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When a Civilization Goes Mad

It begins with self-doubt; it ends with self-destruction.

by
David Solway

Bio

August 16, 2011 - 12:00 am

Historian Arnold Toynbee, who developed the theory of challenge-and-response to account for the survivability of civilizations, has said that great civilizations are not murdered, they commit suicide — by not meeting their challenges. A variation of this historical insight may be phrased thus: When a civilization or an empire feels inwardly that it is dying, or as Oswald Spengler put it in The Decline of the West, that it wants to die and “wishes itself into the darkness,” it begins to go mad. Collective madness is a sure portent that an end is approaching, that an axial transformation is about to occur, that an entire worldview or cultural habitus is on the verge of disintegration. It signals that a people has surrendered to a mortal destiny, repudiated its sustaining tradition and condign principles, and indeed has gone so far as to regard the enemy at the gates as a form of salvation. “They were, those people, a kind of solution,” say Constantine Cavafy’s effete Romans in his celebrated poem, “Waiting for the Barbarians.”

“Western politics,” Raymond Ibrahim has said, discussing the befuddled American and European outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood with its clever, phased project for infiltrating Western society, “have descended into idealism and fantasy.” The same can be said about the state of the Western media. The media are like the neural pathways establishing connections between the various parts of the “world brain.” When they begin to transmit false representations and misleading messages, the response to world events is at best incongruous and at worst drastically contorted. Both public sentiment and public policy lurch about in a kind of no-man’s land, unable to make contact with things as they are. Obviously, there will always be a certain amount of “misfiring” in the circuitry, but when the entire system is warped and deformed, it becomes next to impossible to properly “read” the empirical world and react in appropriate ways. This creates a disjunction between mind and reality, which is one definition of madness.

The gradual but unrelenting insinuation of socialist and neo-Marxist doctrine into the liberal West, after it has been reliably shown to falter or collapse wherever it has been implemented, is still another index of severe mental disconnect and maladjustment to reality. Command economies are proven to be inefficient, and the welfare state, predicated on the punitive taxation of a shrinking and increasingly insolvent productive base to subsidize ever-inflating entitlement programs, has been properly described as a gigantic Ponzi scheme. Redistributionist and womb-to-tomb security states, as Margaret Thatcher famously said, will eventually run out of other people’s money. Nevertheless, this ideological will-o’-the-wisp continues to be diligently pursued.

Or consider the phenomenon of multiculturalism, as interpreted and practiced in the West, which has led the countries that have adopted it into a state of social and political bedlam. Based, as Salim Mansur argues in his new book Delectable Lie, “on the false idea — another official lie, really — that all cultures are equal,” it is progressively destroying “the West’s liberal democratic heritage…by extending recognition to groups defined through collective identity” and by elevating ethnicity over nationality. As a consequence, under the glazed and permissive view of the political class, the social fabric has critically unraveled, no-go enclaves have sprung up in many cities, the specter of homegrown terrorism haunts the public square, the structure of Western law and normative conduct has come under threat, and growing tension is the order of the day. Multiculturalism has seen the heritage culture adapting to the demands, institutions, and usages of immigrant societies rather than the other way round.

Indeed, the European Union has promulgated laws which militate against the criticism of Islam on the grounds of hate speech. Politicians, journalists, and ordinary citizens, like Geert Wilders, Lars Hedegaard, and Elisabeth Sabbaditch-Wolff, respectively, have found themselves prosecuted in court for warning their fellow citizens against the infiltration of radical Islam into the body politic. The same travesty is being repeated in Canada, whose misnamed Human Rights Commissions, which are essentially kangaroo courts that are not required to follow the rules of evidence, have tried such forthright and respectable journalists as Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn for offending Muslim sensibilities. If this is not madness, I don’t know what is.

