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Whose West? Which Values?

After him, le déluge? (Evan El-Amin/Shutterstock)

So, Trump continues to embarrass the country. Look who he sent to represent the United States at the G20 conference table today in Germany:


Let that sink in. At the conference table with the leaders of the world’s 19th richest countries (plus the European Union), the President of the United States sent to represent the nation not the Secretary of State, or any other senior US diplomat (as is protocol), but his daughter, the Crown Princess. Like I said, it’s embarrassing. This is just another small reminder that Donald Trump is not fit to be president. There will be another one tomorrow, and the day after that.

But here’s the dilemma we’re in, or at least people like me are in. It’s exactly why more than a few conservatives I know voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton even though they expected him to behave like a clown. Nobody on the left likes to hear this from people on the right, so let me allow a left-wing atheist friend of mine to explain it.

My friend hates Trump. Hates him. But as a member, broadly speaking, of the elite professional class, he has come to hate his own tribe too. We were messaging each other about this blog post of mine yesterday, in which I claimed that liberal elites bashing Trump for white-supremacist dog-whistling in his Warsaw address proved that they really do hate not just Trump, but Western civilization. My claim is that by denouncing a fairly anodyne statement that Western civilization is great and worth defending as a manifestation of racist religious chauvinism, these liberals reveal what they think about Western civilization itself — at least any conception of “Western civilization” that deviates from 21st century progressive values.

My TAC colleague Noah Millman — nobody’s idea of a white supremacist nationalist — writes today in “flabbergasted” criticism of the Peter Beinart column that sparked part of my response. Millman can’t get over how Beinart concedes to the alt-right the definition of Western civilization:


There are really only three ways to take [Beinart’s claim] that I can think of:

  • Either the folks on the alt-right are correct, and our civilization can only be preserved if we preserve white Christian dominance. I am pretty sure that Beinart doesn’t mean this, but if I agreed with them myself it would be pretty easy to point to Beinart’s piece and say: see? Even Peter Beinart thinks we are right.

  • Or having a distinct “civilization” is something that the West has transcended, unlike the lesser breeds in China and Egypt who still cling to their particularism, though hopefully one day they will join us in the sunny progressive uplands in their own good time. I rather suspect Beinart does believe something like this, though I am using deliberately inflammatory language to characterize what those beliefs imply.

  • Or the West has a uniquely odious civilization that must be repudiated to avoid the taint of racism. I don’t actually think Beinart thinks this at all, but I understand why someone like Rod Dreher might take his language to mean he does.

In truth, Millman is probably right about Beinart’s personal views, but I see a tissue-thin line between the kind of progressivism Millman ascribes to Beinart in Option Two, and the kind of West-hatred I ascribe to Team Beinart (because it’s not just him) in Option Three. After all, it took not quite a decade to go from the left believing that expanding marriage rights to same-sex couples was a reasonable thing to do, to the left insisting that anyone who disagreed with them is a dangerous crackpot bigot who deserves to be suppressed. Where are the forces within American liberalism restraining the standard kind of universalism (shared, alas, by many Americans, and certainly GOP establishment types), and militantly illiberal liberalism?

I think David Frum is on solid ground in his pan of Trump’s speech, saying that the problem is not the speech itself, but the man who gave it. His argument is that Trump, in his presidency, undermines all the values he said in Warsaw that he supports. Frum may or may not be right, but it’s a reasonable, substantive criticism. It’s not the criticism that Beinart and other liberals made. They seem to believe that any claim defending the particularity and superiority of the West — the kind of claim that most people around the world believe about their own civilizations, and always have — is a manifestation of racial and religious hatred.

After all, this is the same political and cultural left that treats claims that traditional marriage is normative and superior to other arrangements not just as wrong, but as a manifestation of the grossest bigotry. Why wouldn’t they apply the same logic to this issue? If they don’t believe that Western values are superior, then why, for example, was the Obama administration teaming up with George Soros to undermine the Republic of Macedonia by teaching Saul Alinsky’s “Rules For Radicals” to LGBT groups and others in that conservative Orthodox country? (This really happened!)

The real question is not whether or not liberals believe that the West’s values are superior. The real questions are, Whose West? Which values?

