Daniel Greenfield suggests that we look at contemporary Japan as a kind of mirror for the post-modern, totally decadent and deracinated West.
Depressed post-industrial economy, low birth rate, social disintegration and a society obsessed with pop culture and useless tech toys? A country that has embraced pacifism to the extent that it can hardly defend its own borders? A nation where materialism has strangled spirituality leaving no sense of purpose?
We are Japan. And so is Europe. Or rather Japan is the place we all reach eventually.
Japan is strange because it aggressively hurled itself into a postmodern void without knowing what was on the other side. It did this with the same dedication that its soldiers once marched into machine gun fire.
Japan had been in a race with the West, as it had been ever since Commodore Perry showed up with a fleet to open up a closed nation. It wasn’t unique in that regard. A lot of countries tried to do the same thing. Most found that they couldn’t keep up with either our technology or our decline. Japan shot past us in both areas. It beat us technologically. And then it outpaced our decline.
In the 80s, there were dire predictions that the future would belong to Japan. America would be broken up and run by a bunch of Japanese corporations. There were even predictions that after the fall of the USSR, the next war would be with Japan. Some of those predictions came from some surprisingly high profile analysts.
The future doesn’t belong to Japan. It may not, at this rate, belong to anyone. Japan hurled itself into the future, but didn’t find anything there.
Korea hurled itself into that same future and found only emptiness. Now China’s elites are rushing into that same void and are beginning to discover that technocracy and materialism are hollow. That is why China is struggling to reassert Communist values even while throwing everything into making Walmart’s next product shipment. Like Japanese and Korean leaders, Chinese leaders are realizing that their technological and material achievements have left their society with a spiritual void.
That isn’t a problem unique to Asia. Asian countries were just less prepared for a rapid transition to the modern age. Europe and America, which had more time to prepare, are still on the same track. ...
The thing we have in common with Japan, China and Europe is that we have all moved into a post-modern future while leaving our values behind and our societies have suffered for it. It is a future in which stores have robots on display but couples are hardly getting married, where there are high speed trains and a sense of lingering depression as the people who ride them don’t know where they are going, and where the values of the past have been traded for a culture of uncertainty.
If asked to provide a list of great American achievements over the past 20 years, I would say the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the iPhone and the speech with which Jesse first talks Céline off the train in “Before Sunrise”. It had to do with time travellers, as I recall, but it was the tone that did it—a small miracle of foxy charm and open-hearted entreaty, whisked along by a Huck Finn boulevardier spirit. It turned out to be enough to power an entire movie. ...
Nobody knows anything, of course, but using the in-house time machine available only to critics on Intelligent Life magazine, I can safely report that in 50 years’ time, the Céline and Jesse films will be held up as classics of the heartfelt sequel form, up there with Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, Satyajit Ray’s Apu films and the “Toy Story” trilogy.
The Atlantic pays transgendered Thomas Page McBee to pontificate on the new meaning of masculinity.
Masculinity is not as a magical state defined by advertisers and secondary sex characteristics but, like femininity, a complex amalgamation of socialization, biology, style, and stereotype. Men aren’t in crisis, we’re in opportunity, but only if we can each look in the mirror and decide what kind of man we are. ...
What kind of man do I want to be? The kind I am. I think vulnerability is the foundation of courage; I love aesthetics; I stand up for myself; I box and lift weights; I listen. I’m the type of man I’d want to hang out with, the kind of guy who thinks masculinity is diverse and that real men don’t exist.
Despite the dinosaur machismo I encountered in the beginning of my transition, I’ve reason to believe that the old guard is falling away, and the new man taking his place. Since I’ve come out as a wine-drinking feminist with feelings, I’ve met many guys who are embracing a wider definition of masculinity. Not just the stay-at-home dads, but the elderly man who told me he’s just now told his best friend of decades that he loves him, the ex-varsity jock who works with men to redefine what masculinity means, the straight, burly artist who documents friends shotgunning beer who is matter-of-fact about the homoeroticism of male bonding, and whose skater buddies pose for his delicate homages to just that.
Daniel Dennett is a distinguished philosopher, at least, with respect to Philosophy of Mind. As a kind of philosophical sideline, however, he follows the unfortunate example of certain other contemporary professors and operates as a polemicist on behalf of bien pensant liberalism.
Dennett recently offered this supposedly well-tempered response to the horrifying militarism of the barbarous administration of George W. Bush.
