Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Our Cultural Triumphs

by Richard Crews
I have long pondered why our particular culture, of the many thousands of human cultures that have flourished on the Earth, has achieved the amazing accomplishments that it has.

To start the argument--and I think nearly everyone who reads this will find something in it to disagree with--I would characterize our culture, very roughly, as Western-European/American, Puritanism-driven, entrepreneurial, capitalistic, socialized democracy.

If you can somehow get your head beyond that rough characterization, here are some examples of our conquests. We have been the first and only culture to advance science and technology to the point of splitting the atom, walking on the Moon, designing computers that process many billions of bits of information per second, and overpopulating and polluting our planetary ecosystem to the brink of disaster.

Other cultural experiments (among, I would stress, the thousands of different cultures that have flourished on Earth) have had their striking accomplishments. The Inuits of the far north learned to thrive in the harshest of frozen wastelands. Buddhists of the Tibetan plateau created a spiritual community of loving equanimity beyond anything most of us can imagine. The Romans 2,000 years ago developed and ran for several centuries an administrative political system that pushed its influence throughout the "known world." Periclean Athens raised philosophy of social conscience to unheard of heights--they created the original naissance of our Western culture and built the foundations of democratic ideals and systems. But none of these cultures--nor any other, except our own--succeeded in splitting the atom, walking on the Moon, designing electronic computers, or pushing our planet to the edge of ecological disaster.

Carl Schramm, an American economist and entrepreneur interviewed yesterday by Charlie Rose, believes home-grown (not internationally imported) entrepreneurism is the keystone of building a Western-like culture. He says that as it has been imported to China and India over the past couple of decades, such entrepreneurism has raised up one-fourth of the world's population out of destitute starvation and has put those two countries on the brink of competing among leading industrialized nations of the world. He considers facilitating local entrepreneurship the essential ingredient of Western nation building.

The quintessential example of this over the past few decades has been the triumphant rise and Westernization of Singapore. Under the austere, progressive hand of Lee Kuan Yew who became the first prime minister of the new country in 1965, Singapore has grown from a weak, resourceless, impoverished, overpopulated, Asian island to one of the leading industrialized banking and commercial centers of the world. While many have criticized Yew's nepotism and heavy political and economic methods, he seems to have raised Singapore by facilitating in every possible way the inflow of world attention and capital to facilitate entrepreneurship.

Our culture is unique. Unique in its manipulation of nature, its influence in developing and spreading humanitarian ideals, and--most of all--its explosive invasion of every populatable nook and cranny of the planet. Why should this be so? What makes these accomplishments possible? Perhaps an understanding of the complex social, political, and economic factors that facilitate indigenous entrepreneurship can help explain this.