“It looks as if Islam had a bigger hand in the thing than we thought… . Islam is a fighting creed, and the mullah still stands in the pulpit with the Koran in one hand and a drawn sword in the other.”
—Richard Hannay in John Buchan’s Greenmantle
Suicide is probably more frequent than murder as the end phase of a civilization.
—James Burnham, Suicide of the West
It seemed fitting that a symposium devoted to the subject of “Threats to Democracy” should convene on the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. Not only was it one of the greatest sea battles in history, but it was also a battle greatly pertinent to the questions that guided our deliberations: What is the nature of the threats to democracy, to the culture and civilization of the West, and how can we best respond to those threats?
Let me say at the outset that I believe that Lord Nelson had the right idea—sail boldly in among your enemy’s ships, start firing, and don’t stop until you’ve reduced them to a shambles. It was good for England and for the rest of Europe that the Duke of Wellington proved himself to be of like mind a few years later. “Hard pounding, gentlemen,” he said at Waterloo. “We’ll see who pounds longest.”
Today, I believe, there is a widely shared understanding that our culture—not just the political system of democracy but our entire western way of life—is at a crossroads. That perception is not always on the surface. Absent the unignorable importunity of attack, absorption in the tasks of everyday life tends to blunt the perception of the threats facing us. But we all know that the future of the West, seemingly so assured even a decade ago, is suddenly negotiable in the most fundamental way. The essays that follow highlight some of the principle features of those negotiations. In this introduction, I want simply to review some of the moral terrain over which we are traveling.
I believe that Irving Kristol got it right when, in the early 1990s, he responded to the euphoria and naïveté that greeted the fall of the Soviet Union. Many commentators announced the imminent arrival of a new era of peace, brotherhood, international comity, and enlightenment. Kristol was not so sanguine. In an essay called “My Cold War,” he wrote that
There is no “after the Cold War” for me. So far from having ended, my cold war has increased in intensity, as sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos. It is an ethos that aims simultaneously at political and social collectivism on the one hand, and moral anarchy on the other. It cannot win, but it can make us all losers.
The oft-noted linguistic irony about the “liberal ethos” that Kristol fears is that it has very little to do with genuine liberty and everything to do with the servitude of statist ideology.
That ideology comes in a range of flavors and a wide variety of wrappings. But the essential issue is one that Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, anatomized as “democratic despotism” and that Friedrich Hayek, harkening back explicitly to Tocqueville, laid out with clinical brilliance in The Road to Serfdom. Quoting Tocqueville on the “enervating” effect of paternalistic democracy, Hayek notes that “the most important change which extensive government control produces is a psychological change, an alteration in the character of a people.”
One of the most penetrating meditations on the nature of that alteration is James Burnham’s book Suicide of the West. Written in 1964, that book, like its author, is largely and unfairly forgotten today. Burnham’s was a first-rate political intelligence, and Suicide of the West is one of his most accomplished pieces of polemic. “The primary issue before Western civilization today, and before its member nations, is survival.” Suicide of the West is very much a product of the Cold War. Many of the examples are dated. But as with Irving Kristol’s Cold War, so with Burnham’s. The field of battle may have changed; the armies have adopted new tactics; but the war isn’t over: it is merely transmogrified. In the subtitle to his book, Burnham promises “the definitive analysis of the pathology of liberalism.” At the center of that pathology is an awful failure of understanding which is also a failure of nerve, a failure of “the will to survive.” Liberalism, Burnham concludes, is “an ideology of suicide.” He admits that such a description may sound hyperbolic. “‘Suicide,’ it is objected, is too emotive a term, too negative and ‘bad.’” But it is part of the pathology that Burnham describes that such objections are “most often made most hotly by Westerners who hate their own civilization, readily excuse or even praise blows struck against it, and themselves lend a willing hand, frequently enough, to pulling it down.”
By way of illustration, let me return for a moment to Lord Nelson and Trafalgar. For anyone concerned with the fate of our culture, our civilization, the anniversary of Trafalgar was full of lessons. I wonder, for example, what Nelson would have thought of the Royal Navy’s decision last summer to reenact the battle not as a conflict between the English on one side and the French and the Spanish on the other but, out of sensitivity to the feelings of the French, as a contest between a Red Team and a Blue Team. Today, I suppose, Nelson, instead of broadcasting his famous message about duty, would have had to hoist the signal that “England Expects or at Least Suggests That Every Person No Matter What Gender, Race, Class, Sexual Orientation, or National Origin Will Be Politically Correct.” Hard work on the flag officer, of course, but preserving the emotion of virtue is not without cost.
