The Guardian recently published a wicked satire of moral relativism, a Swiftian send-up entitled “End human rights imperialism now” with the classic sub-heading “Groups such as Human Rights Watch have lost their way by imposing western, ‘universal’ standards on developing countries.” Brilliant! Hahahahaha! I didn’t know the Guardian had branched out into humor.

But about five minutes after my laughter subsided, a horrible suspicion dawned on me: Could it be that the author was serious?

A quick re-read confirmed my fears. This was no joke. This was the modern left finally taking its last inevitable step into the abyss of moral oblivion.

A few quick quotes from this astonishing manifesto will introduce you to a disturbing new way of looking at the world:

Founded by idealists who wanted to make the world a better place, [the human rights movement] has in recent years become the vanguard of a new form of imperialism.

Want to depose the government of a poor country with resources? Want to bash Muslims? Want to build support for American military interventions around the world? Want to undermine governments that are raising their people up from poverty because they don’t conform to the tastes of upper west side intellectuals? Use human rights as your excuse!

Human Rights Watch is hardly the only offender. There are a host of others, ranging from Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders to the Carr Centre for Human Rights at Harvard and the pitifully misled “anti-genocide” movement. All promote an absolutist view of human rights permeated by modern western ideas that westerners mistakenly call “universal”.

Just as Human Rights Watch led the human rights community as it arose, it is now the poster child for a movement that has become a spear-carrier for the “exceptionalist” belief that the west has a providential right to intervene wherever in the world it wishes.

Those who have traditionally run Human Rights Watch and other western-based groups that pursue comparable goals come from societies where crucial group rights – the right not to be murdered on the street, the right not to be raped by soldiers, the right to go to school, the right to clean water, the right not to starve – have long since been guaranteed. In their societies, it makes sense to defend secondary rights, like the right to form a radical newspaper or an extremist political party. But in many countries, there is a stark choice between one set of rights and the other. Human rights groups, bathed in the light of self-admiration and cultural superiority, too often make the wrong choice.

Human rights need to be considered in a political context. The question should not be whether a particular leader or regime violates western-conceived standards of human rights. Instead, it should be whether a leader or regime, in totality, is making life better or worse for ordinary people.

It’s not that the the essay’s author, former New York Times Bureau Chief and current anti-imperialist professor-activist Stephen Kinzer, is wrong about his facts: it’s quite true that life under a totalitarian police state is often safer and more secure than living in lawless anarchy. That’s why the war-torn masses throughout history sometimes clamor for peace even at the cost of their own freedom. Yet forgotten in Kinzer’s approval of oppressive societies is that wannabe dictators always use this excuse to justify their crushing of human rights: We need to remove your freedom in order to guarantee your safety. Never mind that the new regime was usually one of combatants endangering the citizenry in the first place.

No, the issue is that Kinzer seems to have just now woken up to a phenomenon that many of us have known about for quite some time — that the human rights movement “has in recent years become the vanguard of a new form of imperialism.”

The only error in that statement is the word “recent.” The notion of “universal human rights” was formulated in the West and is the basis of Western civilization; and the the notion of bringing these “Western values” to oppressed and backward peoples has been the goal not just of the modern human rights movement but of missionaries, do-gooders and yes, even the American military for quite some time.

Kinzer has freshly arrived at the blinding and quite correct realization that the “human rights movement” and “Western imperialism” are one and the same. And having become aware of this, you’d think that as a human rights activist, he’d have a life-altering epiphany: Perhaps I’ve been wrong about what I call “imperialism” this whole time. Maybe it is a force for good after all.

But no. Standing on the brink of a psychological breakthrough, Kinzer turned the other way and instead had a breakdown. Pinioned by the idée fixe that America and imperialism and Western values are always and irrevocably wrong, when faced with the fact that human rights are a subset of Western values, Kinzer felt he had no choice but to discard his belief in human rights. Which must have been quite difficult for someone who formerly regarded himself as a human rights activist, but hey, ya gotta do what ya gotta do.

Moral relativism vs. cultural imperialism

What we see in this essay is moral relativism finally taken to its logical conclusion. No longer will the Left be able to claim credit for the “good” aspects of two fundamentally oppositional viewpoints. Either you are for respecting native cultures and native value systems, or you are for bringing “human rights” (i.e. “Western values”) to Third World peoples. But you can’t do both simultaneously. Yet that is exactly what the Left has been doing for decades — claiming credit as the world’s humanitarians and advocates for universal human rights, while at the same time claiming credit as the defenders of native cultures and opponents of imperialism.

But as Stephen Kinzer just found out: Native cultures often don’t share our notion of “universal human rights,” and regard the involuntary imposition of Western values as the most noxious form of “cultural imperialism.”

And it gets much worse for the Left’s poor battered psyche with the additional realization that the men in these Third World societies are only “backward” as regards to their philosophical development, but not backward at all in their machismo, capacity for violence, and willingness to defend their worldview with force if necessary. So that often, the only way to “bring” human rights to oppressed populations is to “impose” these rights by force, and to defeat (which usually means kill) the intransigent defenders of the native way of life.

The prototypical exemplars of this attitude are of course the Taliban, and Afghanistan is the test-case where the dilemma is played out.

