Ingeborg van Teeseling

About Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website, and runs, telling people's life stories.

Modern western values: Who are we?

Looking at our current Western values, Ingeborg van Teeseling seeks to answer the question: Are we who we claim to be, or something else?


Okay, so this is it, then. Apparently, old man (and conservative American political scientist) Samuel Huntington was right in predicting a Clash of Civilisations. A fight between “the West and the Rest.”

Cultural and religious identities would be the primary source of conflict,” he said in 1996, and it would not be pretty. Huntington wrote it would be the job of the West to protect its unique values against the Others who would be intent to wipe them off the face of the earth.

With ISIS now seemingly agreeing with Huntington, and some countries in the West more than willing to supply military muscle to the fight, it might be the right time to look at what this conflict is supposed to be about.

What are Western values exactly, and are they worth killing and dying for?

Also: How real is this clash of civilisations that Huntington predicted?

First of all, let’s briefly look at this idea of “the West” and who is included.

Russia, for instance: Is that a Western country, or does that depend on what Putin’s latest ideas and actions are? Whether his planes violate borders or not, and whose borders those are? What about China, the world’s banker? Or Japan: Capitalist, highly developed, but with a heritage which describes Westerners as barbarians? Is Latin-America part of the West, as America’s backyard and old sphere of influence? And then there is Saudi Arabia, our trusted oil supplier which nevertheless finances ISIS and other rather unsavoury groups, and sent most of the 9/11 hijackers to the USA. Then we’ve got Turkey: Mostly Muslim and becoming more so every day, but valuable in protecting Europe from the scary people on the other side of its borders.

Who belongs, and how do we decide? Come to think of it, who is “we,” really?

Does the West only consist of America, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand? If that is the case, then what about the internal differences? Fairly recent research showed that Americans and Europeans principally disagree on a lot of issues: A social safety net for the weakest in society, religion, the death penalty, the role of the state, the relationship between the individual and the collective. Australians, Canadians and New Zealand were not polled, but we know a lot of us disagree with the Americans about guns and nationalism, for example, and with quite a few Northern-Europeans about issues like euthanasia and what democracy really is. We also argue amongst ourselves about everything and anything, so what kind of unified “West” does that amount to? Is it only a union when there is a common enemy, or are there actual ethical and moral issues that bring us together?

Let’s tackle the most pressing matter first, the one that fills the pages of the newspapers at the moment:


One of the core Western values is the separation of church and state. This means, to quote the West Wing’s famously cranky speechwriter Toby Ziegler, that “if you violate the rules to grow a beard, that is only an offence against your parents and not to the government.” People can believe whatever they want to believe, even nothing, or that the Jedi will come to save us – it is all fine by the political powers. They have to treat all of their citizens equally, regardless of their (non)beliefs. Most of the countries in the world these days are secular states, without a state religion. From Angola to Uganda, from Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan. But not, for instance, England, or Denmark, Greece, Iceland, Malta, Monaco or Norway. Churches there are not separate from the government and can play a big role in the running of the country, especially when it comes to ethical issues like abortion and homosexuality.

So how Western is this value, exactly? Also: What does it mean that a country like Australia (or the US, for that matter) has only had a few Catholic leaders, a handful of atheists but no Jews, Muslims or Buddhists?

Then there is democracy, with its cousin pluralism. This is the prize the West keeps holding up to the countries it invades; “We have come to bring you democracy.” Apart from the fact that democracy, because of what it is, cannot be forced on anyone, but has to be chosen, the question here is: Which kind of democracy? A lot of Western countries, including Australia and the US, have a complicated system of electoral colleges or voting by district. There is no “one man, one vote” and no real or direct involvement of the people in the election of their leaders. Although the Oxford Dictionary defines a democracy as a system where “all the people of a state” are involved in making decisions, a lot of Western nations make exceptions there.

In Australia, people who have been convicted to prison for more than three years lose their right to vote. Non-citizens cannot vote either, although they live in the country and are subject to the rules of the government. And ask Aboriginal people how much say they had in decisions that were made (and are still being made) about them. So maybe we should be a little less arrogant about our system of governance, next time we impose it on somebody else. As the English writer EM Forster said: “It is two cheers for democracy, not three.”

Lastly, of course, there is individual freedom, the foundational principle we use to protect civil liberties, human rights, and even equality before an (independent) law. There are a million questions there, but to me, one of the most important ones is of the difficulty in deciding where the freedom of the individual and the needs of the collective clash. I always have trouble explaining to people why I think paying tax is a good thing, for instance. Because most people see themselves as individuals instead of a part of a group, they think it is incredibly unfair that they have to give up any money they have worked for. On the other hand, they do consider it their right to whinge about a lack of services, like good roads, public transport, childcare or affordable rental houses. Those things have to be organised and paid for by the government, which apparently has a money-tree in the backyard and has nothing to do with the people who it tries to cater for. One of the alternatives to paying a fair amount of tax is to follow the lead of the USA, where a lack of social security network means that whole families live in their cars when a parent loses their job.

So there are problems with our Western values, is all I am saying. And don’t get me started on our most widespread ideas, capitalism and colonialism, which have done more harm than anything else, as far as I am concerned. I also think Huntington’s belief in a clash of civilisations deserves all the attacks it has incurred over time. Especially because it is based on a presumption of superiority of the West that is not only condescending, conceited and dangerous, but also factually wrong, as I have tried to explain.

Still, there is one Western value that is worth protecting fiercely and maybe even worth dying (if not killing) for. It is the one I am trying to practice here: Self-criticism and dialogue. For the time being, I can be as much of a pain in the neck as I want, on paper and otherwise. Yes, there are trolls, and when Susan Sontag asked some pertinent questions about American nationalism straight after 9/11, she was condemned as a traitor. She wasn’t shot, though, and that is one valuable thing we have managed to protect in the West.

As Samuel Beckett wrote: “Try, fail, try again, fail better.” That is as good as it gets.


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