By Jonah Goldberg
Friday, July 07, 2017
So just to get it out of the way: Who has two thumbs and loves Western Civilization? This guy (I am pointing my thumbs me-ward, which makes typing hard).
Just to be clear, I don’t mean “so-called Western Civilization” but you know, Western Civilization.
I mean the thing both liberals and conservatives alike have celebrated for hundreds of years since words like “liberal” and “conservative” had any relevance to politics.
Of course, this is not to say everyone agreed on what Western Civilization is, was, or should be.
But when I read this from my old friend Peter Beinart, I have to scratch my head.
In his speech in Poland on Thursday, Donald Trump referred 10 times to “the West” and five times to “our civilization.” His white nationalist supporters will understand exactly what he means. It’s important that other Americans do, too. . . .
The West is a racial and religious term. To be considered Western, a country must be largely Christian (preferably Protestant or Catholic) and largely white.
Now, this is a more defensible statement than some of my friends on the right seem to think. I say “defensible” because it’s largely true, but only a partial and mincing truth. Peter is right to note that the West has largely been defined by Christianity, but who can deny that? Though let’s not forget that Christianity itself was born in what used to be called the Orient (ditto Judaism).
This fact is a nice way of noting that even in the earliest days when Western Civilization was not particularly civilized, it was borrowing from other cultures. That’s a huge part of what makes Western Civilization so special. Sure, it’s got its history of bigotries, atrocities, and other sins — quick, tell me which civilization or society doesn’t? — but a central part of the West’s modus operandi has been to sift through what is best in other cultures and our own and appropriate it or modify it. The West, historically, has been more interested in other cultures and civilizations than any other. Celebrating our long history of open-minded curiosity and tolerance is not closed-minded bigotry, no matter how hard you try.
What makes Peter’s statement indefensible is the context. Peter pretty clearly wants to suggest that, because the West, historically, has described a mostly white, mostly Protestant or Catholic civilization, defending it must be an example of bigotry. Must it? Were Will and Ariel Durant spelunkers in the history of white privilege and nativism? Was Isaiah Berlin a trafficker in little more than prettified white-supremacist dogma?
The West also means something more than merely the culture of white Christians, and if someone other than Donald Trump had given that speech, I think Peter would have an easier time acknowledging it. After all, he is a great fan of Reinhold Niebuhr, who said, “We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization.” I doubt Peter would dare to call this a white-nationalist dog whistle.
Inclusion for All Cultures but Our Own
We’ve reached a pathetic and dangerous point in our culture where anyone who celebrates our traditional culture, our country, and, now, our civilization must be doing so for base and evil reasons (see Rod Dreher for more on this). Today, all other cultures must be celebrated while every ill is blamed on us. This is, to borrow a phrase from social science, garbage thinking. Slavery is a human universal, appearing in every culture around the world. What makes the West unique is not that we had slavery, but that we put an end to it because it was not compatible with our values. The same goes for nearly every charge in the indictment against the West, from racism and misogyny to imperialism and war.
As I’ve written before, the reason Gandhi practiced non-violence against the British Empire is not quite because he abhorred bloodshed, but because he knew pacifism would work against the British. Hitler, who saw himself as a rebel against Western values as evolved from the slave religion of Christianity, never got many lectures about non-violence from his friend Gandhi.
We fall short of our ideals, but everyone always does (that’s why they’re called “ideals”). But in head-to-head match-ups, we do better than the rest of the pack.
West Bashing Is Western
What’s ironic is that Peter’s desk-pounding outrage about Trump’s talk of the West is oh-so Western. The West’s tolerance for anti-Western philosophies is a fairly unique feature of the West itself. We love to beat ourselves up.
Before the Enlightenment, the job of saying the West is corrupt and evil largely fell to gnostic heretics and the like — because everything was seen through the prism of religion. Since the Enlightenment, that passion has migrated to more secular humanist creeds. There’s always been a Rousseauian streak in the West that says, “it’s all crap, burn it down.”