Case study: Afghanistan

The Taliban practice a uniquely noxious mix of ancient Pashtun culture (in which revenge is revered as a basic social precept) and fundamentalist Sunni Islam (with its well-documented array of oppressive and triumphalist doctrines). The Taliban are not nice people — “nice” itself being a Western concept, I concede. They deeply believe in, and are willing to kill and die for, the imposition of an all-encompassing theocratic police state which denies even basic human rights to just about everyone under their rule. When they controlled Afghanistan, they tried to commit genocide against ethnic minorities, they denied women all rights whatsoever, they prohibited all religions and sects except their own, they harbored and supported known terrorist groups, attempted to commit “culturecide” by destroying all traces of other belief systems, and suppressed anything even vaguely resembling freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. And to this day wherever they get a toe-hold in Afghanistan or Pakistan, they continue their ways unabated. The Taliban and the traditional culture they represent are about as antithetical to human rights as you can get.

So, if you were a human rights campaigner, and cared about human rights in Afghanistan, what would you do? Trying to “engage” with the ruling Taliban was utterly futile, as many naive do-gooders discovered. “Enlightening” them to our value system only further infuriates them. So the only way to bring the gift of “human rights” (i.e. Western values) to Afghanistan is to remove the Taliban by force. But as the Soviets, the Northern Alliance, and now the U.S. and its allies have discovered, the Taliban fight tooth and nail against the imposition of Western values. They never surrender, never give up, and employ the most diabolical tactics to achieve bloody victory at any cost. Thus, the only recipe to “defeat” the Taliban’s philosophy is to invade with massive force, physically drive them out, kill as many as possible in the process, and then stay in place for as long as necessary to repel an endless barrage of counterattacks and terroristic strikes.

There’s a word for that process. It’s called war. And another word, too, in the leftist lexicon. It’s called imperialism.

Both war and imperialism are absolute anathema to the Left, at least in theory. War and imperialism are the very things they claim to oppose. And yet at the same time, they also claim to support above all things “human rights” for everyone on earth.

And so we come to the dilemma recently discovered by Stephen Kinzer: What if the only way to bring human rights to an oppressed population is to wage imperialistic war against their oppressors?

It’s very very difficult for modern progressives to wrap their minds around this concept. They have been inculcated since birth in the old peacenik canard that war is always wrong, that it’s inherently evil, that it can never be used for “good” because the process of salvation is invariably worse than the status quo of oppression, as encapsulated by the famous (but probably fabricated) quote, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

(This is why I respect and admire Christopher Hitchens, despite the fact that I disagree with him on many issues. Shortly after 9/11, Hitchens confronted the same moral dilemma that Kinzer is facing now, but unlike Kinzer, Hitchens did have a transformational moral breakthrough in which a one-time far-left Marxist atheist came to understand that the armies of the West were not agents of evil but rather the last remaining champions of liberal values and human rights.)

Liberal missionaries

Cultural imperialism doesn’t always happen in a war zone. It can also happen incrementally, insidiously, as a side-effect of noble intentions.

Yet it had always struck me that the international do-gooderism of contemporary “progressive” groups is essentially indistinguishable from the international do-gooderism of Christian missionaries from centuries past. Both try to “save” third-worlders from their self-imposed poverty and ignorance. But somehow, magically, the modern progressives have so thoroughly rebranded their efforts that they feel no connection to nor feel themselves to be in the same tradition of those horrible old 19th-century Christians with their evil attempts to replace native cultures with Western values.

Several years ago my cousin joined a left-leaning nonprofit (technically an “NGO,” listed on this page) and was sent on an all-expenses-paid volunteer project to a remote area of Papua New Guinea, where she and her fellow volunteers were to build a health clinic for the natives. She was practically delirious with progressive self-righteousness about the whole adventure, and sent home occasional letters detailing her team’s progress. I, despite still being a liberal myself at the time (this being some years prior to 9/11), was overwhelmed with a nagging sense of doubt. Hadn’t my cousin been an anthropology major in college? Wasn’t this project “interfering” with the native culture? I confessed some of my reservations in return letters, to which she took great offense. We’re helping these people, she explained. They’ve got all sorts of preventable diseases. I parried again: Perhaps their delicate culture is dependent on the absence of old people and the disabled? By keeping the sick and elderly alive with your clinic, might you not cause all sorts of unforeseen social upheavals, since their subsistence economy can only support the few and the able? She replied: Health care is a basic human right. Besides, this tribe has never even heard of contraception. We have classes in women’s health. Me: Will the introduction of contraception lead to a lower birth rate and their eventual extinction? Back and forth our argument raged in letters sent over the months.

Around this time I let myself be dragged to a friend-of-a-friend’s wedding in of all places a church (not the kind of establishment I normally visit), and afterward, milling around in the lobby, I picked up a copy of the church newsletter and saw to my amazement an article about a “mission” funded by the church in which Christian teens were sent to (brace yourself) Papua New Guinea where they were to build (you guessed it) a health clinic. (And, ahem, distribute Bible tracts and the Good News about Jesus, naturally, since the souls of the Papuans needed saving.)

I clipped out the article and sent it to my cousin. How, I asked, are you any different than these evangelical Christians, whom you so despise? Your group and the Christians are on opposite sides of the same island doing the exact same thing: You both show up, deem the native culture deficient in some way, build a health clinic in order to “help” them but which will only serve to disrupt native life, and ultimately use the clinic as a beachhead to impose your civilized notions on the heathen? At least the Christians are honest about their intent to Westernize the natives; you, however, hide behind the mask of political correctness and pretend that your altruism is blameless and pure, all the while doling out condoms and lessons undermining tribal patriarchy.

Her response? She packed her bags that night and returned home. From that day to this she has not spoken to me. I only later learned through my uncle that my cousin blames me for spoiling her youthful dreams, introducing her to the harsh world of cynicism and negativity. She quit the NGO and dropped out of political activism altogether.

