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Occidentalism

1.

In 1942, not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a group of Japanese philosophers got together in Kyoto to discuss Japan’s role in the world. The project of this ultra-nationalist gathering was, as they put it, to find a way to “overcome modern civilization.” Since modern civilization was another term for Western civilization, the conference might just as well have been entitled “Overcoming the West.” In a complete reversal of the late-nineteenth-century goal of “leaving Asia and joining the West,” Japan was now fighting a “holy war” to liberate Asia from the West and purify Asian minds of Western ideas. Part of the holy war was, as it were, an exercise in philosophical cleansing.

The cleansing agent was a mystical mishmash of German-inspired ethnic nationalism and Zen- and Shinto-based nativism. The Japanese were a “world-historical race” descended from the gods, whose divine task it was to lead all Asians into a new age of Great Harmony, and so on. But what was “the West” which had to be purged? What needed to be “overcome”? The question has gained currency, since the chief characteristics of this Western enemy would have sounded familiar to Osama bin Laden, and other Islamic extremists. They are, not in any particular order, materialism, liberalism, capitalism, individualism, humanism, rationalism, socialism, decadence, and moral laxity. These ills would be overcome by a show of Japanese force, not just military force, but force of will, of spirit, of soul. The key characteristics of the Japanese or “Asian” spirit were self-sacrifice, discipline, austerity, individual submission to the collective good, worship of divine leadership, and a deep faith in the superiority of instinct over reason.

There was of course more at stake in Japan’s war with the West, but these were the philosophical underpinnings of Japanese wartime propaganda. The central document of Japan’s claim to national divinity was entitled Cardinal Principles of the National Polity (Kokutai no Hongi). Issued in 1937 by the ministry of education, this document claimed that the Japanese were “intrinsically quite different from so-called citizens of Western nations,” because the divine imperial bloodlines had remained unbroken, and “we always seek in the emperor the source of our lives and activities.” The Japanese spirit was “pure” and “unclouded,” whereas the influence of Western culture led to mental confusion and spiritual corruption.

Western, especially German, ideas inspired some of this. A famous right-wing professor, Dr. Uesugi Shinkichi, began his spiritual life as a Christian, studied statecraft in Wilhelminian Germany, and returned home to write (in 1919): “Subjects have no mind apart from the will of the Emperor. Their individual selves are merged with the Emperor. If they act according to the mind of the Emperor, they can realize their true nature and attain the moral ideal.”1 Of such stuff are holy warriors made.

Similar language—though without the neo-Shintoist associations—was used by German National Socialists and other European fascists. They, too, fought against that list of “soulless” characteristics commonly associated with liberal societies. One of the early critical books about Nazi thinking, by Aurel Kolnai, a Hungarian refugee, was actually entitled The War Against the West.2 Nazi ideologues and Japanese militarist propagandists were fighting the same Western ideas. The West they loathed was a multinational, multicultural place, but the main symbols of hate were republican France, cap-italist America, liberal England, and, in Germany more than Japan, the rootless cosmopolitan Jews. Japanese propaganda focused on the “Anglo-American beasts,” represented in cartoons of Roosevelt and Churchill wearing plutocratic top hats. To the Nazis “the eternal Jew” represented everything that was hateful about liberalism.

War against the West is partly a war against a particular concept of citizenship and community. Decades before the coming of Hitler, the spiritual godfather of Nazism, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, described France, Britain, and America as hopelessly “Jewified” countries. Citizenship in these places had degenerated into a “purely political concept.”3 In England, he said, “every Basuto nigger” could get a passport. Later he complained that the country had “fallen utterly into the hands of Jews and Americans.”4 Germany in his view, and that of his friend Kaiser Wilhelm II, was the only nation with enough national spirit and racial solidarity to save the West from going under in a sea of decadence and corruption. His “West” was not based on citizenship but on blood and soil.

Oswald Spengler warned in 1933 (of all years) that the main threats to the Occident came from “colored peoples” (Farbigen).5 He prophesied, not entirely without reason, huge uprisings of enraged peoples in the European colonies. He also claimed that after 1918 the Russians had become “Asiatic” again, and that the Japanese Yellow Peril was about to engulf the civilized world. More interesting, however, was Spengler’s view that the ruling white races (Herrenvölker) were losing their position in Europe. Soon, he said, true Frenchmen would no longer rule France, which was already awash with black soldiers, Polish businessmen, and Spanish farmers. The West, he concluded, would go under because white people had become soft, decadent, addicted to safety and comfort. As he put it: “Jazz music and nigger dances are the death march of a great civilization.”

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. The Slavophiles and the Westernizers, who offered opposing views of the West in nineteenth-century Russia, were both equally inspired by German intellectual currents. Ideas for or against the West are in fact to be found everywhere. The East does not begin at the river Elbe, as Konrad Adenauer believed, nor does the West start in Prague, as Milan Kundera once suggested. East and West are not necessarily geographical territories. Rather, Occidentalism, which played such a large part in the attacks of September 11, is a cluster of images and ideas of the West in the minds of its haters. Four features of Occidentalism can be seen in most versions of it; we can call them 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.

