Occidentalism

30Sep07

A review of Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, Occidentalism.

Occidentalism is a term for stereotyped views on the so-called Western world, including Europe, the United States, Australia and even modern Japan. The term was popularized by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit in their book Occidentalism: the West in the Eyes of its Enemies (2004). The term is an inversion of Orientalism, Edward Said’s label for stereotyped Western views of the East.

In beginning of their writing in The New York Review edition, Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit starts with the case of Japan where the philosophers try to find out the way tom overcome modern civilization. The complete reversal of the late-nineteenth century goal of “leaving Asia and joining the West” and now Japan was (or is) fighting a “holy war” to liberate Asia from the West and purify Asian minds of Western idea.

War against the West is partly a war against a particular concept of citizenship and community. The spiritual godfather of Nazism, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, said that Germany was the only nation with enough national spirit and racial solidarity to save the West from going under decadence and corruption. His “West” was not based on citizenship but on blood and soil. Related to this context, the most important point of Buruma and Margalit is that if criticism of the West was influenced by half-baked ideas from Germany, more positive views of the West were also influenced by German ideas. Nevertheless, ideas for or against the West are in fact found everywhere. The East does not begin at the river Elbe nor does the West start in Prague. East and West are not necessarily geographical territories.

Buruma and Margalit argue that nationalist resistance to the “West” actually replicates responses to forces of modernisation that have their roots in Western culture itself, among both utopian radicals and nationalist conservatives who saw capitalism, liberalism and secularism as destructive forces. They argue that while early responses to the West represent a genuine encounter between alien cultures, many of the later manifestations of Occidentalism betray the influence on Eastern intellectuals of Western ideas, such as the supremacy of the Nation-State, the Romantic rejection of rationality and the alleged spiritual impoverishment of the citizens of liberal democracies. They trace this to German Romanticism and to the debates between the “Westernisers” and “Slavophiles” in 19th century Russia, asserting that similar arguments appear under differing guises in Maoism, Islamism, wartime Japanese nationalism and other movements.

Occidentalism is a cluster of images and ideas of the West in the mind of its haters. Four features of Occidentalism can be seen in most versions of it: the City, the Bourgeois, Reason, and Feminism. Each contains a set of attributes, such as arrogance, feebleness, greed, depravity, and decadence, which are invoked as typically Western, or even American, characteristics.

In the last part of writing, Buruma and Margalit give a fascinating remark that what happens is not the clash of civilization or conflict between East and West, rather than that occidentalism becomes the creed of Islamic revolutionaries for all manner of religious, historical and political reasons. This is a call to purify Islamic world of the idolatrous West, exemplified by America. Therefore, the West should counter this intelligently with the full force of calculating bourgeois anti-heroism. It is that we should not counter Occidentalism with a nasty form of Orientalism.  



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