We have to remember that our defense is not just a commitment of money, it is a commitment of will. Because as the Polish experience reminds us, the defense of the West ultimately rests not only on means but also on the will of its people to prevail and be successful and get what you have to have. The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?
We can have the largest economies and the most lethal weapons anywhere on Earth, but if we do not have strong families and strong values, then we will be weak and we will not survive.
I agree with this, of course. But look, it seems to me that as a collective entity, we don’t have enough confidence in the values that produce strong families and strong communities to live them out today, much less defend them from outside attack.
The president’s remarks in Poland today sent me back to a November 21, 2016 interview I did with the Polish Catholic philosopher and conservative statesman Ryszard Legutko, in which I asked him various questions about the meaning of Trump’s victory. Here is a relevant excerpt for today:
DREHER: Trump is a politician of the nationalist Right, but he is not a conservative in any philosophical or cultural sense. Had the vote gone only a bit differently in some states, today we would be talking about the political demise of American conservatism. Instead, the Republican Party is going to be stronger in government than it has been in a very long time — but the party has been shaken to its core by Trump’s destruction of its establishment. Is it credible to say that Trump destroyed conservatism — or is it more accurate to say that the Republican Party, through its own follies, destroyed conservatism as we have known it, and opened the door for the nationalist Trump?
LEGUTKO: Conservatism has always been problematic in America, where the word itself has acquired more meanings, some of them quite bizarre, than in Europe. A quite common habit, to give an example, of mentioning libertarianism and conservatism in one breath, thereby suggesting that they are somehow essentially related, is proof enough that a conservative agenda is difficult for the Americans to swallow. If I am not mistaken, the Republican Party has long relinquished, with very few exceptions, any closer link with conservatism. If conservatism, whatever the precise definition, has something to do with a continuity of culture, Christian and Classical roots of this culture, classical metaphysics and anthropology, beauty and virtue, a sense of decorum, liberal education, family, republican paideia, and other related notions, these are not the elements that constitute an integral part of an ideal type of an Republican identity in today’s America. Whether it has been different before, I am not competent to judge, but certainly there was a time when the intellectual institutions somehow linked to the Republican Party debated these issues. The new generations of the neocons gave up on big ideas while the theocons, old or new, never managed to have a noticeable impact on the Republican mainstream.
Given that there is this essential philosophical weakness within the modern Republican identity, Donald Trump does not look like an obvious person to change it by inspiring a resurgence of conservative thinking. I do not exclude however, unlikely as it seems today, that the new administration will need – solely for instrumental reasons – some big ideas to mobilize its electorate and to give them a sense of direction, and that a possible candidate to perform this function will be some kind of conservatism. Liberalism, libertarianism and saying ‘no’ to everything will certainly not serve the purpose. Nationalism looks good and played its role during two or three months of the campaign, but might be insufficient for the four (eight?) years that will follow.
Though the Republicans will soon have their hands firmly on the levers of political power, cultural institutions — especially academia and the news and entertainment media — are still thoroughly progressive. In The Demon in Democracy, you write that “it is hard to imagine freedom without classical philosophy and the heritage of antiquity, without Christianity and scholasticism [and] many other components of the entire Western civilization.” How can we hope to return to the roots of Western civilization when the culture-forming institutions are so hostile to it?
It is true that we live at a time of practically one orthodoxy which the majority of intellectuals and artists piously accept, and this orthodoxy — being some kind of liberal progressivism — has less and less connection with the foundations of Western civilization. This is perhaps more visible in Europe than in the US. In Europe, the very term “Europe” has been consistently applied to the European Union. Today the phrase “more Europe” does not mean “more classical education, more Latin and Greek, more knowledge about classical philosophy and scholasticism”, but it means giving more power to the European Commission. No wonder an increasing number of people when they hear about Europe associate it with the EU, and not with Plato, Thomas Aquinas or Johann Sebastian Bach.
It seems thus obvious that those who want to strengthen or, as is more often the case, reintroduce classical culture in the modern world will not find allies among the liberal elites. For a liberal it is natural to distance himself from the classical philosophy, from Christianity and scholasticism rather than to advocate their indispensability for the cultivation of the Western mind. After all, these philosophies – they would say — were created in a pre-modern non-democratic and non-liberal world by men who despised women, kept slaves and took seriously religious superstitions. But it is not only the liberal prejudices that are in the way. A break-up with the classical tradition is not a recent phenomenon, and we have been for too long exposed to the world from which this tradition was absent.
