23rd June 18:27
Demography is Destiny: Will Radical Islam Defeat the Atheist West ?
Why radical Islam might defeat the West
Jul 8, 2003
"Does Spengler know, for instance, that in the last century 2,000
distinct ethnic groups have gone extinct?" Eric Garrett asks in his
June 12 riposte, A question of identity, to an earlier article of
mine, Neo-cons in a religious bind.
Garrett's organization, the World Conservation Union, is devoted to
preserving fragile cultures. As a matter of fact, I reported in this
space that in the next decade, yet another 2,000 distinct ethnic
groups would go extinct (Live and Let Die of April 13, 2002). Ignore
the endangered Ewoks for a moment, Mr Garrett, and explain why the
imperial peoples of the past two centuries - Germans, Japanese,
French, Italians, Russians, and so forth - have elected to disappear,
through failure to reproduce (Why Europe chooses extinction, April 8).
Garrett and I focus on the same data, but with different agendas. His
concern is the mass extinction of primitive cultures, which I think
inevitable; my concern is the fall of Western civilization and the
possible triumph of radical Islam. In neither case does the influence
of Leo Strauss have any relevance. Europe and Japan, the erstwhile
imperial oppressors of Garrett's 2,000 lost tribes, are dying out for
the same reason that oppressed peoples died out, and thousands more
soon will die out as well. With few exceptions, they were neither
butchered nor dispossessed. Unlike the colonizers of the 16th century,
who brought smallpox, the European colonists of the 20th century
brought antibiotics. Western intervention secured the physical
existence of aboriginal cultures, but undermined their will to live.
Now it is the Europeans themselves who are endangered.
Socrates (like Strauss) was wrong. It is not the unexamined life that
is not worth living, but the life defined by mere animal existence.
Unlike lower species, humans require a sense of the eternal. The brute
instinct for self-preservation is a myth. It should be no surprise.
Precisely a century ago, George Bernard Shaw in his 1903 interlude Don
Juan in Hell warned that Western hedonism would lead to depopulation.
The day is coming when great nations will find their numbers dwindling
from census to census; when the six-roomed villa will rise in price
above the family mansion; when the viciously reckless poor and the
stupidly pious rich will delay the extinction of the race only by
degrading it; whilst the boldly prudent, the thriftily selfish and
ambitious, the imaginative and poetic, the lovers of money and solid
comfort, the worshippers of success, of art, and of love, will all
oppose to the Force of Life the device of sterility.
This brings us to the reason why Strauss has become something of a
bore. The good professor (I mean this sincerely) hung his
political-science hat on Hobbes, who threw out the traditional concept
of God-given rights of man. He derived the social contract instead
from man's brute instinct for self-preservation. In order to protect
themselves against violence in the state of nature, men surrender part
of their freedom to a ruler who in turn guarantees their security. By
deriving natural rights from brute instinct rather than divine law,
Strauss argued (Natural Right and History, 1950), Hobbes invented
modern political science, that is, a discipline distinct from faith.
Thus he made it possible to create a practicable republic composed of
selfish men, unlike the utopian vision of Plato, which depended upon
virtuous rulers. (Strauss sought to conjure out of Plato's writings a
view similar to that of Hobbes, and I will let the classicists argue
over whether his "esoteric" reading has merit.) Kant summarized the
modern viewpoint: "We could devise a constitution for a race of
devils, if only they were intelligent."
History exposes Hobbes's "self-preservation instinct" as a chimera. If
men have no more than physical self-preservation, self-disgust will
stifle them. Strauss knew that Hobbes's approach leads inevitably to
nihilism, and he proposed a return to Athenian political philosophy as
an antidote, although what that might accomplish is unclear. His
students still quibble fruitlessly over whether Strauss "stayed with
the moderns" or "went back to Athens".
Did someone in Washington take Kant literally and set about devising a
constitution for devils with the Arab world in mind? Does it matter?
Washington must talk about democracy in the Arab world, Strauss or no.
