Yes, They Really Do Despise Their Civilization
You can say this for Donald Trump: he’s great at useless provocation, but sometimes his provocations are helpful by what they force his opponents to reveal. The Warsaw speech was stunning in this way. I’m glad I read it before I read any of the left-liberal comment on it, else I might have thought it had been drafted by Dr. Goebbels.
Here’s a transcript of the entire speech. Go read it yourself. It won’t take long.
I thought it not a bad speech, if somewhat anodyne in the way all such speeches tend to be. It is risible to hear Donald J. Trump talk about how we need “strong families” and “strong values” to survive as a civilization, but the hypocrisy of the speaker doesn’t negate the truth of what he has to say, any more than the great personal virtue of a speaker makes his own claims true (see Jimmy Carter).
Here’s the part that some on the left see as Goebbels-gibberish:
Americans, Poles, and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty. We must work together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are. (Applause.) If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit, and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies.
But just as our adversaries and enemies of the past learned here in Poland, we know that these forces, too, are doomed to fail if we want them to fail. And we do, indeed, want them to fail. (Applause.) They are doomed not only because our alliance is strong, our countries are resilient, and our power is unmatched. Through all of that, you have to say everything is true. Our adversaries, however, are doomed because we will never forget who we are. And if we don’t forget who are, we just can’t be beaten. Americans will never forget. The nations of Europe will never forget. We are the fastest and the greatest community. There is nothing like our community of nations. The world has never known anything like our community of nations.
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. (Applause.)
We empower women as pillars of our society and of our success. We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the center of our lives. And we debate everything. We challenge everything. We seek to know everything so that we can better know ourselves. (Applause.)
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.
What we have, what we inherited from our — and you know this better than anybody, and you see it today with this incredible group of people — what we’ve inherited from our ancestors has never existed to this extent before. And if we fail to preserve it, it will never, ever exist again. So we cannot fail.
We have to remember that our defense is not just a commitment of money, it is a commitment of will. Because as the Polish experience reminds us, the defense of the West ultimately rests not only on means but also on the will of its people to prevail and be successful and get what you have to have. The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?
I’m sorry, duckies, but how is this all that controversial? An American president, standing in the capital of a nation that suffered in the last century the domination of two tyrannies — Nazi and Communist — that tried to eradicate its culture, a nation whose Catholic faith kept its spirit alive and led to its rebirth — proclaims that there are things unique and valuable about Western civilization, and that we should remember those things, affirm them, and defend them.
The shocking thing here is that this is controversial at all. It shows how decadent we have become.
Let’s sample some of the left-liberal freakout, shall we?
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.
… 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.
Oh for pity’s sake, this is pants-soiling stuff. Broadly speaking, what we call the West are the countries and peoples formed by the meeting of Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Hebrew religion. There’s a great deal of diversity within the West, but religion, ideas, art, literature, and geography set it apart from other civilizations. One doesn’t have to wonder long to imagine if Peter Beinart would have seen the world this way were he aboard one of the Venetian warships sailing to meet the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Lepanto.
For that matter, has Beinart ever traveled abroad? Go to Istanbul. Turks are heirs to a great civilization; you have to look no further than the religious architecture of the city to know that. But you also would never mistake Istanbul for a city of the West. So what?
Every descendant of Africa and Asia who lives in the West and broadly affirms the values that shaped Western civilization is a Westerner. Louis Armstrong and Muddy Waters are as much sons of the West as J.S. Bach and Ludwig von Beethoven. I wrote a book about how reading a poem written by a 14th century Tuscan, Dante Alighieri, utterly changed my life. I have no Italian blood in me at all, but I am part of Dante’s civilization in a way that I simply am not part of the civilization that produced, say, the Analects of Confucius. If not for my mind having been shaped by the Christian narrative, and by Greco-Roman narratives, the poem would not have meant at much to me. Again: so what? This is normal human experience the world over. The civilization shaped by Islam have broad diversity too, but they all share a core belief and experience that binds them.
