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The Clash of Traditions

Professor Samuel Huntington photographed in his office at Harvard University. (Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images)

Professor Samuel Huntington photographed in his office at Harvard University. (Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images)

The late political scientist Samuel Huntington’s famous book The Clash of Civilizations (1996) argued that culture, not economics or ideology, was the key to understanding world affairs after the Cold War’s end. Different civilizations, he argued—he identified nine, including the Western, Orthodox, Islamic, Sinic, and Hindu—with different histories, religions, and values, were now reasserting themselves after a brief period of quiescence. These different civilizations would inevitably clash with one another and with liberalism, an ideology that presumed itself universal, but which was actually the product of one of those civilizations, the Western. To expect non-Western civilizations to reject their own cultures and adopt liberalism wholesale, he argued, was folly.

The book received a great deal of criticism. It was condemned as “essentialist”—as failing to recognize that civilizations are not sealed off from one another and typically reflect foreign as well as domestic influences. Critics also thought they detected a condescension in Huntington’s views. Was he suggesting that non-Western cultures were uncivilized? Finally, some critics refused to accept that liberalism was anything other than a self-evidently superior way of organizing society that all cultures would inevitably adopt.

But events have proved Huntington right. One cannot look at the world today and assert that Western liberalism is triumphing over alternative world views. (As I have argued elsewhere, it may not even be triumphing at home.) The criticisms were misguided. True, cultures reflect diverse influences, and countries sometimes straddle competing civilizations; but useful generalizations are still possible.  Nor was there anything condescending in Huntington’s work. To say that cultures differ from one another in fundamental ways is not to demean any of them. In fact, accepting that others don’t necessarily think the way we do, and don’t necessarily want their societies to look just like ours, is a mark of respect.

I thought a great deal about Huntington at a conference I helped organize last month in Trento, Italy, on tradition in American and Russian thought. Cosponsored by the Tradition Project at the St. John’s Center for Law and Religion, the Postsecular Conflicts Project at the University of Innsbruck, and Center for Religious Studies at the Fondazione Bruno Kessler, the conference brought together American, European, and Russian commentators to discuss the use of tradition in law and politics in the two countries. Given the way that Russo-American relations have dominated world politics lately, it seemed an important topic.

Tradition is an exceptionally complicated concept and the participants in the conference expressed a variety of views. The Russian scholars, in particular, disagreed among themselves about precisely what is going on in their country right now (more on this in a bit). But, for me at least, the conference confirmed the basic correctness of Huntington’s insights. People disposed to favor tradition in Russia and America often understand the concept very differently.

Consider religious freedom. For the past several years, Russian church and government officials have argued strenuously that cultural traditions can legitimately limit the exercise of religion. Both Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church and President Putin have argued that cultural traditions deserve respect because they reflect eternal truths and embody a people’s morality. Because traditions have a moral character, states can legitimately act to protect them from outside forces. States can, for example, legitimately limit proselytism by new religious groups that threaten to undermine traditional religious communities and values. This attitude is behind a ban Russia recently imposed on the activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a ban the country’s Supreme Court sustained.

Some American traditionalists have a similar understanding of the moral value of tradition. But most, it’s fair to say, do not. As a rule, American conservatives do not defend tradition on the basis of unchanging moral verities or the right of nations to defend their cultures from foreign threats. American traditionalism is more pragmatic and empirical. It honors traditions because they work, in the sense of promoting human flourishing. If a practice has lasted a long time, conservatives argue, we must presume it comports with good sense and social values.

Moreover, with its twin heritage of the Enlightenment and Evangelical Christianity—two anti-traditions that have become a kind of tradition—American traditionalism finds itself uncomfortable with the idea that society should restrict religious expression in the name of defending national culture. Early on in our history, the Enlightenment and Evangelical streams combined to prohibit a national religious establishment, and this has shaped American thought, including traditionalist thought, ever since. It is hard to imagine an American court, even a conservative court, allowing the government to ban a religious movement outright. Indeed, many of the landmark American Supreme Court cases upholding the right to religious expression involve the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

To be fair, some of the Russian scholars at the conference were skeptical about the resurgence of traditionalism in their country. They maintained that the new Russian traditionalism is phony, a political program only, and that the asserted clash in values with the West is manufactured. One participant, Sergei Chapnin, was quoted recently in The Atlantic as saying that the “traditional values” discourse in Russia is largely a way to “find an enemy” and “bolster the ‘anti-Western political rhetoric of the government.’”

