May 26, 2008

Why Western civilization is worth fighting for

Man of Roma, in a stimulating comment to my previous post—and eventually in a post on his own blog—asked whether our set of Western values, paraphrasing a speech by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, “is really much more ‘robust, true, principled and appealing’ that it is so clear that it can beat theirs” (the values of the Islamic world). Here goes my answer.

Your post introduces different levels of issues, although very synthetically formulated. It would be an interesting and stimulating intellectual challenge, but a much too arduous task for me, to accept the challenge, that is to wrestle with the entire constellation of complex, unresolved issues: cultural, religious, ethical, political …

That is why I’ll limit myself to deal with what seems to me the most fundamental (level of) issue, that is to say “Which are our Western values?” And, consequently, why Western civilization is worth fighting for?

First and foremost, since I know that you consider yourself as belonging to the left, I’ll quote from a Johann Hari's interview with the former leftist Christopher Hitchens (The Independent, September 2004) and from a blog post by Professor Norman Geras: “The United States—said Hitchens—was attacked by theocratic fascists who represent all the most reactionary elements on earth. They stand for liquidating everything the left has fought for: women's rights, democracy[.] And how did much of the left respond? By affecting a kind of neutrality between America and the theocratic fascists.”

Norm, in turn, pointed out that, in his view, the most important thing one needs to know about someone today in forming a judgement about the character of their political outlook isn't whether or not they are of the left, or consider themselves as belonging to the left …

Rather more significant is to know what their all-round relationship is to certain values that have always been central to the historical project of the left: democratic and egalitarian values; a decent conception of justice (such as aims to achieve for everyone the possibility of a secure and fulfilled existence); and the protection of individual human beings from the more egregious types of assault to which they are subject when such values are denied or cast aside. Christopher Hitchens's present choice is not my own. I remain attached to the idea of arguing for these values within the left. A left which showed no respect for them wouldn't be worth belonging to. But all the same, I appreciate and feel the difficulty of accepting a common political identity with the contemporary apologists for terrorism, the mumblers and rootcausers, the people seemingly capable of understanding everything except the need for drawing a clear line between those who uphold the politics of democracy and those dedicated to their destruction. The left today has no reason for self-congratulation. This is a loose movement which is able (and has seen fit) - from the Falklands to Iraq - to mobilize always hundreds, and sometimes thousands and tens of thousands, to oppose conflicts fought by the Western democracies against the ugliest of tyrannies and/or reactionary social and political forces, but musters nothing comparable, or indeed just nothing, against a global campaign of terrorist murder; or, equally, against genocidal processes as these periodically unfold in one country after another, destroying the fabric of entire communities and uncountable numbers of lives. It is a milieu in which anti-Americanism is rampant, and one whose chosen monsters today are the elected political leaders of two of the world's great democracies, rather than any of the many more suitable targets for hatred and contempt one might have anticipated from a left moved by authentically democratic impulses; in which, in the face of an anti-Semitism now resurgent across Europe - within short memory of the time that continent was turned into a slaughterhouse and graveyard for the Jewish people - the voices addressing themselves to the phenomenon, as a danger which the left ought to meet and fight, are scarce; and in which, worse still, the state of the Jewish people, born out of the ashes of that terrible catastrophe, is now widely treated as a pariah to be calumniated, isolated, boycotted and - for a significant body of left opinion - destroyed.

And this is how Norm drew the moral line between, so to speak, “right” and “wrong,” or as I’d rather say, with reference to our discussion, between Western values and (non-Western) disvalues:

With those, both within the left and without it, who fight for democratic principles, practices and institutions and the fundamental rights of human beings; against those, whatever their political colour, who always have a reason, or a tactful silence, to offer on behalf of the forces fighting against these things; as well as against these oppressive and murderous forces.

Yet, in my view, the above is only one among the many possible ways to bring the argument to the point to which Norm has brought it. To make an example, Bernard Lewis—a towering figure among experts on the culture and religion of the Muslim world—took another cultural path. In his What Went Wrong book, Lewis has shown what made Islam so different from other monotheistic religions, particularly from a political and cultural point of view. For centuries, he says, the Islamic world was in the forefront of human achievement—the foremost military and economic power, the leader in the arts and sciences of civilization, etc.—while Christian Europe was sunk in the darkness of barbarism. And then everything changed. What went wrong? Lewis offers no easy answers, but he points out the lack of secularism and its roots at the core of Islam itself.

Secularism in the modern political meaning—the idea that religion and political authority, church and state are different, and can or should be separated—is, in a profound sense, Christian. Its origins may be traced in the teaching of Christ, confirmed by the experience of the first Christians; its later development was shaped and, in a sense, imposed by the subsequent history of Christendom.
In imperial Rome Caesar was God, reasserting a doctrine that goes back to the god-kings of remote antiquity. Among the Jews, for whose beliefs Josephus coined the term “theocracy,” God was Caesar. For the Muslims, too, God was the supreme sovereign, and the caliph was his vice-gerent, “his shadow on earth.” Only in Christendom did God and Caesar coesixt in the state, albeit with considerable development, variety, and sometimes conflict in the relations between them.

Of course there has been the conversion of Constantine, says Lewis, and the establishment of Christianity as the state religion initiated “a double change; the Christianization of Rome and—some would add—the Romanization of Christ,” but “by this time the Christian faith and the Christian church were centuries old, with their character sharply defined and indelibly marked by the experience of the founding generations.” While Muhammad was, so to speak, “his own Constantine. […]”

Now, being a believer (Christian Catholic), I am not that fanatic of secularism, but … I am also happy (and proud) to live in a society where the principle of the separation between state and church—founded on the Word of God (“Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's”)—is so important. I think this is a good reason, among many others, why Western civilization is worth fighting for.


  1. That we must ask the question at all frightens me.

  2. Yeah, I agree with the commentator. But you know, in Spain nowadays there is a fight between secularists (such as me: separation of Religion and State) and "laicists", that is, the supporters of laicism (don't know if it's correctly written), which basically consists in imposing the State's morals on citizens, specially in subjects such as homosexuality, abortion, etc. What we have to consider is that the State only has to consider law's consequences, not moral consequences.

    I'm writing a post about it, in which I will explain it more clearly.

    Last but not least, you wrote a very good post, Rob.

  3. @ the commentator: true, but, as our ancestors used to say, repetita juvant ...

    @ Nora: from that point of viw Spain=Italy. It's interesting that (see Wikipedia) no English word captures the exact meaning of the French laïcité, which comes from the Greek λαϊκός (laïkós "of the people", "layman"), it is sometimes rendered in English as "laicity" or "laicism".

    I'm looking forward to reading your post. Ciao

  4. It will take some time for me to comment on all this, since I am travelling. See you soon, then.

  5. Don't worry, MoR, take your time. Have a nice travel. Ciao

  6. Ok, Rob, and here and here goes my answer to your answer lol

  7. Hi M_o_R,

    I had a quick read, and since I am very busy at the moment, I’ll take my time … However, it seems to me that the ground has been cleared of any potential confusion and misunderstanding. See you soon (I hope!).


  8. Ok, Rob, do not worry.

  9. Hi MoR, here is my answer to your answer to my answer … ;-)