No Ivory Tower:
CC's 125th Anniversary Symposium
By LIEF CARTER, McHugh Family Distinguished Professor
(with much appreciation to Joseph Sharman '97, symposium administrator)
hen we organized the college’s major anniversary symposium on the topic, "Cultures in the 21st Century: Conflicts and Convergences," we knew we had a topic that linked the life of the mind to critical world problems. When virtually all of our "first string" choices for speakers -- some of the world’s finest thinkers and writers on subjects that ranged from Chinese philosophy to populist politics -- accepted our invitations, we knew the event would succeed. But we did not know that, a few weeks later, war would break out in the Balkan countries.* Many of the ideas developed and debated at our symposium provide critical insight into the nature of the Balkan tragedy. I describe a sample of these insights here.
At least when describing the chaos engulfing the former Yugoslavia, we speak in a vocabulary of culture. It seems overly obvious to describe this war as a clash of cultures. But is such a description accurate? Would these cultures have clashed without economic, political or geographical difficulties? Was authoritarian communism the only reason the Balkans didn’t Balkanize earlier? Or are the worst of human conflicts, in the Middle East, for example, as well as in the Balkans, driven by religious, linguistic and other cultural, perhaps even "tribal" differences, differences that transcend calculated political and economic self-interest?
In his keynote address, Professor Samuel Huntington, director of the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, described war in the Balkans as a "bloody clash of civilizations." Perhaps even more frightening, he described the Balkans as a microcosm of the larger cultural conflict looming over southeastern Europe:
"In the Balkans during the Cold War, Greece and Turkey were in NATO, Bulgaria and Romania were in the Warsaw Pact, Yugoslavia was non-aligned, and Albania was an isolated sometime-friend of communist China. Now Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece are coming together in what they term an 'Orthodox entente.' Slovenia and Croatia are moving toward integration with Western Europe. Turkey is resuming its historic connections with Albanian and Bosnian Muslims. The old antagonism between Greece and Turkey, suppressed during the Cold War by their shared fear of the Soviet Union and communism, has revived; Greek and Turk fighter planes challenge each other above the Aegean; an arms race is underway on Cyprus, and Greece is becoming, in many ways, more of a partner of Russia than of its allies in NATO."
"The 21st century is at least beginning as the century of culture, with the differences, interactions, and conflicts among cultures taking center stage."
Professor Huntington displayed a map of Europe on which a vertical line separates developed, Western, Roman Catholic, and Protestant countries from Islamic and Orthodox Christian countries. Along this line, he argues, our worst conflicts have erupted. The Balkan War certainly seems to confirm the Huntington thesis. The West must be prepared to defend itself against other cultures.
Needless to say, Professor Huntington’s presentation sparked many strong reactions. The Catalyst, CC's student newspaper, published a student letter critical of Huntington the day after his talk. Two student groups demanded to know whether the college chose Professor Huntington because it endorsed his position. But our purpose, in the best liberal arts tradition, was to spark discussion...and it did!
Over three days, at six jam-packed forum discussions in Packard and Gates, our other guest speakers, CC faculty, and especially CC students (whose thoughtful questions and comments should make us all proud) developed many counters to the Huntington thesis. Here are three of them.
1. The West is not necessarily best. Robert Kaplan, the contributing editor at Atlantic Monthly, reminded us of Tocqueville’s conclusion that democracy only thrives where natural resources and individualistic economic practices create a stable middle class. As we see in the relative progress and prosperity in China and Singapore, as well as the devastation in Russia, pushing Western ways does not necessarily promote thriving nations. Harvard’s Dani Rodrik underscored the point with respect to international trade policy. It will do no good to demand that a nation comply with free trade provisions unless its political and financial institutions have the will and skill to regulate against corrupt and exploitative local business practices. Thus if Tocqueville is right, we must encourage a variety of cultural practices that, in the long run, create the conditions for stable democracy rather than the other way around.
2. Cultural differences are wildly exaggerated. A conflict like that in the Balkans cannot be explained in terms of simplistic differences between "all Orthodox" versus "all Muslims" versus "all Catholics" any more than the Palestine conflict is a difference between "all Jews" and "all Palestinians." Roy Mottahadeh of Harvard and Sulayman Nyang of Howard University described both the immense diversity within Islam and the elements of Islamic belief and practice that "the West" shares. Tradition, religion and political philosophy -- all central elements of Professor Huntington’s civilizations -- certainly influence world relations, but the fact that many different cultures share elements of one another’s traditions, religions, or political philosophies makes the extent of those influences less obvious. Further, each civilization carries within itself many diverse traditions, religions and political philosophies. Professor Huntington sees America’s increasing diversity as a threat to its stability. His critics see that same diversity as evidence that different cultures can and do successfully coexist.
3. Philosophical common ground. Stanford’s Richard Rorty, one of the 20th century’s leading pragmatic philosophers, argued that we must avoid ideological and doctrinal solutions to problems. The best we, or anyone, can do is to embrace what works for us and to try to persuade others that it can work for them, too. Just as we send aspirin and antibiotics to people devastated by natural disasters because we believe they "work," so we should advocate separation of church and state, the guarantees of individual dignity, and basic economic security because we know they work to make peace. Perhaps the most hopeful presentations at the symposium came from Tu Wei-ming of Harvard, Roger Ames of Hawaii, and Li Zehou, at the Institute of Chinese Modern Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder. All three agreed that Confucianism contains many philosophical elements that parallel Rorty’s account of American pragmatic thought. Professor Li summarized this philosophy of pragmatism with the phrase "food before morals":
"Food before morals" is a plain, homely, but important truth. Some people, especially intellectuals (who have no problem of food), easily forget it. So it seems to me that it is still important to repeat that economic development, especially the development of science and technology, is a presupposition for essential changes of other aspects of civilization. The material life of common people is the foundation of any civilization. It is economy, not cultures, that decides the modern appearance of peoples everywhere, and this is the real reason why modernization is so powerful that it destroys almost every kind of obstacle and causes a series of cultural shifts.
As evidenced by Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji’s recent visit to the United States, inter-cultural relations often boil down to economics. The U.S. might bicker about China’s human rights policies, but in the end, it wants China’s trade more than it wants China to protect human rights.
People too numerous to name gave generously of time and endowed-speaker funds to make this symposium possible. It certainly provided for people who do not routinely worry about food an immense banquet of food for thought.
*The Balkans historically include Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia/Montenegro.
Full transcripts from the symposium are available online.Back to Index