The Grand Sweep of Western Civilization

President Trump speaks in Krasinski Square in Warsaw, Poland, July 6, 2017. (Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
It is not a tribe. We can’t separate universal values from the West.

A few months ago I spent a weekend at a rather ritzy and high-toned political confab. There were sessions on all the problems, including Russia and China, that confront “the West.” Most of the attendees were center-right and center-left, members of good standing in polite society. Much more presentable than I am. In a breakout session on relations between Western democracies and China, the participants kept saying that we should emphasize our values.

Now, in the mouth of Trump, the words “the West” are taken as menacing. A code for white supremacy and racial conflict. And in some ways that’s understandable. Trump is a crude man, and if he embodies something Western, it is that civilization’s defects, its arrogance and avarice. People genuinely fear Trump, and naturally everything he says becomes an occasion for expressing new dimensions of that fear. If someone argues that Trump’s speech was fine but in his mouth comes across as blasphemy, I’d have trouble arguing with them. But that’s not the argument that most people are making.

Some have said that the speech would have passed muster if it weren’t for the context of Poland itself. They blame Poland’s “ultra-nationalism” and “retreat from democracy.” These writers, usually entirely ignorant of Polish politics, can never quite describe the machinations of the ruling Law and Justice party on the state-run media or on the Constitutional Court. Nor could they describe with any specificity the state of those institutions in the hands of the previous ruling party, but all they need to know is that Poland opposes becoming a destination for Islamic migrants. Case closed. Never mind that all Eastern European governments, whether right-wing Hungary or left-wing Slovakia, oppose this migration. Their citizens see the results in Western Europe: social division, armed guards around monuments, and a decrease of liberty under rising surveillance. And they think, No thank you.

Some point out, as evidence of Trump’s sinister intent, that he did not mention Polish failures or historic Polish crimes and complicity. I don’t know why people think U.S. presidents on a diplomatic tour in Poland should bring up the fact that some Poles collaborated with Nazis. We do not do this every time we go to France. Our presidents don’t even do this when we go to Germany. But for some reason, Poles deserve it. Even though in the history of Word War II, Poland saw one-fifth of its population die, a far larger share than can ever be said to have collaborated and pass on a generational guilt, which somehow exists only in Poland.

But others go further and say it was the terminology of “the West” that is problematic. Peter Beinart says that the West is necessarily a religious and racial definition, with its references to heritage, culture, and blood. He’s only half right. And I’ll come to that. Trump’s first speech as president also invoked blood. “Whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms,” he said. America is a country in which people of different races bleed the “same blood.”

But Beinart prefers a different vocabulary from “Western.” He praises earlier speeches in Poland by President George W. Bush, who merely said that America and Poland “share a civilization” and venerated membership in “our transatlantic community.” Beinart likes it because, as Bush said, “Its values are universal.” They are portable and can be given to anyone.

When liberals and progressives talk about human rights, or universal values, they are talking about values that sprang out of the West, products of its history and culture.

This is a matter of hiding the ball. And deep down, liberal writers know it. When liberals and progressives talk about human rights, or universal values, they are talking about values that sprang out of the West, products of its history and culture. When they say that America should learn from other nations and even look to their systems of justice for wisdom, they do not point to Chinese law or to the jurisprudential schools of Cairo. They point to the courts of Western Europe. Our desire to see “human rights” and “universal values” spread throughout the world is quintessentially Western. And to the objects of our noble plans, it is often indistinguishable from the mission civilisatrice, or the colonial period, or the missionary and crusading efforts of Christendom. All these efforts were accompanied by military garrisons and the Western hope for new markets and fortunes. “The West” is no more a synecdoche for racial chauvinism than “universal values” is. The latter is just a layer of abstraction on top of it. A noble lie.

To hear paeans to an entire Western civilization as if they were merely tribal is bizarre. The squeamishness about ever using the first-person plural, “we,” is unbecoming and unserious. Worse, it’s also unneighborly. A “we” is inescapable if you want to live in a community. And to give people inside that community any sense of inclusion, it must necessarily follow that the community is in some ways exclusive. This is a truism of language, history, and sociology.

