The overriding, terrible theme of the 21st century is the suicide of cultures. Small civilizations die for any number of reasons; great civilizations die because they want to. My book on the subject was reasonably well received in the U.S. but made no real impact on the public debate, although it seems to have had some influence in Hebrew translation.
The suicide of cultures is incomprehensible to liberalism, which places the human condition in a Petrie dish for the edification of social scientists. It is also incomprehensible to the main currents in American conservativism, that is, the Straussian and Catholic versions of natural right and natural law. We flounder in the face of suicidal cultures because we lack the intellectual tools to confront them. Men do not always seek the good, as Aristotle opines in at the outset of the Nicomachean Ethics: often they seek nothingness. When in history have so many volunteered to commit suicide to murder civilians, as the jihadists now do? When in history has a combatant tried to maximize the number of casualties among its own civilians, as does Hamas? The liberal mind reels with horror at the phenomenon of mass suicide.
We learn how to grapple with cultural suicide from Ecclesiastes, from Augustine’s reflections on Ecclesiastes, and from Goethe’s reflections on Ecclesiastes in Faust, which take us to Kierkegaard, Rosenzweig and Heidegger. The latter’s embrace of “Non-Being,” as Michael Wyschogrod observed in his masterwork The Body of Faith, is consistent with his support for Hitler. Our highbrow culture averts its gaze from the philosophical inquiry into Non-Being; our popular culture cannot take its eyes off the personification of self-destruction in the form of zombies and vampires. Our popular culture is infested by existential horrors which our intellectual culture refuses to acknowledge.
The Muslim Brotherhood (and its Palestine chapter, Hamas) and ISIS are the Arabic-language branches of the NSDAP, and they employ the same theater of horror to demoralize their enemies. Mere rationalism quails before such horrors. We require a phenomenology of the irrational to address it.
We simply do not understand the world in which we live. That is why we mistook the terminal decline of Muslim civilization for an opportunity to extend Western democracy to the Middle East. That is why we mistook Russia’s desperate efforts to revive its old nationalism as an antidote to cultural despair for a replay of Munich in 1938. These have had baleful consequences: we destroyed an ugly but efficient system of governance in the Middle East and left chaos in its place in Libya, Syria and Iraq. We undid one of the premises of Cold War victory, namely keeping Russia and China apart, and stood godfather to a new Sino-Russian alliance. And we did this systematically and deliberately, because we think the wrong way.
In doing so we demoralized a generation, much as the failures of Vietnam motivated the counter-culture of the 1960s. The inability of evangelical Christians to retain a majority of their young people has a good deal to do, I suspect, with disillusionment over America’s frustration in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have lost the confidence of the American public in foreign interventions through overreaching. Our blunders helped elect Barack Obama, the gravedigger of America’s influence in the world.
Alas: there is no-one left to teach the intellectual tools required to repair the damage. I could sketch a full curriculum in philosophy, history and politics (as I have for literature); if a billionaire wrote a blank check, he couldn’t find the faculty for it. Prof. Wyschogrod was among the last (he is now frail and retired). Perhaps there still are a few survivors hiding in remote crevices of academia.
We will make more mistakes. If there is a consolation, it’s that God looks out for drunks, small children, and the United States of America. America never looked worse than it did in 1859, and never looked better than it did in 1865. Abraham Lincoln, as Mark Noll observes in “America’s God,” had no institutional precedent or formal connection to the theology of his time, yet he was his era’s great theological mind. That is as close to a miracle as we are likely to get in politics. I believe in miracles, and I am praying.