What’s the moral to this story? I myself at that time was not so different from the way Kinzer is now, each of us realizing that intrusions on non-Western cultures are all equally disruptive, regardless of whether that disruptiveness is intentional or not. A military invasion, a do-gooder health clinic, a Christian mission, a lecture about women’s rights, the introduction of new technologies — in the end, they all have the same effect, which is to undermine the pristine nature of the native culture.

Back then, however, I was more inclined to accept the “Noble Savage” worldview, that primitive cultures were inherently superior to the horrors of Western civilization, and thus we should protect and admire non-Western societies, like exhibits in a museum.

Since that time, however, my views have evolved, in a way that Kinzer’s apparently haven’t. I see much more clearly now that primitive societies, with their “non-Western” values, are often oppressive and unnecessarily brutal for the people living in them. Not always, but often. Furthermore, as the globe’s population grows, many formerly “quaint” ethnic cultures are growing in dimension and scope, and they no longer need protecting — they need suppression.

Yes, part of me still would like to see Potemkin Villages, or perhaps “It’s a Small World” living dioramas, of each and every ethnic culture on Earth, so as to preserve our species’ amazing diversity. But I also know that there is cruelty in such a fantasy; because real human beings will be compelled to live in these ethnographic exhibits, and must thereby endure real hardships for our intellectual amusement and to alleviate our Western guilt.

I also know too much about history and anthropology to continue the bankrupt charade that all cultures are equal in value and equally worthy of respect and admiration. And this is where the Kinzers of the world and I have parted ways, I suppose. The accumulated Judeo-Christian/Greco-Roman/Renaissance-Enlightenment/you-name-it wisdom that Western culture has integrated over the millennia is without any question the best bet that the human race has going.

The Left Man’s Burden

We as a society have had this argument before. Rudyard Kipling put it in the bluntest possible terms with his 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden,” essentially saying that when Western powers seize control of third-world countries, it becomes our moral duty to raise up “Your new-caught, sullen peoples, / Half-devil and half-child,” even if by so doing we only earn their anger: “Take up the White Man’s burden- / And reap his old reward: / The blame of those ye better, / The hate of those ye guard.”

Nowadays, Kipling is dismissed as the worst kind of old-school racist: a condescending racist, one who looks down on “half-devil and half-child” non-Westerners with pity, not hatred. Embedded in our offer to help the third world is the presumptuous assumption of our superiority.

The contemporary Left feels free to criticize Kipling because they assume his spirit lives on in the hearts of neocons and warmongers today. He is conveniently categorized as a “bad guy” whose politics closely align with 21st-century Republicanism.

But I see it from a different angle: It is the modern human rights organizations, with their meddlesome insistence on helping downtrodden foreigners, that continue the “White man’s burden” tradition. It is the progressives who are the Kiplings of today. The only difference between Rudyard Kipling and modern bleeding-heart liberals is that Kipling was at least more honest about his feeling of superiority.

Kinzer has realized this as well. Imagine the sense of horror that welled up in him when he became conscious that the white-dominated human rights activist community was doing the exact same things that the imperialists of old imagined they were doing, with the exact same smugness and self-righteousness? Oh my my God: I’m no different than Kipling!

Can’t have that: no sir. And the only course of action, Kinzer concluded, is to leave those devil-children to their fate. Universal human rights be damned!

Response in the Guardian

Kinzer’s diatribe did not go unrebutted in the pages of the Guardian. Sohrab Ahmari counterpunched with a devastating essay called Beware those who sneer at ‘human rights imperialism’:

Imagine what Kinzer’s proposals would mean in practical terms. Can human rights activists be expected to ignore the plight of a woman being stoned in Iran for adultery or a journalist tortured in Mubarak’s jails? (“Terribly sorry, but we wouldn’t want to judge your oppressors by the meter of our culturally determined, imperialistic standards – tough!”)

And consider, too, the impact of this brand of relativism on the moral imagination of the left, which, at its very best, stood firm on the principle that people divided by geography, culture and language can empathise with and express solidarity with each other.

If the isolationist, provincial left manages to convince us that the blessing of liberty is to be allocated randomly – along geographic lines and according to the accident of birth – will the heart still beat on the left?

“Will the heart still beat on the left?” Ahmari asks. Not with Kinzer leading the charge. I no longer detect a pulse.

Three Cups of Whoop-Ass

Kinzer’s moral collapse is the culmination of an untenable paradox that has been bedeviling the modern left for quite some time. This paradox is epitomized by the career of progressive humanitarian Craig Mortensen, author of the bestselling book Three Cups of Tea, in which he details his efforts to build girls’ schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mortensen’s project has received lavish praise from some mainstream liberals, who after all are in favor of education and women’s rights. Mortensen’s “soft” approach to modernizing the backward areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan is seen as the morally superior nonviolent alternative to the harsh military tactics of the U.S. government and its allies:

“Schools are a much more effective bang for the buck than missiles or chasing some Taliban around the country,” says Mr. Mortensen, who is an Army veteran.

Each Tomahawk missile that the United States fires in Afghanistan costs at least $500,000. That’s enough for local aid groups to build more than 20 schools, and in the long run those schools probably do more to destroy the Taliban.

