Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Universal and Particular


It was tough yesterday reading all the articles expressing varying degrees of doubt and despair over our mission in Iraq–Ralph Peters, Niall Fergusson, Jonah Goldberg, Youssef Ibrahim, among others.  I’m not ready to give up on Iraq yet but for me the real problem in our approach lay in what might be described as excessive universalism, so to speak.  In the past few decades for a number of reasons the United States has more and more come to be defined as a creedal nation based on universal values–freedom, equality, self-government, etc.– requiring no specific cultural underpinnings at all.  Samuel Huntington wrote Who Are We: The Challenge to America’s National Identity, to dispute this concept, but it is this very belief that seemed to be our guiding principle in going into Iraq–that the longing for freedom is universal and that functioning democracy would therefore readily follow the fall of Saddam.  Thus we paid little attention to the cultural foundations necessary to make democracy flourish.  And believing that all men naturally desire freedom meant that it was somehow wrong to act aggressively against the brutes and marauders, that ideally they should all somehow be peacefully compelled to see the universal nature that we all share, or that they would all fall by the wayside as the universal ideals took hold.      

The irony is that without a cultural context, universalism degenerates into tribalism, because people cannot live as abstract human beings.  They require a culture in which to thrive.  Here in the United States the over-emphasis on universalism has contributed to multiculturalism.  A publication of the American Association of Colleges and Universities touting the virtually totalitarian implementation of “diversity” in every aspect of the college experience actually yielded a glimmer of truth in lamenting the inadequacy of the concept of ”the rights-bearing individual, autonomous, unfettered, self-determining” to supply a full human life, and suggested instead that “as human beings, each of us must have a place, traditions, webs of associations to which we centrally and vitally belong, where we are readily recognized, where we do not have to explain each aspect of ourselves, our histories, our idiosyncrasies, our standpoints.”

The publication of course goes on to push multiculturalism, in which people seek that kind of identity in sub-cultures–ethnic, racial, even sexual.  But, as Huntington contends, America does have a specific cultural identity, and that is needed to uphold the ideals.  Our nation needs both our transcendent truths and their concrete embodiment in our mores, symbols, traditions, and cultural, political, and religious expressions, and it is really only through the specific and particular that people, and young people especially, can be brought to feel the universal as living and practical.  

I still think President Bush can turn things around, not by abandoning the ideals but by accompanying their proclamation with a good dollop of pragmatism, in the good old American way.   


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