If you believe in the distinctiveness of our culture vis à vis other cultures, the mainstream conservatives call you a “relativist”

(Note, August 13: the discussion continues, with my response to John Press’s culturalist position. While I had started out the entry by approving of his position, I have realized, as a result of his spelling it out in more detail, that I am in disagreement with key aspects of it. In particular, I disagree with his argument that his position is not relativistic.)

In response to the entry, “Truth, Authority, and the anti-Auster right,” John Press, author of Culturism and president of the Brooklyn Tea Party, points out how conservatives dismiss as mere relativism his idea of the importance of culture, and I reply.

Mr. Press writes:

While I do not know enough of your philosophy to comment on the specifics, I very much agree with the need to define our terms and avoid turning to the fascist-baiting tactics on the left or the cultural relativism charges on the right used to silence discourse.

I have coined the term “culturism” as the opposite of “multiculturalism.” Via the use of the term “culturist” I hope to disarm the left’s constant use of the term “racist” to stop discussions around the reality of cultural diversity. But, whereas you get called fascist for having definitions, the right refuses to listen to my ideas by claiming that I am a cultural relativist.

Culturism holds that majority cultures have a right to define, defend, and promote themselves within their domestic spheres. That means that I do not, as others, constantly castigate Islam in Islamic nations. However, in the West, I argue, we should have no tolerance for Sharia law. We also have a right to have culturist immigration laws as others do. Within the West I brook no cultural relativism, but the universalist precepts of many on the right blind them to this subtlety.

So we have both a rock and a hard space. If you do not constantly say our ideals are universal, the right calls you a cultural relativist. If you define your terms, many on the left and right will call you a fascist. And, in addition, no matter what, you get smeared as a racist.

Kudos to you both for holding a position and pointing out the importance of being able to debate such positions. Your entry, if understood, can help the right stay a rich island of ideas and thus be a contrast to the rigid left.

LA replies:

The so-called right which dismisses your idea as cultural relativism could be described as neoconservative mainstream conservatism, or, to use a more precise term, right-liberalism. These conservatives are universalist ideologues who, in an overreaction against left-liberal relativism and the terrible damage it has caused to our culture, deny the substantial fact that the human world is organized into a plurality of different cultures and civilizations. For these universalist conservatives, there can only be one truth for all mankind, consisting of individual rights and equality, and a universal democratic political system reflecting them. The universalists mistake their abstract ideal for the substantive and actual. The actual is that there are different and mutually incompatible human civilizations, based on different and incompatible visions of truth. The experience that initially gave birth to relativism—and that is still the main justification for relativism today—was the disturbing discovery by Christian and Western thinkers that the world consists of a plurality of highly distinct civilizations/cultures/religions. However, it is a huge intellectual error to look at the plurality of civilizations and religious truths and conclude from it that “all truth is relative,” or, more nakedly, that “there is no truth.” To recognize the fact of the plurality of civilizations does not logically and necessarily lead to relativism.

Here is a better way of explaining the plurality of civilizations. There is ultimately one universal and infinite truth, but mankind, in its geographical, historical, cultural, racial, and political diversity, will inevitably perceive and experience this truth in very different ways, and thus embody and express it in very different forms. We could also say that even if Christian truth or democratic truth were the ultimate truth, it would still be the case that other peoples, particularly Muslims, believe in very different truths from ours, and, whether their truth is true or not, we do not have the power to make everyone in the world believe what we believe. We must deal with Muslims as they actually are.

To repeat: the plurality of civilizations does not logically lead to relativism. It does not mean that there is no truth. Rather, it means that different men, situated and constituted differently, perceive truth differently. Thus I happen to believe that Islam is a false and destructive religion that degrades mankind and is a mortal threat to all non-Muslims. I also believe that Christianity is the highest and truest religion and the one that best fulfills the potentialities of human nature. But my belief that Islam is false, indeed the belief of two billion Christians that Islam is false, does not change the fact that Islam actually exists, and, even more important, that it is true to its adherents. Therefore to understand the reality of Islam, we must understand how Muslims themselves understand and experience it. The truth of Islam (a phrase which refers, not to the objective truth of the doctrines of Islam, but to the intelligible reality of Islam as experienced by its adherents) can only be grasped by seeing, at least to some extent, Islam as Muslims see it.

But for the neocons or right-liberals, who believe that there is only one truth, anything that is incompatible with Western universalist democracy, such as Islam, does not really exist. It is merely a mistake, or a type of “extremism.” It is a mad cult of “evil doers,” or the “desperate” terrorist activity of the “dead-enders” (GW Bush’s phrase) who have refused to get with the universalist program. Therefore there is no need to see Islam as Muslims see it. This leaves neocons incapable of recognizing that Islam is a coherent and self-sustaining belief system that has its own internal integrity. At the same time, neocons’ blindness to the reality of Islam doesn’t mean that they dismiss it entirely. Rather they conveniently divide Islam into, on ene side, the “bad” and “false” Islam (i.e., the real Islam), which they say is unreal and a mistake (describing it as, e.g., “extremists who have hijacked a great religion”); and, on the other side, the “good” and “real” Islam (i.e., the Islam that doesn’t actually exist), which is moderate and compatible with democracy.

Here is another way of understanding this neoconservative blindness. Being universalist ideologues, the neocons are imperialists. An empire recognizes only itself as real and valid; all other systems and types of societies that happen to exist in the world consist merely of deluded or recalcitrant people who haven’t yet gotten with the imperial program.

Of course, the Muslims are also imperialists who think that only their way is true and valid and that all non-Muslims are merely perverse Allah haters who haven’t yet gotten with the program and must do so or be killed.

Both the Western neocons and the Muslims are incapable of recognizing the reality of the Other.

Therefore, in the minds of the neocons, someone like you, who does recognize the reality of other cultures, is a relativist and a denier of truth.

LA writes:

My insistence on the substantial reality of Islam and the impossibility of making Islam disappear should not be taken as a dismissal of Christian evangelization of Muslims. I strongly support such efforts and greatly admire the Christian evangelists who seek to save the souls of Muslims. But these efforts should be made in the hope of rescuing individual Muslims from the Islamic darkness, not with the expectation of destroying Islam itself. That is something that lies completely beyond human power.