I applaud Mr. Mortensen’s efforts in that they undermine the oppressive nature of fundamentalist Islam — but he’s fooling himself if he thinks his school-building project could survive on its own without the menace of Western military might looming in the distance. If you walked alone into Taliban country and simply announced to the tribal chieftains, “I want to educate your women so they can break free from your cruel dominance and become more sexually liberated!”, you probably wouldn’t meet with much success, much less live to tell the tale. But if you instead announced, “Look, if you let me build a girls’ school here, the U.S. military will regard you as friendly allies and spare this area; but if you kick me out and embrace the Taliban, expect a rain of bombs and missiles,” then you’d likely encounter more cooperation.

Now, of course, the conversation is never that overt, but the carrot-vs.-stick dilemma is present even if not vocalized. It’s a “good cop/bad cop” routine played out on a grand scale; villagers get a taste of the “bad cop” Western military, and then in come “good cop” do-gooder progressives offering a more appealing alternative, saying, “You don’t want to deal with that bad cop again, do you?”

But the “good cop/bad cop” dynamic doesn’t work if you have only a “good cop.” Without the threat of a more dire outcome, the subject has little motivation to consent to the smiley-face cultural imperialism of the do-gooders.

Yet here’s the part that the progressives don’t like to admit: The good cop and the bad cop always have the same goal. The “routine” is just that — an act. In a police setting the goal is to get a confession using psychological trickery. On the world stage the goal is to bring human rights to oppressed peoples using humanitarian progressivism as the loving alternative to war. But the “good cop” is actually on the same team as the “bad cop,” despite appearances.

I can’t say for sure because I haven’t really followed his evolving attitudes, but it seems to me that Mortensen has himself had a second “A-ha!” moment and softened his opposition to military strength, realizing that the U.S. armed forces are on the same side as he is: his most recent book, Stones into Schools, details “his friendships with U.S. military personnel, including Admiral Mike Mullen, and the warm reception his work has found among the officer corps.” Even Nicholas Kristof, linked above, noted in 2008 that “The Pentagon, which has a much better appreciation for the limits of military power than the Bush administration as a whole, placed large orders for Three Cups of Tea and invited Mr. Mortensen to speak. ‘I am convinced that the long-term solution to terrorism in general, and Afghanistan specifically, is education,’ Lt. Col. Christopher Kolenda, who works on the Afghan front lines, said in an e-mail in which he raved about Mr. Mortensen’s work.”

So: Greg Mortensen, the U.S. military, and I, all agree: We should use our full civilizational “arsenal,” whether it be helping-hand do-gooderism, or Predator drones launching Hellfire missiles, or a combination of the two, to bring Western values to the backward areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But you know who disagrees with us? The Taliban and their fellow Islamists, who have issued fatwas calling for Mortensen’s death, blown up girls’ schools when they could get away with it, and militarily opposed the post-Taliban government.

And you know who else disagrees with us? Stephen Kinzer and his ilk, that’s who. Realizing that we can’t bring human rights to oppressive patriarchal societies without wreaking violence, whether actual or metaphorical, on traditional cultures, Kinzer now proposes that we abandon the attempt altogether.

So, on one side, you have human rights activists and the U.S. military; and on the opposing side you have the Taliban and the morally unhinged Stephen Kinzers of this world.

Which side do you choose?

43 Responses to “Human Rights Imperialism: leftist satire or moral collapse?”

  1. 1DanR. on Jan 21, 2011 at 2:58 pm:

    There will I’m sure be lengthy replies to this article, but mine will be brief.

    Remember Katanga.

  2. 2Wintery Knight on Jan 21, 2011 at 6:23 pm:

    There may even be a middle ground between building schools and Predators, both of which I endorse. We could also pursue an information war and couple it with assistance for resistance/dissent groups.

  3. 3Scott on Jan 21, 2011 at 8:09 pm:

    I do believe imperialism has existed since the beginning of man. Altruistic imperialism was manufactured by the western liberal thinking.

    American moral collapse has been spread throughout our major cities since the “civil rights” battles of the 1960s. Witness the destruction of Detroit Michigan; South Central Los Angeles; Caprini Green’s history and its surrounds in Chicago, and hundreds of other areas in our country’s major and minor cities. Moral decay, utter mayhem, infastructure collapse, gang warfare, and general chaos. What brought this about? Do-gooders trying to bring enlightenment to the permanent underclass without the benefit of a moral authority to force law and order. In fact, our leftist court system is raging against the rule of law and finding ways to bring a more rapid decline to our society! Ask almost any card-carrying ACLU trial lawyer…

    A liberal cannot imagine himself or herself as affecting one person or a small group of people in a positive way; they must live in a fantasy world where they precipitate major change for whole societies, and they do so where the native populations are imagined to be complicit with this (there is no room in the fantasy for an army). Notice how there is a lot of media attention heaped on the situation in Afghanistan and how they portray the effort as ineffective; almost no attention is paid to the destruction of our major cities, where open gang gun fights claim the lives of anyone in their path. One has an “imperialist” army, the other doesn’t. Ironically, there are at many times more murders in the streets of DC or Baltimore in one weekend than there are military deaths in Afghanistan over a similar period. Where is the real war? Afghanistan has the benefit of a properly armed military presence to ensure some order.

    The media just doesn’t care about the horrifying turn of events in our cities, as they (being liberal) imagine themselves as benevolent purveyors of enlightenment. Thus, they ignore horrifying stories like this Gosnell butcher from Philadelphia and instead concentrate on abstract concepts like Iraq or Afghanistan. These stores are easy, since Bush was wrong and stupid, etc…and they are so much smarter. The simple solution (for simple media types)? Pull out! It’s hopeless!

