Samson Blinded: A Machiavellian Perspective on the Middle East Conflict
[ Civilization and economy ] [ Culture and development ]

Religions converge. Protestantism, no more like Catholicism than Orthodoxy, merged with Catholicism into Western Christian culture. Various cults are amalgamated into Hinduism, and “Judeo-Christian” has broad application. People, willing to accept ethical restrictions to avoid offending and provoking neighbors, moderate the expression of their beliefs—and eventually, the beliefs. Civil regulation and ethics, practical steps to paradise, cannot differ significantly among religions whose adherents live together. Religions adapt to modern realities, such as equal rights for women and coexistence with infidels, and reinterpretation spills onto other theological issues, revamping religions along similar lines. Scientific skepticism ridicules theological postulates, and compulsory secular education expunges religion from children’s worldview. “You cannot serve God and Mammon,” and people, unable to pursue two major objectives at a time, go for affluence when it is realistically attainable; pious Muslims live in Paris rather than in dar al Islam and orthodox Jews in New York rather than Jerusalem. Renaissances are rare and short-lived in religions, just as in cultures. Fundamentalists are few, and most people despise them. Religions rely on absolute authority and oppose innovation. Absent continuous updating, any system eventually dissolves into homogeneity.

Religions promote salvation, an absolute good, and rely on absolute credibility. Possibly, Absolutist monotheism could supplant polytheist cults. Accept a monotheist deity in the pantheon, and monotheism becomes the Trojan horse that forces the other deities out. Polytheism lacks the barrier of intolerance. Societies that practice polytheism and ancestor worship are vulnerable to Christianizing which succeeded spectacularly in Korea. People are uncomfortable with absolute values and prefer complex balancing systems. Polytheist elements eventually re-enter monotheist religion; Jews kiss the Torah scrolls, and Christians venerate the Virgin Mary.

Paganism resurfaced in the Christianity that overpowered it. Could not indigenous beliefs resurface from under Western influence? Christianity, a theory, was adapted to daily life by borrowing time-tested pagan practices. Western culture—from ethics to economy to art—was tested through centuries and found a better performer than any other. It is not, actually, Western culture but a universally optimal culture the West was the first to discover. Elites flirt with sword fighting and haiku, but populations prefer boxing and sumo, paperback thrillers and cartoons. The economy of abundance created a mass demand for culture, and that culture, serving the lowest common denominator, is alike across the globe.

After some initial irritation, people get used to others’ values: Catholics and protestants are no longer hostile. Values become less urgent, and a renaissance is unlikely; few Muslims answer the fundamentalists’ calls and those not for long. New, often common, enemies emerge to push former opponents toward cooperation.

Cultures likely converge, for the same reason single standards emerge. People and influences travel farther and faster, creating a more homogeneous global society. Indigenous cultures are increasingly relegated to a tint on mass culture, as major corporations build additional features on top of standards. Global culture is not static: wider audiences mean more influences. Neither is culture coherent: rather it consists of different strata catering to different layers of society. Why, then, it is not stratified by ethnic and perhaps religious preferences? Because they are weak and dissolve steadily. New trends continuously emerge in culture, stratify to meet the demands of various audiences, and blur. Ethnic identities are static; once blurred, other ethnic identities do not replace them. The Japanese attempted to reinvent their identity in the late twentieth century, and came up with their technological ultra-development. Such cases of changing identity are rare and do not last: continuously changed identities cease to identify. Japanese-Americans assimilate well.

Cultural convergence is not entirely a modern phenomenon. The Romans assimilated Greek art and science, medieval Arabs studied Greek manuscripts, and Renaissance Europeans took Roman law for their model. Culturally blank-slate societies are bound to adopt foreign practices; if Muslims wanted to develop the art of painting, they could only copy others.

Most cultural differences are only myths: bloodthirsty Muslims, patient Asians thinking in terms of millennia, Confucians seeking consensus (in autocracies), and cultured European masses. Analysts looking from afar see cultural rebound where in fact only their foreigners’ awareness of that culture increases. The locals see their traditions eroding. Increased contact dissipates preconceptions.

Besides importing Western culture directly with American films, societies import it with goods symbolic of the West. Likewise, interest in Japanese culture coincided with the Made in Japan expansion. As long as the West retains the technological lead, it will develop most of the symbolic products and keep its culture attractive.

Muslims who watch American movies have never heard of the Magna Charta, but the name also rings hollow to many Westerners. Mass culture is not about philosophy. Hollywood blondes in Cadillacs arouse similar feelings throughout the world. Values—individualism, freedom, respect for law and property—are not imported but develop painfully and slowly alongside and mutually supportive of economic progress.

There is nothing wrong with mass culture or modern morals. Peasants and similar majorities had very simple tastes in art; refined art belonged to the elites. The divorce rate might be historically high now, but extramarital relations, essentially the same thing, were always popular. Aesthetes view mass culture with contempt, and puritans view mass morals likewise, though neither are below the historical norm. Corporate employers gripe about declining work ethics; Greek slave owners had similar complaints. Things change shape, internet newsgroups replace neighborhoods, but human nature persists.

Power does not usually expand culture. Forced conversion of the whole populational and full annihilation of earlier traditions is the norm. Culture spreads through attraction. People acting in self-interest choose pleasant and indulgent cultures that further their interests, especially when elites no longer control acceptable private behavior, learning, and information to shape cultures for the communal needs of states. Victors often adopt the culture of the vanquished. The West might not remain dominant, but its culture might nonetheless survive.

Heated calls for the preservation of indigenous cultures against the onslaught of the West show that they are endangered—and doomed. Most never actually existed as a mass phenomenon. Only elites practiced them and took the indifference of populations concerned only with survival as consent. The Japanese public has no use for the complicated art forms, and the Chinese do not want Confucian obedience, which was forced on them. The Chinese adhered to the analects as little as Europeans to the idealistic dicta of the gospels.