by Ben Cohen
For many Americans of white European descent, the superiority of white European culture is simply a given. White people built the country, created the laws, brought Christianity to the natives and made America the most powerful, wealthy country in the world. While many white Americans might not think they believe this, push them hard enough and the truth almost always comes out. I cannot count the number of conversations I’ve had with white Americans whose pride in their country is based on the economic and military prowess of the country they were born in. And I am not one to judge. My sense of being British is derived in part from my nation’s economic might and war like culture it used to conquer much of the world. This is not a conscious choice, but one my upbringing instilled in me by an education system that told me only one side of a very complex story.
White, Anglo Saxon Protestant people created the most powerful nation states on earth, nurtured industrialization in its infancy and were the progenitors of modern capitalism. They are largely tolerant, open societies too with great diversity and much political freedom. There is no denying this. But to believe that strength, power over others and material wealth defines the value of a culture, you are missing the point as to what it means to be a human.
WASP culture has produced much to be proud of. From Shakespeare to modern democratic governments, it has contributed a considerable amount to the story of humanity. But there are thousands of other cultures and hundreds of millions of other people with different value systems and different perspectives that are no less important, and no less meaningful.
I have spent a good amount of time in the Amazon rainforest learning about indigenous cultures and their perspective on what it means to be happy and healthy. To them, living in harmony with nature, extracting what you need from the earth instead of what you want, and having extremely close ties to friends and family constitutes “a good life”. Their spiritual belief system is intricately linked to nature and is no less complex, nuanced and intelligent than Western society’s belief in markets, democracy and science. The Swiss anthropologist Jeremy Narby, who spent years living with the Asheninka people in Peru, discovered that the people he lived with believed he was a “vampire”. This wasn’t born out of prejudice, but of their experience of having their resources plundered and their cultures decimated by white people. Narby confesses in his book “The Cosmic Serpent” that he could not blame them for thinking that way.
While a Western, white person may believe that his (or her) culture’s superiority is evident because of the marvelous technology it has created, from an ecological point of view, there is a clear winner. Amazonian cultures have existed perfectly happily for thousands of years without risk of ecological destruction. Our culture on the other hand, has brought the earth’s bio-systems to the brink of collapse. We are heating the planet by burning fossil fuels and wrecking bio-diversity with industrial agriculture. While McDonalds is one of the most successful businesses from a capitalist perspective, it is one of the most harmful organizations the earth has ever seen from an ecological point of view.
While we have phones that can order sushi for us without lifting a finger, we have depression rates that are sky rocketing, an opioid epidemic claiming thousands of lives, and suicide rates for adolescents that are increasing year after year. These problems simply do not exists in Amazonian societies. I once heard a story from a westerner who lived in the Amazon for almost a decade recount a story of him trying to explain depression to members of one particular tribe. They simply didn’t understand the concept of depression. For them, you could have a bad day, but to live in a constant state of anxiety and existential despair — as millions of Westerners do — was beyond their comprehension.
I am not suggesting that everyone adopts Amazonian culture as their own, or that they throw out everything Western culture has to offer. There are positive and negative aspects to both. Amazonian societies are insulated and incredibly tribal, whereas Western societies are more open and tolerant. But each must be viewed in their totality, and you must take on as many perspectives as you possibly can when assessing the inherent value of a culture. A Western mind has difficulty comprehending different value systems, making travel and interaction with other cultures one of the most important gifts you can give to yourself (or others). From my travels I have been able to gain perspective my own culture and see it for what it is — an operating system with a set of rules, regulations, perceptions and commonly held beliefs. It is good at some things and bad at others. The cultures I have experienced around the world are no different — some I feel more in tune with, others less so.
One of the more alarming aspects of WASP culture that I see right now is the total lack of awareness many of its advocates have in regards to its destructive history. A friend of mine who is a Trump supporter and an adherent to Alt-Right ideology has told me he wants to defend WASP against foreigners. He believes multiculturalism is a failed experiment, immigration is bad for the economy and Western culture is the greatest on earth. I’ve asked him whether he has considered the perspective of Native Americans on the ‘greatness’ of Western culture, or the Vietnamese whose country was destroyed in the name of Western values. Or Islamic countries during the crusades. Or Africans enslaved by white Westerners, or Jews annihilated by a white, Christian population. Half of my ancestors are Jewish, and I’ve tried to explain to him that we don’t have the same steadfast belief in the goodness of the white Christian people he associates himself with.
These are questions he has difficulties answering, largely because he has difficulties seeing things from a different perspective. His mind, along with millions of other Americans, has been trained to think by right wing media outlets that have a vested interest in separating humans from one another. Fox News, Breitbart, and right wing talk radio succeed by fostering hatred of others, by promoting juvenile tribalism and creating a sense of paranoia and distrust. This mindset cannot see out of the confines of culture — it gains strength from it and relies on its adherents believing in its superiority. The fear and hatred are the dark elements of the human psyche that can be manipulated by the powerful and spread like a cancer.
There is nothing inherently wrong with white culture other than the belief in its own superiority. And if it is not kept in check, we stand to repeat the same mistakes of the last century when white men in the most technologically advanced nation on earth decided to prove it.