    Just once I would like to know a wealthy liberal who put his (or her) money where their mouth is…I’d love to see ole Katie Couric stop receiving a multi-million dollar payout and begin teaching inner city youth while living among them. What if Brad and Angie stopped adopting every child they can from the third world and tried to help American children in Milwaukee Wisconsin read and speak properly, get a proper meal, be safe, and learn some math? What if Michael Moore actually did something for someone else instead of making propaganda movies to enrich his gluttoness self? I hear Keith Olbermann might need something to do. Hey, Keith, help protect a child and his family and be a mentor to him in the Bronx!

    Sadly, the fantasy cannot include genuine altruism. Helping people is for someone else to do (usually the federal government, run by liberal Democrats). And the moral collapse continues…

  4. 4Lucius Septimius on Jan 22, 2011 at 7:34 am:

    Excellent analysis.

    I have a neighbor who is still involved in NGOs after a late-in-life stint in the PeaceCorps. Work on Haiti has shed her of nearly all of her idealism — I actually heard her express some sympathy for the hated Palin (this same person has insisted that all Republicans are racists by definition). Her comment recently was that the people they are trying to “help” are totally screwed up — it was one of those cases where the more you know, the less you forgive. She is, btw, the third good leftist I’ve known who came back from Haiti utterly jaded. Romanticized views of the world and its problems are difficult to sustain in the face of the cold hard realities of Hobbesian human nature.

    I would add that you probably did your cousin a great service, even if she doesn’t appreciate it.

  5. 5CattusMagnus on Jan 22, 2011 at 11:36 am:

    I thought the first known promoter of human rights was Ashoka. That certainly doesn’t seem western.

  6. 6Scott on Jan 23, 2011 at 12:05 pm:

    Here is a great example of the hijacking of a “good” cause in order to sieze control. Check it out:

    You know these enviros want to help (that is the intent, is it not?) but the unintended consequences are clear. Same with blind human rights imperialism. Same with social engineering in our country. But it has gotten to the point where nobody knows what they could do without government in their lives!

    I remember the big dust-up over “nation building”. For whatever reason, nation building under Clinton was bad, but under Bush it was good, but the left railed against nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq. The benefits of the military mission was much clearer in Iraq and Afghanistan than it was in Kosovo (from an American perspective). Preventing ethnic cleansing v stopping a madman from acquiring WMDs to use against the primary human rights imperialists (the Americans!) made the reasons for invasion much clearer.

    Which was the nobler cause? Which was more beneficial to man kind? Would non-intervention (in either case) yielded a better outcome? It points out the need for armed enforcement in conjunction with human rights promotion for success.

  7. 7Polliwog on Jan 23, 2011 at 4:35 pm:

    Yes, part of me still would like to see Potemkin Villages, or perhaps “It’s a Small World” living dioramas, of each and every ethnic culture on Earth, so as to preserve our species’ amazing diversity. But I also know that there is cruelty in such a fantasy; because real human beings will be compelled to live in these ethnographic exhibits, and must thereby endure real hardships for our intellectual amusement and to alleviate our Western guilt.

    An unusual place I found this thought a couple of years ago was in a book discussing traditional Indian embroidery. Much of the most traditional needlework is done by Muslim “purdah” girls who are rarely allowed out of their tiny, smoky, dark homes. The final passage of the book dealt with the question “is it right to condone what is essentially house arrest in order to maintain the quality and quantity of embroidery being offered. It was the first time I had seen an “arts” author question the human cost of “keeping things the same”.

  8. 8RKae on Jan 23, 2011 at 6:16 pm:

    A simple question: Is it even POSSIBLE for two cultures to meet and neither one of them change?

  9. 9Bakunin on Jan 24, 2011 at 12:34 pm:

    Being a student of International Development studies, I’ve had to deal the same issue.

    Still, I don’t think that it is as black and white as presented. While I’m an atheist, I’m not anti-religion. At a recent Mennonite Development conference, the slogan offered by the third world was “Solidarity, not charity”. That is, it is a mutual process of consultation with those on the ground as to there needs. Mennonite Central Committee does real good work. Mutual aid in development projects rather then One size fits all solutions.

    While I agree that violence is needed to back up human rights, I disagree that that violence needs to come from the U.S. Military. Such violence should come from popular revolution, the popular will of the people. Rather then supporting invasion, supporting groups like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (which opposed the Soviet-supported government, the following Mujahideen and Taliban Islamist governments, and even the present United States-supported Islamic Republican government). In Iran, supporting opposition groups like Tehran Bus Workers Union, WPI, etc while affirming that invasion is not the answer.

  10. 10hella on Jan 24, 2011 at 10:33 pm:

    I think this liberal oversensitivity to cultures and attraction to human rights are inevitably hypocritical.

    The best example I can think of is the pro Palestine, pro homosexual protesters in SF.

  11. 11Anon on Jan 24, 2011 at 10:38 pm:

    Bloody amazing.

  12. 12Ringo the Gringo on Jan 25, 2011 at 10:07 am:

    Another fine essay, zombie.

    A very good book on this subject is Pascal Bruckner’s polemic, “Tears of the White Man”…

  13. 13eots on Jan 25, 2011 at 9:57 pm:

    A great essay, Zombie.
    Reminds me of an Anthro seminar I took once. We were talking about human sacrifice once, and how anthropologists no longer feel it’s necessary to deny that such things occur. One of the students piped up and said that human sacrifice makes total sense from *their* perspective, and is, therefore, defensible. Professor to his credit disagreed.

  14. 14Rob De Witt on Jan 26, 2011 at 12:53 pm:

    As increasingly usual, Z, this is an excellent analysis of an unexamined yet undeniable fact.

