(I can’t imagine why you’d want to, but find this HERE)
(This is a slightly-edited form of a review originally posted in 2014 on Goodreads. Were I to write this now, it would be better organized, but even more scathing.)
It’s taken me a long time to write a review of this, because I’m trying to be classy these days and I wanted to come up with something to say about this book and author that doesn’t begin with “So this dumb muthaf—- right here….”
I limped along for months trying to finish this book, scanning the last hundred pages in those odd moments when I got tired of watching paint dry or y’know, reading actual good books.
I finally powered through it, though. For science. And because apparently I don’t like myself as much as I thought.
This is a terrible book.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let me explain why. The author, Lawrence E Harrison, describes himself as a Jewish chauvinist and a proud product of assimilation into America the Great and…being white. To that point, the last chapter seems to consist primarily of the author recounting experiences of being invited to join or consult with major cultural organizations based on his reputation as a “scholar of cultural relativism” and USAID worker, and then being fired as soon as the people in charge of these organizations discovered what his actual opinions were. This, of course, is the fault of those organizations for not being visionary enough, not looking at the facts, and believing that their own cultural values may contribute to their success.
In actuality, the author, who passed away in 2015, was just a garden variety intellectual racist and not a particularly clever one at that. He reels off statistics (with a special fondness for OECD scores, oddly broken down into racial as well as national categories, which creates an odd implication of causality between race and culture) and elevates Jewish, white European/American Protestant and East Asian “Confucian” cultures to paragon status. According to him these are the pinnacle of human societies with very few internal problems or challenges. (2021 note: I live in Korea now, where if you sneeze on a Tuesday thirty-four people will pop up and inform you that “Korea is a Confucian society.” To say that Confucianism lends an extra measure of advancement to a society is…rather laughable, from my current vantage point.) He exhibits very little understanding of interactions between cultures outside of financial transactions and mimicry and therefore gives no reasons, aside from a mysterious innate cultural inferiority and false sense of victimization and racial correlation, for why Nigerian Protestants are not as “successful” in his view as white ones.(2021 spoiler alert: Nigerian Protestants in America are actually more successful than white ones!) He doesn’t explain why a mostly Hindu and Muslim India is as (financially) successful as a Confucian China. There’s no reasonable explanation for how this book, a steaming pile of pseudo-intellectual racist tripe, manages to be used as a textbook in cultural studies classes in universities that still largely pretend that history begins and ends with the Boston Tea Party and somebody’s Irish great grandmother.
He cherry-picks rather curious examples to back up his assertions. The only successes that matter to him are those that are unchallenging to a 1950s Protestant American white/white-appearing/white-aspirational stereotype, ignoring the successes of Irish Catholics, Latinx groups, Black Americans(who he derides in an entire chapter dedicated to our “sense of victimology” because clearly a history of systematic racism is imaginary–honestly, f*ck this dude)–basically, if you aren’t Jewish, East Asian, or white, your culture’s successes count for nothing. If they do, it’s because at some point Jews, Confucians or European Protestants ran the culture at some point. All of this is done with no discussion of any negative cultural issues that may exist in “high value” cultures or positive factors within “low value” cultures. There’s no realistic viewpoint of culture as the self-expression of a people here. The sole value of a culture, in Harrison’s eyes, is only as a tool to make money and get higher test scores. What is this, Mad Men? How did this backwards worldview get published?
This book is disgusting, sneakily hateful, outdated and peculiarly misanthropic at times, but because it’s prettied up with carefully selected facts and statistics and is not overtly anti-minority–just overtly anti-non-assimilating minority–it’s taken seriously as a text on serious cultural solutions in the modern age. In doing so, it perpetuates some pretty foul stereotypes–Latinos and Blacks are lazy and stupid, Asians are a global “model minority” (even though last I checked, there are more Asians in the world than anyone else so how does that even work?) and white people, no matter where they’re from, are inherently hard-working with superior values. Long, anecdotal lists of successful people are trotted out for each “high value culture”, ignoring the fact that such a list can be made for ANY culture, poking a neat hole in one of his most common arguments.
What’s missing from this book is any appreciation of humanity. Culture is a human thing, a means of connection and creativity, not a tool for soulless financial success or a problem to be fixed. Adopting one culture does not always mean rejecting another and history and systems of oppression and economic equality matter a LOT in the way that cultures have developed and continue to develop. Also, there are more ways to be successful than passing tests and working in fields rampant with nepotism and cronyism, then pretending that you got there by pure ability.
I could type another ten pages about this, but I won’t. I’ll simply say, DON’T READ THIS BOOK. The ideas within aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.
One star and one particular finger up to Jews, Confucians, and Protestants.
(Don’t buy this book, beautiful people. Buy something else, and read it with great enjoyment and appreciate for culture outside of a petty obsession with money and power. If you happen to buy a book from a link you click on this site, there are affiliate relationships and a commission might be earned. Thanks for visiting, beautiful people!)