The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

June 23, 2017

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Western Civilization, Our Tradition


Ronald Reagan at the Berlin Wall, 1987

Such questions became urgent in the decade between the fall of Soviet communism in 1989–91 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. No longer facing an Eastern Bloc, the contours and boundaries of the West were thrown into doubt. Indeed, many observers—and not a few conservatives among them—followed Francis Fukuyama in concluding that we had reached the “End of History,” with liberal democracy (the characteristically Western political regime, but one with putatively global application) everywhere triumphant, and rightly so. Under Fukuyama’s tutelage, we witnessed the return of a version of the older Whig narrative, now in a new, quasi-Marxist or quasi-Hegelian guise: where before it had been said that communism was the inevitable “wave of the future,” it was now held that there was something inevitable about the triumph of liberal democracy. The West’s triumph was the triumph of humanity itself, a universal triumph.

At the same time, the 1990s were the decade of American conservatism’s acute struggle with multiculturalism in the academy. Despite numerous conservative caveats and objections, the locus classicus of conservative arguments against multicultural relativism was Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987), a best-seller with enormous influence. Bloom was a student of Leo Strauss, and the peculiar feature of his intervention in the academic wars over the “canon” of texts to be studied in the university was his stipulation that the Great Books of the West were to be preferred only on account of their philosophic universality. In other words, the only rational basis for allegiance to the West was the West’s own allegiance to universal, Socratic questioning. Anything less would be a species of mere ethnocentrism.

As globalization—the universalization of Western business practices and popular culture—gathered strength in the 1990s, the “facts on the ground” lent further credence to an understanding of the West as a universal civilization openly available to all. America, as the “first universal nation,” seemed to stand as the West’s (and the world’s) vanguard and model.


World Trade Center, before Sept 11, 2001

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, brought a jolting return to History. Suddenly, we were confronted anew by the most traditional enemy from the East: Islam—or at least elements from within Islam that were intent to resist the rise of a universal civilization built on Western foundations. Shortly after Fukuyama had published his work on the “end of history” (1989, 1992) Samuel Huntington had published an article (1993) and later a book (1996) arguing that, after the Cold War, international conflict would no longer be nationalist (as had been the case in the nineteenth century), nor ideological (as had been the case in the twentieth), but would instead center around a “clash of civilizations.” That is, cultural identities and antagonisms would play a major role in relations among states. Presciently, he observed that Islam in particular has “bloody borders”—a greatly disproportionate number of the ongoing conflicts in the world involve Muslims. September 11 appeared to prove Huntington’s analysis more cogent than Fukuyama’s: there would be no escape from the burden of history, and ideas and institutions could not be discussed apart from culture.

The situation remains unsettled intellectually, however. On the one hand, the attraction of a universal modern civilization equally available to all remains great—and so many conservatives, especially neoconservatives, are inclined to understand the emergent terrorist threat either as a species of totalitarian ideology (assimilating it to the experience of the twentieth century, as with the use of the term “Islamofascism,” to be defeated by force of arms) or else as a kind of historical backwardness (something “medieval”) that is susceptible to being “modernized” out of existence through the processes and practices of enlightenment, that is, through the application of “democracy.” In either view, the West’s history remains a universal history, confronting inevitable road bumps—albeit sometimes large ones—on the road to inevitable future triumph.

On the other hand, the confrontation with jihad (to say nothing of the spectacular recent rise of China) is beginning to force a reacquaintance with the particularities or non-universal elements of the West. Not least, we begin to appreciate more fully that Western ideals and institutions depend at least to some extent on cultural foundations that are the possession of historically Western peoples—and so we view with alarm the demographics of contemporary Europe, the cradle of the West, with a burgeoning Muslim minority amidst a dwindling native population. Even if the West is less universal than we have lately thought, it is still good, still ours, and still in need of a defense.

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