I have just read Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. It is a classic. Published in 1947, it analyzes the nature of Japanese culture. Almost 60 years and many books later, it remains a seminal work. Like all great works of scholarship, the book manages to transcend the time and era in which it was written, ageing in certain obvious respects, but retaining much of its insight and relevance. If you want to make sense of Japan, Benedict's book is as good a place to start as any. Here, though, I am interested in the origins and purpose of the book.
In June 1944, as the US offensive against Japan began to bear fruit, Benedict, a cultural anthropologist, was assigned by the US Office of War Administration to work on a project to try and understand Japan as the US began to contemplate the challenge that would be posed by its defeat, occupation and subsequent administration.
Her book is written with a complete absence of judgmental attitude or sense of superiority, which one might expect; she treats Japan's culture as of equal merit, virtue and logic to that of the US. In other words, its tone and approach could not be more different from the present US attitude towards Iraq or that country's arrogant and condescending manner towards the rest of the world.
This prompts a deeper question: Has the world, since then, gone backwards? Has the effect of globalization been to promote a less respectful and more intolerant attitude in the West, and certainly on the part of the US, towards other cultures, religions and societies? This contradicts the widely held view that globalization has made the world smaller and everyone more knowing. The answer, at least in some respects, is in the affirmative -- with untold consequences lying in wait for us. But more of that later; first, why and how has globalization had this effect?
It can rightly be argued that European colonialism embodied a fundamental intolerance, a belief that the role of European nations was to bring "civilized values" to the natives, wherever they might be. It made no pretence, however, at seeking to make their countries like ours: Their enlightenment, as the colonial attitude would have it, depended on our physical
In no instance, for example, were they regarded as suitable for democracy, except where there was racial affinity, with white settler majorities, as in Australia and Canada. In contrast, the underlying assumption with globalization is that the whole world is moving in the same direction, towards the same destination: It is becoming, and should become, more and more like the West. Where once democracy was not suitable for anyone else, now everyone is required to adopt it, with all its Western-style accoutrements.
In short, globalization has brought with it a new kind of Western hubris -- present in Europe in a relatively benign form, manifest in the US in the belligerent manner befitting a superpower: That Western values and arrangements should be those of the world; that they are of universal application and merit. At the heart of globalization is a new kind of intolerance in the West towards other cultures, traditions and values, less brutal than in the era of colonialism, but more comprehensive and totalitarian.
The idea that each culture is possessed of its own specific wisdom and characteristics, its own novelty and uniqueness, born of its own individual struggle over thousands of years to cope with nature and circumstance, has been drowned out by the hue and cry that the world is now one, that the Western model -- neoliberal markets, democracy and the rest -- is the template for all.