We Don’t Need “Western Civilization”

Long-time friends of this blog will know that I’m not a fan of David Brooks. I generally try not to engage with his columns – or any column at the New York Times, given their recent climate-denial hire and the problems with even the more liberal columnists (some of them should just be replaced with a generator — oh wait) – but Brooks’ recent thoughts on education and Western values caught my eye.

In his April 21st column, David Brooks expresses worry about “The Crisis of Western Civ.” Much of the article is as expected from a man whose career has been so invested in the idea of quintessentially “Western” values that are at the heart of our way of life. Brooks is adamant that “This Western civ narrative came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like.”

But it is absurd to assume that only a curriculum based around Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and the Industrial Revolution can inculcate the value of reasoned discourse or a public commons. And property rights, as they emerged from Western history, were deeply tide to slavery (Africans as property, and thus having no rights unto themselves) and the genocide of indigenous Americans (because they weren’t using the land “correctly,” it became the property of colonists and they were displaced if not murdered). And if Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine are supposed to teach us good statesmanship, then we’re already beyond all hope, really. But Brooks is convinced that the teleological grand arc of “Western Civ” – which elides the influence of the Islamic world and the Mediterranean world, and isolates a bounded “West” while relegating the rest of the world to the background – is the only way to teach important values to people.

Brooks points to the fact that “decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke. Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western civilization is a history of oppression.” Amazingly, aust a few lines down, he points to the effect of this decline: the rise of not only Trump, but Putin, Erdogan, and other authoritarians, illiberal politicians on the right and the left, and – of course – the tyranny of students protesting hateful speakers on campus. Hopefully I don’t need to tell you that this is quite the leap.

Between my MA and PhD, I spent a year teaching Western Civ to freshmen at a public school in a wealthy, mostly white town. Having pretty much refused a Western Civ framework in my own scholarship and politics, every lesson was a balance of meeting curriculum needs, checking in with existing lesson plans, and finding ways to bring in the rest of the world. The result was not exactly anti-Western Civ, though I sincerely hoped that it would be. But I tried very hard to follow through on teaching Brooks’ fear: that Western civilization is a history of oppression.

Why? Because unlike Brooks, I don’t think there’s much to gain from teaching privileged white Americans that theirs is a lineage traced back to the City on a Hill, and before that the Industrial Revolution, the Renaissance, the Roman Empire, and Greek democracy. I actually think this does very little compared to a history that centers the value of intercultural exchange – the influence of the Arab world in European mathematics, navigation, and cuisine, for instance, or slavery and slave labor’s central role in creating a European middle class that could imagine having rights and liberty – while highlighting that much of this exchange happened under horrific pretenses (the Crusades, mostly, and then enslavement and colonialism). Teaching students that European empires were vast and covered much of the world implies that capitalism is a net good and is not all that useful if you don’t demonstrate that the wealth of empires came from looting New World gold and enslaving Africans to produce commodities like cotton and sugar for free.

Western Civ is not, for me, a curriculum of democracy and reason and greatness; it is a history of inequality and oppression – and that’s something we can learn from. If you teach people that their history is great, then when they hear criticisms they’ll turn to anyone willing to Make America Great Again. But if you teach them that greatness is subjective, and depends on oppressing others, then maybe they can learn to strive for a more liberated future in which we can share greatness among all – perhaps they can “make” the world something else, more thoughtfully, more equally, more inclusively.

Brooks ties the decline of Western Civ education to a decline in faith in democracy, pointing to a study that shows that “the share of young Americans who say it is absolutely important to live in a democratic country has dropped from 91 percent in the 1930s to 57 percent today.” But maybe people are less confident in democracy because the form of democracy that we have today is deeply flawed. The “democracy” of the U.S. two-party system, for example, is a facade corrupted by money, fear, and hate that is pretty much on track to destroy the climate, enrich the wealthy, and bomb and shoot brown people, no matter whom you elect. Of course youth have lost faith in democracy when it’s got such an awful track record. Young Americans today came of age when the world’s largest anti-war demonstrations couldn’t stop the ill-advised and ill-executed war in Iraq, began voting  when Obama called for hope and change and then turned around and bailed out criminal bankers, abandoning those who had been foreclosed on. And now Trump is our president, and it seems like a few times a week he is trying to prosecute, deport, ban, arrest, defund, or bomb the country and the world into submission. Why would we have faith in the system we’ve seen doesn’t work?