Trafalgar is full of lessons. When my wife and I visited London last September, we took our young son, a fervent admirer of Nelson, to Trafalgar Square to see Nelson’s column. We were surprised to see that it had company. On one of the plinths behind the famous memorial sat a huge sculpture of white marble. This, I knew, was one of the benefactions that Ken Livingstone, the Communist mayor of London, had bestowed on his grateful constituency: public art on Trafalgar Square that was more in keeping with cool Britannia’s new image than statues of warriors. From a distance, the white blob looked liked a gigantic marshmallow in need of an air pump. But on closer inspection, it turned out to be a sculpture of an armless and mostly legless woman, with swollen breasts and distended belly. In fact, it was a sculpture by Marc Quinn of one Alison Lapper, made when she was eight months pregnant. Ms. Lapper, who was born with those horrible handicaps, is herself an artist. Asked how she felt about the sculpture, Ms. Lapper said that she was glad that at last Trafalgar Square recognized someone who was not a white male murderer. It is worth noting, as one journalist pointed out, that the architects of Trafalgar Square were ahead of their time in at least one sense, for the sculpture of Ms. Lapper represented the second commemoration of a seriously disabled person. After all, there is Nelson on his column, missing his right arm and an eye.
How England chose to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar and to respect its most public acknowledgment of Lord Nelson’s service to his country should give us pause. The union of sentimentality, political correctness, and multicultural piety is a disturbing ambassador to the future. It is a perfect example—one of many—of the “liberal ethos” whose progress Irving Kristol mournfully observed and whose essential character Burnham delineated.
What are the stakes? The terrorist attacks of 9/11 gave us a vivid reminder—but one, alas, that seems to have faded from the attention of many Western commentators who seem more concerned about recreational facilities at Guantanamo Bay than the future of their towns and cities. For myself, ever since 9/11, when I think about threats to democracy, I recall a statement by one Hussein Massawi, a former Hezbollah leader, which I believe I first read in one of Mark Steyn’s columns. “We are not fighting,” Mr. Massawi said, “so that you will offer us something. We are fighting to eliminate you.”
It is worth pausing to reflect on that statement. The thing I admire most about it is its pristine clarity. You know where you are with Mr. Massawi. It requires no special hermeneutic ingenuity to construe his meaning. And you also know that he wasn’t speaking idly. He was a man of his word, as the events of 9/11 and the names Bali, Madrid, and—just last summer—London remind us.
Or so one would have thought. Mr. Massawi speaks clearly, but who is listening? Our colleges and universities have been preaching the creed of multiculturalism for the last few decades. Politicians, pundits, and the so-called cultural elite have assiduously absorbed the catechism, which they accept less as an argument about the way the world should be as an affirmation of the essential virtue of their own feelings. We are now beginning to reap the fruit of that liberal experiment with multiculturalism. The chief existential symptom is moral paralysis, expressed, for example, in the inability to discriminate effectively between good and evil. The New York Times runs full-page advertisements, signed by all manner of eminent personages, that compare President Bush to Adolf Hitler. Meanwhile, the pop singer Michael Jackson spends an unspecified number of millions to finance the construction of a mosque in Bahrain “designated for learning the principles and teachings of Islam.” Thanks, Michael.
Over the years, The New Criterion has commented often on “the culture wars,” the vast smorgasbord of intellectual, political, and moral havoc bequeathed to us by the 1960s. What we see now is a darker face of those conflicts. On the one hand, you have people like Mr. Massawi, and their name is legion. If American Airlines will lend them a 767, they will happily plow it into the most convenient skyscraper. Should they somehow get hold of a vial of anthrax or smallpox or an atomic weapon, we can be sure they would have not the least hesitation about obliterating whatever seat of Western decadence was most ready to hand—an American target would be best, of course, but failing that almost any other city would do. So far, Mr. Massawi and his pals have had to do without atomic or biological weapons, but they have kept themselves busy with semtex, car bombs, and the occasional televised beheading.
All this violence is not aimless. It has a clear goal, not only to push the West out of Saudia Arabia and other parts of the Middle East but also to establish the rule of Sharia, of Islamic law, wherever Muslims in any number have congregated. This is the condition that the Egyptian historian Bat Ye’or has called dhimmitude: the state of the dhimmis, the “protected” or “guilty” non-Muslim people in a Muslim world. Dhimmitude outlines the official status of a conquered, spiritually cowed people, people, as the Koran puts it, who are allowed to live unmolested as second-class citizens so long as they “feel themselves subdued.”
I think we know where we are with the Mr. Massawis of the world. But how do we react? Well, the U.S. and British armed forces act in one way. Our intellectual and cultural leaders, by and large, act in quite another. Our reaction—or lack of reaction—is just as much of a threat as the overt belligerence of Massawi & Co. A few days after 9/11, I was talking with a friend who teaches at Williams College. The response on campus there, as on so many campuses across the country, was shock, dismay, and outrage—partly at what had happened at Ground Zero, the Pentagon, and that field in Pennsylvania, but even more at what has come to be called Islamophobia. At Williams, my friend told me, one distraught colleague insisted that the college air movies about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II as a warning about the Great Backlash Against Muslims that was just about to sweep the country.
