In Defense of Western Civ

by Jonah Goldberg
What makes the West unique is not that we had slavery, but that we put an end to it because it was not compatible with our values.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (and all men of the West),

So just to get it out of the way: Who has two thumbs and loves Western Civilization? This guy (I am pointing my thumbs me-ward, which makes typing hard).

Just to be clear, I don’t mean “so-called Western Civilization” but you know, Western Civilization.

I mean the thing both liberals and conservatives alike have celebrated for hundreds of years since words like “liberal” and “conservative” had any relevance to politics.

Of course, this is not to say everyone agreed on what Western Civilization is, was, or should be.

But when I read this from my old friend Peter Beinart, I have to scratch my head.

In his speech in Poland on Thursday, Donald Trump referred 10 times to “the West” and five times to “our civilization.” His white nationalist supporters will understand exactly what he means. It’s important that other Americans do, too. . . . 

The West is a racial and religious term. To be considered Western, a country must be largely Christian (preferably Protestant or Catholic) and largely white.

Now, this is a more defensible statement than some of my friends on the right seem to think. I say “defensible” because it’s largely true, but only a partial and mincing truth. Peter is right to note that the West has largely been defined by Christianity, but who can deny that? Though let’s not forget that Christianity itself was born in what used to be called the Orient (ditto Judaism).

This fact is a nice way of noting that even in the earliest days when Western Civilization was not particularly civilized, it was borrowing from other cultures. That’s a huge part of what makes Western Civilization so special. Sure, it’s got its history of bigotries, atrocities, and other sins — quick, tell me which civilization or society doesn’t? — but a central part of the West’s modus operandi has been to sift through what is best in other cultures and our own and appropriate it or modify it. The West, historically, has been more interested in other cultures and civilizations than any other. Celebrating our long history of open-minded curiosity and tolerance is not closed-minded bigotry, no matter how hard you try.

What makes Peter’s statement indefensible is the context. Peter pretty clearly wants to suggest that, because the West, historically, has described a mostly white, mostly Protestant or Catholic civilization, defending it must be an example of bigotry. Must it? Were Will and Ariel Durant spelunkers in the history of white privilege and nativism? Was Isaiah Berlin a trafficker in little more than prettified white-supremacist dogma?

The West also means something more than merely the culture of white Christians, and if someone other than Donald Trump had given that speech, I think Peter would have an easier time acknowledging it. After all, he is a great fan of Reinhold Niebuhr, who said, “We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization.” I doubt Peter would dare to call this a white-nationalist dog whistle.

Inclusion for All Cultures but Our Own

We’ve reached a pathetic and dangerous point in our culture where anyone who celebrates our traditional culture, our country, and, now, our civilization must be doing so for base and evil reasons (see Rod Dreher for more on this). Today, all other cultures must be celebrated while every ill is blamed on us. This is, to borrow a phrase from social science, garbage thinking. Slavery is a human universal, appearing in every culture around the world. What makes the West unique is not that we had slavery, but that we put an end to it because it was not compatible with our values. The same goes for nearly every charge in the indictment against the West, from racism and misogyny to imperialism and war.

As I’ve written before, the reason Gandhi practiced non-violence against the British Empire is not quite because he abhorred bloodshed, but because he knew pacifism would work against the British. Hitler, who saw himself as a rebel against Western values as evolved from the slave religion of Christianity, never got many lectures about non-violence from his friend Gandhi.

We fall short of our ideals, but everyone always does (that’s why they’re called “ideals”). But in head-to-head match-ups, we do better than the rest of the pack.

West Bashing Is Western

What’s ironic is that Peter’s desk-pounding outrage about Trump’s talk of the West is oh-so Western. The West’s tolerance for anti-Western philosophies is a fairly unique feature of the West itself. We love to beat ourselves up.

Before the Enlightenment, the job of saying the West is corrupt and evil largely fell to gnostic heretics and the like — because everything was seen through the prism of religion. Since the Enlightenment, that passion has migrated to more secular humanist creeds. There’s always been a Rousseauian streak in the West that says, “it’s all crap, burn it down.”

The West’s tolerance for anti-Western philosophies is a fairly unique feature of the West itself. We love to beat ourselves up.

But, again, until pretty recently, that tendency wasn’t against “the West” so much as it was against the Enlightenment or democracy or capitalism. Western radicals argued that the West had taken a wrong turn, not that the East was better. There was still this idea that the West was where the action was. Rousseau’s favorite society, after the Geneva of his youth, was ancient Sparta, which is still, you know, part of the West. (Me, I’ll take Athens any day.) But even so, this was an argument within the West about what path the West should follow or where its true roots lay. Some of the Romantics admired Mohammed, but only because he was a man of Will and a useful stand-in for their assaults on the Catholic Church, not because they actually believed in Islam or anything. The Jacobins wanted to start over at Year Zero, but they had no problem believing that history was starting over in the West, in Paris to be exact. Karl Marx, as Western a figure as you can find, believed that the first pages in the next chapter of human history would first turn in England.