Suppose that we face some horrific, terrible enemy, another Hitler or something really, really bad, and here’s two different armies that we could use to defend ourselves. I’ll call them the Gold Army and the Silver Army; same numbers, same training, same weaponry. They’re all armored and armed as well as we can do. The difference is that the Gold Army has been convinced that God is on their side and this is the cause of righteousness, and it’s as simple as that. The Silver Army is entirely composed of economists. They’re all making side insurance bets and calculating the odds of everything.
Which army do you want on the front lines? It’s very hard to say you want the economists, but think of what that means. What you’re saying is we’ll just have to hoodwink all these young people into some false beliefs for their own protection and for ours. It’s extremely hypocritical. It is a message that I recoil from, the idea that we should indoctrinate our soldiers. In the same way that we inoculate them against diseases, we should inoculate them against the economists’—or philosophers’—sort of thinking, since it might lead to them to think: am I so sure this cause is just? Am I really prepared to risk my life to protect? Do I have enough faith in my commanders that they’re doing the right thing? What if I’m clever enough and thoughtful enough to figure out a better battle plan, and I realize that this is futile? Am I still going to throw myself into the trenches? It’s a dilemma that I don’t know what to do about, although I think we should confront it at least.
I could not avoid reflecting that, philosophically speaking, Mr. Dennett is a member of the school of Analytic Philosophy founded, twice essentially, in the course of the first half of the last century by Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Wittgenstein was, indubitably, a neurasthenic and neurotic, a homosexual, a crank and a wet liberal goo-goo, hostile to wealth, prone to romanticizing the poor, indifferent or actively hostile to formality and tradition (try to find a photograph of Wittgenstein wearing a tie). But all his personal demons, all the balderdash that Ludwig Wittgenstein embraced did not prevent him from volunteering to serve as an officer in Austrian Army when WWI broke out.
Wittgenstein served as an artillery officer, fought on both the Russian and Italian fronts, and was awarded three major Imperial Austrian medals for valor. One commendation spoke of “[h]is exceptionally courageous behaviour, calmness, sang-froid, and heroism”, which had “won the total admiration of the troops.” Wittgenstein actually wrote much of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus while serving in the trenches.
What has happened to separate Dennett from Wittgenstein? Much more indoctrination in bad Moral Philosophy and religious heresy from which not even professional training and expertise in Analytic Philosophy suffices to inoculate the potential victim and secure immunity.
C.S. Lewis wrote a famous essay, titled The Abolition of Man, in which he describes the mind-and-soul-numbing impact of a typical liberal elementary school textbook (which he calls “The Green Book,” which systematically denies the objectivity of values, which —in other words—trains the young to be (sophisters, calculators, and) “economists,” i.e. liberal materialist conformists like Dennett.
The operation of The Green Book and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests. It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals. This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence. It is not so. They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardour to pursue her. Indeed it would be strange if they were: a persevering devotion to truth, a nice sense of intellectual honour, cannot be long maintained without the aid of a sentiment which Gaius and Titius [Lewis’s fictional names of the “Green Book”’s authors] could debunk as easily as any other. It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.
And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
Dan Greenfield takes the occasion of America’s reaffirmation of the choice of Barack Obama as president to discuss how it is possible for any country to make such a choice.
Mitt Romney, a fake authentic politician of the old school, back when politicians were working with magazine covers, snapshots and a 30 second clip, couldn’t compete against the truly fake Barack Obama, who in truly modern media style doesn’t just fake 30 seconds or 30 minutes in front of the camera, but fakes his entire life going back decades.
Obama is truly fake. He is authentically unreal. There is absolutely nothing to him. If you take away all the work that was done to make him famous, there would be nothing there. And that is exactly why he is the perfect avatar for the media age. ...
America is being run by a Made in Indonesia leader whose performance is as bad as any of the Made in Indonesia, Pakistan or China crap you’ll find in Wal-Mart. And it doesn’t matter because he’s a brand. The savvier younger and urban voters don’t care what he’s made of, they care how he makes them feel. They may lose their job the next day and their prospects for paying off their college loans may be missing, but if it makes them feel good at the point of polling, then that’s what matters.
When all products are bad, then all that matters is how they feel. When everything can be deconstructed into a lie, then you embrace the lie that feels the most fakely real, even knowing that it will one day be exposed on another episode of Oprah as a lie.
