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09 May 2008


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My apologies for the long-windedness of this, but hopefully what follows will be judged worthwhile...

As a university professor myself, I'll start by apologizing for the American-exceptionalist attitudes that led Colonel Lang to his comments about my profession.

But I think the discussions here risk mixing up two separate threads of thought, namely cultural and technological.

The notion that inside every human being is an ugly American wanting to get out is just plain stupid, and reflects a wrong-headed cultural world view that is fed by many institutions in the U.S., including corporate media entities and many so-called Christian institutions. This cultural myopia likely has roots in the modernist movement, as others have asserted here and in previous threads, and might be remedied by post-modern principles (tho I doubt the cure will be found there).

But there is a separate aspect to other nations wanting to be like Americans, and that is their desire for those technologies that support our lifestyle in the industrialized world. Those physical fruits of modernism are not particularly cultural in nature, and have much more utility to the world's citizens than empty promises of "democracy" or "freedom".

For but one example, when Nasrallah asserted this week that the Lebanese cabinet had declared war on his organization, he was talking about government threats to his fiber-optic communications system built with technology invented right here in the good old US of A, and in that regard he was implicitly stating that Hezbollah did indeed want to be "like us", tho not in a cultural sense. He wanted to be like us in having access to western technology (or at least the western technology that possesses some utility for his organization -- I'm not convinced he desires acceess to chrome automotive bling or the latest varieties of fast food).

America has many attributes worth imitating, including an ability to dream up technological marvels that can prolong life and improve its quality, and plenty of the world's people would love to be more like us in terms of our access to clean water, reliable power, and effective health care.

The American-exceptionalist approach to handling these desires for technology is that the whole world should gain these benefits of American modernism as part of a larger package that includes a pro-western government composed of equal parts plutocracy and kleptocracy, and that acceptance of such western technology and culture is best gained at the business end of a modern US-built weapon.

Which is why we end up where we are, with the US as both source of technological inspiration and cultural exasperation. The real question here is how can we help the world on the appropriate-technological front without trying to destroy it on the cultural front, and we aren't doing a very good job of that, especially lately.

My own professorial approach to this is that whenever possible, I work to send my over-achieving students to remote corners of the world where the local folk desire some well-defined parts of Americana, e.g., potable water supplies, or bridges to span those rivers that block the route to the nearest hospital, or perhaps even quasi-cultural gifts such as building practices that are cost-effectively realized with local materials but don't kill much the population when an earthquake strikes.

It's not much, but it's a start, and at least we try to change only that which needs changing.

Patrick Lang


What profession is it that you belong to? Are you a political scientist? If so, I offer you my symapathy. I surely did attack them. Are you a business school teacher? I did not attack them.

Your comment is misguided. My remarks have to do with all the aspects of modernity other than technology. If you think that a Western mindset and Western values are necessary to master technology, then you are mistaken. pl


Colonel Lang:

I am not a political scientist... that is a field that I am effectively allergic to, in fact. I am an engineer by training, and have worked in national security circles for much of my long professional career. I have labored to create both weapons and targets.

I am also a serious student of the history of science and technology.

And if I could summarize the single most important concept I have learned about that field it would be that the conditions for creating truly wonderful technology are very difficult to maintain, so that while all of humanity seems to have some capacity for craft, the kind of societies which can carry out the more miraculous varieties of it (e.g., fiber-optic communication networks such as Hezbollah's) are few and far between.

I happen to know a fair amount about fiber-optic communications, in fact, and this is just one field where I am awed by the incredible set of coincidences that were required to bring this truly wonderful technology into being.

I am definitely not an American exceptionalist, however, and my apology for your business-faculty acquaintance is sincere. Your post made me wince, actually.

In fact, I am genuinely concerned that when the history of this era is written, it will likely be noted that it was the end of American leadership in science and technology, because we increasingly seem to value the opposite conditions to those which foster innovation of the highest caliber. e.g., our increasing inability to think straight as a nation, our continuing lack of appreciation for epistemology, our lack of financial support for public education at all levels, and the intrusion of government and religion into spheres of science, e.g., stem-cell research, climate change, creationism, etc.

And my comments may indeed be misguided (you are the better judge of that), but I was not referring to the particulars of your remarks except in terms of an apology from those of us in academia -- my comments were directed at this thread as a whole, and in particular the question lurking in the background of what exactly other world cultures might perceive that is of value from the American experience.

In other words, I would consider not your question "...and that what is good for us is not necessarily wanted by others?" but instead the related question of "is there good within us that is wanted by others?".

I suspect that what Bush and Cheney think the world wants from America does not bear much resemblance to what anyone really does want from us. I imagine that the people of Iraq would prefer that we share our know-how of how to generate electricity 24/7 much more than we share our peculiar penchant for empire.