As an outsider, it’s hard to evaluate these claims. But I’m skeptical the clash is entirely artificial. A recent Pew survey of 28,000 people in Central and Eastern Europe revealed that sizable majorities in these countries perceive a conflict between their traditions and Western viewpoints. About two-thirds of the respondents said their own culture was superior to the West’s. Perhaps public opinion is being manipulated, as critics suggest—but numbers like these are striking.

We plan to publish an online set of essays from the conference later this year. Meanwhile, for those who are interested, participant Rod Dreher has a detailed report about the conference on his blog at The American Conservative, here.

Reader Discussion

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on July 07, 2017 at 09:31:23 am

"...American traditionalism finds itself uncomfortable with the idea that society should restrict religious expression in the name of defending national culture."

I'm not so certain about that claim. How would one explain the Blaine Amendments? Were they not an attempt to *restrict* Catholicism? and did they not meet with widespread approval. Also they did seem to be consistent with the traditional American opposition to "Papacy."

"As a rule, American conservatives do not defend tradition on the basis of unchanging moral verities or the right of nations to defend their cultures from foreign threats."

Yes, but it should not need to be pointed out that "American Conservatives" are BUT a subset of "American traditionalists", many of whom do view tradition as a defense of certain moral verities.

Overall, however, a fair and informative essay - especially re: Russian impressions / thinking.

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gabe
on July 07, 2017 at 12:41:11 pm

"Both Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church and President Putin have argued that cultural traditions deserve respect because they reflect eternal truths and embody a people’s morality. . . .

American traditionalism is more pragmatic and empirical. It honors traditions because they work, in the sense of promoting human flourishing. "

But do Kirill and Putin not also believe that respecting eternal truths and their people's morality promotes human flourishing? In what sense does the difference between the Russian and American views not boil down to a disagreement about what policy pragmatism and empiricism lead to?

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Delawarean
on July 07, 2017 at 13:13:05 pm

To be certain, a great # of American Conservatives are more Libertarian when it comes to religion.

I consider this to be a sop to their friends who don't believe in God at all, and all the agnostics who know there is a God, but won't commit to Jesus being divine. They're just being polite about it.

In other countries who have not liberalized as quickly as Western Europe, Australia and the US/Canada, they can be more traditionalist and not be shamed for holding those views; almost like Americans in the 1950's and 1960s'.

Live and let live will get you killed in much of the world. We're lucky ducks here in the U.S. The worst that happens is you get flamed on Twitter for holding traditional views, or God Forbid...voting for an unconventional anti-Progressive presidential candidate. ;)

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Eric R
on July 08, 2017 at 11:31:59 am

Interesting points!

I recall reading some time ago that Putin was the *odd* KGB operative who actually believed in God and discerned value in the Russian Church. One can question the expression of that belief, given many of Putin's actions, not unlike other believers throughout history; but, perhaps not the "belief itself.

It may be that Putin sees morality, religion and tradition as conducive to *national* flourishing (indeed, he has made such comments in the past) and is less concerned with individual human flourishing.

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gabe
on July 10, 2017 at 12:08:01 pm

Thanks, Gabe. Your comments make me wonder if the key difference between Putin's traditionalism and American traditionalism is not the pragmatism and empiricism of the latter, but what each views as the ultimate good. For Putin, the ultimate good may be national flourishing, while for Americans, the ultimate good may be individual flourishing. But both take a pragmatic and empirical approach to the question of how to promote those ultimate goods.

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Delawarean
on July 10, 2017 at 14:08:07 pm

l[L]iberalism, an ideology that presumed itself universal, but which was actually the product of one of those civilizations, the Western. To expect non-Western civilizations to reject their own cultures and adopt liberalism wholesale, he argued, was folly.

I sense David Brooks embraces this view. He celebrates “Western values” as his own parochial values. I don’t know that that he rejects the idea of liberalism as having a universal quality in theory, but he acknowledges that in practice the universe has not yet embraced liberalism, and we just look disrespectful—and clueless—when we pretend otherwise.

To challenge the idea of liberalism’s universality, try to identify when people began living according to its precepts. The people who wrote and adopted the phrase “all men are created equal” practiced slavery. And if the West could not bring itself to embrace liberalism’s precepts then, can we say that we’re fully embraced its precepts today? Legalized abortion? Disenfranchisement of ex-cons? Lack of animal rights? “Wage slavery”? There are plenty of theories about how our “liberal” establishment fails to recognize the interests of marginalized groups. Can we call liberalism universal if even its proponents cannot agree on its boundaries?