Those who believe in nothing are the most gullible because they will fall for anything. Those without faith are always looking to believe in something or someone. Those who have never known value or quality are always looking to pick up a product that communicates value and quality to them, even while they retain no metric for assessing either one. Instead of learning the metric, they follow the brand, they become savvy brand-spotters, rather than knowledgeable buyers. And when they brand lets them down, then the brand apologizes, the emotions are soothed, and the low information voter turns to the big screen for another messiah.
In a culture where character no longer matters, competition loses all meaning. A lie is no longer a lie, it is not wrong in and of itself. A failure no longer matters if it makes people feel good. And the idea of leadership no longer exists, only the imitation of it. The faint media echo of the values of what was once a great civilization singing itself to sleep.
Dan Greenfield has another of his intelligent essays full of unpalatable truth.
[T]he West has been headed out of the territory of reason for some time now. Its truths have become ideological beliefs. Its goals have become the self-worship of its own symbols, size for the sake of size, and centralization for the sake of centralization. There is a mingled horror and longing for the savage and the barbaric, as civilization appears to have lost its meaning. The leadership cries “Onward to a united world” on the one hand, and “Back to the caves” on the other. That confused melange boils down to a cultural intelligence which has lost the awareness of its own contradictions. High tech environmentalism, soft wars and valueless money are all symptoms of that same intellectual degeneracy.
The rise of China is directly tied to our own irrationality. The People’s Republic of China has become rich and powerful by serving as the reservoir of our contradictions. We wanted cheap products, no pollution, high wages and generous benefits. All these things are not compatible, so we outsourced our manufacturing to China and pretended that we could have it all. But all we got were cheap products, and the country we outsourced them to got the jobs and the national prosperity. We wanted to spend money without worrying about where it came from. Again we turned to China. And like the grasshopper and the ant, we sang and played all summer, while the ants worked and prepared for the winter.
We used China to escape the limits of reality, but there is no escape. Only temporary vacations from consequences.
The election of Islamic Party municipal councilors in several towns in Belgian is provoking controversy, as the newly elected officials do not bother to conceal their intentions to use democratic means to overthrow democracy and turn Belgium into an Islamic state operating on the basis of Sharia law.
Thomas Couture, Les Romains de la décadence [Romans in the Period of Decadence], 1847, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
And even Ross Douthat begins to recognize in the distance the final stop at end of the rail line of progressive modernism.
It’s a near-universal law that modernity reduces fertility. ...
American fertility plunged with the stock market in 2008, and it hasn’t recovered. Last week, the Pew Research Center reported that U.S. birthrates hit the lowest rate ever recorded in 2011, with just 63 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age. (The rate was 71 per 1,000 in 1990.) For the first time in recent memory, Americans are having fewer babies than the French or British. ...
Beneath… policy debates, though, lie cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change. The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.
Betsey Woodruff, in National Review, identifies Lena Dunham’s HBO comedy Girls as a cultural canary-in-the-coal-mine which, if observed carefully, could have told you where the recent presidential election was heading.
At its core, Girls feels like a deliberate, dissective examination of a group of people who stubbornly refuse to grow up and are lucky enough to be able to pull it off. The main thing Dunham’s characters share is the idea that just because they exist, somebody else should give them stuff. In and of itself, depicting that isn’t at all a bad thing. Girls is an interesting project, it’s well executed, and it can be really, really funny. Look, I like Girls, and I’m excited about the second season.
But Dunham’s stupid little YouTube ad for the president might have ruined it all for me. That’s because she sounds like she’s channeling her character, Invasion of the Body Snatchers–style. They share the same baffling, naïvely egomaniacal understanding of justice — they both seem to think that because they exist, the universe needs to make sure that all the sex they choose to have is consequence-free.
You can almost argue that Lena Dunham sees President Obama as the perfect surrogate for everything missing in her characters’ lives: He’s their gentle lover, supportive parent, and empathetic friend. He’s special. He won’t let them down. He’s Prince Charming. And that kind of defeats the purpose of feminism.