There is little chance that a change may be implemented through a democratic process. Considering that in every Western country education has been, for quite a long time, in a deep crisis and that no government has succeeded in overcoming this crisis, a mere idea of bringing back classical education into schools in which young people can hardly read and write in their own native language sounds somewhat surrealist. A rule that bad education drives out good education seems to prevail in democratic societies. And yet I cannot accept the conclusion that we are doomed to live in societies in which neo-barbarism is becoming a norm.
How can we reverse this process then? In countries where education is primarily the responsibility of the state, it is the governments that may — hypothetically at least — have some role to play by using the economic and political instruments to stimulate the desired changes in education. In the US – I suspect — the government’s role is substantially more reduced. So far however the European governments, including the conservative ones, have not made much progress in reversing the destructive trend.
The problem is a more fundamental one because it touches upon the controversy about what constitutes the Western civilization. The liberal progressives have managed to impose on our minds a notion that Christianity, classical metaphysics, etc., are no longer what defines our Western identity. A lot of conservatives – intellectuals and politicians – have readily acquiesced to this notion. Unless and until this changes and our position of what constitutes the West becomes an integral part of the conservative agenda and a subject of public debate, there is not much hope things can change. The election of Donald Trump has obviously as little to do with Scholasticism or Greek philosophy as it has with quantum mechanics, but nevertheless it may provide an occasion to reopen an old question about what makes the American identity and to reject a silly but popular answer that this identity is procedural rather than substantive. And this might be a first step to talk about the importance of the roots of the Western civilization.
So, when President Trump talks about Western “values,” what does he mean? And when he speaks of protecting “our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it,” what does he believe constitutes Western civilization? Who are those who are subverting and destroying it? Islamic terrorists, yes, but anybody else on that list? I wouldn’t put them in the Top Ten for the US, to be honest, though Islamic migration and the Islamic presence in Western Europe is a much more dangerous thing.
What constitutes the West, anyway? What are we supposed to want to defend? This is a serious question, one raised implicitly by Trump’s remarks today, though I am sure he wouldn’t have much of a clue how to answer it. That doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook, though. You can say, “Ha ha, Trump! Some defender of Western civilization that barbarian is!” But you still had better be able to provide an alternative vision of what Western civilization is, and what’s worth defending.
One of the greatest threats to the West today is the nearly uncontrolled migration of Third World peoples into Europe. Italy is on the front lines, as this Telegraph report from Sunday says:
Italy’s interior minister on Sunday called on European countries to open their ports to migrant rescue ships as he met for crisis talks with his French and German counterparts.
Italy has threatened to close its ports to charity ships that rescue migrants in the Mediterranean if other EU states do not agree to take some of the growing number of refugees onto their shores.
“We are under enormous pressure,” Marco Minniti said in Paris before the talks, which are taking place ahead of an EU summit in Tallinn this week.
Italian media reports said Rome was likely to call for a European code of conduct to be drawn up for the privately-run aid boats, with the Corriere della Sera saying vessels that did not comply could be “seized”.
Over the past week alone, around 10,000 migrants have been ferried to Italy after being rescued from overcrowded, rickety boats travelling from Libya.
Ten thousand people in a single week! So far this year, Italy alone has taken in 82,000 migrants rescued at sea. This is completely unsustainable. But notice that the response of the Italian government has not been to call for halting the flow of migrants into Europe, only to redistribute them. This does nothing to preserve and defend the West.
Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote last week that Europe’s tolerant and welcoming attitude to migrants has been a disaster. These are not now war refugees trying to get to Europe. These are young men looking for work.
But right now Europe’s grand experiment in humanitarianism has delivered some results that can be judged. They are the proliferation of human-trafficking gangs in Libya, thousands dying needlessly chasing after Europe’s grand invitation, terrorist attacks across Europe linked to the migration routes, stress on the Schengen zone, and the rise of a populist backlash that powered Brexit and alternative parties all over Europe. Seeing all this, European leaders are at least open to change. Things that cannot continue going as they are, don’t.