It is hard to imagine an American court, even a conservative court, allowing the government to ban a religious movement outright. Indeed, many of the landmark American Supreme Court cases upholding the right to religious expression involve the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Indeed. Far from proposing to ban them, Justice Harlan Fiske Stone remarked, " I think the Jehovah's Witnesses ought to have an endowment in view of the aid which they give in solving the legal problems of civil liberties."

To be fair, some of the Russian scholars at the conference were skeptical about the resurgence of traditionalism in their country. They maintained that the new Russian traditionalism is phony, a political program only, and that the asserted clash in values with the West is manufactured. One participant, Sergei Chapnin, was quoted recently in The Atlantic as saying that the “traditional values” discourse in Russia is largely a way to “find an enemy” and “bolster the ‘anti-Western political rhetoric of the government.’”

Ok, maybe the emphasis on “traditionalism” is manufactured. And that would differ from other cultural norms—how? Again, the US once embraced slavery, and later du jure segregation. Thanks to a concerted effort by strategic individuals, the US no longer embraces these views. Similarly, once upon a time Protestant faiths placed little emphasis on abortion, regarding the issue as just one more Catholic obsession. Over time, Protestants who felt differently led an effort to oppose abortion. Was these changes “manufactured”? And if so—so what?

As The Music Man reminds us, a skilled orator can create social divisions out of ANYTHING—even a pool hall in River City. Regarding the arbitrariness of social divisions, Max Weinreich remarked, “A language is [merely] a dialect with an army and navy.” European Jews and Christians, Hindu and Muslim Indians, North and South Koreans, Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, Hutus and Tutsis—we can live as neighbors for generations, but the opportunity for social division can be manufactured when social circumstances permit. Likewise, “traditional culture” merely refers to the currently prevailing collection of schisms. But when a new schism arises, scholars will never lack for evidence of that schism existing in the historical record somewhere.

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nobody.really
on July 10, 2017 at 15:50:27 pm

Guys, you gotta check out Movsesian’s totally awesome post over at First Things: “Passion for Equality.” Today’s law students, trained to argue both sides of a case, still cannot fathom that the law might recognize a baker’s autonomy to refrain from baking a wedding cake for a same-sex couple—or even that a sincere Jew might refrain from baking a wedding cake for a fellow Jew marring outside the faith.

1. Can we think of more sympathetic hypotheticals—something to provoke a sense of empathy among today’s 20-yr-old law students?

Maybe this: “Kim Kardashian walks up to the next cab at the taxi line and climbs in with her Chihuahua in her purse. The Muslim driver explains that his is religiously barred from (and personally terrified of) transporting dogs, and asks her to take the next cab in line instead. Kardashian counters that it is her religious conviction that her dog is a member of her family, and she will not permit such discrimination. She sues the taxi driver for violating public accommodation laws.”

Alas, that’s not the best hypothetical, because taxis are also bound by common carrier laws, not just public accommodation laws. Conversely, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that cabbies can legally refuse to transport dogs, which would defeat the hypothetical right there.

So – whada you guys got?

2. Why can’t today’s 20-yr-olds recognize the competing claims of the baker and the same-sex couple?

Couldn’t a member of a minority community believe, in good faith, that her community faced assimilation and decline to act, in her commercial dealings, in a way that promoted it? Wasn’t that a concern worthy of respect? No, they told me….

[T]he dispute is not about sexuality as such. Rather, it’s about not allowing people to draw moral distinctions that exclude others and hurt their feelings, no matter what the justification.

I don’t think this analysis helps. Yeah, people don’t like to hurt other people’s feelings. But they’re quite willing to hurt the baker’s feelings. So the issue is not merely wanting to avoid hurting feelings, but learning to identify with the same-sex couple rather than that baker.

I wonder if the matter isn’t more about the “in her commercial dealings” language. That is, people today imagine that commercial norms trump all other concerns. When I suggest that a provider of public accommodation can legally and forthrightly discriminate against blonds, people are dumbfounded and outraged. Surely, a person’s status as a sovereign consumer should prevail, right?

Most people identify as being a consumer, and a tenant, and an employee—not as a vendor, or a landlord, or an employer—and they expect antidiscrimination laws to defend those with whom they identify. They have limited empathy otherwise.

3. On equality:

Tocqueville saw this coming long ago. Democracies, he wrote, prize equality above all other values. Their “passion for equality,” he observed, is “ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible.”