Thank God that the deracinated, de-Christianized EU elite plan to integrate Turkey into the European Union did not work. And if I were a Turk, I would thank Allah for preserving my Islamic country from that fate too. Elites in both countries wish to deny the religious basis of their respective cultures, and pretend that we’re all a bunch of universalists. We’re not, and never will be.
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.
Trump’s sentence only makes sense as a statement of racial and religious paranoia. The “south” and “east” only threaten the West’s “survival” if you see non-white, non-Christian immigrants as invaders. They only threaten the West’s “survival” if by “West” you mean white, Christian hegemony. A direct line connects Trump’s assault on Barack Obama’s citizenship to his speech in Poland. In Trump and Bannon’s view, America is at its core Western: meaning white and Christian (or at least Judeo-Christian). The implication is that anyone in the United States who is not white and Christian may not truly be American but rather than an imposter and a threat.
Poland is largely ethnically homogeneous. So when a Polish president says that being Western is the essence of the nation’s identity, he’s mostly defining Poland in opposition to the nations to its east and south. America is racially, ethnically, and religious diverse. So when Trump says being Western is the essence of America’s identity, he’s in part defining America in opposition to some of its own people. He’s not speaking as the president of the entire United States. He’s speaking as the head of a tribe.
I don’t know what was in Trump’s mind (or the mind of his speechwriters) when he delivered that line, but I interpret it like this: Yes, the United States is, at its core, Western, because it is a product of the Enlightenment, which is at its core a secularization of Christian values. The United States makes no sense except as a product of Western civilization. I would say that maintaining Judeo-Christian “hegemony” — meaning understanding ourselves as a people through our unity with the story in the Bible — is vital to maintaining our identity. We no longer do that, which is why I believe we are in decline. (This is a long story; read The Benedict Option for a longer version.)
Here’s the thing: the defense of classical liberal values depends on the Christian religion (which also entails the Hebrew Bible) far more than secular liberals like Beinart wish to concede. Read Glenn Tinder’s long 1989 Atlantic essay on the political meaning of Christianity. More:
It will be my purpose in this essay to try to connect the severed realms of the spiritual and the political. In view of the fervent secularism of many Americans today, some will assume this to be the opening salvo of a fundamentalist attack on “pluralism.” Ironically, as I will argue, many of the undoubted virtues of pluralism—respect for the individual and a belief in the essential equality of all human beings, to cite just two—have strong roots in the union of the spiritual and the political achieved in the vision of Christianity. The question that secularists have to answer is whether these values can survive without these particular roots. In short, can we be good without God? Can we affirm the dignity and equality of individual persons—values we ordinarily regard as secular—without giving them transcendental backing? Today these values are honored more in the breach than in the observance; Manhattan Island alone, with its extremes of sybaritic wealth on the one hand and Calcuttan poverty on the other, is testimony to how little equality really counts for in contemporary America. To renew these indispensable values, I shall argue, we must rediscover their primal spiritual grounds.
Let’s move on. Here’s a tweet by Slate’s Jamelle Bouie:
Imagine being a political writer in this moment and being utterly unable to identify clear white nationalist dogwhistles.
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) July 7, 2017
The last element of the European identity is religion. I do not wish to enter into the complex discussion of recent years, but to highlight one issue that is fundamental to all cultures: respect for that which another group holds sacred, especially respect for the sacred in the highest sense, for God, which one can reasonably expect to find even among those who are not willing to believe in God. When this respect is violated in a society, something essential is lost. In European society today, thank goodness, anyone who dishonors the faith of Israel, its image of God, or its great figures must pay a fine. The same holds true for anyone who dishonors the Koran and the convictions of Islam. But when it comes to Jesus Christ and that which is sacred to Christians, freedom of speech becomes the supreme good.
This case illustrates a peculiar Western self-hatred that is nothing short of pathological. It is commendable that the West is trying to be more open, to be more understanding of the values of outsiders, but it has lost all capacity for self-love. All that it sees in its own history is the despicable and the destructive; it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure. What Europe needs is a new self-acceptance, a self-acceptance that is critical and humble, if it truly wishes to survive.
