Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Decline of the West

David Brooks at The New York Times offers some thoughtful opinions on the vigor and viability of Western civilization. Much of what he writes is insightful, but unfortunately some of it, I think, misses the mark. 

Let's look at what I think he gets right first. He begins by describing the traditional narrative of Western civilization:
This narrative was confidently progressive. There were certain great figures, like Socrates, Erasmus, Montesquieu and Rousseau, who helped fitfully propel the nations to higher reaches of the humanistic ideal.

This Western civ narrative came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most importantly provided a set of common goals.

Starting decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke. Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western civilization is a history of oppression.
This neglect has had far-reaching effects:
The first consequence has been the rise of the illiberals, authoritarians who not only don’t believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative, but don’t even pretend to believe in them....
Brooks focusses on authoritarians on the global stage, but then notes that the authoritarian spirit pervades much of the discourse on our modern campuses as well:
Finally, there has been the collapse of liberal values at home. On American campuses, fragile thugs who call themselves students shout down and abuse speakers on a weekly basis. To read Heather MacDonald’s account of being pilloried at Claremont McKenna College is to enter a world of chilling intolerance.

In America, the basic fabric of civic self-government seems to be eroding following the loss of faith in democratic ideals. According to a study published in The Journal of Democracy, the share of young Americans who say it is absolutely important to live in a democratic country has dropped from 91 percent in the 1930s to 57 percent today. The faith in the West collapsed from within. It’s amazing how slow people have been to rise to defend it....liberalism has been docile in defense of itself.
Perhaps the docility to which he refers is due to the fact that so many liberals seem to have lost confidence in their ability to make value judgments. For many liberal/progressives it's at best impolite and at worst culturally imperialistic to assert that some ways of life are better than others, that some systems of governance are superior to others, that a culture that produces Mozart, Bach and modern medicine is superior to a culture that produces nothing but increasingly innovative ways to murder people. 

Claims such as these are deemed hubristic by many moderns. They constitute an offense against the spirit of multiculturalism. Even so, they're still true for all that, even if many contemporary liberals, unlike their ideological forefathers, no longer have the heart to assert and defend them.

Brooks closes with this admonition:
These days, the whole idea of Western civ is assumed to be reactionary and oppressive. All I can say is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it.
On all of that I think Brooks is largely correct. I think he veers off track a bit, though, in two places in his column. In one of these he says the following:
While running for office, Donald Trump violated every norm of statesmanship built up over these many centuries, and it turned out many people didn’t notice or didn’t care.
Well, this may be partly true, but it seems to imply that Trump won mostly because people who voted for him didn't care that he was boorish and crude.

I don't think this is quite right. People voted for him despite his manifest shortcomings because they deemed him a much better choice than Mrs. Clinton who was in any case just as crude, boorish and corrupt as Trump, if not moreso. Bernie Sanders was correct when he said recently that Trump didn't win so much as Hillary lost.

If Trump was a sexual predator Hillary Clinton defended sexual predators, including her husband, smearing her husband's accusers in the process. If Trump was a liar Hillary was just as bad, if not worse, lying to the American public about why their fellow Americans lost their lives in Benghazi, for example. For most people, though, the critical difference was that Hillary would have continued President Obama's slide toward socialism, open borders, and the arrant political correctness that so many Americans find objectionable. Mr. Trump, his juvenile behavior and ugly outbursts notwithstanding, at least offered those voters hope that that slide would be arrested and reversed.

Brooks also implies that Trump is an authoritarian leader like "Putin, Erdogan, el-Sisi, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un." For reasons I wrote about here, I disagree. Trump can be criticized for many things, but so far, at least, he hasn't shown many signs of being an authoritarian, and certainly not an authoritarian like the men Brooks lists him with.

An authoritarian seeks to arrogate power to himself and his government. Trump has done the opposite, seeking to devolve more power to the states. His appointment of a strict constitutional constructionist to the Supreme Court is telling evidence that he's not striving to concentrate power in his office but is chiefly concerned with re-establishing the rule of law and the separation of powers.

In any case, Brooks' column is worth perusing and I urge readers to check it out at the link.