all cultures are not equal
conference on 'fear and loathing in the west', london,
'I denounce the scholarship of European colonialism', CLR James once wrote, 'But I
respect the learning and profound discoveries of Western civilisation.'
James was one of the great radicals of the twentieth century, an anti-imperialist, a superb
historian of black struggles, a Marxist who remained one even when it was no longer
fashionable to be so. Today, though, James' defence of 'Western civilisation' would
probably be dismissed as insufferably Eurocentric, even racist. For to be radical today is
to display disenchantment with all that is 'Western' - by which most radicals mean
modernism and the ideas that flowed out of the Enlightenment - in the name of 'diversity'
and 'difference'. The modernist project of pursuing a rational, scientific understanding of
the natural and social world - a project that James unashamedly championed - is now
widely regarded as a dangerous fantasy, even as oppressive.
'Subjugation', according to the philosopher David Goldberg, 'defines the order of the
Enlightenment: subjugation of nature by human intellect, colonial control through
physical and cultural domination, and economic superiority through mastery of the laws
of the market'. The mastery of nature and the rational organisation of society, which once
were seen as the basis of human emancipation, have now become the sources of human
enslavement. Enlightenment universalism, such critics argue, is racist because it seeks to
impose Euro-American ideas of rationality and objectivity on other peoples. 'The
universalising discourses of modern Europe and the United States', Edward Said argues,
'assume the silence, willing or otherwise, of the non-European world'.
Not just for radicals, but for many mainstream liberals too, the road that began in the
Enlightenment ends in savagery, even genocide. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has
put it, 'Every ingredient of the Holocaust.
.. was normal.
.. in the sense of being fully in
keeping with everything we know about our civilisation, its guiding spirits, its priorities,
its immanent vision of the world - and of the proper ways to pursue human happiness
together with a perfect society.' So pervasive is this belief that modernism lies at the root
of all evil that only right wing reactionaries such as Silvio Berlusconni, Margaret
Thatcher or the late Pim Fortuyn, it sometimes seems, are willing unreservedly to defend
James' belief in the superiority of 'the learning and profound discoveries of Western
The real question to ask in the wake of September 11, then, may not be simply, as many