- end of initial entry -

Lydia McGrew writes:

I would just notice a difference between you and your correspondent, the “culturist” Mr. Press. In talking about Islam and about how he gets called a cultural relativist by the right, he says, “Culturism holds that majority cultures have a right to define, defend, and promote themselves within their domestic spheres. That means that I do not, as others, constantly castigate Islam in Islamic nations.”

You, in contrast, say things about the darkness of Islam and the enslavement of mankind by Islam.

It may be that neither you nor Mr. Press would spend as much time as those you call neoconservatives in talking about evils like the horrific lashings and stonings of women on flimsy “adultery” charges in Muslim countries, female genital mutilation, honor killing, and the like. However, your rhetoric permits and even encourages us in being able to see those things as truly evil. Mr. Press’s way of talking might lead us to believe that within Muslim nations, burying a teenage rape victim up to her waist and stoning her to death isn’t something we should “castigate”—in other words, that it isn’t genuinely and objectively horrible. After all, the people in power in those countries have a right to “define, defend, and promote themselves in their domestic sphere.”

I think it’s important to remember that these matters can have practical relevance to American actions. In Afghanistan, one “majority cultural” practice is man-boy love Thursdays, where men take young boys and rape them. Both our soldiers and Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan have been told not to “interfere” in this practice, even on Canadian bases where they can hear the screams of the boys, because it’s “their culture.” One wonders what Mr. Press would say about this. Perhaps that we shouldn’t be in Afghanistan in the first place. But that rather evades the question. Since we are in Afghanistan, the question is whether the practice is truly evil and whether Canadian and American soldiers who are in the country should be stopping it when they do encounter it, regardless of what the “majority” of the people in the culture think of it.

LA replies:

My position is that as a political society we should have nothing to do with the internal affairs of any Muslim country, because any contact with Islam, and certainly any intimate involvement with Islam such as trying to democratize a Muslim society or cultivate “moderate” Muslims, only confuses us, compromises us, and messes us up. If we had the power to change Islam, that would be different. But we don’t have that power.

However, if we do perforce find ourselves involved in the internal affairs of a Muslim country and have political and military influence there, then we must not accept the hideous Muslim practices you mention. Any area that is within the writ of the United States must not accept ritualized man-boy rape and other horrors. Words cannot describe the disgust that we are in Afghanistan and standing by while these things are happening.

James N. writes:

I have been traveling for the past week through Eastern Canada (Quebec and the Maritimes) with my wife and children.

I will try to compose a longish meditation on this subject when I return, but let me jump in this discussion right now to say, culture (specifically an assertive white-majority culture) seems to be more important than politics OR religion.

Canada has bad politics and worse religion, but it is culturally light years ahead of us.

Let me leave it at that and return to vacation. More to follow.

Art from Texas writes:

If we were to oppose the sodomy of boys in Afghanistan, that would weaken something that makes those who oppose the Taliban distinct from the Taliban. I would argue that because opponents of the Taliban support the sodomy of boys, we should not involve ourselves in opposition to it.

LA replies:

Of course I agree. A fight between one group of Afghan sharia- and sodomy-supporters and another group of Afghan sharia- and sodomy-supporters is one in which we ain’t got no dog.

Kilroy M. from Australia writes:

John Press’s detractors are being nonsensical in deriding as “relativist” his view that Western culture is unique and has intrinsic value. Take the term “moral relativism,” which refers to a “whatever makes you feel good is OK” approach to life. Relativism suggests that everything is interchangeable and nothing has greater objective value than anything else—the exact opposite of the “culturalist” position of Press and those who think like him. It is the multiculturalists who are relativist, not us.

John Press writes:

Lydia McGrew makes a very important and accurate observation. Culturists do not focus on the extreme practices in Islamic nations as much as others concerned with Islam do. To make a few subtle distinctions, culturism holds that culture forms your values, diversity is real, and we are no exception. Acknowledging the reality of diversity means accepting that some cultures esteem acts we loathe. Female genital mutilation (FMG) is done to girls by older women who consider the practice moral. But since we too are also deeply embedded in our culture, we cannot help but consider FMG a horror. Thus while culturism does not advocate going overseas trying to eradicate other cultures’ practices, it firmly denounces their presence on our Western soil.

Furthermore, culturists do have a problem with the universalist precept that the definition of acts such as boy “rape”—as you term it—have the same meaning and horror in Afghanistan as they do in the West: it undermines our sovereignty. Your perspective can justify accepting asylum seekers on a “human rights” basis from all over the Third World. Note that since so-called “human rights” are really only Western rights, the flow of immigrants will only be one way. And what a horror when we discover that cultural diversity is real and that the behavior persists once they move here! We spend time reifying universal moral structures, and the likely concomitant UN agreements, at the cost of our own sovereignty. This is dangerous.

Culturism concurs with Miss McGrew’s supposition and Mr. Auster’s assertion that we should not be in Afghanistan. The policy of trying to make Islamic nations into progressive, rights recognizing, feminist democracies with a separation of Mosque and State presupposes that cultural diversity is ephemeral. While multiculturalism and globalism contend that diversity only applies to superficialities such as food and fashion, culturism holds that diversity is real and important. As Mr. Auster notes in reference to diversity, “Islam actually exists, and … it is true to its adherents.” As such, culturists will not support any policy, from immigration to nation-building in Afghanistan, that assumes that all cultures deep-down esteem the same values.

Finally, to answer Miss McGrew’s statement straightforwardly, as Westerners we cannot help but hate the boy rape in Afghanistan. It would violate our Western ethics not to say or do something about it when it is in front of our eyes, let alone actively to protect the practice as multiculturalists would have us do. And I have no problem lauding our values abroad if it will make us safer. But, while what happens in the rest of the world is not my concern, ultimately, the best way for us to promulgate Western values around the world is for us to drop globalism and be just as culturist as all other nations. Because if the West does not protect its own borders, language, traditional majority culture, and economy—if we fall—boy rape and other horrors will spread unimpeded.


LA writes:

Also, as part of a cover note to the above comment, Mr. Press wrote this to me, which I see no reason not to post along with the rest of the comment:

My response to your comments and those of Lydia McGrew are below. You and I disagree on the existence of an ultimate truth. However, I greatly admire your pragmatism on the subject. To me whether or not our Western view is somehow metaphysically right and that of Islam metaphysically wrong is not crucial. The salient point is the one you make: they THINK theirs is right, and our policy must reflect this reality. Islam exists.

