Never has Western culture seemed so all-powerful.
Look at the 30 top-ranked universities in the world; they are all American, British, or European — albeit these rankings are based largely on the excellence of their science, engineering, medicine, and computer departments rather than their English and sociology departments.
The worldwide reach of schlock American pop culture is frightening. Hollywood psychodramas, rap vulgarity, reality TV, crude body tattooing and piercing, and the sorry, unhinged Miley Cyrus find their way up the Nile and around Cape Horn.
The United States, even with recent defense cuts, has more conventional military power than nearly the rest of the globe combined. American oil entrepreneurs have changed the global energy calculus.
Immigration is a one-way Western street. Those who, in the abstract, damn the West — as much as elite Westerners themselves do — want very much to live inside it. The loudest anti-Western voices in the Middle East are usually housed in Western universities, not in Gaza. Jorge Ramos is a fierce critic of supposed American cruelty to illegal immigrants — so much so that he fled Mexico for America, became a citizen (how is that possible, given American bias against immigrants?), landed a multimillion-dollar salary working for the non-Latino-owned Spanish-language network Univision, and then put his kids in private school to shield them from hoi polloi of the sort he champions each evening. Now that’s the power of the West.
The alternatives are uninviting. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Pervez Musharraf, and Mohamed Morsi all resided in the West for long periods of time until political power beckoned at home. Putin’s Russia is a geriatric and unhealthy kleptocracy. China will never square the circle of free-market capitalist consumerism and Communist state autocracy. India, like Brazil, is always corrupt and always said to be full of potential. Neo-Communism has all but wrecked Latin America. The African nations are still tribal societies beneath a thin statist veneer. The Middle East is now mostly pre-civilized. (The Asian Tigers have escaped these fates by becoming mostly Westernized.) And, in our wired age, the maladies of the Third World are all instantly known and contrasted with the civilized alternative in the West.
But as in mid-fifth-century Athens and late-republican Rome, there are signs that the West is eroding — and fast. The common Western malady is age-old and cyclical. It was long ago described, over some thousand years of decline, by an array of Classical scolds, from Thucydides and Aristophanes to Tacitus, Petronius, Plutarch, Suetonius, and Procopius. In the case of modern America, Britain, and Europe, the sheer material bounty spawned by free-market capitalism and legally protected private property, combined with the freedom of the individual, creates a sort of ennui. Boredom is the logical result of that lethal mix of affluence and leisure.
It is not just that Westerners forget who gave them their bounty, but they tend to damn anonymous ancestors who worked so hard, but without a modern sense of taste and politically correct deference. Of course, so far, Western civilization presses on, despite the periodic sky-is-falling warnings that echo the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Oswald Spengler, and H. G. Wells. But does it press on as it did before?
Take the ongoing mass exoduses from the Third World into Europe and the United States. The reaction on the part of the host countries is largely paralysis, as the contradictions of professed Western liberalism hit the hard reality that Westerners are reluctant to accept millions of poor foreigners arriving en masse. Westerners are hoist on their own petards of “fairness” and “equality” in the age of globalization and instant communications: If Sudanese or Oaxacans are deprived of free annual check-ups or are in need of climate-change instruction, then Brussels and Washington are just as culpable for their plight as if they had shorted their own Slovakians or Alabamans.
Elites who are exempt by virtue of their money and influence from the consequences of living among millions of displaced Africans, Arabs, or Latin Americans berate ad nauseam their less-well-connected, supposedly illiberal fellow citizens. But note that no elite Westerner wants to face the cause of the malady: namely, that the failure in the Third World to adopt Western ideas of consensual government, equality between the sexes, free-market capitalism, individual liberty, and transparent meritocracy logically leads to mayhem and poverty.
Westerners are afraid to explain why the non-West suffers and what it might do to end its own miseries. To do that would be imperialistic and neo-colonial.
Western elites deny their own exceptionalism, and deny any reason for their own privilege other than the easy private guilt of citing the Holy Trinity of “race/class/gender.”
But it is worse than that: Western elites deny their own exceptionalism, and deny any reason for their own privilege other than the easy private guilt of citing the Holy Trinity of “race/class/gender.” They dare not associate Islam with the self-professed Islamists of ISIS who wreck the world’s archaeological treasures and who behead, burn alive, drown, and dismember Christians and supposed heretics. Indeed, Western op-ed writers go so far as to offer heated advisories that we must not confuse the source of this nihilist furor with radical Islam.
So we tire of a New York Times columnist or an EU apparatchik who will never give up his own 1 percent lifestyle, but will castigate the values that ensure its continuation — on the understanding that such invective will assuage his guilt and never be taken too seriously. Surely 100 Hondurans will not be sleeping in the halls of the former’s Upper West Side co-op, and 500 Somalis will not camp out on the veranda of the latter’s Portofino estate. Could not Harvard and Stanford invite Central American illegal-alien youth to spend their summers in the shelter of their empty dorms and unused basketball arenas?
Latino students at UC Irvine allege that flying the American flag is an act of micro-aggression, even as they decry the American unwillingness to open the borders to another 10 percent of Mexicans, who apparently would not mind the micro-aggressions. Go figure the hypocrisies, and all one can come up with is either ignorance, or a vague notion that such on-campus play-acting will lead to some career advantage to be harvested from bored elites.