Perhaps the most conspicuous current example of collective delirium was the election of Barack Hussein Obama to the presidency of the United States. A man with no record of significant prior achievement, who sat for twenty years in the pews of a dubious church under the ministry of an anti-American and anti-Jewish, hate-spewing pastor, who has associated with various compromised individuals such as former PLO spokesman Rashid Khalidi, antisemite and black supremacist Louis Farrakhan, unrepentant former terrorist Bill Ayers, pro-Islamist plutocrat Khalid al-Mansour, and corrupt businessman Tony Rezko, whose political sentiments lie far to the Left, whose dossier remains in large measure under seal and whose verifiable biography is to a disturbing degree a matter of conjecture — all this and much more should have alerted the electorate to his gross unsuitability for office, prompted the legacy media to investigate, and disqualified him immediately from running for the Democratic nomination.

But the emotional frenzy surrounding his candidacy ensured that sanity would not prevail in outing a man whom Robert Kimball has called “a typical hothouse product of our self-satisfied liberal elite.” Kimball continues, with much justification, that “tens or hundreds of thousands of people will suffer because of our naïveté and Barack Obama’s malevolent stupidity.” The sequel has made it amply clear to all but the partisan, the myopic, and the myriad barnacles clinging to the ship of state and dependent on the largesse of the Democratic Party that America has been gravely weakened both domestically and abroad, and that it might not recover. And yet it is entirely conceivable that Obama may be re-elected to the most powerful office in the world. We recall it was not only a besotted American electorate that hoisted him on its collective shoulders; all Europe also went berserk over the man. Even the Israelis treated him like royalty when he gave his lying Sderot speech. If this is not madness, I don’t know what is.

These are only a few examples, which could be multiplied indefinitely, of a civilization losing control of its future. The riots we are currently witnessing in the UK, ignited to a great extent by an entitlement culture that cannot meet the expectations it has created, is only a modest symptom of what is coming down the pike. The overall spectacle we are observing today — the dramatic erosion of a sense of civic responsibility, the nihilistic relativizing of moral principle, the insidious effects of political correctness, the reluctance to  deal adequately with terrorism, the mounting hostility toward Jews and Israel, the return of autocratic rule in Europe with the appointment of authoritarian bureaucrats answerable to no one to the European Parliament, the cosseting of Islam, the election of incompetents, as in the U.S., as well as in Britain, Sweden, France, Spain, Australia, and many other places — the list goes on and on — are infallible harbingers of cultural and civilizational decay. Good things come to an end, just like everything else. It seems highly probable that the United States in particular and Western civilization in general have begun to circle the drain. The symptoms of an imperium in its dotage are unmistakable.

The greatest civilization the world has ever known has lost confidence in itself, infected by a plague of self-doubt and self-recrimination. Having lost its bearings, it is no longer willing or able to think clearly, to make difficult choices, to defend its patrimony and resist demographic subversion, to accept the need for sacrifice, to value the radiant catalogue of its triumphs and achievements in art, science, technology, medicine, and statecraft, and, with its declining birthrate, even to reproduce itself. This is total madness. Further, the leftist “illiberal trajectory” it has embarked upon, as Caroline Glick writes, has led to the “bid to criminalize ideological opponents and justify acts of terrorism,” a radical political shift that “will destroy the liberal democratic foundations of Western civilization.”

Is a return to psychic health at all possible? Do civilizations convalesce? Can those who follow the maxim of the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations — “the object of life is…to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane” — influence events for the better or at least defer the inevitable? Is the writing on the wall erasable graffiti or is it, shall we say, Biblically indelible?

Any way we look at it, the prognosis is not encouraging. As Martin Heidegger deposed in a 1966 Der Spiegel interview, the only one of the philosopher’s utterances that keeps on echoing, “Only a god can save us now.”

David Solway is a Canadian poet and essayist. He is the author of The Big Lie: On Terror, Antisemitism, and Identity, and is currently working on a sequel, Living in the Valley of Shmoon. His new book on Jewish and Israeli themes, Hear, O Israel!, was released by Mantua Books. His latest book is The Boxthorn Tree, published in December 2012.
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