Robert S. writes:

You or some of your readers may not have seen this excellent quotation, as narrated here:

As first noted by Sydney historian Keith Windschuttle, history provides a powerful example of the only appropriate response to “honor” killings and fatal fatwas:

Sir Charles Napier, the British Commander-in-chief in India from 1849 to 1851, signed an agreement with local Hindu leaders that he would respect all their customs, except for the practice of suttee, the incineration of widows. The Hindu leaders protested. Napier replied:

“You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”

August 12

John Press writes:

I love the quote about the British custom of hanging those who burn widows. However, we no longer operate that way. Rather than a rope, if we were to police Afghanis’ sex lives today, we would need to set up a court system for them. If they could not afford one, the accused could then demand their right to a first-rate attorney, who would demand DNA labs. If we could not provide such legal services and modern crime labs in Afghanistan, we would have to move the trial here. If the expensive change of venue and full due process dragged on too long, every child rapist may then demand a green card while waiting in our clogged system. Seriously!

Conversely, if we started hanging the rapists, could you hear the cries of homosexual and human rights groups who would call America Puritanical? It would then become a chic act of rebellion against the evil Western imperialism, à la wearing a Che shirt, to have rough sex with underaged boys. The ACLU would launch legal campaigns to protect the rights of unfairly persecuted boy sodomists! We would have to endure the UN Declaration of Man-Boy Sex rights. Seriously!

While we condemn such acts from our moral point of view and can do no other, do we really want to go down the road of policing Afghani sex lives?

Lydia McGrew writes (in response to Mr. Press’s earlier comments, not the latest):

So Mr. Press dislikes being called a cultural relativist while admitting that he does not believe in ultimate truth! He also speaks of what I call the rape of boys. [LA comments: I do not see where Mr. Press spoke of what Lydia “calls” the rape of boys, as distinct from speaking of the rape of boys.] Well, yes, adult men take boys and sodomize them while they scream, and I call that rape, because it is rape. There’s no “calls” about it. He literally says that this act does not have the same horror in Afghanistan as it has in the West. Tell that to the boys, including the ones who need medical treatment after what has been done to them.

Mr. Press gets called a cultural relativist because he (quite obviously) is a cultural relativist. Perhaps the heading of the entry should be changed: “Make statements that show that you don’t believe in objective moral judgments about good and evil in other countries and mainstream conservatives correctly perceive that you are a cultural relativist.”

Traditionalists need to distance themselves from his approach. It is a false dichotomy to hold that either we must try to reform all other countries by force of arms or that they simply have “their moral truths” while we have “ours.”

LA replies:

I look forward to seeing if the Press view and the McGrew view can be reconciled.

Kristor writes:

I second what Lydia McGrew has said. If there is no objective truth, then nothing Mr. Press says is objectively true. It’s noise; no more.

Julien B. writes:

I had some thoughts about John Press’s “culturism.” Press says he’s against the Afghan custom of raping boys because it’s contrary to Western ethics, but he says he’s agnostic about whether there’s objective truth in ethics, and he seems to think it might be okay in some non-objective sense for Afghans to rape boys. But then how can he subscribe to Western ethical beliefs? Every ethical system is a set of claims about how people, in general, should live. Western ethics doesn’t make claims only about how Westerners should live, any more than Islamic ethics makes claims only about how Muslims should live. A system of rules restricted to how people of this or that kind should live wouldn’t be ethics at all, but something more like etiquette.

A further problem is this. We are supposed to exempt the Afghans from our ethical judgments because their culture is different from ours. But the relevant differences are that they don’t have our ethical beliefs or attitudes. If that’s the criterion, it’s hard to see how there can be any basis for applying Western ethics within the Western world itself, since most criminals are people who just don’t accept or agree with the ethical beliefs of the Western majority. Why not say they too have their own culture too? (In a way they do.) A better solution is to distinguish between what’s true and what’s believed to be true. -

August 13, 1 a.m.

LA writes:

On Friday August 12 Mr. Press sent a 1,600 word comment. I told him this was much too long for a discussion, and could he cut it down to the main points. I haven’t yet heard back from him. I had thought of abridging his comment myself. However, for the moment, here are two paragraphs from his unposted comment that go to the heart of the matter:

Finally, by way of introduction, let me say that I do not—as Mr. Auster hoped—think we’ll agree or resolve our differences. The view that we are objectively better and that the others’ practices are objectively evil is a metaphysical debate that is, in my mind, ultimately unsolvable; often it is often a matter of faith. What I do hope to get you to agree on, are the practical implications of the culturist point of view versus your universalist, human rights, presumption that the foreign practices you list are objectively wrong. And, if you can stomach it, I would hope to get you to see the use of the words “culturism” and “culturist” as powerful tools in protecting the western values we both hold so dear.

Okay, first the practical implications. I have already spoken of how the universal precepts leave us open to the “human rights” regime that, since these are really “western rights” only undermines our sovereignty; Saudi Arabia will not take refugees but the OIC will call us hypocrites if we don’t. So I’ll move on to talking about the impact of our concern with “human rights” abuses on our foreign policy and resolve.

To quote Mr. Press again: “The view that we are objectively better and that the others’ practices are objectively evil is a metaphysical debate that is, in my mind, ultimately unsolvable; often it is often a matter of faith.”

Thus Mr. Press denies the possibility of objective moral knowledge. This means that he is by definition a relativist. (And as I have often pointed out, relativism is the same as nihilism, but I won’t go into that now.)

Second, the practical reason he opposes the possibility of objective moral knowledge is that he is afraid (understandably, given the Bush-neocon view, which, however, has never been put into practices but only exists rhetorically) that if we believe that Islamic cultural practices are objectively wrong, we will feel obligated to invade and take over and democratize every Muslim country.

However, as I myself have argued in this thread and elsewhere, the belief that Islam is objectively bad does not necessarily lead to the idea that we must conquer every Muslim country. Rather it leads most logically to the conclusion that we must simply keep Islam externally weak and unable to intrude itself into the non-Muslim world; that we must isolate and quarantine Islam permanently. This is my separationist policy, which, short of destroying Islam and killing perhaps hundreds of millions of Muslims, is the only way to keep Islam out of our world.