David Brooks is convinced that Western Civilizations as a teleological curriculum is the only way to teach our youth the values that they will need to be good citizens. He’s so convinced that this is the only way, and he’s so convinced that doing away with the Western Civ approach has led us over a cliff into authoritarianism, that he ends his column criticizing the critics of the curriculum. “If you think [Western Civ] was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it,” he opines.

But the diverse nature of a liberal arts education – one which does not need to center on the idea of a Greece-to-Rome-to-Renaissance-to-now progression – can teach values of reason, scientific inquiry, equality, inclusion, rights, etc., and it can do so while teaching the problems and pitfalls of these very ideas. In teaching undergrads the last two years, I’ve often discussed the failures of ideas such as “equality” and the incommensurability of “rights” as well as the ethnocentrism of ideas like “science” and “reason.” This hasn’t made my students any less reasonable or critical or inquisitive. Such education, beyond Western Civ, can train students to think critically, acknowledge the past, be open to new futures, and do so all with the well-being of others in mind. That’s really all we need for what comes after the idea of Western Civilization.

The Durability of Museveni’s Uganda

Over at the Monkey Cage, Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz have a post on how democratic institutions increase the durability of authoritarian regimes. It’s an interesting summary of their recent research, which finds that democratic institutions such as elections actually delay true democratization, allowing authoritarian regimes to remain in power longer under the guise of democracy.

While their findings are not exactly surprising to anybody who has worked in such a country, the extent to which they’ve investigated this issue has provided a really thorough survey of regimes:

From 1946 to 1989, the average authoritarian regime lasted 12 years. Since the end of the Cold War, this number has increased to 20 years…

The figure also shows that rising authoritarian durability has tracked closely with the spread of democratic institutions (elections, legislatures, and parties), suggesting authoritarian leaders have learned to leverage these institutions to enhance their staying power. From 1951 to 1989, an autocracy with multiple parties and a legislature lasted about six years longer in office than one without them (11 years versus five years, on average). Incorporating regular elections (at least once every six years) extended a regime’s life by another year (to 12 years). This power prolonging effect has become even more pronounced in the post-Cold War period. Dictatorships with multiple political parties and a legislature now last 14 years longer than those without (19 years versus five years, on average). Regularly holding elections further extends their tenures to 22 years.

Furthermore, they argue that democratic institutions aren’t just a part of semi-authoritarian states, but that it’s actually a means of keeping states authoritarian. The whole post is worth a read, and presumably the article is too (it’s gated, here). Now, pardon the case study:

Reading the post, I was reminded of Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda. When Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) took power in 1986, they established a no-party government with facets of direct democracy that appealed to peasants across south-central Uganda. Over the years, Museveni has navigated numerous changes to the government and continued to stay in power – part of that strategy has been increasing democratization of the government. (What follows is a real quick summary of a final paper I wrote for a class on political parties a couple of years ago).

The original direct-democracy model of the Resistance Council system sought to provide the people of Uganda with a more democratic and participatory form of government than what they experienced under Amin or Obote. This later became institutionalized as the “Movement” system – a nonpartisan (but in reality one-party) elected government – almost a decade after the NRM came to power.

As calls for multi-party democracy increased, Museveni chose to give in on this issue in 2002, but only in return for the repeal of presidential term limits, allowing the NRM to appear to be opening up the country to multipartyism while simultaneously giving Museveni power in what was supposed to be his last term in office. To make the transition smooth, dissenting voices were bought or dismissed, clearing the path for a new, more “democratic” Uganda. The NRM had complete power leading up to the 2006 elections, in which the opposition faced an uphill battle against a party that controlled the army, the police, the state coffers, and the media.

Museveni also gained support from patronage through a) the military and b) local government. The former he cultivated in the ongoing fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army, and the latter he capitalized on by overseeing the rapid decentralization of government in Uganda. Museveni took the 33 districts that existed when he came in power in 1986 and has since turned them into 111.

Decentralization used the rhetoric of democracy too, giving minority groups within districts the chance to successfully elect a person who truly represented them by giving them their own separate district. Or at least, that was the popular belief. New districts rarely fell along linguistic or ethnic lines, but they did create a whole new tiered system of local government offices that owed allegiance to Museveni.

