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Decline All Around

by Claire Berlinski
How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam Is Dying Too), by David P. Goldman (Regnery, 306 pp., $27.95)

In 1995, on a whim, I answered a help-wanted ad in the back of The Economist and landed a job as an editor with a start-up newspaper in Bangkok consecrated to the goal of countering the White Man’s neo-imperialist journalism. The newspaper was the original Asia Times, and thus I have always been privy to the secret identity of its pseudonymous columnist Spengler, who happened to be a white male neo-imperialist and the only journalist there capable of writing anything interesting — or even grammatical.

In 2009, Spengler publicly revealed himself in the pages of First Things as David P. Goldman, a classically trained pianist who had enjoyed a storied career in the New York financial industry. Among the more bizarre details of his autobiography was his confession of a long association with Lyndon LaRouche. “We were all about thirty,” he wrote, “and most of us were Jewish. The question, of course, is what were a group of young Jews doing in the company of a cult leader with a paranoid view of the world and a thinly disguised anti-Semitic streak.” A good question indeed, particularly since that anti-Semitic streak was about as thinly disguised as a Kiev pogrom. His answer is not entirely satisfying: “We were all long-in-the-tooth student radicals. LaRouche’s organization was the flotsam washed up by the wave of the collective madness that had swept through the youth of the world in 1968 and left many of its participants maladapted to ordinary life for years afterward.”

He was cured of his maladaptation, he offers, by Norman Bailey, then director of plans at the National Security Council. “My political education began in his lair at the Old Executive Office Building in 1981, when he explained to me that the United States would destroy the Soviet Empire by the end of the 1980s. After I became convinced that the Reagan administration knew what it was doing, my break with LaRouche was inevitable.” From Bailey it was a short journey to Franz Rosenzweig, and from Rosenzweig to the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom Spengler so earnestly desired not to meet. At last, he was a devout Jew. And thus had he achieved the only thing in life that matters: immortality.

This is the chief thesis of How Civilizations Die: Immortality is all. “The history of the world,” Goldman writes, “is the history of humankind’s search for immortality,” for humankind cannot bear mortality without hope. He proposes that this is the central point neglected by modern political science and contemporary strategic thinking; without this understanding, geopolitical models bear no real resemblance to the world in which we live, a world in which the crucial issue is “the willingness or unwillingness of a people inhabiting a given territory to bring a new generation into the world.” Faith and fertility go hand in hand, he argues. In this assertion he is supported by almost every serious demographer, although few demographers are willing to state so forthrightly the conclusions to which their data inexorably lead.

Now, a few observations: Spengler is a weirdo and a crank. His book inadvertently reveals as much about his own existential despair as it does the world’s. But he is also — much as Max Weber described Oswald the Ur-Spengler — a “very ingenious and learned dilettante,” and a lively and provocative (if occasionally pretentious) writer. I have never missed one of his columns, and this book is one of the few I’ve read in recent years that bubble with ideas. Not all of them are good, and some are silly, but at least the thing isn’t boring.

The most important idea: Contrary to received wisdom, it is not just Europe that is in demographic decline. The Islamic world, too, is on the fast track to demographic senility. To my surprise, it seems he is quite right: All the studies confirm it. Muslim-majority countries are now exhibiting significantly lower fertility levels than non-Muslim ones. (Here I should make my own confession: When, in 2006, I wrote a book treating, among other subjects, the crisis of European demographic decline, I failed completely to notice this parallel trend. Mea culpa. In my defense, at least I never worked for Lyndon LaRouche.)

A particularly interesting point about the fertility plunge in the Islamic world — and it is indeed the entire Islamic world — was made recently by Nicholas Eberstadt in Foreign Policy. These trends, he writes, “contradict the received wisdom that family planning programs make an important independent contribution to reducing fertility levels in developing countries: strikingly, desired fertility rates and the availability of contraceptives aren’t that closely correlated.” Exactly how Muslim women are managing to avoid pregnancy sans contraception is a mystery; Eberstadt suggests the answer may be found in Lant Pritchett’s puzzling and provocative paper published in 1994 and blandly titled “Desired Fertility and the Impact of Population Policies.” The thesis, simplified: When women want children, they have them; when they don’t, they don’t. They have evidently discovered how to make themselves infertile at will, through a mechanism no one quite understands.

But why might Muslim women be so averse to reproduction? In Goldman’s view, the answer is obvious: “The repression of women . . . is part of the warp and woof of Islamic society, the most obvious manifestation of its inextricable roots in tribal life.” Upon even the most casual exposure to the possibility of living otherwise — and in the contemporary world, the mere possession of a television provides this exposure — what woman wouldn’t say, “To hell with this”?

So does this mean we need not worry about the clash of civilizations? No, says Goldman, quite the contrary, for there is nothing more dangerous than a dying civilization. The Islamic world will soon be as elderly as the industrialized world, but it will not be industrialized. “Imminent population collapse,” he proposes, “makes radical Islam more dangerous, not less so. For in their despair, radical Muslims who can already taste the ruin of their culture believe that they have nothing to lose.”

Perhaps. It is an interesting thesis, at least. But I am not convinced that Muslims are thinking this way, consciously or unconsciously. Europeans and Americans have proven themselves pathologically unable to recognize that, absent a high fertility rate, the cost of caring for their dependent elderly populations will ruin them, so why should we expect the Muslim world to be more foresighted? Demographic projections are remote abstractions, published in unread journals such as Population and Development Review — until they become reality. No, it seems to me the Islamic world is brimming with confidence these days, with Islamists in power, or soon to be in power, in Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya — well, no need to continue the list, I’m sure it will be longer by the time this goes to print — and the West sunk in a morass of gloom and despond. As for Iran, its leadership seems positively to be enjoying itself; they must be wiping away tears of laughter after their chummy dinner parties with EU foreign minister Catherine Ashton.

Does Turkey have what it takes to find its way from agrarian backwardness to industrial modernity before its youthful population become wards of the state? I have been living in Turkey for seven years, and I wonder this every day; it is an excellent question. But I am not sure that Goldman’s pessimism is warranted. He is off, in some way, in the subtle details. For example, he dismisses the influential Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gülen as a primitive Anatolian peasant who believes in djinns and lacks the intellectual sophistication to succeed in the modern world. Gülen does believe in djinns, to be sure, but his theology is a masterpiece of rigor compared with what most Americans believe — may I remind Mr. Goldman that The Secret was an American bestseller? — and only a man crippled by his own snobbery would conclude that Gülen doesn’t have what it takes to succeed in the modern world. To say that about the Bernie Madoff of interfaith East-West multicultural dialogue is to ignore the obvious: The man is an entrepreneurial genius.

Goldman is probably right to predict that much of the Islamic world cannot enter modernity fast enough to forestall disaster, but nothing in my experience — and I do have some — suggests to me that anyone in this region is so persuaded of imminent extinction, literal or metaphysical, as to justify Goldman’s certainty that it will conform to what he terms his Universal Law #1: “A man or nation at the brink of death does not have a ‘rational self-interest.’” Indeed, the Islamists where I live think it is all going swimmingly and according to plan. The sentiment may be very different in ten years or twenty, but as of today, the danger emanating from the Islamic world is an excess, not a deficit, of confidence in its prospects. And thus Berlinski’s Universal Law #1, which is no more comforting than Goldman’s: “A man or nation on the brink of victory has a very rational self-interest. It just isn’t necessarily ours.”

– Claire Berlinski is a freelance journalist who lives in Istanbul. She is the author of Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’s Crisis Is America’s, Too and There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters.

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