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Friday, October 27, 2006

The West: summing up so far

“How… can people like Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore tally the sum of people killed in all the conflicts since the end of WWII and lay all of them at the feet of America? Why else could people blandly watch Bowling for Columbine total hundreds and thousands and millions dead, all hung around the neck of America, without so much as a mention, not a hint, not a peep of the words Soviet Union? Oh, and give it an Academy Award, and claim it is “the greatest documentary ever made.”

How, in the name of God, is such a thing possible?”

Blogger Bill Whittle: Eject, Eject, Eject

“We live in the first civilization known to history in which a systematic assault on the core values of that civilization is institutionalized in the leading sectors of society. Quite apart from our enemies, we are at war with ourselves. This is true in everything that counts: religion, culture, economics, politics, demographics, law.”

John Derbyshire, Ten Unpleasant Truths about the World (NRO)

“As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Abraham Lincoln, Address to the Young Men’s Liceum at Springfield 1851

As I hoped, these essays on Western Civilization and its Discontents have generated some good comments and discussion. Several have taken me to task for focusing on the US rather than the West as a whole. Thanks for your patience, we're getting to this. I'll go into this in more detail, but I believe that the US is both the most extreme exemplar of what is unique and valuable about the West - and of what ails it. Besides, I couldn't resist the play on words from Freud.

A great many commentators have detailed and condemned with indignation, incomprehension and sick horror the phenomenon consideration in these essays, to a far greater extent than I have patience for. This is an attempt to understand the root causes of a phenomenon that must seem incomprehensible to any truly objective observer, the hypothetical “anthropologist from Mars”, to answer the above question.

I believe I've addressed it with a fair degree of objectivity. This is definitely not to say that I am non-evaluative or morally neutral. One of the underlying assumptions is that there has been a fatal confusion between “objective” and “non-evaluative” in the social sciences. Nor will I pretend to represent a multicultural, non-Western perspective because in fact, the intellectual tools necessary to achieve any kind of genuine objectivity are specifically Western inventions.

The first step to objectivity is describing the thing under discussion without false or overgeneralization, in clear, simple language without appeal to emotion. (Perhaps easier said than done.)

To begin with some definitions and premises:

By civilization I mean a group of different nations and cultures sharing common roots and a set of values and assumptions that set them apart from other collections of nations, i.e. Western Civilization vs. Islamic, Asian/ Confucian etc, for our purpose specifically those expressed in their political/ legal institutions and their notions of justice. Civilizations can often be pragmatically defined as the set of speakers of a family of related languages.

Western Civilization can for practical puroses be defined as the collection of nations and cultures represented by: the speakers of the Teutonic and Romance family of languages, some of the Slavic languages and a collections of smaller linguistic groupss such as the Greeks, Baltics and Finns, and the Celtic peoples (who, though very numerous, have almost all become speakers of English, French and Spanish).

The twin roots of Western Civilization lie in the histories of two small cultures living on the margins of far greater, now disappeared civilizations: the Greeks and the Hebrews. From these came a collection of concepts about the value and worth of the individual human being, freedom, justice, tolerance, rationality, equality, reciprocity of rights and obligation, the dignity of labor etc. that came to be honored with at least lip service, by all Western cultures. (These terms all carry an emotional freight that often make them difficult to discuss, or even define in a way acceptable to all. However the point is that our civilization considers them good things – by no means a universally shared assumption. Nor is this to discount the contribution of ancient Germanic and Celtic concepts of law.)

That the implementation of these values in the political and cultural institutions of various peoples is distributed differently among the Western nations, roughly on geographical lines, running more strongly to the Northwest of Europe and North America– hence the term “Western” Civilization.

Nota Bene: It is worth noting that in the callow youth of our civilization, the self-definition of the “West” was in reference to far more powerful, sophisticated and influential civilizations lying to our East.

Caveat: To enumerate certain values as Western (freedom, individualism etc) is not to claim that they do not exist in other cultures. “Freedom is the most universal of human aspirations” (Eric Hoffer). Rather, that Western cultures have had the most success embedding these values in their political, legal and cultural institutions.

That the greatest degree of implementation of these concepts in the political, legal and cultural institutions of our nations is within the subset of Western European cultures that are the English-speaking peoples (whether by origin or adoption), and that the fullest implementation of these concepts in our institutions (on a large scale at least) is in the United States.

That a large segment of the intellectual community of the West in general and America in particular, is vocally unhappy with Western Civilization and America, more than can be explained by a just and reasoned criticism of its admitted faults and weaknesses, and earnestly desires its destruction – or a change of its basic institutions so fundamental that it amounts to the same thing.

Corollary: Though there are a lot of European and American Europhile intellectuals who despise America and exalt Europe (or parts thereof), what they hate about America is that which was derived and distilled from the most characteristic elements of European culture. Ergo, we are talking about the same thing; America-hatred is part of the same phenomenon as hatred of Western Civilization.

That this phenomenon exists mostly, but by no means exclusively, on the political Left, and overwhelmingly among the most affluent, best educated classes in Europe and America.

