David Brooks bemoans the inability of the West to defend itself and its values. The plaint is valid, the analysis deeply superficial and, I’d guess, ineffectual in reaching the “millennials” who think they’ve outgrown the need for those values and the democracies they created. Below a half fisking (critique) and whisking (elaboration) of Brooks’ proleptic threnody for Western civ. HT: YS.
Between 1935 and 1975, Will and Ariel Durant published a series of volumes that together were known as “The Story of Civilization.” They basically told human history (mostly Western history) as an accumulation of great ideas and innovations, from the Egyptians, through Athens, Magna Carta, the Age of Faith, the Renaissance and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The series was phenomenally successful, selling over two million copies.
Note the lack of mention of ancient Israel. The Durants did address the issue what they called Judea, briefly if with limited sympathy in their opening volume, a small fraction of that first volume. In discussing the 6th commandment (thou shall not kill [really murder]) he notes:
nowhere is there so much killing as in the Old Testament; its chapters oscillate between slaughter and compensatory reproduction…
What a bizarre thing for a reader of the Iliad and great admirer of Greece to say! Why is so much of this chapter set on comparing ancient Israel (often, as here, unfavorably) with the worst of other cultures, including Christian religious practices like the inquisition?
That series encapsulated the Western civilization narrative that people, at least in Europe and North America, used for most of the past few centuries to explain their place in the world and in time. This narrative was confidently progressive. There were certain great figures, like Socrates, Erasmus, Montesquieu and Rousseau, who helped fitfully propel the nations to higher reaches of the humanistic ideal.
And Jews were a marginal part of the tale, victims of lamentable Western intolerance (read: aggressive supersessionism), but not actual contributors to that great civilizing venture we call the West. I was astonished, when I finally got introduced to “Western Political Thought” at Columbia, to find that everyone began with Socrates/Plato (5th-4th century BCE) and no attention to the Bible as a political document with remarkably modern resonance.
This Western civ narrative came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated.
… the principal of equality before the law, the value of manual (productive) labor, literacy and self-empowerment for commoners, respect and empathy for the “other,” criticism and self-criticism, rejection of oppression of those weaker, guilt at wrongdoing, the value of all human life…
It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most important provided a set of common goals.
And this civilizational consensus became the target of the Caliphaters, hard-zero-sum players from what we Westerners refer to as our “middle ages” or more broadly, pre-modern society, from a world of triumphalist religiosity, holy millennial war and inquisition. They have, with really astonishing success, managed to drive a wedge into democratic civilization and hammer away at fending what has become a internalized clash of civilizations between Western “left” and “right.”
Starting decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke. Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western civilization is a history of oppression.
The nice touch here is that it’s Western civilization’s teachings that make it possible to identify this oppression, to detect social injustice in every micro-aggression, every invasion of safe space. You won’t find another civilizational ideology (excepting the Jews) that does not take exceptional privilege for the elite – legal and life-style – as a given. And yet now, the demand for radical social justice=equality (whatever that means) has been turned by those who have been trained in the western (and Jewish) moral tradition(s), exclusively on attacking western (and Jewish) exercise of power.
For example, these anti-imperialists would never criticize the worst imperialist colonialists of history – Arab Muslims. From the Saudi peninsula, Arabs spread out, took over, and eventually replaced the populations from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf, imposed their language, their religion, their culture on anyone who could not escape to the mountains and desert. And yet, in the post-Saidian, anti-Orientalist academy there are probably few courses in the history of imperialism that teach Islamic imperialism, even courses in imperialism in Africa, which start with European imperialism. Were “deconstruction” applied to Muslim texts in the iconoclastic spirit of analysis in which it was born, it would be devastatingly humiliating to Muslims.
It’s amazing what far-reaching effects this has had. It is as if a prevailing wind, which powered all the ships at sea, had suddenly ceased to blow. Now various scattered enemies of those Western values have emerged, and there is apparently nobody to defend them.
I like the “scattered enemies” suddenly appearing around the becalmed vessel. These are not scattered enemies, they are, above all, a combination of Caliphaters and GPLies who see the destruction of western (American) hegemony destroyed: dupes and demopaths,the worst imperialists on the planet and anti-imperialist fools.
Demonstrators outside DNC, Denver, Colorado, 2008
The first consequence has been the rise of the illiberals, authoritarians who not only don’t believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative, but don’t even pretend to believe in them, as former dictators did.
The first cause of these authoritarians was the rise of supersessionist progressives and the “vast majority” of liberals they drew in the wake of their folly, who systematically used human rights discourse to obsessively attack Western societies for their (relatively minor) violations, and screen from scrutiny the worst violators. Durban 2001 represents a catastrophic day in the history of planetary progressive values. Without Obama, not Trump.
