28 April 2017

Faith in the West

David Brooks's subject isn't the state of religious belief in the western world, but the state of faith in western civilization as an ideal worth defending. He perceives a loss of faith in "democratic ideals" around the world, on the varied evidence of terrorism, authoritarianism (e.g. Putin, Erdogan), "illiberal" populism (e.g. Trump, Le Pen) and the "fragile thugs" who try to keep right-wing speakers off college campuses. Why is all this happening? Many people have different theories, but Brooks chooses laughably, for his column's purposes, to blame a loss of faith in western civ. on the part of educators. Neglecting economics and ecology, but nostalgic for the good old days when Will and Ariel Durant's "Story of Civilization" books were best-sellers, Brooks laments a revisionist turn in history writing and teaching.

Starting decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke. Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western civilization is a history of oppression.

We had better make clear what Brooks, exactly, means by western civ. There is no way not to describe such a phenomenon selectively, and what Brooks selects is a typical Best Of list: "the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated." Just what you'd expect to hear from a center-rightist like Brooks, just as you might expect to hear about a "history of oppression" from someone far to his left. Whenever I hear this sort of complaint, I want to ask whether the complainant wants whitewashed history taught in Americans schools, as some to Brooks' right do, their idea of education being to teach love of country before the critical thinking (i.e. "reasoned discourse") that's usually considered an important part of the western civ. package. When someone resents hearing about a "history of oppression," would they have us teach our children that Americans oppressed no one? Is that necessary to faith in western civ? Brooks actually has what's probably the best possible answer to my questions. "All I can say," he writes,  "is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it." In other, more Churchillian words, western civ is the worst thing in the world, except for all the others.  But this doesn't really answer whether we're obliged to deny facts for the sake of patriotism or, to use Brooks's word, faith.

The actual answer requires a distinction between the actual history of oppression, which obviously is not unique to the U.S. or western civ., and what we could call "oppressive history," which is really what Brooks is complaining about. There needs to be a distinction between rightfully pointing out those times when the U.S. or west didn't live up to its principles, or acted on no principles at all, and the more radically hostile idea that western civ. is a project of oppression with no purpose but to dominate, plunder and kill everything different. A person can still believe this but should recognize that it describes pretty much every civilization in human history. That's the position of those who think humanity's salvation is the emergence of the New Man through a revolutionary break with all traditions. In an American public school or university, it should suffice to teach the facts and the critical faculties necessary to interpret them. If we are to be confident in the superiority of our values, we should be able to assert that no number of admitted misdeeds disqualify us -- especially not when few if any are unique to our history. Once the universality of oppression is acknowledged rather than denied, we can compare civs. on their merits, by standards capable of being proved objective. At that point we can take up Brooks's challenge to find or imagine a better alternative to western civ., so long as we understand it, and its alternatives, warts and all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Faith, in my not-so-humble opinion, is a waste of time. One is better speaking in terms of probability or possibility than in faith and belief.