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The Growing Ambitions of the Ideology of Universalism and Their Destructive Consequences

English Pages, 3. 11. 2014

Many thanks for the invitation, many thanks for giving me such a prestigious role at this important gathering. I still have to figure out whether and why I eventually deserve it.

One possible explanation for it could be the specific, in many respects unique perspective from which I look at the current world and at the topic of this conference, which I hope can be summarized and simplified as “Communication Problems between the East and the West”. This perspective of mine offers three potential comparative advantages:

- I spent all my life not very far from here, in Prague, which is located in the heart of Europe, in its geographical midpoint. People usually don´t know that Vienna is located east of Prague. And the proud “Viennese” (die echten Wiener) don´t like to hear this. In spite of the special position of the place where I was born and where I live, I have always been experiencing a lack of communication between Western and Eastern Europe and even more a lack of understanding of my part of Europe on the side of – in Donald Rumsfeld´s fallacious terminology – the “old” Europe. This contributed to my increased sensitivity in this respect and to my almost automatic inclination to be on the side of those who feel similarly misunderstood;

- two thirds of my life I spent in an oppressive, totalitarian, communist regime. We lived in a closed (or semi-closed) society which did not give us the slightest chance to take part in the “communication between the East and the West” at that time. It should be also remembered that the term “east” meant something else for us in the communist era. The East meant Soviet Union. Nevertheless, even in these dark days, I had the feeling that we were misunderstood, underestimated, marginalized, neglected by the non-communist West, by people in countries that enjoyed the luxury of not falling into the communist trap. This represents another reason for my interest in today´s topic;

- and, finally, the last 25 years, the era since the world-wide fall of communism (except North Korea and Cuba) which we will celebrate in two weeks’ time I have spent in top political positions in Czechoslovakia, and then, after the split, in the Czech Republic, and tried to co-organize the radical transformation of my country from communism to free society, pluralistic parliamentary democracy and market economy which is a task many countries in the East are also facing. This gives me another relevant and, hopefully, useful perspective when looking at the “non-West”, sometimes called the “Rest”. (I tried to outline the similarities and differences in our political and economic transformation tasks in a speech delivered in Fez, Morocco, in April 2012.[1])

The current communication (and, of course, not only communication) gap, which you feel and we are aware of as well, is a fact which can´t be denied or disparaged. Regretfully, it is getting worse almost every day. Its scope has been increasing, not decreasing in the last couple of years. This dangerous development is – as I see it – the consequence both of the lack of understanding and of the lack of will to understand, not to speak about the role of vested interests and geopolitical ambitions. This gap is the result of an erroneous paradigm which dominates our thinking. On both sides. Let me develop this point.

The East-West issue has, undoubtedly, many facets, many dimensions, many aspects. It is not a monolithic problem. As a result of it, it has no single and simple ideological explanation and solution. It is, therefore, very difficult, if not dangerous to generalize. To do it often leads to oversimplification and trivialization.

With high probability of making a similar error, I dare formulate a hypothesis about this issue which is in opposition to the prevailing conventional wisdom. Instead of cheaply blaming today’s Western arrogance or the consequences of its yesterday’s or day before yesterday’s colonial governance and instead of narrowing the issue on Eastern terrorism, Jihadism or Islamism, I believe the main problem of our era is the propagation and promotion of the ideology of universalism.

The dispute we are confronted with is between those who accept the universalistic interpretation of the world and take it as a normative goal we all should strive to realize and those who reject it, who see and respect the differences which characterize mankind, who don´t want to make all of us uniform, who don´t want to bring us all into line drawn by quasi-progressive and would-be enlightened Western public intellectuals and their fellow-travellers in politics on one side and by obscurantist, pre-modern oriental traditionalists on the other.

Paradoxically, the problem is not only universalism. It may look counterintuitive but the ideology of universalism has as its inseparable component the ideology of multiculturalism. For some people to put these two doctrines together may sound rather strange. One of them argues for uniformity, the other for diversity. But they are not exclusive. These two ideologies are mutually connected, if not inseparable. One reinforces the other and this combination has very problematic consequences.

Their original and perhaps meaningful roles have been switched. At least in the West. The ideology of universalism is promoted in international relations, whereas at home the slogan of the day is multiculturalism. At the global level, universalism (and uniformity) has been preached; at the domestic level, multiculturalism (and artificially introduced diversity) has been promoted. Both are wrong. It should be the opposite – homogeneity at home, diversity in the world.[2]

This hypothesis of mine is – at least I hope – relevant for many other topics (the most pressing one is the debate about the failed project of the EU), but it has a special significance for the topic of this conference which aims to discuss the “East-West communication gap”. According to the universalist doctrine – the universalists don´t dare formulating it so explicitly – neither the East nor the West in reality exist. The universalists deny the existence of any meaningful differences between them. There is – according to them – just one world community, one universal parenthood, one unstructured bundle of individuals belonging to the Homo sapiens family. This may be valid at the biological level, but not at any other, especially not at civilizational, cultural or religious levels.

