By Victor Davis Hanson
Tuesday, January 05, 2016
Professing dislike of the West and its culture and legacy is an industry on campus. The subtext of “white privilege” is that it consists of unearned status accorded those of European background. To listen to the anti-Westerners, you would think that the inventors of electrical generation, indoor plumbing, and vaccinations were enemies of the planet.
Multiculturalism, the orthodoxy of popular culture, and the current bite of the media and the arts are all predicated on the idea that Western civilization is more toxic than admirable. Citing the evils of the European tradition can also provide exemption from an occasional politically incorrect gaffe. And assuming a non-Western identity (ask Elizabeth Warren, Ward Churchill, Rachel Dolezal, or Shaun King) can offer career dividends.
American society lavished scholarships on the upper-middle-class prep-school graduate Barack Hussein Obama but perhaps would not have done so much for just another Barry Dunham. It is not surprising that when George Zimmerman had been in a fight with Trayvon Martin, his scars were photoshopped away and his 911 call racialized. Would that have happened had he chosen to go by the name of Jorge Mesa?
Paradoxes arise in attacking the West in general and the so-called European diaspora in particular. First, there is the obvious question: “Compared to what?” There are plenty of alternative cultures unstained by past Western imperialism and colonialism. Are their legacies more congenial to the present politically correct progressive agendas?
Do Islamic republics — Iran, for example — have a more reputable record of protecting gays or urban young women than does Europe or the United States? Is the venerable tradition of China more tolerant of religious and racial minorities? Would Michael Moore be permitted to be an edgier propagandist in Beijing? Are there safe spaces in Cuba or trigger warnings in Nicaragua?
In truth, the entire idea of self-criticism and self-reflection is mostly a Western aberration, not found elsewhere in the contemporary or indeed the ancient non-Western world. So critics of the West must resort to disparaging dead Westerners of a less liberal era even though there are plenty of present-day racist, homophobic, nativist, misogynist, and xenophobic cultures that would offer far easier targets for their wrath. Why pick on the fairly liberal Western societies of the past and ignore the thoroughly illiberal societies of the present?
Second, why did a million Africans and Middle Easterners freely seek out Europe last year, and why do hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans crowd the southwestern American border? Japan is as affluent as Europe, and so is Singapore. Perhaps oil-rich Kuwait or Saudi Arabia might be preferable destinations? Why does immigration flow largely to the West? Its affluence is no longer a monopoly. But rather than affluence alone, is it respect for the individual, tolerance of dissent, and freedom of expression and religion that draw a Libyan or Pakistani toward London or Paris rather than Beijing or Mumbai? Immigration is the most concrete of all polls, in which millions vote not over their cell phones but with their feet.
Third, why do the fiercest critics of the Western and European tradition rush, like moths to a flame, to seek it out? Why do even radical Muslims migrate to largely Christian countries, while Christians do not relocate to Islamic societies? Collate what is taught in ethnic-studies classes with concurrent advocacy for illegal immigration, and the result is inevitably nonsense: By identity-politics logic, why would anyone advocate that indigenous peoples should live in a country with supposedly a long record of unfairness to indigenous peoples?
Should not immigration more logically flow in the opposite direction, as millions of those sickened by the Western pathologies seek superior models of racial and ethnic tolerance to the south, where there should be more economic opportunity for the Other? Should not ethnic-studies activists station themselves on the border, urging newcomers to turn around and avoid the racism, sexism, and classism endemic in El Norte? Should not a Chicano Studies professor urge deportation to spare illegal aliens the American ordeal that is the stuff of university seminars?
How bizarre to see the critics of capitalism line up for the newest iPhone or the most recent Air Jordan sneaker! Why would hard-left professors in California jet to Europe when they could drive to Oaxaca? Or drive Volvos when Civics are far cheaper and as reliable?
Both the elites and the masses — cf. Facebook, video games, and fast food — seem to worship at the altar of capitalist excess. Ponder the progressive Obamas, whose vacations are regal in Louis XIV style; they enjoy, to the hilt, downright mean luxury — and yet seem never more proud of themselves than in the course of such indulgences. Is the logical trajectory of disdain for high-horse Christianity and typical-white-person investment really two weeks on Martha’s Vineyard?
What explains these hypocritical and incoherent attacks on the West? The answer is important because it reminds us not to take too seriously the agendas of 20-something campus critics of white privilege and those protesting against micro-aggressions and demanding safe spaces and trigger warnings.
No civilization in history has been more leisured, affluent, or self-critical than the contemporary United States and Europe, Westernized Asia, and the British Commonwealth of Nations. Globalization has made former millionaires billionaires and near millionaires multimillionaires; among them are those who run universities, the media, foundations, Wall Street, politics, and the arts, whose influence far outweighs their relative small numbers.
