Moral equality and firstness, the values that define the human, are implicit in our use of signs, since we can all share them, but only occasionally create new ideas with them. The course of human history has sharpened our anthropological intuition to the point where the current political division between the major parties in the US and generally elsewhere opposes just these two values. True, the Left is cluttered with quasi-religious cults: green energy, “climate change” (the weasel-wordiness of the term must be itself an article of faith; “global warming” expressed a hypothesis; now its believers feel they can express it with greater assurance by deliberately refusing to express it), dietary cults such as anti-gluten, treating homosexuality and transgenderism as genetic reality but ordinary sexuality as “socially constructed,” the war on “micro-aggressions… but such are the inevitable results of a single-valued victimary morality, the hammer for which everything looks like a nail, which never relaxes its vigilance toward those who dare deny it (although not toward those who promote it).
But perhaps this focus on victims is what in fact allows (even in our currently weak economy) for the most productive forms of firstness; most billionaires, I imagine, vote Democrat. This is just a way of saying that the intellectual debate has become increasingly irrelevant; the point is to score rhetorical points that win elections, make people feel good or resentful, reward friends and punish enemies, and meanwhile the system works well or badly for reasons not explicitly dealt with in the debate. This might be considered a “higher” proof of the greater intelligence of the market than of any of its participants and thus a paradoxical demonstration of Hayek-like principles turned against their creators. Imagine a society where any violation of victimary dogma aka PC is severely punished without regard to due process—a world anyone on today’s university campuses already knows—but where the technologically driven economy flourishes, and stigmatized activities such as fracking nevertheless produce great profits. Isn’t that already a fairly good description of our economy? The middle class suffers, but their sufferings lead to votes for a party that excoriates Wall Street while raising stock market values, fights to raise the minimum wage while encouraging Latin American immigration, denounces racial disparities while fighting charter schools in black neighborhoods, and so on. There is a certain cynicism here, but no more than normally in politics. The difference with the past is that the political economy has become too complex to allow for reasoned debate on policy—which explains why the Republicans, who should have all the good arguments against victimary politics, have nearly nothing to say except to denounce their opponents’ lapses into malfeasance and incompetence. Republicans argue with Democrats about the size of government, not about the victimary nature of their politics. For no one in either party can allow themselves to be accused of blaming the victim.
Yet we are not all by ourselves on the planet, working out our problems in a vacuum. Whence the following (hopefully counterfactual) meditation.
While our “national leaders” are still telling us, in the face of nuanced scientific findings (eg, http://dailycaller.com/2014/07/25/study-climate-models-overestimated-global-warming-for-the-last-55-years/ , not to speak of the inexplicable “interruption” in warming over the past 15 years), that “climate change” is the most serious problem facing the world today, the Islamic State has been expanding its frontiers. Large swaths of the Middle East, as our wisest pundit, David P. Goldman (“Spengler”), reminds us, have become like Europe over the course of the Thirty Years’ War that ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, with millions of refugees and thousands of hapless young men with nothing else left to do but join a militia, except that an outcome analogous to the resulting European system of Christian nation-states is not to be expected when the goal of an increasing number of combatants is the establishment of a world-wide Caliphate.
The other day the New Republic had a piece instructing us to eschew the term Islamic extremism; Islamic extremists are just an Islamic version of the extremist-in-general, for any belief system can be taken to extremes, say by those who cling to their guns and religion—a pretty good description of IS, when you come to think of it. The point is to emphasize that Islam, the “religion of peace,” is in no way responsible for any of the evils committed in its name. It’s rather extremism that should shoulder the blame; and along these lines we would do well to recall the late Republican jihadist Barry Goldwater’s remark that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”
Assuming our victimary fecklessness is likely to continue at least until 2017, what then assures us that the doomsayers are wrong and that Western Civilization will indeed survive?
Western Civilization, and this is a point that Goldman-Spengler too has made, less theoretically but more historically than I, is a product of the national concept originally discovered/invented by the Hebrews as a means of exit from “compact” societies like that of their Egyptian enslavers. It defines an always tense and paradoxical covenant between a people, by definition particular, and a God who is universal but whose relationship with that particular people is colored by the quality of having been first to recognize God’s universality. Had it been left to the Hebrews/Jews, the national concept could probably not have been generalized and risked being lost. Even had the Jews survived in exile the destruction of their temple and their expulsion from their land, as they in fact did, the national concept once created needed another vehicle to make it flourish among other peoples, and eventually to give birth to the modern world. This new vehicle was Christianity, which, although it may be criticized for glossing over the essential anthropological problematic of firstness, has otherwise both in theory and in practice considerable advantages over Judaism as a “universal” religion.
We’ve all been hearing recently about Sykes-Picot and its ultimately unsatisfactory attempt to bring the Western national concept to the Middle East. IS is the apparent final demonstration that there are no “nations” in this area, no peoples who can conceive on the model of the Hebrews a covenant with God. On the contrary, these are Muslim territories, and for Muslims, particularly Sunnis, God’s covenant is not with peoples but with the Muslim umma that in principle includes the entire world. For we are all “really” Muslims; those who deny this truth may be dealt with more or less severely, but never as equals or even as stable partners in a “balance of power.” Such doctrines are moot when their believers lack the power to enforce them, but no law of nature prevents the “junior-varsity” Al-Qaedaniks of IS from acquiring this power. Even a serious attempt to acquire it would put the fat and lazy world of Western Civilization in serious jeopardy.
