Tuesday, September 23, 2014

National Differences, Globalization, and Prejudice

Roger Cohen called in a real estate agent to help him sell a house he has owned for twenty years in a French village, only to receive an impassioned plea that the house should never be sold but passed down to his children and grandchildren. This inspired a column about how different France is from Britain or the U.S. -- and, really, who can imagine an estate agent in London or New York advising a client not to sell? France lags behind other countries in some economic indicators not because of the details of government policy, Cohen argues, but because of
a culture that views the prizing of efficiency as almost vulgar. Effectiveness had no place in my chat with the real estate agent. Effectiveness does not seem to enter into it as I contemplate French butchers bard a chicken or prepare a cut of beef with deft incisions. Effectiveness is not the rule in French shopping habits. It lies at a far remove from the long conversations between shopkeepers and clients. Efficiency for the French is a poor measure of the good life, just as making a buck from the sale of a house pales before the expression of feeling about what a house may represent. Whether this is good or bad hardly matters. It is often bad for the French economy. It is also a fact of life.

These distinctive cultural components of nations are probably underestimated as globalization and homogenization create the impression that the same standards or systems can be pursued everywhere. I used to be impatient with such thinking. The Russians need a czar! The Egyptians need a pharaoh! The French need to strike! No, I would think, the Russians and the Egyptians and the French are like everyone else, they want to be free, they want governance with the consent of the governed, they do not want their lives subjected to arbitrary rules, or to live less well than they could without czars and pharaohs and strikes. Now I feel I was wrong about that. Globalization equals adaptation to insurmountable differences as much as it equals change. Some things do not change, being the work of centuries.
Anyone who contemplates the state of the world after 25 years of American hegemony has to wonder along these lines. What have the democracies we tried to foist on the Arab world done for anyone? What has the creation of post-colonial nation states done for Africa? Why is a thug like Putin popular in Russia? Is the party state thriving in China because rule by unelected mandarins really suits China best?

For anyone with a liberal mindset, these are cutting questions. On the one hand we are supposed to celebrate the diversity of cultures, and we recognize the danger of forcing all people into one mold of social and political organization; on the other we believe that some things are just plain bad, including police states, great inequality and the oppression of women. How can support for human rights and the vote be reconciled with tolerance for other ways of being human? I (as always) am looking for some middle ground, for ways to encourage education for girls and free speech without veering into shock and awe followed by "nation building" in the style of Bush II. But I doubt all of my own thoughts about these questions. I can look around the world and draw up a list of countries I think are bad candidates for electoral democracy, but how much of that would be prejudice? Any skeptic could have told us that Iraqi democracy was a foolish notion, but wouldn't a skeptic have said the same thing about India, one of democracy's great success stories? Is it realistic to say that some countries are not fit to be democracies, or it is racist?

In terms of policy, this always leads me back to caution: nobody in Washington knows any more about these things than I do, so we should be very, very careful about re-arranging the world to suit ourselves.

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