Which brings us back to Trump in Warsaw. TAC editor in chief Robert Merry says that in Warsaw, Trump “threw down the gauntlet” on Western civilization. He fillets Beinart and Fallows in it. In the walk-up to this passage, Merry blasts Fallows for attributing occultic Riefenstahlian motivations to Trump for using the word “will” (as in, “Triumph of the”). Here’s Merry:

Trump used the term mostly to extol the Polish spirit as reflected in the Poles’ willto conquer adversity, to resist conquest and occupation, to survive in the face of overwhelming struggle. These are inspiring passages, and it would have been a shame to excise the word simply because some literary slyboots would use it to cast aspersions of latent Nazism.

But, true, Trump also used it in discussing the future challenges facing America and the West, and therein lies the political animosities and angers he unleashed. There are elements within the West bent on destroying any civilizational consciousness because they don’t consider their civilization to be particularly hallowed. And of course we see this polemical assault on the American and Western heritage every day. In fact, on our campuses it is going beyond polemics to social intimidation and, increasingly, even violence.

Many Americans, perhaps most, hate to see their national and civilizational heritage coming under attack, with those who speak up in its behalf running the risk of being labeled Nazis or racists. They don’t understand why they can’t talk about America as part of the West, with its distinctive attributes and accomplishments and legacy, like their grandparents did and those who came before. And because of the calumny it unleashes when they speak up, many of them keep quiet about it; but many of them also quietly voted for Donald Trump last November in part because of this societal cleavage.

Essentially, it is about the definition of America, and definitional issues are very difficult to adjudicate. This matter, reflected in the Trump speech and the inevitable reaction from commentators such as Beinart and Fallows, lies at the heart of the country’s current deadlock crisis. It isn’t going away anytime soon.

This is exactly right. Read the whole thing.

Now, the reason I brought up my left-wing atheist friend in this context is that he messaged me to say he liked the piece I wrote saying that the Trump critics reveal that the hate their own civilization. I didn’t expect this from him. He went on to explain:

The elites are their own worst enemy– and their reaction to Trump has further revealed their narrow minded , privileged, and exclusive worldview. Their sacred tenets of rationality & individuality they use to exclude vast numbers of the working class. And when this is revealed they yell racism or stupidity. I hate Trump also. But we reap what we sow.

Jonah Goldberg’s response to Beinart’s column elaborates on the point my liberal atheist friend made:

What sincerely shocks me about Peter’s outburst is that he has to know what an incredibly bad idea it is for the liberal-Left to go down this road. The list of reasons why the new hatred of Western Civilization is such a bad idea for liberals is too long to recount here but I’ll offer two fairly practical ones. The whole reason liberalism is in trouble today is that it has lost the ability to speak confidently in patriotic and loving terms about America, unless it is in the context of selling some government program or pressing some nakedly political advantage (I’m thinking mostly about immigration maximalism and identity politics). Cutting Medicaid may be wrong, but it’s not unpatriotic. Peter himself recently argued that Democrats need to refocus on the importance of assimilation if they want to be trusted on the issue of immigration. Well, assimilation to what? If American culture is worth assimilating into, so is Western Culture, because the two cannot be separated.

As is often the case with conservatives and Trump, no matter how much you may despise him and his pomps and works, in the end, you know that he doesn’t hate your beliefs, and that he and his government aren’t going to use the power of the State to suppress you as a threat to public order and all things good and holy.

That’s not nothing.

Going back to Merry’s column, the problem that the great middle on the American left and the American right haven’t figured out yet is what America, and what the West, stands for. Which values represent the Western tradition? For example, is the spread of LGBT rights a manifestation of expanding individual liberty, or a betrayal of traditional Western Christian values? In other words, was the Obama government sowing the seeds of liberty and virtue in Macedonia, or was it spreading the corruption that is overtaking the post-Christian West?

This template can be applied to all kinds of issues, of course. What it comes down to most basically is rival visions of human nature, and what it means to flourish. And this is a hard question for right-of-center Americans, whose nation is thoroughly grounded in Enlightenment presuppositions, to think through. As I write in The Benedict Option:

What’s more, we must now face a question that will strike many of us as heretical according to our civic catechism. It has previously been unthinkable, certainly to patriotic Christians. But it must be faced.

