How to Explain Who We Are

Posted on May 28, 2020


Not too long ago I read two pieces that got me to thinking. The first was a piece in an online journal, The Daily Signal, titled “The Virus Before the Virus” by Armstrong Williams, and the second was “How a civilization ends,” a review of a new book, The Abandonment of the West, by Michael Kimmage,

I have occasionally asked myself what has led us to a society described by Williams in his essay, and Kimmage offers us a fairly good answer, the decline of the West.

Williams describes an ugly America, “homeless people walking the streets…men, women, and, sadly, children who go through life like zombies. No goals, no discipline, no positive influences, no inspiration, no hope.” It is a dystopia, now a popular descriptor of an ugly, undesirable society (think opposite of utopia) that Williams writes “is the reality in today’s America, even if it’s rarely spoken of in polite society and hardly ever is the focus of mainstream media. It is the dark and despairing side of America that we want to pretend does not exist, but it surely does.”

So how did we get to William’s dystopia?

Kimmage describes the ongoing collapse of what is loosely described as “Western civilization.” I have often wondered why so many take such a critical view of the West and its principles, truths and strengths and turned to radical socialism, globalism, and a “politically correct” and usually intransigent extoling of the virtues of government control over society and culture led by, whom?: themselves of course.

Critics of the triumphalism of the West—that the West possessed the ideas, the philosophy, the drive, the discipline and self-control to exert mastery over much of the world—focused on the drawbacks of triumphalism, and its brother political description of America, exceptionalism. Western civilization encouraged imperialism, racism, a “patronizing and dismissive Western view of other cultures” all of which and more contributed to colonialism, genocide, and a general “disregard for women.” I would argue with the last. Try being a woman in Islamic society. Sorry, not even close to being the same as a woman in Victorian England, for example, the exemplar of Western Civilization.

Kimmage describes the rise of the West, and then its dismissal.

Following the Second World War, “America’s leading universities designed programs in Western civilization, unapologetically designating the great books to be read by students so they could understand their place in it.” William McNeill’s influential “The Rise of the West’ in 1963 was popular and read by many, including me sometime in this time frame

But, by the 1960s, “the triumphalist view of the West found itself being increasingly interrogated for its deficiencies at home and abroad—for [as noted above] racism, imperialism, colonialism….”  In short, by then “the universities had emerged as bastions of a through critique of the West and its leading power, the United States.” This increasing critique, added to the collapse of the Old Soviet Union in the 1990s and the end of the Cold War, undermined “the utility of speaking of ‘the West’ in foreign policy.” The West, in a nutshell, was no longer fashionable. George Bush was forced to retract his use of crusades and Crusaders in his messages on coping with increasing Islamic terrorism because “it was deemed insensitive, and even the leading architects of the ‘Global War on Terror’ drew a line at insensitivity of this sort.” Wow. You want to examine the origins of being “offended” in modern society? Try that one on for size. Honesty and truth were suspended for political correctness.

Kimmage does a good job of catching the duality of this struggle to push the West aside. Critics of the West were right in many ways and had been ignored or played down in the past. On the other hand, “the West got a number of things right as well: in the realm of foreign policy, the need to defeat fascism, to resist communism, and to promote (however inconsistently and imperfectly) the spread of freedom.”

As the reviewer noted “there was as well the emergence of a vision of political life based on mutual respect,” and I would say, wholly lacking in political discourse and debate today.

In my own field, criticism of the West reached a nadir of sorts in remembering the life of Christopher Columbus in and around 1992, the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of his voyage of discovery in 1492. Columbus the great Discoverer was dismissed as the outrider of decadent and imperial Western culture which introduced European diseases and greed, not to speak of a European religion (Christianity) that devastated and destroyed most of the indigenous people of the Americas.

The exaggeration of the evil Columbus representing the West and the rise of imperialism and colonialism was such a thorough repudiation of the West as to be almost comical in its extremes if its proponents weren’t so rabid in their condemnation of the West.

If the West is now defunct and dismissed, where are we going? Return to the first part this Op-ed and reread a bit of what Armstrong Williams wrote. We’ll revisit this theme in future essays as we explore how diversity, equity and inclusion have replaced your old standby, Western Civ 101.

Published as “How to explain who we are” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday May 20 2020.