    Just as a side-note, however, how many “non-Profits” have you encountered that weren’t Leftie fronts for something more insidious? In my experience it’s a comfortable Zero.

  15. 15Kowa B on Jan 29, 2011 at 12:21 pm:

    An interesting article, but I’ve got to disagree on a few points.

    First off, Kinzer does make a few good points. In Rwanda, the current regime is criticized by western human rights agencies for being undemocratic. But why should a nation with a huge amount of citizens who were implicated in an act of genocide 20 years ago allow the freedom to spout hate speech? I agree that moral relativism is a suspect idea, but if you allowed total free speech in Rwanda, you would end up giving a soapbox for those who advocate genocide. And soon enough, the same people as before would try to commit genocide again. Lets not forget as well that the regime in Rwanda is very popular, and is increasing the economic well being of its people at an amazing rate.

    In the same way, democracy in the israeli occupied territories was an awful idea; it should have been obvious that hamas was more liked than fatah among palestinians; why give hamas the legitimacy that an election gives them? Yes, democracy is preferable to rule by an arab strongman like abbas, but when the alternative is to give hamas control, i’d rather have the friendly dictator. It’s a notable truth that resistance groups in israel, iraq, afghanistan, etc use the human rights sensibilities of westerners as a tactical weapon to hasten the end of wars that they cannot win by force of arms. Thus, we have hamas fighting israel is such a way as to maximize civilian casualties on their side, and you have the rebels in darfur goading the janjaweed into massacres, so that naive westerners will come support them. Yes, Western human rights values are superior to the radical islamist values. But when we have people twisting our values so that we will emphasize with people we really shouldn’t, then perhaps it is time to make these values a secondary consideration.

    I agree that a huge amount of good has come out of imperialism, and that without it most of the world would be living in darkness and ignorance. Western values ARE superior to the tribal values of most of the world as well. But why should western soldiers die to bring the light of civilization to people like the taliban, who will fight to the death to keep it away? I would definitely prefer that everybody in the world lived in a western style, liberal democracy, but I would not want to see one American die for that cause.

  16. 16daniel noe on Feb 3, 2011 at 1:52 pm:

    Love the post, but do have to say I care more about whether a particular regime is moving in the “right direction” than insisting on absolute perfection. Not even the west is perfect.

    One thing that has always confused me about cultural relativists: Where are the boundaries? Obviously, Afghanistan is a different culture than New York, but what of the chinatown in New York? What of the only muslim family in a white neighborhood? Do the whites let them do what they want in their own home, even if including child abuse an honor killing? What if they do it in public? What if one member of the family doesn’t consider himself/herself to be a member of the family’s culture? What if I consider myself alone to be untouchable by western cultural imposition? I have never fit in well; I suppose I could simply declare myself to be of a new culture and so achieve immunity from all law. Can borders be drawn around mere individuals? It seems to me that cultural relativists care nothing of preserving individuals, but only of preserving groups – which are always defined in murky ways and overlap (countries, regions, states, ethnic group, religion, economic system, ideology). Thus, cultural relativism isn’t just wrong, it is not even wrong. It is as meaningless as a square circle; it is logically incoherent and all talk of it must cease completely.

  17. 17Raven on Feb 4, 2011 at 12:32 pm:

    “Furthermore, as the globe’s population grows, many formerly “quaint” ethnic cultures are growing in dimension and scope, and they no longer need protecting — they need suppression.”

    How very level headed of you, do you advocate the eradication of whole races then and who gets to choose who does the dying, you?

  18. 18t. yamamoto on Feb 5, 2011 at 6:20 am:

    RKae: A simple question: Is it even POSSIBLE for two cultures to meet and neither one of them change?

    Yes but rarely. One side may find the other has something they want or they see them as better at one thing so they find a way to take it or learn it for themselves. One side teaches the other how to work iron and the other teaches them medicine and both will change for the better. Or one side kills the other and takes what they want and still change. Although sometimes one side just kills the other side burns everything down and learns nothing. In the last case the change was only that one culture no longer exists. Just because all change is not good doesn’t mean whole cultures and peoples should be locked into oppression and poverty for centuries. Why can’t Japan have punk rock and England have Enka? Can America have Yoga and India have Representative Democracy? If one Culture finds a medicine that cures cancer should they keep it to themselves or let the world have it? It’s called Universal Human rights (or Human Rights) because it is for everyone not just the “West”. I support Human Rights for everyone in the world. The problem comes in how fast you can implement change without causing harm. Or at least doing more good than harm. North Korea wouldn’t be able to handle a sudden transition from oppression to the Freedoms people have in the “West” , but South Korea was able to handle their transition to Democracy from a dictatorship easily because the dictatorship had built the country up in a way that people were ready for it. Singapore did the same thing. The trick is to have personal and economic freedom and education first and political freedom second.

    One of the things people never like to admit and many people think it is some kind of sin to say is that some cultures really are better than others. If it wasn’t for one culture “imposing” it’s ideas on others – sometimes through violence – slavery would probably still be legal on 75% of the planet.

  19. 19RKae on Feb 5, 2011 at 9:52 pm:

    t. yamamoto:

    You sort of made my point there. If two cultures meet, they are going to have differences (if they didn’t, they’d be the same culture). Those differences will rub off on one another, even in the smallest of ways. Even if it’s not imposing their differences by force, there will always be a swap of each other’s music, art, language and such. (By the way, imposing differences by force is not always bad; England did India a few favors, etc.) In “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” a tribe is altered by an empty Coke bottle falling out of a plane. That’s basically it.