Over the past few years especially, we have entered the age of strong men. We are leaving the age of Obama, Cameron and Merkel and entering the age of Putin, Erdogan, el-Sisi, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.
Here’s part of the problem. Obama and Merkel (don’t know if Cameron fits here) represent precisely what Brooks bemoans. On the one hand, the (good) “Western” values Brooks attributes to Obama’s come to him not as “Western civilization” but as the (supersessionist) “Global Progressive Left” (GPL), which claims that such values are universal and human, and it would be dehumanizing and racist to say another culture doesn’t share them. These are precisely the ones who have taken the wind out of “Western” sails.
Merkel, on the other hand, is caught in a particular “loop” of Holocaust Shame, that has her commit acts of national suicide. Hardly the folks a person working to save democratic civilization would want to hold up as models.
Brooks here skips a stage. It’s not Obama/Cameron/Merkel who “represent” Western civilization, they’re either GPL (Obama) or heavily influenced by the GPL (Merkel), or rear-guard action liberals (Cameron and Blair). In all cases, they’re major Western (hence elected) political chiefs who find themselves in a civilizational struggle whose contours neither they, nor their information professionals and policy makers, understand, and whose moral instincts – appeasement – are counter-indicated if progressive values are to endure.
The events last week in Turkey were just another part of the trend. Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismantles democratic institutions and replaces them with majoritarian dictatorship. Turkey seems to have lost its desire to join the European idea, which no longer has magnetism and allure. Turkey seems to have lost its aspiration to join the community of democracies because that’s no longer the inevitable future.
One might call this the “strong horse” analysis. After the collapse of the USSR (1990) the West, led by the US, were the strong horse. Turkey wanted “in” to the wave of the future, a pan-national European state. Not only does the future not belong to the progressives who take consensual behavior as the norm, it belongs to the strong men. Erdogan appeals to the deep need for national honor, especially in times of insecurity. (Turks are Muslims in a region of spreading Muslim on Muslim warfare.)
If you want to understand why global Jihad continues to draw adherents, consider what people, studying the balance of forces, consider the coming winner/strong horse (even regardless of morality). If the stupidity of the West, its inability to stand up for its own values, its repeated appeasement of triumphalist Muslim hostility, becomes a consistent and enduring phenomenon (17 years is a long time where such matters are involved), it makes sense for both Muslims and infidels to join the global Jihad, as Muslims, as converts, as proleptic dhimmi.
Then there has been the collapse of the center. For decades, center-left and center-right parties clustered around similar versions of democratic capitalism that Western civilization seemed to point to. But many of those centrist parties, like the British and Dutch Labour Parties, are in near collapse. Fringe parties rise.
That was an illusion of a progressive group mind: from the 60s and increasingly in academia, the moral code got rewritten, and things previously acceptable (having “right-wing” opinions) became marginalized, leaving a liberal echo chamber, that gets worse the higher one mounts the academic ladder. This echo chamber accounts for the inability of our current crop of thought-leaders to understand and deal with today’s challenges, both our political parties and our academics (to say nothing of “our” journalists) who imagine that they inhabit a “left-of-center” zone of the politosphere (when they’re off the cliff). Merkel, in particular, will go down as a reverse Sainte Genevieve, who let the barbarians in, in the name of some bizarrely applied Holocaust Wiedergutmachen.
This progressive group think has driven both the humanities and most of the social sciences over the cliff. They haven’t looked down yet, but the people who vote for Brexit and Trump have (and parents who send their kids to college are beginning to do.)
The Caliphaters have pulled off a great coup. When Sam Huntington warned the West about Islam as a civilizational enemy in the mid-1990s (15 years after the Caliphaters first appeared on the global scene in 1979/1400), they managed to get the West to internalize that clash: right-thinking people, some demopaths within a week of 9-11, some kind, humane and generous, rejected his warning as war-mongering, as creating the clash it claimed it wanted to avoid. They insisted instead that we greet Islam, the religion of peace, with open arms, eager not to offend Muslims with cartoons of Muhammad or discussion of “radical Islam.” So instead to defending against invading hostile agents, they turned on the white blood cells gathering to fight the infection. No better symbol of the bizarre but intense situations this can lead to than Linda Sarsour, advocate of Sharia terand feminist icon who has nothing to say about Muslim misogyny. Well, yes, there is “Queers for Palestine.”
In France, the hard-right Marine Le Pen and the hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon could be the final two candidates in the presidential runoff. Le Pen has antiliberal views about national purity. Mélenchon is a supposedly democratic politician who models himself on Hugo Chávez.
