Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Suicide of the West

Will America follow Europe into anomie and atheism?

In some ways, things have never been better for Europe. When my father was born, in 1909, his life expectancy was 49; if he had been born today, his life expectancy would be approaching 80. The increase in wealth and standard of living has been startling. In 1960, Sicilian peasants still slept with their farm animals, and my working-class patients remembered sharing lavatories with other households. In France, the years in which it lost its colonial empire are known as les trente glorieuses, the glorious thirty, when the French economy grew so fast that absolute poverty was eliminated and the country obtained the best infrastructure in the world. Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder after the war really was a wonder, transforming a country that U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. wanted to keep forever in a state of rural pre-industrialization into the largest exporter of manufactured goods in the world.

Yet for all this success, there is a pervasive sense of doom. Prosperous and long-lived as never before, Europeans look into the future with fear, as if they have a secret sickness that has not yet made itself manifest by obvious symptoms but is nevertheless eating away in their vital parts. They are aware that, in Chinese parlance, the mandate of heaven has been withdrawn from them, and that in losing that, they have lost everything. All that is left is to preserve their remaining privileges as best they can; après nous, as a mistress of Louis XV is said to have remarked, le deluge.

The secularization of Europe is hardly a secret. Religion’s long, melancholy, withdrawing roar, as Matthew Arnold put it, is a roar no longer, and hardly even a murmur. In France, the oldest daughter of the Church, fewer than 5 percent of the population attend Mass regularly. The English national church has long been an object of derision, and the current Archbishop of Canterbury succeeds in uniting the substance and appearance of foolishness and unworldliness not with sanctity, but with sanctimony. In Wales, where nonconformist Christianity was the dominant cultural influence, most of the chapels have been converted into residences by interior decorators. Vast outpourings of pietistic writings molder on the shelves of secondhand booksellers, which themselves are closing down daily. In the Netherlands, some elements of the religious pillarization of the state remain: state-funded television channels are still allotted to Protestants and Catholics respectively. But while the shell exists, the substance is gone.

Perhaps it is Ireland that offers the most startling example of secularization because it was a late starter. Late starters, however, are often apt pupils; they catch up fast and even surpass their mentors. When I first went to Ireland, the priest was a god among men; people stood aside to let him pass. No respectable family did not count a nun among its members. As for the Archbishop of Dublin, his word was law; the politicians might propose, but he disposed.

In the historical bat of an eyelid, all that has gone, beyond any hope (or fear) of restoration. It would hardly be too much to say that the Church is now reviled in Ireland. I suspect that if you performed a word-association test using the word “priest,” it would more often than not evoke a response of “pedophile,” “child abuser,” or (at best) “hypocrite.”

The extremely low birth-rates in Spain and Italy, the lowest recorded in any modern society, suggest that the populations of these traditionally Catholic countries do not pay much attention to the teachings of their Church. Recently in Belgium, I saw an old convent where the remaining nuns were all in their eighties and would never be replaced. When they die, their convent will presumably be turned into luxury apartments for unwed professional couples with no children.

God is dead in Europe, and I do not see much chance of revival except in the wake of catastrophe. Not quite everything has been lost of the religious attitude, however. Individuals still think of themselves as being of unique importance, but without the countervailing humility of considering themselves as having duty toward the author of their being, a being inconceivably larger than themselves. Far from inducing a more modest conception of man, the loss of religious belief has inflamed his self-importance enormously.

For the person with no transcendent religious belief, this life is all he has. He must therefore preserve and prolong it at all costs and live it to the full. There are not many Hamlets who could be enclosed in a nutshell and count themselves kings of infinite space. For most people, living to the full means consuming as much as possible, having as many experiences as possible, and not only many experiences, the most extreme experiences possible.

But the problem with consumption is that it soon ceases to satisfy. How else can one explain the crowds that assemble in every city center every weekend to buy what they cannot possibly need and perhaps do not want? Will another pair of shoes supply a transcendent purpose?