Another mobilization of democratic ideals for authoritarian gains was the creation of reserved seats in Parliament for women. The Women MP seats helped Museveni harness the women’s rights movements and giving the appearance of a government that was more equitable (regarding gender, at least), but in reality women in the reserved Women MP seats had little power or even a clear mandate (their constituents often overlapped with other MPs’).

Whether its women’s seats in Parliament, the creation of new districts, or the opening up of government to opposition parties, Museveni’s regime in Uganda has been expert at using democratic institutions to remain in power.

(HT Kim Yi Dionne who linked me to (and I think edited) the Monkey Cage post).


References:

Carbone, Giovanni M. “Political Parties in a ‘No-Party Democracy:’ Hegemony and Opposition Under ‘Movement Democracy’ in Uganda.” Party Politics. Vol. 9, No. 4 (2003), p. 485-501.

Goetz, Anne Marie. “No Shortcuts to Power: Constraints on Women’s Political Effectiveness in Uganda.” The Journal of Modern African Studies. Vol. 40, No. 4 (December 2002), p. 549-575.

Green, Elliot. “Patronage, District Creation, and Reform in Uganda.” Studies in Comparative International Development. Vol. 45 (2010), p. 83-103.

Makara, Sabati, Lise Rakner, and Lars Svåsand. “Turnaround: The National Resistance Movement and the Reintroduction of a Multiparty System in Uganda.” International Political Science Review. Vol. 30, No. 2 (2009), p. 185-204.

Mamdani, Mahmood. “Uganda in Transition: Two Years of the NRA/NRM.” Third World Quarterly. Vol. 10, No. 3 (July 1988), p. 1155-1181.

Tripp, Aili Marie. “The Changing Face of Authoritarianism in Africa: The Case of Uganda.” Africa Today. Vol. 50, No. 3 (Spring 2004), p. 3-26.

Voting as a Right

There has been a lot of talk around what some would call liberals’ obligation to vote for Barack Obama this November, followed by a lot of critiques from a marginalized Left. Between his pension for drone strikes and his slow pace on gay rights and immigrant rights, on top of his utter failure to take any sort of stand for far-left ideals, I can see why a lot of people on the Left don’t want to cast that vote. While a vote for Obama can act as a vote against the Republican Party, just how much do we reward Democrats for being slightly less terrible than Republicans? I’m intrigued by this debate, but it’s not what this post is about.

Long ago the idea of voting as a privilege was cast off, with the franchise extended to a number of minority groups. But the remnants of that idea, the idea that only the elite are blessed with the vote, still remain. Many Americans have the opportunity to vote now, but that opportunity is limited in a host of ways, including voter ID laws and disinformation campaigns aimed at confusing voters. In a country where the vote takes place on a work day, with inflexible hours, and rigid rules regarding absentee voting and polling places, it is far easier for the privileged to vote.

It is this fact that leads many to feel obligated to vote, despite the weary mantra that our votes don’t count (and between the electoral college and big-donor-funded candidates, a lot of these votes don’t). That we have the opportunity to vote means that we need to use that opportunity. To be American is to vote.

But democracy doesn’t end with casting a ballot. That’s just where it begins. If your fed up with the two parties, then there’s a lot that you can do beyond just voting for the lesser evil. And in a first-passed-the-post system, I’m certainly not talking about voting for a third party. But if you can’t stomach voting for Obama, particularly if you live in a state not listed as a gradient on polling maps, I don’t care what you do. I hope you’ll still vote in your local and state elections, because that is where tons of liberal reform could actually happen (seriously, foster those ideas in your community). And I hope you go beyond the simple act of voting and decide to take on the act of organizing for change outside the electoral system. The fact of the matter is, voting is a right – and that’s all it is. To be American is to have the right to choose who you vote for – and to choose whether or not you want to vote at all.

We have the right to vote for whomever we want, and that right should matter. Voting should play a role in choosing effective leaders, and it should serve as a voice for what we want to see in our government. To that end, choosing not to vote isn’t surrendering that voice – it’s shouting something entirely different. It’s a protest of a rigged system, and it’s a protest of a party that isn’t listening.