29 March, 2006

Cultural Imerialism, Foundations and Tolerance of the Intolerant

Mark Steyn in the Chicago Sun Times last Sunday:

In a more culturally confident age, the British in India were faced with the practice of "suttee" -- the tradition of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. General Sir Charles Napier was impeccably multicultural:

"You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: When men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours."

India today is better off without suttee. If we shrink from the logic of that, then in Afghanistan and many places far closer to home the implications are, as the Prince of Wales would say, "ghastly."
H/T: Jim Geraghty at NRO, the rest of which is also worth reading. Synopsis: Abdul Rahman's prosecution may be a tipping point in the long-running debate about whether Islam is mostly benign - recently perverted by a radical fringe but otherwise able to coexist with other faiths and cultures - or whether the few 'moderate' Muslims brave enough to speak up are in fact a tiny, non-representative apostate that the majority would sooner see killed. It's a question that Chester addressed earlier this month, nicely fleshing out the logical (if frightening) implications of the latter answer.

Re. Steyn and his reference to Napier: Brilliant. Flippin' brilliant. And no, the point is not about the death penalty. It is about our timidity in standing up for our own culture and values and legal frameworks and even religious heritage. In the rush to uncritical political correctness, what's often overlooked is that, in order to be consistent and meaningful respect and tolerance must encompass the culture that gave birth to those ideas. If all other cultures but mine are exempt from criticism and any effort to change them then the very foundation of respect and tolerance falls apart.

I'm reminded of an artist neighbor who decided about eight years ago that he'd like the look of his house a lot better if it rested on glass blocks rather than poured concrete. (True story.) Over a period of months he painstakingly removed his foundation, temporarily supporting the structure on jacks. Then he discovered that glass blocks wouldn't actually support the weight of the house after all, which didn't really matter anyway because he'd run out of money - this ill-advised venture having become his total obsession.

The family lived in the house for a time... until the soil started eroding back down into what had been the basement, threatening the integrity of the neighbor's house a few feet away. (Thankfully not mine.) Lawyers got involved and the building inspector came, condemning the house and forcing the family to leave in a hurry. For months, I walked by on my way to the train. Furniture, kids toys, paintings - all of it was still in there. You could see it through the windows. As far as I know, they were never allowed to retrieve any of it. Sympathy reserved solely for the poor kids who had this nut as a parent.

Then one day - the legal issues apparently resolved - I walked by and found... a pile of rubble. The house had been torn down after the bank had foreclosed. The foolish former owner - the artist with the "better" (read: new! creative! different! unprecedented!) idea for a foundation - had literally destroyed what had supported his comfortable and presumably happy life. A new house went up within weeks. Sane, responsible people moved in. Planting flowers seems to be their primary means of self-expression. No do-it-yourself ideas of architectural grandeur.

I never knew the man's political leanings. In this neighborhood however, it's a 10:1 bet that he'd have been a conservative, thus illustrating what conservatives are for. Conservatives are for not tampering with culture and legal structures until it can be shown with near absolute certainty that they are not foundational - that they will not (gradually, then rapidly) destroy everything else that sits upon them, including the clever people who think that new means 'better', change means 'good' and 'progressive' has any meaning at all without a clear destination in mind.

Rich metaphor. And really - a true story. To bring it back around, we seem terribly quick in assuming - as a society, and even as American policy - that the Muslim world is benign and that its foundations are made up of moral and legal material that's as strong, durable and carefully constructed as our own (or at least not so different as to warrant wholesale replacement). Meanwhile the liberal fringe seems bent on finding every last pebble out of place in our own concrete foundation, picking them out piece by piece, taking a pick-axe to some and jack-hammering others where they can get away with it.

The replacement? An untested melange of glass brick and new ideas that may or may not support... anything. When the knowledge of why the foundation is constructed as it is - or why it is even there - is finally lost or dismissed, the singular determination of radical Islam will prevail. It is only a matter of time.