Politics & Policy

Overturning Conventional Wisdom

From global warming to world Catholicism, the world looks different these days.

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the prevailing assumptions on broad geopolitical issues were that global warming would require radical reduction of carbon use to prevent the destruction of much of the world’s habitable environment; that China was inexorably going to become the world’s preeminent economy; that the United States would soon become a predominantly non-white country; that many of the principal European nationalities would dwindle into extinction like the carrier pigeon, because of cultural dyspepsia and narcissism that strangled the will to procreate; and that the Roman Catholic Church would finally disintegrate and largely vanish, even as Islam, vigorous if disconcerting, asserted itself. This was the collective conventional wisdom, and while there were certainly dissenters from some and all of it, these views were very widely embraced. All of these suppositions have either evolved almost unrecognizably or evaporated altogether, a fact that we would do well to remember as new truisms take hold and become the subject of abject reflexive and even genuflective adherence.

Global warming has metamorphosed into climate change, a more or less orderly retreat from the deafening fear-mongering of the Copenhagen Conference of 2009, an army retreating on a peninsula, like MacArthur on Bataan and in Korea before his Inchon counter-stroke, buffeted and battered but not encircled and routed. The environmentalists are fighting hard for every inch but they are a bedraggled and battle-weary force compared with their former status as occupants of the commanding heights of public opinion, warning of inundations, species extinctions, and richly deserved Old Testament plagues to punish ecological abuse. As it stands now, global warming (one centigrade degree in 75 years) is improbable, climate change is unclear, and there is no probable causal link between human activity and climate change. Every sane person in the world accepts that environmental pollution must be relentlessly reduced and that extreme vigilance is called for, but there is no majority anywhere now to charge into the Valley of Fiscal and Economic Death of Kyoto and cap and trade.

The bloom is also off the forces-of-history, wave-of-the future Sino-groupiness; China’s ostensible growth rate is only down (from 10 percent) to about 7 percent, but the spectacle of vast apartment blocks in new cities eerily unoccupied and the increasing revelations of corruption and of the proportions of the housing bubble that drove much of recent Chinese economic growth have taken the wind out of this platitude that for at least a decade was endlessly repeated by commentators, lesser social bores, and even passers-by. China is the greatest developing-economy story in the history of the world. But it is still about 40 percent a command economy, and it is facing chronic deficit problems as well as the deflation provoked by all large bubbles when pierced. It is a country with no working political institutions, except perhaps the army, and one in which the official statistics do not add up and not one utterance of the government of the People’s Republic, verbal or numerate, can be believed. Hundreds of millions of people still live essentially as they did 3,000 years ago. And, like other emergent great powers, in flexing its muscles and demanding increased respect from its neighbors, China has pushed them together: The Indians and Indonesians (both countries under capable new leadership), Japanese, South Koreans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Australians, and others have been driven into greater collective intimacy and the Chinese have managed to be expelled from Burma. Of course China is a great and important country, but taking the leadership of the world is not like falling off a log, as the leaders of the Third Reich, the Soviet Union, and Japan Inc. learned, but the rulers of Tiananmen Square didn’t notice. The Hong Kong unrest won’t just go away, though there is no reason to believe that unrest will spread around China as it did in the Arab world, but if the regime has to resort to repression again, it will be very damaging to China’s international economic relations.

It never particularly mattered what the skin color of most Americans was as long as the entire population subscribed to the American constitutional system, and strove, where necessary, to learn English, and the stresses between the component groups did not become intolerable; the melting pot had to go on simmering and creating committed Americans. This appears to be happening, but apart from that, the country has notoriously awakened to the immigration issue, even if the political system has fumbled and postured with as much cowardice and backbiting as ever. But in the affray over immigration, and the Mexican economic surge despite the drug violence along the border, the infiltration of unprocessed foreigners has been sharply reduced and the national demographic trends are unclear. Both U.S. political parties ignored the issue for decades, as they ignored abortion, income disparity, and other issues, and both share blame for the present impasse. Whatever anyone thinks of Obama’s half-measure of last week, it is only politics from a political leader who lost his last electoral battle, is revocable by a successor just by writing his (or her) name, and will not achieve anything. Obviously, the United States cannot expel 11 million people, any more than it can continue to allow unskilled peasants to flood into the country, but the trend that caused the confident predictions of the imminent end to the status of the United States as a Northern Hemisphere, Caucasian country has stalled.

These confident predictions of the takeover of the United States by a Latino and African-American coalition were uttered largely by Europeans, who did not notice that a much likelier event would be a Muslim demographic surge within the Western European countries that would be much less assimilable and more abrasive and dangerous to the host cultures than the continued increase in the Latin American population of the United States. The fact is that the conclusion that the Germans, Russians, Spanish, Italians, French, Dutch, and others were all headed for the demographic boneyard is and always was nonsense. They are rich cultures and – while they are still reeling from the blunders and atrocities that gave us two world wars, Communism, Fascism, Nazism, and the most heinous acts of genocide in history — they are not permanently possessed by a death wish. They will recover demographic stability and create conditions in which intelligent Muslims embrace the civilization to which they chose to emigrate while exercising normal religious freedom without infringing the rights of others. The Europeans, led in this by the French, will suppress the militants in their midst. The cradle of Western civilization, which, despite its torpor, is not seeking death with dignity (or otherwise), will not be strangled from within by an impoverished and ignorant minority of a minority, fanatically determined to destroy the venerable and distinguished nations where they reside. There will be turbulent times and many official acts of folly, mistaken appeasement, and implausible bravura, but the correlation of forces overwhelmingly favors the continuity of the West in all its principal states.

The process of containing the Islamist threat may accelerate the failure and abandonment of the last of the enumerated pillars of conventional wisdom: the demise of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Francis has struck from the hands of his church’s ancient and faddish foes the sword brandished for 60 years, that this was an anachronistic organization run by a claque of septuagenarian celibates and closet queens scolding the world about its sex life. The pope’s assertion that the raison d’être of the Roman Catholic Church was to be the ark of the Christian message, to assist and comfort souls (and that meant a gay person no less than a heterosexual or sexually abstinent one), disarmed the legions of ill-wishers without traumatizing the militant traditionalists within the Church. “Who am I to judge?” was a transformative assertion by this pope, its impact partly concealed by its simplicity. Religious attendance and vocations have moved generally up in many countries, sharply up in disparate places including South Korea (almost 100 percent), and Spain (40 percent); in Spain’s case the revival has been dramatized by one of the country’s most glamorous models and television personalities, Olalla Oliveros, abruptly joining a convent of the Order of St. Michael.

The spectacularly inadequate performance of the secular leaders in the main Western countries in this new millennium has highlighted the credibility, integrity, and effectiveness of Pope Francis. Despite the incumbency of atheism as the unofficial religion of almost all non-Islamic countries, the Western majority that believes in the existence of spiritual forces and some form of deity or quasi-deity will be fortified by the high expectations incited and dashed by the secularizers and materialists. Militants will devalue Islam; criminally diseased murderers cannot compete with a spirituality of saints and prophets. The Roman Catholic Church has been around this track many times. It has the problems inherent in any organization that espouses a heavenly kingdom through human spokesmen afflicted by human failings, but those failings are not as aggravated by exposed pretense as are those of the world’s political and commercial and cultural leadership, and in terms of ultimate legitimacy and proximity to truth as best it can be perceived, Rome remains the big brand, with the big market share, the most distinguished ethos, and the most compelling and humane chief. Rome isn’t going anywhere; people in numbers that will continue to scandalize and nonplus the New York Times and the BBC will continue to go to it.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.


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