The trouble with Kumbaya

PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images Author Ian Buruma, who is in Davos at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, has picked up on a tactic increasingly used by undemocratic countries such as China and Iran in defending themselves from international criticism: demanding that Westerners stop “imposing” their values on cultures that supposedly have a different ...

596872_khatami_05.jpg
596872_khatami_05.jpg

PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images

Author Ian Buruma, who is in Davos at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, has picked up on a tactic increasingly used by undemocratic countries such as China and Iran in defending themselves from international criticism: demanding that Westerners stop "imposing" their values on cultures that supposedly have a different understanding of what democracy means.

As Buruma put it me this morning, this is clearly self-serving hogwash. "It's much less a division between East and West along civilizational lines than some people like to see it," he said. "It's really a political division," he added, pointing out that the Indians and the Japanese, or even the Indonesians don't see things that way. Few people may buy the argument, Buruma said, but nonetheless it's an effective way of neutralizing the democracy issue because people don't want to be seen as dissing other cultures. "When people discuss this in terms of culture and civilization, then you get a lot of that pious stuff," he noted, referring to the kind of Kumbaya moments that former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami has made into a veritable Davos fetish. "People have the habit of expressing fine sentiments as soon as civilization and culture come up." 

PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images

Author Ian Buruma, who is in Davos at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, has picked up on a tactic increasingly used by undemocratic countries such as China and Iran in defending themselves from international criticism: demanding that Westerners stop “imposing” their values on cultures that supposedly have a different understanding of what democracy means.

As Buruma put it me this morning, this is clearly self-serving hogwash. “It’s much less a division between East and West along civilizational lines than some people like to see it,” he said. “It’s really a political division,” he added, pointing out that the Indians and the Japanese, or even the Indonesians don’t see things that way. Few people may buy the argument, Buruma said, but nonetheless it’s an effective way of neutralizing the democracy issue because people don’t want to be seen as dissing other cultures. “When people discuss this in terms of culture and civilization, then you get a lot of that pious stuff,” he noted, referring to the kind of Kumbaya moments that former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami has made into a veritable Davos fetish. “People have the habit of expressing fine sentiments as soon as civilization and culture come up.” 

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf pulled the culture card at a breakfast Buruma attended and found the Pakistani leader to be “completely out of touch,” fixated on the notion that “any bad news about Pakistan is a distortion by the foreign press.” After all, Nicolas Sarkozy, Gordon Brown, and George W. Bush had assured him that “everything is fine.” Musharraf also tangled with Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, who had the temerity to suggest that Pakistan’s human rights record could use a little improvement. Musharraf’s response, essentially “We have our own human rights,” was underwhelming, to say the least.

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