A useful yardstick for the triumph of IS over the West is the power of organized crime. Crime groups such as the Mafia are bound together by a brutally enforced ethic of omertà. Such groups are not nations but subgroups dependent on the larger society; the Sicilian Maffia was originally an “anti-colonial” resistance movement. But despite their limited manpower and antisocial functions, these groups can be very successful. Recent Mexican history has shown how gangs of drug criminals can acquire sufficient power in many parts of the country to become the de facto governing authority, dominating the scene by their willingness to use force. The Islamists’ hardness and brutality should be able to obtain still better results; unlike the criminals, they are held together by a real religion with an elaborate legal code that has shown its ability to organize large social groups in the past. An Islamic State serious about taking over other parts of the world can energize their coercive tactics with a conviction of righteousness and a willingness to sacrifice their lives for the cause. Suicide bombing is a very effective tactic that criminals would never think of using voluntarily.
Thus far, Islamists don’t seem to have begun planning the overthrow of Western Civilization (though I’m sure they’ve been thinking about it), but if as it appears they are allowed to keep their State and consolidate its gains over the next months and years, why should they stop at the Middle East? There is already a large and restive Muslim population in Europe, even whose “native” young people show little patriotism and even less enthusiasm for defending the ethos of their civilization. Indeed, their societies do little to win their loyalty, preferring to let them languish without decent jobs in order to keep money flowing to the pensioners of older generations. A recent survey quoted in the Tablet article “Why the Teenaged Girls of Europe are Joining ISIS” (http://tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/186397/teenage-girls-europe-isis) shows that ISIS is much more popular in Europe than in the Middle East: fully 27% of French young people aged 18-24 declare a favorable opinion of it, a figure that must include a good number of “racial” French or souchiens—maybe even a few Jews. Even if the favorable answers are mostly provocation, that is already frightening enough. How about 27% declaring a favorable opinion of Hitler? Indeed, in today’s Europe, Adolf might well do better than that.
Spengler’s hopeful solution to this crisis in his 2011 How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam Is Dying Too) (Regnery) is that Islamic countries are experiencing a radical decline in birthrates, whereas Israel (and some sectors of the United States) are not. But on this point, I find his view of the future too optimistic—admittedly, his book was written before our Iraq-Syria policies had led to the current debacle. His title’s parenthesis takes note of the rapid decline in birth rates in Muslim countries where the women have been touched by modernity, the most striking case being that of Iran. No doubt educated Muslim women will tend to evolve toward the same below-replacement natality as European women, while Israeli women consider it a patriotic duty to maintain an above-replacement level. But in the kind of society run by IS, women will not be “modern”; heavily veiled and barred from receiving more than a rudimentary education (boko haram, as they say), they will be married off young and expected to bear children “for the cause,” and heaven help those who find this fate unfulfilling. A self-confident Islamic State will return women to the role they played in traditional societies of the past, and given the advances in modern medicine in which they will share, it can easily grow its population at will at a time when Europe, Japan, and even the United States increasingly find producing children, particularly more than two per family, more trouble than it’s worth. Nor will all the women in question be unwilling captives; let us recall the title of the Tablet article quoted above.
I probably won’t be around for the final debacle, but I am beginning to think of it as a serious possibility. The spectacle of Iraqi army units throwing down their weapons, tearing off their uniforms, and running away from militia bands a fraction of their size makes me wonder about the fate of a future assault on a European capital. After all, it is just when IS is becoming powerful that the US has been slashing its military and that our all-but-demilitarized European allies, rather than increasing theirs, have begun recognizing “the Palestinian state.” Just when militant Islam in its most brutal form is on the march, “Western Civilization”—although I hesitate to associate the current state of Europe with this noble concept—decides to promote “peace in the Middle East” by delegitimizing-demonizing Israel and promoting the egregious fiction of a “Palestine” that could fulfill Shimon Peres’ dream of living peacefully side by side with Israel—presumably without having to recognize its right to exist or the historic connection of its territory with the Jews. After all, given that Hamas’ Gaza rockets are just a form of (nearly) peaceful protest against a brutal “occupation,” extending this mode of protest to the West Bank and the area of Lod airport would not prevent the “two nations” from peacefully working out their differences.
But my point here is not about Israel; it is about the fecklessness of the European nations, and without Europe, what exactly is “the West”? One even wonders if Putin, the destroyer of Grozny, the ally of Assad but not of the Islamic State, is not our last hope as a defender of at least an approximation to Western civilization.
Perhaps before the West goes down the tubes it will turn itself around by finally grasping the basic point that my GA colleagues and I have been trying to promulgate for the past thirty+ years about the origin and nature of the human. Western Civilization, based as it is on the Hebrew idea of the Nation, is founded on a delicate balance between the moral model of reciprocity and the necessary ingredient of firstness. The latter continues to function; innovation is anything but dead in the West. But what has been brought near death by the ever more toxic victimary atmosphere is faith in the system itself, in its moral legitimacy. A civilization too obsessed by its internal micro-aggressions to take the trouble to defend itself, that apologizes ever more cravenly to the rest of the world for its superior achievements, will sooner or later generate from among the many who resent its undefended superiority those who will overthrow it.
To conclude, I can do no better than paraphrase Spengler, the old and the new: when civilizations die, it is rarely as a result of conquest from without; most commit suicide. If our so-called civilization had the will, the Islamic State would be crushed in a few weeks. Look at the abject spectacle of Mosul and then think of Stalingrad. If our grandchildren wind up memorizing the Koran and wearing veils, the explanation will be suicide, not conquest.