The Myth of Western Progress

In his article entitled “Looking for freedom? Check a mirror,” Ron Grossman argues that the self-hating Western critics are working on unfounded assumptions that their society is chauvinistic, the oppressor to Eastern victims, and the creator of all the world’s ills. He believes that democracy is an originally Western concept; that unlike other societies, the West is able to exhibit modesty and openness to other ideas; and that, although the East used to overpower the West in the Middle Ages, Western civilization is essentially better than any nonwestern culture due to technological advances made in the past few hundred years. While I agree that, in some sense, the West is unjustly under attack from Susan Sontag, I do not assume a stance as extreme as Grossman. Although the West is undeserving of terrorist attacks, it is not deserving of unlimited praise, either. This is because I question the Western model of progress to which Grossman so wholly subscribes.

It is indeed ludicrous what Sontag said about the September 11th attacks: “[T]his was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions." Her logic that the American superpower government received its due for interfering in international affairs must be flawed because if fails to take into account the fact that the thousands of victims of 9/11 were not all government officials but innocent civilians, many of which were probably not even American-born. Hers is a logic of retaliation whereby the terroristic elimination of civilians is permissible. I doubt that Sontag would have advocated dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, which killed tens of thousands of innocent Japanese in an instant, so how is it fair that she could advocate the attack of an American building of commerce that is more a symbol of capitalism than militarism?

Ergo, it is easy to see why Grossman could take exception to her logic—the vast majority of Americans would, as would any humanitarian in the entire world. Western Civilization does, indeed, have enough credibility to be considered undeserving of terrorism and other threats because the murder of civilians is not acceptable in any form, for any reason. Yet in using Sontag’s flawed perspective as a talking point, Grossman takes the easy way out. He does not effectively counter more moderate views of dissent against the West.

I say that he counters moderate views ineffectively because he does address the issue of progress and advancement, albeit proving nothing in the process: “During the middle ages, the high point of non-Western aggression on Western peoples, the West was a puny thing. The Muslim world was far advanced over Europe. So was China. But once freed, Westerners began to tip that cultural balance.” By whose standards was the East more advanced in the Middle Ages and the West more advanced in modern times? Grossman does not use any historical or statistical evidence to prove his point. He would rather state his opinion as fact and have us accept it as such.

He fails to ask himself the following question: Would critics in the East honestly say that their own advancement has remained static while the West has shot off into greatness? In a word, no. But even if he had, what could he use as evidence? Perhaps he could rattle off a list of technological inventions, as if naming a handful of gadgets can somehow prove the superiority of the West. Perhaps he could analyze which culture exploits which, and determine that the exploiter is greater than the exploitee—even though the former group would not be what they are without the people they utilize. Sure, American Southerners prospered in the cotton industry, but only because they had help from African slaves, who should be credited for the Southerners’ success because they did the actual work. Sure, early English colonists learned to thrive in Jamestown and Plymouth, but only after the Native Americans traded essential goods with them and imparted knowledge of how to grow New World crops.

While a Westerner may view his society as being better for his or her own reasons, an Easterner may view his or her own society as being better for other reasons. The fact is, there exists no set, inherent list of criterion for judging the goodness of any civilization because no two societies use the same scale in measurement. If there is no absolute standard for societal goodness, how can such a thing as true progress exist? A progression in one man’s mind may be a regression in another’s, because they perceive the concept of progress differently. This is illustrated in modernist films that depict the world as soulless and robotic after two centuries of the industrial revolution; those same inventions the filmmakers deplore are seen as achievements to others. Capitalists who made money from industry received criticism from Communists, who realized the system was unfair to the proletarians who receive too little of the profits as their salary; Communists who finally staged a revolution in Russia received criticism from Capitalists, who realized that Stalin’s practice of murdering all who opposed him was horrendous. In short, the fact that no two societies agree on one clear definition of advancement nullifies the Western model of progress. If no one agrees, how can anyone be right?