Look at it this way. Separationism has already been tried, and it works. For 300 years, from the end of the 17th century to the late 20th century, Islam was effectively isolated and quarantined. During that time, the bad Islamic practices were practiced in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and Westerners did not bother about them. It would have been like worrying about bad practices in the Alpha Centauri solar system. To the extent we knew about these practices, we believed them to be bad, but we didn’t have to do anything about them, because they were in effect going on in another world that had no effect on ours. And the reason it had no effect on ours was that we had militarily defeated, driven back, and disempowered Islam and also left it behind economically and in other ways.

This Western political non-involvement with internal Islamic affairs (except for such involvement as was contingent on British and other Western imperialism) did not mean that Westerners as individuals and as Christians had to remain indifferent to the souls of Muslims. Christian evangelization efforts went on in the past, and they continue today. I support and commend such efforts. But such Christian outreach to individuals is an entirely different affair from a campaign by Western countries to transform Muslim countries into non-Muslim or moderately Muslim countries.

Thus, to sum up the three positions being discussed here:

  • Separationism combines (a) a belief in the objective moral badness of Islam with (b) the geographical and political isolation of Islam.

  • Culturism combines (a) a strong preference for our own culture plus the denial of the objective moral badness of Islam with (b) the geographical and political isolation of Islam.

  • The universalist human rights view or Bushian/Gingrichian/neocon view combines (a) a belief in the objective moral badness of some aspects of Islam with (b) a global political and military crusade to democratize the Islamic world and make it good.

Culturism seems politically similar to Separationism, but its insistent denial of objective moral truth makes it fundamentally different philosophically from Separationism.

LA continues:

Just after I wrote the above, Mr. Press sent a vastly abridged, three paragraph version of his 1,600 word comment which I had rejected. It is so abridged that it does not even include the two key passages which I quoted and responded to above. Here is his shortened comment.

John Press writes:

The way in which I am not a cultural relativist is that I think our Western values are unique, hard earned, and fragile. And, as a person raised in the West, I could not live anywhere else. Just as you cannot conceive of a culture valuing FGM, I could not will to live in one. To us in the West it is a true horror because it violates our sense of individualism and conscience. I would be 100% out of place in an Islamic nation or China. Our way is superior to us. As we are the product of our culture that is true. And if the West falls, I will have no where to go. My type, my values, will disappear. While it will be a day of triumph for others, it will be a tragedy—no THE tragedy for me. Everything I value will be gone and out of reach. I might as well be dead as the world will become horrid beyond belief to me. The fact that culturists consider the West unique makes it so necessary to vigilantly defend.

It is, in my estimation, the culturists who truly value the West and avoid cultural relativism. Multiculturalists and those who believe in universal values—globalists and the human rights crowd—basically think that (with a few correctable aberrations like boy rape and FMG) all cultures are the same and somewhat interchangeable. Culturists see distinctions in cultures and value their own because it is unique. Other cultures are so fundamentally different that they believe in polygamy and keeping women cloistered. We are the only culture that believes in freedom of speech, the relative separation of church and state, rights, democracy, women’s rights, debate, and other individual-valuing attributes. This the very stuff of our identity. In fact the idea of identity being valuable is western. That is why the West is the only place Western culturists could live in and the only place we’d die for. That is not a statement of cultural relativism; it is a statement of flat out cultural chauvinism to which culturists hold.

Ms. McGrew, I understand your thinking boy rape is perverse and wrong. I too am a westerner. If I saw boy rape (of FMG or polygamy or … here) I’d be the first to confront it. But, we are both westerners. Other cultures have different and competing values. If we do not take our uniqueness seriously, we may lose the clash of civilizations. Ultimately, I don’t think I’ll convince you to think that diversity is real to the extent that I do. I would hope I could encourage you to take Mr. Auster’s original point that, labels that shut down discussion based on simple binaries harm our cause; the term cultural relativism, in this case, obscures more than it enlightens. But, ultimately, I urge you to consider spreading a culturist point of view, rather than a human rights perspective, to safeguard the West. And again, using the words, culturism and culturist are easy, cheap, and effective ways to spread the idea that we have a side to promote.

LA replies:

I disagree with Mr. Press’s argument that his position is not relativistic. Why do I say this? Here is relativism in a nutshell:

I believe in my values, but I also believe that there is no way to choose between my values and yours, or to judge your values as bad and mine as good.

This correct statement of relativism includes the two key elements of Mr. Press’s position: (1) he strongly believes in and prefers the West and would defend it at all costs, while (2) he denies the existence of any objective moral basis for his preference. His entire defense of the West thus comes down to, “I like it because I like it; I like it because it is mine; I prefer it over other cultures because I prefer it over other cultures.” In my view, an insistent and articulate relativism such as Mr. Press’s is not only untrue, it is very weak as a practical basis on which to defend our civilization.

Of course we like our culture because it is ours. But that is not a sufficient basis for liking and preserving our culture, especially when it is being aggressively challenged by alien cultures from without and by aggressive nihilists from within. We also like our culture because it is good. And this two dimensional approach to our culture corresponds with my definition of traditionalism: belief in a transcendent moral order, and in our own culture as a particular historical expression of that moral order.

LA adds (posted 8/13, 3 p.m.):

Also, notice how self-referential is Mr. Press’s defense of the West. He keeps saying, over and over, that the West is the only culture that he and people of his “type” could live in. That’s true, and it’s a valid argument. But I don’t think it’s a sufficient argument. More is needed than “This is my culture and I like it because without it I would not be.” And what I find odd is the insistence with which he excludes any larger arguments and wants everyone to join him in his explicit rejection of philosophy, his rejection of any consideration of what is objectively good.

Steve R. writes:

A hypothetical for Lydia McGrew:

What if an extra-terrestrial highly intelligent life form on another planet threatens us and we travel there to neutralize their threat, whereupon we discover that for a thousand millenia they have been raping their young. Does the existence of universal moral truth oblige us to interfere with their custom while we are inhabiting their planet?

