Friday, July 7, 2017
In Defense of the West
If any apology is need, and it is, I am no admirer of Donald Trump. He might not be the most flawed character ever to settle in at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (Clinton, the 42nd and only, comes to mind). This President is certainly the man whose character flaws are most on daily display. I haven’t voted for him yet, and I have a hard time imagining that I ever will. Nor do I have any admiration for the Polish Government.
I do have a deep affection for Poland, which I visited last summer. Poznań is a beautiful city full of beautiful people. It is in many ways a monument to the Polish capacity for resistance and regeneration. The old town square looks, I have been told, much as it did before the Second World War; yet it was rebuilt from shambles. In it can be found many monuments to the Poles’ resistance to tyranny, whether imported from the east or west.
For that reason and others, I was moved by the President’s speech. His praise of Poland for the things I just mentioned stands out, as does his testament to the value of Western Civilization.
I was also moved, in a different direction, by Peter Beinart’s execrable commentary on that speech at The Atlantic. Here is how Beinart starts out.
In his speech in Poland on Thursday, Donald Trump referred 10 times to “the West” and five times to “our civilization.” His white nationalist supporters will understand exactly what he means. It’s important that other Americans do, too.
This is the language of the contemporary Left. Trump’s words are judged not by what they mean to a reasonable person but by what they mean to carefully chosen strawmen. It gets better.
The West is not a geographic term. Poland is further east than Morocco. France is further east than Haiti. Australia is further east than Egypt. Yet Poland, France, and Australia are all considered part of “The West.” Morocco, Haiti, and Egypt are not.
The West is not an ideological or economic term either. India is the world’s largest democracy. Japan is among its most economically advanced nations. No one considers them part of the West.
The West is a racial and religious term. To be considered Western, a country must be largely Christian (preferably Protestant or Catholic) and largely white. Where there is ambiguity about a country’s “Westernness,” it’s because there is ambiguity about, or tension between, these two characteristics. Is Latin America Western? Maybe. Most of its people are Christian, but by U.S. standards, they’re not clearly white. Are Albania and Bosnia Western? Maybe. By American standards, their people are white. But they are also mostly Muslim.
There is so much stupidity in these words that one can hardly compass the whole of it. I’ll give it a shot. The West is precisely a geographic term. Western Europe lay along a trade route that had two ends. One was the eastern end, or the Orient. The other was the Western End, or the Occident. Geographic terms are frequently uneven. It is telling that The West did not describe itself as The Center, as did the ancient Chinese Empire. The West knew that, no matter where you go, there you are.
The idea that Western Civilization is defined by religion has some truth to it. Modern liberal democracy, meaning collective government and individual rights, first emerges in Western Europe. It emerges out of a long history of interaction between Greek Philosophy, Roman law, and the Roman Church. It fostered the development of deep traditions in art, music, and science. While Western Civilization was dominated by religious authority for much of its history, that authority began to steadily weaken after Machiavelli wrote Il Principe. Whereas the Church once laid down the law on Galileo, today the Supreme Court lays down the law on the Church. The latter is as much Western as the former.
The idea that it is also defined by race is utterly fictitious. Who says that Latin America isn’t The West? Only Beinart’s straw men. When Martin Luther King Jr. stood up in Washington D.C. and drew upon the Declaration of Independence in one of the most fundamental of American speeches, what color was he? It is true that India and Japan are not Western, but that is a matter of geographic and historical roots. Their political systems and economic systems are not indigenous. They are examples of their profound capacity to learn from The West just as The West has learned from them.
Let’s take a look at the President’s actual words. Consider this:
Despite every effort to transform you, oppress you or destroy you, you endured and overcame. You are the proud nation of Copernicus -- think of that. Chopin, St. John Paul II. Poland is a land of great heroes.
Maybe someone who is “religiously paranoid” can praise Chopin and St. John Paul II. But Copernicus? He challenged the Church’s world view.
Here are a few things that Trump thinks The West should be proud of:
We write symphonies. We pursue innovation. We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs, and always seek to explore and discover brand-new frontiers.
We reward brilliance, we strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works of art that honor God. We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression.
We empower women as pillars of our society and of our success.
Symphonies, innovation, the rule of law, free speech and free expression; is it really racism and religious paranoia to praise these things? Empowering women? If this is what the alt.right really believes in, then it isn’t alt. and it is hardly right wing.
How about this:
And we debate everything. We challenge everything. We seek to know everything, so that we can better know ourselves.
And above all, we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom.
That is who we are. Those are the priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies and as a civilization.
President Trump is here attempting to rally the Western nations around these principles. If you think there is something wrong with that, try thinking.
Does this mean that Trump thinks the West is the enemy of the Rest? Not exactly.
During a historic gathering in Saudi Arabia, I called on the leaders of more than 50 Muslim nations to join together to drive out this menace which threatens all of humanity. We must stand united against these shared enemies to strip them of their territory and their funding and their networks and any form of ideological support that they may have.
Contrary to Beinart’s insistence that Trump rejects universal values, here he talks precisely about universal values and a common cause between Western nations and Muslim nations.
Beinart can’t help himself.
The most shocking sentence in Trump’s speech—perhaps the most shocking sentence in any presidential speech delivered on foreign soil in my lifetime—was his claim that “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.” On its face, that’s absurd. Jihadist terrorists can kill people in the West, but unlike Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, they cannot topple even the weakest European government. Jihadists control no great armies. Their ideologies have limited appeal even among the Muslims they target with their propaganda. ISIS has all but lost Mosul and could lose Raqqa later this year.
If there is an Academy Awards for stupid passages, this is a contender. The Soviet Union didn’t die because it was overcome by military force. It died because it lost its will to live. If Western Civilization loses confidence in itself and the traditions and achievements that the President mentions, ISIS won’t have to bust through our defenses. There will be nothing in their way.
Civilizations do collapse. Barbarism frequently follows. Aristotle identified one of the characteristics of barbarism: they treat their women the same way they treat their animals and their slaves. It does no good to believe that women should have equal rights with men if you have no heart to support the institutions that protect those rights. That is something worth saying.
Peter Beinart is an intelligent man. His dreadfully stupid essay is proof that the President’s speech was necessary.