Book Review: The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself

Matthew Kalman

Lawrence E. Harrison. The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006, 272 pages)

This is a great read if you’re interested in the role culture can play in enabling—or slowing—human development, along with how leaders can work to promote progressive cultural changes in this often-neglected Lower Left of Ken Wilber’s quadrants.

“Leadership matters: that Singapore is among the most affluent and least corrupt countries in the world surely reflects the vision and influence of its dominant political figure, Lee Kuan Yew,” says Harrison.

The focus is predominantly on the macro-level, nations and large communities, rather than businesses and organisations, though these are included (as is an awful lot else, from parenting styles to civic education). Harrison hopes that after 50 years in which the optimistic predictions of the development community have largely failed to be realised, it might be more receptive now to his approach. The possibility that progress can be accelerated by analysing the cultural obstacles to it—and explicitly addressing cultural change as a remedy—should be firmly back on the table, he urges. He’s also the first to admit that cultural relativism predominates amongst the development policy chiefs and general sensitivities mean that most people still feel much happier laying the blame on geographic constraints, resources, bad policies, weak institutions and suchlike. “That some cultures are more prone to progress than others is a message that goes down very hard in development circles, all the evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.”

In case you’re wondering about the book’s title, it’s derived from a quote from the late US Democrat politician and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself”. This sounds like a pretty clear call for an integration of left-hand quadrant and right-hand quadrant approaches to me.

Harrison seeks in the book to provide answers to a range of questions. Why have democratic institutions failed to take hold in any Arab country? Why have the Confucian societies of East Asia experienced transformative economic growth? Why are East Asian immigrants and Jews so successful wherever they migrate to? How can we explain Spain’s ‘miracle’ transformation from traditional autocracy to modern ‘post-Catholic’ democracy? Why do Nordic countries lead the way in most indicators of progress?

To find credible and evidence-based answers to these questions, Harrison convened a 60-strong team of experts for the ‘Culture Matters Research Project’ (CMRP). It’s a very impressive team too, including developmental psychologists Thomas Lickona and Jerome Kagan, Michael Novak, John McWhorter, Lucian Pye, Samuel Huntington and probably the best known researcher into values internationally, Ronald Inglehart. Harrison and his CMRP team developed a 25-factor typology of the characteristics of progress-prone and progress-resistant societies, derived principally from the work of their Argentine colleague Mariano Grondona. It includes contrasting attitudes towards religion, destiny, time orientation, entrepreneurship, innovation, fatalism, work/achievement, risk propensity, gender relationships, the role of elites, etc.—and is all validated against Inglehart’s World Values Survey data, which covers 85 per cent of the world’s population.

Harrison himself was for decades an official with the US Agency for International Development in Latin America. He had already discerned a pattern of problems common in all the five countries he worked in: “disrespect for the law, unbridled exercise of authority, lack of cooperation with one another, passivity when encountering problems, lack of civic consciousness, lack of trust, and pursuit of narrow personal interest”.

The CMRP itself follows on from a 1999 symposium at Harvard which brought together scholars, journalists, politicians and development practitioners, including Jeffrey Sachs, Francis Fukuyama, Seymour Martin Lipset, Nathan Glazer and Orlando Patterson, to discuss the thesis that values, beliefs and attitudes are “a key but neglected factor in understanding the evolution of societies and that neglect of cultural factors may go a long way toward explaining the agonizingly slow progress toward democratic governance, social justice and prosperity in many countries in Africa, Latin America, the Islamic world and elsewhere.”

An earlier book, Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress, co-edited with Samuel Huntington, gathered together the contributions to that event. But that symposium, explains Harrison, still wasn’t yet willing to take the final step, to actually “discuss measures to encourage or facilitate cultural change”. Harrison is clearly up to the task of remedying this gap.

The book analyses many countries around the globe, everywhere from Sweden to Quebec to Botswana to New Zealand for lessons about cultural progress or inertia. Harrison begins his explanation of the role of culture with the illuminating example of the island of Hispaniola. It is divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, yet the two parts followed very divergent paths—clearly as a result of cultural factors, rather than geographic ones, where there s little to distinguish them.

Harrison disaggregates many aspects of culture. In Latin America, for instance, there is often a “a too-elastic ethical code that tolerates anti-social behaviour”. One of the CMRP team, Harvard developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan, focuses on child-rearing practices and progress. For example, Costa Rica illustrates overprotective parenting with contradictory standards of behaviour: abide by the rules, but if you break them, the important thing is to get away with it.

