Victor Davis Hanson: A civilization that has lost confidence in itself cannot confront the Islamists





[Mr. Hanson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, a distinguished fellow of Hillsdale College, and author most recently of "A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War." This article is adapted form a speech he delivered at the Claremont Institute's annual dinner in honor Sir Winston Churchill. ]

Our current crisis is not yet a catastrophe, but a real loss of confidence of the spirit. The hard-won effort of the Western Enlightenment of some 2,500 years that, along with Judeo-Christian benevolence, is the foundation of our material progress, common decency, and scientific excellence, is at risk in this new millennium.

But our newest foes of Reason are not the enraged Athenian democrats who tried and executed Socrates. And they are not the Christian zealots of the medieval church who persecuted philosophers of heliocentricity. Nor are they Nazis who burned books and turned Western science against its own to murder millions en masse.

No, the culprits are now more often us. In the most affluent, and leisured age in the history of Western civilization--never more powerful in its military reach, never more prosperous in our material bounty--we have become complacent, and then scared of the most recent face of barbarism from the primordial extremists of the Middle East.

What would a beleaguered Socrates, a Galileo, a Descartes, or Locke believe, for example, of the moral paralysis in Europe? Was all their bold and courageous thinking--won at such a great personal cost--to allow their successors a cheap surrender to religious fanaticism and the megaphones of state-sponsored fascism?

Just imagine in our present year, 2006: plan an opera in today's Germany, and then shut it down. Again, this surrender was not done last month by the Nazis, the Communists, or kings, but by the producers themselves in simple fear of Islamic fanatics who objected to purported bad taste. Or write a novel deemed unflattering to the Prophet Mohammed. That is what did Salman Rushdie did, and for his daring, he faced years of solitude, ostracism, and death threats--and in the heart of Europe no less. Or compose a documentary film, as did the often obnoxious Theo Van Gogh, and you may well have your throat cut in "liberal" Holland. Or better yet, sketch a simple cartoon in postmodern Denmark of legendary easy tolerance, and then go into hiding to save yourself from the gruesome fate of a Van Gogh. Or quote an ancient treatise, as did Pope Benedict, and then learn that all of Christendom may come under assault, and even the magnificent stones of the Vatican may offer no refuge--although their costumed Swiss Guard would prove a better bulwark than the European police. Or write a book critical of Islam, and then go into hiding in fear of your life, as did French philosophy teacher Robert Redeker.

And we need not only speak of threats to free speech, but also the tangible rewards from a terrified West to the agents of such repression. Note the recent honorary degree given to former Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami, whose regime has killed and silenced so many, and who himself is under investigation by the Argentine government for his role in sponsoring Hezbollah killers to murder dozens of Jewish innocents in Buenos Aires....

History gives evidence of no civilization that survived long as purely secular and without a god, that put its trust in reason alone, and believed human nature was subject to radical improvement given enough capital and learning invested in the endeavor. The failure of our elites to amplify their traditions they received, and to believe them to be not merely different but far better than the alternatives, is also a symptom of crisis in all societies of the past, whether Demosthenes' Athens, late imperial Rome, 18th-century France, or Western Europe of the 1920s. Nothing is worse that an elite that demands egalitarianism for others but ensures privilege for itself. And rarely, we know, are civilization's suicides a result of the influence of too many of the poor rather than of the wealthy.

But can I end on an optimistic note in tonight's tribute to Winston Churchill, who endured more and was more alone than we of the present age? After the horror of September 11, we in our sleep were also given a jolt of sorts, presented with enemies from the Dark Ages, the Islamic fascists who were our near exact opposites, who hated the Western tradition, and, more importantly, were honest and without apology in conveying that hatred of our liberal tolerance and forbearance. They arose not from anything we did or any Western animosity that might have led to real grievances, but from self-acknowledged weakness, self-induced failure, and, of course, those perennial engines of war, age-old envy and lost honor--always amplified and instructed by dissident Western intellectuals whose unhappiness with their own culture proved a feast for the scavenging Al-Qaedists.
By past definitions of relative power, al-Qaeda and its epigones were weak and could not defeat the West militarily. But their genius was knowing of our own self-loathing, of our inability to determine their evil from our good, of our mistaken belief that Islamists were confused about, rather than intent to destroy, the West, and most of all, of our own terror that we might lose, if even for a brief moment, the enjoyment of our good life to defeat the terrorists. In learning what the Islamists are, many of us, and for the first time, are also learning what we are not. And in fighting these fascists, we are to learn whether our freedom can prove stronger than their suicide belts and improvised explosive devices.

So we have been given a reprieve of sorts with this war, to regroup; and, in our enemies, to see our own past failings and present challenges; and to rediscover our strengths and remember our origins. We can relearn that we are not fighting for George Bush or Wal-Mart alone, but also for the very notion of the Enlightenment--and, yes, in the Christian sense for the good souls of those among us who have forgotten all that as they censor cartoons and compare American soldiers to Nazis.

So let me quote Winston Churchill of old about the gift of our present ordeal:

"These are not dark days: these are great days--the greatest days our country has ever lived."

Never more true than today.



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Lisa Kazmier - 12/2/2006

True, but I happen to question the entire premise that what is unfolding is a clash of civilizations, as if the fighters on either side are scholars defending lofty ideals. Our self loathing? Huh? Speak for yourself and those who think the founding fathers were all Christian fundamentalists. And who exactly are these "geniuses" who figured this out? I think that whole thesis is neocon bunk.


Andy Moursund - 12/2/2006

Many of Churchill's peers actually enlisted to fight themselves, as did their sons. Mr. Hanson might want to examine this curious and dated phenomenon if he wishes to make a slightly fuller comparison of previous moments of crisis to ours.
The old poolroom saying of "money talks and bullshit walks" comes to mind here.