If we did interfere and then other highly evolved, sensitive extra-terrestrials visit Earth and prevent male circumcision, claiming that it is an unnecessary act of barbarism and in conflict with objective moral truth, mightn’t you have a very difficult time defending yourself from the charge of hypocrisy?

Lydia McGrew writes:

When Steve R. makes his rather puerile attempted challenge to objective moral truth, he simply assumes relativism—either moral relativism or epistemic relativism. That is, he assumes either that there is no objective answer to questions about the morality of child rape and/or its comparison to male circumcision as practiced in the West or that it is impossible for us to know those objective answers. Since I deny relativism, I am, of course, unmoved by the hypothetical. Saying that these are extraterrestrials and that they have been raping their children for millenia makes no difference to the matter at all.

The term “hypocrisy” can sometimes be a substitute for clear thinking. It is often used in these argumentative contexts as a clumsy attempt to conceal a false claim of moral equivalence—in this case, the implication that male infant circumcision as practiced in the West is, for all that we can tell, as bad as the sodomite rape of Afghani boys. People who can imply such things with a straight face need to stop and ask themselves where they misplaced the normal moral intuitions with which they, probably, started out years ago.

Nor do I mean to imply by these comments that I hold some special brief for male infant circumcision. I’m not particularly a fan of it and certainly believe it should be done with anesthetic. (I have no sons and hence have not had to deal with the issue on a practical level.) But the implied comparison to what has been done to these boys in Afghanistan is ludicrous and is not something any conservative should be making. (I do not know if Steve R. considers himself a political or moral conservative.)

Josh F. writes:

I suggest that Mr. Press be taken at his word as to not being a relativist. Although Mr. Press is an anti-supremacist, it is clear that he feels protected by our Christian morality while we can sense his fear of liberal “equality.” Cultural relativism, in Mr. Press’ formulation, means ALL cultures are fundamentally “equal.” He does not believe this. He actually FEARS other cultures to the point of suggesting that NO INTERACTION is the best course available to protect our sovereignty. It is not that America must go to Afghanistan to stop boy rape, but that America, having proclaimed (rightfully so) the practice objectively evil, must ACCEPT all boys who have been raped.

Therein lies Mr. Press’ main objection if I am reading him correctly.

We must open our house to the world’s cultural damage.

LA replies:

And I have indicated that his concern is a reasonable one. But my view is that there must be and there is a middle ground between the liberal/evangelical/neocon position, “There’s one universal objective truth, therefore we’re responsible for ending all evil in the world and receiving and succoring all the world’s victims,” and the culturalist position, “There is no objective moral truth, there’s only everyone’s preference for one’s own.”

August 13, 10:50 p.m.

John Press writes:

The word is culturism not culturalism. The word is culturist, not culturalist. The website is www.culturism.us, not www.culturalism.us.

To me, the discussion over whether we are 100 percent relative or absolute, is a violation of the original premise of the discussion. Mr. Auster was upset about the shutting down of discussion by all who define their terms as fascist. I am equally upset about calling all who put forward values as “racist” or “relativist.” [LA replies: To call someone’s position fascist is a classic tactic of namecalling and shutting down discussion; to call someone’s position relativist is not namecalling and is not shutting down discussion. Does Mr. Press want his position to be protected from all criticism? ]

But now we have the discussion on the erudite considerations of “objective truth.” Since, again, I don’t think anyone has presented an airtight metaphysical system in favor of objective universal truth, beyond, “it is what we assert is objective universal truth” perhaps we should leave it alone or show our cards. [LA replies: Mr. Press dismisses the most basic question as “erudite.” It seems to me that the question of whether it is objectively wrong to steal or to bear false witness, or whether it is only our opinion that it is wrong to steal or bear false witness, is not an erudite question, but the most fundamental human question, which no thinking human being can avoid dealing with.] If you want to make a case, prove to me that education is better than teen pregnancy. [LA replies: I have no idea what the teen pregnancy example proves. But what I’m gathering is that Mr. Press wants to prevent any discussion about whether or not there is moral truth. This seems odd, since it was he who brought up the question of relativism in the first place, when he said that his critics had wrongly called his position relativist. I initially sided with him, but then he himself made classically relativist statements in which he denied that there is any knowable moral truth and said that the question of moral truth should be left aside, as mere “metaphysics”; and at that point I began saying that he is a relativist. Mr. Press doesn’t seem to be aware that this is a discussion that has been going on since the dialogues of Plato, in which Socrates’ antagonists, such as Callicles in the Gorgias, seek to ban the question of whether there is a difference between good pleasures and bad pleasures. But it goes back further, to the Ten Commandments., which are presented as an assertion, not of God’s opinion, but of objective truth. Mr. Press wants to defend our culture even as he wants to avoid all reference to the truths upon which our culture is based.]

But rather than metaphysics, I want to discuss Mr. Auster tripartite division of possible outlooks. First, I applaud Mr. Auster’s commitment to our traditional tact of separatism. He, correctly according to culturists, connects the universalist view and military crusades in the Islamic world. He then portrays what I’d summarize as separatism with or without objective truth.

What goes more with the internationalist human rights view? The view that we are unique and special and nothing guarantees our survival because not everyone agrees with the West? Or the view that deep down we are all the same because all humans believe in the objective truth of freedom of speech as well as separation of church and state (etc)? I think the idea that we’re fragile and no metaphysical surety backs our ideals’ survival makes us more protective of our borders and less likely to convert strangers militarily. [LA replies: the correct view is neither of those. The correct view is that our civilization is indeed founded on the experience and conviction of objective moral truth, AND that our civilization—all civilization—is fragile, an island floating in a sea of barbarism.]

I must disagree with Mr. Auster’s supposed contention that my being of my culture and only able to be comfortable in my place makes for a weak attachment to my culture and place. I believe the “my truth is the world truth” view makes us complacent about our borders and prone to international intervention. The universal truth systems seem to obviously make one less attached to their special culture and place.

But, regardless of metaphysics, my main concern is that we fight the West’s blind adoption of multiculturalism and globalism and their commitment to diversity being ephemeral. We can most quickly do so by spreading the easy-to-remember opposite word “culturism.” We can also use the word “culturist” to diffuse the abuse of the word “racism” that stifles conversation. “Culturism” and “culturist” embody the traditional American view that we’re fragile and special. The West needs to regain that sensibility. Use the words today!!