An illustrative minor point is that in his own work in Latin America the author would often be asked—when arranging his appointments—is this “hora gringa (American)” or “hora local” (i.e., at least 30 minutes late)? This sounds unimportant, yet one estimate of the cost of lateness in Ecuador puts it at $724m; another study estimated losses of $2.5bn.

Harrison examines 117 countries to see what the effect of religion on development is, finding some far more conducive than others to modernisation. The absence of an ethical code in voodoo breeds high distrust levels, for instance. Its also nurtures irrationality, impotence and fatalism—discouraging entrepreneurialism. Islamic doctrines, argues Harrison, promote fatalism, absolutism and intolerance—which nurture authoritarianism with the kinds of depressing outcomes analysed in the four controversial recent UNDP Arab Human Development Reports.

Overall, Harrison concludes that Protestantism is more conducive to progress than Catholicism, that the Nordic countries have been champions of progress and that Confucianism is far better at enabling modernisation than Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism. Islam has fallen behind in virtually all respects “in striking contrast to the vanguard role of Islam during its first several centuries”, he concludes.

In yet another of the kind of recommendations that would make cultural relativists like Richard Shweder quake, Harrison suggests we should “encourageconversion of those practicing animist religions to more progress-prone religions”. No predominantly Buddhist country has made it into the First World, Harrison also tells us.

He also takes an interesting look at the rise of Evangelical and Pentecostal Protestantism in Africa and Latin America. They are seen in Latin America “by the poor, including many indigenous peoples, as avenues to family stability and upward mobility.” Pentecostalism is largely a movement of women “determined with God’s help to defend home and family against machismo and the seductions of the street and the weekend.”

Unavoidable, of course, is the prodigious record of Judaism: 15 to 20 per cent of Nobel prizes, yet only .2 per cent of world population. A footnote in his book records that it was data about the higher levels of achievement amongst Protestants than amongst Catholics in the Baden region that contributed to Max Weber’s decision to write his hugely influential work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Interestingly, the same footnote notes “substantially higher levels of achievement for Jews than for Protestants”. Religions, however, are not monolithic for Harrison; liberal and conservative crosscurrents—multivocality—is found in all religions.

The book also analyses the successes and failures of various actual culture-focused interventions, many of them transformations wrought by visionary leaders. These include the “extraordinarly effective democractic leadership” of the first three presidents of Botswana, Seretse Khama, Quett Masire and Festus Mogae. Close to an African ‘miracle’ is how the author describes it. Also in the spotlight are Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew, Governor Mikhail Prusak in Novgorod (near St Petersburg), Deng Xiaoping (for his reversal of the Confucian and Maoist order and promotion of private enterprise), and Spain’s King Juan Carlos.

Even the former Democratic Governor of Ken Wilber’s home state of Colorado, Richard Lamm, is included as a case study. Lamm became interested in the role of leadership in cultural change, which he focused on in an essay ‘Public Policy and Culture’. Lamm looked over various examples where leadership played a role in cultural change and concluded: ‘When things are going well in a country, cultural change is a non-starter. It is when things are going poorly that visionary leaders may attribute adversity to cultural factors and seek to change them. Often, of course, leaders will take the easy way out and blame external factors, e.g., ‘dependency’ and ‘colonialism’.” Black and Hispanic under-achievement was a particular focus for Lamm.

Another case study is the 1960’s revolution that transformed Quebec, involving a similar process of declericalisation to that which took place in Ireland and Spain, along with a “a selective reinterpretation of traditional culture, in political rhetoric and the media, emphasizing progressive features, for example, tolerance”. Massive resource allocation to education was another element in the shift.

Another interesting story of a cultural intervention took place when the Honda distributor for Peru, Octavio Mavila, became impressed by the success of Japan, which had no resources but developed its people, whilst his own Peru “fooled itself with the idea that it was rich because of its natural resources”. Mavila set up Peru’s Institute of Human Development (INDEHU), which focused on cultural change and was highly controversial in the development community. A CMRP analysis, however, criticises INDEHU for, amongst other things, failing to do research to “illuminate existing value and attitude patterns” or to identify obstacles to its ambitious culture change project.

