The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Sometimes it’s the small things that give you a clear window into a culture. In one of the best op-eds written in the past year, David Brooks (New York Times, subscription only) defines an interesting cultural metric – the number of unpaid parking tickets given to UN diplomats in New York City.
Between 1997 and 2002, the UN mission of Kuwait picked up up 246 parking tickets per diplomat. Diplomats from Egypt, Chad, Sudan, Mozambique, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and Syria also commited huge numbers of violations. Meanwhile, not a single parking violation by a Swedish diplomat was recorded. Nor were there any by diplomats from Denmark, Japan, Israel, Norway or Canada.

Brooks argues that the reason for such wide variations in these minor infractions has nothing to do with economics (UN diplomats do not pay parking tix). Rather, these variations are caused by “cultural and moral norms.” If you’re Japanese or Israeli, you simply don’t park in front of a fire hydrant, no matter what.

Brooks addresses this issue when he states:
All cultures have value because they provide coherence, but some cultures foster development while others retard it. Some cultures focus on the future, while others focus on the past. Some cultures encourage the belief that individuals can control their own destiny, while others encourage fatalism.

In his new book, The Central Liberal Truth [Lawrence E.] Harrison takes up the question that is the center of politics today: Can we self-consciously change cultures so that they encourage development and modernization?

This should be, of course, the central question of modern liberal thought – can an external stimulus result in internalized cultural change? It applies to poverty, to lawlessness, to virtually all of society’s ills. Ironically, it is also at the crux of President Bush’s ill-fated attempt to change cultures in the Middle East, and at the crux of the Left’s argument that we need to change our actions (an external stimulus) in order mollify the Islamofascist culture in order to change it (make it peaceful).

Brooks describes Harrison’s research findings:
They [Harrison and his colleagues] concluded that cultural change can’t be imposed from the outside, except in rare circumstances. It has to be lead by people who understand and accept responsibility for their own culture’s problems and selectively reinterpret their own traditions to encourage modernization.

Harrision reports that “cultural change is measured in centuries, not decades.”

What does this say about Bush and the Left, strange bedfellows in this arena. I fear that both are being unrealistic.

Bush believes that democracy can change a culture, yet there appears to be little public recognition within middle eastern cultures that there is an internal problem that needs to be solved. These cultures whine (it’s the only reasonable word to use) about external “oppression” and wallow in their perceived fate.

The Left believes that our interaction with Islamic world has much to do with the Islamic world’s evolving fascism (although the Left hesitates to use the term). And yet, from within Islam itself, there are relatively few voices that “accept responsibility for their own culture’s problems and selectively reinterpret their own traditions to encourage modernization.”

Is it possible that both the Left and the Right have good intentions but are trying to solve an intractable problem? Is it reasonable to assume that Islamofascism will continue to grow and spread, regardless of benign external stimulae and until leaders within Islam “accept responsibility” for its present state? I think the answer to both questions is “yes.”

That leaves the West with a singular truth. In the words of David Brooks: “We’ll just have to fight the symptoms of a disease we can neither cure nor understand.”