Strauss, as in the Jewish joke about the man who sees a shop whose
windows are full of clocks. He enters and tells the proprietor, "I
want to buy a clock." The proprietor responds, "I don't sell clocks."
"Then what do you do?" "I am a mohel [ritual cir***ciser]." "Then why
do you put clocks in the window?" "What do you want me to put in the
Which brings us to the threat of radical Islam. "You are decadent and
hedonistic. We on the other hand are willing to die for what we
believe, and we are a billion strong. You cannot kill all of us, so
you will have to accede to what we demand." That, in a nutshell,
constitutes the Islamist challenge to the West.
Neither the demographic shift toward Muslim immigrants nor
meretricious self-interest explains Western Europe's appea*****t of
Islam, but rather the terrifying logic of the numbers. That is why
President Bush has thrown his prestige behind the rickety prospect of
an Israeli-Palestinian peace. And that is why Islamism has only lost a
battle in Iraq, but well might win the war.
Not a single Western strategist has proposed an ideological response
to the religious challenge of Islam. On the contrary: the Vatican, the
guardian-of-last-resort of the Western heritage, has placed itself
squarely in the camp of appea*****t. Except for a few born-again
Christians in the United States, no Western voice is raised in
criticism of Islam itself. The trouble is that Islam believes in its
divine mission, while the United States has only a fuzzy recollection
of what it once believed, and therefore has neither the aptitude nor
the inclination for ideological warfare.
Relativism is America's religion, as Leo Strauss complained. Only
superficially can one explain this by the peculiar composition of the
American people - that is, a collection of immigrants who willfully
abandoned their cultures to begin again there, and view each other's
customs with a peculiar blend of sentimentality and indifference.
Americans fail to grasp decisive strategic issues not only because
they misunderstand other cultures, but because they avert their gaze
from the painful episodes of their own history. In his book The
Metaphysical Club, Prof Louis Menand observes that the horrors of the
Civil War discredited the idealism of young New Englanders (his case
study is Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr), producing the vapid pragmatism
that has reigned since then in American culture. Americans suffer from
a form of traumatic amnesia, such that every generation of Americans
must learn the hard way.
Garrett thinks that Strauss's critique of relativism provides a moral
prop for American unilateralism. He can relax. Strauss's case is weak.
It amounts to reductio ad absurdum: "All societies have their ideals,
cannibal societies no less than civilized ones. If principles are
sufficiently justified by the fact that they are accepted by a
society, the principles of cannibalism are as defensible or sound as
those of civilized life." Now comes Garrett, whose job it is to defend
cannibal societies' right to exist. Strauss in his worst nightmares
could not have imagined Garrett.
Strauss cannot convince Garrett. Indeed, he could not convince
himself. Strauss knew perfectly well that philosophy could not refute
relativism ("radical historicism"), hence his helplessness before
Heidegger's parlour tricks. Strauss gave up on Nietzsche largely
because Heidegger offered a sharper critique of rationalism.
(Garrett's interpretation of Nietzsche as a philosemite seems
idiosyncratic, to say the least, considering that Nietzsche denounced
his erstwhile idol Wagner as a Jew after Wagner made peace with
Christianity in Parsifal.)
Critics of the neo-conservatives accuse them of following Machiavelli,
via Strauss. The charge sticks to Michael Ledeen, but surely not to
Irving Kristol, the "godfather" of neo-conservatism, who spurned
Machiavelli as a "the first nihilist". Who cares? Machiavelli was a
Florentine lightweight who hoped that the poisoner Cesare B****a would
unite Italy. What Italian has done anything of political importance in
the past 500 years? What effect on history had all the
stiletto-and-arsenic games of the Italian condottiere?
Grim men of faith - Loyola, Oldebarnevelt, Richilieu, Mazarin - led
the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, while the
Florentines amused the tourists (The sacred heart of darkness,
February 11). The trouble with Strauss, I reiterate, is that he was an
atheist, rather a disadvantage in a religious war. The West has no
armed prophet. It doesn't even have an armed theologian.