The challenges confronting America and the West are manifold and well-documented, but the biggest problem we face today is a crisis of confidence. Any problem is surmountable if you have the courage to look at it with clear eyes and act on principle. This is how we built the Hoover Dam, defeated the Nazis, secured civil rights for all races, and put a man on the Moon. But if you lack this resolve – if you are determined to blindfold yourself to the truth and wallow in apathy and self-doubt – then even the simplest task becomes nearly impossible. A gust of wind could blow you over, a pinprick result in paralysis.
This crisis of self-doubt is not confined to one country; rather it afflicts western civilization as a whole. According to Samuel Huntington, a civilization is the largest unit by which people can be divided. Beyond civilization, we all belong to the human race. Within civilization exist various nation-states and ethnic groups. Even within these states and groups, we divide further by party and ideology.
Historically, western civilization has rested on two pillars: Greco-Roman rationalism and Christianity. The first gave us the confidence to use reason to understand the world, thus freeing ourselves from superstition and fatalism. The embrace of reason led to the most advanced classical civilization in the world, and then the most powerful empire. It gave us democracy and the rule of law.
But it was not enough. For despite the technical, military, and legal prowess of both the Greeks and the Romans, such evils as infanticide and slavery were widespread. It took the dawn of Christianity to take the moral ideals first developed in Judaism and make them universal. Christianity offered protection to the weakest members of society – the disabled, the young, the ill – but it did even more than that. Christianity put forth the powerful and previously unimaginable idea that the poorest members of society were actually the most beloved by God. Women and slaves understandably flocked to this new creed. More surprising was the fact that even the powerful, who had the most to lose and least to gain, were also attracted to its teachings. The triumph of Christianity was near total in the West. Today it is the world’s most popular religion, while virtually no one still worships Jupiter or Zeus.
While some might have predicted a conflict between the Christian faith and Greco-Roman reason, the two were beautifully synthesized in the Middle Ages by such intellectual geniuses as Saint Thomas Aquinas. Classical scholarship and legal traditions endured, despite the fall of the Roman Empire and near-constant invasions from Muslims, Vikings, and other groups. Beginning in the Late Middle Ages, Europe became the birthplace of modern commerce, science, and industry. Europeans went from being relatively poor and insignificant vis-à-vis their Asian and Middle Eastern neighbors to dominating the globe by 1900, when 90% of the world was controlled by Europeans and their descendants. The twentieth century continued to see advances in technology and science, as diseases were cured and standards of living rose. But it also witnessed two destructive world wars, both originating in Europe, and the ascendancy of communism as a global threat to freedom.
Still, considering its many gifts to mankind, one would expect people in the West to be proud of their civilization’s accomplishments and eager to secure its blessings for their posterity. Instead, we see the opposite. Westerners are made to feel guilt and shame for the misdeeds and alleged shortcomings of their ancestors. Violence and greed – once understood to be flaws inherent in human nature – are now viewed by many as uniquely western, while non-western societies past and present are mythologized as utopian Edens.
European colonial powers certainly had their share of injustices. The Atlantic Slave Trade, the destruction of Native American tribes, and the use of forced labor in Africa were all inexcusable. But so was the indigenous slavery and warfare practiced by both Africans and Native Americans, by no means the “noble savages” of the romantic imagination. It has become routine every October to charge Christopher Columbus with crimes against humanity, but not Tlacaelel, the Aztec leader who sacrificed at least 4,000 and as many as 84,000 victims to dedicate a new temple.
The fact that someone is born into western civilization is no guarantee that each individual will accept or practice all of its values. Every human society has its share of deviants and criminals, as well as its heroes and saints. Consider the examples of King Leopold of Belgium and Bartolome de las Casas. The former was responsible for as many as 10 million deaths in the Congo, while the latter famously defended the human rights of Native Americans in Spanish colonies. Much less noted than the crimes of certain individuals and groups is the fact that the West was the first civilization to abolish slavery and give all people equal protection under the law.
But things are different now. We have lost ourselves. People who still champion the superiority of western values are accused of bigotry, racism, and intolerance (ironic for sure, as tolerance and equality are some of the western values its proponents seek to protect). Europe is told it must fling open its doors to millions of immigrants who do not share their values, some coming with the stated goal of replacing western civilization with Islam. Yet we would never demand that Saudi Arabia, China, or Pakistan open its doors to European immigrants (not that many westerners would want to live under sharia law or communism).