You’d think the feminist elevation of agency would result in women who take pride in being responsible for their own bodies. You’d hope that telling women that they can do whatever they want would imply that they’re responsible for what they do. You’d think serious feminists would argue that true empowerment is something you lay claim to, not something the federal government dispenses in all its benevolence. But for Dunham, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
In fact, for all practical purposes, the patriarchy no longer decides whom American women can sleep with and when. That’s great. But if you don’t want men in Washington telling you how to use your sexuality, you shouldn’t expect them to subsidize it. But Dunham seems to actually believe they should. Dunham makes tons of money, and I’m quite confident she can afford to pay for her own birth control. But she doesn’t seem to take pride in that; it’s not what her characters aspire to, and given her foray into the delightful world of presidential-election ads, it doesn’t seem to be something she aspires to, either.
Second-wave feminists lionized the independent woman who paid her own rent and busted through glass ceilings and ran for Congress. Being totally self-sufficient was the goal. The idea was that women didn’t need men, whether those men were their fathers or husbands or boyfriends or presidents. By contrast, Dunham’s new vision of women as lady parts with ballots is infantilizing and regressive.
So Girls isn’t the eschaton, and neither is one vapid YouTube video. But if Dunham’s show were a metaphorical canary in a metaphorical coal mine, it would be struggling pretty hard right now. There’s a reason it’s called Girls, not Women.
Mark Steyn puts Sandra Fluke’s speech to the DNC into perspective, identifying exactly which plimsoll mark Fluke represents as civilization sinks beneath the liberal waves. He also rather amusingly compares her to Lola Montez.
Sandra Fluke… completed her education a few weeks ago – at the age of 31, or Grade 25. Before going to Georgetown, she warmed up with a little light BS in Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies from Cornell. She then studied law at one of the most prestigious institutions in the nation, where tuition costs 50 grand a year. The average starting salary for a Georgetown Law graduate is $160,000 per annum – first job, first paycheck.
So this is America’s best and brightest – or, at any rate, most expensively credentialed. Sandra Fluke has been blessed with a quarter-million dollars of elite education, and, on the evidence of Wednesday night, is entirely incapable of making a coherent argument. She has enjoyed the leisurely decade-long varsity once reserved for the minor sons of Mitteleuropean grand dukes, and she has concluded that the most urgent need facing the Brokest Nation in History is for someone else to pay for the contraception of 30-year-old children. She says the choice facing America is whether to be “a country where we mean it when we talk about personal freedom, or one where that freedom doesn’t apply to our bodies and our voices” – and, even as the words fall leaden from her lips, she doesn’t seem to comprehend that Catholic institutions think their “voices” ought to have freedom, too, or that Obamacare seizes jurisdiction over “our bodies” and has 16,000 new IRS agents ready to fine us for not making arrangements for “our” pancreases and “our” bladders that meet the approval of the commissars. Sexual liberty, even as every other liberty withers, is all that matters: A middle-school girl is free to get an abortion without parental consent, but if she puts a lemonade stand on her lawn she’ll be fined. ...
Any space aliens prowling through the rubble of our civilization and stumbling upon a recording of the convention compatible with Planet Zongo DVD players will surely marvel at the valuable peak airtime allotted to Sandra Fluke. It was weird to see her up there among the governors and senators – as weird as Bavarians thought it was when King Ludwig decided to make his principal adviser Lola Montez, the Irish-born “Spanish dancer” and legendary grande horizontale. I hasten to add I’m not saying Miss Fluke is King Barack’s courtesan. For one thing, it’s a striking feature of the Age of Perfected Liberalism that modern liberals talk about sex 24/7 while simultaneously giving off the persistent whiff that the whole thing’s a bit of a chore. Hence, the need for government subsidy. And, in fairness to Miss Montez, she used sex to argue for liberalized government, whereas Miss Fluke uses liberalism to argue for sexualized government.
But those distinctions aside, like Miss Fluke, Miss Montez briefly wielded an influence entirely disproportionate to her talents. Like Miss Fluke, she was a passionate liberal activist who sought to diminish what she regarded as the malign influence of the Catholic Church. Taking up with Lola cost King Ludwig his throne in the revolutions of 1848. We’ll see in a couple of months whether taking up with Sandra works out for King Barack.
Damien Hirst, Crematorium [a giant ashtray filled with cigarette butts and packets], Tate Gallery, London
“’Charles,’ said Cordelia, ‘Modern Art is all bosh, isn’t it?’
Not all Modern Art is bosh really, but an ever-increasing percentage certainly is. How did it come to this? Jacob Willer, in an absolutely brilliant essay in Standpoint magazine, explains how the ideology of Romantic Rousseauianism has transformed the art schools and, along with them, most artists’ abilities and goals. Today, nobody learns to draw or paint at Art School. When you mess up a print, the instructor applauds your spontaneous expression and awards your blunder top marks.