This is the apocalyptic scenario laid out in the highly controversial 1970s French novel The Camp of the Saints. It is an angry polemic about a wave of migration from the Third World, and a European establishment (governmental, religious, academic, media) desperate to virtue-signal its way to the doom of their own nations. Jean Raspail’s novel was and is denounced as racist (which it certainly is, in parts) and fascist, but it has the disquieting quality of having been prophetic. In a 2015 interview, Raspail said:
What’s happening today isn’t important, it’s anecdotal, for we are only at the beginning. Right now, the whole world is talking about this, there are thousands of specialists on the issue of migrants, it’s a chaos of commentary. Not one looks at the thirty-five years that lie ahead. The situation we are living through today is nothing compared to what awaits us in 2050. There will be nine billion people on the earth. Africa has gone from one hundred million to one billion inhabitants in a century, and perhaps twice that in 2050. Will the world be livable? The overpopulation and the wars of religion will make the situation fragile. That’s when the invasion will occur, it is ineluctable. The migrants will come in great part from Africa, the Middle East and the borders of Asia…
This has to stopped, somehow, if it can be, or it’s the end of Europe as a civilization. But as Prof. Legutko says, “Liberalism, libertarianism and saying ‘no’ to everything will certainly not serve the purpose. ” What will, then? Where is a positive, sustainable, strong vision for the West today? What should we defend? What is even defensible — and with what?
The president linked the survival of the West to “strong families and strong values” without defining them. That’s just the problem, isn’t it? We can’t agree on what it means to have strong families and strong values. And nobody in power will say the obvious thing: that defining and sustaining strong families and strong values — life-giving values, I mean — requires strong religion, which we do not have today.
All of this is why we are disintegrating. It’s not primarily the fault of Muslim terrorists, Salifi extremists within European borders, or the migrant hordes. Pope Benedict XVI wrote, in 2006:
The essential problem of our times, for Europe and for the world, is that although the fallacy of the Communist economy has been recognized, its moral and religious fallacy has not been addressed. The unresolved issue of Marxism lives on: the crumbling of man’s original uncertainties about God, himself, and the universe. The decline of a moral conscience grounded in absolute values is still our problem, and left untreated, it can lead to the self-destruction of the European conscience, which we must begin to consider as a real danger—above and beyond the decline predicted by Spengler.
A second element that characterizes European identity is marriage and the family. Monogamous marriage—both as a fundamental structure for the relation between men and women and as the nucleus for the formation of the state community—was forged in the biblical faith. It gave its special physiognomy and its special humanity to Europe, both in the West and in the East, precisely because the form of fidelity and the sacrifice that it entails must always be regained through great efforts and suffering.
Europe would no longer be Europe if this fundamental nucleus of its social edifice were to vanish or be changed in an essential way. We all know how much marriage and the family are in jeopardy. Their integrity has been undermined by the easier forms of divorce at the same time as there has been a spread in the practice of cohabitation between men and women without the legal form of marriage. Paradoxically, homosexuals are now demanding that their unions be granted a legal form that is more or less equivalent to marriage. Such a development would fall outside the whole moral history of humanity that, whatever the diverse legal forms, has never lost sight of the fact that marriage is essentially the special communion of man and woman, which opens itself to children and thus to family.
The question this raises is not of discrimination but of what constitutes the human person as a man or as a woman, and which union should receive a legal form. If the union between man and woman has strayed further and further from legal forms, and if homosexual unions are perceived more and more as enjoying the same standing as marriage, then we are truly facing a dissolution of the image of humankind bearing consequences that can only be extremely grave.
True for America as well. One more, from the Pope Emeritus:
The last element of the European identity is religion. I do not wish to enter into the complex discussion of recent years, but to highlight one issue that is fundamental to all cultures: respect for that which another group holds sacred, especially respect for the sacred in the highest sense, for God, which one can reasonably expect to find even among those who are not willing to believe in God. When this respect is violated in a society, something essential is lost. In European society today, thank goodness, anyone who dishonors the faith of Israel, its image of God, or its great figures must pay a fine. The same holds true for anyone who dishonors the Koran and the convictions of Islam. But when it comes to Jesus Christ and that which is sacred to Christians, freedom of speech becomes the supreme good.
This case illustrates a peculiar Western self-hatred that is nothing short of pathological. It is commendable that the West is trying to be more open, to be more understanding of the values of outsiders, but it has lost all capacity for self-love. All that it sees in its own history is the despicable and the destructive; it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure. What Europe needs is a new self-acceptance, a self-acceptance that is critical and humble, if it truly wishes to survive.
Unless we embrace our own heritage of the sacred, we will not only deny the identity of Europe. We will also fail in providing a service to others to which they are entitled. To the other cultures of the world, there is something deeply alien about the absolute secularism that is developing in the West. They are convinced that a world without God has no future.