Not just this country, either. This past summer, BBC was preparing a film version of John Buchan’s great “shocker” Greenmantle, whose plot turns on supposed German efforts to stir Turkish Muslims to jihad during the First World War. All was going along swimmingly until July 7, when some real-life British Muslims detonated themselves on the London transport system. Reaction at the BBC? They canceled the show for fear of wounding the feelings of Muslims.
While we are waiting for that backlash, and humming “Let’s Not Be Beastly to the Muslims,” it is worth noting the word “Islamophobia” is a misnomer. A phobia describes an irrational fear, and it is axiomatic that fearing the effects of radical Islam is not irrational, but on the contrary very well-founded indeed, so that if you want to speak of a legitimate phobia—it’s a phobia I experience frequently—we should speak instead of Islamophobia-phobia, the fear of and revulsion towards Islamophobia.
Now that fear is very well founded, and it extends into the nooks and crannies of daily life. A couple of months ago, for example, I read in a London paper that “Workers in the benefits department at Dudley Council, West Midlands, were told to remove or cover up all pig-related items, including toys, porcelain figures, calendars and even a tissue box featuring Winnie the Pooh and Piglet” because the presence of images of our porcine friends offended Muslims. A councillor called Mahbubur Rahman told the paper that he backed the ban because it represented “tolerance of people’s beliefs.” In other words, Piglet really did meet a Heffalump, and it turns out he was wearing a kaffiyeh.
The observation—often, though apparently inaccurately, attributed to George Orwell—that the triumph of evil requires only that good men stand by and do nothing has special relevance at a time, like now, that is inflected by terrorism. I have several friends—thoughtful, well-intentioned people—who believe the United States should never have intervened in Afghanistan, who believe even more staunchly that the United States should never have intervened in Iraq, and, moreover, that we should get out forthwith. “We should,” they believe, “keep to ourselves. We have no business meddling with the rest of the world. We cannot be the world’s constabulary, nor should we aspire to be. It is not in our interest—for it breeds resentment—and it is not in the interest of those we profess to help, since they should be allowed to govern themselves—or not, as the case may be.”
Whatever the wisdom of the position in the abstract (and I have my doubts about it), the resurgence of international terrorism, fueled by hate and devoted to death, renders it otiose. Last summer’s bombings in London were, as these things go, relatively low in casualties. But they were high in indiscriminateness. The people on those buses and subway cars were as innocent as innocent can be: just folks, moms and dads and children on their way to work or school or play, as uninterested, most of them, in politics or Islam as it is possible to be. And yet those home-grown Islamicists were happy to blow them to bits.
Here is the novelty: Our new enemies are not political enemies in any traditional sense, belligerent in the service of certain interests of their own. Their belligerence is focused rather on the very existence of an alternative to their vision of beatitude, namely on Western democracy and its commitment to individual freedom and economic prosperity. I return to Hussein Massawi: “We are not fighting so that you will offer us something. We are fighting to eliminate you.”
In fact, the situation is even grimmer than Mr. Massawi suggests. For our new enemies are not simply bent on our destruction: they are pleased to compass their own destruction as a collateral benefit. This is one of those things that makes Islamofascism a particularly toxic form of totalitarianism. At least most Communists had some rudimentary attachment to the principle of self-preservation. In the face of such death-embracing fanaticism our only option is unremitting combat.
The large issue here is one that has bedeviled liberal societies ever since there were liberal societies: namely, that in attempting to create the maximally tolerant society, we also give scope to those who would prefer to create the maximally intolerant society.
In these pages last June, I wrote about the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski. Let me conclude by returning to what I said there. In an essay called “The Self-Poisoning of the Open Society,” Kolakowski dilates on this basic antinomy of liberalism. Liberalism implies openness to other points of view, even (it would seem) those points of view whose success would destroy liberalism. But tolerance to those points of view is a prescription for suicide. Intolerance betrays the fundamental premise of liberalism, i.e., openness. As Robert Frost once put it, a liberal is someone who refuses to take his own part in an argument.
Kolakowski is surely right that our liberal, pluralist democracy depends for its survival not only on the continued existence of its institutions, but also “on a belief in their value and a widespread will to defend them.” The question is: Do we, as a society, still enjoy that belief? Do we possess the requisite will? Or was François Revel right when he said that “Democratic civilization is the first in history to blame itself because another power is trying to destroy it”? The jury is still out on those questions. A good test is the extent to which we can resolve the antinomy of liberalism. And a good start on that problem is the extent to which we realize that the antinomy is, in the business of everyday life, illusory.