Multiculturalism, which is so passionately promoted, can sometimes amount to an abandonment and denial, a flight from one’s own things. Multiculturalism teaches us to approach the sacred things of others with respect, but we can do this only if we ourselves are not estranged from the sacred, from God. With regard to others, it is our duty to cultivate within ourselves respect for the sacred and to show the face of the revealed God—the God who has compassion for the poor and the weak, for widows and orphans, for the foreigner; the God who is so human that he himself became man, a man who suffered, and who by his suffering with us gave dignity and hope to our pain.
Unless we embrace our own heritage of the sacred, we will not only deny the identity of Europe. We will also fail in providing a service to others to which they are entitled. To the other cultures of the world, there is something deeply alien about the absolute secularism that is developing in the West. They are convinced that a world without God has no future. Multiculturalism itself thus demands that we return once again to ourselves.
So, for Jamelle Bouie, a Westerner asserting the value of Western civilization is barely-veiled racism? If that’s true, then the term “racism” is meaningless. In fact, it’s worse than meaningless: it’s dangerous. If you tell people that to love and to want to defend the culture of the West is a racist act, then they will cease to care about your judgment on the matter, because you are requiring them to hate themselves as an act of virtue. In that regard, Jamelle Bouie’s sentiment here is a much greater gift to the racist alt-right than anything Donald Trump said in Warsaw.
I mean, really, how ignorant and provincial do you have to be, Messrs. Beinart and Bouie, to hear Trump’s speech and think of it as a #MAGA version of a Nuremberg Rally Address? Is the degree of self-hatred of the West required to be a virtuous, woke person such that you cannot tell the difference between Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus and the Horst Wessel Song? Do they really think Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (all of which is available on YouTube, starting here) is a plummy version of Triumph of the Will? If standing against this kind of liberal insanity means I have to stand with Donald Trump, well, okay, I’ll stand with Donald Trump. I won’t like it, but at least Donald Trump doesn’t hate his own civilization.
Has Donald Trump ever heard of Leni Riefenstahl?
:::faceplant:::. I give up. This is madness.
Actually, Ross Douthat makes a good point about the liberal freakout over the Warsaw speech. He says that Trump’s rhetoric is a response to the failure of liberal democracy as a universal, and universalizing, force — something that the mainstream, globalizing left and right shared, and still do.
But it’s not white nationalism. It’s just … not. It’s a shift responsive to Bush and Obama-era dashings of universal-civilization hopes.
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) July 7, 2017
In that tweet stream (thread starts here), Douthat says that conservatives who are not alt-right talk about “the West” all the time. It does not make them (us) white nationalists.
True, and it’s a contemptible slur to say so. But note well that this is how leading lights on the contemporary mainstream left regard cherishing and defending Western civilization and its particularities. It is not Trump who interprets Western civilization in racial terms; it is they. They’re going to call us all deplorables at best, Nazis and white supremacists at worst. They are going to keep waging culture war, and blame us for being the aggressors. We are going to have to fight back, but as Polish Catholic philosopher Ryszard Legutko once told me, it will not be enough for defenders of the West and its traditions to say what we’re against. We also have to be for something — and I would add, amplifying his point, we have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
Don’t misunderstand me here. The West is certainly no utopia, nor ever has been. It is necessary to criticize ourselves constructively, for the sake of growing in virtue. But that is not what these people are doing. By anathematizing any and all who cherish the culture and history of the West, they will ultimately force conservatives to embrace Reaction as the only bastion of resistance to their nihilistic crusade. But they don’t see it anymore than the Social Justice Warriors grasp that their militant illiberalism is calling up and equal and opposite reaction from the people they have demonized.