But, again, until pretty recently, that tendency wasn’t against “the West” so much as it was against the Enlightenment or democracy or capitalism. Western radicals argued that the West had taken a wrong turn, not that the East was better. There was still this idea that the West was where the action was. Rousseau’s favorite society, after the Geneva of his youth, was ancient Sparta, which is still, you know, part of the West. (Me, I’ll take Athens any day.) But even so, this was an argument within the West about what path the West should follow or where its true roots lay. Some of the Romantics admired Mohammed, but only because he was a man of Will and a useful stand-in for their assaults on the Catholic Church, not because they actually believed in Islam or anything. The Jacobins wanted to start over at Year Zero, but they had no problem believing that history was starting over in the West, in Paris to be exact. Karl Marx, as Western a figure as you can find, believed that the first pages in the next chapter of human history would first turn in England.
The Anti-Western Cul-de-sac
What sincerely shocks me about Peter’s outburst is that he has to know what an incredibly bad idea it is for the liberal-Left to go down this road. The list of reasons why the new hatred of Western Civilization is such a bad idea for liberals is too long to recount here but I’ll offer two fairly practical ones. The whole reason liberalism is in trouble today is that it has lost the ability to speak confidently in patriotic and loving terms about America, unless it is in the context of selling some government program or pressing some nakedly political advantage (I’m thinking mostly about immigration maximalism and identity politics). Cutting Medicaid may be wrong, but it’s not unpatriotic. Peter himself recently argued that Democrats need to refocus on the importance of assimilation if they want to be trusted on the issue of immigration. Well, assimilation to what? If American culture is worth assimilating into, so is Western Culture, because the two cannot be separated.
Right now, there’s a hilarious effort afoot to defend the anti-Semitic Saudi sock-puppet Linda Sarsour. She recently called for jihad against Donald Trump and insisted that American Muslims must never, ever assimilate into American culture. So, we have the glorious beclowning spectacle of liberals falling over themselves to defend the subtle nuances of the word “jihad” while at the same telling us that Western Civilization is a dog’s breakfast of backwardness and bigotry. Good luck with that.
Second, don’t you people realize that you’re like Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman? You’ve got nowhere else to go. Peter is right that there are non-Western democracies out there. Sure, Japan has Japanese characteristics and India has Indian characteristics. But what makes them democracies is their embrace of Western values. And there is no place in the world physically or conceptually outside the West where these liberals would actually want to live. Insisting that Western Civilization is a corrupt and irredeemable concept is the intellectual and political equivalent of sh*tting where you eat. It leaves you no language that resonates with anyone outside an American Studies department at Fresno State.
On the Other Hand
But I will tell you what I did not like about Trump’s speech (though I should say on the whole I liked it and agreed with most of it). In Trump’s telling, the threat to Western Civilization must be met with his favorite qualities: Strength! Will! Etc.!
The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?
Or, here’s his pithier summary:
THE WEST WILL NEVER BE BROKEN. Our values will PREVAIL. Our people will THRIVE and our civilization will TRIUMPH! pic.twitter.com/sozuVgdp5T
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 6, 2017
As a matter of the text, I agree with this. But for Trump, Western Civilization is a kind of nationalism, not a worldview or philosophy. I think Peter is wrong to claim the text is indefensible, but he has a point about the man reading it. Does anyone really believe that Trump is, in his heart, a champion of tolerance, open-mindedness, democratic norms, family values, Judeo-Christian precepts, and natural rights? Or does he like this kind of talk because it’s a politically savvy way to transcend America First nationalism in favor Western pan-nationalism?
The key to keeping Western Civilization alive isn’t fending off the barbarians at our gates, though that’s important. They key is keeping it alive in our hearts. Civilizations die by suicide. As Lincoln put it:
From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia . . . could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we will live forever or die by suicide.
Fending off suicide isn’t a matter of martial will, but of simple gratitude. The Left has convinced itself that there is nothing to be grateful for about Western Civilization. That’s idiotic. And they need to be persuaded otherwise, not pummeled into thinking Western Civilization is just a dog whistle for MAGA.