The Lessons of Culture, Benjamin Netanyahu Edition
Something similar can be said about democracy. Today, the word “democracy” and its cognates are often used as fancy synonyms for mediocrity. When we read about plans to “democratize” education or the arts or athletics, we know that is shorthand for plans to eviscerate those activities, for lowering standards, and pursuing them as instruments of racial or sexual redress or some other form of social engineering. Alexis de Tocqueville was right to warn about the dangers of generalizing the principle of equality that underlies democracy. Universalized, the principle of equality leads to egalitarianism, the ideology of equality.
The problem today is that the egalitarian imperative threatens to overwhelm that other great social impulse, the impulse to achieve, to excel, to surpass: “always to be best and to rise above others,” as Homer put it in one classic expression of the agonistic spirit. Radical egalitarianism — egalitarianism uncorrected by the aspirations of excellence —would have us pretend that there are no important distinctions among people; where the pretense is impossible, it would have us enact compensatory programs to minimize, or at least to paper over, the differences. The results are a vast increase in self-deception, cultural degradation, and bureaucratic meddlesomeness: the reign, in short, of political correctness. It is refreshing to turn to Pericles and remind ourselves that a passion for democracy need not entail the pursuit of mediocrity. Democracy is a high-maintenance form of government. Freedom requires disciplined restraint and circumspection if it is to flourish. Athenian democracy was animated by freedom, above all the freedom to excel, and it inspired in citizens both a healthy competitive spirit and “shame,” as Pericles said, at the prospect of “falling below a certain standard.”
In all this, Pericles noted, Athens was “an education to Greece,” a model for its neighbors. At the moment he spoke, at the beginning of a long and ultimately disastrous war, his words must have had special resonance. In celebrating what the Athenians had achieved, he was also reminding them of all they stood to lose. His funeral oration was therefore not only an elegy but also a plea for resoluteness and a call to arms. It is a call that resonates with special significance now that the United States and indeed all of what used to be called Christendom is under siege. Pericles was right: The open society depends upon the interdiction of forces calculated to destroy it. “We who remain behind,” he said, “may hope to be spared the fate [of the fallen], but must resolve to keep the same daring spirit against the foe.”
The view of society and the individual’s responsibility that Pericles put forward was rooted in tradition but oriented toward the future. He did not think much of the custom of public funeral orations, he said, but he felt bound to observe it: “This institution was set up and approved by our forefathers, and it is my duty to follow the tradition.” At the same time Pericles reminds us of the claims of the future by stressing the future’s main emissaries: the children of Athens. “It is impossible,” he suggests, “for a man to put forward fair and honest views about our affairs if he has not . . . children whose lives are at stake.”
The vision of society that Pericles articulated in the funeral oration has exercised a permanent fascination on the political imagination of the West. Although occasionally lost sight of, it has always returned to inspire apostles of freedom and tolerance. But it is imperative that we understand that the view of society that Pericles described is not inevitable. It represents a choice — a choice, moreover, that must constantly be renewed. It is one version of the good life for man. There are other, competing versions that we would find distinctly less attractive. In the West, Pericles’ vision, modified by time and circumstance, has proven to be a peculiarly powerful one. It was absorbed by Christendom in the eighteenth century and helped to inform the democratic principles that undergird British and American democracy.
But we would be untrue to Pericles’ counsel of vigilance were we to think that some of the alternatives to this vision were incapable of inspiring strong allegiance. This was true when Pericles spoke. His entire speech presupposes the contrast between the Athenian way of life and another that was inimical to it. It continues to be true. The spectacle of radical Islamists dancing joyfully in the street whenever news of a terrorist atrocity breaks reminds us of that fact.
Indeed, the status of Pericles’ vision of society as one alternative among others was dramatically sharpened by the events of September 11. For that attack was not simply an attack on symbols of American capitalism or American military might. Nor was it just a terrorist attack on American citizens. It was all those things and more. It was an attack on the idea of America as a liberal democratic society, which means that it was an attack on an idea of society that had one of its primary sources in the ideals enunciated by Pericles. Shortly after the attacks, Benjamin Netanyahu made the observation that 9/11 was a salvo in “a war to reverse the triumph of the West.” Netanyahu’s words should be constantly borne in mind lest the emollient tide of rationalization blunt the angry reality of those attacks.
Many illusions were challenged on September 11. One illusion concerns the fantasies of academic multiculturalists, so-called. I say “so-called” because what goes under the name of multiculturalism in our colleges and universities today is really a polysyllabic form of mono-culturalism fueled by ideological hatred. Genuine multiculturalism involves a great deal of work, beginning, say, with the arduous task of learning other languages, something most of those who call themselves multiculturalists are conspicuously loath to do.
Think of the fatuous attack on “dead white European males” that stands at the center of the academic multiculturalist enterprise. For a specimen of that maligned species, one could hardly do better than Pericles. Not only is he a dead white European male, but he is one who embodied in his life and aspirations an ideal of humanity completely at odds with academic multiculturalism. He was patriarchal, militarist, elitist, and Eurocentric. He exhibited a manly confidence in the values of his culture that was as inspiring as it was indispensable.
Did Pericles survive September 11? Even now, a decade later, it is too soon to say which way the rhetorical chips will ultimately fall. The elimination of Osama bin Laden by a team of Navy SEALs marked the end of a chapter, but it was quickly absorbed into a larger metabolism of doubt. There are few signs that America remains prepared to follow through on its promise to eradicate terrorism and hold responsible those states that sponsor, finance, or abet it. There are even fewer signs that America, or the West generally, is prepared to stand up for its own cultural and political legacy in the face of the existential threats that besiege it: Islamism and its encroaching effort to establish Sharia law the world over as well as that potpourri of enervating imperatives that congregate under the banner of transnational progressivism.