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Gandhi summed it up best when, after being asked what he thought of Western Civilization, he quipped, “I think it would be a good idea.” This is now a commonly held view. The West stomps around murdering and looting its way to global politico-economic supremacy all while preaching freedom, democracy, efficiency, salvation. Hypocrisy, we say.

A cynicism even wider than Gandhi’s can be found in The Matrix, when Agent Smith likens humans as whole to a cancer on the planet, though the reference might as well be to white, Western man, as embodied, ironically, in the brutal, lily-white, Secret Service-style Smith, who is himself a product of Western man’s technological hubris. Susan Sontag put it a little more specifically: “The white race is the cancer of human history.”

So who’s right? Agent Smith, Gandhi, or Sontag? Is it civilization in general’s fault, just the west’s version of civilization, or the white man? I think it’s none of those, though many people think it’s all three. Maybe a better question is “Who of the three – Smith, Gandhi, Sontag – is more wrong?” That is, maybe there isn’t a generalizable problem with civilization, the West, or the white race. As Noam Chomsky pointed out, if we ever get a definitive answer to the question, “Is human civilization inherently self-destructive?”, we will no longer be around to know.

Chomsky, despite the fact that he’s hard not to admire, has probably done more than anyone to make what I call Western self-hatred intellectually respectable. I don’t think Chomsky holds this view – that the West is at the root of all evil – but many of his vulgar followers do, and this widespread loss of faith in the political institutions of the democracies, even of their basic intentions, is at the heart of our political despair. We fear that the West hasn’t simply lost its soul, but that it was the Devil all along.

True, western countries suck up the world’s wealth and western citizens live extravagantly wasteful, environmentally unsustainable lives. Yes, our governments, in the name of economic stability, support brutally repressive dictators abroad and slash healthcare and education domestically. And, of course, we intervene militarily on a very selective basis, i.e. when it suits our “national interests” or “security”.

Notice the common thread: all these evils are not the inherent product of our political systems. They are the work of corporate, business interests corrupting our democratic institutions. This is the crucial (and rather obvious) distinction that many fail to make. And so, to torture the metaphor a bit, the Western baby gets thrown out with the business bathwater.

Under George Bush Jr.’s presidency, Western self-hatred was at an all time high. With Barack Obama some faith and hope returned to international politics, although Obama’s performance has tried most people’s charity. Obama has been an improvement as well as (or perhaps therefore) a disappointment. Many have drawn the lesson that if even someone like Obama can’t fix the system he’s supposed to be in charge of, then nobody can. The entire Enlightenment project of modernity seems hopelessly fucked. (And with that attitude, it probably is.)

Hence the romance of revolution, the passionate cry to tear down the whole system, riddled as it is with corruption, economic coercion and propaganda. Here’s the thing, though: people like Stephen Harper and George Bush want you to think this way. Harper doesn’t believe in democracy any more than vulgar young radicals do. The radical, the businessman and the hick all agree on one thing: that representative government is itself the problem.

And we’ve fallen into the trap. As voter turnout hovers near record lows, Conservatism reaches an all time high. As activist groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) become further alienated from mainstream politics, the business interests against which they compete maintain the upper hand in influencing mainstream politicians. Activists and NGOers, in preferring “alternative” politics, reduce themselves to second-rate lobbyists, mostly because it doesn’t cross their minds to actually run for office, which is what we need young people to do.

But no, we’re so thoroughly disheartened by our political structures that most young people reject the idea of going into politics in favour of going to protests. The fact that protesting makes little practical difference to power structures goes unnoticed, or is willfully denied. The Conservatives would prefer us to protest than vote. And they’d crap their pants if more young people regularly ran for office.

Western Civilization has been characterized dually as self-critical and blindly arrogant, as a model of self-examination and of brutal conquest. This is part of our civilizational contradiction, what Walter Benjamin said of every civilization, that for all of its cultural splendor there is a barbarous underside.

All we can hope for, perhaps, is that the civilized side increasingly outweighs the barbarism. But given the barbarism of run-amok capitalism – in the form of Globalization over the last forty years – many people have given up on that hope, and have been trying to erect an alternative system to mainstream politics, in the form of activism, NGOs, and most absurd of all, “ethical consumerism” (which is nearly an oxymoron).

The main effect of these non-political forms of action is to create a power vacuum that is swiftly filled in by technocrats, right-wing ideologues and business-friendly politicians. With young, idealistic, left-leaning people no longer going into politics proper, should we be surprised with the government we get? They say you get the government you deserve, but nobody deserves a Harper majority. And we wouldn’t have one if more (young) people voted.

The term “white guilt” used to describe the unfair privileges of, and unjust actions done to non-whites by, the white race. Since we’re no longer so accustomed to neat divisions of racial groups we now talk more about the injustices done to the East by the West. And with the threat of major ecological disaster we’re quickly getting used to the idea that human civilization is an injustice to the plants and animals, as if “justice” was something that occurs in nature without humans to talk about it.

I think it’s basically pointless to talk about these three forms of injustice. White people aren’t better or worse than any other people, and Western civilization has, despite its flaws, produced forms of social organization and medical technology that most of us would prefer to not live without: universal suffrage, civil rights, the 40-hour work week, anesthetics, vaccines, etc. These precious and precarious gains were won through, yes, protest movements, civil disobedience and activism, but they were enshrined in law through government legislation. And to keep on improving our laws we need the right (as in Left) people actually elected as legislators, so that our demands aren’t just chanted on the street or painted on banners.

As for the 10,000 year old experiment of civilization as a whole, maybe we are doomed. But we aren’t going to turn things around by complaining from the sidelines about self-serving Western hypocrisy. We need to get our hands on the real levers of power, which is elected office. We need to put some faith back into our political system because, quite simply, it’s the only one we have.

This article also appeared in issue 4 of the zine Junkyard, August 2011. You can see their Facebook page here.

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