Just as the third millennium began in 2001, so the twenties of our century begin in 2021. However arbitrary these divisions, we should always welcome any opportunity to wipe the slate clean, to remind ourselves of the tautological emptiness of determinism.
Looked at from what Voltaire called the point de vue de Sirius, there is surely no more problematic operation of the human psyche than the resentment that makes us deny the value of firstness to the human community. As a Jew, I am privileged to belong to the social group that has most painfully experienced this resentment, which confirms, for better or worse, its status as “the chosen people.” This is not a matter of vanity, but of anthropological realism.
The great irony of our day is that the Christian world, which spread the chosenness of the Jews far beyond the boundaries of the twelve tribes, is today confronted with the same resentment from within. The word “white,” designating those of European origin, that is, the population of the Christian nations that survived the original onslaught of Islam (disregarding that Arabs, as well as Indians, are Caucasians and not racially distinct “people of color”), has acquired in “woke” circles the same connotations as “Jew” once had—which has not prevented a resurgence of antisemitism itself. The critique of colonialism and generally of the Western domination of the world over the past two centuries is a perfect example of how resentment of superiority effaces the moral value of firstness. Some even go so far as to deny the value of Western technology, advocating for “ecological” reasons a return to a pre-industrial “indigenous” lifestyle— presumably with no effect on our health and longevity or on the medical technology that sustains them.
Arguments are made in opposition to such ecological fantasies, but the fundamental question of defending firstness as such is simply verboten. Clearly all humans enjoy demonstrations of firstness in such things as athletic contests or award ceremonies, but its most significant, cultural manifestations are dogmatically denied.
The obvious fact that the entire world is dominated by institutions and technology created by Western civilization is treated as a badge of shame rather than the clearest possible proof of the superior “fitness” of this culture—including its concern for preserving the artifacts of earlier cultures, a concern largely unknown to these cultures themselves. Meanwhile, the everyday functioning of firstness as meritocracy is both taken for granted and denounced as the effect of “racial privilege.”
Seeing history, particularly our own, as a morality play in which the winners are guilty by default has become the Western norm. The appeal of “wokeness” is a demonstration of the bankruptcy of ethical thought in our largely post-religious era, incapable of distinguishing any longer between God and Caesar.
Once the originary human community defined itself by the deferral of instinct and the reciprocal exchange of signs of the sacred/significant, the resulting liberation of individual initiative was from the outset a potential source of conflict. Nor is such conflict lacking in today’s remaining hunter-gatherer societies. The transcendence of resentment by communal love is temporary, not permanent; it must be constantly renewed, whence the universality of ritual, where firstness is identified with the sacred to which we must all submit.
But when the Neolithic revolution gave birth to private property, surplus production, and inevitably to hierarchy, the survival of the human community required that social difference be affirmed rather than denied, and the sacred understood as consecrating it. We can only shake our heads at thinkers who interpret this consecration as a deception meant to persuade credulous individuals to subordinate themselves to a ruler governing for his own profit (see Chronicle 519). Whatever the motives of the members of ruling classes, their activities have been ultimately conducive to historical progress, and their violations of moral equality, however gratuitous, were from the standpoint of the community not ends but means.
Although “might makes right” is usually enunciated as a condemnation, it is might, not right, that makes history. Competition among different societies has insured that victory would belong to the most efficient social institutions, which did not necessarily mean the most humane. But in the long run, one cannot disagree with Steven Pinker’s argument in The Better Angels of our Nature (Viking, 2011) that the human condition has steadily improved. History gives clear evidence of M. L. King’s famous assertion that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice, not to speak of well-being. The very success of Christianity in liberating the intellectual and creative energies of the West has been due to its understanding—one that Islam, to its detriment, has never fully accepted—that the worldly kingdom cannot be identified with the heavenly, or in human terms, that ethics cannot be reduced to morality.
The “death” of civilizations that Oswald Spengler and others (including “Spengler” aka David P. Goldman) speak of should not be understood as analogous to biological senescence. Most civilizations end when they are destroyed from without. But when we speak of those that crumble from within as “decadent,” what we are describing is the deadly effect of complacency due to lack of credible competition.
As always, it is necessity, not free-spiritedness, that is the mother of invention. When there is no pressing need to improve the efficiency of the social order, it tends to diminish. Classical culture was not enough to defend the Roman Empire against illiterate Huns and Goths once it had lost the fighting edge it had had in Caesar’s or Trajan’s day.
The analogy with our own times is clear.
