Another day, another Cassandra, another scolding Jeremiah. They stand in an unbroken wailing line, from Oswald Spengler (Der Untergang des Abendlandes, 1917) to George Grant and his Lament for a Nation in 1965 to perhaps a lesser voice--Robert Sibley in this morning's Ottawa Citizen. We're doomed yet again, for a variety of reasons, but we do seem to be taking our sweet time a-dying.
I confess at this point to a possible error in judgment. Sibley has adorned my blogroll for some time: he is a columnist with genuine aspirations to be a thinker rather than a nattering demagogue. He is an old-school, genteel conservative, impeccably polite in his writing. But all this is superficial stuff. If today's article is anything to go by, I've obviously scanned his previous pieces too quickly, and been captivated more by his listing of sources than by the quality of his discussion. On closer inspection, his array of authors, at least today, turns out to be little more than an extended argument from authority. Mea culpa.
Hed and deck:
The decade of new world disorder?
50 years of anti-West intellectual thought has robbed us of the will to defend our way of life, writes Robert Sibley.
For some reason, I ploughed right in. Perhaps I was intrigued by the notion that intellectuals have robbed the masses of anything, other than (as a conservative might see it) taxpayers' money in the form of research and publication grants. But somehow all this talk of imperialism and deconstruction and decentering has sapped the strength of folks who read the Ottawa Sun and listen to Lowell Green. Go figure! I read on.
Sibley begins with the election of Barack Obama. He cites a Carleton University professor, Waller Newell, who regards that election as a vain retreat from the grimness of the Bush years: people expressing a naive wish, both at home and in Europe, for a peaceful future. Then James Sheehan, an historian who claims, rightly, I suspect, that Europeans, devastated by two world wars that left the place a smoking ruin, have rather enjoyed their last six decades of peace, and "don't want to study war anymore."
For Sibley, though, this is a sure sign of decadence. We've heard it all before, of course: endless tiresome right-wing commentary about the so-called "feminization" of culture, for example. We're getting all soft and girly. We're sitting ducks for the first barbarians who come along, what with their Allahu Akhbars and beards and penchant for throwing stones at women and bombs at everyone else.
So, inevitably, there is an approving reference to the so-called "clash of civilizations," a phrase coined by Bernard Lewis and popularized by Samuel Huntington, a clash for which we are supposedly unprepared because we are blinkered enough to prefer an "untroubled life."
Paradoxically, Sibley blames the fall of Communism for what he calls "the birth...of a new world disorder." It was supposed to herald the final triumph of liberalism and the end of history. But meanwhile, amid the celebrations, Yugoslavia was being torn apart by ethnic nationalism, and Rwanda by "tribal" (as opposed to "ethnic?") madness, and the Muslims have been busy plotting our demise.
September 11 was the wakeup call, Sibley argues, but so torpid have we all become that we may be incapable of defending, not our civilization, but our "civilization's legacy." Indeed, have we "already surrendered, spiritually speaking?"
Seems so. Our societies are merely "therapeutic," he says, our lives self-indulgent, and our assumptions "narcissistic." And our "intellectual leaders"--whom few on the street could even name--have, he insists, "taught westerners to despise their own civilization." This new "post-modern attitude," with its deep critique of the devastation that has historically accompanied our relative affluence, is, according to Sibley, a Bad Thing.
Like many other commentators, Sibley misconstrues "cultural relativism" (it's a method of studying other cultures, not a value). He downplays the evident enjoyment that most Westerners from all walks of life share in their cultural events and achievements, both high and low. And he mocks without engaging: "As for hard science, well, it's only a western way of knowing."
There's a good discussion to be had about epistemological assumptions here, but he hurries along, confident that he's made his point. And, in case we missed where he was coming from the first time, he quotes William Henry: "It is scarcely the same thing to put a man on the moon as to put a bone in your nose."
Let me argue for a weak universalism when I assert that few human beings in any culture would disagree with that last statement. Henry was a muscular liberal, not a conservative: he was a chronicler of desegregation and a fierce opponent of fundamentalism. But that kind of remark suggests, at least to me, that he shared with Sibley a certain anthropological illiteracy, as well as a tendency to erect straw men.