The same might be said of the experiences that people feel they must seek if they are to live life to the full. Sports become more extreme in their competitive urgency, holidays more exotic, films more violent, broadcasting more vulgar, the expression of emotion more crude and obvious. Compare advertisements showing people enjoying themselves 60 years ago and now. Mouths are open and screams, either of joy or pain, emerge. Quiet satisfaction is not satisfaction at all; what is not expressed grossly is not deemed to have been expressed.

Of course, there might be transcendent meaning to life apart from that provided by religion. There is scholarship, but the infinitudes of learning cannot be suited to the great majority of mankind: not only would a population of scholars soon starve to death, it would not even be pleasant while it lasted. Transcendent meaning can also be sought in politics. Marxism might have been deficient as an explanation of the world, but for a time it gave people the feeling that they were contributing to the denouement of history, when all contradictions would be resolved, all desires fulfilled, and all human relations easy, spontaneous, and loving. It was obvious nonsense, but not more obvious nonsense than the religious ideas of those whose religious ideas we do not share. And while Marxism was discredited for all but a few aging faithful, the impulse transferred seamlessly to other causes—environmentalism, nationalism, animal rights, feminism.

But overall, most Europeans do not believe in any large political project, whether it be that of a social class, the nation, or of Europe as a whole. Most Europeans have no concept any longer of la glorie, that easily derided notion that can nevertheless impel people to the highest endeavor, to transcend themselves and their most immediate interests. Most Europeans now mock the very idea of a European civilization and therefore cannot feel much inclination to contribute to it.

This miserablism leads to a mixture of indifference toward the past and hatred of it. This is visible in the urban planning of Europe since the war. The monster Le Corbusier, whose main talent was self-promotion, wanted to raze the whole of Paris and turn it into a French reinforced-concrete Novosibirsk. This mania for destruction was by no means confined to France. Dutch Prime Minister Joop den Uyl wanted to pull down much of 17th-century Amsterdam, some of the most elegant domestic architecture in the history of the world, to build a highway and “socially just” housing projects.

Of course, too strong a sense of having inherited what is worth preserving can induce a paranoid defensiveness and incline you to see enemies everywhere; but too weak a sense inclines you to see enemies nowhere. And because of their history, or rather their obsession with the worst aspects of that history, Europeans do not feel able to admit that they wish to preserve their own way of life.

So what is left for Europeans? The present being all that counts, it remains to seek the good life, the enjoyable and comfortable life, for themselves alone. Europeans are fearful of the future because they fear the past; they are desperate to hang on to what they have already got, what the French call les acquis, because it represents for them the whole of existence. So important is the standard of living that they see children not as inheritors of what they themselves inherited, but as obstructions to the enjoyment of life, a drain on resources, an obstacle to next year’s holiday in Bali.

Dean Acheson said that Britain had lost an empire and not found a role. You might say of Europe that it has lost its purpose and not found any to replace it.

Is there anything from this experience that Americans might learn? Americans are apt to believe in their own exceptionalism—“We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future,” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright intoned. It would take a book to disentangle the folly, hubris, and evil contained in those infamous words. To begin with, the notion of the indispensable nation implies that the others are dispensable. One might have hoped that we had stopped thinking of millions of people, or even one person, in terms of dispensability. But Americans have reasons for regarding their nation as exceptional.

First, the U.S. is geographically isolated from conflicts in Asia and Europe and has never faced any serious threat from its neighbors. Europe has Russia always on the doorstep, a country that for hundreds of years has placed the military strength of the state ahead of the welfare of the population.

Then the United States is a nation founded on a coherent and attractive, if not profound, philosophy, unlike all other nations that, as it were, “just growed.” It is an optimistic outlook, one that suggests boundless possibilities. In an age of mass migration, at least in one direction, this gives it a great advantage over Europe, where nationhood is founded on a sociobiological past and which therefore has much greater difficulty, in absorbing large numbers of immigrants. America is thus free of the nastier forms of nationalism that have pullulated in Europe in the past and could again.

Third, there is American religious belief. Perhaps because no church has ever been established, religion has survived better than in countries where religious belief has been closely associated with temporal power. Once the power to enforce conformity and suppress dissent declines in states where there has been a state religion, religious belief itself declines precipitately, for it is seen as having chosen the wrong side of history. There is no danger of this in the U.S., and the religiosity of Americans keeps alive the little platoons that are so important in maintaining the vigor of civil society independent of government.

