President Trump’s Warsaw speech, delivered on July 6 in Krasinski Square, scene of Poland’s 1944 uprising against Nazi occupation, was—depending on your political point of view—either a cry of freedom or duplicity of the greatest magnitude:
The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilisation in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?
The Churchillian urgency of the Warsaw Speech was, for many, not at all misplaced. Western civilisation is indeed in peril because it happens to be confronting a global jihad, and whether we have the will or even the lucidity to meet the challenge remains an open question. For the naysayers, on the other hand, the primary danger facing the West was the speaker of these words.
Jamelle Bouie, writing for Slate magazine, was one of the many pundits on the Left who viewed President Trump’s vigorous defence of Western civilisation, the passage above especially, as an allusion “to ideas and ideologies with wide currency on the white nationalist right”. Similarly, Jonathan Capehart, in the Washington Post, detected “white-nationalist dog whistles” in an appeal to “preserve our civilisation”. Not to be outdone, Sarah Wildman, in Vox magazine, considered Donald Trump’s performance to be straight out of the so-called alt-right’s playbook: that is to say, racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic and so on. Peter Beinart, in the Atlantic, clarified the situation for anyone who might have thought Trump’s words about freedom and civilisation sounded like John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan defending the West in times past: “The West is a racial and religious term.”
Here, in a nutshell, is the modern-day Left’s modus operandi for criminalising any opinion that gainsays their identity politics and ideology of political correctness. Conflating “the West” with “the white national right” marginalises conservative or traditionalist thinking of every kind. It is also, we might note, perverse. Western civilisation, as Roger Scruton explained in The Uses of Pessimism, is not about race or any other form of tribalism but about individual self-determination. The West has the led the way in creating a workable social arrangement “that confers security and freedom in exchange for consent—an order not of submission but of settlement”. Vaclav Havel’s eassay “The Power of the Powerless”, as encapsulated by M.A. Casey in the July-August edition of Quadrant, is an instructive example of the freedomist Western impulse challenging, in this case, the “post-totalitarianism” (or soft totalitarianism) of late communism in Eastern Europe: “life, in its essence, moves towards plurality, diversity, independent self-constitution and self-organisation, in short towards the fulfilment of its own freedom”.
This essay appears in the September edition of Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe
The Western ethos, by this account, is neither racial nor religious per se but, ultimately, a project of individual autonomy and liberty. Our post-tribal sense of individual uniqueness, choice and conscience has its roots in long-standing Christian principles. Even the Age of Science, notwithstanding the New Atheists, was not a rebellion against Christian culture but, as writers such as David Bentley Hart have argued, a product of it. Participation in a Western society is open to people of all races and all religions, with the caveat that they embrace a civilisational code that demands not submission but settlement—freedom, in other words.
Western-style freedom, as President Trump noted in his Warsaw Speech, has often come at a terrible price, the anguish of thousand-year-old Poland during the Second World War being a case in point:
Under a double occupation the Polish people endured evils beyond description: the Katyn forest massacre, the occupations, the Holocaust, the Warsaw Ghetto and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the destruction of this beautiful capital city, and the deaths of nearly one in five Polish people.
The Poles were able to survive all this and the subsequent four decades of communist rule, which involved “a brutal campaign to demolish your freedom, your faith, your laws, your identity”, because the spirit of the Polish people “could not be broken”. And that spirit, a desire to be free whatever the cost, requires indomitable courage and strength. The most advanced military technology will not save us from the enemies of Western-inspired notions of freedom and liberty if there is no longer the will on our part to do so.
Freedom, as we have come to understand it in the West, might be a glorious thing, and yet there is a restless and unsettling aspect to it, since long-cherished notions of truth can take on a provisional quality. How could it be otherwise? As President Trump noted: “And we debate everything. We challenge everything. We seek to know everything so that we can better know ourselves.” These lines reminded me of Robert Irwin’s For Lust of Knowing (2006), a vivid depiction of the lives of Western Orientalists through the ages culminating in the centenarian Bernard Lewis. All of the great Orientalists, according to Irwin, were characterised by brilliance of mind and uninhibited inquisitiveness. The Greater Middle East, and destinations further afield, were there to be explored and understood.