    I contend that there’s no way two cultures can meet and remain as they were.

    I like your comment about South Korea. Similarly, we in America could have freedom because we spent centuries getting a modicum of honesty and strong work ethic instilled in us. Honor and duty first – then freedom. If America continues down it’s path of laziness and entitlement it’s a goner. Previous generations used their American freedom to build things; to go to the moon, fer cryin’ out loud! The upcoming generation wants to use its American freedom to smoke weed and have an orgy. Nothing good is going to come of that. And it won’t last.

    You’re spot on with that last comment about slavery! The only way to get rid of that was through force.

  20. 20Bakunin on Feb 6, 2011 at 4:02 pm:


    You say having freedom to smoke weed and have orgies like its a bad thing!

    “The only way to get rid of that was through force.”

    Except the majority of western nations abolished slavery without force or violence, and the northern states abolished slavery without force before the civil war. Not to say that the civil war was a bad thing (should of happened earlier with Captn’ John Brown).

  21. 21t. yamamoto on Feb 11, 2011 at 2:37 am:

    Bakunin, while the majority of western nations did get rid of slavery without force it was through force that many other nations had too. The international slave trade over the oceans was primarily destroyed by the British Navy and to a lesser extend the US Navy (although later) through force while much of the over land slave trade was destroyed by a mix of countries imposing their will on their colonies (such as in India) or countries ending the practice under either the fear of force or wanting to look good to the “modern world” (such as in Saudi Arabia). No, force was not used in all situations however when the countries that have the more advanced economic and military power other countries will follow their lead. It’s the carrot and stick, if you end it on your own we won’t f$%# with you approach. I understand your point but I’m talking about a bigger picture. The question is if force wasn’t used when it was would the ideas have spread as fast? I think the answer is no. At that point we get into the debate on when force should be used and when it shouldn’t. Should one country be the “police force of the world”? I would say no since the world should get involved in stopping horrible things. The problem is does the world get involved? I would also say no. So it comes down to a handful of countries to stop it. The U.N. is a sham and a failure so it’s up to individual countries to do something or not do something. Believe me I’m not saying there are easy answers to any of this. Be bombed Kosovo yet for the most part did nothing in Rwanda? Was one good or bad? Should we have left both alone or really done something in both? They both had same back and forth history of sectarian violence. You say you prefer the violence to come from local groups and from the people. Yes so would I and I think the good (according to me) groups should get support but sometimes they need more support than just words, they need some big guys with guns to back them up and make sure to keep the bad groups in check (since all revolutions have more than one side fighting those currently in power). Revolution by “the people” does not always end well, such as in Iran or Russia. Yes there are groups with good intentions and noble ideals but they are not always the ones that gain power. Yes the Tsar wasn’t that great and the Shah was bad but the ones that capitalized on the revolution the most and got themselves into power were worse, much, much worse. So the question is if it is better to have a third party moderate or just let it happen? Once again there are no easy answers. We can either Never stick our figure in, do it when we want too or agree now is when we should, or do it all the time. Depending on the person they can justify each choice and some can justify all. I’ll stop now on that. You are right and you are wrong and I’m going to end up talking in circles if I haven’t already been doing that…

    RKae, I had to answer the question nothing says “push me” more than a large red button or a vending machine that sells beer and whiskey. I think Bakunin was joking about the weed and orgies. I think. To each his own. The problem isn’t weed and orgies, it’s as I am sure you were talking about that people are more worried about frivolous happiness and Soma holidays than dealing with the real world. Freedom isn’t about just the good things but the bad as well. You can do what you want (as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else or come at their expense) but you must take responsibility for your own actions. I know your point. We want the freedom but not the responsibility. Freedom without consequences isn’t freedom. It’s a joke and a lie. Someone will always have to bear the burden of that freedom and too many people in the US or the world as a whole want to force someone else to do it for them. True freedom cannot exist without responsibility. As you know society will collapse if we forget that and least some of us haven’t, some of us…

  22. 22Militant Atheist on Feb 14, 2011 at 1:55 pm:

    “One-time far-left Marxist atheist” Was the atheist part really relevant?

  23. 23Earl on Feb 18, 2011 at 4:05 pm:

    You damn neo-con.

  24. 24SentWest on Feb 19, 2011 at 10:29 am:

    Excellent article. I went through a similar process when I was in college some years ago, and fortunately came out free of my “noble savage” inclinations and proceeded to make a decision (or judgment, discrimination, what have you) that Western civilization had some great benefits in terms of human rights, and other cultures should at least have the opportunity to reap those benefits as well.

    If some or all native culture is lost in the process, so be it. I refuse to commit other humans to nasty, short, and brutal lives in the equivalent of a cultural terrarium so that Westerners can sit in comfort and observe their quaint customs in perpetuity. We DO NOT put humans in zoos.

  25. 25Sight Seer on Feb 20, 2011 at 10:29 am:

    Sorry to be off topic but have you done any picture documentarys lately? The collections on your website are a breath of fresh air to the often stale world of politically correct journalism.

  26. 26Axit on Feb 21, 2011 at 6:28 am:

    Brilliant article!

    Just a little typo:
    “…West and is the basis of Western civilization; and the the notion of bringing these “Western values”…”

  27. 27Shaun on Mar 31, 2011 at 11:02 am:

  28. 28Anon E Mouse on Apr 5, 2011 at 3:27 pm:

    You either support the US military or you support the Taliban. Haven’t we heard this song and dance before? You bring up a lot of interesting points, points which I’ll definitely reflect upon, but I think you’re making a huge mistake by presenting this as such a black and white issue.

