is there a west?

One of my favouritest essays on culture. First read it way back in J1, and finally located an official copy online today……!

Is There a West?

Jeff Wise

“OH, EAST IS EAST, AND WEST IS WEST,” AS RUDYARD Kipling famously put it in 1889, “and never the twain shall meet.” In those simpler times, Kipling’s readers knew exactly what he was talking about. The West was modernity, wealth and science. The East was antiquity, poverty, superstition. The separation was equally clear in geography: the West meant Europe and North America. The East meant everywhere else.

That picture is long since painted over. A century of wars, migration and economic growth has muddied the global waters. What was once admired is now often derided. Indeed, for the past half-century, the term the West has usually been invoked as a symbol of corrupting worldliness. “We certainly do not want to reach a stage of living in a decadent society, like in the West,” Malaysian Education Minister Najib Tun Razak wrote recently.

But what or who exactly is the West nowadays? Post-Kipling, it isn’t easy to say. Technology no longer divides the West from the Rest. Today Singapore, that staunch nemesis of Western cultural hegemony, has more fiber-optic cable per capita than anywhere else in the world. India, where Kentucky Fried Chicken is branded as an agent of neo-imperialism, has a thriving software industry centered around Bangalore.

Geography is no longer a useful guide either. Every continent is dotted with encroaching fragments of Western-style prosperity. Asia has its Hong Kong, Africa its Pretoria. Countries such as Chile and Turkey are working hard to be recognized as full-fledged members of the West. Others, notably Japan, have long since joined those ranks.

Nor is wealth a salient indicator. Two of the world’s richest countries, Saudi Arabia and Brunei, are among the most stiflingly traditional. Malaysia’s stunning economic growth has done little to temper its leaders’ anti-Western rhetoric–indeed, success has only strengthened its self-confidence.

It’s a wonder, then, that such a meaningless term as the West should still be used. Yet it thrives. When ultranationalist rulers describe what they are protecting their country from, they often invoke those deadly lures of the West–foreign ideas, fast food, alien music. In fact, warnings about the dangers of Western influence often say less about those perils than about the complainants themselves. Countries that have railed vociferously against the West–the former Soviet Union, India, North Korea–have tended to be the ones most riddled with internal strife. Today the Soviet Union lies dismembered; India struggles to contain separatist brush wars and the big question about North Korea is whether its dissolution will be accompanied by war or mass starvation, or both. In each case, the accuser has fallen victim not to external corruption but to pervasive internal rot, no doubt abetted by the stifling hermeticism of xenophobia.

If the West means anything at all, it is not a specific set of values, but a meta-value, an idea about ideas. It is about throwing open your gates to the richness of world culture and daring to embrace the best of what you find. The prospect can be intimidating; it promises wholesale cultural changes, possibly radical ones. Advocates of “Asian values” and other traditionalists emphasize continuity with the past. They fear that along with good ideas, like improved technology, might come bad: alien culture, disrespect for tradition, unhealthy mores. In embracing outside notions, they might somehow lose part of their identity, become less themselves.

Yet the reverse is true. Living culture demands change. A nation that can embrace broadly is not a nation in disarray. Japan has been adopting the best of the West since the Meiji era, with little damage to its culture. Hong Kong soaks up Western influences with glee yet remains essentially Chinese–and immensely successful. “Do I contradict myself?” wrote another great Victorian, Walt Whitman. “Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes).”

If the West’s colonialist expansion was a monologue, a rough, rude dictation to the less developed peoples of the world, today’s global scene is a conversation, an exciting babble of many voices, listening and teaching at the same time. The exchange is multidirectional and instantaneous. A Japanese can ogle Dutch pornography on a Venezuelan Internet Website; a German can watch Hong Kong kung fu videos on a South Korean VCR. If Kipling were to return today, he would see an England full of kabob shops, curry restaurants and dai-pai dongs. And he would find his countrymen enjoying them.

Kipling the philosopher is hardly in fashion these days. His concept of a white man’s burden, an obligation for Europeans to spread out their civilization, is far too arrogant for the modern mutilated world. Kipling’s reptutation, though, may rise again. Beneath his apparent contempt for the teeming masses, he was as internationalist, one who dimly foresaw a time more equitable than his own. Though his “East is East” coinage is so well-known  it’s a cliche, few remember a subsequent line from the poem: “But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, / When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!”

TIME Magazine, 18 December 1995

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