LA replies:

I should point out that the starting point of Mr. Press’s book Culturism is his argument that race doesn’t matter and that defenders of our culture should assiduously avoid any discussion of or concern about race, which he considers “racist.”

I argue that there is an order of existence on which human life and human society are based, and that this order of existence has three dimensions: the natural/biological (which includes among many other things the natural distinctions of sex and race); the social/cultural; and the spiritual/transcendent. Mr. Press wants to assert the cultural dimension of our identity while leaving out, or even prohibiting discussion of, the racial and the spiritual dimensions. Well, ok. Everyone is going to have his own way of defending our threatened culture, and we all have to start somewhere. But, with respect for Mr. Press, I wonder how effective such a defense can be, when it dismisses any concern about our threatened race as “racism,” and derides any attempt to articulate our beseiged moral tradition as “metaphysics.”

James P. writes:

James N. writes:

“Canada has bad politics and worse religion, but it is culturally light years ahead of us.”

I would like to know what he means by this. My own experience of Canadian culture, based on numerous visits to British Columbia, does not support this conclusion. In my view their bad culture reflects their bad politics (in which Leftism runs amok and traditional influences are reviled and suppressed).

James N. writes:

I’ve heard the famous Napier quote many times in support of nation-building.

The problem with the quote is that Napier’s descendants are no longer in charge of Hindu customs, in fact, Hindu (and Muslim) customs are becoming quite common on the Sceptred Isle.

The assumption that Robert S. (and many others) make is that a finite period of sorting out the wogs can lead to a permanent transformation of wogs into gentlemen.

Unfortunately, his UK example may prove quite the reverse—prolonged intercourse with heathens or barbarians may harm the civilizing power, rather than the reverse.

The beloved neocon theory, popularized by the Dunce of Crawford, that a whiff of the grape (or a few hangings) are all that’s needed to bring out the Jeffersonianism which lies latent in the meanest Pashtun hovel remains just that—a theory, and a quite implausible one.

Steve R. writes:

Understandably, Lydia McGrew has entirely missed the point of the hypothetical. I say understandably because commonly people use hypotheticals to make an argument. This was not one of those instances. Although extremely improbable, the hypothetical, if we consider centuries into the future, is at least theoretically possible. Until explained otherwise, I consider the hypothetical to be quite analogous to the Afghan situation.

As a firm believer in objective morality, I am on the fence as to whether our incidental, (and now in Afghanistan, unwarranted) presence in an alien culture obliges us to “counter” their culture when they perform objectively evil acts. For one thing, their ways being alien to me, I wouldn’t necessarily know if the evil act is somehow integral to their culture.

Put another way, if morally we have no right to be forcing ourselves upon strangers in a strange land, are we morally obliged to use force to prevent their objectively evil acts that are (a) common to their culture, and (b) integral to the culture’s existence? I haven’t decided and am still wanting to hear Lydia McGrew’s opinion on the matter as stated above.

Unfortunately, because my hypothetical was misunderstood it led to a misunderstanding regarding the point about male circumcision. First of all, this was just some light thought I had before pressing the send button and I did not mean by it that you, in fact, would be a hypocrite if you were to hold both positions. There is no equivalency and none was intended. As a Jew, I am a firm believer in male circumscision. It is the covenant between God and our people. I do have a son and the experience of holding him during the ritual only confirmed my belief in the rightness of the act. (No anesthetic administered but plenty of wine did the trick).

Lydia replies:

Steve R. clarifies his position and his question for me. My answer is that the extent to which we can stop objectively evil local practices if we have troops abroad is almost entirely a practical question. Certainly we should attempt to do so where, as you (LA) put it, “our writ runs,” especially among our allies, and especially where we are confronted with these evil practices directly within our knowledge and, as it were, “under our noses.” Perhaps Steve R. does not understand the situation. Here is a link to one story showing the complicity of the Canadians in the horrific practice of child rape in Afghanistan. This was taking place literally on a Canadian base and was witnessed by a Canadian corporal. The Canadians have a policy of not interfering with such behavior. The word “despicable” is not strong enough to describe this policy. And, yes, the statement that it was an integral part of Afghani culture is used to excuse this complicity.

LA replies:

I repeat and underscore the point: our policy must be that anywhere we have influence and power, anywhere we are in control, anywhere we have soldiers or police on the ground, we do not allow such things to take place.

James N. writes:

” Certainly we should attempt to do so where, as you (LA) put it, “our writ runs,” especially among our allies”

First of all, our “writ” doesn’t run anywhere our troops are deployed. Specifically, there are no places were the US armed forces have set up a civil administration or a military governorship.

This is, of course, a foolish and perverse policy, but it’s been our policy since the Inchon landings in 1950. Our governments have believed the ridiculous proposition that “setting an example” is not only sufficient, but is in fact superior to, a government by Supreme Commander Allied Powers.

Now, I agree that on American military bases, children should not be raped. Not even Pashtuns.

But the project of GOVERNING these regions is far, far beyond the scope of what our forces are configured to do. Governing heathens and barbarians is contrary to our tactics, our strategy, and our doctrine.

That’s a shame, but, to quote Uncle Walter (RIP), “That’s the way it is.”

LA replies:

“Where our writ runs” was not meant in a literal and narrow sense. It was meant to apply to any situation where we have power and influence.

However, if, as James suggests, U.S. interference to stop such practices going on before our eyes is precluded, then that only underscores what I have been saying in one form or another since September 11, 2001: that we should have nothing to do with the internal affairs of any Muslim country, period. If we need to destroy a threatening regime or a jihadist group, we send our forces in to do it; and then we withdraw them. We do not park our soldiers in any Muslim land. We do not become directly responsible in any way for what is going on in a Muslim country.

Bartholomew writes:

I hope you’ll consider the following argument, in which I try to reconcile the concerns I suspect underlie Mr. Press’s relativism with the logically necessary claims of Mrs. McGrew’s universalism. In short, they each ought not step beyond their respective positions’ proper bounds.

Here it is:

Julien B writes,

“Every ethical system is a set of claims about how people, in general, should live. Western ethics doesn’t make claims only about how Westerners should live, any more than Islamic ethics makes claims only about how Muslims should live. A system of rules restricted to how people of this or that kind should live wouldn’t be ethics at all, but something more like etiquette.”

