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Appiah’s Golden Nuggets

Kwame Appiah, a philosophy professor at Princeton, offers us a classically philosophical question: “What are we talking about when we talk about western identity and western values?”

He offers something of a strange answer: “the golden nugget theory of western identity.” Someone in ancient Greece dug the nugget out of the ground, the secret of civilization of the west. For a while, Alexander had the nugget and brought it on his conquest for empire, leaving it in the Library at Alexandria. In the 9th century, it ended up in Baghdad, with the scholars who preserved Aristotle. St. Paul carried it for a while, around the Mediterranean and to Spain. In the last incarnation, “in the late 19th century, it arrived at Harvard and has been living in the American university ever since.”

This is a very silly theory, but we behave like it’s true. We seem to believe that there are “good forces” centered around this historical nugget that make our civilization possible. The fact that we have a capital, in Washington DC, is a direct reference back to ancient Rome, who “had the golden nugget for a long time.”

The cradle of the Golden Nugget in recent centuries wasn’t as great as we think. In 1890s France, at least 25% of urban France didn’t speak French – hard to believe they shared in the Golden Nugget’s benefits.

One of the errors we make about the Golden Nugget is the birthright error – overstating what we have in common with our anscestors. It’s a mistake to try to understand the west as a set of ideas we all share. Technology matters as well, as do ideas. When we exaggerate the role of ideas, we get stuck in believing who we have to be.

We also need to protect and defend these ideas. Appiah is very worried about what happens to ideas like Habeus Corpus when we fail to defend them, they don’t always survive. We actually need to defend them.

Another error is the “organicist error”. We tend to overstate the wholeness of cultures, forgetting that our civilization is about contest and conflict. Cultures don’t fit together like jigsaw puzzles that fit together perfectly.

Finally, there’s a nationalist error – overstating the relationship between cultural and political identities. Samuel Huntington argues that it’s a problem that new citizens don’t come from countries with a Protestant work ethic, that our New England – originated government can’t survive with people coming from a different cultural background. Appiah rejects this idea. There are coherent cultural works – like Wagner’s operas – but not whole cultures.

So if these are errors, let’s abandon them, Appiah argues. Spain, which couldn’t be more western, wasn’t a democracy until recently. India – which we don’t think of as western – was developing democracy during Franco’s rule. This is a mistake we make about ourselves and about others as well. The idea that there’s one Islamic or Muslim world is a huge mistake, equating Indonesia with Morocco, assuming that a common text is a common political worldview and destiny.