  29. 29Robert on Jun 5, 2011 at 1:25 am:

    I agree with Anon E Mouse above me. I could only bring myself to read to the end of this article because you actually make some really good points that I genuinely agree with. But at the same time, you lump all “liberals” together with the Taliban. Your over-generalizations severely galled me.

  30. 30Powers on Jun 6, 2011 at 2:16 pm:

    Anon E Mouse: You either support the US military or you support the Taliban. Haven’t we heard this song and dance before? You bring up a lot of interesting points, points which I’ll definitely reflect upon, but I think you’re making a huge mistake by presenting this as such a black and white issue.

    Zombie here isn’t saying that. He’s saying you either support Western (U.S.) values or you don’t. The U.S. military and the Taliban are just tools and examples of that choice. Technically, in this example he saying you are either for or against the Taliban’s value system since the U.S. is attempting to supplant or at least subvert it and the U.S.’s value system is in no danger itself. However maybe you’d rather another culture’s value system replaced the Taliban’s.
    In this article Zombie tells us that he has come to the conclusion that he wholeheartedly accepts the tradition western “universal human rights” value system. And as a believer in that value system he cannot defend value systems that are the anti-thesis of “human rights”. In fact he supports efforts to spread his value system to other people’s even at the cost of those other value systems.

    He does this because just like the Christian missionaries he mentions, he has a moral obligation to spread his value system and convert others too it.

    People like Kinzer have decided that having a diverse set of value systems is more important than choosing one. Or that since everything is subjective nothing has value.

    Really, I applaud Zombie for making the tough decision to stick to his own beliefs even at the cost of others.

    Adding my own thoughts though, I’m reminded of two things.

    The argument about how Universal Human Rights aren’t universal… and all that stuff about modern imperialism. It’s true in away. Most modern conflicts take place between civilizations. Western (US and Western Europe), Orthodox (Russia and Eastern Europe), Islam (Middle East and Indonesian area), Hindu (Indian subcontinent), Sino (China and IndoChina), and Japan were the major civilizations today.
    The thing is that Zombie and many others believe (I won’t speak for myself) that these rights should be universal.

    And about protecting indigenous cultures… Sometimes they don’t want to be protected. Yet efforts by people to protect these cultures are instead cruel suppression of the people living in them. So it goes both ways.

  31. 31Avery on Jun 24, 2011 at 5:55 pm:

    It’s disappointing that this only has 31 comments; it’s an extremely well-thought-out post.

  32. 32Dash on Jul 27, 2011 at 12:40 am:

    The problem, on both sides of the issue, is the (perceived or real) wholesale packaging of “Western Values”, as being an indivisible block, to replace the local culture completely. Western culture is not uniformly “better” in every element than every other culture, let alone perfect. Additionally, some cultural elements are simply arbitrary, with one really not being measurably better or worse (driving on the left or right side of the road, what color of clothes people choose to wear, whether they write right-to-left, top-to-bottom, or the reverse) and attempts to displace such local elements with foreign ones just feels alienating, oppressive, and imperialistic.

    We should all be attempting to find universal truth, and share it. But to claim that we already have it in totality, and that we should simply force it on the rest of the world is foolish. Sometimes force is necessary. But we should take great caution to avoid hubris. Maybe we have things to learn from other cultures as well, ways in which they are better. Equally, we should share our own developed ideas, compare them with those of others. But our attitudes in sharing our culture will greatly determine how well it is received. If your way is better, then it will prove itself. There’s no need to be arrogant about it, or dismiss people’s right to choose their own way of life. Arrogance makes enemies, even if people know you’re right.

  33. 33Monty on Aug 28, 2011 at 2:05 pm:

    Ashoka’s ideas never spread beyond the Indian subcontinent and even then were largely confined to his own (albeit vast) empire. Which incidently he ruled absolutely without question. His successors gave lip service to his ideas and were overthrown within less then half a century after his death. The Mauryan dynasty collapsed and was promptly replaced by the same war-like authoritarian kingdoms and empires that dominated South Asia from the dawn of civilization to the British Raj. Western concepts of human rights have been spread around the world and have become entrenched in multiple societies of non-western origin (Japan, for example). So yes, the origin of modern Human Rights is Western. Inconvienient, I know.

    I hope you’re either joking or at least that you are only semi-literate and therefore unable to comprehend everything that was written by Zombie.

    Militant Atheist:
    Unfortunately it was relevant.

    You use that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.

    Anon E Mouse:
    Is that you again, Raven?

    The point of the essay was made bluntly and with good reason and yet you still missed it by focusing on minutiae. Liberals as a whole were not lumped together with the Taliban, and that was plainly stated. Maybe you should re-read it.

    Brilliant article, Zombie. Wish more people were straightforward about these things. The truth can be harsh, but these things are extremely important issues that we as individuals and societies need to come to terms with.

  34. 34LWE on Nov 27, 2011 at 3:45 am:

    Well, it’s possible to be against the U.S. military invasions on the grounds other then cultural relativism (which I agree is pretty vile and the leftists that espouse them should leave them to “non-conformist” right). For example, it’s possible to argue that while getting rid of the Taliban is a moral good in itself, the inevitable civilian deaths and wartime chaos are so morally bad, that taken as a whole, the invasion of Afghanistan is to be opposed. Pointing out that military adventures done in the name of human rights often don’t care about these rights at all, using these rights merely as a cover, is also a legitimate argument.

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