Why Did We Let Bush Try to Bring Wal-Mart to Iraq?

One of the insults you're sure to hear if you dare to suggest that we might not have the right to turn Iraq into Little America is "cultural relativist." It's a strange insult, because the people flinging it at you have absolutely no idea what it means. That's the point: "Cultural relativism" is a charge meant to dazzle the victim with its obscurity, like every 9-year-old's favorite word, "antidisestablishmentarianism." At my elementary school, that word was considered to have magical power because it was, supposedly, longer than any other word in the language.

But at least we 9-year-olds weren't lame enough to use it as an insult, or assume that it actually meant anything.

The right-wing regurgitators who spew out "cultural relativism" truly believe they're engaging in some pretty hardcore intellectual critique when they drop that multisyllabic bunker-buster on you. And how do they know this? Because a horde of 10th-rate intellectuals like New York Times columnist David Brooks and Newt Gingrich have said that that cultural relativism is the root of all left-wing evil. Gingrich has a soundbyte on the topic, often cited by rightwing bloggers: "Cultural relativism is like saying that going to McDonald's or boiling up your neighbor have equal merit as culturally driven ways of having lunch."

If Gingrich were a real intellectual, he might know that the true birth of cultural relativism was marked by Montaigne's essay "on Cannibals" in 1580. Montaigne, like all the smarter, braver Europeans of the time, tried to learn from the other cultures Europe was encountering around the world, rather than simply condemning them for all the ways in which they differed from Europe. He compared the cruelties of cannibal tribes with those of European "justice." His point was not that one culture was superior to the other, but that every human ever born finds it dangerously easy to revile the savagery of other tribes, but very difficult to see the brutalities of their homeland: "...while we quite rightly judge [the cannibals'] faults, we are blind to our own."

Of course Gingrich wouldn't know Michel de Montaigne from Joe Montana, so his comparison of cannibalism to eating at Mickey D's was pure dumb luck -- lucky for us, that is. Because in comparing cannibalism with eating at McDonald's -- clearcutter of rainforests, fattener-up of the poor and gullible -- Gingrich offers a perfect example of the bias Montaigne was trying to overcome: smugly certain of his own tribe's superiority, blind to its cruelties. Gingrich would never reflect on the fact that the New World cannibal tribes Montaigne discussed were among the first victims of the encounter with "the West." The Carib, most famous of these tribes, committed mass suicide rather than be enslaved by the European conquerors. It seems obvious that their brutality was more than matched by that of the Europeans. That, of course, is cultural relativism. It's also common sense.

Cultural relativism starts with a very simple, sensible premise: Every time and place is unique, and its standards can't be transposed to any other time and place without fudging the comparison. Cultural relativism is thus a form of intellectual rigor -- a very uncomfortable one, compared to the cozy simplicity of cheering for your tribe and sneering at all others. Whenever serious intellectuals apply cultural relativism to their studies, they face the wrath of tame pundits. Nietzsche, the greatest modern relativist, is still regularly slandered by tenured cowards for daring to treat philosophers' most cherished concepts as historical artifacts rather than timeless truths.

You'll note that so far I've cited a Frenchman and a German as examples of the intellectual courage it takes to face the scary fact of cultural relativism. Unfortunately, America got its tutors from Britain, whose intellectuals have always been much more timid and inclined to collaboration than those of continental Europe. After the French Revolution, Britain actively discouraged intellectual inquiry of all sorts that might have interfered with the mass production of the practical, unimaginative, cruel men needed to run the empire. Great minds in 19th century Britain went into the sciences, where a certain degree of intellectual freedom was tolerated. That's one of the major reasons that what passes for the American intelligensia has been so craven and tongue-tied in defending cultural relativism.

Of course, you don't need to be an intellectual to see the total stupidity of the right-wing phobia on this topic. Just look at the record -- the blood-soaked, benighted, horrible record of the human species during all those centuries when there was no such thing as cultural relativism. And did that make for a peaceful existence? Choose any historical period, any region of the world, and you'll find that long before cultural relativism appeared, tribes were killing each other in the cheerful, absolute certainty that their god or gods wanted them to massacre their neighbors. That's the reality of those "moral absolutes" right-wingers proclaim as the grounding of decent behavior: the absolute right to hack to death anyone who doesn't share your tribe's religion, table manners or musical taste. When writers like Montaigne forced their readers to consider the possibility that we should be wary of judging other tribes, it was possible to argue, for the first time, that participating in tribal wars of annihilation might not be a religious obligation -- might, in fact, be mere arrogant savagery. You can see how it might have been handy to remind our fellow Americans of this, right around the time that Bush & Co. were telling us that we had a moral obligation to liberate Iraq.