In other words, because everyone is, essentially the same, everyone should follow the same, essential laws. I agree that this is true of certain, universal aspects of the law: not only Islam, but Christianity, Liberalism and other religions recognize the existence of certain, limited universal laws governing all mankind, and indeed the entire universe.

But I have no idea why Julien believes that a specific law must be universal by definition. If he believes that, then he believes that those who would follow the law are the same, by definition, in every way that matters. But I don’t see any evidence for that. In fact, I see plenty of evidence to contraindicate that: for example, varying levels of alcohol tolerance among human populations.

In a recent study on Korean alcoholism by Oxford University’s Human Molecular Genetics journal, I found the following finding from the Abstract, “The attributable fraction of those genetic factors, calculated based on population controls, indicates that alcoholism in 86.5% of alcoholic patients can be attributed to the detrimental effect of ADH1B*47Arg and/or ALDH2*487Glu in Korean population.” (see http://hmg.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/short/17/6/854)

Obviously, a law specifically for Koreans forbidding the use of alcohol would make much more sense than a Prohibition-like law aimed at, say, Germans: “People of European descent on average have a high alcohol tolerance and are less likely to develop alcoholism compared to Aboriginal Australians, Native Americans and some East Asian groups.” (see Wikipedia)

You asked how we might reconcile Mr. Press’s relativism with Mrs. McGrew’s universalism. One way might be to tell both of them to mind their limits. Portions of the law are universal: namely those that govern what is universal about mankind; portions of the law, however, are specific: namely those that govern what is specific about various human populations. It is an error to reject either the universal or the specific (I think we could make a further argument that the existence of the Specific is itself an aspect of the Universal, but that’s not germane to the topic at hand). [LA replies: We’re in agreement. I have argued that since everything that exists is particular, particularity is part of the universal, and must be accounted for in any universal scheme. See, for example, my article in American Renaissance in 1991 in which I take Leo Strauss’s discussion of the classic philosophic idea of natural right (meaning, that which is intrinsically right) as the basis for good order in the soul and society, and I add onto it the notion of cultural and racial particularity. I’ve just re-posted the key passage from that article in a new entry.]

Now, to the subject of man on boy rape, I think we have to defer to McGrew’s universalism. I see no indication that the bodies of Afghanis are significantly different than those of Europeans. In other words, Afghani boys aren’t any more physically suited to be penetrated by an Afghani man than Western boys by Western men. (And then, there’s always our instinctive repulsion to guide the less philosophically inclined away from that abominable practice).Therefore, the practice is false and immoral. That the Afghanis and Muslims can’t see the obvious falsity of the practice is a further indicator of the falsity of the ideology and belief system that blinds them to it. But as you’ve said, Mr. Auster, Afghani/Muslim ideological blindness is not properly a United States Congressional Budget Office or Pentagon concern. It’s a USCIS [United States Citizen and Immigration Service] concern: namely to keep those so blinded out of the US.

To the subject of Mr. Press’s concern that our admission of universal precepts over all mankind would invite further non-European mass immigration (I’m paraphrasing with an assumption or two), I say not necessarily: not as long, anyway, as neither the universalists nor the particularists tread on the other’s turf, so to speak. I hope that not even Mrs. McGrew would pretend that the Afghanis are racially, linguistically, culturally, etc. assimilable to the US, boy sodomy or female “circumcision” aside. As long as she and the universalists don’t start pretending that man is racially universal/interchangeable; linguistically universal/interchangeable; culturally universal/interchangeable, etc. (which are obvious lies), I have no idea why their universalist objection to boy rape is dangerous to the West. If anything, our silence on the subject is dangerous to our own moral standing before the victims of boy rapists here among us, and the Universal Judge whose wrath our states are tasked with discharging (Romans 13:4).

One more point, in defense of Mr. Press’s skepticism re universal morality. Mr. Auster wrote, “We also like our culture because it is good.” I can imagine Press would object that if we see it as good (i.e., as objectively good), then we would see it as good for everyone. And if it’s good for everyone, then aren’t we evil for shutting others out of it (via restricting mass immigration)? But that’s where I think Press’s particularism has a place: the universal value of particularist homogeneity in any given population translates to specific, protective laws in the US, such as the 1924 National Origins Act, etc. So I think Press’s particularism (“culturism”), justified as a function of universalism, safeguards his concerns while satisfying the philosophical necessity of Absolute Truth.

With admiration and gratitude for your service, Mr. Auster.


LA replies:

Thank you for this. You are reasoning your way through this problem in much the same way I would. This makes me feel that VFR is a kind of school, and that it is helping produce a community of people sharing basic understandings. And as Alan Roebuck says, that is what traditionalism needs to be about.

Jonah O. writes:

Now this is an area in which I am definitely outside the traditionalist loop. There’s something, I guess, that I am missing. I see Lydia McGrew’s assertions of objective moral truth, and I see her stridency, but, again, I don’t see the proof. Just more assertions, capital letters and references to tradition. I suppose that, even entering the question with the best intentions, and wishing to be convinced by the trad. view, I simply cannot divine how these things are not ultimately unknowable. does the objective nature of these moral truths manifest itself in some sort of personal revelation? are we meant to infer it based on the relative success of cultures who follow such precepts? is it simply inbuilt, a gene i am missing? how do you know?

LA replies:

It’s not all that esoteric. We can start with a simple question. Is it wrong to steal?

Now don’t go into some special, hard case, in which a man’s nieces and nephews are on the brink of starvation and he must steal a loaf of bread to keep them alive.

Just take a simple direct case, without any special considerations: Is it wrong to steal? Meaning, is stealing intrinsically (i.e. objectively) wrong? Or is it just our opinion that it is wrong to steal?

Most normal people believe that it is intrinsically wrong to steal. They don’t see this as some impenetrable, esoteric issue, as you claim to see it. Nor do they require some fancy proof to know that it is wrong to steal.

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” In the same way, the knowledge of objective morality is within us.

Bartholomew writes:

I ran across the following remark by you and thought I should retract my implied, though higly conditional, support for Mr. Press.

You wrote,

I should point out that the starting point of Mr. Press’s book Culturism is his argument that race doesn’t matter and that defenders of our culture should assiduously avoid any discussion of or concern about race, which he considers “racist.”