There’s something fitting about Trump’s giving this speech in Warsaw. Every conservative should read Legutko’s book, The Demon In Democracy, a reflection on Poland’s post-communist experience with liberal democracy. Here are excerpts:
Having cast away the obligations and commitments that come from the past, the communist and the liberal democrat quickly lose their memory of it or, alternatively, their respect for it. Both want the past eradicated altogether or at least made powerless as an object of relativizing or derision. Communism, as a system that started history anew, had to be, in essence and in practice, against memory. Those who were fighting the regime were also fighting for memory against forgetting, knowing very well that the loss of memory strengthened the communist system by making people defenseless and malleable. There are no better illustrations of how politically imposed amnesia helps in the molding of the new man than the twentieth-century anti-utopias 1984 and Brave New World. The lessons of Orwell and Huxley were, unfortunately, quickly forgotten. In my country at the very moment when communism fell and the liberal-democratic order was emerging, memory again became one of the main enemies. The apostles of the new order lost no time in denouncing it as a harmful burden hampering striving for modernity. In this anti-memory crusade, as in several other crusades, they have managed to be quite successful, more so than their communist predecessors.
The people, structures, thoughts that exists outside the liberal-democratic pattern are deemed outdates, backward-looking, useless, but at the same time extremely dangerous as preserving the remnants of old authoritarianisms. Some may still be tolerated for some time, but as anyone with a minimum of intelligence is believed to know, sooner or later they will end in the dustbin of history. Their continued existence will most likely threaten the liberal-democratic progress and therefore they should be treated with the harshness they deserve.
The only change that one could imagine happening was one for the worse, which in the eyes of supporters meant not a slight deterioration, but a disaster. The communist would say: if communism is rejected or prevented, then society will continue to be subjected to class exploitation, capitalism, imperialism, and fascism. The liberal democrats would say: if liberal democracy is not accepted, then society will fall prey to authoritarianism, fascism, and theocracy. In both cases, the search for an alternative solution is, at best, nonsensical and not worth a moment’s reflection, and at worst, a highly reckless and irresponsible game.
Legutko has the number of these liberal journalists and commenters. I can’t urge you strongly enough to read his eye-opening book.
“Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?” Trump asked. Maybe he was thinking about Islamic terrorists. I’m thinking about the educated barbarians who cannot create a living culture, only live off the last vestiges of one they inherited, even as they scatter salt in its fallow fields. Donald Trump may be the enemy of culture in many respects, but he is in no way as potent an enemy as these mad evangelists for the Anti-Culture.
UPDATE: Douthat is right about this:
One key to understanding Trump, always, is that he appeals to people by attacking the decadence that he himself also embodies.
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) July 7, 2017
But it’s also important to know that many on the left offend and repudiate people who dislike Trump by reacting to him like rabid rats got loose in their shorts. Seriously, when I read the transcript of Trump’s speech yesterday, I thought it was pretty ordinary stuff. The American president saying Western civilization is good and worth defending? This is controversial? And as I’ve said a couple of times in this space, it’s eye-rolling to hear Donald Trump talk about the importance of strong families and strong values. Still, if you’re going to go to pieces every time a politician says something hypocritical, you’ll never be able to get out of bed in the morning.
But then here comes respectable commenters on the left, like Bouie, Beinart, and Fallows, yammering about fascism, Leni Riefenstahl, and racist dog whistles, and you realize that whether he meant to or not, Trump’s speech was clarifying. I don’t think Donald Trump could write ten meaningful sentences explaining why the West matters, but that’s beside the point. The point is, when talking about the worth and the defense of Western civilization makes you into Hitler McGoebbelsface in the eyes of liberal commentators, then you suddenly see the situation in starker relief.
The thing is, even if they side with him by default, conservatives must never, ever forget that Trump represents a different form of decadence.
UPDATE.2: This is a fair point by David Frum:
Yet the most troubling thing about the speech was the falsehood at its core; the problem is not with the speech, but with the speaker. The values Trump spoke for in Warsaw are values that he has put at risk every day of his presidency—and that he will continue to put to risk every day thereafter.
Frum’s full column calls Trump a hypocrite for giving the speech, and offers a detailed explanation for why. You may or may not agree with Frum — for what it’s worth, I think he’s mostly right — but it’s certainly a legitimate criticism. But that’s not the criticism many prominent liberal commentators have made. They have criticized the substance of the speech itself, as if standing up for Western civilization was a vicious, racist act. That’s unnerving.