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Old 03-04-2003, 10:22 PM   #1
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what's your west?

from the globe & mail
The West's coming apart -- big deal

History's notion of what constitutes the 'West' has been reshaped by geopolitical storms for centuries, say professors ARTHUR HABERMAN and ADRIAN SHUBERT

Tuesday, March 4, 2003 - Page A13

The current crisis over Iraq has claimed its first collateral damage. With the United States, the United Kingdom and Spain facing off against France and Germany, the entity known as "the West" appears in danger of falling to pieces. This was most strikingly illustrated on a recent cover of The Economist depicting a piece of ground called the West riven by an earthquake.

In fact, the West as any adult alive today has known it, may well be passing into history. But, should anybody care?

There has never been agreement on the definition of the West. Some consider the core of the West to have been Latin Christendom, while others define its limits even more narrowly, including only Britain, France, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland; excluding areas of eastern, northern, and southern Europe.

During the Cold War, in the period after the Second World War, the West was defined as western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and, sometimes, Japan.

Some authors proposed a broader cultural West that included western Europe, North America, Latin America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and, occasionally, the Philippines, but not Japan. Those who focused on "racial" origins included only those parts of Latin America where the population is predominantly European in origin -- Argentina, Uruguay and southern Brazil, but not Mexico.

There is also the widely held belief in a "Western Civilization" based on a set of ideas and institutions that are both timeless and unique. The best known version of this view is Samuel Huntington's 1996 work, The Clash of Civilizations. For Mr. Huntington, the West is defined by ideas such as "individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, free markets, the separation of church and state [that] often have little resonance in Islamic, Confucian, Japanese, Hindu, Buddhist or Orthodox cultures."

Such a concept of the West relies on three separate, but related, premises. The first is a highly selective view of Western history. To see freedom as a permanent characteristic of Western civilization requires turning a blind eye to what actually happened during many centuries.

In fact, most of what are deemed to be essential and permanent characteristics of Western civilization became realities only recently. Human rights were limited to a relatively small group of people until the 20th century. The separation of church and state in the West did not come into existence until the late 18th century, and even then in only a single state: the United States.

Even today, the question of the role of religion in matters of state and law is a controversial matter. Equality under the law is relatively new; social and economic equality continue to be debated.

Another form of selectivity in defining the West is to base ideas of Western civilization only on its high culture, the culture of intellectuals. Specific sources are referred to, above all its "Great Books," such as the Bible, and works by Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Descartes, Dostoyevsky, or Dickens.

Such an approach assumes these masterworks are the essence of a society. Those who take this approach may see little need to concern themselves with actual history, and especially with the lives of the vast majority, most of whom, until quite recently, were illiterate. Thus, a small number of works produced by an elite are seen to reflect the experiences and the lives of many millions over centuries.

Another way of defining the West is to contrast it with other civilizations, but only after defining these other civilizations in a highly selective way. The most frequent contrast is with something called the East, or the Orient, or simply Asia, which includes India, Japan, China and the Islamic world.

Although they are as different from each other as each is from the West, they are sometimes presented as an undifferentiated whole that shares fundamental characteristics diametrically opposed to those of the West.

The contrast between rationality and mysticism has been a central point of distinction between West and East. This contrast ignores much in both Western and non-Western history. Much Western religious thought falls within the mystical tradition, while India, China and the Islamic world all have histories in which there are periods of reason-based thought and scientific discovery.

So, should we be concerned now about the current "disintegration" of the "West"?

Not really.

The West in the first half of the 20th century was as divided as it could be, and engaged in two horrendous world wars. The West that existed for the first half century after the end of the Second World War, and whose passing is now being lamented, was merely the creation of historical circumstance, hardly a fixed entity. It was also only the latest of a number of entities to bear the name.

Whether we think of it as an idea, a civilization, or a geographical entity, the West has changed over time, as it is now changing before our eyes.
Arthur Haberman and Adrian Shubert are history professors at York University in Toronto and co-authors of The West and the World Since 1500: Contacts, Conflicts, Connections.

interesting read. if anything, i would say the west is becoming less visible as an entity(whether geographic, economics, political, etc.) because its ideals, objectives and perhaps most of all products are becoming global.
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