A USAID-financed project to increase citizen participation and social capital in Bolivia starting in 2002 collected attitudes about democracy and association. It found a 27 per cent increase in the key variables, compared to non-participating areas. Elsewhere, an assessment by the Mexican state of Sinaloa in 2003-04 found that students who participated in a year (60 hours) of “intensive culture-of-lawfulness education showed significant improvement in knowledge and attitudes about the rule of law. They also showed reduced levels of fatalism, enhanced interest in upholding the rule of law, a greater likelihood of feeling that their actions can affect the course of their lives”.

The success of the program of Bogota Mayor Enrique Penalosa—between 1998 and 2000—was found to have brought “a new culture of respect for life, the law, and for others”. Amongst the reforms was the construction of three “mega-libraries” and 12 smaller ones “of the Anglo-Saxon type with direct access to books”. Latin American libraries apparently don’t allow direct access to books, reflecting a culture of mistrust.

The book concludes with a series of ‘Guidelines for Progressive Cultural Change”, covering seven areas: child rearing and education, religious reform, governments, development assistance institutions, universities, the media and the private sector. It’s also clear—as with Spiral Dynamics’ advocacy of a multi-stakeholder approach, which it dubs a ‘MeshWORK’—that single-track approaches aren’t likely to succeed. The Peruvian culture change organisation INDEHU, for instance, is criticised for trying to bring about change with “a single instrument”. Harrison instead suggests that: “What is necessary is an all-out, coordinated program that involves child rearing, religion and religious reform, education and education reform, the media, civic groups, and above all, strong political leadership committed to the democratic-capitalist model.”

The Spiral Dynamics approach of ensuring that change programs also nourish the various pre-existing, less complex value systems comes to mind in the book’s discussion of the importance of looking for historical/mythical precedents for cultural change. Canadian political scientist Daniel Latouche recommends that progressive initiatives should involve at least the appearance of continuity, “the creation of new mythologies based on selective memories taken from the past.” The culture change work in the Russian city of Novgorod, for instance, stressed the role of the evocation of local symbols and myths, highlighting its “heritage as a medieval trade centre and cradle of Russian democracy”.

Harrison also urges that “Future development assistance should (1) incorporate value/belief baseline data that will facilitate subsequent assessment of cultural change; and (2) adapt the CMRP typology for analysis of impact to assure that project design promotes the progressive rather than the resistant factors”.

In this direction, he adds that “Miguel Basanez has created a survey instrument for the CMRP that will enable the development of a national value profile tied to the 25-point typology. Periodic resurveys will permit assessments of cultural change that should be helpful in guiding public policy decisions.”

You can probably sense how controversial Harrison’s overall approach is, in certain circles. One culture is more progress-prone than another; this or that religion impedes development. Where PC culture prevails, there are relatively few who dare to make such judgments publicly: “The Culture Matters view is politically incorrect and often associated—incorrectly—with a right-wing agenda”, explains Harrison. As far back as 1948 the American Anthropological Association opposed the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights as a Western ethnocentric imposition.

Harrison is very critical of (“self-defeating”) “victim politics” and Dependency Theory’s re-emerging influence in Latin America (which tends to blame the region’s ills on US influence). Somewhat more controversially, he even views the United Fruit Company as a model of progessive cultural change. He admits he at first found this conclusion hard to swallow, as that company is such a symbol of Yankee imperialism.

Harrison also repeatedly makes clear that (Iraq-style?) imposing of guidelines from the outside is not what the CMRP is promoting. As Napoleon found after his conquest of Egypt in 1798, the author tells us, the values of a progressive culture cannot be introduced from outside. Referring to Latin America, Iraq and Afghanistan, he recollects “the message of Alexis de Tocqueville: It is difficult (and probably impossible from the outside) to build a democracy without a critical mass of democrats”.

He’s also adamant that none of the CMRP team believes in notions of cultural determinism, that culture is immutable. Although Harrison does mention in endnotes the high IQs of Ashkenazic Jews and East Asians, he presumably rejects completely the controversial argument of Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen’s book “IQ and the Wealth of Nations” (you can guess the explanatory variable that work favours from the title). Nevertheless it would be interesting to read a good even-handed comparison of different approaches to explaining development, or the lack of it—including dependency theory, Harrison’s cultural approach, Jared Diamond’s geography-based approach outlined in Guns, Germs and Steel, the national average IQ as explanation approach, etc.