It would have been nice if a few people who knew better had been willing to say outright that even if the war really was about liberation, it was an arrogant invasion born of the ancient belief that our tribe is the only one that knows how life should be lived.

But no one talked about the insanity of bringing Dairy Queen to Iraq because there are no cultural relativists around these days -- no one willing to admit it anyway. What we have seen in the debate between pro- and anti-war Americans is a squabble between two kinds of Protestant busybodies: squeamish Unitarians and fierce Baptists. Both sects are convinced that the world is no more than a war between good and evil, differing only about which evil should be zapped and by what voltage.

A century ago Nietzsche predicted that as Christian faith declined, Christian ethics would grow even more powerful. This has happened to a big chunk of the university-trained American public; they have become the embodiment of American novelist Flannery O'Connor's "Church of Christ without Christ," their embrace of cultural relativism going only only as far as a taste for "ethnic" food and a year of bumming around the Guesthouse Archipelago in Asia, never a willingness to consider that such colorful ethnic customs as smoking opium and making war might be honored and essential in certain cultures.

Consider Afghanistan, a truly alien land. George Bush has nothing but contempt for its violent, anarchic culture. In what way would a typical American "progressive" disagree? Maybe as far as a few craven sarcastic remarks about how conservatives want to make Afghanistan part of "McWorld." But as soon as Bush points out that Afghans are growing opium, many Bush critics lapse into cowed silence -- because they are, at heart, as steeped in pleasure-hating Protestant moralism as Bush himself.

Indeed, the only way to explain the left's stunning cowardice in the face of the War on Drugs is by realizing that these people are simply missionaries of the Church of Christ without Christ.

Just as they know that drugs are bad, they know that it is their right, their mission, to outlaw other unruly customs, like war. If Somalis consider raiding and clan war essential to a man's life, then -- well, they'll just have to change.

I spent 15 years at UC Berkeley, which according to the right-wing pundits is the Mordor, the Ground Zero of cultural relativism, and I never saw it. Not once. I saw instead a queasy, baseless moralism, without even the excuse of Scripture to justify its arrogance.

Indeed, the evangelical mullahs' position is actually more intellectually rigorous, if you grant its starting point of divine sanction. The godless Protestant progressives of places like Berkeley lack any such foundation; theirs is an ideology rooted in a few seedy cafes near the Fine Arts building. It's no wonder that Kansas prefers the evangelicals' simple, consistent bigotry to this sub-Unitarian muddle. If we actually apply a cultural-relativist perspective to the conflict between "liberal" academics and "conservative" Christian militarists in America, it's easy to see that we're simply watching a replay of the old quarrel between the two most aggressive groups in Anglophone America: the Scots-Irish Presbyterians who settled the South, and the New Englanders whose Protestantism was always veering off into semisecular intellectual quibbles. Both are missionary groups extremely popular with themselves and willing to bring the rest of the world to heel by military force. Neither has even a taint of cultural relativism. It's just that their blood rage is stimulated by slightly different triggers, the Scots-Irish by the very existence of heathens and the New Englanders by offenses against what they imagine to be a universal moral code.

Think back to your university and imagine your liberal arts professors in 19th century America. You'll see that they would almost all have been Protestant clergy, spreading the Word while conniving for a parish, a tenured job lecturing on virtue. That's what most of them do now: lecture on virtue. The New England/Unitarian ethos predominates among them, which is why they were all in favor of invading Afghanistan, a true moral wilderness, and more squeamish about Iraq, a more settled country. But whatever their tastes, these progressives are steeped in Protestant arrogance as George W. Bush.

So that while Rush Limbaugh brags about how we're going to bring the culture of Missouri to Baghdad, his opponents in the Ivy Leagues and Berkeley were by no means in a position to say that this was a grotesquely provincial, wrong-headed enterprise.

They simply wanted it done in a kinder, gentler manner.

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