In his 2016 book Conserving America?: Essays on Present Discontents, Patrick J. Deneen, a Notre Dame political theorist, argues that Enlightenment liberalism, from which both U.S. parties are descended, is built on the premise that humans are by nature “free and independent,” and that the purpose of government is to liberate the autonomous individual. Making progress toward this goal, whether promoted by free-market parties of the right or statist egalitarian parties of the left, depends on denying natural limits.

This is contrary to what both Scripture and experience teach us about human nature. The purpose of civilization, in Deneen’s words, “has been to sustain and support familial, social and cultural structures and practices that perpetuate and deepen personal and intergenerational forms of obligation and gratitude, of duty and indebtedness.”

In other words, civilization doesn’t exist to make it possible for individuals to do whatever they want to do. To believe that is an anthropological error. A civilization in which no one felt an obligation to the past, to the future, to each other, or to anything higher than self-gratification is one that is dangerously fragile. In the waning decades of the Western Roman Empire, Augustine described society as preoccupied with pleasure-seeking, selfishness, and living for the moment.

Because it prescribes government of the people, liberal democracy can be only as strong as the people who live under it. And so, the question before us now is whether our current political situation is a betrayal of liberal democracy or, given its core principles of individualism and egalitarianism, liberal democracy’s inevitable fulfillment under secularism.

Me, I believe that we must defend Western civilization. But what does it mean to defend a West that has become “preoccupied with pleasure-seeking, selfishness, and living for the moment”? Which West are we defending? Are we defending the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment West? Or are we defending the older civilization more consciously rooted in Christianity? And is picking and choosing even possible? After all, nobody asks the American soldier sent into combat if he is defending the world represented by Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump, the world represented by John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, the world represented by Bach and Shakespeare, the world represented by Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux, and so forth.

My thinking on the matter goes something like this.

We have to distinguish between Western civilization and Western culture. I’m sure academics would dispute my use of these terms here, so I apologize for that. But I think it’s a helpful way to discern things. When I think of “civilization,” I think of the vast agglomeration of all the particular cultures within Western civilization, going back to antiquity. By contrast, I consider culture to be what we are, very generally, at this point in time.

I find it very hard to defend Western culture, in this sense. But I find it vital to defend Western civilization. The way I do this is by promoting knowledge and love of the best of Western civilization — which stands in contrast to our decadent contemporary Western culture. These are our roots, and we must recover them, cherish them, and culture them, in the sense that one cultures a seedling, to protect it and coax it to blossom and bear fruit. In a sense, we face a situation not unlike that of Erasmus of Rotterdam: completely aware of the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church in his day, but dedicated to reform within. Erasmus had to find within himself the resources to stay loyal to an institution that had grown corrupt. Surely doing this required not only an intellectual affirmation of what Roman Catholic Christianity taught, but also — Erasmus being a great humanist, and undoubtedly the most learned man in Europe of his day — an awareness of the scope of what the Latin church meant in Western civilization. To him, that was worth defending against the claims of his radical correspondent Martin Luther. 

What does this have to do with us and Trump? Here’s a flawed analogy, but one that I hope is useful. I believe that Trump is akin to a bad Renaissance pope. However morally corrupt he may be personally, and however decadent or otherwise deficient his understanding of the culture and civilization he represents, it is still possible to reform from within. The radicals of the left will seek to extirpate us. Therefore, we have to stick with Pope Donald, because at least under him we have a chance of recovering our roots and making them bloom.

That’s a deeply flawed analogy because Luther and the Reformers thought it was they who were protecting the real tradition. So maybe it’s more like a case of defending the King of France against the Revolutionaries. As rotten as the system was, the Revolutionaries represented something far worse. At least within the ancien régime, conservative reform was possible. Similarly with Tsarist Russia vs. the Bolsheviks.

Tsar Donald is a badly flawed man, and his imperial court is an embarrassment … but who else is there? Every time I reach the point of no return with him, the left reveals its hand, and its contempt for ordinary people and what they love, and compels me to consider the alternative.

Anyway, we on the Right need to have serious conversations, and do serious thinking, about which parts of Western civilization we need to defend. We need to ask ourselves the question posed by Patrick Deneen, among others: Is the point we’ve come to in America and the West a corruption of the Enlightenment (which is to say, classical liberalism), or its inevitable end point? 

And if the answer is the latter, what do we do about it?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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