No Escape

Bruce Robbins

  • Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress edited by Samuel Huntington and Lawrence Harrison
    Basic Books, 384 pp, £12.99, April 2001, ISBN 0 465 03176 5
  • Culture/Metaculture by Francis Mulhern
    Routledge, 198 pp, £8.99, March 2000, ISBN 0 415 10230 8
  • Culture: The Anthropologists’ Account by Adam Kuper
    Harvard, 299 pp, £12.50, November 2000, ISBN 0 674 00417 5

Why are some nations so poor and others so rich? Two Harvard professors recently revived an old-fashioned answer to this unsettling question, and it sits plainly as the title of their book: ‘Culture Matters.’ Anyone who has ever agreed with them that culture does indeed matter will want to look at what they take this statement to mean. Adding so-called ‘Asian values’ – a more public-spirited, Confucian version of the Protestant ethic – to the 19th century’s self-congratulatory belief in the West’s ‘civilising mission’, Huntington and Harrison have discovered that the West can keep on congratulating itself – not this time on its exportable civilisation, but on its particular culture. The disparity between the misery of others and our relative well-being has nothing to do with colonialism or the IMF. Should you be told that the average life expectancy is 78.2 in Sweden and 39 in Sierra Leone, remind yourself that some cultures are cut out for success and others aren’t. Which culture you are born into is not something for which you are responsible. Neither are you responsible, therefore, for the likelihood that you will benefit from forty more years of earthly existence, or that while doing so you will benefit from an obscenely disproportionate share of the Earth’s resources.

Since the attack on the World Trade Center there has been much rhapsodic reference to the work of one of these two professors, Samuel Huntington, who had already anticipated this consoling message in a much discussed article which was subsequently enlarged into a book, The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order. ‘In the post-Cold War world,’ he wrote there, ‘the most important distinctions among peoples are not ideological, political or economic. They are cultural.’ Refreshingly critical of ‘the West’s universalist pretensions’, Huntington admonished US policy-makers to give up their irritating insistence that what’s good for the US is good for the world. But respect for the world’s cultural diversity does not entail giving less support to the privileges of the West, or the US, when faced with demands from the less privileged. Why? Because our culture matters, too, and the sharing of power or prosperity would threaten our cultural identity. ‘The survival of the West,’ he concluded, ‘depends on Americans reaffirming their Western identity and Westerners accepting their civilisation as unique, not universal, and uniting to renew and preserve it against challengers from non-Western societies.’

We tend to think of cultures as smallish, fragile and unthreatening, and probably in need of protection. This makes them excellent camouflage for the world’s last superpower, whose heavily fortified borders now seem to be undergoing redecoration, under Huntington’s tasteful guidance, in charming faux-ethnic patterns. This makeover should come as no surprise. Referring to his native South Africa, Adam Kuper reminds us that ‘protecting’ cultural identities was also an official strategy under apartheid. Today, with brawny arrogance again forcing its way in among the vulnerable minorities sheltering under culture’s umbrella, the example is harder to pass over in silence. Never have the moral consequences of laying claim to membership in a culture, or accepting someone else’s claim to such membership, seemed so far from self-evident. As a result, many are now wondering in some bewilderment how culture could ever have been allowed to expand until there was no one it didn’t appear to include, nothing it didn’t appear to explain – until it had become (both Francis Mulhern and Kuper use the word) ‘everything’. Each of their books, one coming from literary studies, the other from anthropology, offers evidence that the concept of culture is itself experiencing a version of Alfred Kroeber’s explanation for the abolition of taboos: cultural fatigue.

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