Kimball and Steyn on the end of the West
Two essays in the New Criterion talk about the West almost in the past tense. Roger Kimball's After the suicide of the West pronounces his post-mortem: a civilization suicided from despair; death from want of a reason to live. The contradiction within liberalism -- within multiculturalism -- Kimball argues, is that it unwilling to believe in anything definite, even in itself.
... an essay called “The Self-Poisoning of the Open Society,” ... dilates on this basic antinomy of liberalism. Liberalism implies openness to other points of view, even ... those points of view whose success would destroy liberalism. But tolerance to those points of view is a prescription for suicide. ... As Robert Frost once put it, a liberal is someone who refuses to take his own part in an argument.
And having emptied life of belief, liberalism has not coincidentally also emptied it of meaning. Kimball quotes Douglas Murray to evoke the atmosphere of a civilization partying frenetically on the brink of black nothingness.
It may be no sin -- may indeed be one of our society’s most appealing traits -- that we love life. But the scales, as in so many things, have tipped to an extreme. From seeing so much for which we would live, people in our society now see fewer and fewer causes for which they would die. We have passed to a point where prolongation is all. We have become like the parents of Admetos in Euripides’ Alcestis -- "walking cadavers," unwilling to give up the few remaining days (in Europe’s case, of its peace dividend) even if only by doing so can any generational future be assured.
Liberalism's first step is to render the past, with its ties to memory and tradition, despicable and valueless. From there it inevitably proceeds to make the future futile. The "me" generation is liberated not only from its myths but also from its dreams. Kimball cites James Burnham. Modern liberalism, Burnham writes:
does not offer ordinary men compelling motives for personal suffering, sacrifice, and death. There is no tragic dimension in its picture of the good life. Men become willing to endure, sacrifice, and die for God, for family, king, honor, country, from a sense of absolute duty or an exalted vision of the meaning of history… . And it is precisely these ideas and institutions that liberalism has criticized, attacked, and in part overthrown as superstitious, archaic, reactionary, and irrational. In their place liberalism proposes a set of pale and bloodless abstractions—pale and bloodless for the very reason that they have no roots in the past, in deep feeling and in suffering. Except for mercenaries, saints, and neurotics, no one is willing to sacrifice and die for progressive education, medicare, humanity in the abstract, the United Nations, and a ten percent rise in Social Security payments.
From Kimball's perspective the contest between Islam and liberal civilization is not simply between East and West, but between the living and the dying.
Mark Steyn makes a less abstract argument in It’s the demography, stupid. Steyn's key literary skill is to state the obvious in ways that refute conventional wisdom. In this essay he is at his epigramatic best. The challenge now, he says, is no longer to save the West, but to see if anything can still be saved. For the West, make no mistake, is dying.
The design flaw of the secular social-democratic state is that it requires a religious-society birth rate to sustain it. Post-Christian hyper-rationalism is, in the objective sense, a lot less rational than Catholicism or Mormonism. Indeed, in its reliance on immigration to ensure its future, the European Union has adopted a twenty-first-century variation on the strategy of the Shakers, who were forbidden from reproducing and thus could only increase their numbers by conversion. ...
That’s what the war’s about: our lack of civilizational confidence. As a famous Arnold Toynbee quote puts it: "Civilizations die from suicide, not murder"—as can be seen throughout much of "the western world" right now. The progressive agenda —lavish social welfare, abortion, secularism, multiculturalism—is collectively the real suicide bomb. ...
When it comes to forecasting the future, the birth rate is the nearest thing to hard numbers. If only a million babies are born in 2006, it’s hard to have two million adults enter the workforce in 2026 (or 2033, or 2037, or whenever they get around to finishing their Anger Management and Queer Studies degrees). ... Europe by the end of this century will be a continent after the neutron bomb: the grand buildings will still be standing but the people who built them will be gone. We are living through a remarkable period: the self-extinction of the races who, for good or ill, shaped the modern world. ...
Permanence is the illusion of every age. In 1913, no one thought the Russian, Austrian, German, and Turkish empires would be gone within half a decade. Seventy years on, all those fellows who dismissed Reagan as an “amiable dunce” (in Clark Clifford’s phrase) assured us the Soviet Union was likewise here to stay. ... Religious cultures have a much greater sense of both past and future, as we did a century ago, when we spoke of death as joining "the great majority" in "the unseen world." But if secularism’s starting point is that this is all there is, it's no surprise that, consciously or not, they invest the here and now with far greater powers of endurance than it's ever had. The idea that progressive Euro-welfarism is the permanent resting place of human development was always foolish; we now know that it’s suicidally so. ...
"What do you leave behind?" asked Tony Blair. There will only be very few and very old ethnic Germans and French and Italians by the midpoint of this century. What will they leave behind? ... It’s the demography, stupid. And, if they can’t muster the will to change course, then "what do you leave behind?" is the only question that matters.
One of the most remarkable things about suicides is how they struggle at the last. They clutch frantically at the strangling noose they had calmly put around their necks; they swim a few desperate strokes after they've jumped from the bridge; they call for help after they've taken the pills. I predicted Kate Burton would have nothing bad to say about the men who abducted her and her family in Gaza. I was only partly right. She gave a lengthy interview in the Independent, describing her confinement, which paints a more complex picture.
"I got really mad and said: 'I can't believe you're doing this. Do you want me to get down on my knees and say thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you?' I was exhausted and started crying. I said: 'I came here to work with the Palestinian people and now I feel I have been stabbed in the back.' ...
Ms Burton said she felt "sorry for the guys" because of their "shattered lives", and the fact that they were, in effect, on the run and had family members who had been killed in the conflict. But, at the same time, she added: "I can't forgive them for what they did and I hope they don't keep doing it in the future. I understand that the majority of the Palestinian people are not like them." ...
She said the kidnappers - who had apparently tracked the Burtons during their tour of Rafah - told the family they had a made a mistake. "They said they thought we were Americans," Ms Burton said. "But when I said you have made a mistake, so why not let us go, they said it was too late." The kidnappers told the family repeatedly that they would be released unharmed "in a few hours".
I wonder what objection would have been raised if the kidnappers had captured Americans, or maybe even Jews; where would the error be? And for a moment, reading the Independent, I remembered the feelings of Winston Smith as the torturers prepared to have his face eaten out by rats in Room 101.
The wire door was a couple of hand-spans from his face. The rats knew what was coming now. One of them was leaping up and down, the other, an old scaly grandfather of the sewers, stood up, with his pink hands against the bars, and fiercely sniffed the air. Winston could see the whiskers and the yellow teeth. Again the black panic took hold of him. He was blind, helpless, mindless.
'It was a common punishment in Imperial China,' said O'Brien as didactically as ever.
The mask was closing on his face. The wire brushed his cheek. And then -- no, it was not relief, only hope, a tiny fragment of hope. Too late, perhaps too late. But he had suddenly understood that in the whole world there was just one person to whom he could transfer his punishment -- one body that he could thrust between himself and the rats. And he was shouting frantically, over and over.
'Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don't care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!'
What do you leave behind?