Updated on July 11 at 12:09 a.m. ET.
In his speech last week in Warsaw, the president declared it “the fundamental question of our time … whether the West has the will to survive” the troubles that beset it from within and without. In this and other invocations of “the West,” some commentators, including Peter Beinart, detected a kind of esoteric code. “White nationalist supporters,” Beinart wrote, “will understand exactly what he means.”
What the president means by “the West,” in Beinart’s telling, isn’t a confederation of like-minded polities bound by common values, but a mere demographic tribe, championed by those same white rascals he imagines to be the speech’s target audience. Thus the president’s repeated invocation of “the West” is no more than an expression of the “racial and religious paranoia” proffered by presidential advisors Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller.
But that phrase has always aimed at bigger, nobler referents than that. And it’s telling that, to equate the idea of Western Civilization with Bannonism-Millerism, Beinart ends up performing the same facile reduction of that idea as Bannon and Miller do. When Beinart says “the West is a racial and religious term,” this is a plain stipulation—the same stipulation made by so many in the dim-right; and like their view of the world, Beinart’s doesn’t work without it.
Consider that, more or less, the only argument we get in Beinart’s piece for this view of the West is a review of relative longitudes:
The West is not a geographic term. Poland is further east than Morocco. France is further east than Haiti. Australia is further east than Egypt. Yet Poland, France, and Australia are all considered part of “The West.” Morocco, Haiti, and Egypt are not.
Well, Morocco is at least West-adjacent. No feat of rhetorical might can move the Rock of Gibraltar. What’s more, Morocco was jostled about by Spanish and French empires for a few hundred years. And for a few hundred years before that, it would have been more accurate to say that Madrid was ruled from the Maghreb than the other way around.
Likewise, Egypt hosted the first great repository of Western knowledge—the library at Alexandria—and for a millennium or so following that library’s destruction, it was Muslim metaphysicians who kept lit the flame of Greek ideas. The West’s intellectual birthright, then, was reborn in Latin and French and German and English because it was vouchsafed in Arabic, in the dark interregnum between Charlemagne and the Renaissance.
Oh, and Western ideals were kind of a big thing in the Haiti of Toussaint Louverture, an eminently Western figure whose revolution, dripping in the language of Enlightenment, was the first great post-1776 test of whether Thomas Paine and Jefferson had just been screwing around with all that talk of self-evident truths. (The results, alas, were mixed.)
I contest, too, Beinart’s projection that nobody considers democratic India or G-20 Japan to belong to the West. Japan enjoys the sponsorship of a demure American empire, governed by a constitution written for it by Doug MacArthur’s lawyers, and looked after by the U.S. Seventh Fleet and III Marine Expeditionary Force.
India? India’s in the frigging British Commonwealth.
The point is that these and many other nonwhite, non-Christian places are right well tangled up in the West—influencing and being influenced by it, acting on it and reacting to it. And, here, if you’d like to point out that I’ve just described the fruits of so much colonial rapine, I’ll say fine—but you can’t have it both ways. The West can’t be both a bloodthirsty cultural predator and a lilywhite provincial obsessed with its own purity. The currents in the history of the West preoccupied with miscegenation and corruption of the blood are feeble in the face of the overwhelming tide of annexation, assimilation, and admixture. Sure, it’s messy, but the West nets out as a mongrel civilization, to our everlasting credit.
So, nobody who knows what they’re talking about is talking about the racial and religious purity of the West, and nobody who is talking about the racial and religious purity of the West knows what they’re talking about.
Here, a concession: There’s a degree to which the worldview of Bannon and Miller—including the cheap bigotry that isn’t so much dog-whistled as stage-whispered—finds aid and comfort and a kind of respectability when dressed up in the language of Western Civilization. That’s to be sniffed out and called out where it occurs. And it’s also worth writing, despite its banality, that the president surely has no better grip on the words he spoke in Poland than, say, Michael Bloomberg did when he monotonically approximated Spanish in his “bilingual” announcement during Hurricane Sandy.
But that’s not the point. To define the West the way such men as these define it, to grant to them and their handlers the right to set the terms of the debate, is to have already lost it. And to hollow out the meaning of meaningful words because they once sat upon an especially odious set of lips is to let the bastards grind you down.
Then there is Beinart’s inapposite comparison between this president’s rhetoric on these themes and the rhetoric of President George W. Bush. That contrast is not so damning as Beinart seems to imagine—Ross Douthat is surely correct to note that post-Cold War presidents like Bush tended to speak more about universal human values than “Western” values per se because the world then looked to be heading toward a Fukuyaman moment, with states converging on liberal democracy and free markets, and rival systems seemingly discredited once and for all. Now that the world looks more Huntingtonian, with the return of all the old tribal and cultural rivalries, and plenty of novel ones, it makes sense to “fall … back toward [a] more Cold War era vision of the West as bastion rather than universal order.”
But finally, the question of whether Bush or Bannon is right, of whether the world is Fukuyaman or Huntingtonian, is an empirical one, and it exists quite apart from philosophical and normative questions about whether there is a coherent project called Western Civilization, and whether it’s worth preserving. I happen to think there is and it is. What’s most disturbing about reactions like Beinart’s to this Poland thing is that they seem to suggest there isn’t and it ain’t.
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.
The strongest surviving Western impulse is the impulse to criticize the West, to feel shame and guilt over our collective inheritance. I actually cherish this self-flagellating streak in the Western psyche, and I’d never want it completely to go away, not least because our long and uneven run at the top has given us plenty to think about. To misquote Twain, the West is the only civilization that blushes—or needs to.
But so much time is wasted on disclaiming and caveating ourselves that we rarely allow even the blandest assertions of cultural solidarity, convinced they reek not just of chauvinism but of murder. There are generations of Westerners now thinking and writing who don’t know there is any other way to speak.
This autoimmune disorder of the West need not prove fatal if the West also has something to say for itself, an affirmative case for its values and vision. But if the West in its self-understanding is reduced, per Beinart, to mere self-loathing paired with the demographic accident of “white, Christian hegemony,” how can it possibly defend itself—how can it possibly mean anything to anyone, not least the “non-white, non-Christian” migrants it’s meant to welcome with open arms?
“Diversity,” or “pluralism,” long the empty signifiers at the other end of this argument, sure as hell won’t cut it, as neither works as an end to itself. Diversity for what? Pluralism toward what? An assemblage of immigrants without a galvanizing ethos isn’t a melting pot, it’s a bus depot. Or the Calais Jungle.
In a way, the president’s unvarnished view, when he’s away from his prompter, is the more honest one, especially as a message to the world beyond the West. We’re not so exceptional, we’re not so innocent, and believe us, you wouldn’t like it here. That seems more logical than to welcome all comers to a civilization that offers ... nothing at all. As if to bleach out the Declaration of Independence, and make a gift to the world of the parchment.