[Democracy] is connected with the political ideal that men should be equally treated. You then make a stealthy transition in their minds from this political ideal to a factual belief that all men ARE equal. Especially the man you are working on. As a result you can use the word DEMOCRACY to sanction in his thoughts the most degrading ... of all human feelings....

The feeling I mean is of course that which prompts a man to say, "I’m as good as you."

[Y]ou thus induce him to enthrone at the centre of his life a good, solid resounding lie. I don’t mean merely that this statement is false in fact, that he is no more equal to everyone he meets in kindness, honesty, and good sense than in height or waist-measurement. I mean that he does not believe it himself. No man who says, "I’m as good as you" believes it. He would not say it if he did. The St. Bernard never says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce.... What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which the patient refuses to accept.

And therefore resents. Yes, and therefore resents every kind of superiority in others; denigrates it; wishes its annihilation. Presently he suspects every mere difference of being a claim to superiority. No one must be different from himself in voice, clothes, manners... "Here is someone who speaks English rather more clearly and euphoniously than I -- it must be a vile, upstate, lah di dah affectation. Here’s a fellow who says he doesn’t like hot dogs -- thinks himself too good for them no doubt.... If they were the right sort of chaps they’d be like me. They’ve no business to be different. It’s undemocratic."

* * *

Under the influence of this incantation ["undemocratic"] those who are in any or every way inferior can labour more wholeheartedly and successfully than ever to pull down everyone else to their own level.... Under the same influence, those who come, or could come, nearer to a full humanity, actually draw back from it for fear of being UNDEMOCRATIC.... To accept [their unique gifts] might make them Different, might offend against the Way of Life, take them out of Togetherness, impair their Integration with the Group. They might (horror of horrors!) become individuals.

C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Proposes a Toast (1959).

4. Finally, maybe Movsesian would wanna ask his students about this proposal for altering the balance between anti-discrimination laws and autonomy: the Market Power Affirmative Defense.

The theory underlying this defense is that civil rights laws should defend a person’s ability to obtain the best goods, services, housing, employment, and public accommodations (hereinafter public accommodations) on the best terms. But the law would not defend a person’s right to dictate from whom she receives these public accommodations. And, most significantly, it would not protect a person from enduring the businessman’s freedom of speech/association—that is, this policy would give greater priority to free speech/religion/association than to dignity interests.

Here’s how it would work: If 1) a provider of public accommodation withholds such accommodation in violation of the law, but 2) the provider bears the burden of showing that she informed the would-be customer where comparable accommodations are available nearby at comparable terms, then 3) the would-be customer would not be deprived of access to the public accommodation, and so no compensable harm would arise.

So far, I haven’t found any takers. Maybe if I restricted its applicability to strictly religious claims, or strictly to discrimination against same-sex marriage or something. But the general reaction I get is that we now have a cultural norm against certain kinds of discrimination, and my proposal would tend to erode that norm.

My reaction is, Yeah, that’s the point. We used to have cultural norms that marginalized blacks, Jews, and gays, too—and we’ve undercut those norms. Why not take the next step and undercut the cultural norms against other minorities, such as people with minority religious views?

Alas, people regard me as naïve for thinking that civil rights laws produce their benefits via legal means. Rather, they argue much like Movsesian argues: In the long run, social intuitions drive the law, that these laws produce their benefits via cultural means, and the law is just a mechanism for marking that the culture has changed. In addition, people also argue that I fail to acknowledge the amount of dignity harms my proposal would unleash, and the extent of various types of discriminatory intent that remains in the nation. In short, people don’t want the law to be neutral with regard to speech; they want it to vindicate some speech over other speech.

I can’t say that they’re wrong—but it’s a sobering analysis.

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nobody.really
on July 10, 2017 at 17:50:07 pm

Nobody:

My compliments - and IT is a sobering analysis.

I could offer a few quibbles but what the heck - you already know the quibble about the baker in bulls Balls, Montana!

As to law driving change or change driving law - not so clear cut. consider a "purposive-minded" group of "strategic people" (your term) who set out to drive change (nowadays, to *nudge*). what is the INSTRUMENT of choice for these purposive individuals - why, the Law, of course, but also the Fed AdminState and its never ending diktats.
Question: could the Law or the diktats be passed without a "social change."

Just a question, brudda!

BTW: Are they letting you back on First Things. I wiould hope so.

seeya
gabe

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gabe

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