A perennial topic for me (and many of us) is the notion that there is a deep malaise in Western civilization. There are, it seems to me, three main camps on the question, “Is Western civilization collapsing?”
1. The conservative position. “Yes. And it’s a horrible thing. For one thing, elites have basically stopped reproducing. They’re inviting people from foreign cultures into their countries, and they’re reproducing faster than their elites. The result will be an inevitable cultural replacement after a few generations, although probably not before we go through a period of bloody civil wars. And Western traditions are not being passed down. We are becoming less Christian every year. Our universities are teaching less and less of the classics of Western civilization. Though they spend longer in school, our graduates are more ignorant of their cultural roots. We have no desire to create beauty any longer. We have nothing, really, to live for. Our heart is simply not in it any longer; we’re in the death throes of this civilization.”
2. The postmodern position. “Are you really even asking this question? So you think Western civilization is ‘collapsing’? Well, maybe it is. If so, good! But if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, we should recognize that there is much about Western civilization that deserves to die, and the sooner the better. What will replace it? Who knows? Who cares? But you must be a racist Islamophobe if you think it will be Islamic. But probably, you’re just an idiot because there is no reason to think Western civilization is ‘collapsing.’ It might be, however, transforming, and into something better, something more tolerant, open, and multi-cultural.”
3. The optimistic position. “Oh, not this again. Haven’t you read Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now? Look, almost all the metrics look better than they’ve ever been. People always think we’re on the brink of disaster even when things are awesome. The world is better educated than it’s ever been. People in third world countries are moving into the modern world. Look at the Internet! Look at technology! Look at all the entrepreneurship and discovery that is happening every day! How on earth can you fail to recognize that, far from being in our death throes, we are ramping up a new global civilization with, perhaps, some new values, but which enjoys radically transformative changes for the better every year.”
Here are a few notes to put these into perspective. The conservative position is a position about the health of traditional Western values and culture. It takes the view that these values and culture should be preserved, that they aren’t being preserved, and that Westerners therefore are living increasingly meaningless lives.
The postmodern position is a primarily a reaction to the conservative position. It denies that there is a problem worth solving because Western values and culture are better off dead and buried.
The optimistic position certainly appears to be about another topic altogether, i.e., not about the health of traditional Western values and culture, although it pretends to be responding to conservative worry. It equates “civilization” not so much with Western traditions and values, precisely, as with the sort of globalist system of capitalist economies and the largely Western-derived education and culture that has sprouted and flowered in the 20th and especially the 21st centuries. You can see it in most of the big cities of the world. The success of this civilization is not to be evaluated (on this view) by some subjective measures of morality, or religion of course, or using sociological metrics that go proxy for these, but instead by more objective measures of well-being such as GDP, literacy rates, and longevity rates.
These positions interact in interesting ways.
- A very strong case can be made that it is precisely certain Western traditions (democracy, industrialism, free enterprise, science, etc.) that have enabled the global success celebrated by the optimistic position.
- The postmodern position is, too, absolutely rooted in some Western values (such as cultural tolerance and Christian charity).
- And the optimistic position is widely (and in my opinion rightly) regarded as too optimistic; almost all of us detect some manner of deep moral malaise in Western civilization (such as dangerous populist racism, on the one hand, or the dangerous weakening of Christian values, on the other), even if we don’t necessarily think of it as threatening civilization itself, and the happy talk does not do this justice.
- And the postmodern position is surely right to suggest that Western civilization has undergone and is likely to continue to undergo radical transformations that have made the Western roots of American and European societies look positively foreign. But does that mean the collapse of civilization, or its transformation?
- And if it is transforming and not collapsing, is that unequivocally a good thing?
- Are important values, that conservatives perhaps talk about more than progressives, being lost? Put aside your political differences and ask yourself: might that be important? And what consequences might that have for the new global order?
- Is it true that there must be some transcendent purpose and deep values that undergird our lives, or else (as conservatives suggest) civilization, that will cause not merely its transformation but its wholesale replacement with some other civilization that does celebrate some transcendent purpose? And if that’s true, what values would replace Western ones?
- Could something like progressivism itself constitute a global value system?
- We already know that any such progressive value system largely conflict with traditional Christianity and some other Western values, but doesn’t it also conflict with Islam?
I don’t suggest any conclusion now. I just thought that contextualizing the debate would be interesting.