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.