by Bruce S. Thornton
The next half-year will see some of the most critical months in American history. The issues at stake involve not just the prosecution of the war on terror, but also problems larger and deeper in our culture and its place in the world, problems that terrorism is one particularly destructive manifestation of. Simply put, the question is this: Can the values of the West—liberal democracy, individualism, and free market capitalism, along with the freedom and prosperity they create—survive? Or do such values promote a materialist hedonism that reduces all goods to appetite and pleasure and thus corrupts all values, ultimately leading to weakness, decline, and finally extinction?
We first must remember how unusual and fragile all those goods are that we take for granted, and so how diligently they need to be cultivated and tended. Political freedom historically has been a rare plant, difficult to sow and easy to destroy, for it runs counter to other powerful human impulses. Humans for most of their history have lived in societies characterized by tribalism, clannishness, and the domination of society by some sort of elite that monopolizes force and resources, a control reinforced by irrational superstition. It has taken the work of centuries to create the sort of societies we see in the West today: those in which respect for individual rights is encoded in consensual governments that reflect the will of the citizens and that approach the problems of living and governing through rational procedure, discussion, and law rather than through superstition or force.
Yet as the continuing nostalgia for Soviet communism in Russia or for autocracy in Latin America suggests, freedom can be a burden, for it requires that individuals take the responsibility for their own lives and decisions rather than blaming the gods or powerful elites. Thus political autocracy retains a powerful allure for many people who prefer stable, secure, and predictable tyranny to the riotous disorder and unpredictable risks of freedom. And if that tyranny is buttressed by a religious vision that sees it as the expression of God’s will, its hold over people is even greater.
Yet so far a risky freedom has won out over a secure tyranny, which is why the ideals of human rights and political liberty have become the world’s common political language even for those people still subjected to oppressive regimes. Just by looking at our lives in the West, oppressed peoples can see that a government that nurtures the freedom of individuals, abetted by a scientific view of the world that creates material prosperity and comfort, bestows the greatest prosperity on the greatest number of ordinary people. That is why so many outside the West who lack these goods are desperate to get to the West and possess them.
Yet from the very beginning of these values in the ancient Greek city-states, the destructive consequences that can follow from individual freedom and autonomy and rationalism have been apparent. The emphasis on the material conditions of human life and on physical comfort and pleasure slights the transcendent needs of humans, our deep-seated recognition that man does not live on bread alone. The focus on individuals similarly has come at the expense of community and other collective ties. Science’s success at describing and controlling the physical world has not been matched in its attempts to describe the human and social worlds. Thus while the traditional supernatural authority for values and morality has been undercut, nothing has come along to take its place, leaving us morally adrift.
Most important, making material prosperity and individual freedom the highest goods weakens the bases of action, particularly the use of force to defend one’s way of life against those who despise and want to destroy it. Military action involves risk and discomfort, the unpredictable and the unforeseen, the brutal and the bloody. When filmed 24-7 and beamed into our living rooms, it disturbs our leisure and forces upon on hard truths about the tragic complexity of life, truths we’d rather forget about. Rather than recognizing, as our ancestors did, that often some must die now so that more don’t die later, we prefer to think we can live in a world where no one has to die ever. Without a passionate belief in the rightness of our ideals, we resort to a material calculus that prevents any action which is not cheap, fast, and nearly cost-free.
Worse, cocooned in comfort and freedom we can afford the luxury of doubting or even despising our own culture and its ideals even as we enjoy their benefits, masking that hypocritical self-loathing behind nuanced analysis or sophisticated cosmopolitanism. Yet when one believes the lie that all cultures are equally good, why should one fight and die and kill for one’s own? Worse, such people are always vulnerable to those who do believe their culture is superior and is worth killing and dying for.
This diagnosis of Western cultural corruption lies at the heart of the Islamist assault against the West, a culture they see as godless, hedonistic, and too addicted to material pleasure and comfort to fight for what it says it believes. This is the point of terrorism: to demonstrate horrifically both the addiction of the West to life and pleasure as the highest goods, worth any humiliation and appeasement; and to affirm the spiritual superiority of the terrorist, whose belief in the rightness of his culture is so powerful that he will commit any atrocity to further its aims. After all, the test of a belief is not whether you are willing to die for it, not even whether you are willing to kill for it, but whether you are willing to risk killing the wrong people for it. The terrorists demonstrate the intensity of their belief by targeting directly the innocent instead of just putting them at risk, as we have been seeing in Israel for decades.
Is this diagnosis of the West’s corruption true? If we look first at Europe, signs point to its accuracy. With some exceptions, Europe today is an exhausted civilization, living off the cultural capital accumulated from its past. Protected for fifty years from Soviet aggression by American military might, Europe has slighted its own militaries and spent its resources instead on expensive social welfare entitlements. European culture is hedonistic, masking a devotion to pleasure and personal well-being as a sophisticated life-style. Spiritual belief is rapidly becoming extinct, as near-empty churches attest. Material comfort and pleasure in this world appears to be the highest good for many Europeans, as suggested by their plummeting birthrates, in some countries not even reaching replacement levels.