At some point, for the Western elite class, the acquisitive dreams of the past become the banalities of the present, as luxury cars, penthouses, and vacation homes only remind the guilty how blessed they are, whether through inheritance, the power of trillion-dollar investments, or the global market of 6 billion people. For many of our elites, trashing their culture and heritage offers a sort of medieval penance that lets them alleviate guilt without sacrificing privilege. George Soros, Al Gore, and Mark Zuckerberg often are critical of the very engines that powered them to zillionaire status. Billionaire George Lucas calls his additional multibillion-dollar buyout from Disney the work of “white slavers.” Is Lucas, then, our version of an indentured Irish immigrant, or a Balkan peasant sent in chains to Istanbul? The 1 percent hope their loud displeasures will help to square the circle of finding redemption without ceasing to satisfy their material appetites. For some, anti-Westernism is the white lace that adds something to their costly but boring outfit.
For others, the hypocrisy of trashing what you take for granted is just a small inconvenience in what is otherwise a wise career investment. The trick is to shear the Western sheep, not kill it. Ultimately, campus radicals always end up as merchants haggling over a sale, as they call for more diversity czars and community organizers, more race- or gender-based hiring and admissions, more gut courses — more agendas that benefit mostly themselves. Is there a college president in extremis who has not tried to survive the psychodramatic campus storm by pulling out his official checkbook and writing a check with someone else’s money?
Agitating against Western pathologies implies the need for more anti-Western doctors to treat the concocted morbidity — paid for, of course, in this sick partnership, by the guilty targets of their invective. How strange that Yale or Brown activists dislike the system (though not enough to leave the student union and boycott the gym) and want to fund more of its antitheses — expecting that they can find enough wealthy targets who are more than willing to invest in penances and exemptions from such loud race/class/gender medieval clergymen.
By hyphenating or ethnicizing one’s name, creating a non-Western superficial identity, or perhaps writing a diatribe against the West — the more venomous and incoherent the better — one increases one’s chances of tapping Western largesse. And in such a fat society, there are literally billions of dollars in excess that can fund therapeutic “ethnic studies” programs, assistant provosts of Diversity, ethnically separatist houses and centers, unprofitable Hollywood movies such as Truth, and “space to destroy” during times of riot.
Another reason for hating the West in the abstract is that it is easy to do so. Russians who might want to criticize Putin are either too busy trying to scrounge a living or too fearful for their lives. Try demonstrating for the construction of a Christian cathedral in Qatar. Read what the Mexican Constitution says about race and immigration into Mexico. Are there diversity deans in central-Mexican universities or in China?
So much wealth and freedom exist in the West that even the poor have access to appurtenances undreamed of by the world’s elite just 20 years ago. An iPhone in the palm has more computing power than a mainframe IBM of three decades ago. Today’s Hyundai has better sound and climate control than a 1960s Bentley. And the hot water in a low-income housing project is as hot as what flows from the spigots in the Trump Tower. Yesterday’s wealthy would appear poor today in terms of the gadgets they owned. Remember the warning from the Roman poet on the dangers of leisure born of affluence, as Rome transitioned from agrarian republic to fat global empire: Otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est: Otio exultas nimiumque gestis. Otium et reges prius et beatas perdidit urbes. (Leisure is trouble for you, Catullus: In leisure you revel and are too full of yourself. Leisure in the past has destroyed both kings and wealthy cities.)
Finally, blame the zeitgeist that confuses the naïve into assuming that technological progress should equate with moral perfection. If today’s MacBook is a thousand times more powerful than the Apple products available in 1985, why then does Wall Street still allow excess profiteering? If we can instantly Facebook those in Lima, why would Al Gore want to make millions dumping a losing cable network to carbon-rich but anti-Semitic Al Jazeera — and why should he be in a hurry to beat a new capital-gains hike of the sort he habitually supported while in office? Human nature and self-interest don’t turn off and on like a smart-phone app.
Our Western technology promises to conquer almost all existential challenges except those that are the most important — birth, life, death, and the quest for a moral life. Those issues cannot be reduced to slick presentations such as those given by the late Steve Jobs, and they are immune from hope-and-change banality. Star Wars, Google, and Amazon have no answer for them.
Yet today’s technology-fed Western 2.0 public expects morality to progress at the same pace as hard drives and gigabyte power. And when the human condition does not, the modern Western critic rages that the West being good is no better than the Rest being bad. Our souls must evolve to perfection as rapidly as our machines — or else!
Trashing the West is like tapping a maple tree for its syrup — lucrative and tasty as long as too many holes do not kill the host.