It was when I came to Sibley's next authority, described as "the historian Keith Windshuttle" [sic], that my hair began to stand on end. Windschuttle is no historian--he has no formal training in the discipline whatsoever--but he made a name for himself some time ago as a far-right polemicist who found fault with some footnotes by Australian historians on the subject of the treatment of Aborigines. He is presently the editor of a conservative journal called Quadrant, and apparently a somewhat credulous individual.
Windschuttle likes his straw men too, arguing that the postmodern critique of western influence is equivalent to regarding western civilization as "little more than a crime against humanity." This is overstating the case just a tad.
But Sibley accepts this unnuanced assertion without argument, asking aloud how to account for our alleged "suicidal mentality." It's our "self-induced guilt," he says, rejecting the notion that colonialism was anything but good for the backward peoples of the world. Heck, it "curbed tribal warfare" and even put "an end to cannibalism."
(Not entirely, of course: medical cannibalism was once all the rage in Europe, and today there are significant questions to be raised about organ donations and "presumed consent." As for "tribal warfare," I see no reason to withhold that term from the never-ending Balkan conflicts that have continued right down to the present, or from the siege mentality of the antic American Teabaggers.)
More, however, from Windschuttle, who repeats the hoary right-wing canard that, despite the sheer beneficence of colonialism, the silly primitives squandered that benign legacy and have no one but themselves to blame for their current poverty:
Those countries that still wallow in destitution and underdevelopment do so not because of western imperialism, racism or oppression but because of policies they have largely chosen for themselves by socialist planning or had forced upon them by civil war and revolution.
With a snap of the fingers, the entire nature of the global economy, its core and its periphery, the latter condemned to perpetual economic dependency and underdevelopment fostered by neo-liberal trade and structural adjustment policies, vanishes in a cloud of shoddy moralizing.
Another straw man follows, furnished by yet another authority, Pascal Bruckner: so-called "Third Worldism," a doctrine that we progressives supposedly adhere to:
a tendency on the part of intellectuals to worship the primitive, the foreign and the exotic while condemning everything that smacks of science, civilization and the modern.
Wait a sec. I thought we were supposed to be unfairly blaming "the West" for the fallen state of the Third World--now we're holding the latter up as a Utopia? Apparently so. Here's Sibley's paraphrase:
Bruckner regards this fondness for self-flagellation as a romantic turning away from the modern world in all its burdensome complexity. The reality of primitive life -- poverty, disease, slavery, frequent cruelty and superstition -- is ignored in favour of utopian fantasy. In worshipping the non-western, the romantic intellectual is "not looking for a real world but the negation of (his) own."
Third-world fantasies can prove harmful when attempts are made to translate them into unrealistic policies. Western guilt becomes "a convenient substitute for action where action is impossible," says Bruckner. "Guilt is what is left when you have run out of everything else.
"Without the power to do anything, sensitivity becomes our main aim, the aim is not so much to do anything, as to be judged.
In other words, words replace deeds, abstract sentiments -- compassion for the poor, solidarity with the people, etc. -- substitute for concrete action.There's plenty of action on the Left, of course: far more than the powers that be would like. In fact, those concrete measures--as the recent disgraceful offensive against KAIROS by the Harper government indicates--are something that will inevitably attract the determined opposition of the very people who are otherwise accusing us of inaction.
Finally, from a person who makes his living with words, comes an attack on Barack Obama for using words, and then the inevitable call to arms. No more "lifestyle satiation" and Obamian lassitude in the face of the Muslim threat. Off the recliner and into your armour, boys! Time to rise up and defend civilization as we know it.
Well, there may be signs of hope, despite the alleged intellectual bankruptcy of the West. After all, Sibley has managed to track down a small army of intellectuals on his own side of the fence to defend the proposition that every younger generation in history has heard from every older one. No voice in the wilderness, he. "You people have it easy... Softies...When I was a kid...Those were the good old days." He's the old grouch at the family dinner-party with whom we are all too familiar. Bitter, pessimistic, thoroughly enjoying himself.
Spare no tears for the man, then, as members of his sceptical audience continue to satiate their lifestyles, studiously avoiding intellectual ping-pong and asking him to pass the potatoes. There will always be those who are impatient for the world to come to an end. Waiting for it drove Jeremiah mad. It's making Sibley increasingly testy.
For the rest of you, Happy New Year, and may we all have an untroubled 2010.