During the Cold War, Western society continued to measure itself against the USSR and its allies, and whatever internal problems it faced were put in perspective by the necessity of winning this competition. The classic example is the American space program, initiated in reaction to the first Sputnik flight in 1957, which produced the moon landing twelve years later.
Yet the Cold War competition included significant “hot” conflicts, and the breakdown of our competitive spirit began in the 1960s with the Vietnam War, where, unlike WWII and even Korea, many young men, particularly on the campuses, could not be made to view this war as worthy of putting their lives on the line—as in retrospect it was not. Whence the New Left and the first stage of the radicalization of the Democratic Party.
Yet the Democrats remained patriotic; their liberal 1972 presidential candidate, George McGovern, had been—like George H. W. Bush—a decorated pilot in WWII. The more radical elements of the New Left retreated into the background, many taking up academic careers.
The West’s Cold War victory in 1989-91 appeared to consecrate the liberal-democratic-market system as the only one viable in advanced societies. The disappearance of serious threats to American and Western hegemony spurred a globalist vision of the entire world as a single market, in which all conflicts could be translated into the language of economic competition. In this perspective, admitting China to the WTO in 2001 (three months after 9/11) was a reasonable decision.
But as we are becoming uncomfortably aware, the West, and particularly the US, faces today in China a geopolitical rival far more formidable than the asymmetric terrorism of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
In this context, 2020’s Wuhan COVID virus has been a game-changer. It has focused universal attention on China’s quasi-deliberate use of the virus as a weapon and on its ambition to ascend to the hegemonic position occupied by the USA, as well as on its ruthless totalitarianism, including implementing industrial and academic espionage, strictly controlling the inflow and outflow of information, blackmailing Western enterprises into censuring criticism of its policies, cruelly repressing Uighurs and Hong Kong independentists, as well, increasingly, as Christianity and other religions. In 2020, China’s world “favorability rating” suffered a sharp decline (see the October 9 article https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/editorials/chinas-reputation-takes-a-well-deserved-global-hit).
No one familiar with Dialectical Materialism should be surprised at my claim that this development encourages us to take a more optimistic perspective for the coming year and beyond.
The Soviet Union under Stalin was economically cruder but just as cruel, if not as sinister, as the current Chinese regime. Yet during the Cold War era, the USSR provided the Western world with a competitor against which to measure ourselves. Indeed, had the Soviet economy come closer to living up to its “we will bury you” pretensions, the condition of quasi-permanent détente favored by many in the later years of the regime might have permitted a more productive result than the current gangster state that Russia has become.
Today, China poses similar challenges. The illusion of friendly, or even dare I say frenemic marketplace competition with China is for the present no longer tenable. China must be seen at the very least as a potential enemy. It is a serious rival for world hegemony, with geopolitical ambitions that pose a real risk of military conflict, over Taiwan, for example.
But once we recognize China as a serious rival that must be deterred from territorial aggression as well as from outstripping us in sensitive domains such as space militarization and artificial intelligence, we will be forced to recognize, as our younger generations (even including my own) have never been seriously forced to recognize, that moral equality is not ethics, that we must understand the American nation in the first place not as land stolen from autochthonous peoples and worked by black slaves to whom we should feel eternally guilty, but as our own living enterprise, one that we must in the first place protect lest it be destroyed by our enemies.
College campuses have been for a very good reason the nerve center of American “wokeism.” It is a philosophy of adolescents—including adolescent casseurs financed by corporations whose administrators are, like those of the universities, happy to sponsor the fight for “social justice” if it is consonant with their bottom line.
We can therefore be cautiously optimistic that once the American public comes to see the present era as a second Cold War to be reckoned with in every sphere: economic, scientific, military, and diplomatic, this infantile mentality, which can operate only under the aegis of an unchallenged hegemony, will dissipate. In a world in which we collectively fear the loss of our influence and freedom of action on the international stage, where we must be prepared to respond to challenges involving military force, childishness cannot be tolerated. If America is to survive, we must have faith that when push comes to shove, it is still much the same country as it was in 1941—one in fact quite a bit closer to “social justice.”
In 1941 we didn’t really get serious until Pearl Harbor. Let us hope that the “Chinese Virus” will suffice to shock us out of our current narcissism. And we should thank China and its CCP for providing, after a generation of unwise geopolitical euphoria, a serious competitor that cannot but incite the American population, hopefully along with that of the other Western powers, to come together once again as the united community of the “free world.”
The New Year is a time for hope. In 2021, let us put aside the victimary nonsense and strive for a reaffirmation of the ethical values that are the Judeo-Christian West’s greatest gift to humankind.