My dear friend and confidante Allison McNeely wades into a sticky debate with her latest post, “Let’s avoid ethnocentric solutions to women’s issues.” Commenting on The Daily Beast founder Tina Brown’s Women in the World Summit, Allison asks, “Do we really know how to improve the lives of women in Saudi Arabia or India?” She raises an important question: is the liberal democratic framework a) ethnocentric, and b) can it apply to all. Essentially, do we consider liberal democracy truly universal or is it particular to Western societies.

This is the debate Francis Fukuyama ignited in writing his treatise, The End of History and the Last Man. Does modernity necessarily mean an inevitable progression towards Western-style liberal democracy? Or can we have separate modernities, shaped by the peoples of the developing world themselves?

Allison would rather have women from the developing world organize such conferences, instead of the seemingly patronizing efforts of Western feminists, who she sees as ethnocentrists imposing their ideas on the rest. While I see the merit in the separate paths thesis, I do think that historical progress in developing societies will require engagement with the West. Liberal democracy to me isn’t simply an cultural order or political tradition particular to the West, but a universal ideal. I say this because liberal democracy as we understand it is not rooted in Christendom or the history of Western civilization alone; it is the product of the Enlightenment.

It signifies the triumph of human reason and scientific principles over mysticism and the Church, a sort of scientific revolution for government. In other words, liberal democracy is a technological innovation–albeit a political technology–that allows societies to better organize themselves and to arrive at rational, peaceful government. Just as the scientific inventions of the Enlightenment have been adopted by developing societies, so too must the governmental inventions of the Enlightenment–if developing societies hope to mimic the progress of the West.

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