Thursday, November 30, 2006

Victor Davis Hanson on Us

Victor Davis Hanson's column in yesterday's OpinionJournal is being referenced by fine blogs everywhere (I saw it first at La Shawn Barber's Corner). Not to be left out of such an outstanding group, I am compelled to reference it myself. He opens with this:

Our current crisis is not yet a catastrophe, but a real loss of confidence of the spirit. The hard-won effort of the Western Enlightenment of some 2,500 years that, along with Judeo-Christian benevolence, is the foundation of our material progress, common decency, and scientific excellence, is at risk in this new millennium.

But our newest foes of Reason are not the enraged Athenian democrats who tried and executed Socrates. And they are not the Christian zealots of the medieval church who persecuted philosophers of heliocentricity. Nor are they Nazis who burned books and turned Western science against its own to murder millions en masse.

No, the culprits are now more often us. In the most affluent, and leisured age in the history of Western civilization--never more powerful in its military reach, never more prosperous in our material bounty--we have become complacent, and then scared of the most recent face of barbarism from the primordial extremists of the Middle East.

Notice that he says the foes of Reason are not the extremists of the Middle East. The culprits are us--our complacency and fear.

His judgment of Europe is sweeping.

Third, examine why all these incidents [Salman Rushdie,Theo Van Gogh, Pope Benedict, the Danish cartoons, and French philosophy teacher Robert Redeker] took place in Europe, where more and more the state guarantees the good life even into dotage, where the here and now has become a finite world for soulless bodies, where armies devolve into topics of caricature, and children distract from sterile adults' ever-increasing appetites. So, it was logical that Europe most readily of Westerners would abandon the artist and give up the renegade in fear of religious extremists who brilliantly threatened not destruction, but interruption of the good life, or the mere charge of illiberality. Never was the Enlightenment sold out so cheaply.

But here in America, we don't get off so lightly, because of our rush to be so much like Europe.

So we are on dangerous ground. History gives evidence of no civilization that survived long as purely secular and without a god, that put its trust in reason alone, and believed human nature was subject to radical improvement given enough capital and learning invested in the endeavor. The failure of our elites to amplify their traditions they received, and to believe them to be not merely different but far better than the alternatives, is also a symptom of crisis in all societies of the past, whether Demosthenes' Athens, late imperial Rome, 18th-century France, or Western Europe of the 1920s. Nothing is worse that an elite that demands egalitarianism for others but ensures privilege for itself. And rarely, we know, are civilization's suicides a result of the influence of too many of the poor rather than of the wealthy.

Our culture has many prophets, like Hanson and also Mark Steyn, who see the dangers as more sweeping than just the immediate threats or the body counts in another part of the world. But like Cassandra before them, they seem doomed to be ignored by the leaders who have the power to heed their warnings.

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