Jay Reding.com

Has The West Lost Its Confidence?

Victor Davis Hanson has a brilliant and important essay on what he sees as a loss of confidence in the values of the Enlightenment. As he puts it:

But our newest foes of Reason are not the enraged Athenian democrats who tried and executed Socrates. And they are not the Christian zealots of the medieval church who persecuted philosophers of heliocentricity. Nor are they Nazis who burned books and turned Western science against its own to murder millions en masse.

No, the culprits are now more often us. In the most affluent, and leisured age in the history of Western civilization–never more powerful in its military reach, never more prosperous in our material bounty–we have become complacent, and then scared of the most recent face of barbarism from the primordial extremists of the Middle East.

I think he’s right. The enemy is using our own institutions against us, and they’re getting away with it precisely because we don’t want the burdens of defending those institutions anymore. Radical Islamists in Great Britain talk of freedom of speech but carry placards reading BEHEAD ALL THOSE WHO INSULT ISLAM. It’s not that they don’t see the contradiction, it’s that they know we willfully ignore it. We’re so inured into the politically correct mythos that we’re unable to state the plain truth right in front of us.

Hanson also reminds us of why culture matters:

There has of course always been a utopian strain in both Western thought from the time of Plato’s “Republic” and the practice of state socialism. But the technological explosion of the last 20 years has made life so long and so good, that many now believe our mastery of nature must extend to human nature as well. A society that can call anywhere in the world on a cell phone, must just as easily end war, poverty, or unhappiness, as if these pathologies are strictly materially caused, not impoverishments of the soul, and thus can be materially treated.

Second, education must now be, like our machines, ever more ambitious, teaching us not merely facts of the past, science of the future, and the tools to question, and discover truth, but rather a particular, a right way of thinking, as money and learning are pledged to change human nature itself. In such a world, mere ignorance has replaced evil as our challenge, and thus the bad can at last be taught away rather than confronted and destroyed.

Third, there has always been a cynical strain as well, as one can read in Petronius’s “Satyricon” or Voltaire’s “Candide.” But our loss of faith in ourselves is now more nihilistic than sarcastic or skeptical, once the restraints of family, religion, popular culture, and public shame disappear. Ever more insulated by our material things from danger, we lack all appreciation of the eternal thin veneer of civilization.

We especially ignore among us those who work each day to keep nature and the darker angels of our own nature at bay. This new obtuseness revolves around a certain mocking by elites of why we have what we have. Instead of appreciating that millions get up at 5 a.m., work at rote jobs, and live proverbial lives of quiet desperation, we tend to laugh at the schlock of Wal-Mart, not admire its amazing ability to bring the veneer of real material prosperity to the poor.

We can praise the architect for our necessary bridge, but demonize the franchise that sold fast and safe food to the harried workers who built it. We hear about a necessary hearing aid, but despise the art of the glossy advertisement that gives the information to purchase it. And we think the soldier funny in his desert camouflage and Kevlar, a loser who drew poorly in the American lottery and so ended up in Iraq–our most privileged never acknowledging that such men with guns are the only bulwark between us and the present day forces of the Dark Ages with their Kalashnikovs and suicide belts.

He’s right. Our culture has become unmoored from itself. How else can one explain the news media and political culture that constantly insinuates the worst about our troops in Iraq — accusing them of atrocity on the word the enemy and thinking of them as stooges too dumb to know they’re being treated like sheep to the slaughter? It’s as though our intelligentsia has forgotten that our very freedoms depend on the actions our men and women in uniform. We sit idly by in our golden castle while the foundation that supports us shifts underneath.

After 9/11, commentators said that it would be the death of irony and self-obsession. Yet here we are just over five years later still obsessed about Britney’s crotch and arguing that it’s our government we should fear while our enemies continue to plot the deaths of as many of us as they can kill.

