NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he harshest critics of the West in general and the United States in particular are the best arguments for it. Take the latest iconic critic, 29-year-old Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. She has a predictable list of complaints against America, past and present.
Yet fortunately for her, her paternal grandparents and mother had experienced firsthand the antitheses of mainland America. And thus they were obsessed with what was right, not wrong, with the continental United States — and with getting there as quickly as possible. If they had once been critics of America, such animus was seemingly not great enough to prevent them moving to a place with a different language, ethnic majority, and traditions from those of their home, itself a territory of the U.S.
They apparently assumed that a free-market economy and transparent government gave them economic opportunities unknown in Puerto Rico, an otherwise naturally rich landscape. They wisely stayed in North America, apparently because they felt as supposed minorities that they would have far more cultural, social, political, and economic opportunities than they would as part of the majority in Puerto Rico. The fact that her father was a second-generation immigrant and architect, that AOC herself grew up in affluent Westchester County, that she received scholarships to attend pricey Boston University, and that she was elected to Congress bore out her parents’ correct assumptions of a meritocracy, not a caste state.
Mutatis mutandis, the same could be said of two other chronic ankle-biters of America, newly elected Representatives Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.). Their families correctly (but internally rather than publicly) had apparently once assumed that Muslims and the so-called nonwhite would enjoy a higher standard of living, more religious protection, and greater political freedom as minority citizens of the U.S. than as part of the majority in either Somalia or the Palestinian territories . Omar and Tlaib both know that if they were to redirect commensurate animus to the government and society of Somalia or the Palestinian territories, their freedoms, if not their very lives, would be in danger.
Left unsaid is that their theoretical doppelgängers, would-be Christian emigrants, especially European Christians, would find no such reciprocal tolerance when they reached the Middle East or East Africa (and they therefore do not emigrate to such places). That reality, along with a greater likelihood of personal security and material affluence, is why in a larger sense immigration is always a one-way street: Those in Africa, Asia, and Latin America – the non-West — who are fed up always go westward. Very few disenchanted Westerners emigrate in the opposite direction; those who do are usually affluent and retired.
Transfer American paradigms from frigid Minnesota to warm Somalia, and Ilhan Omar would never have left Mogadishu. And put Somalian protocols in play in Minneapolis, and she and her family would never have set foot in America. And the reason she seems unable to acknowledge that simple truth is also Western to the core — once a pampered Westerner gains the leisure, affluence, and security to critique the very system that provided these boons.
The West, then, transcends its place of birth precisely because its ideas, although they were born in Europe, were uniquely and logically able to spread and to transcend historical ethnic, racial, and religious bonds and to re-create Westernism, or at least major elements of it, almost anywhere and among anyone. China rightly can be proud of its ancient and venerable traditions, but what propelled it into the 21st century was largely the adoption of Western technology and free-market economics, in a way antithetical to its prior paradigms.
Again, newcomers to the West, emulating the hipster progressive Left, sometimes lodge almost immediate complaints about Western civilization, usually the boilerplate that it is racist, biased, and sexist. But one wonders, given the tribal nature of man, compared with what? Is the West religiously intolerant compared with most of the Muslim world? If so, try building huge Christian cathedrals in Saudi Arabia as counterparts to the current new monumental mosques in Cologne and Rome.
Is the contemporary West racist compared with China? Japan? Sexist or homophobic in comparison to Iran? Prejudicial against the poor in a way not seen in Brazil or Mexico?
The irony of the Left’s scripted charges of racism is that the West since Greek and Roman times was usually the least racist of cultures, at least in the sense that there were always voices, often powerful, objecting to instinctual majority tribalism. Imperial Rome’s cities on the shores throughout the Mediterranean were polyglot and multiracial, united not by claims of Italian ancestry, but by Roman law, science, custom, and tradition.
The racial hatred fostered by Hitler and his supposed übermenchen, by Franco and his notion of La Raza, and by Mussolini and La Razza were all fueled by disgust with what they perceived as the norms of European history, which since the Roman Empire had seen constant assimilations, integrations, and intermarrying of diverse peoples. Hitler’s pseudo-intellectuals had to resurrect Tacitus’s Germania to “prove” that white Germans were never sullied by the core of Western civilization west of the Rhine and south of the Danube, as was true of Rome and Byzantium — suggesting again that the logic of Western civilization was never predicated on blood-and-soil chauvinism.
