Writing intellectual history is a tricky gig. Too often, ideology and hindsight have blinded writers to the facts on the ground, turning history into little more than a self-serving dialectic. Take any of the competing “isms” that have dragged the humanities into an archipelago of quibbling camps over the past century and a half, and you’ll find more than enough evidence of this technique.
Conversely, simple regurgitation of the past is just as lacking if you’re in the business of mining history for nuggets of larger truths. Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit in their new book, Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies, largely have managed to avoid these common pitfalls as they build a layered, cross-cultural critique of the roots of anti-Western bias that has arisen over the last several centuries.
Occidentalism is the name the authors give to a brand of nativist chauvinism that stereotypes the West and its liberal market ideals as essentially weak, soulless and corrupt. If the term sounds a little familiar, that’s because it owes much to the late Edward Said’s 1979 masterpiece Orientalism, which held that Western scholars had produced a false description of Arabs and Islamic culture in order to assert Western cultural dominance against the Oriental “other.” The authors deftly cast Said’s gaze back upon the Orient, however, proving that crude stereotypes can flow both ways. They wisely refrain from trying to refute this pervasive anti-Westernism, in the process situating our current struggle with radical Islam as a new wrinkle in an old story.
The common bogeyman for anti-Western movements is Enlightenment reason itself. In essence, “the West” is shorthand for the secular, pluralistic, consumerist cosmopolitanism the Enlightenment made possible.
But the authors point out that the revolt against the West is itself a Western product that has been exported abroad and cloaked in local prejudices. The German Romantics of the 19th Century complained of a “machine culture” in which higher values were squashed under the desires of the lazy, trivial bourgeois, while the Russian intellectual class of the same era sought solace in their mystical brand of Eastern Orthodox Catholicism, rejecting Western Europe’s Reformation. Both saw disease and decadence in modernism and industrialization, and in the case of the German Romantics, laid the intellectual foundation for Hitler’s perverse glorification of the pure “Volk.”
To practice wholesale character assassination against an entire worldview (which the West’s wildly successful brand of democratic capitalism certainly is), says as much about the hunter as the hunted. “To diminish an entire society or a civilization to a mass of soulless, decadent, money-grubbing, rootless, faithless, unfeeling parasites,” the authors write, “is a form of intellectual destruction.” Indeed it is, and it is precisely such charges that have been leveled against the West since its ascension as an exporter of ideas — primarily its ideas about free will and the distribution of capital — when Europe set out to colonize the world.
Symbolism is key here, particularly the idea of the city. Purveyors of “national or ethnic spiritual attacks on Western rationalism” embrace the lame stereotype of the crude bourgeois lifestyle that favors the city over the country, wealth over art, entertainment over spirituality and comfort over adventure. Whether it be Dostoevsky’s obsession with the concept of a national soul (an idea that gained tragic currency among later fascist movements), Mao’s cultural revolution, or Wahhabism’s violent cultural artifice, the city’s materialism and workaday lifestyle are seen as all that is wrong with the West.
If you stuck a microphone in front of his smirk, our president might say that Occidentialists “hate freedom,” but it’s not freedom they’re fighting. Rather, its what Marx called the “commodity fetishism” of capitalism. The West, according to the Occidentalist’s script, is obsessed with the spectacle of consumption for its own sake, and is populated by “the settled bourgeois, whose existence is the antithesis of the self-sacrificing hero … who must be crushed to make way for a world of pure faith.” But this pure faith often is a chimera that harkens back to a time and place that never existed.
The good news? Up to this point these movements have largely failed in galvanizing large-scale public support without violently seizing control of the means of production themselves. Does this subvert their claim to legitimacy? According to a cosmopolitan democratic reading, most certainly. But the beauty of liberal democracy, warts and all, is that it is willing to accept all the charges leveled against it, rather than simply shouting down its critics as its rivals do.