My debates with my friend Shunya have taken on a formalized quality-- not all that unlike that of ritualized dance. I play my role as he plays his; we dance round and round; always ending up in the same place-- seemingly unendingly prepared and willing to dance yet again.
While not a universalist by any means, Shunya hesitates to see human rights too firmly grounded in local culture-- for he asks (always sensibly, I think)
Is it reasonable to think of Chinese culture as a single entity and resisting all judgment in the name of a pluralism of world cultures? Aren't there many contending forces within Chinese society--struggles and sufferings and countless interplays of power and dominance? Why should we not take sides and show solidarity based on our own values? Is there any reason to think that the present Chinese government is an organic expression of its people?
It is hard to argue really. Except-- well, I do argue.
Shunya, you see, is taking the more rigorous path. He is trying to come up with a constructive understanding of how things should be.
I, on the other hand, remain focused only on what they shouldn't. And, like Bell, I have deep problems with the detached (impartial) universalist approach. Why? Because the impartial approach is not only rarely impartial but in fact oftentimes it is downright parochial.
As I wrote here,
I do think there are many places, which I shall call the Old World countries, where people remain quite conscious of the way in which their culture is unique and non-transferable; while there are other places, which I shall call New World countries, which are shaped by utopian, philosophical notions in which they see their way of life as having model-like qualities-- something to which all cultures could if they so desired strive toward; even in some cases, seeing the modern liberal democratic way as being the culmination of enlightened development.
And herein lies the tension.
Shunya agrees but asks: How can one not impose one's cultural values while at the same time refrain from siding with the executioners?
There are many possible answers to this question-- and I like all of you have come to my own conclusions regarding this. And, like Bell's my conclusions remain firmly committed to a culturally-informed approach.
(This being the main point, I think, of Part 1 of his book).
As many of the readers of these pages will recall, I recently read Parag Khanna's tour de force book, The Second World. Khanna in his book, makes the very crucial point that if the US wishes to continue playing a leadership role in the world, it might have to accept the fact that it is no longer the only game in town; and that, the world is no longer in a post-Cold War state of being whereby there are only two choices to choose from: our way or the highway.
Rather now, in what Khanna calls the geopolitical marketplace, up and coming developing countries, as well as other First World Countries for that matter, can "shop around" and choose to align themselves with one of several superpowers-- or better: align themselves with more than one at the same time- keeping things interesting.
According to Khanna, currently there are three superpowers that stand as empires: the US, the EU and China. So, for example, nowadays a "second world" country in Central Asia might wish to take on aspects of China's "communitarian" traditions (which stress collective welfare and stable, centralized government over over individual, political rights, etc.).
With this in mind, of particularly note, I think is the EU, which has done tremendous work in pushing forward international standards in everything from the environment to human rights. The EU approach, which could characterize as being both cosmopolitan as well consensus-style, is in all probability the way of the future as far as the watch-guarding over the worst kinds of abuses. I think we will also see a further "shopping around" when it comes to this issue of human rights as well, so that, indeed, there will be nations that will choose to place a priority on collective welfare, economic and property rights over that of a US-led "political and civil rights centrism" (for example).
He traveled far and wide-- and wherever he went he was confronted by great hardship and evil. The problem of evil. In the end, you will recall, he met a charming Turk in Constantinople who invites him home and offers him homemade sherbets of cream flavored with candied citron, orange, lemon, lime, pineapple, pistachio and some mocha coffee, and Candide says to him that he must possess an enormous and splendid property. The Turk answers, No, I only have twenty acres that I cultivate with my family and the work keeps us from the three great evils: boredom, vice, and poverty.
Professor Pangloss is going on about how "All events are linked together in the best of all possible worlds" ("there cannot possibly be an effect without a cause and that in this best of all possible worlds the Baron's castle was the best of all castles and his wife the best of all possible Baronesses" -- also known in other regions as Everything Happens For A Reason) and if Candide hadn't been kicked out of his homeland, if he hadn't gone up against the Inquisition, if he hadn't traveled across America on foot, if he hadn't killed a baron, if he hadn't lost all his sheep in Eldorado, well, then he wouldn't be sitting here eating some nice candied citron and pistachios in Constantinople.
To which Candide replies, That is very well put, but we must cultivate our garden.
And people have debated ever since whether Voltaire was implying a passive retreat from the outer world to cultivate one's inner Self, or whether he was advocating productive occupation and engagement (in the form of gardening) with the world.
Like all gardens-- Candide's garden could symbolize just about anything-- and indeed, to my mind it does just that.
To remain committed and engaged-- but at the same time perhaps remembering that Candide's garden was in the end "his garden." If an engaged commitment to peace and human rights is like a a beautiful Persian garden full of roses (and indeed I think it is), then I think there are two things that can be learned-- and these are Bell's points.
If the ultimate aim of human rights diplomacy is to persuade others of the value of human rights, then in my view the struggle is more likely to be won if it is fought in ways that build on, rather than challenge, local cultural traditions (55).
That is to say if you want to practice your gardening techniques in someone else's garden, it's probably not a bad idea to take into account local weather and soil conditions-- right? This is conservative advice. For a more critical look at the validity of the impartial voice in ethics (and life) I recommend Dreyfus' article on Kierkegaard and the Internet (which many of you know I love) or take a look at Bell's stance on The Impartiality of Justice.
The other is just to reiterate Candide's words that it is our own gardens that, in the end, we are called to cultivate. For there is no better way to persuade than as exemplary model-- which is really just to say that while a US approach will see gaps in the Chinese approach, so too will a EU approach see huge gaps in the US approach (who is speaking out for the rights of those without health care and food in inner cities?)
Voltaire, for all his glorious candied citron, pistachios, and a love life that never quit, still remained in the end yet another monoglot philosopher. In that sense, I appreciate Daniel Bell-- and his "Confucian project" to push back our cultural blind spots, as I think that will continue to be our greatest challenge---- how to be embodied in more interesting ways.
Thanks for reading!
Part 2 of the East Meets West reading will be meeting at Chris Panza's place-- so check there soon! (I will make an announcement here when it goes up).