As an avid reader of history, the precedent here is all too depressing. Hanson draws parallels between Demosthenes’ Athens, late imperial Rome, 18th-century France and Western Europe of the 1920s. A society so obsessed with panem et circenses tends not to be one that lasts long. The Democrats want to ignore the threat out there, the Republicans have failed to lead and been thrown out of the majority, and the rest of us have just stopped caring. Our political culture has never been so divorced from any concept of the national good as they are now. The idea of patriotism, having had its renaissance in the weeks and months after 9/11, has become nothing more than a hollow shell. Some still salute the flag, while others have gone back to the old cynicism and conspiracy. How could it be radical Muslims who attacked us on 9/11 when Noam Chomsky tells us that the real enemy is the one that the left has been fighting for decades now?

Eric S. Raymond calls all this “Gramscian damage” after Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist who provided much of the intellectual foundation behind modern leftism. It is the battle between the liberal individualism of Locke, Mill, and the Founders of the American experiment and the transnationalist, postmodern vision of the left that defines the ideological war within the West. Ultimately, the real winners of that war could be the radical Islamists who know that they don’t need to defeat the West, they merely need to allow us to defeat ourselves.

He also worries about a scenario I still consider all too possible:

The U.S., fortunately, is still on a demographic expansion wave and will be till at least 2050. But if the Islamists achieve their dream of nuking “crusader” cities, they’ll make crusaders out of the U.S., too. And this time, a West with a chauvinized America at its head would smite the Saracen with weapons that would destroy entire populations and fuse Mecca into glass. The horror of our victory would echo for a thousand years.

If the Islamists truly started fulfilling their fantasies — and they are working diligently to do precisely that, we will see a war the likes of which have never been witnessed by humanity. A nuclear war, with all the horrifying scenarios that come with it, is become more and more likely with each passing day. If Iran gets the bomb, and the West is powerless to stop them without making it quite clear that we will use all force necessary to stop them, there’s a very strong chance that the madman Ahmadinejad will use it — either against Israel or the United States. At that point, the demand for retribution will be overpowering.

It all starts with us losing our will. We won’t fight for our ideals in Iraq. We’ll dismiss the bravery of our troops. We’ll forget our culture. We’ll drain concepts like loyalty, honor, and self-sacrifice of all of their meaning and put pleasure above all else.

Decadent civilizations tend to fall, and the question we have to ask ourselves is whether our civilization has become so decadent that we cannot see the Visigoths once again pounding at our gates.

15 responses to “Has The West Lost Its Confidence?”

  1. Seth says:

    Life must be really scary for people of your political bent.

  2. Nicq MacDonald says:

    I’d think a historian as astute as VDH could have looked at the Athenian invasion of Sicily and known that going to Iraq wasn’t the brightest idea we’ve ever had, but, alas, I’d think wrong.

    “A society so obsessed with panem et circenses tends not to be one that lasts long. The Democrats want to ignore the threat out there, the Republicans have failed to lead and been thrown out of the majority, and the rest of us have just stopped caring.”

    Too true. It’s partially America’s fault; and both sides of the political divide are about equally to blame. Islam will conquer Europe; America’s unsustainable, energy-devouring economy, plagued by a failing educational system, mass immigration and massive debt (private debt will contribute more to the collapse than public, though they’re both to blame) will ultimately fall apart and be eclipsed by the powers of Asia, who have no compunctions about utilizing harsh austerity measures and denying 80% of their population a middle-class existence.

    This civilization, like all before it, will die.

    It is a historical inevitability; there is no use fighting it. Just pull up a chair, enjoy the show, and keep the hemlock handy.

  3. zzx375 says:

    Marilyn Moats Kennedy gave some interesting insights while speaking recently at the University of Tulsa. India an China have put such a grip on their respective birthrates that both of the those countries will fall to Islam just as Western Europe will. Look for Italy to cease to exist in its current form 15 years from now, along with France, both due to muslims.

  4. Nicq MacDonald says:

    ZZX375:

    The populations of India and China will collapse… to around 500-600 million, before stabilizing. They’re little threatened by Islam (especially China), their respective populations are just too great. That, and I don’t think either one is a magnet for immigrants (or will become one; it wouldn’t shock me if China adapts Japan-style nationalist immigration policies as their prosperity rises). I’d be pondering the fate of eastern Europe instead… some of the worst birthrates in the world, combined with a cultural malaise even more extreme than western Europe… yet nobody seems to be worrying about them. Funny, that.