I agree with Huntington´s view that “The people of different civilizations have different views on the relations between God and man, the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, parents and children, husband and wife, as well as differing views of the relative importance of rights and responsibilities, liberty and authority, equality and hierarchy. These differences are the product of centuries. They will not soon disappear.”[3] They can´t be and – especially – shouldn´t be artificially and violently eliminated.

In the universalist interpretation, East and West are degraded and narrowed to merely geographic notions. Francis Fukuyama made this point very explicitly (and very arrogantly): “The Orient must learn to be more like the West”.[4] East is – according to this way of thinking – just a less developed and less enlightened West and for that reason the East must be pushed “forwards” to become a full-fledged West. It should be “pushed” in a friendly or unfriendly manner, peacefully or violently, whether the East wants it or not. It should be done because this is the only way to a “better” world. I am afraid to a better “Brave New World” of Aldous Huxley.

As a side remark, let me say that this universalist doctrine has become the basis for the problematic and so easily misinterpreted and abused concept of human rights, and for the whole antiliberal ideology of humanrightism. Humanrightism has become another false and freedom-endangering utopia.

In this paradigm of thinking (and behaving), the true communication and dialogue are not possible. People on both sides speak, but do not listen. We are witnesses of a one-way export of ideas, of values, of culture, of behavioural patterns, of life-styles. On both sides. Many of the recent conflicts and wars worldwide were based on such thinking – the West tried to export democracy without paying attention to the broader civilizational and cultural context. This proved to be not only unproductive, but counterproductive. The same goes – more and more – for the East these days. Many claims coming from the East have a similar pattern and reflect ambitions of possessing values and truths aiming at general validity.

The initial one-sided export of ideas from the West to the East has been – in last centuries – made possible by the economic, military and political superiority of the West and by the relative weakness of the East. This is over. In the moment of the decline of the West which we experience now and in the era when the East demonstrates its capability to rapidly grow, to develop economically and to emancipate itself ideologically and culturally, the conflict started to be more visible and sometimes more aggressive and the communication gap between the East and the West has become more evident. My supplementary hypothesis is that the currently growing East-West conflict is the consequence of the relative shift in the economic strength of the East and West. In this respect, the growing conflict and the growing communication gap are almost unavoidable.

As a result of Eastern growing strength and emancipation, we are confronted with what I would call universalism upside down. As a reaction to the era of the – from the West promoted – universalism, we are witnesses of similarly structured Eastern universalist ambitions. This can´t be considered a rational way of acting. This could lead us to the real “clash of civilizations” in Huntington´s sense, to the destabilization of the whole world. We have to fight these attempts to violently impose overall unity. We should promote the acceptance of differences.

Until now, I have been speaking about two universalisms in a more or less neutral way, without giving them any marks. Without making any value-judgements. It does not mean, however, that I look at them without taking my values and preferences into consideration. I am part of the West and I do not deny it.

My dispute with the universalist doctrine and my respect for diversity and differences can´t be understood as a justification for the atrocities of extremist groups (à la Al-Qaeda or Islamic State terrorists) who are violating elementary, authentic, and naturally given norms of human behaviour. These norms exist and should be supported in any civilized society and shouldn´t be dismissed, neglected or rejected by anyone. These norms shouldn´t be usurped by any ideology or religion including the Western ideology of humanrightism or the Eastern ideology of Islamism. They should be respected by all cultures and civilizations.

Even the fight with such ideologies must accept these norms. The destruction of lives and cultural values done in the name of any universalist ideology can´t be tolerated. No violence is sacred. Those who think differently must be considered partners, not enemies.

The possibility to discuss these issues openly and impartially is for me the main reason for welcoming this conference as an attempt to provoke and enable a serious dialogue. Thank you for inviting me to speak here.

[1] “How Regimes Collapse and How to Go Back to Liberty?”, opening speech at the Mont Pelerin Society Regional Conference, the Big Hall of Batha Prefecture, Fès Medina, Morocco, 21 April 2012. Also can find at https://www.klaus.cz/clanky/3085, Klaus, V., The Never-Ending Struggle for Free Society, The Václav Klaus Institute, publication No. 14/2014, Prague, 2014.

[2] D. M. Jones and Michael L. R. Smith in their recent article”Western Responsibility and Response to the Death Cult of the Islamic State“, Quadrant, October 2014, turn our attention to another aspect and correctly connect multiculturalism with Blairism, with the fact that the Islamism “emanates less from the Middle East and more from the radical Islamist NGOs… which have found its most congenial home in Londonistan” (p. 10). To discuss this issue would be, however, a different topic. Perhaps, next time.

[3] Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations?, Foreign Affairs, vol. 72, no. 3, 1993, p. 25.

[4] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, New York, Avon Books, 1992.

Václav Klaus, Speech at The Second Arab International Public Relations Conference, Trend Parkhotel Schönbrunn, Vienna, November 3, 2014.


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