The “openness” that liberal society rightly cherishes is not a vacuous openness to all points of view: it is not “value neutral.” It need not, indeed it cannot, say Yes to all comers, to the Islamofascist who after all has his point of view, just as much as the soccer mom, who has hers. American democracy, for example, affords its citizens great latitude, but great latitude is not synonymous with the proposition that “anything goes.” Our society, like every society, is founded on particular positive values—the rule of law, for example, respect for the individual, religious freedom, the separation of church and state. Western democratic society, that is to say, is rooted in what Kolakowski calls a “vision of the world.” Part of that vision is a commitment to openness, but openness is not the same as indifference.
The problem is that large portions of Western society, especially those portions entrusted with perpetuating its political and cultural capital, have lost sight of that vision. In part, I believe, this is a religious problem—more to the point, it is a problem consequent upon the failure of religion. In his essay “Targeted Jihad” below, Douglas Murray summarizes this point well.
It may be no sin—may indeed be one of our society’s most appealing traits—that we love life. But the scales, as in so many things, have tipped to an extreme. From seeing so much for which we would live, people in our society now see fewer and fewer causes for which they would die. We have passed to a point where prolongation is all. We have become like the parents of Admetos in Euripides’ Alcestis—“walking cadavers,” unwilling to give up the few remaining days (in Europe’s case, of its peace dividend) even if only by doing so can any generational future be assured. Even the interventionist wars of the West only seem possible when we can ensure that our troops kill but do not die for the cause in hand. wrong.
In fact, I believe that Mr. Murray may overstate the extent to which we in the West “love life.” We love our pleasures, which isn’t quite the same thing. But his main point, about there being fewer and fewer things for which we would be willing to risk our lives, is exactly right. James Burnham made a similar point about facing down the juggernaut of Communism: “just possibly we shall not have to die in large numbers to stop them: but we shall certainly have to be willing to die.” The issue, Burnham saw, is that modern liberalism has equipped us with an ethic too abstract and empty to inspire real commitment. Modern liberalism, he writes,
does not offer ordinary men compelling motives for personal suffering, sacrifice, and death. There is no tragic dimension in its picture of the good life. Men become willing to endure, sacrifice, and die for God, for family, king, honor, country, from a sense of absolute duty or an exalted vision of the meaning of history… . And it is precisely these ideas and institutions that liberalism has criticized, attacked, and in part overthrown as superstitious, archaic, reactionary, and irrational. In their place liberalism proposes a set of pale and bloodless abstractions—pale and bloodless for the very reason that they have no roots in the past, in deep feeling and in suffering. Except for mercenaries, saints, and neurotics, no one is willing to sacrifice and die for progressive education, medicare, humanity in the abstract, the United Nations, and a ten percent rise in Social Security payments.
The Islamofascists have a fanatical belief that theirs is a holy mission, that incinerating infidels is their bounden duty. For them suicide is a gateway to paradise. For us suicide is just that: suicide. Although we began by calling this symposium “Threats to Democracy,” it became clear in the course of our proceedings that the threat was larger, more encompassing than that title suggests. As the succeeding essays make clear, what we are dealing with is the real culture war—a war, as Burnham said, “for survival.” In “It’s the demography, stupid,” Mark Steyn writes about the West’s survival in the most elemental sense: much of what could once upon a time have been called Christian Europe is simply failing to reproduce itself. “A society that has no children,” he notes, “has no future.” But the demographic timebomb, as Douglas Murray, Roger Scruton, and Keith Windshuttle note, is only part of the story. As Scruton puts it, a kind of “moral obesity” cripples much of Western culture, “to the point where ideals and long-term goals induce in them nothing more than a flummoxed breathlessness.”
The question is whether we believe anything with sufficient vigor to jettison the torpor of our barren self-satisfaction. There are signs that the answer is Yes, but you won’t see them on CNN or read about them in The New York Times. The people presiding over such institutions would rather die than acknowledge that someone like James Burnham (to say nothing of George W. Bush) was right. It just may come to that.
- “Threats to Democracy: Then and Now,” a symposium organized jointly by The New Criterion and London’s Social Affairs Unit, took place on October 21, 2005 at the Union League Club in New York City. Participants were Max Boot, Robert H. Bork, Michael W. Gleba, Anthony Glees, Roger Kimball, Herbert I. London, Kenneth Minogue, Michael Mosbacher, Douglas Murray, James Piereson, Daniel Pipes, Roger Scruton, Mark Steyn, and Keith Windschuttle. Discussion revolved largely around earlier versions of the essays printed in this special section. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 5, on page 4
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