The civilization that Bush said Poles and Americans share is obviously far larger in scope than any tribalism. Here I borrow from Roger Scruton. The feeling of nationality itself, apart from times of war or political stress, is a form of peace and goodwill toward one’s neighbors, an emotional bond to the settlement that makes possible living together in a territory and sharing the protection of its laws with people very different from yourself. The West is a larger sphere of brotherhood between those nations — a brotherhood that has been lamentably fratricidal in its history, but also remarkably cooperative.

The increased anxiety so many people feel about the diversity of religious views and political priorities that have long been featured within Western societies — our ever-hotter culture wars — is a portentous sign that these bonds of nationality are weakening. That anxiety runs between the religious and the post-religious, between liberals and conservatives, and between what David Goodhart calls “the somewheres” and the “anywheres.” We increasingly suspect that “their” first-person plural does not include us. And we do so because we have trouble imagining that ours includes them. A voice comes: “Thankfully,” it says, “they are not America.”

The authors criticizing Trump’s Warsaw address just ignore or downplay the context that Trump gave for his own description of the West. He described it in terms that are alternately emphasized by conservatives and liberals. Faith and family and heritage for traditionalists. Innovation, free-wheeling debate, and female empowerment for progressives. This is the stuff of normal politician-speak, clumsier in Trump’s mouth than from Obama’s, certainly. But it was an attempt to include the political and cultural tribes that feel so much tension between each other now into one settlement — one project that is greater than themselves.

Trump’s description of Western genius, “We compose symphonies,” has also been singled out by many as a racist dog whistle for white nationalism. This is straining. Symphonies are a compositional form that developed in the West, and that form distinguishes the Western musical tradition from others. And although classical music has fallen in decline, the symphony has been adopted by Westerners of all races. To hear “We compose symphonies” and think of eugenicist lawyers like Madison Grant before thinking of William Grant Still or George Walker, African-American composers of symphonies, may be an accident of one’s education. Or myopia. Readers can decide which.

Like every other great civilization, the West is filled with hypocrisy, and nobility. Capable of monstrous cruelty, and great beauty.

Now my own definition of “the West” is wider than Samuel Huntington’s, and includes most of Christendom outside the Islamic world, including territories and nations he classifies as Orthodox, Latin American, and African. All of these now benefit from the same inheritance and strive, in Trump’s words, to “value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom.”

The West is a capacious and contradictory thing, but it is identifiable. When I was in Cairo, I knew I was outside of it. The West comes from Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. Having inherited a religious revelation that bursts into recorded history, sub Pontio Pilato, the West is deeply historically conscious. It says with Constantine, “In this sign, conquer.” At the same time, it has a distinguishing impulse to revere, and even adore, the weak and the outcast, urging, “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do unto me.” It has the Roman belief in administration as a form of power, and a peculiar romance for rebellion. It is outward-facing and adventurous, like a figure from a Dumas novel, and lately it is also wracked with inward doubt, like a character from Dostoyevsky. Like every other great civilization, it is filled with hypocrisy, and nobility. Capable of monstrous cruelty, and great beauty.

And I’m happy to have the West as an inheritance, blessing and curse that it is. I’m proud that it is the civilization that the Islamic jurist Muhammad Abduh looked upon and paid it the highest compliment he could: “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.” Even as someone who believes that the pace of migration into Western Europe must slow down, I’m delighted to live in a civilization that people want to enter rather than leave, and I’m delighted that its great conversations and its inner turmoil are understood and shared by people from Puerto Santa Cruz to Minsk, from California to Kinshasa to Auckland. Even if I disagree with Trump about the seriousness of some external threats to our common civilization, I believe that Western civilization is undergoing a deep crisis in its spirit, that it suffers from having lost its faith and also all the hope it had placed in the ideas and ideologies that it used as substitutes for faith. In some ways Trump is symptomatic of the problem. He’s symptomatic of all the trends he condemns. But recovery will be a common civilizational project.


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