OCTOBER 10, 2001
"American" Values Abroad
-- William R. Burrows
Listening to programs like Leonard Lopate's New York & Company on National Public Radio, and reading the editorials in the New York Times in the wake of September 11th, I find myself amazed by the lack of cultural self-awareness among many Americans. Pundits, writers, and callers seem to have no sense that the kind of "neutrality" and "fair-mindedness" that they try to bring to issues like Western-Muslim relations emerge from a particular religio-cultural situation. They can't imagine their values as the objects of ridicule.
Indeed, the very Enlightenment principles that America's religious and secular progressives presuppose are the ones that many culturally and religiously sensitive people in the Middle East and elsewhere believe are responsible for the erosion of values in their societies. This is no excuse for condoning or sponsoring terrorism. It is, however, one of the reasons that religious ideals have been hijacked and drafted to serve diabolical purposes.
As a son of the Enlightenment, I would like to see us argue abroad for the Jeffersonian principles of freedom of speech, and freedom both from and of religion. Instead of arguing this case, our consumer-driven entertainment industry, and pragmatic business culture bombards traditional societies with overt and covert messages that are anarchic in other contexts. Few seem to care how deep the resentment of our cultural invasion is in many societies.
It has been common to talk of our military and economic hegemony, and "blowback" from our support of dictators and groups like the Mujahadin in the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. We can see the results of working on the principle that the enemy of our enemy is our friend. It is far less common to hear serious analysis the effects of our entertainment exports on other people's cultures. Yet, if I am right, cultural "pollution" touches far more people, far more directly than any other American artifact or business. The profits gained by Hollywood in overseas markets equal, if not exceed, those of the arms industry. Our secular cultural leaders, however, have such a deeply held belief in free expression, that they hardly raise their voices on this topic. Our religio-cultural left seems so intent on distancing itself from Jerry Falwell and Pat Roberston domestically, that it has little time to cast an eye abroad.
I carry no candles for the Taliban or for terrorists of any stripe, but as I listened to a call-in show with the head of the American Civil Liberties Union as the guest, I saw no evidence that she understood the depth of the animus toward her brand of secular constitutional theory. Both she and her host seemed unaware that truths we hold to be self-evident are anywhere in dispute. Neither reflected on the imposition of secular values through the trade in entertainment commodities by companies that care little whose crockery they are breaking.
What is needed in both the short and long term, is a sense on the part of the American populace and its intellectuals, on the right and the left, of the non-universality of our formulations of fundamental religious and human rights. We need to begin a major national debate about the quality and effect of our presence in the world. With a new level of self-awareness of our ideals and practices, and their effects on the rest of the world, we would be a much better partner in the encounters that are needed to deepen mutual comprehension among the world's religious and secular peoples.
-- William R. Burrows, Ph.D., is the managing editor of Orbis Books.