This inquiring spirit of the West, our yearning to seek the truth by debating and investigating everything, is now being seriously challenged. The cultural relativism of Edward Said and his academic acolytes, as one example, are part of what Bernard Lewis called the “deadly hand of political correctness” that began to descend on Western universities during the 1970s. This goes some of the way, in Lewis’s opinion, to explain why “Islam now enjoys a level of immunity from comment or criticism in the Western world that Christianity has lost and Judaism never had”. The work of Bernard Lewis, including the fourteen-page article “The Revolt of Islam” in the New Yorker, November 2001, received much attention at the time. Even the mainstream media, briefly, were reconciled to an honest evaluation of the reasons for the 2001 Salafi-jihadist attack on the United States. But then, as the horror of September 11 receded, the PC police reasserted themselves and drove frank discussion from the public forum. Bernard Lewis, who won a journalistic prize for “The Revolt of Islam”, and authored two New York Times best-sellers in this period, was never again invited by the editors of the New Yorker to write for them. The notion of a “clash of civilisations”, Lewis dryly observed in Notes on a Century, was “obviously not in accord with their worldview”.
Not in accordance with the worldview of our political class and PC commentariat, perhaps, but the continuing slaughter of Westerners by radical Islamic terrorists, the phenomenon of Sudden Jihadi Syndrome, the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the atrocities committed by the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, not to mention the growing boldness of the Muslim Brotherhood within our own communities, mean that the public conversation about the challenge of Islamic revivalism to Western civilisation, at least partly begun by Bernard Lewis, is back on the agenda. Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory makes it so. Whether we have the spirit, the courage and the wherewithal to follow the argument to a satisfactory conclusion is another matter.
The defence of Western civilisation will not be easy because, as the negative reaction to President Trump’s Warsaw Speech makes clear, fashionable and progressive thinkers are not especially keen on the notion of “the West”. Eugene Robinson, writing for the Washington Post, derided Trump’s claims about the West’s achievements: “If the president read a few history books, he’d know that for most of the past 2000 years, China and India were the world’s leading economic powers and Europe was a relatively primitive backwater.” If Robinson read more Bernard Lewis he would know that one of the likely causes of Islamic revivalism is the astonishing success of the “relatively primitive backwater” of Europe. As Lewis wrote in 2002: “Why did the great scientific breakthroughs occur in Europe and not, as one might reasonably have expected, in the richer, more advanced, and in most respects more enlightened realm of Islam?” This is a fascinating question, surely, and addressing it might bring us closer to accounting for (and thereby defending ourselves against) Islamic rage, which takes the form of Wahhabism, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi jihadism.
The standard PC position has been that the mere mention of Bernard Lewis’s “clash of civilisations” thesis (taken up by Samuel P. Huntington) is to invite Armageddon by playing into the hands of the Salafi jihadists. Replicating, however inadvertently, the radical Islamic doctrine of the House of Peace (Dar al-Islam) versus the House of War (Dar al-Harb) only reinforces—or so the narrative goes—the anti-Western propaganda of the likes of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group. President George W. Bush, according to such a view, made it easy for the Salafi-jihadist recruiters to promote their apocalyptic millennialist cause. Bush’s post-9/11 rhetoric—“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”—and US military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq allegedly gave radical Islamic indoctrinators all the scope they needed to reconfigure the Global War on Terrorism as a Global War on Islam.
President Obama’s refusal to properly address the peril of radical Islamic terrorism—or even utter the words radical Islamic terrorism—has its genesis in this line of thinking. On the surface, at least, there might have been a case for Barack Obama’s Islamic outreach. David Kilcullen, in The Islamic State and the Failures of the War on Terror, notes that it was in George W. Bush’s second term that the either-with-us-or-against-us oratory was replaced by “disaggregation”, an attempt to portray the West’s response to global jihad as separate and unrelated military operations. In other words, the Global War on Terrorism was already scaled back to what would later be called the Overseas Contingency Operation before Barack Obama even entered the White House.
But there was also a great deal of intellectual dishonesty, not to mention cravenness, in the refusal of the Obama administration (and, yes, the George W. Bush administration before it) to come to terms with the crisis of Islamic civilisation. Irrespective of what the disciples of Edward Said say, Bernard Lewis did not fabricate the problem of a civilisational crisis in Islam. Ali A. Allawi’s The Crisis of Islamic Civilisation (2009) tells more or less the same story as Lewis does but from the other side of the divide. Islam, once a cohesive and complex civilisation stretching from northern Africa to India, has largely come undone due to Islam’s “apparent mismatch with the modern world” and, concomitantly, the “decay of its defining and vital forces”. Islamic revivalism, argues Allawi, exists in different forms, some benign and others—like Wahhabism/Salafism—entirely pernicious. All have a vision of restoring “the oneness” of private and public life disturbed by the arrival of Western-style individualism: “The sharp dichotomy between the sacred and the profane—‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s’—does not hold in Islam.” Japan and China, writes Allawi, eventually found “an alternative modernity”, a way to adapt their heritages to the reality of Western-inspired notions of freedom and material success. Muslim-majority societies have found the going much harder. Wahhabism/Salafism, according to Allawi, is not an indication of Islam flourishing, but floundering. It is a political—and I would add apocalyptical millennialist—response to a civilisational breakdown. Radical Islamic terrorism is a more psychotic version of effectively the same phenomenon.
