King Of The Elite Idiots
Redoubling our efforts to teach basic civics and the dangers of letting Western ideas slip is the only defense against the illiberal tide that is currently crashing upon our shores.By
Feb. 20, 2017 7:08 p.m. ET
In the late 1980s Stanford University did away with its required Western civilization course after Jesse Jackson led students in a chant of “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!” Campus conservatives tried to bring it back last year, but the effort failed in a student vote by a 6 to 1 margin.
They should try pushing Western Civ again. To adapt the line in that Passenger song, you only know you love it when you let it go.
The thought comes to mind following Sergei Lavrov’s Orwellian speech last week at the Munich Security Conference, in which the Russian foreign minister called for a “post-West world order.” He also used the occasion to deny Moscow’s involvement in hacking U.S. and European elections, to announce that his government would recognize passports issued by its puppet state in eastern Ukraine, and to call for an end to the “post-truth” and “post-fact” state of international relations.
Mr. Lavrov understands something that ought to be increasingly clear to American and European audiences: The West—as a geopolitical bloc, a cultural expression, a moral ideal—is in deep trouble. However weak Russia may be economically, and however cynical its people might be about their regime, Russians continue to drink from a deep well of civilizational self-belief. The same can be said about the Chinese, and perhaps even of the Islamic world too, troubled as it is.
The West? Not so much.
The United States has elected as president a man who has repeatedly voiced his disdain for NATO, the World Trade Organization and other institutions of the Western-led world order. He publicly calls the press “an enemy of the American people” and conjures conspiracy theories about voter fraud whose only purpose is to lend credence to his claim that the system is rigged. He is our first post-rational president, whose approach to questions of fact recalls the deconstructionism of the late Jacques Derrida: There are no truths; reality is negotiable.
Then there’s Europe, where youth unemployment runs close to 20% and centrist politicians wonder why they have a problem. In France, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen is gaining in the polls, despite expert predictions that she can’t possibly win the presidency. In Holland, nationalist politician Geert Wilders says of Moroccan immigrants: “Not all are scum.” Where have we heard these things before?
In Munich on Saturday, Mike Pence implored NATO members to spend more on their defense—a complaint Europeans also heard from the Obama and Bush administrations. Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s foreign minister, instantly brushed the vice president’s plea aside. “I don’t know where Germany can find billions of euros to boost defense spending,” he said, “if politicians also want lower taxes.”
Berlin spends 1.2% of its GDP on defense, well below the 2% NATO requirement and among the lowest in Europe. As of 2014, it could deploy a grand total of 10 attack helicopters and one submarine. Does Germany still want the West, insofar as it’s able to contribute to its collective defense?
What about other countries? Twenty-five years ago, becoming a part of “the West” was the dream from Budapest to Ulan Bator. Not anymore.
Russia took itself off the Westernization track shortly after the turn of the century. Turkey followed a few years later. Thailand is on its way to becoming a version of what Myanmar had been up until a few years ago, while Malaysia is floating into China’s orbit. Ditto for the Philippines. Mexico may soon follow a similar trajectory if the Trump administration continues to pursue its bad-neighbor policy, and if a Chavista-like figure such as Andrés Manuel López Obrador comes to power in next year’s presidential election.
One can point to many reasons, specific and general, why the West no longer attracts imitators. Let’s point to the main reason.
There was a time when the West knew what it was about. It did so because it thought about itself—often in freshman Western Civ classes. It understood that its moral foundations had been laid in Jerusalem; its philosophical ones in Athens; its legal ones in Rome. It treated with reverence concepts of reason and revelation, freedom and responsibility, whose contradictions it learned to harmonize and harness over time. It believed in the excellence of its music and literature, and in the superiority of its political ideals. It was not ashamed of its prosperity. If it was arrogant and sinful, as all civilizations are, it also had a tradition of remorse and doubt to temper its edges and broaden its horizons. It cultivated the virtue of skepticism while avoiding the temptation of cynicism.
And it believed all of this was worth defending—in classrooms and newspapers and statehouses and battlefields.
We’ve since raised generations to believe none of this, only to be shocked by the rise of anti-Western politics. If you want children to learn the values of a civilization that can immunize them from a Trump, a Le Pen or a Lavrov, you can start by teaching it.