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March 01, 2004

All of a piece

I was rather rude in the comment threads of this Matthew Yglesias' post dissing Samuel Huntington's The CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS AND THE REMAKING OF WORLD ORDER. Thank god that GNXP readers tend to back up their jack-ass assertions with some links or references.

But in any case, the criticisms of Huntington are familiar it seems, as he threw up Platonic ideals of discrete and disparate civilizations that were not particularly difficult to quibble with on the microscale level. I won't deny that there were many times when I read Huntington's book that I thought to myself, "but that's just wrong!" But if I didn't want to have that experience I really should have decided to read a book by a political scientist who uses the Shan people of Myanmar as "model organisms" and details their social and historical background to a level of obscure minutiae that I would just have to trust on faith.

Huntington's problem lay in the fact that there are multiple axes of evaluation or multiple sets that many nations belong to. South Asian Muslims share much with West Asian Muslims and South Asian Hindus. Mexican and Peruvian culture is a synthesis between indigenous and Iberian antecedants. Thailand is Fujianese overseas Chinese "Confucian" culture superimposed (ergo, Bangkok's economic dynamism) on a substrate of Theravada Buddhist Thai society, which itself is an exoganous cloak of Indian high religion & philosophy over a core of animist southeast Asian tribesman.

The value of these typologies must be evaluated by the information that they provide, and the predictive value that they have. Problems arise when outsiders make evaluations about a culture from afar and miss obvious nuances. To give a particular example, Argentina is a nation that is about 40% Italian (by origin), with large Jewish, Syrian and north European minorities who influence the texture of its Spanish speaking identity. And yet many North Americans just slot it into the "non-Mexican Latin American" category, as if its heavily European orientation in comparison to Bolivia or Nicaragua is inconsequential.

Typologies matter, and are not things of little importance. Turkey's Westernized elite seems to think that marketing and wishfull thinking will make Europe accept them as European. The glitz and glamor of European Turkey makes it qualitatively different from Jordan or Kuwait, nations that are most definately of the Near Orient, yet still I suspect most Europeans would assert that Turkey is of the Dar-al-Islam. There are functional differences between Turkish culture and society and European Christian/post-Christian culture that a Latin alphabet and a French fidelity toward Church-State separation can not obscure.

Related note: Godless and I have been having a short exchange on comparative religion and the idea that people of different faiths might approach religious issues in a qualitatively different fashion. This works back into the typological issues above.

I think that wariness of cultural typologies because of ignorance or the fear of ignorance has lead many people to state weird things about religion. Over at Shanti's site I used to run into people of various religions generalizing about each other. One of the most common assertions was "all religions are basically the same," which to me was a statement not worth saying since it didn't add much to the conversation. Yet this sort of tendency crops up when people assert that "we all worship the God of Abraham" as they try to play up Judeo-Christian-Islamic unity (for political reasons). There are similarities and differences , but the fear of typologies, the fear of errors, seems to push people back toward these default catchall generalizations which serve only as salves for political discomfort.

The easiest typology, that is almost self-evident, is that the Abrahamic religions are qualitatively different from the Indian and Chinese faiths. I think this is a trivially boring assertion, but I've had to assert this on message boards as if it's news. The interesting thing though is that people who have just babbled about "how all religions are the same" will often agree that there is "something different" about the religions of Abraham. They just needed to be prodded into admitting what they already knew!

Posted by razib at 02:56 AM