And I would simply ask Mr. Press, “Whence culture?” I suspect it’s one of those heady, complicated, “erudite” matters he’d rather wave away like so many gnats flying about his head. Too bad.

On another note, don’t instances like these illustrate how true our Lord’s words are, “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”

Bartholomew writes:

You wrote,

Thank you for this. You are reasoning your way through this problem in much the same way I would. This makes me feel that VFR is a kind of school, and that it is helping produce a community of people sharing basic understandings. And as Alan Roebuck says, that is what traditionalism needs to be about.

Yes, exactly! You, sir, along with C.S. Lewis, Jim Kalb, and Samuel Johnson (usually), have provided me with an excellent education, and in the case of the first two, it was online. It’s interesting to think about how many more people can be influenced by great thinkers who post online. After all, how many people can your average Harvard professor directly influence? It’s true that the Harvard professor’s students influence a number of people in turn, particularly when those students attain high positions of power. But given enough time, the power of indirect influence must surely work in our favor as well, though it may take longer if we must work our way from the bottom up.

It’s a pity not everyone on the Right sees the potential of the Auster/Roebuck-like school: Why envy those mired in modern academia where the price of “legitimacy” is the compromise of our principles? I guess if we all paid VFR, Kalb and others what we paid our universities, you “professors” might have your comfort and legitimacy and keep your principles. Of course, I’m going to have to pay off my original school loans first!

Aaron S. writes:

John Press wrote:

What goes more with the internationalist human rights view? The view that we are unique and special and nothing guarantees our survival because not everyone agrees with the West? Or the view that deep down we are all the same because all humans believe in the objective truth of freedom of speech as well as separation of church and state (etc)? I think the idea that we’re fragile and no metaphysical surety backs our ideals’ survival makes us more protective of our borders and less likely to convert strangers militarily.

Lawrence, I’ve seen some straw men, but this one really takes the cake. If Mr. Press wants to defend our civilization, he should do himself the trouble of considering more than its (very) latest face.

Your position that a belief in objective truth does NOT commit the believer to expansive, global obligations is a staple of centuries of natural law thinking. Even in the modern incarnation of natural law (take, say, Samuel Pufendorf) there is painstaking effort to detail the contour of our duties in terms of relationship, power, situation, and of course, self-preservation.

I think Mr. Press is laboring under the liberal fallacy that the world is divided into fanatical believers who do harm, and sensible, humane skeptics who try their best to avoid it.

It is the same assumption made by those who look at Christianity and Islam and say, “six of one, half dozen of the other … religious belief always makes for extreme politics when believed strongly enough.”

I want to know just how a view of ourselves merely as fragile, unique, and threatened will rally the peoples of the West. So we’re under siege. So we’re threatened. Don’t we deserve it? (Isn’t this how the thinking typically proceeds?)

VFR’s Canadian leftist reader Ken Hechtman writes:

I like this line of yours. I’m going to use it:

“Of course I agree. A fight between one group of Afghan sharia- and sodomy-supporters and another group of Afghan sharia- and sodomy-supporters is one in which we ain’t got no dog.”

LA replies:

Thanks, but give me credit for it—that is, if you can name me in your circles without harm to yourself.

I thought that the juxtaposition of the elaborate and repetitive wording of the first part of the sentence, culminating in the formal syntax, “one in which,” with the down-home American saying, “We ain’t got no dog [in that fight],” was funny. That’s why I wrote it that way.

Ken Hechtman replies:

Nobody in my circles would know your name. I do talk about you and ___ though. When I get something of value from either of you, I pass it on and I give credit. I refer to you and ___ as “my Nazi friends.”

I use that same construction (highbrow transitioning to lowbrow) all the time. In writers’ workshops it gets dismissed as an amateur’s mistake to avoid. But as long as people like it, I’ll keep using it.

August 15

Ken Hechtman writes:

I’m going to jump into this thread. I have a lot to say on the subject but I initially held off because sometimes you start a thread that really is a conversation that conservatives need to have among themselves and this is one of those times.

But I’ll give you a way to understand the Taliban thinking on the boy-rape problem. They think of boy-rape the way we think of adultery: It’s not a good thing, they wish men wouldn’t do it and they don’t let their own people practice it openly. On the other hand they recognize that men have always done it and always will and it’s not the job of the criminal justice system to put a stop to it. Conversely, they think of adultery the way we think of boy-rape: It is a sin against God and an affront to right-thinking people everywhere and the criminal justice system has both the right and the responsibility to do whatever it takes to wipe it out.

Bartholomew writes:

I was rereading the Universalism vs Culturism thread, when I noticed a correction you had made to my own, primary post, attempting to reconcile the positions. In the seventh paragraph of the post, the second sentence reads, “I see no indication that the bodies of Afghanis are significantly different than those of Europeans.” The sentence I submitted to you read, “I see no indication that the reproductive systems of Afghanis are significantly different than those of Europeans.”

I specifically wrote “reproductive systems” because I do believe it’s possible that the bodies of Afghanis and Europeans differ in some other ways not related to the reproductive system. Indeed, that was the point of contrasting Koreans’ very low genetic resistance to alcoholism with Europeans’ relatively high genetic resistance to alcoholism. Apparently, parts of our bodies do differ, from human population to population, just not in the way we reproduce. And it is this finding—that mankind is the same in some, significant ways and different in other, significant ways—that led me to conclude both universal and particular laws/customs, etc. may have a place.

Is there something I missed though in my argument? Do you see something wrong with implying that the bodies of various human populations differ significantly from one another?

LA replies:

I didn’t think “reproductive systems” was quite right for what you were trying to say. The rectum is not part of the reproductive system, so I changed it to “bodies.” If you prefer that I change it back to your wording, I will, but I think my word choice is better.

Bartholomew replies:

No change necessary. Your logic makes sense.

LA replies:

Thanks. But now that we’re talking about that sentence, I see another change that I should have made in it: “I see no indication that the bodies of Afghanis are significantly different from those of Europeans.”

LA writes:

This entry has reached its maximum size. The discussion continues in a new entry with John Press’s reply to his critics. In reply to my question whether it is objectively wro
Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 11, 2010 01:46 PM | Send

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