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Civilizational Suicide: the 12-step program

April 28th, 2008 - 5:19 am

Bruce Bawer has a good piece in the current City Journal reinforcing the alarm against the progress of soft jihad–jihad, as I’ve written, that eschews “scimitars and their contemporary equivalents, e.g., stolen Boeing 767s” and instead “uses and abuses the language and the principles of democratic liberalism not to secure the institutions and attitudes that make freedom possible but, on the contrary, to undermine that freedom and pave the way for self-righteous, theocratic intolerance.”

Bawer’s piece, starkly but accurately titled, “An Anatomy of Surrender,” shows how a combination fanaticism, on the part of jihadists, and spineless multiculturalism, on the part of Western elites, conspire to form a culture of capitulation. The phenomenon of libel tourism. The murder of Theo van Gogh, of Pim Fortuyn. The hysteria and mayhem that followed publication of some caricatures of Mohammed. The arrest of an English school teacher in the Sudan because her students named a teddy bear “Mohammad.”The trials of Oriana Fallaci and Brigitte Bardot for “slurring Islam.”
Where will it end? That is up to us. “We need,” Bawer writes in his peroration,

to recognize that the cultural jihadists hate our freedoms because those freedoms defy sharia, which they’re determined to impose on us. So far, they have been far less successful at rolling back freedom of speech and other liberties in the U.S. than in Europe, thanks in no small part to the First Amendment. Yet America is proving increasingly susceptible to their pressures.

The key question for Westerners is: Do we love our freedoms as much as they hate them? Many free people, alas, have become so accustomed to freedom, and to the comfortable position of not having to stand up for it, that they’re incapable of defending it when it’s imperiled—or even, in many cases, of recognizing that it is imperiled. As for Muslims living in the West, surveys suggest that many of them, though not actively involved in jihad, are prepared to look on passively—and some, approvingly—while their coreligionists drag the Western world into the House of Submission.

But we certainly can’t expect them to take a stand for liberty if we don’t stand up for it ourselves.

“Suicide,” as the political philosopher James Burnham observed in his book Suicide of the West, “is probably more frequent than murder as the end phase of a civilization.” And civilizational suicide, as Burnham knew, can take many forms and is always a more or less protracted affair. What Burnham warned about, and what we are still conjuring with, is the seductive toxin of unanchored liberalism. Burnham subtitled his book “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.”

It is time–far past time–that we get back to the task of building it back up. The first steps in that process are 1) jettisoning the rancid, self-hating pieties of multiculturalism and 2) recognizing and celebrating what is valuable in our own civilization. Like what? Bawer stresses freedom. It is often said, and rightly, that the West is the cradle of political freedom. When asked what we are fighting for in the war against terrorism, we say that we are fighting to preserve freedom. This is true, but it is not the whole story. As the philosopher Roger Scruton observed in his book The West and The Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, it is not enough to say we are fighting for “freedom” because civilization requires the restraints as well as the exercise of freedom. Hence the familiar paradox that freedom, if it is to flourish, requires definition, which means limitation and direction–unfreedom, if you will. This is not to deny the great, the inestimable value of freedom. It is simply to say that freedom cannot be rightly pursued in isolation from the ends that ennoble it. As Scruton puts it, “If all that Western civilization offers is freedom, then it is a civilization bent on its own destruction.”

It is part of the genius of the West–part of what distinguishes the West from the rest–that it has, almost from the beginning, tempered the binding claims of religion by acknowledging the legitimacy of secular institutions. This acknowledgment is not only a political decision, it is an existential dispensation, clearing a space for freedom and the claims of individual liberty. Islam, in principle and as a matter of historical fact, refuses to acknowledge any separate place for civil society or the exercise of individual liberty. It’s byword is not “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” but rather submission of everything to the will of Allah. “Like the Communist Party in its Leninist construction,” Scruton observes, “Islam aims to control the state without being a subject of the state.” If you want to know what that looks like in practice, contemplate the behavior of the Taliban, the Iranian Mullahs, or the followers of al Qaeda and its offshoots.

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