[T]he brochure of one prestigious art school reads:
The course… encourages you to test the boundaries of drawing practice… You will be asked to explore drawing as an end in itself as well as a means for exploring other modes of art practice such as sculpture, installation, performance and film … the course offers a distinct approach to drawing fine art practice.
“Test the boundaries of drawing” means to do anything but drawing. Exploring drawing “as a means for exploring other modes of art practice such as sculpture, installation, performance and film” really means dissolving drawing into everything else, and calling everything else drawing, until drawing has been redefined, and defined out of existence — till it can mean pins and strings and bus-rides. A “distinct approach to drawing” indeed, but sadly, it is “distinct” in many art schools today.
My head of painting did writing, albeit on canvas, and the head of sculpture did performances which he sometimes filmed. I remember a fellow student once “testing the boundaries” of painting, and no doubt using it to “explore other modes of art practice”, by hanging a torn blank canvas on the wall through which protruded a pink plastic vibrating penis. I found it impossible not to laugh as we were gathered to contemplate this “piece” and the head of the school pronounced that it had a certain pathos. But, comedy aside, note that paint was nowhere involved, although this was the painting term. The violated canvas was judged a sufficient reference to the accoutrements of painting, and irreverent enough to be passed as “painting” — and four full weeks’ painting at that.
Anselm Kiefer, Abendland (Twilight of the West), 1989
Mark Steyn gloomily predicts that the attempts of politicians to deliver material comfort, cradle-to-the-grave security, and substantial life intervals of leisure to the masses are not compatible with economic reality.
In the twilight of the West, America and Europe are still different but only to this extent: They’ve wound up taking separate paths to the same destination. Whether you get there via an artificial common currency for an invented pseudo-jurisdiction or through quantitative easing and the global decline of the dollar, whether you spend your final years in the care of Medicare or the National Health Service death panels, whether higher education is just another stage of cradle-to-grave welfare or you have a trillion dollars’ worth of personal college debt, in 2012 the advanced Western social-democratic citizen looks pretty similar, whether viewed from Greece or Germany, California or Quebec.
That’s to say, the unsustainable “bubble” is not student debt or subprime mortgages or anything else. The bubble is us, and the assumptions of entitlement. Too many citizens of advanced Western democracies live a life they have not earned, and are not willing to earn. ...
Look around you. The late-20th-century Western lifestyle isn’t going to be around much longer. In a few years’ time, our children will look at old TV commercials showing retirees dancing, golfing, cruising away their sixties and seventies, and wonder what alternative universe that came from. In turn, their children will be amazed to discover that in the early 21st century the Western world thought it entirely normal that vast swathes of the citizenry should while away their youth enjoying what, a mere hundred years earlier, would have been the leisurely varsity of the younger son of a Mitteleuropean Grand Duke.
As usual, Mark Steyn’s rhetoric is well worth the read, but I do not entirely agree.
I think it’s true that the dynamic of egalitarian democracy by its nature faces the fundamental danger of an ongoing benefits auction for the masses’ political support which will always in the end wind up devouring too great a portion of the economy resulting in disaster.
But I think myself, on the other hand, that, if government regulation and economic meddling were minimized and the burden of taxation was modest, economic growth could create and sustain an economically-independent and leisured middle class, much larger than the vanished one which existed in Britain and America before 1914. It’s just not possible to lift all the boats all at once.
I do strongly agree with Mark Steyn that our current model of near-universal college education, consisting of four years of leisure and good times combined with plenty of left-wing indoctrination, represents a simply astounding waste of human energy and talent.
Between useless high school and useless college, millions upon millions of people today fritter away what are actually their most healthy, energetic, and potentially productive years imbibing modest quantities of learning, having a good time, and being flattered into believing that are members of an omniscient elite charged with the revolutionary overthrow of a wicked and stupid past. It would be infinitely better all the way around if 90+% of everyone simply went to work at 13, as my parents’ generation generally did.
Matt Feeney, in the New Yorker, takes a fresh look at Bloom’s Straussian jeremiad of 1987 and observes that the relativism of the 1960s era seems no longer to be the same kind of problem. Kids at elite universities today are not relativists. They are instead commonly hyper-engagée moral perfectionists, brainwashed from the time they were toddlers into intense preoccupation with all the ersatz moral concerns of the bien pensant haute bourgeoisie community.
