Sri Lankan business keen on Clinton
but not the US
Talk to local business worthies and you will encounter for the most part a negative perception of America among them. Yet, in spite of it, or perhaps because of it, they have a very favourable opinion of President Bill Clinton – of whom Dick Morris, the former Clinton political consultant had this to say, after Clinton’s celebrated Fox New Channel appearance recently. “There he was on television, the man those who have worked for him have come to know – the angry, sarcastic, snarling, self-righteous, bombastic bully, roused to a fever pitch; the truer the accusation, the greater the feigned indignation.”
The negative perceptions of America clearly predate the war on terror. There is obviously no single idea that would explain such perceptions. Nor is one sought here. But there is this common belief among our worthies that America is an artificial society without culture.
Such a belief is of course quite charming! The temptation to dismiss it out of hand is very strong; after all, the habitual methods or ways of businessmen often render them indifferent to all but profitable and useful things.
Yet, the significance of this common belief might be worth exploring in the interest at least of bringing to a sharper focus the insights and values of our own business leaders.
Besides, our business leaders are not alone in viewing America as an example of a civilization without culture: it is a commonplace among Western Europeans as well.
Moreover, it is hardly fair to be dismissive of the attitudes of businessmen just because they would habitually value even learning and the arts as aids to power and prestige. In fact, it is both reasonable and desirable that businessmen have the habits that they have. Specialisation is basic to the material and rational progress of any society, and there are ends appropriate to each field of human endeavour determining the quality and character of minds working toward those ends.
Thus, a businessman cannot be expected to discriminate after the manner of those who are devoted to the discipline of life on an either intellectual or imaginative level.
Yet a businessman discriminates well in what he does, and on other matters he can be expected to be informed at least partly by his education but mostly by his own society’s historically unified ways, methods or habits of dealing with life at various levels, from the material and social to the intellectual and imaginative.
However, it might be amusing for some and baffling for others to think that our business leaders might have gleaned what culture or the lack of it is from our own society’s institutionalized habits, from its customary methods or ways of doing things.
It is clear to all but our ardent nationalists that our own society’s customary ways of dealing with the human situation are wholly inadequate. In fact, in the welter of our ineffective, contradictory and confused ways of doing things many of us are failing to develop a relationship to modernity – which suggests at least to some of us that the word “culture” might well be functioning with us as a therapeutic myth.
The basic elements of the human situation – from the need of nourishment to the cravings of the imagination – are obvious enough. The excuse for recalling them below is that doing it helps to home in on the central point here.
Man lives in a world that demands of him know-how to provide even for the need of nourishment. Yet, notwithstanding the fact that man is a knowing organism living in a knowable world, only some societies have proved capable of moving knowledge beyond foklore. The institutionalization of science, or the scientific way of articulating the experienced world has eluded all but those civilizations that have stumbled upon the Aristotelian tradition of Greek thought.
Man lives in association with others and generates political, economic, judicial, educational and military systems to harmonize different human elements, to adjust conflicts, to advance learning, and generally to deal effectively and efficiently with human needs and progress. But not every society has proved capable of proceeding to formulate systems that can accommodate change, novel experiences, or better judgments, practices and habits without upheaval, dictatorship and the wholesale abandonment of cherished beliefs and traditions, or historically unified social habits.
The imagination of man can visualize a world immeasurably more superior to the real world in which he finds himself – consequently man craves for unity, perfection, deathlessness, and is ultimately driven to ask why he exists. But not every society has proved equally creative in the imaginative envisagement of a world superior to the natural world – a supernatural world – from which man could draw strength and inspiration, even in the very face of frustration and failure, to cooperate with the rest of nature to strive after the highest in him and the best in existence.
It might be unreasonable to suggest that in the poverty-stricken, class-ridden lands of hopeless squalor, the imaginative life – the arts, the theatre, the temple – has failed man miserably. But it is reasonable to submit that, for instance, when a society’s imaginative life consecrates an ethic of quietism that borders on the otherworldly monastic ethic of abstinence and renunciation, it tells a despairing tale of the ability of man to solve human problems. And the feeling of despair breeds viciousness and renders man practical to the point of cynicism – especially in an ever shrinking world and in an era of rapid scientific development, technological marvels, economic dynamism, and growing democratic assertiveness.
When we thus view culture as the set of complex social habits that a civilization progressively cumulates to deal with the human situation, we find that America stands as the supreme example of a distinctive civilization successfully built on the continuous reworking, with originality, of the cultural materials of its heritage. Its heritage is the Greco-Christian civilization. In an inescapable sense, America is Europe, but one that is untouched by the agonies of the European culture, and unconstrained by its fear of failure, elitism, economic centralism and the like.
We reveal our character by what we love and what we hate. And when we lack the courage to face up to the bare bones of our existence, we turn the world upside down for therapeutic effect.
By all accounts, President Clinton is counted among the unruly, the distempered, and the most self-seeking of men. Like a French mandarin, a self-seeker views education as an ornament and cultivates his mind to make him powerful. The good man cultivates his mind to think clearly, judge honestly, and to make his happiness sweet, secure and rational. To the vulgar, eloquence is identical to wisdom.