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Humor, glitz are Western too

The belief that science and technology are Western is, of course, understandable. In the past two centuries or so, the West has been in the vanguard of technological innovations. What most people might not readily consider Western are personality attributes such as humor, glitz, and grit? Yet, Western press coverage of other peoples also claims these as uniquely Western.

Coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, is readily illustrative. In a feature story on the opening ceremony, the New York Times (February 7) pointedly applied the yardstick of “Western values,” assigning passing and failing marks accordingly. The opening ceremony was majestic and grandiose, the correspondent wrote, but it was humorless, much like Russian President Vladimir Putin. Like the Summer Olympics in London in 2012, the Sochi event “had much of the artful theatricality but none of the self-deprecating touches that distinguished the London Olympics.”

The correspondent then sums it all up thus:

It was a little bit Alice in Putinland, but also ‘Fantasia’ on the Black Sea and an indication of how much Russia has adapted to Western values since it shook off Soviet rule. Putin may be hoping to use the Games to project Slavic power and Russian exceptionalism, but Friday’s immersion course in Mother Russia had an unmistakable glint of Hollywood make-believe and show business pizazz.

In effect, in seeking to be entertaining, the Russians were aspiring to Western values but just couldn’t quite get beyond themselves.

The Times (February 8, 2014) furthered the idea that humor is Western in its coverage of Thais’ use of humor to cope with their convoluted politics. The story headlined “Taking On Thailand’s Crisis With a Bit of Western Bite” zeroed in on a popular and satirical video production, the “Shallow News in Depth.”

Founded by two Thai-Americans, ‘Shallow News in Depth’ is a low-budget weekly program posted to YouTube that employs a type of Western humor not common in Thailand—acid-laced sarcasm—and draws on the deep well of paradoxes, absurdities and mangled logic of Thailand’s otherwise deadly serious political crisis.

Grit and perseverance too are reported to be Western values, specifically in the mode of American exceptionalism. At least, so wrote an AP correspondent covering the women’s World Cup Soccer in Frankfurt, Germany, in July 2011. Japan had upset the United States in the championship game in a penalty shootout after the U.S. team had twice come from behind to even the scores. The AP correspondent lauded the U.S. players for earlier victories that brought them to the championship, including in a dramatic game against Brazil that also ended in a penalty shootout.

The performance garnered considerable interest back in the United States. As summed up by the AP correspondent, “Hollywood celebrities, pro athletes, even folks who don’t know a bicycle kick from a Schwinn were captivated by the U.S. women and charmed by their grit and can-do attitude that is uniquely—proudly—American.” It is a claim to exceptionalism that seems to rob the Japanese champions of what is more plausibly theirs. They could have attributed their victory to a uniquely Japanese “grit and can-do attitude.”

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