    That, and Islam isn’t omnipotent. It too will fail before long. Just not before wiping out Europe.

  5. Erica says:

    Typically one hears them bleating about how Teh Muslims are going to rule the world along with either finger-wagging about how white women should have more babies or some thinly-veiled genocidal fantasies.

  6. Nicq MacDonald says:

    Erica:

    Check the demographics. It’s rather bleak.

  7. Erica says:

    Check the demographics. It’s rather bleak.

    Bleak why? Because civilization will fall unless the white race is there to prop it up? Muslims are not going to take over the Earth. They’re not even going to take over Europe. People reject religions that don’t allow them to have fun – that’s definately Islam for a lot of people. You can no more forcibly convert everybody to Islam then you could have converted them to Christianity. If Islam achieves the dominance that Christianity enjoyed, the exact same thing will happen to it – it’ll split off into so many sects that, as a movement, there will be absolutely nothing that they all share.

    Islam will become liberal from the inside, just because people want to be liberal. Societies always become more liberal. Liberalism always wins simply because people want liberal freedoms.

    Maybe in 200 years we’ll all look dusky and swarthy, or whatever. So what? The idea that the world of tomorrow will be one big caliphate is as ridiculous as the Pope taking over the Earth. The same techniques that allowed us to reject Christianity as the one-world religion will work on Islam, too. In particular the atheists will probably wind up saving your butts, again, and get absolutely no recognition for it. Oh, well.

  8. Jay Reding says:

    Islam will become liberal from the inside, just because people want to be liberal. Societies always become more liberal. Liberalism always wins simply because people want liberal freedoms.

    That is an interesting argument, but does it really hold up? In fact, that’s the neoconservative argument for Iraq – the Iraqi people will embrace liberal democracy because people want to live in liberal and tolerant societies. So far, that’s not working out all that well.

    I’m still more or less inclined to agree with Erica on that one, but I’m getting more skeptical as time goes on. If people really valued liberal society so much, why is radical Islam metastizing into countries like Great Britain, Germany, and France? Why is it that democracy hasn’t swept across the Middle East like it did in South America in the mid 19th-Century and Eastern Europe in the late 20th?

    Ultimately, I’d hope Erica’s position is the right one. It’s certainly the bedrock principle behind the push for democracy worldwide, and especially in Iraq. However, what we’ve seen is that in many places, given a free choice, people chose illiberal leadership. Why has Chavez taken power in Venezuela despite being an autocrat? Why is Putin so popular in Russia? Why would Egyptians be likely to vote in the Muslim Brotherhood if given the free chance to do so? Why isn’t liberal democracy taking root in Iraq and defeating sectarian combat?

    I don’t have answers to those questions, and they’re still the subject of much debate. It would be better if Erica were right, but looking at the way in which the West is reeling and radicalized Islam is advancing, it’s questionable whether liberalism can really stand against the radical ideology.

  9. Erica says:

    In fact, that’s the neoconservative argument for Iraq – the Iraqi people will embrace liberal democracy because people want to live in liberal and tolerant societies. So far, that’s not working out all that well.

    No, because we made Iraq into a shithole, and people are too worried about finding sources of freshwater, dealing with only 4 hours of electricity a day, and burying their dead relatives to ponder the finer points of political philosophy. Is it really so surprising that, in the midst of the chaos of a failed state, the people are embracing the certainty of fundamentalism rather than the scary freedom of liberal society?

    If people really valued liberal society so much, why is radical Islam metastasizing into countries like Great Britain, Germany, and France?

    Because Muslims are moving there (to societies that aren’t economic and political shitholes). If back-ass-wards religion caught like a disease, like you seem to suggest, why isn’t it spreading to Europeans? You’re the first to point out that Muslims in Europe are like oil in water.

