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Western press’s reconsideration

For the most part, the U.S. press isn’t overly enamored by the nuanced distinction between “Western values” and “our values.” Even when a speaker uses the latter phrasejournalists still report it as Western values, especially in the headlines. In Tony Blair’s speech on “our values,” for example, he did not use the phrase Western values. Yet, that’s the phrase used in the coverage.

Even then some Western journalists are becoming critical of the usage. When in 2014, British Prime Minister David Cameron invoked the clash-of-culture thesis in asking for more security powers, a columnist for The Observer (London) sharply took him to task. “[I]t is not Cameron’s proposals that I fear, it is his rhetoric,” writes Paddy Ashdown in the paper’s August 31, 2014, issue. “He recently told us that this fight was about defending ‘western values.’ I cannot think of any phrase, short of those used by George Bush during the Iraq war, which more damages our ability to win this battle.”

Ashdown argued that the phrase alienates the vast majority of Muslims, who also deplore Islamists’ ideology and violence. “The truth,” Ashdown continues, “is that this increasingly brutal and dangerous battle will not be won for our ‘western values’ but for the universal values which underpin and unite all the world’s great religions and philosophies—including, perhaps especially at this moment, Islam.”

A Canadian journalist expressed the same concern. “If you want to identify the most harmful idea in the world, it would be hard to avoid the phrase ‘Western values,”’ Doug Saunders wrote in The Globe and Mail (Toronto) on August 23, 2013.

From over here, it doesn’t sound so bad. In North America and Europe, the expression is simply a commonplace bit of chauvinism, a historically naive way to suggest that various good things—equal rights, multiparty democracy, the rule of law,

Democracy is Western 19 open economies, freedom of speech—were the product of, or are uniquely held by, European-origin cultures. However historically and geographically inaccurate, we don’t mind the phrase because it represents a set of hard-won qualities we’re rightfully eager to possess and defend.

In the column in which Walter Williams asserted the superiority of “Western values,” he also added this caveat: "ONE NEED NOT be a Westerner to hold Western values. A person can be Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, African or Arab and hold Western values” (capital letters his).

That raises the question, if non-Westerners can hold “Western values” just like Westerners, why is it called “Western values”? Is it a value that is inherent in Westerners but may be acquired as a secondary attribute by others? Not by the logic of Williams’ subsequent sketch of the evolution of “Western values.” “The Western transition from barbarism to civility didn’t happen overnight,” Williams writes. “It emerged feebly—mainly in England, starting with the Magna Carta of 1215—and took centuries to get where it is today.”

If then “Western values” took so long and so much effort to implant in the West it couldn’t have been Western to begin with. It is more logical to see the West as the “bridgehead,” as Francis Fukuyama describes it. (This is elaborated upon in Chapters 11 and 12.) As to the West’s “transition from barbarism to civility,” contemporary events such as neo-Nazism, xenophobia, and mass killings would suggest that it remains a work in progress. And that further makes the phrase “bridgehead” the more logical way to think of the Western genesis and realities of liberal democracy.

Notes

  • 1 Remarks by President Trump to the People of Poland, Krasinski Square, Warsaw, July 6, 2017. https://www.whitehouse.gov/brieftngs-statements/ remarks-president-trump-people-poland/.
  • 2 “A Force for Freedom,” Speech by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at Carnegie Europe, September 16,2014. https://www.nato.int/ cps/en/natolive/113063.htm?selectedLocale=en.
  • 3 Patrick J. Buchanan, Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025? (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2011).
  • 4 John Gallagher and Eric D. Patterson, Debating the War of Ideas (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009).
  • 5 “A New Beginning,” Speech delivered by President Barack Obama in Cairo, June 4, 2009. https://nypost.com/2009/06/04/full-text-of-obamas-new-beginnings-speech/.
  • 6 “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on Syria,” by President Barack Obama, September 10, 2013.
  • 7 “Transcript: Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy Speech,” Riyadh, April 27, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/28/us/politics/transcript-trump-foreign-policy.html.
 
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