Finally, I do not believe that western values are at all necessary for the mastery of technology (as world history amply documents), but I will gladly debate the assertion that the last few centuries of American culture have proven to be a singularly-fertile ground for producing useful inventions, such as have seldom been seen in the history of humanity. Exactly why that is true is one of the mysteries of our age, I suspect.

Thanks for your questions. As always, they make us think, and that is perhaps your greatest gift here.

frank durkee

Significant and or radical changes in technology and their spread have serious effects on all the cultures they impact. Note the cultural shifts around stone, iron, etc. Or steam, electricity, the internal combustion engine and so on. Individual cultures will react in idocyncratic ways which will embody the internal complexity of the culture and the nature of the situation in which that culture is embedded. Jaque Elull, a French thinker of the mid-20th century pointed out that the key value of the modern technological era was to seek the "most efficient means to acomphlish any task". This cuts at the heart of most cultures of any long standing duration, even our own. We are facing choices that were unimaginable to our parents and are still for vast swaths of the worlds cultures. Whatever the response of any individual culture those technological advances will have to be dealt with. Note that rejection is a mode of dealing. So technology and how cultures respond to it, including our own, may well be the only common denominator in the divergent cultural responses. and lest we forget each culture will have divergent and conflicted internal responses.
Perhaps it is appropriate to close this with Jared Diamond's point that Civilization and therefore all cultures save perhaps the Bushman's, are kleptocracies.
What this points to is multiplicity of response both between and with in cultures and the continuing need to know a respect those variations, their incarnated values, and their human outcomes.

Carl Osgood

I'd like to know which "Western Culture" that faculty member was talking about. There's the one that brought forth our Republic with its Constitution in defense of the dignity of every human being. Then there's the one that saddled our Republic with the scourge of slavery and just about every other evil that has afflicted our plant. Unfortunately, most non-Western cultures have more familiarity with that other one, primarily through European colonialism, than our original one, though they always looked to our original culture (which seems to be hard to find these days) for the key to their own futures.


And of course, there is that famous Gandhi quote which reflects his training as a lawyer in the British Empire:
"What do I think of Western civilization?
I think it would be a very good idea."
Mohandas Gandhi


Good one, Col. Lang!

The world is getting smaller, and the cultures are coming more and more into closer contact.

Eventually, if we keep populating, and getting faster travel means and communications technologies, the one world culture is an inevitability.

But that doesn't mean it will be bland, or dominated by one cultural model.

The USA, having been so dominant since WWII, will of course be an influence, even as the British, French, and Spanish cultures continued to be influences in many nations long after their empires had waned.

But the Chinese and Indian cultures will also be big influences on the 21st century globe.

People may not want to be Americans, and why should they? But the USA in the last half of the 20th century symbolized things which are not culture specific: the dream of a materially well-off life, the dream of readily available education for all citizens, and an open political system that tolerates debate of the issues.

I think the world has seen that we have kind of fallen off the track of truly standing for those things. or, to be more specific, what I have personally witnessed is that people still love Americans, but they have seen how our leadership has caved into selfish corporate and political interests over the last few decades.

Nevertheless, the aforementioned values are still desired by the people of the world, whether or not those values have an American face plastered over it.

The new face of those values looks a lot more Asian or South Asian.

China has shown how to go from third world status to economic powerhouse in one or two generations, and all the other Asian countries are trying to learn how to do that.

India has shown that educating your people and giving them technical expertise can establish your nation on the world stage.

And India has shown that a huge Asian country can maintain a (mostly) peaceful pluralistic democracy, imperfect though it may be in their case.

I think the world is looking at their examples now as much as to American or even European models.


Few Americans possess the ability to empathize with humans from other cultures. Robert Olen Butler's stories are a good starting point for discussing what it's like to be an "alien" in America--whether Vietnamese or a space alien.


Col>: The worth of our culture is what WE think it has. Being liked is nice--but optional.

When did we get to be such self-loathing, praise-seeking weenies???


Viceroy Paul Bremer comes to mind.
I can't recall where I read that Iraqi tribesmen were being lectured on the virtues of Jeffersonian democracy - in English. The criteria for being a "lecturer" was party loyalty. And if you had experience on the Bush-Cheney FL 2000 recount team, so much the better.


There are two basic differences collectivist vs. non-collectivist beliefs/deisres. Everyone has a certain goal for material comfort and a belief who is in charge of their destiny. The difference is who you belive is maily resposible, yourself or society. The USA socitey developed from rugged individualist mores of a settler society. Most of the rest of the world developed from some sort of authoratarian society which lends itself to the collectivist mentality i.e. society leads the individual. There are still many in the USA who are looking for the government to make their lives better...human nature.

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