The things Occidentalists hate about the West are not always the ones that inspire hatred of the US. The two issues should not be conflated. A friend once asked in astonishment: “Why does he hate me? I didn’t even help him.” Some people hate the US because they were helped by the US, and some because they were not. Some resent the way the US helped their own hateful governments gain or stay in power. Some feel humiliated by the very existence of the US, and some by US foreign policy. With some on the left, hatred of the US is all that remains of their leftism; anti-Americanism is part of their identity. The same goes for right-wing cultural Gaullists. Anti-Americanism is an important political issue, related to Occidentalism but not quite the same thing.

2.

Anti-liberal revolts almost invariably contain a deep hatred of the City, that is to say, everything represented by urban civilization: commerce, mixed populations, artistic freedom, sexual license, scientific pursuits, leisure, personal safety, wealth, and its usual concomitant, power. Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Hitler, Japanese agrarian fascists, and of course Islamists all extolled the simple life of the pious peasant, pure at heart, uncorrupted by city pleasures, used to hard work and self-denial, tied to the soil, and obedient to authority. Behind the idyll of rural simplicity lies the desire to control masses of people, but also an old religious rage, which goes back at least as far as the ancient superpower Babylon.

The “holy men” of the three monotheistic religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—denounced Babylon as the sinful city-state whose politics, military might, and very urban civilization posed an arrogant challenge to God. The fabled tower of Babylon was a symbol of hubris and idolatry: “Let us build a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name” (Genesis 11:4). Indeed, God took it as a challenge to Himself: “And now nothing will be restrained from them, which they imagined to do” (Genesis 11:6). That is, the citizens of this urban superpower will act out their fantasies to become God.

He loveth not the arrogant,” the Koran (16:23) tells us, and goes on to say: “Allah took their structures from their foundation, and the roof fell down on them from above; and the Wrath seized them from directions they did not perceive” (16:26). The prophet Isaiah already prophesied that Babylon, “the glory of all kingdoms,” would end up as “Sodom and Gomorrah” (Isaiah 13:19), and that the arrogant would be overthrown so that even an “Arabian pitch tent” would not inhabit the place (13:20). The Book of Revelation goes on to say about Babylon the great, “the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth” (17:5), that it “is fallen, is fallen” (18:2).

There is a recurring theme in movies from poor countries in which a young person from a remote village goes to the big city, forced by circumstances or eager to seek a new life in a wider, more affluent world. Things quickly go wrong. The young man or woman is lonely, adrift, and falls into poverty, crime, or prostitution. Usually, the story ends in a gesture of terrible violence, a vengeful attempt to bring down the pillars of the arrogant, indifferent, alien city. There are echoes of this story in Hitler’s life in Vienna, Pol Pot’s in Paris, Mao’s in Beijing, or indeed of many a Muslim youth in Cairo, Haifa, Manchester, or Hamburg.

In our world you don’t even have to move to the city to feel its constant presence, through advertising, television, pop music, and videos. The modern city, representing all that shimmers just out of our reach, all the glittering arrogance and harlotry of the West, has found its icon in the Manhattan skyline, reproduced in millions of posters, photographs, and images, plastered all over the world. You cannot escape it. You find it on dusty jukeboxes in Burma, in discothèques in Urumqi, in student dorms in Addis Ababa. It excites longing, envy, and sometimes blinding rage. The Taliban, like the Nazi provincials horrified by “nigger dancing,” like Pol Pot, like Mao, have tried to create a world of purity where visions of Babylon can no longer disturb them.

The Taliban, to be sure, have very little idea what the fleshpots of the West are really like. For them even Kabul sparkled with Occidental sinfulness, exemplified by girls in school and women with uncovered faces populating and defiling the public domain. But the Taliban, like other purists, are much concerned with the private domain too. In big, anonymous cities, separation between the private and the public makes hypocrisy possible. Indeed, in Occidentalist eyes, the image of the West, populated by city-dwellers, is marked by artificiality and hypocrisy, in contrast to the honesty and purity of a Bedouin shepherd’s life. Riyadh, and its grandiose Arabian palaces, is the epitome of hypocrisy. Its typical denizens behave like puritanical Wahhabites in public and greedy Westerners at home. To an Islamic radical, then, urban hypocrisy is like keeping the West inside one like a worm rotting the apple from within.

  1. 1

    D.C. Holtom, Modern Japan and Shinto Nationalism (University of Chicago, 1943), p. 10.

  2. 2

    Viking, 1938.

  3. 3

    Briefe 1882–1924 (Munich: Bruckmann, 1928).

  4. 4

    England und Deutschland (Munich: Bruckmann, 1915).

  5. 5

    Jahr der Entscheidung (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1933).

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