Has the West ceased to believe in itself?

Last week, I read another excellent piece by Bret Stephens in The Wall Street Journal. It was headlined “Do We Still Want the West?,” with the subhed, “The best antidote to the politics of Trump or Le Pen is a course in Western Civ.”

Because of that paper’s pay wall, I’m going to push the envelope a mite on Fair Use here so that you get the point fully, and I hope the Journal will forgive me.

The piece begins anecdotally, telling about how the left’s culture warriors chanted Western Civ right out of the curriculum at Stanford in the ’80s, and how a vote to bring it back (a student vote, because grownups no longer dare to make such decisions) failed, 6 to 1.

Then, he sets out the problem:

The thought comes to mind following Sergei Lavrov’s Orwellian speech last week at the Munich Security Conference, in which the Russian foreign minister called for a “post-West world order.”…

Bret Stephens

Bret Stephens

Mr. Lavrov understands something that ought to be increasingly clear to American and European audiences: The West—as a geopolitical bloc, a cultural expression, a moral ideal—is in deep trouble. However weak Russia may be economically, and however cynical its people might be about their regime, Russians continue to drink from a deep well of civilizational self-belief. The same can be said about the Chinese, and perhaps even of the Islamic world too, troubled as it is.

The West? Not so much.

The United States has elected as president a man who has repeatedly voiced his disdain for NATO, the World Trade Organization and other institutions of the Western-led world order. He publicly calls the press “an enemy of the American people” and conjures conspiracy theories about voter fraud whose only purpose is to lend credence to his claim that the system is rigged. He is our first post-rational president, whose approach to questions of fact recalls the deconstructionism of the late Jacques Derrida: There are no truths; reality is negotiable….

He goes on about the crisis of faith in Western ways in Europe, and notes how the non-aligned — who once were so eager to join the Western club — are drifting toward other power centers, such as Russia and China.

In other words, moving toward cultures that still believe in themselves, or at least in their own myths.

Then comes the best part:

There was a time when the West knew what it was about. It did so because it thought about itself—often in freshman Western Civ classes. It understood that its moral foundations had been laid in Jerusalem; its philosophical ones in Athens; its legal ones in Rome. It treated with reverence concepts of reason and revelation, freedom and responsibility, whose contradictions it learned to harmonize and harness over time. It believed in the excellence of its music and literature, and in the superiority of its political ideals. It was not ashamed of its prosperity. If it was arrogant and sinful, as all civilizations are, it also had a tradition of remorse and doubt to temper its edges and broaden its horizons. It cultivated the virtue of skepticism while avoiding the temptation of cynicism.

And it believed all of this was worth defending — in classrooms and newspapers and statehouses and battlefields….

Donald Trump was elected by people who for whatever reason just don’t seem to get the fundamental assumptions of the West — they don’t know the history; they don’t embrace the ideals. It’s hard to talk to them about what’s wrong, because they don’t see it. Maybe it’s too late for them, but it’s time we started overtly teaching our children what’s valuable about the West.

But first, of course, we need to decide whether we still believe in it ourselves…

17 thoughts on “Has the West ceased to believe in itself?

  1. bud

    The USA is melting pot of many cultures. I would suggest rather than focus on the term “west” as in Western Europe I propose we view our place in the world more broadly. This “west” construct smacks of the American Exceptionalism meme that serves merely as an arrogant dig. Bigotry can take many forms. This seems to be one of the more subtle versions.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      And there’s the problem — the standard “there’s nothing special about the West” attitude that did a lot to prepare is for Trump.

      People on the left were completely unprepared to refute Trumpism because they’d lost the habit of articulating what’s best about our political culture…

    2. Bryan Caskey

      bud, it seems a bit (I’m not sure how to put this) “head in the sand” to try and walk away from the idea that the United States is part of, and a product of, Western civilization. I’m not sure how it is “arrogant” or otherwise somehow a bigoted position to say so.

      But then, I guess we’re living in a world where some people think they can decide what sex they are simply by believing it to be true, so we’re really off our moorings.

