, beliefs, worldview etc, (usually subsumed under the heading of religion) had prevented, delayed or hampered the development of technological civilization. The climate explanation posited an enervating effect of the climate of the tropics.
This of course, is a very simplistic way of putting it. But simplistic explanations appealed to ethnocentric Europeans who had never been outside of Europe (and even many who had) and wanted an explanation that confirmed the superiority of their own tribe, nation, religion and climate.
There were cracks in the racialist view from the beginning. In Mesoamerica and highland Peru, civilizations were found that were the equal of the classical Greeks who were considered the ancestors of our own civilization (though most of us are not Greek). Africa had city-building civilizations scattered along the west coast and the remains of ancient high civilizations along the Nile in Egypt and Meroe. In Asia Europeans encountered high civilizations, which seemed more advanced than Europe in some ways - but not others.
The climate explanation held on for a while, with philosophers like de Gobineau claiming that even European colonists degenerated when they took up residence in the tropics or North America, but the spectacular success of the new American nation made that a bit hard to hold onto.
A more sophisticated modern variation of this might be called the “geography is destiny” model, which actually has a lot of merit. Scholars such as Jared Diamond and Thomas Sowell have done a tremendous job of describing the constraints that environment puts on peoples.
Africa has no rivers on which unobstructed navigation is possible year-round for more than very limited distances, and no natural deep-water harbors on most of its coastline. Civilization historically spreads along rivers and by sea. Huge areas are infested with mosquito-bourn diseases, which makes animal husbandry impractical. No domestic animals means that peoples lack a vital natural resource for settled agriculture – manure.
Both Africa and the American continents are oriented north-south, the Eurasian landmass runs east-west. This means that the spread of new food crops will tend to remain restricted to the narrow latitude band they are developed in. Even though fully half of the world’s food crops are of American Indian origin, they had little opportunity to spread until Europeans adopted and dispersed them. (Potatos were developed in the Peruvian high desert. They also grow very well in the similar environments of Idaho and Tibet but historically never made the trip for reasons a glance at a map will reveal.) And the Americas happen to be poor in animal species that can be domesticated, etc.
Other scholars, such as Victor Davis Hanson stress the choices made by different cultures and civilizations that affect their future development. A culture that hangs on to slavery is unlikely to shine in the development and production of labor saving technology. Why invent machines to make life easy when you have plenty of slaves to do the work? A religion that clings to the notion that charging interest on loans is a major sin is going to have a lot of trouble developing a banking system, with all the accounting and record keeping skill that goes with it. One that teaches that everything is in the hands of capricious gods or inexorable fate is not likely to discover the scientific method. An overly complicated writing system means that scholarship and the power that goes with it is likely to remain the monopoly of a small class, etc.
Of course, as will all great truths, the answer to the question of which is most important is likely to be, “yes”. Both factors appear to interact in various and complex ways. Both Europe and China founded technological civilizations – and China had a big head start. But China early established a unitary state, which was capable of regulating and often suppressing new technology that threatened the social order. Europe remained politically divided and diverse. Read the biographies of the important scholars and scientists in European history and it’s interesting to note how many of them changed countries frequently, either seeking patronage or escaping persecution. The political unity of China and the diversity of Europe may be a function of their respective geographies.
These factors in combination lead to different civilizations achieving different levels of technology, science – and law. These in turn, lead to different standards of living and quality of life. When technology made mass immigration around the world possible, huge numbers of people began to express their opinion of what the good life was by voting with their feet.
In doing so, they destroyed the racialist explanation forever, though of course, some continue to cling to it because their pitiful excuse for self-esteem is bound up in it.
Cultures which chose to adopt those features of Western Civilization necessary for scientific and technological development have advanced, often with startling success (see Japan). Those which have not, tend to remain far less competitive in the world economy. Immigrants to Europe and the Americas who most successfully adopt those cultural traits of the host country prosper, often in spite of local racism. Those who do not, tend to remain in enclaves with standards of income lower than the national norm, regardless of whether they are of the same race as their new country or not. (Look at the relative success of Jamaicans versus Irish Catholics, for example.)
Now here’s the point I’m getting to; the “multiculturalists” deny that any race or any culture is superior in any way to any other. They also refuse to address the question of whether different cultures could have different strengths and weaknesses, better (or more adaptive) in some ways, worse in others.
I most emphatically agree with them about race - but if this is true then only the culturalist explanation is left. They cannot both be false.