In the 80s & 90s, one faced the same sort of thing in Japan, with what was called ‘nihon-jin-ron’, the ‘theory of the Japanese’, a thoroughly and cynically racist and chauvinistic outpouring which depended in part on taking certain questionable and often racist assertions about Japan made over a century or so by some Westerners and throwing them back in the face of the West: ‘we Japanese’ understand one another not through logic, like coldly rational Westerners, but through intuitive feeling, through ‘hara’ (guts); our arts are so extraordinarily sensitive that Westerners cannot possibly appreciate them; even though Westerners may parrot the Japanese language, they can never truly speak or understand it.
These theorists also depended heavily on the dogma of ‘cultural relativism’ which, taken to an extreme (as it all too often is – the temptation to do so is great), essentially makes ‘cultures’ like black holes to one another – though the proponents of nihonjinron insisted that ‘the Japanese’ understood the West all too well: being logical, etc, the West was easy to understand. Essentially, ‘cultural relativism’ provided a cloak for the indulging of an extreme nationalism that even extended to literary scholarship – Konishi Jin’ichi’s history of Japanese literature, for example, which was acclaimed by useful idiots in the West like Earl Miner and panned by the British scholar and translator Dennis Keene as well as myself.
When one took up cudgels against nihonjin-ron, it was remarkable how quickly charges of racism, cultural condescension, etc were made. Writers like Peter Dale, Ross Mouer, Yoshio Sugimoto (who was actually Japanese!), Karel van Wolferen, Alan Booth and, in a small way, myself had to face this. And it was interesting that these charges came as often from Westerners as from Japanese, if not more so. It was also interesting to me that most of the Western critics of nihonjin-ron were not from the US – I think this because of the closer acquaintance Europeans had with nationalist modes of thought and because of the paternalistic attitude taken towards postwar Japan by many Americans – it is something that to my mind vitiates Donald Richie’s writings on Japan, though his books on Ozu and Kurosawa are admirable.
The bubble of nihonjin-ron burst more or less with the bursting of Japan’s bubble economy, though now we have the most chauvinistic government in years in power here, and one suspects the theorists could emerge again, given the right circumstances.
Really, it’s a delicate balancing act – which is something that on the one hand a parochial insistence on the universality of Western values and on the other the sort of thing indulged in by Penny and her ilk simply fail to recognize.