Political Correctness and the Sunset of American Power

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad refers to the U.S., and by extension the West per se, as an ofuli (sunset) power. Nothing apparently new here. Ezra Pound’s 1920 poem “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” had famously written off Western civilization, and by implication the U.S. -- since the fate of the former is coterminous with that of the latter -- as “an old bitch gone in the teeth … a botched civilization … two gross of broken statues … a few thousand battered books.” Six years later Oswald Spengler published The Decline of the West, putting paid once and for all to the soaring adventure of Western civilization which, he proclaimed, has lost “its desire to be … and … wishes itself out of the overlong daylight and back in the darkness.” More recently, the grand old man of American letters Jacques Barzun, in his magisterial tome From Dawn to Decadence, knelled Western culture as “old and unraveling.” Ahmadinejad is in more venerable company than he could have imagined -- or deserved.

I’m reminded, too, of those striking lines from Shelley’s great poem “Adonais,” lamenting the death of John Keats but containing passages that are universally applicable:

… a Power

Girt round with weakness -- it can scarce uplift

The weight of the superincumbent hour;

Is a dying lamp, a falling shower,

A breaking billow; even whilst we speak

Is it not broken?

There’s nothing especially novel in the fact that great powers decline and civilizations wane, crushed under the weight of the “superincumbent hour.” The rise and fall of empires was the central theme of major historians like Polybius, Gibbon, Vico, and Toynbee. It is a leitmotif in the narratives of various civilizations. The Mayan “Long Count” calendar, for example, calculated a sequence of time cycles ending on December 21, 2012 -- a doomsday prospectus exploited by the blockbuster film 2012. The notorious Toledo Letter of 1184 announced the end of days in 1186 and, when the moment passed without devastating confirmation, continued to circulate suitably updated. St. Augustine’s biblical eschatology of the seven Aetates (states, ages) from creation to consummation, elaborated in Book XXII of City of God, was taken up by the 12th-century Franciscan monk Joachim of Fiora, who posited three historical ages or statuses, leading after a global upheaval to the “eighth day of eternity.” Joachim thought he lived in the 40th generation of the second status, two generations from the consummation. As Rob Kutner drolly suggests in Apocalypse How, the end of the world has been expected since its beginning. The premonition of millennial advents has always shaken the human psyche.

But something is now happening in the West that may truly spell the end, not of the world but of Western civilization’s long historical trajectory. A plague is spreading far and wide that may be described as an intellectual bubonic taking its dismal toll among those it has infected. It is called political correctness, a malign consummation par excellence. “Political correctness,” says Charles Krauthammer, “is not just an abomination. It is a danger, clear and present.” The fine National Post columnist Lorne Gunter begins a recent article: “Political correctness will be the death of Western civilization because unlike our earlier forms of pluralistic tolerance, PC is willfully blind to the lack of reciprocal tolerance in other cultures.” Political correctness, he concludes, “takes tolerance to a culturally suicidal degree.” We welcome and extenuate those whose most profound desire and intention is to destroy us.

The idea of Western self-immolation has enjoyed a long shelf life among contemporary intellectuals, from James Burnham’s 1964 Suicide of the West to Howard Rotberg’s just-released Tolerism. As Rotberg observes, “Cultural and moral relativism, moral equivalency, and political correctness have all contributed to a modern political culture whose elites and cultural symbols evidence, not only an undue tolerance of the illiberals, but a disturbing element of self-hatred, cultural masochism, and delusions about the difference between social tolerance and political tolerance -- and an elevation of tolerance over the principle of justice.” Author and democracy advocate Brigitte Gabriel has recently added her voice to the campaign against this infusorial scourge. “A pandemic of political correctness,” she charges, “has chained, blinded, and muted American leaders.” And as she rightly points out, alluding to the event that is being spun and re-spun by the media and entrenched officialdom as the one-off act of a deranged Army major rather than the premeditated deed of a radical jihadist, “the Fort Hood terrorist attack is a direct tragic consequence of political correctness.”