Who’d have thunk up a better potboiler of Eurabia’s self-inflicted fate?
If those two end up in the finals, then the European Union and NATO, the two great liberal institutions of modern Europe, will go into immediate crisis.
The fragility of Western Europe today would astonish anyone two decades ago. As late as 2005 (year that the afirst books tolled the death knell of Europe), bullish analysts saw the growing European Union (watch out for appearances) as the juggernaut of history, those who will run the 21st century. And now their very existence may hang on a preliminary French election?
Finally, there has been the collapse of liberal values at home. On American campuses, fragile thugs who call themselves students shout down and abuse speakers on a weekly basis. To read Heather MacDonald’s account of being pilloried at Claremont McKenna Collegeis to enter a world of chilling intolerance.
And of course, the key antagonists here are the same intersectional, global progressive left, who feel they have replaced the “Western” (oppressive) “Grand Narrative” with their far greater global progressive one. Having made common cause with intersectional allies like the Palestinians, they bring on these campus intifadas, and fill their armies with “social justice warriors.”
In America, the basic fabric of civic self-government seems to be eroding following the loss of faith in democratic ideals. According to a study published in The Journal of Democracy, the share of young Americans who say it is absolutely important to live in a democratic country has dropped from 91 percent in the 1930s to 57 percent today.
Now there’s an amazing piece of testimony to the folly of millennials. All the social justice goals they pursue depend on democratic protections to the individual and group. The only reason they might feel they can live in a non-democracy is because they imagine themselves protected from the laws of the country and the arbitrary will of its enforcement agencies. New light on “millennial privilege.” No wonder so many can run around destroying civil society in the name of a messianic definition of social justice.
While running for office, Donald Trump violated every norm of statesmanship built up over these many centuries, and it turned out a people didn’t notice or didn’t care.
Which tells you what?
a) a near majority of Americans voters don’t care and run after any clown who tickles their fancy?
b) a near majority of Americans are deeply upset and concerned with the way the current practitioners of (democratic) “statesmanship” have been doing it.
David Brooks, do you think:
a) the leaders in our global sphere are incompetent despite (or maybe because) of their training in (an obsessive application of) “progressive values” to the point of endangering democracies?
b) the concerns of the people who supported Trump, about Muslims, illegal immigrants, give-away diplomacy, campus craziness, #BLM, etc. are base, foolish… deplorable?
The faith in the West collapsed from within. It’s amazing how slow people have been to rise to defend it.
Actually, not at all. Many have risen to defend it, and they’ve been pushed out, marginalized, ignored. For one of the greatest defenses of the West, from a Pakistani scholar, see Ibn Warraq’s Defending the West, itself a devastating refutation of the most influential bad book in recent history, Said’s Orientalism. Indeed, if you haven’t read Ibn Warraq on the Danish Cartoon Scandal – “Democracy in a Cartoon” – you owe it to yourself, because in it lies the key to Brooks’ confusion and lament. If you defend the West, you offend the West’s enemies, the Caliphaters who strive for global Dar al Islam. And since 2001, in the words of one of their Jihadi heroes, “Islam is now the strong horse.”
Thus, those supersessionist progressives, have marginalized those who would defend the West as Islamophobes and xenophobes, and deplorables. How like that famous moment in A Man for all Seasons:
That’s because in order to defend itself it would have to critique the runaway progressivism that surrenders proleptically to triumphalist Islam: don’t offend them gratuitously… (meaning don’t do things that they claim offend them). For the last 17 years at least, the liberals have allowed more radical leftist voices to increasingly dominate the public sphere and (I’d posit, fearing the fate of ibn Warraq in the intellectual wilderness), at best refusing to join in a chorus of moral sadism, but certainly not, as they need to, object and push back against a tide of group think that considers siding with Jihadis who use suicide “martyrs” to attack civilians, as a “litmus test of true liberal credentials.”
These days, the whole idea of Western civ is assumed to be reactionary and oppressive. All I can say is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it.
Amen to that. But of course, reexamining/rethinking the situation would take a great deal of self-criticism, self-awareness, self-examination, hard thinking… are millennials up to it?
It might mean, reconsidering the role of Judaism, and its current manifestations in Israel, as part of a reclamation of values that can give democracies the strength to resist the voices of authoritarian politics, misogyny and triumphalist religiosity. How else can the GPL hope to disengage from a terrifying, Nazi-like apocalyptic narrative in which world-conquering enslavers of humanity make free and autonomous Jews their scape-goat Antichrist? How painful for the vanity of supersessionists of all kinds.