Finally, there is American military power, unprecedented in world history. America spends more on its military than the rest of the world combined. This should secure its predominance for the foreseeable future.

In short, the United States is free, or nearly so, from the principal factors that have led to the decline and immobilism of Europe, its sclerosis, rigidity, and lack of ability to confront the challenges facing it.

But like Europeans, Americans have not proved deeply attached to limited government, and the difference between Europe and America in this respect is only one of degree rather than type. The extension of government power in the current crisis is not meeting much resistance. The leaders of American life have placed almost religious faith in a man who promises to extend the role of the state.

American religiosity strikes foreigners as superficial and as much a kind of communal psychotherapy as a genuine faith. American religion is Dale Carnegie transposed to a mildly, and unconvincingly, transcendental plane; a lot of American religious services are like meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous without the alcoholics.

Moreover, military power is often if not illusory at least of limited use, especially when nations have scruples. Where a public opinion exists, the full force of military power cannot be employed on the task of limitless repression. And there are inherent limits to what raw physical power can achieve. As European colonialists in Africa discovered, the powerful can change the weak, but not according to their design. (For this we may thank God, for otherwise the nightmare of total control of populations might be implementable.)

Recent events have also shown that the U.S. is not immune to economic laws. By means of the extension of cheap credit resulting in asset inflation, its government has sought to create the illusion of private prosperity while increasing public expenditure. As the emitter of the world’s reserve currency, it behaved as if it could accumulate foreign debt forever without in the end losing control of the fate of that currency. During the Cold War, the military doctrine was one of Mutual Assured Destruction; now the U.S. finds itself in the same position vis-à-vis China with regard to the dollar. For the moment, the interests of both countries coincide, but there is no guarantee that this equilibrium will last.

In many respects, then, the United States is not in so different a position from that of Europe. The demographics of its core population are not very different: the natality of the population of European descent is below replacement level. It has a welfare state that can easily be expanded to European levels, and it looks as if this is likely to happen. And if the welfare state reaches European levels in the United States, one of its decisive advantages—its ability to assimilate immigrants—will disappear.

The United States finds itself at a historical conjuncture when its relative power in the world has weakened. To be sure, no decline in power comparable in extent to that of Europe in the 20th century is in view; nevertheless, the realization of this weakening, that the United States is re-entering a world in which it is only primum inter pares and not utterly dominant, might cause disappointment to those who see the cup of power dashed from their lips. Self-hatred and self-denigration might then take hold with disastrous wider effect.

A combination of loss of power and historiographical miserabilism leaves a society in poor condition to maintain its social fabric. On the face of it, the history of the United States is less susceptible to a miserablist interpretation than most countries. But miserablism is never compelled by the evidence alone, and intellectual ingenuity can always descry the cloud in any silver lining. America could be described as a state founded first on genocide and then on slave-owning hypocrisy that subsequently appropriated half of Mexico, etc. Grievance-mongers can project their discontents backwards and easily demonstrate that America has been a paradise for racists, sexists, persecutors of homosexuals, etc. Corruption has always been rife, jobbing politicians have always led the population by the nose. Even the disillusionment that will inevitably follow the euphoria of Mr. Obama’s election will be grist to the miserablist mill.

This is not, of course, to call for an opposite historiography in which there is nothing but a glorious upward ascent and everything American is best. One of the dangers of this kind of historiography is that, when disillusionment comes, it is total. And such a disillusionment is particularly strong when the pride in power, with which it is often associated, receives the shock that power has evaporated.

Rather, a defense of all that is best, and of all the achievement, in U.S. history is necessary. That is why the outcome of the so-called culture wars in America is so important to its future. A healthy modern society must know how to remain the same as well as change, to conserve as well as to reform. Europe has changed without knowing how to conserve: that is its tragedy.  __________________________________________


Theodore Dalrymple is a retired physician who is the author of Not With a Bang But a Whimper and The New Vichy Syndrome, from which this essay is adapted. Used with permission from Encounter Books.

The American Conservative welcomes letters to the editor.
Send letters to: letters@amconmag.com