More important, the West, unlike most of the rest, is hypercritical of its own history, traditions, and institutions — sometimes nihilistically so. Unfettered skepticism, empiricism, and inductive dialectic — starting with the Pre-Socratics, Socrates, the sophists, Plato, and Aristotle, continuing with the Stoics and Epicureans, and then the Roman philosophers, and on through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Reformation — are the West’s great strength, whether expressed in scientific discovery, technological advancement, or social and political policy. Yet when self-criticism for the sake of self-examination is done to excess either out of guilt, spoiled overindulgence, or mere intellectual gymnastics, it can become a liability, whether it’s the sophists, the bankrupt imperial Roman elite, the Jacobins, or contemporary postmodernists who are lobbing the arrows. For an example, compare the world of Livy and Virgil with that of Petronius and Apuleius.
The resulting Western message that insidiously reaches non-Westerners can become paradoxical. No sooner do the foreign poor and the oppressed reach their promised Western refuge than they are often assumed to be unsophisticated, unaware, unenlightened, and “unwoke” if they do not immediately press claims as “marginalized peoples” against a supposedly fatally flawed West — at least along the lines of the permanent complaints of affluent and free Americans, who have never experienced the real poverty, oppression, and insecurity of those fleeing Africa or Latin America.
The central paradox, indeed, the Achilles’ heel, of the West has always been twofold.
One, the marriage of market capitalism with unfettered freedom ensured by popular constitutional government creates untold affluence and leisure, leading to an excess that the Romans knew as luxus.
The result can soon lead to an unreality, in which the Westerner assumes that his bounty is limitless, that it is his birthright, and that it is on a trajectory that will soon ensure utopia — if the ignorant among us will just allow powerful elites to let pure, secular reason guide us.
The Western rational intellect supposedly can fathom all of the mysteries of the human condition. Perfection on earth is therefore attainable, and the flawed nature of man can be properly altered with requisite money, time, and education. So, the impatient Western progressive, perennially frustrated and disappointed about stubborn human nature, is constantly rooting out imagined impediments to the rule of his god Reason. One cannot be merely good, when he can and should be perfect — or else.
Second, freedom and equality, the twin pillars of Western society, are not necessarily always complementary. More often, they’re at war with each other. The ancient compromise is tenuous since it accepts inequality as the price of personal liberty and freedom from an intrusive and inevitably totalitarian government.
Too often, Western arrogance about its undeniable accomplishments leads governments to imagine that once they make citizens equal politically and provide equality of opportunity, they can, to quote ancient philosophers, delude themselves into thinking that citizens can and must be equal in every aspect of their lives.
Such messianic rationalists seek absolute redistributive power. They insist that inequality can be addressed only by government-mandated material redistribution or coercion. They scoff at a free market that can lead to a general community-wide affluence, in which the Western poor are considered well off by the standards of other systems. They mock the efficacy of religious and ethical empathy that encourages state and private help for the poor, philanthropy, and the responsibility of the strong and confident to help the weaker and meeker.
What enervates and often destroys Western societies, then, are not barbarians on the horizon, plagues, or invasions, but complacency and unreal demands put on society to reach utopian perfection. Such efforts are contrary to human nature and often result in disastrous social and political polices, leading to impoverishment and collapse. The Hellenic polis, Rome, and Byzantium eventually eroded because each in its complacency forgot the very values that had created its successful cultures in the first place.
In other words, if the professed progressive utopian agendas of many current critics of the West had been realized in the past, then AOC’s or Tlaib’s parents would probably never have wished to head westward in the first place. Give Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez her wish to recalibrate America, and no Puerto Rican would ever wish to immigrate to the American mainland again. And if America emulated the social, political, and economic norms south of the border, illegal immigration would end quickly.
After all, why flee from what you find intolerable to what you soon find intolerable?