    The truth is, I hope even more Muslims move to Europe and the US, where the pressure of liberal society will “liberalize” them. It’ll happen, slowly. To their children if nothing else. Even though a lot of these communities produce jihadists, etc., I think the signs are there that Muslim transplants are absorbing liberal values. It’s generally the case that you don’t see homosexuals hanging from nooses in Berlin, for instance.

    However, what we’ve seen is that in many places, given a free choice, people chose illiberal leadership.

    People turn to religious conservatism in times of flux; they find the certainty of religious inflexibility comforting. That’s why you can’t simply “spread democracy” in ways that are inherently chaotic, like wars. Where the area is already saturated with religious fundamentalism, that’s what people are going to turn to first.

    It would be better if Erica were right, but looking at the way in which the West is reeling and radicalized Islam is advancing, it’s questionable whether liberalism can really stand against the radical ideology.

    The “West” is doing just fine, thank you. Don’t be such a pussy.

  10. Jay Reding says:

    No, because we made Iraq into a shithole, and people are too worried about finding sources of freshwater, dealing with only 4 hours of electricity a day, and burying their dead relatives to ponder the finer points of political philosophy. Is it really so surprising that, in the midst of the chaos of a failed state, the people are embracing the certainty of fundamentalism rather than the scary freedom of liberal society?

    Except we haven’t made Iraq a shithole. We’ve spent billions on rebuilding infrastructure only to see it get blown up by terrorists. Iraq could be economically self-sustaining and even prosperous from oil revenues, but the violence that prevents any progress.

    Because Muslims are moving there (to societies that aren’t economic and political shitholes). If back-ass-wards religion caught like a disease, like you seem to suggest, why isn’t it spreading to Europeans? You’re the first to point out that Muslims in Europe are like oil in water.

    It is spreading to native Muslims. The perpetrators the London Tube bombings were home-grown Muslim terrorists. The rioters in Paris were born and raised not in the Middle East, but in the banlieues they torched. It is spreading to Europeans…

    The truth is, I hope even more Muslims move to Europe and the US, where the pressure of liberal society will “liberalize” them. It’ll happen, slowly. To their children if nothing else. Even though a lot of these communities produce jihadists, etc., I think the signs are there that Muslim transplants are absorbing liberal values. It’s generally the case that you don’t see homosexuals hanging from nooses in Berlin, for instance.

    Not yet, but there are places where it’s getting close. I’m not convinced that Muslims living in even liberal societies are really integrating – instead they’re transplanting their values to their new homes.

    Unless countries get serious about integrating those immigrants, they’ll just spread their radicalism.

    People turn to religious conservatism in times of flux; they find the certainty of religious inflexibility comforting. That’s why you can’t simply “spread democracy” in ways that are inherently chaotic, like wars. Where the area is already saturated with religious fundamentalism, that’s what people are going to turn to first.

    There’s some sense to that argument, but most democracies have come from wars. Ours did, as did French democracy, German democracy, Japanese democracy, etc. Democratic transitions are always messy and chaotic – in fact, I can’t think of a single country that became a democracy without a considerable amount of upheaval.

    The “West” is doing just fine, thank you. Don’t be such a pussy.

    Ask Theo Van Gogh about that… although you’ll need a Ouiji board…

  11. Erica says:

    Iraq could be economically self-sustaining and even prosperous from oil revenues, but the violence that prevents any progress.

    Sounds like a shithole to me…

    Not yet, but there are places where it’s getting close. I’m not convinced that Muslims living in even liberal societies are really integrating – instead they’re transplanting their values to their new homes.

    Everybody integrates. It always happens, eventually.

    Democratic transitions are always messy and chaotic – in fact, I can’t think of a single country that became a democracy without a considerable amount of upheaval.

    India? Russia? Seems like you’re just splitting hairs about what constitutes “chaos”, though.

    Ask Theo Van Gogh about that…

    Oh, for god’s sake. I wasn’t aware that one murder constituted a threat to western civilization. They caught that guy, you know.

  12. Jay Reding says:

    Sounds like a shithole to me…

    Thanks to the terrorists, not the US. In fact, if you look at Iraqi Kurdistan, you can see what Iraq could look like 5-10 years for now if the terrorists are defeated and the Iraqis have a true national reconciliation…

    Everybody integrates. It always happens, eventually.