Stated baldly, this seems seriously weird. The arguably most fortunate people in the history of the human race, who claim to have the highest concern for the welfare of their fellow human beings, are in revolt against the institutions that made them the best off human beings on the planet and stand the best chance of spreading these benefits universally.

These essays explore possible explanations for this phenomenon and pose certain questions about its consequences.

What were are exploring is the self-hating American or member of Western civilization who loudly and conspicuously trumpets his hatred of the civilization that nurtured him and enabled him and anyone of comparatively modest means to enjoy a standard of living beyond the reach of kings a mere century ago. We may understand and even sympathize with the feelings of a member of a despised and persecuted group who wishes he were not what he was born, but what are we to make of someone who claims to fiercely resent being born favored by fortune?

What are we to make of tenured professors at prestigious universities, with lavish salaries and low work loads, who accuse the society that rewarded them thusly with being oppressive, criminal and worthy of destruction? Who openly cheer attacks on their country and the murder of their countrymen? Who though maintaining a tight hold on their position as gatekeepers to their profession, welcome into their ranks former radical terrorists who spent years as fugitives from justice for bombings, bank robberies and murder? What can explain best selling writers who condemn the culture of the society that buys their books? Movie producers and actors who portray the economic system that enriched them as irredeemably corrupt? Wealthy capitalists who admire Socialism and love to hobnob with dictators who, were it in their power, would confiscate all of their wealth and send them to gulags or to death?

The words and deeds of anti-American Americans and anti-Western Europeans have been well-documented. What hasn’t been addressed objectively so far is the question, for God’s sake why?

Specifically, why is it that a fair number of people who can be counted among the most fortunate in the history of the human race, in terms of easy access to both the necessities of life and an unparalleled array of luxuries plus fame, status and positions of the highest prestige, proclaim their loathing of the institutions that placed them in this apparently enviable position? And in many cases, not only proclaim their hatred of their country and civilization, but actively work for its downfall.

Like all non-trivial questions, this leads to a number of further questions before any real answers can be suggested. To begin with, is this phenomenon really confined to our civilization or does it occur in one form or another in every civilization advanced enough to produce a leisured intellectual class? Is this simply one of civilization’s discontents?

Secondly, is this a single phenomenon or a number of different phenomena with similar characteristics? Among the critics of America and all things American are: Europhile intellectuals who profess a snobbish distaste for American culture, or deny that there is such a thing; intellectuals who despise all things Western and America in particular as the greatest exemplar of Western civilization; and at the furthest extreme, intellectuals who hate, in order, the human species, industrial civilization as a despoiler of nature and oppressor of other, more worthy species, the West in particular as the creator of industrial civilization and America as the most industrialized of modern nations.

Further, if all of these are different expressions of a single phenomenon, does it proceed from a single source, or are the motives as varied as their expression?

And ultimately, does it matter? Do the fulminations of a small class of intellectuals have any real and lasting effect on the larger culture at all? If so, how much? And is it necessarily entirely negative or can it be seen as an extreme form of the self-criticism necessary for a healthy dynamic culture? Or is it a strong indication of cultural decline, perhaps even the death rattle of a dying culture? If so, is this a fatal flaw in human nature and are we are doomed to destroy every attempt to rise above barbarism?

These and future essays attempt to deal with these questions. The speculations offered herein are just that, speculations. The 19th and 20th centuries were plagued by pseudo-scientific attempts to reduce human behavior to a set of easily described principles. I make no such claim. The difference between pseudo-science and real science is, that the former is an organized system of answers for everything while the latter is a mechanism for generating meaningful questions. We may wind up with more questions than answers.


  • At 6:13 AM, Blogger Icepick said…

    Do the fulminations of a small class of intellectuals have any real and lasting effect on the larger culture at all? If so, how much?

    The answer to the first question is, "Yes." Or rather, "Yes, under some circumstances."


    1) A great deal of 20th Century Communism can be derived from the fulminations of three or four generations of a small class of fulminating intellectuals.

    2) Depending on how one defines "intellectual", one could say that the revolutionary role of science (in particular physics) in human society is due to similar fulminations. In fact, the manner in which we're discussing this topic is only possible because of the direct contributions of men like Newton, Einstein, Planck, Turing, Heisenberg, etc. A very small group of people has driven extreme amounts of change.

    3) Depending on how one defines "small group" the whole shebang of Western Civilization wouldn't be possible without having had its genesis in the ideas of a few widely scattered Greeks (both in space and time). They would have represented a larger subset of their own societies, of course, but if one traces Western Civilization all the way back they make for an absurdly small subset of Western Civilization.

    A better framing of the question might be "Under what circumstances do the fulminations of a small class of intellectuals have any real and lasting effect on the larger culture?"

  • At 6:15 AM, Blogger Icepick said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • At 8:26 AM, Blogger AntiCitizenOne said…

    "Under what circumstances do the fulminations of a small class of intellectuals have any real and lasting effect on the larger culture?"

    When what they say is counter-intuitive BUT true.

    I'll bet the name Mises will be better known than Chompsky in 50 years.


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