The Black Lives Matter movement in the last few months has often marched chanting for the death of “pigs,” while intellectuals contextualized their anger — and while police were shot at and sometimes killed. No one dares to make the argument that an absence of parity is due not to Bull Connor Redux, but rather to self-inflicted pathologies of the post–Great Society age that have annihilated the black two-parent family and led to inordinate crime, illegitimacy, illiteracy, drug use, social dependency, and, of course, furor at the system for allowing that disparity to happen. It is much easier to blame an old white cop than a bureaucrat at social services or the careerist Al Sharpton, whose racialist perks are predicated on their permanent absence in others.
In the West the law — whose sanctity built Western civilization — has become a joke.
The first casualty in a bored and would-be-revolutionary society is legality. And certainly in the West the law — whose sanctity built Western civilization — has become a joke. New Confederate-style nullificationists in San Francisco demand that federal immigration statutes not apply to their sanctuary city, even as they insist that a minor clerk in Kentucky be jailed for nullifying a Supreme Court edict allowing gay marriage. Kim Davis should indeed be jailed for obstructing a federal mandate, but only after the neo-Confederate nullificationist mayor, Board of Supervisors, and sheriff of San Francisco.
These activists are not the poor and ignorant, but the wealthy and educated who no longer believe in the law — at least any law that does not directly protect their quite ample property. It would be easy to say they are neo–French Revolutionaries who believe social justice, not old white men’s privilege, is the better law code. But that excuse would be too kind. Those who embrace sanctuary cities while wanting to jail any who object to the omnipotence of federal jurisprudence are mostly hedonists. Whatever they feel like doing becomes legal, and whatever they don’t feel like doing becomes felonious and deserving of incarceration.
The future of the European Union is bleak. It cannot define what a European is, so why should its borders not become porous? Who is to say that a German should not retire at 67 so a Greek can at 55? The sin of debt lies on the richer nations, who had the money to lend and profit, not the poorer, who imprudently borrowed. Thus default is little more than overdue redistribution.
Europe is shrinking because child-raising is seen as a drag and the state ensures old-age care without the need for family support — until the money runs out. It no longer believes in its own defense, and it brilliantly contextualizes the aggression of Vladimir Putin, sort of like Athenian rhetoricians circa 340 b.c. assuring their fellow citizens that Philip II was merely into a macho schtick.
It turns out that once liberty and freedom have ensured prosperity then that achievement can be consumed by “fairness” and “equality.”
America is Europeanizing itself, an odd thing, given that Europeans always feared that their Hellenism would be buried under crass American Romanism. It turns out that once liberty and freedom have ensured prosperity — the underclass of today has access to better communications, transportation, and computer-driven knowledge than the 1 percent of 30 years ago — then that achievement can be consumed by “fairness” and “equality.” What the West worries about is not poverty, but disparity: No one argues that the rioters at Ferguson did not have smartphones, expensive sneakers, hot water in their homes, air conditioning, and plenty to eat — it’s just that they did not have as many or as sophisticated appurtenances as someone else. Michael Brown was not undernourished or in need of the cigars he lifted.
Is this decline just circular, as a Chamberlain leads to a Churchill, who leads to an Attlee, and eventually back to Thatcher, or as Carter begets Reagan, who begets Obama, who loses the Congress and the nation’s support? Certainly, equality and fairness are parasitical luxuries that depend first upon Western productivity, which is the harvest of personal freedom and economic liberty. Before you can have Cornel West, Sandra Fluke, Barack Obama, and Bernie Sanders, you first have to have grimy frackers and horizontal drillers, pajama-boy techies, the loggers of reality TV, long-haul truckers — and, yes, conniving capitalists at Goldman Sachs and showmen like Donald Trump.
So far, the West has been lucky. The present generations of nihilistic redistributionists are no Sullas, Robespierres, or Lenins. They do damage, but for now not enough to endanger the architecture of their own privilege. Al Gore still jets around the world to hector about climate change. Barack Obama won’t retire to an iffy neighborhood in Chicago. Al Sharpton won’t order the police away from his doorstep. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates believe in property rights. Mark Zuckerberg assumes that he has the right to buy up his neighbors’ property to create a moat defense against those who he insists must be allowed into the United States without following legal immigration procedures. Even George Soros adheres to international finance laws, most of the time.
At least for now, we are in a cycle of Western decline, waiting either for another Churchill, Thatcher, or Reagan to scold us out of it — or for an existential enemy, foreign or domestic, of such power and danger that all our progressive pieties will dissipate in the face of danger.
If, God forbid, Putin moves into the Baltic states, if Iran launches a nuke into Israel, if North Korea shoots chemical shells into Seoul, if China absorbs Taiwan, if, in another 9/11, a dozen 757s take down the Sears Tower, if the interest rate on a soon-to-be-$20-trillion national debt hits 7 percent, if Social Security checks start to bounce, or if Wall Street trumps its 2008 implosion, then Miley Cyrus will go the way of Britney Spears, Barack Obama the way of Jimmy Carter, and Black Lives Matter the way of It’s a Black Thing, You Wouldn’t Understand. Then the televised presences of Caitlin Jenner and the Kardashians would vanish as the decadent indulgences of a society that could no longer afford them.
Bounty to boredom to decadence to panic to reawakening to ascendance has always been the cyclical way of the West.
Its curse has been that the cycles of nihilism are as long as they are unnecessary.