[T]he moral disenchantment that Bloom called relativism is not the problem it was in 1987. Indeed, college-bound American kids now grow up in world that is almost medieval in its degree of moral enchantment. Their moral reflex is anxiously conditioned to an ever-growing list of worries and provocations: smoking, safe sex, chastity, patriotism, faith, religious freedom, bullying, diversity, drugs, crime, violence, obesity, binge drinking. Almost no problem goes un-talked about, un-taught from, un-ruled on. These lessons are convincingly yoked to real-life concerns about safety, health, and happiness, not to mention all those things that, as the song says, will go down on their permanent records.
For kids entering college fully trained in this liturgy of prudence and niceness, which I am anxiously imparting to my own young children, it’s not Bloom’s censoriousness they will resist. It’s his decadence. ...
Bloom’s esoteric project asks today’s students to estrange themselves from an identity that they, their parents, and their teachers, along with their ministers and rabbis and shrinks, their camp counselors and art tutors and soccer coaches, have been constructing since these kids were born, and with a degree of political and moral awareness that everyone involved is darned proud of. These are good kids. Try telling a college sophomore who founded his school’s anti-sweatshop movement that his enthusiasms are callow, his convictions harmful to a true education of the soul, and that he should instead join you on a freaky trip into the true mind of Thucydides.
Mark Anthony Signorelli turns his review of Mark Steyn’s After America: Get Ready for Armageddon into an essay supplementary to Steyn’s book, arguing the author’s view of cause and effect can be improved by reading a much earlier (1930) attack on the same forces of dissolution by the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset.
Throughout his book, Steyn catalogues the demoralizing effects of unlimited government upon the American citizenry. No one can ignore the power of the case he presents. But as much as government overreach erodes the character of a people, the debased character of a people manifests itself in arbitrary government. Bad institutions make bad people, but bad people also make bad institutions. Our ugly politics is every bit a reflection of our cultural failings as are our worthless schools. Steyn is not unaware of these facts; one of the passages I found most compelling in his book was when he argues that the truly horrifying thing about the rise of Obama was the fact that the majority of the American people had been duped by such an evident buffoon. Our folly created his administration, and all of its works. So Steyn clearly understands the way a people’s faults can manifest themselves in inept government. Still, the obvious emphasis of his book is on the causal relationship which runs opposite, on the way that inept government debases the character of a people. I think that emphasis is misplaced; I think the effects of a people’s character on the character of their government are more fundamental, more decisive to their happiness, and more subject to reform than the effects which flow from a corrupted government upon the citizenry. Or, to put the point in a different way, I believe that culture is far more consequential for the maintenance of a well-ordered community than politics. Steyn himself advises that, “changing the culture is more important than changing the politics,” but since the emphasis of his book is on the way that bad politics has changed our culture for the worse, he actually seems to undermine this bit of advice.
The book that most effectively delineates the ruinous social mechanisms of liberal democracy is The Revolt of the Masses, by the early twentieth-century philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset. For Ortega, modern western society was marked by the rise to power of the “mass-man,” the unqualified or uncultivated man, who, lacking all necessary intellectual and moral training in the duties of civic life, had nonetheless asserted his immutable right to impose his own mediocrity of spirit upon society: “The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will.” The mass-man is not bound by any traditions or maxims of prudence; he cares only about having his own way in the world. And when he is taught (as all modern political theory teaches him) that the state is a manifestation of his own will, he freely grants it an unlimited scope of action, just as he (theoretically) grants himself a perfect freedom of action: “This is the gravest danger that today threatens civilization: State intervention, the absorption of all spontaneous social effort by the State…when the mass suffers any ill-fortune, or simply feels some strong appetite, its great temptation is that permanent, sure possibility of obtaining everything – merely by touching a button and setting the mighty machine in motion.” The consequences of this trend are catastrophic:
The result of this tendency will be fatal. Spontaneous social action will be broken up over and over again by State intervention; no new seed will be able to fructify. Society will have to live for the State, man for the governmental machine. And as, after all, it is only a machine whose existence and maintenance depend on the vital supports around it, the State, after sucking out the very marrow of society, will be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty death of machinery, more gruesome than the death of a living organism.