More dangerous perhaps are the sentimental third-worldism and fashionable post-colonial guilt that elevate the non-Western “other” into both the bearer of wisdom superior to that of the crass West, and the aggrieved victim of Western aggression and exploitation. These diseased ideas have helped nurture a demographic time-bomb in the disgruntled Islamic immigrants who see no reason to assimilate to a culture that many European thinkers themselves do not believe is superior and in fact is guilty of oppression and exploitation.
In the U.S., a significant number of people hold views similar to the Europeans’. Nurtured in prosperity and freedom, they indulge a fashionable cultural relativism that prohibits the belief that the culture and values creating freedom and prosperity are superior to, not just different from, the cultures and values that don’t. A reflexive doubt about America’s principles, aims, and conduct, based on a false history of America’s exceptional crimes, engenders an incessant questioning and criticism unrelated to any realistic standards by which we judge the behavior of states, particularly when they use force to pursue their interests.
Concentrated in the academic, media, and popular culture elites, these tinhorn Hamlets decry any action that might incur unforeseen costs and consequences or that doesn’t guarantee complete success. And this failure of nerve, this lack of faith in core values and principles that short-circuits action, is disguised as sophisticated thought or nuanced analysis or dissenting criticism superior to the crude, black-and-white worldview that acknowledges good and evil and the necessity of the former to battle vigorously the latter. Yet our enemies know better: they can see that the so-called tolerance for the “other” and sensitivity to his culture, and the endless analyses are in fact the disguises of a lack of faith in our society’s core beliefs and an unwillingness to suffer, die, and kill in order to confirm and defend their rightness and superiority.
Yet there still remains in America a significant number of those who believe that the United States is history’s greatest success story, for it grants to the greatest number of the most diverse peoples the most freedom and prosperity ever enjoyed by human beings. Moreover, these people believe passionately in values, principles, and beliefs that create this freedom for individuals, and they are not ashamed to say that these principles are superior to those that do not create freedom. They know that action carries risks, that imperfect human beings in the cauldron of war will forget their humanity, and that frequently the choice is not between the good and the bad but between the bad and the worse. But they maintain their belief that the principles driving their actions are in the end better for all people than those of the enemy, and that the triumph of those principles will create a better world for the greatest number of people.
In confronting the terrorists the Bush administration has for the most part acted from a conviction of the rightness of our core values, all the while that other cohort of Americans has incessantly criticized every decision and action–a level of critical scrutiny that, if it had been displayed during WWII, would’ve cost us victory in that conflict.
Yet even the President at times has shown an inability or unwillingness to confront the true nature of the struggle. One common mistake, repeated recently in Ireland, is to attribute terrorism to political autocracy and material deprivation that create hopelessness and despair, thus driving the disenfranchised to the doctrines of the fundamentalists.
Perhaps political calculation compels the President to repeat this analysis, but it seriously misstates the case, and slights the power of the motives driving the Islamists. Just because the material calculus is paramount for us, it doesn’t mean that other peoples can’t be motivated by other, non-material goods. The dynamic of the Islamist is what to him is a spiritual good superior to all material goods–that’s why he can kill and die for it. To reduce his motives to material and political deprivation is to reinforce his analysis of Western corruption: that we are spiritually impoverished and cannot see beyond the comfort and pleasure of this world.
Acknowledging this truth raises the stakes of the conflict in which we are engaged, for history shows us that battles between transcendent values are bitter and bloody, and usually end only when one side has been forcefully shown the destructive wages of clinging to its beliefs. In addition, recognizing the spiritual motive means tempering our faith that material prosperity and political inclusion will solve the problem of terrorism absent the utter repudiation of the dysfunctional beliefs–exactly what we see in Iraq today, where significant numbers of Iraqis are actively murdering anyone and everyone attempting to improve their lives.
We Americans are now faced with a critical test–of our commitment to what we believe, of our confidence that we believe in something more than the individual’s right to do and consume whatever he wants–something beyond the goods of this world, a transcendent good that we believe in even more passionately than the terrorist believes in his. A measure of this commitment and confidence will be our willingness to prosecute vigorously the current conflict with a stoic acceptance of the tragic costs of action. That is the choice we will face in November: between a flawed but passionate faith in America’s ideals as the best hope for all of humanity; and a tired doubt about those ideals that confirms the enemy’s estimation that we no longer are willing to kill and die for them. In short, through our political choice we will show the Islamists that their analysis of our corruption is false: for all our prosperity and comfort we still know what the highest good for humans is–the freedom of the individual to choose for himself how, or even whether, to pursue the spiritual good.
©2004 Bruce Thornton