None of this makes any sense unless one understands the depths of western self-doubt and self-loathing, the roots of which are brilliantly traced in an article by Jonathan Pidluzny. The actions currently being taken or avoided by western governments appear suicidal to the outside observer. But suicide is the only rational outcome of irrational self-hatred.
Open borders and mass immigration are perhaps the clearest signs of disdain for the West by Western elites. Women in European countries are now being instructed to change the way they dress for fear of provoking harassment. Free speech is censored. Unspeakable crimes are brushed under the rug.
Where else do we see this self-hatred? First in our schools, where both world history and U.S. history curricula downplay western achievements while dwelling on their faults. This is not to suggest that we whitewash the past or replace serious inquiry with cultural propaganda, just that context is important. Yes, European colonial empires witnessed many abuses. So too did the United States, the first nation to break free from European control and the current leader of the West. But so did the Mongols, the Aztecs, the Mughals, and the Turks. These empires saw the slaughter of entire cities, the sacrifice of innocent victims to appease angry gods, and the terrible torture of rivals. Women in western civilization had to fight long and hard for equal rights. But women in Chinese, Indian, and Islamic civilization were considered little more than the property of their fathers and husbands. They are still undervalued and marginalized today.
We see this self-hatred in the climate change movement. Forget the fact that industrialization has lifted millions of people out of poverty and eradicated diseases that once decimated entire communities. Forget that western nations have done much in recent decades to reduce pollution and conserve the environment. We are made to feel irrationally guilty over our “carbon footprint.” We are offered different ways of atoning for our sins, few of them rational. We may purchase green products like electric cars that are in fact no better for the environment than traditional ones. We are told we must transfer billions of dollars from western taxpayers to corrupt governments in developing countries to help them mitigate the effects of climate change. It makes sense to blame the West for imperialism in the Philippines, but not a typhoon.
We see this self-hatred in the restrictions placed on our natural rights to speech and religion. We are not to criticize other cultures or religions, even when they explicitly call for violence against non-believers, apostates, and blasphemers. We are not to notice when people of other cultures commit crimes or propagate injustice. Instead, we are to search our speech for microaggressions and our subconscious for unrecognized biases. Even if we disavow racism and come from modest backgrounds, we are told to feel guilty over the “privilege” bestowed by our skin color.
We see this self-hatred in the fight against Islamic terrorism, the greatest external threat to freedom today. We are told by our leaders that if the terrorists hate us, we must have done something to deserve it. It is not the terrorists who are to blame, but rather our past foreign policy mistakes, our reluctance to open our borders, or our perverse attachment to the Bill of Rights. Or maybe it’s just an 800-year grudge over the Crusades. It couldn’t possibly be anything to do with Islam, and to suggest as much would be bigoted. Instead of killing the terrorists who wish us harm, we are told to shut up and disarm. Hillary Clinton blamed the murder of four Americans at Benghazi on an amateur YouTube video criticizing the prophet Muhammad (who, to anyone who has ever studied his life, certainly merits criticism). This blaming of the West for terrorist attacks on the West is tantamount to blaming a victim of domestic violence for provoking her attacker, or the rape victim for her short skirt. In fact, it seems impossible for critics of the West to find blame anywhere outside of the West.
We must understand the roots of this crisis if we are to have any hope of reversing it. Jonathan Pidluzny identifies five causes of western self-doubt and self-loathing: modern science, which made us doubt anything that could not be empirically demonstrated; romanticism, which elevated subjective feeling over objective reason, democratic egalitarianism, which led to excessive individualism and isolation from the body politic; democratic materialism, which transformed us into mundane pleasure-seekers; and the erosion of the liberal arts, which no longer satisfy man’s thirst for higher knowledge and meaning.
How can these forces be countered? How can the West regain its confidence? These are difficult questions, but there are certain things we should not do. We do not need to export our civilization to foreign lands through Iraq- and Afghanistan-style nation building. Clearly this does not work well. We do not need Donald Trump-style populism. One real danger of elite disdain for the West is that it pushes people to embrace just such demagoguery. We should also not forget the real contributions made by other civilizations, or dismiss their potential to contribute to our future advancement. Having confidence in ourselves does not mean putting others down, or forcing them to change.
Pidluzny hopes for a revival of the liberal arts as a starting point. I agree that such a movement is needed, though the recent reaction on college campuses against freedom of speech leaves me doubtful that it can be spearheaded by the university. Our culture needs nothing short of a modern renaissance, a rediscovery of the habits and values that made our civilization great. I know such revitalization is possible. The only question is, will we have to endure another Dark Age to reach it?