Distinguishing Western civilisation from (say) Islamic civilisation, or even Russian and Chinese civilisations, is obviously not difficult for an insightful Muslim thinker such as Ali A. Allawi. Thus, when President Trump extols the distinctive features of the West and sends out a call for their safeguarding it does not signify, as Eugene Robinson puts it, a “dangerous thirst for a clash of civilisations”. Robinson has it exactly the wrong way around. An awareness of potential civilisational fault lines provides us with an opportunity to avoid, or at least not exacerbate, civilisational tensions. David French, writing for the National Review, contends that “a universalist view of human nature”, as espoused by both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, has brought disaster. Bush, for his part, “failed to adequately plan and prepare for the Iraq that would emerge after the Iraq invasion” because he idealistically believed Iraqi political leaders benefiting from the US-imposed revolution would want “liberty more than they wanted to settle old scores”.
President Obama, driven by a New Left globalist creed, was naive about the enemies of the West, believing that if he pandered to their one-sided grievances against the United States and Israel, then “alleged universal values would have a chance to prevail against the forces of hate”. It is hard to name one way in which international relations improved under the Obama administration, from the failure of the Russian “reset” and all the subsequent acrimony, the rise of Salafi jihadism in Libya, Syria and Iraq, acts of radical Islamic terrorism throughout the West, the increasing Islamisation of Turkey, China’s militarisation of the South China Sea, North Korea’s unabated bellicosity, Iran’s emboldened adventurism, and so on. Obama apologists, such as CNN/Washington Post’s Fareed Zakaria, condemn the “parochialism” of President Trump’s America First creed while ignoring the nightmare that was Obama’s post-America ideology.
The Poles, judging by their enthusiastic response to the Warsaw Speech, understand very well that America First is not the same as America Alone. At the time of the speech, for instance, the Trump administration announced its intention to sell medium-range Patriot missiles to Poland, something the Russia-placating, first-term Obama administration dared not do. Appeasement, as we were to discover during President Obama’s second term, did not provide great dividends. It rarely does. While still in Poland, President Trump also took the opportunity to extol to President Andrzej Duda, and Eastern European governments in general, the economic and political advantages of replacing imported Russian natural gas with shipments of US gas. America First does not have the splendour of Obama’s heal-the-world, globalist rhetoric but maybe it makes up for that by aligning itself to reality.
If the West can be characterised as a community of liberal-democratic states, then it should be incumbent upon the political leadership of each of those autonomous national entities to promote the best interests of their respective populations. Theoretically, of course, people of any religious or ethnic background can—and do—assimilate into a society based on Western principles. We have to wake up to the reality, however, that this occurs despite the sectarianism encouraged by multiculturalism, which might be better described as poly-tribalism. The “oneness” sought by Sunni supremacists contrasts sharply with the enlightened patriotism of the Poles. A Western society might be “open”, in the sense that Karl Popper used the term, but it has the right to closed or secure borders, not to mention a stringent immigration program. How else can a heritage of liberty be protected against those with an entirely different civilisational framework?
We are not the House of War, as the Wahhabis/Salafists assert. We are the House of Freedom. To critique and constrain Islamic revivalism in the West is not to be Islamophobic as both the Muslim Brotherhood and the PC police would have it. Paradoxically, perhaps, the real danger for the West, when it comes to global jihad and all those who do not have the interests of the House of Freedom at heart, might not be so much the enemy at the gates but the anti-West nihilism at the core of politically-correct thinking. How else to explain the fact that today when the President of the United States makes a speech in Warsaw praising the grandeur and liberty of Western civilisation he is immediately censured for being a white male supremacist?
For the purveyors of identity politics, who have managed to ensnare too many of our compatriots in a modern-day version of soft totalitarianism, it is not simply Donald Trump, or even his “deplorable” supporters, who are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and Islamophobic, but the West itself. Astonishingly, we have reached a point where to defend ourselves is to condemn ourselves. Somebody urgently needs to write an updated version of Vaclav Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless”. To safeguard a place for our children and grandchildren in the House of Freedom we must push back hard against the alliance of convenience between the PC brigade and Islamic revivalists, and be prepared to pay whatever price is demanded. We could do worse than consult the Poles about what this might require.
Daryl McCann is a regular contributor. He has a blog at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au, and he tweets at @dosakamccann.