Friday, July 25, 2014

Crossing Cultures

Ian Buruma

Is multiculturalism a blessing or a curse? Must democracy be secular or can religion play a role? Does the “West” still exist and, if so, what does it stand for? Has China successfully fused capitalism with authoritarianism? Will Islam change the West or will the West change Islam? What validity do Enlightenment values retain in an age when the very idea of “truth” has become suspect?

“I'm not a donkey, and I don’t have a field,” scoffed Max Weber when some academic non-entity criticized him for writing outside his discipline. Yet, with the rapid growth and increasing diversification of human knowledge, the forces of intellectual specialization have all but won. Nowadays, newspaper readers and editors alike bemoan what seems to be a consequence of this narrowness: the death of the free-ranging intellectual.

Who, indeed, does not wish that the worlds and sub-worlds of science, public affairs, and the humanities could better talk to one another? That Asian culture could speak more clearly to Europe? That the forces behind Orientalism and Occidentalism could be better understood? Who does not applaud the few writers who can move between these worlds with even a hint of grace and plausibility?

Ian Buruma, a Dutchman who writes in English and speaks fluent Japanese and German, is a classic public intellectual of the kind that now seems to have vanished from our world. His books cover topics ranging from war guilt (The Wages of Guilt) to the impact of Western ideas on Asia (Occidentalism) to the breakdown of multiculturalism (Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance).

Combining the historian’s breadth and insight with the journalist’s clarity and accessibility, Ian Buruma has reported on the defining issues of our time for three decades. His sober, compelling analyses – delivered in vivid and often stirring prose – unfailingly spark debate. Now, Project Syndicate’s monthly series Crossing Cultures brings the writing of one of the world’s most important and engaging intellectuals to newspaper readers everywhere.

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