It could well have made the links to the Integral model more transparent if Harrison’s focus on large-scale cultural shifts was more closely tied in to the lifespan developmental shifts in individuals, perhaps using the kind of models that are popular in integral circles (Kegan, Torbert/Cook-Greuter, Beck and Cowan)—and this would help the book overcome the curse of the between-two-columns transformation, where the many shifts up the spiral of individual growth are presented in an over-simplified form as a single shift from column A characteristics to column B ones.

Harrison talks about how the “radius of identification and trust rarely extends beyond family and friends” in most poor countries; using some of the specialists models of (upper left quadrant) individual development might tell us much more about exactly what’s going on. (Is Harrison often advocating the need for a shift from Kegan’s stage of Traditionalism to—self-authoring—Modernism, one wonders? Kegan’s work for the OECD on the develomental stage of the competencies now required in the information age might have fed into CMRP). Perhaps this possible neglect of adult growth takes place because the CMRP team includes child developmental experts rather than adult development researchers like Harvard’s Prof Robert Kegan, a founder member of the Integral Institute?

A weakness in the cultural approach to date is highlighted in the book itself when it cites a US General Accounting Office report on democracy programmes in 2003 that laments “the lack of baseline data on attitudes and values at the outset of the intervention”. This question of values measurement—preferably before and after a programme—prompts me to wonder exactly what is currently on offer to the open-minded, integral practitioner of (cultural) change. What are the pros and cons of the different assessment models? What countries do they cover? Can they do automated values analysis of digital text? Do they offer results derived from balanced and nationally representative samples, or more ad hoc ones? Do they correlate values/attitudes to behavioural data? The answers to some of these questions might help determine which assessment is most appropriate for which kind of task. In other words, which ones can be used for honing a national message or cultural campaign, or managing a major brand, which are best suited for working with teams, or individual coaching etc. Even just looking at values-related assessments we have many approaches available: these include Richard Barrett’s Corptools, Ronald Inglehart’s World Values Survey, Dr Brian Hall’s Values Map, Spiral Dynamics’ ‘value memes’, Shalom Schwartz’s Basic Human Values, Pat Dade/Cultural Dynamics’ values modes, Young and Rubicam/Stanford Research Institute’s Values and Lifestyles (VALS II), and the CMRP’s own national value profile instrument, as already mentioned). The Integral Institute itself was talking of a “massive Integral Developmental Psychometric Project—the first psychometric dedicated for Integral theory and applications”, though reports of a concall with the leader of the project, David Zeitler, seemed to suggest that such work is not imminent. In the interim, a survey of the assessments that actually are available might be valuable (and such a round-up could no doubt go beyond a ‘values’ focus to include the assessments developed by Kegan, Cook-Greuter/Torbert, Elliot Jaques and others).

Despite the title of the book coming from Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s comment, an interesting back story that Harrison doesn’t choose to include is the vitriolic response to the 1965 Moynihan Report (aka “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”) that highlighted the “tangle of pathologies” in the ghetto. Ironically, although Moynihan’s work was descriptive rather than laying blame, the critical furore that greeted it ensured that the culture of poverty was barely talked about again in liberal circles for a decade or two. The phrase ‘blame the victim’ actually emerged from the firestorm of criticism he faced.

Finally, you might sense that this all seems quite a lot to cover in any depth in a book where the core text is a little over 200 pages. Luckily, for some fuller depth you can also read two companion volumes which emerged from Harrison’s CMRP project: ‘Developing Cultures: Essays on Cultural Development’ and ‘Developing Cultures: Case Studies’. And April saw the inauguration of the Cultural Change Institute at the Fletcher School, Tufts University – with an impressive program of future CMRP-related activity, including a conference to integrate the environmental (Jared Diamond), institutional (Douglas North) and cultural paradigms.

Editor’s Note: Also available, and more directly focused on leadership, is Robert J. House et al, Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies. A brief report on this book may be found in the Leadership Emerges section of this issue of Integral Leadership Review.]

Matthew Kalman MA, is a founder member of the Integral Institute , and launched the London Integral Circle in 2000. The group has hosted Integral Institute founder members including Susanne Cook-GreuterDon Beck, John Rowan, and Rabbi Michael Lerner at events attracting up to 300 people. He has worked with Henley Management College to develop the first model of Integral Knowledge Management. Matthew works as a media professional and lives with his family in London, England.