    Perhaps – although it depends on whether the West has the will to push for integration or not. As it stands, many of Europe’s Muslim populations aren’t really integrated into the rest of society, and no one is asking them to do so. Instead, there are many Muslim-majority subcommunities in Europe that have almost no connection with the rest of society.

    India? Russia? Seems like you’re just splitting hairs about what constitutes “chaos”, though.

    Well, Russia did have a short and rather disruptive coup. I’m not really convinced that they’re really a democracy at this point, either.

    India’s probably closer, although their movement for independence was hardly bloodless or easy either…

    Oh, for god’s sake. I wasn’t aware that one murder constituted a threat to western civilization. They caught that guy, you know.

    Except that one murder was a symptom of a larger disease – Claire Berlinski wrote a very good book about the situation in Europe which illustrates exactly how little integration there is and how well the radicals have inserted themselves into those communities.

  13. Erica says:

    In fact, if you look at Iraqi Kurdistan, you can see what Iraq could look like 5-10 years for now if the terrorists are defeated and the Iraqis have a true national reconciliation…

    Sure, and I can open Popular Science and see what our cities on the Moon will be like 10 years from know after we invent fusion-powered antigravity. That has just as much to do with the current situation as your science-fictional premise of an Iraq unifed by anything but colonial and then despotic muscle.

    Perhaps – although it depends on whether the West has the will to push for integration or not.

    No, it really doesn’t. Pushing might help but it isn’t necessary. Social inertia will do it by itself, albeit slowly.

    India’s probably closer, although their movement for independence was hardly bloodless or easy either…

    Right, but on the other hand, they didn’t devolve into a failed state and a breeding ground for terrorism, either. They experienced nothing like the full-scale state failure Iraq is experiencing.

    Which proves my point. There’s a considerable chasm of difference between the birthing pangs of democracy and the sort of mass-scale chaos we’re partly responsible for in Iraq.

    Claire Berlinski wrote a very good book about the situation in Europe which illustrates exactly how little integration there is and how well the radicals have inserted themselves into those communities.

    Argument by reading assignment doesn’t strike me as very compelling.

  14. Jay Reding says:

    Sure, and I can open Popular Science and see what our cities on the Moon will be like 10 years from know after we invent fusion-powered antigravity. That has just as much to do with the current situation as your science-fictional premise of an Iraq unifed by anything but colonial and then despotic muscle.

    Except for the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan actually exists, and is already prospering. The Kurds went through their civil war from 1992-1998 when the KDP and the PUK fought for control. Today, Iraqi Kurdistan looks more like Dubai than Baghdad.

    No, it really doesn’t. Pushing might help but it isn’t necessary. Social inertia will do it by itself, albeit slowly.

    I’d be inclined to agree, but with the rates of immigration being what they are there is some question whether those societies will last long enough for assimilation to happen. Within a few decades, countries like Italy could suffer a demographic collapse, and the rest of Europe isn’t doing all that much better.

    Right, but on the other hand, they didn’t devolve into a failed state and a breeding ground for terrorism, either. They experienced nothing like the full-scale state failure Iraq is experiencing.

    They also didn’t have neighbors with an interest in ensuring that their country becomes a weakened vassal state.

    Which proves my point. There’s a considerable chasm of difference between the birthing pangs of democracy and the sort of mass-scale chaos we’re partly responsible for in Iraq.

    Except many countries have had mass-scale chaos. We certainly went through a bloody and difficult war to gain our independence. The only real analogue for Iraq we have is Turkey, and even that had to go through the fall of the Ottoman Empire before Ataturk made it democratic — and it took another 30 years between that and the first peaceful transition of power.

    Argument by reading assignment doesn’t strike me as very compelling.

    And you went to college?

  15. Steve says:

    I just want to say that Iraq IS a shithole and the U.S. did it. If you look at Iraq before the war, Saddam had a thriving economy going there, power was on for 18 to 20 hours a day, and in general things worked despite 10+ years of economic sanctions.