Exactly as Steyn describes it in his book, some eighty years later. But what Ortega makes us see is that “big government” results from the prior moral corruption of the people, in particular from their unbounded self-love and self-assurance. It destroys them in the end, but at the first, it was their creature.
You couldn’t hope to frame a better demonstration of the characteristic intellectual and moral confusion of the Western establishment leadership class than occurred over the last weekend.
In the United States, an absolute nobody, the Rev. Terry Jones of the ludicrously named “World Dove Outreach Center” in Gainesville, Florida, obviously feeling neglected since he had graciously canceled a burning of the Koran last year, got himself back into the news by putting the Islamic holy book on trial, finding it guilty, sentencing it, and carrying out his own Koran barbecue.
In the aftermath, in a variety of locations in Afghanistan, mobs of howling savages threw temper tantrums in response, blocking a main highway with burning tires, attacking US soldiers, storming a UN compound and brutally murdering seven innocent people with no connection whatsoever to Reverend Hookworms, and even immolating a effigy of Barack Obama.
The Afghans, inured to bloodshed from childhood, are familiar with death, and audacious in attack, but easily discouraged by failure; excessively turbulent and unsubmissive to law or discipline; apparently frank and affable in manner, especially when they hope to gain some object, but capable of the grossest brutality when that hope ceases. They are unscrupulous in perjury, treacherous, vain and insatiable, passionate in vindictiveness, which they will satisfy at the cost of their own lives and in the most cruel manner. Nowhere is crime committed on such trifling grounds, or with such general impunity, though when it is punished the punishment is atrocious. Among themselves the Afghans are quarrelsome, intriguing and distrustful; estrangements and affrays are of constant occurrence; the traveller conceals and misrepresents the time and direction of his journey. The Afghan is by breed and nature a bird of prey. If from habit and tradition he respects a stranger within his threshold, he yet considers it legitimate to warn a neighbour of the prey that is afoot, or even to overtake and plunder his guest after he has quitted his roof. The repression of crime and the demand of taxation he regards alike as tyranny.
The British of a century ago did not apologize for outbreaks of insane violence on the part of hirsute barbarians. They punished them and got on with it.
Today, any occurrence of native violence, proving all over again that we are dealing with the kind of people who are half-devil and half-child, instead of prompting the despatch of a useful punitive expedition to set an example long remembered among the hills instead produces a epidemic among our own elite of chin-stroking, grovelling, and bed-wetting.
In a series of disgraceful statements, Sens. Harry Reid and Lindsey Graham, along with Gen. David Petraeus, have laid the blame for the unrest where it doesn’t belong: at the feet of the US Constitution.
Reid, the feckless Senate majority leader, said the body would “take a look” at Terry Jones’ actions in burning a copy of the Islamic holy book, and threatened hearings, as if the Senate didn’t have far more pressing issues—such as passing a budget and tackling the country’s fiscal problems.
Even more disgraceful was Graham, who said on “Face the Nation”: “I wish we could find a way to hold people accountable,” referring to Pastor Jones. “Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war. During World War II, we had limits on what you could do if it inspired the enemy.”
This is jaw-dropping in its ignorance and stupidity. Graham is arguing against freedom of speech—why else should an American citizen exercising his First Amendment rights, however offensive to some, be “held accountable” for the reactions of superstitious goatherds half a world away?—and equating an insult toward the religion that explicitly animated the 9/11 hijackers with the Bund marchers who supported Hitler.
But the prize for disappointment goes to Petraeus and NATO Ambassador Mark Sedwill, whose statement read in part: “In view of the events of recent days, we feel it is important . . . to reiterate our condemnation of any disrespect to the Holy Koran and the Muslim faith. We condemn, in particular, the action of an individual in the United States who recently burned the Holy Koran.
“We further hope the Afghan people understand that the actions of a small number of individuals, who have been extremely disrespectful to the Holy Koran, are not representative of any of the countries of the international community who are in Afghanistan to help the Afghan people.”
To this we’ve come: Bogged down in an increasingly ineffectual military operation in Afghanistan that should have ended years ago after we defeated the Taliban and routed al Qaeda, we are instead apologizing to the very people who are killing American soldiers, and treating their holy book better than we do any other.
Petraeus’ statement can perhaps be excused on the grounds that his job is as much diplomatic as martial—but that, of course, is precisely what’s wrong with his current mission. He shouldn’t be “helping the Afghan people.” That’s a task for after the Islamist threat to the West has been eliminated.