Defending Liberal Democracy Is Not the Same as Defending ‘the West’

Foster is trying to have it both ways. He says that India, Morocco, Japan, Haiti, Egypt, “and many other non-white, non-Christian places are right well tangled up in the West.” Notice the slippery language. Are they Western or not? Saying no would require Foster to explain what excludes them from the club. Saying yes would render the term meaningless. Yes, India is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. (It’s not called the British Commonwealth anymore.) So are frigging Nigeria and Papua New Guinea. If being influenced by (and influencing) the West makes you part of the West, then the West is everything.

Like other critics of my piece, Foster wants to associate the West with principles like democracy, freedom, tolerance, and equality. Thus, he says the Haitian revolution was fought for “Western ideals.” But if the real test of a country’s “Westernness” is its government’s fidelity to liberal democratic ideals, then Japan, Botswana, and India are three of the most Western countries on Earth, Spain didn’t become Western until it embraced democracy in 1975, and Hungary’s slide towards authoritarianism means it is significantly less Western than it was a few years ago. Almost no one, including Foster, uses the term that way. And for good reason. If “Western” is synonymous with “democratic” or “free,” then you don’t need the term at all.

What Foster is actually doing is linking these ideals to a particular religious (“Judeo-Christian”) identity. (Other conservatives—Pat Buchanan and Ann Coulter, for instance—explicitly link them to a racial identity as well. And in America today, “Muslim” virtually functions as a racial category anyway. The Tsarnaev brothers, of Boston bombing fame, literally hailed from the Caucuses yet were not described as white.) Foster gives it away with this line: “The West is the only civilization that blushes.” Really? Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Arabian, and African civilizations have no traditions of self-criticism or shame? It’s telling that Foster sees the Haitian revolution simply as a struggle for “Western ideals.” Of course, African, Asian, Middle Eastern, and American revolutionaries turned the ideals of their oppressors against them. But they also drew on non-Western, pre-colonial traditions. During the struggle against apartheid, Bishop Desmond Tutu popularized the term Ubuntu, a Bantu word meaning “common humanity.” In his 2005 book, The Argumentative Indian, Nobel Prize Winner Amartya Sen argues that Indian liberal democracy owes its robustness in part to the legacies of “a Buddhist emperor of India, Ashoka, who, in the third century BCE … laid down what are perhaps the oldest rules for conducting debates and disputations” and to “a Muslim Indian emperor, Akbar,” who in the 16th century, “when the Inquisition was in full swing,” outlined “principles of religious toleration.”

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