      Yes, the USA is a melting pot of many cultures, but the idea is that those cultures are melted together to create the culture of the United States, which is, in fact, a Western one. Accurately describing the the US as “Western” doesn’t somehow imply that it’s better than the Eastern culture and traditions of, say China.

      It’s simply an accurate description. It’s not normative, it’s just descriptive.

      I would caution you against this sort of thinking.

      1. bud

        It’s hard to read Brad’s post without seeing a haughty arrogance to it. Not sure what is gained by these annoying labels.

  2. Bart

    Yeah, let’s forget all about the exceptionalism of the “west” especially the United States of America. Nasty lot those Americans, aren’t they? Bigoted, racist, conspicuous displays of wealth, arrogant, boorish, full of self-importance, and absolutely no class or culture at all. Who do they think they are anyway? What have they contributed to the betterment of the world? They really do need to learn their place and simply sit down, shut up, and speak only when spoken to and then keep their remarks short. We really never needed anything from America in the first place.

    A country like the United States is what happens when a bunch of colonists are allowed to break away from their rightful rulers by waging an unnecessary war for independence and forming their own government with a bunch of 30 to 50 year old traitors writing something called the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Bad form “old man”.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          And of course, the same gag could be done about what America has done for the world.

          But there are two BIG differences between us and the Romans, and together they make for a great deal of confusion…

          First, America isn’t a plunder economy that conquers places, enslaves the people and steals all the resources (although Trump would like us to be). In fact, for the past century, our “legions” have spilt a tremendous amount of blood trying to deliver OTHER people from tyranny, which makes us, and our Western allies who have been involved, sort of a unique phenomenon in world history.

          Second, an awful lot of Americans ACT LIKE we’re every bit as bad as the Romans if not more so. On the left, there’s so much guilt about how awful we mean ol’ Americans are that you’d think we were Caligula and crew.

          The Romans may have given the world they touched civil law and roads and a lot of other material benefits (the chief among them being the Pax Romana), but they took what they wanted, killed anyone who got in their way (by crucifixion if there was time) and didn’t apologize for it.

          We’re sort of at the opposite end of the spectrum. And we’re just et up with guilt about it… We’re a funny bunch…

  3. JesseS

    We’d need a little more than a Western Civ class.

    Among Evangelicals we have a people who want to be like the “original Christians”, but they can’t tell you a thing about what was going on in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Ironically it doesn’t fit their internal martyr narrative.

    Among the lunatic fringe of the left and right, who increasingly gain influence, we have far too many people who openly hold contempt for Democracy. Either it defies plurality or doesn’t exalt their sense of exceptionalism.

    Among the political class –well don’t get me started on that one. Not that it would matter.

    The list goes on an on. Everyone is self-diagnosing and taking the wrong medicine. It’s a culture sitting on WebMD who treat their imagined cancer with Kombucha and Bragg Apple Cider Vinegar. And honestly that probably isn’t the biggest problem with our society. In general we simply can’t pause and ask a question or two when someone is telling us what we want to hear.

  4. Harry Harris

    Lots of current discourse brings to my mind the statement by Nelson Mandela that the more experience he gained and the more he learned made him care less about being a member of any group. When a sense of community is greatly diminished and largely lost in the social and political environment, what should we expect beyond polarization and hyper-sensitivity. I’m not in awe of the advances in western civilization, but I’m grateful for many of them. Many other societies are way behind the curve in human freedoms and rights, but didn’t get as early a start as the US especially. Some are barely 100-150 years past feudalism, and some broke too far toward government control in leaving it.
    My biggest beef with the Trump phenomenon is the unthinking, blame game engulfs his core supporters and the people who know better who are going along because they see it can advance their agenda of trickle-down economics and people-like-us mentality. As long as religious groups and churches buy into rampant materialism and material moralism, we’re stuck with neither prophet nor the soul to recognize one.

    1. Bart

      “As long as religious groups and churches buy into rampant materialism and material moralism, we’re stuck with neither prophet nor the soul to recognize one.”

      Absolutely one of the best quotes in a long time and there is more truth in this one sentence than all of the political speeches combined over the past several years.

        1. Harry Harris

          Basically that God rewards you materially for being (or doing) good, and sends pain or deprives you if you do bad. Precursor for “prosperity gospel.”


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