My guess is that every time there has been a major world power, they think of themselves as the epitome of what humans can strive to be. From the times of the Pharaohs through the Hellenistic era on up past the Romans and the Ottoman empires, the Austro-Hungarian, the British, and now finally the American empire, they have all shared the same chauvinistic belief that they are the definition of civilization.
For an empire to be effective in the past, they would have to had physically expanded, seizing territory from other nations to give them the benefits of their superior ways. Unsurprisingly, the original inhabitants of the country would take umbrage and tend to discover that the way of living they had practised for generations prior to the newcomers showing up was pretty good.
Although there were many mitigating factors that affected the result, there were usually only two ways this type of conflict of interest could be resolved. Either the newcomers would be forced to give up their role as rulers of the land or they would completely overwhelm the original inhabitants and reduce them to a shell of their former selves. While continental Asia and Europe fell into the former category, most of North, Central, and South America are the latter.
As the world has changed and technological advances closed the distances between countries until they have become virtually non-existent, it is seldom necessary for a country to actually use physical force to impose itself on another. Armies only come into play when physical assets like natural resources are part of the motivation to dominate.
While all civilizations have had the tendency to try and increase their power bases locally, the rationale for a great many expansions has been based on a need for survival. They have better hunting territory, which we need access to for feeding our people or their land is better for growing crops. These were the types of reasons that would see Native tribes in North America attempt to appropriate another’s land.
Conquest for the sake of conquest in order to impose your worldview on other people seems to be reserved for those cultures whose focus has gone beyond basic survival. The need for expansion is therefore one based in pride and chauvinism. It seems impossible for them to understand that anybody could be happy living in a manner they consider primitive or that the other culture could have anything of value to offer.
When a culture no longer has, as its only focus survival, the belief systems that sustained them through that period, they will become out of synch with the needs of those who no longer depend on a direct relationship with the planet. A new type of system is needed that replicates the new social order of those with more power than others.
Monotheistic religions, with their systems of punishments and rewards for good and bad behaviour and codes of conduct to control people, are ideally suited to a society where a small number of people control most of the wealth and must ensure the obedience of countless others. Whether this is how the big three of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam came about, or that they simply flourished because of that fact, is now irrelevant
Especially in the case of the latter two, they have been the focal point and motivation for much of the empire building from around 900AD until today. From the Ottoman empire to the Crusades of antiquity, they have each tried to dictate how others live or find new countries where they can establish themselves as the predominate belief system.
In North America we have had about four hundred years of this type of rule, more than long enough to develop the chauvinism required to believe that our way of life is not only the best, but to even consider another way preferable means you are potentially an enemy. That type of cultural paranoia is not limited to the West. When you isolate any species from the rest of the world or outside influences for too long, they tend to become insular and fearful of change.
They cling to their outmoded ways of thinking and attempt to force the world to accede to their wishes even if that threatens the well being of others. One need only look at the linkage between foreign aid and anti-family planning that the current administration in the Untied States has implemented. Or check out the Iranian government’s attitude towards the same issues and you’ll see the same thing, if not worse.
In fact, the United States and Iran have a great deal in common with each other when it comes to foreign and domestic policy. Both governments are very afraid of anything they don’t understand, insist upon turning back the clock to a time when women had less control over their bodies, have blurred the line separating church and state, and have elements who believe that they should be imposing their way of life upon the rest of the world.
Each country either fosters or has fostered insurrections in other parts of the world in order to counter countries they consider too different from what they think of as the right way of being. Neither thinks anything of proceeding unilaterally on issues of international consequence even when a large proportion of the world is lined up against them. They both believe they have been chosen to do God’s work on this planet.
Aside from the obvious worry about what seems like an inevitable clash between these two polar opposites, there are other things to regret about living in a world where societies are still dominated by cultural prejudices. There are of course those who suffer from the fall out of either country’s influence when it comes to foreign aid.
In Africa, where AIDS steals so many lives, health care services and preventative measures are hindered by both nations’ refusal to accept that people are going to be sexually active and that steps are needed to ensure their safety. With aid money from America restricted to agencies that will only preach abstinence and fundamentalist Muslims preaching that women have no rights and sex is not something to be talked about, a difficult task becomes next to impossible.
Then there are the battlefields around the globe where they both have interests in the outcomes. Somalia, where a Muslim militia is trying to overthrow some sort of secular government; The Sudan, where similar circumstances are underway and immense oil reserves are also at state; and of course, the Middle East.
If the United States is funneling money into Israel, somebody has to be providing Hezbolah with the wherewithal to be unleashing the firepower it has at its disposal. Caught in between, in all three parts of the world, are thousands upon thousands of innocents who just want to have lives like the rest of us, to believe what we want and live out our days in peace.
Aside from the obvious results of single-minded culture at work, there are other, less fatal, but equally regretful consequences. I can’t speak for life under Muslim rule, but I can speak from my own experiences. I look around and see what people are missing by believing they are the centre of the universe.
Can they appreciate the subtlety of design in the Moorish architecture in Spain, the beauty in the drape of a Sari, or the simple awe that’s inspired by a Shinto temple? Or does all that matter to them is what’s on television? Our empire building has not created a cultural imperialism that destroys other people’s modes of expression, it simply doesn’t recognise its existence or cede it enough importance to make it worth bothering with.
I live across the street from a family that has rented out four apartments together in an apartment building. Almost everyday they sit out on the fire escape, drink beer, and yell at each other starting at around four in the afternoon and sometimes going as late as after midnight. On occasion they’ve ended up having fights on their front lawn or screaming abuse at each other at the top of their lungs.
Our society has created the circumstances where these people think they are better than someone who lives in Pakistan because of the colour of their skin and because they aren’t one of us. I’m sure they are not exceptional and there are millions of people the world over who think like that, no matter where they live or what they believe in.
Until we can shake off the chains of cultural imperialism we have tied our self up in, we will not evolve. The species that doesn’t evolve risks extinction.