The Anti-Western Cul-de-sac

What sincerely shocks me about Peter’s outburst is that he has to know what an incredibly bad idea it is for the liberal-Left to go down this road. The list of reasons why the new hatred of Western Civilization is such a bad idea for liberals is too long to recount here but I’ll offer two fairly practical ones. The whole reason liberalism is in trouble today is that it has lost the ability to speak confidently in patriotic and loving terms about America, unless it is in the context of selling some government program or pressing some nakedly political advantage (I’m thinking mostly about immigration maximalism and identity politics). Cutting Medicaid may be wrong, but it’s not unpatriotic. Peter himself recently argued that Democrats need to refocus on the importance of assimilation if they want to be trusted on the issue of immigration. Well, assimilation to what? If American culture is worth assimilating into, so is Western Culture, because the two cannot be separated.

Right now, there’s a hilarious effort afoot to defend the anti-Semitic Saudi sock-puppet Linda Sarsour. She recently called for jihad against Donald Trump and insisted that American Muslims must never, ever assimilate into American culture. So, we have the glorious beclowning spectacle of liberals falling over themselves to defend the subtle nuances of the word “jihad” while at the same telling us that Western Civilization is a dog’s breakfast of backwardness and bigotry. Good luck with that.

Don’t you people realize that you’re like Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman? You’ve got nowhere else to go.

Second, don’t you people realize that you’re like Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman? You’ve got nowhere else to go. Peter is right that there are non-Western democracies out there. Sure, Japan has Japanese characteristics and India has Indian characteristics. But what makes them democracies is their embrace of Western values. And there is no place in the world physically or conceptually outside the West where these liberals would actually want to live. Insisting that Western Civilization is a corrupt and irredeemable concept is the intellectual and political equivalent of sh*tting where you eat. It leaves you no language that resonates with anyone outside an American Studies department at Fresno State.

On the Other Hand

But I will tell you what I did not like about Trump’s speech (though I should say on the whole I liked it and agreed with most of it). In Trump’s telling, the threat to Western Civilization must be met with his favorite qualities: Strength! Will! Etc.!

The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?

Or, here’s his pithier summary:

As a matter of the text, I agree with this. But for Trump, Western Civilization is a kind of nationalism, not a worldview or philosophy. I think Peter is wrong to claim the text is indefensible, but he has a point about the man reading it. Does anyone really believe that Trump is, in his heart, a champion of tolerance, open-mindedness, democratic norms, family values, Judeo-Christian precepts, and natural rights? Or does he like this kind of talk because it’s a politically savvy way to transcend America First nationalism in favor Western pan-nationalism?

The key to keeping Western Civilization alive isn’t fending off the barbarians at our gates, though that’s important. They key is keeping it alive in our hearts. Civilizations die by suicide. As Lincoln put it:

From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia . . . could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we will live forever or die by suicide.

Fending off suicide isn’t a matter of martial will, but of simple gratitude. The Left has convinced itself that there is nothing to be grateful for about Western Civilization. That’s idiotic. And they need to be persuaded otherwise, not pummeled into thinking Western Civilization is just a dog whistle for MAGA.

Love, Love, Love

I give Rich Lowry a lot of crap. Back in the old days, I could have said that literally. I used to stop by the New York office of National Review, carrying a 40-pound bag of cow manure, so freshly packed that its pungency would assault the nostrils and sting the eye. I’d let it slide off my shoulder onto the boss’s desk with a thud like Elvis off a toilet. I’d pin a photocopy of my paycheck to the sack, which, scribbled underneath, said: “There’s more bullsh*t here than here.”

But as I matured, and my compensation became less of an affront to the conscience and settled into merely a daily weight on my self-esteem, the crap I gave him grew more figurative. I’d still present him with a copy of my paycheck, but I’d attach it to, say, the latest Tom Friedman column.

I’d write the same note, of course.

Anyway, I bring this up because for all the crap I give Rich, he should be congratulated for his good-natured willingness to take it, and even encourage it. One of the great things about NR is that it overflows with very opinionated people who often disagree with each other. We’re allowed to say so.

With that out of the way, here’s the context. Earlier this week I unloaded on Rich and the cast of The Editors podcast (“Maybe one day you’ll rate high enough at NR to get invited on?” — The Couch). They recorded a fantastic Fourth of July episode. Everything was really great and interesting until the 50-minute mark, when I thought it kind of went off the rails. Rich, who is on a mission to restore the good name of nationalism, asked whether the podcasters would still love America if it had different ideals. And they all said yes.

And I kind of lost it. I called them all out like I was Omar calling out Marlo in The Wire.

If this stuff doesn’t interest you, don’t read any farther. If it does interest you, I’m going to assume you’re up to speed on the debate so far.

And, I’m going to apologize to everyone but Rich.

As Rich notes, the “Would you still love America?” question was supposed to garner a one-word response from the other podcasters. So, it’s a bit unfair for me to hold such a poorly conceived question against those forced to answer it. I particularly owe an apology to Charlie, with whom I seem to be in violent agreement.

I will say a couple things in my defense. It’s now clear a lot of people heard the podcast the same way I did, so it may not be, as Charlie claims, that I mischaracterized his views so much as he failed to make himself sufficiently clear. Second, the reason I called them out really has less to do with what they said than what they didn’t say.

