Sometimes it's great to read a really thought-provoking book and Meic Pearse's "Why The Rest Hates The West" certainly qualifies for inclusion in that category. In fact, this book goes much further than being simply thought-provoking and is straightforwardly controversial and provocative. More disturbingly, though - on several substantive points, I think that Pearse might have a point.
I was recently recommended this book, which I had never come across, even though it was published back in 2003; and one of the things which commends itself to the reader is how well the arguments Pearse assembles have stood the test of time, and how accurate some of his predictions based on his analysis fourteen years ago, have proven to be.
The central thrust of this book is that a huge collision between 'The West' and 'The Rest' is evolving, which in some vases will be expressed violently. Importantly though, according to Pearse, the essential drivers of this conflict are not the usual suspects; economic jealousy, religious fundamentalism and western Foreign Policy. All these, in Pearse's view are elements which get caught up in the drama, and can be used in the conflict; but are not the essential dynamic of it. Rather, the underlying issue is one of the almost incomplete inability for the West to understand the rest; or to really grasp how we are perceived in societies other than those like our own. Pearse traces the roots of this incomprehension, lays the blame at the West's door and suggests a way forward.
Western attitudes to others have frequently been characterised by an assumed superiority, based on the technological advances and educational opportunities which followed early industrialisation and colonial dominance. John Selby Spong's infamous outburst to this effect is duly referenced as but an extreme example of what is but common cultural currency here. Pearse though is more concerned to confront the Western reader with the way in which she or he is perceived throughout swathes of the two-thirds world; and it turns out to be deeply uncomfortable reading. In short, "Westerners are perceived..... as rich, technologically sophisticated, economically and politically dominant, morally contemptible barbarians." The book explores in considerable depth why this is the case.
Foundational to this is the perception that the West is morally bankrupt, shameless, trivial, banal and valueless; filling the vacuum which faith, values, family, tradition, roots, culture and identity should occupy, with infantile entertainment, and over-consumption. The west values scepticism over belief, and in fact is hostile to value-commitments, but celebrates non-commitment towards normative values. Worse still, the West uses its political, economic and media dominance to seek to export this model to the world; dazzling them with promises of undeliverable prosperity; whilst destroying the structures and values which actually enable the vulnerable to survive. The West's twin obsessions of absolutising rights and rejecting responsibilities on one hand, and pursuing a form of pluralism that is intolerant of beliefs; are viewed by millions as being utterly crass. "Only the hyper-rich, hyper-individualistic can live without values, purpose, meaning, or faith...... most cannot" (p19); and "We're exporting a value-less, hopeless, global culture to those who cannot cope with it, and wonder why they are angry."
The deep cleavage between these two experiences of the world, and views of it, present themselves in a series of interconnected issues which Pearse examines. The West is seen as contemptible as it despises tradition, elders, and ancestors; celebrating youth, innovation and change - in the belief that this is both 'progress' and 'inevitable'. The optimistic view of history whether in older Whig-history, Christian postmillenialism, or Marxism, is despised in much of the world, who see it as simply severing a society from all that makes it authentic - it's collective memory. The displacement of religion by consumerism, also is seen as crass; not least by those for whom the consumerism is simply not available. In most of the world, the family unit is a unit of production, in which marriage as the regulator of sexual relations is an essential element of decency, responsibility and survival. The West is seen as morally decadent, shameless and sordid in its separation of marriage from sex, and the re-making of the family as a non-intergenerational unit of entertainment and consumption; not identity, production and survival. Pearce presents a fascinating account of how we got to this dreadful state of mutual incomprehension.
Pearce then notes that the West has an ideal of an impersonal state which is sees an non-corrupt, and which it seeks to impose on the world (having decimated half the world's ancient tribal government systems); whereas the non-western world, which draws no distinction between private and non-private space finds this bizarre. He provides two examples. Only in The West would a customer be totally disinterested in the sexual behaviour of the person selling him a washing machine; as this is in the private sphere. This is a uniquely western view, whereas in most places, business, values, family, friendship and business ties are all interwoven, in a context of loyalties and the struggle to survive. Then, on a larger scale, Pearse notes that in the 1970s Afghanistan was relatively peaceful under a King who had the personal loyalty of virtually all the tribes of the country. The USSR tried to replace these non-Western relational ties with an "imagined community" based upon notions of class consciousness; and failed. The Taliban tried to replace these with an imagined community based upon Islamism; and failed. The West is now trying to re-construct the country on the basis of an imagined community based upon ideological nationalism expressed as loyalty to a western-style impersonal nation-state. If Pearse is right, this is inevitably going to fail too.
In Pearse's view, although the West gets a lot of things right; we are also 'guilty as charged' in many of these accusations. He notes the dreadful statistics of mental illness, self-esteem issues, sexual debasement, family breakdown, self-harm etc etc which mark modern Western life. He notes that traditional societies give their young people a spouse, a heritage, a job, and a place in a community. Western young people are sent out as a blank canvas to find-themselves, and end up being seen by the rest of the world as 'deracinated egotists', severed from the faith of their forebears and family and social structures which transform mere consumers into complete interconnected people. He notes that the Western sexual revolution has produced shockingly low figures for reported sexual satisfaction, and falling birth rates which are already creating a pension time-bomb. The rest of the world is incredulous that across the West we conceive enough babies to balance our population (ie. 2.1 babies per woman); but that we abort so many millions of them that we require mass immigration to stabilise our demographic profile.
According to Pearse, the only way in which a conflict between the West and The Rest can be avoided is by a Western re-think about values, and traditional family structures. Until the West stops acting in ways which the vast majority of our fellow humans see as utterly degraded, the conflict will escalate. At the very least, the West should stop its campaign of exporting its anti-values to the world through its systems of neo-colonial political/economic and media hegemony. Governments, churches, faith groups and and communities, he says, should work together for a renewed moral vision for the West that can positively affirm the values which will connect and sustain society.
I'm not sure I could subscribe to every one of Pearse's arguments; but there is enough here, which I think is absolutely right to stimulate a re-think in terms of how we relate to the rest-of-the-world. My biggest cause for concern in the book was the lack of Non-western references amongst Pearse's many quotes, and endnotes though. While he has (according to the blurb), lived in a variety of cultures including Turkey; surely a book about the views of the Non-West, should extensively quote and cite non-Western sources; or run the accusation of appearing to assume to speak on their behalf without consultation. The book would be greatly enhanced in a further edition, by engaging more directly with non-Western authors, thinkers, writers, and commentators. Then perhaps it's already rather disturbing effect upon the Western reader would be further enhanced.