The reason I called them out really has less to do with what they said than what they didn’t say.

Their silence as Rich dropped his little pro-nationalism propaganda bombs vexed me. Rich said that there are no bad people, only bad governments. Every country has norms, ideals, etc., and we’re no different. I guess I just expected more pushback. That was unfair to them because I was essentially putting words in their mouths (also, who knows what threatening gestures Rich made silently during the recording). My shot at Michael was also unfair. I think he makes a very good point about what he calls America’s Whiggish tendencies (I’m not sure I agree with the label, but I think he’s right about the phenomenon).

As for Rich, his response in the Corner is fine by me, I suppose. But it leaves out the context of his larger project to elevate nationalism into an important organizing principle. I’m already running crazy long here and I don’t want to just repeat what I said before in my first salvo against this project. I’ve written countless times that nationalism is good in small doses and poisonous in large doses, save during times of war when it is channeled outward for legitimate reasons. But I cannot help but read — and hear — Rich as arguing for discarding or demoting American patriotism as the most useful vehicle for a political agenda in favor of American nationalism. In his rejoinder, he writes that he raised the point that all countries have ideals “in the context of a discussion of whether America is a nation or an idea.”

My point was that [if] America is an idea, so are other countries, and (implicitly) that this is an absurd way to think about nations. As it happens, Jonah concedes we are a nation and not an idea, but not all conservatives are as common-sensical on what should be an easy question.

This is wrong. We agree that the “idea vs. nation” thing is an absurd formulation because it makes the question either/or when it’s obviously both/and. Every country has ideals and every country is . . . a country. So, yes, this is a silly way to frame the argument.

But it is not absurd to say that America is an idea. The Founders certainly thought it was. So did Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. They appealed to the idea encased in the Declaration, not to the nation. Appeals to nationalism can be appeals to ideas, but they usually are not. They are simply another form of populism, which says we’re right because we’re us. Appeals to ideas, particularly those that marry themselves to what is best about a nation, help a nation act in accordance with its best self.

I was going to say that Rich puts the cart before the horse on the issue of patriotism vs. nationalism. But that’s not quite right. Nationalism does come first, for it is the horse pulling the cart of patriotism. But you know what, anyone can get some beast of burden to pull a cart. What’s precious is what lays in the cart, and those are our American ideals.

At the end of the podcast, Rich touted Calvin Coolidge’s “Speech on the 150th Anniversary of the Fourth of July.” And rightly so. On the topic of the Declaration, it is second only to the “Gettysburg Address” in the annals of glorious American rhetoric. In the paragraph preceding the one Rich cites, Coolidge says:

In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man — these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We cannot continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause.

We are too prone to overlook another conclusion. Governments do not make ideals, but ideals make governments [emphasis added].

On this, and so much else, I’m with Coolidge.

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: So, the missus came home on the Fourth and the beasts were quite happy to see her (as was I). Things had gotten a little weird with me and the doggos. Since I was mostly working from home, and because they missed the Fair Jessica so much, their pack mentality went into overdrive. They followed me everywhere. Zoë became obsessed with sitting next to me whenever possible and keeping the good cat from getting anywhere near me.

Things are a bit more normal now, particularly since Kirsten, our daytime dogwalker, can take them out with their real pack of buddies. Kirsten reports two highlights. On Wednesday, Zoë and her buddy Barley were in a stream roughhousing when they encountered a duck. Naturally, they chased it, for about an eighth of a mile. When they came back, Kirsten & Co. heard little chirps. It turned out the duck had been a mommy duck. But before Zoë could become a children’s-book monster (it’s not clear that she would have), the mamma came back and became a whirling dervish of duckness, completely freaking out the dogs long enough for Kirsten to put them on leashes.

The squirrel was less lucky than the duck.

Then, yesterday, Barley and Zoë were once again playing king of the mountain, when Zoë spotted a squirrel on a tree. The squirrel was less lucky than the duck. When I tweeted this out yesterday, a whole bunch of people got mad at me for being a party to the slaughter of a squirrel. I’d generally prefer it if the Dingo didn’t kill critters, but I am at a loss as to how people can begrudge a dingo for being dingo-y or how some want to claim that squirrels are like miniature tree pandas. Anyway, the funny thing to me is that just the night before, Zoë once again tried to embrace the Spaniel’s pacifism and learn how to appreciate tennis balls. She sort of reminded me of the sharks from Finding Nemo (Fish are friends, not food!). She played with the ball for a while, but she clearly wanted it to act more like prey. She’d bite it, then wait for it to squeal or “run” away. Then she’d pounce on it. The experiment didn’t last long. I think for the time being, the lesson is: Squirrels, watch out.

I’ll be on Special Report tonight.

ICYMI . . . 

Last week’s G-File

Trump and the media have a codependent relationship.

Jon Meachem is wrong about Woodrow Wilson.

When would you stop loving America?

How political ignorance affects our political debates.

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Behold: a scorpion-venom-milking robot

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What happens if you get bitten by a radioactive spider?

POV footage of a flying eagle

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The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg