Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
President Trump’s ringing defense of Western civilization during his speech in Poland was a welcome answer to the phony cultural relativism, fashionable self-loathing, and smug hypocrisy of leftist Westerners who bash the West but wouldn’t live anywhere else. So it’s no surprise that the progressive establishment bashed the speech as “racial and religious paranoia,” as one screed in the Atlantic was titled.
That headline, and the essays’ claim that “the West is a racial and religious term” and a dog-whistle for alt-right racists, bespeak a profound ignorance about what defines the West. The core ideas of the West began in the city states of ancient Greece, then for centuries were further elaborated by the Romans before Christianity existed. Most important of these ideas was the notion of citizenship, the belief that the laws and customs comprising the political order were a collective possession of free and equal citizens, not of a king or elite defined by birth and lording over subjects. Power no longer belonged to men, to be used to further their personal status or wealth or ambitions. Power became abstract, embodied in the laws, offices, and electoral procedures used by citizens to make the decisions about who should use power, and for what power should be used.
The principle that power resides in laws, not men, was the foundation stone of our own Constitution and every subsequent political order that vests power in free citizens. And this order exists to ensure and protect political freedom and equality, ideas likewise born in ancient Greece and found only in the West or its imitators.
Thus the other uniquely Western goods that Trump touched on came into existence to protect that unprecedented invention of citizenship and consensual rule. Free speech, for example, the ability of citizens to discuss and deliberate openly without fear of retribution, arose among the ancient Greeks, who had two words for free speech. Search the ancient empires contemporary with the Greeks and you will not find anywhere the ideas of free speech, or constitutional government, or politics, or citizenship, or words expressing each. You will find only power: rule by coercion and force.
The other defining idea is critical consciousness: the freedom and inclination to question and examine everything, from the gods to nature to one’s own political-social order. Examining nature and trying to understand it apart from traditional myths, and by relying on reason and empirical evidence, sowed the seeds of modern science. An astonishing example of this new drive to know and understand without reliance only on tradition or religion can be found in the Hippocratic corpus of ancient writings on medicine. In a book on epilepsy, known in antiquity as the “sacred disease,” the author writes: “It is not, in my opinion, any more divine or more sacred than other diseases, but has a natural cause, and its supposed divine origin is due to men’s inexperience, and to their wonder at its peculiar character.” That sentence could be the motto of modern science and medicine alike.
Or take slavery, the ubiquitous charge in the catalogue of Western crimes. Of course, every people who ever existed took and kept slaves, unless they weren’t powerful enough to enslave others. Slavery was as normal and unexceptional as domesticating animals. And it existed in ancient Greece, the creator of the notion of freedom. Yet at the same time there were those Greeks who criticized and challenged the idea that humans could justly be enslaved and sold like chattel. The otherwise obscure 4th century B.C. rhetorician Alcidamas made one of the most profound and revolutionary statements ever: “The god gave liberty to all men, and nature made no one a slave.” Such criticism of slavery was the humble beginning of the West’s greatest moral achievement: the emancipation of slaves and the delegitimizing of slavery.
What about Christianity? The church inherited the Greco-Roman cultural, philosophical, and social infrastructure, adding to it the important ideas of Judaism. As the classical scholar R.W. Livingston said eighty years ago, Christianity is “Hebraized Hellenism,” a “development and completion of it.” From Hebraism, as Matthew Arnold had said earlier, Christianity inherited “conduct and obedience,” “strictness of conscience,” and “becoming conscious of sin, of awakening to a sense of sin.” The moral life, the proper relationship to the God who created us, our fallen nature and propensity to evil and sin, and the possibility of redemption and salvation were added to the Greco-Roman inheritance. And don’t forget, it was the church that kept that legacy alive in the face of barbarian invasions and centuries of Islamic imperialism.
The West, in short, is about ideas––about human nature, the way we should treat one another, and what comprises the good life. Thus the Atlantic’s claim that it is about race and religion is embarrassingly ignorant. The notion of race is a modern one, resulting from debased science and Darwinism. As Darwin said in The Descent of Man, “At some future period . . . the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.” It flourished among progressives in the first half of the last century, who repeated the mistake of thinking that an immutable genetic inheritance, not a dynamic culture, defined people. Thus they tried to naturalize the ideals of the West by making them unique to the “Anglo-Saxon” and “Nordic” races who in fact were living like savages when the Parthenon was built. That mythic history and destructive racism are the result of debasing the Western ideal, which was still strong enough eventually to reject both by remembering the ideals of freedom and equality, and rejecting the “scientific” racism that helped create the Holocaust.
Yes, the ancient Greeks were bigots, inventing the slur “barbarian,” a reference to the outlandish tongues spoken by non-Greeks, to express their disdain. But such exclusiveness based on superficial differences is part of human nature, found in every tribe and in every schoolyard. The Greeks, on the other hand, based their sense of superiority not on how people looked, but on how they lived, especially politically––the free citizen participating in the governing of his community is superior to the subject groveling before a Pharaoh or Great King.
Making identity a consequence of culture rather than blood meant that anyone could choose to live in a way better than the one to which he was born. This sentiment is expressed by the late 5th century B.C. orator Antiphon, who said, “For by nature we are all in every way made in the same fashion to be either barbarians or Greeks.” Decades later the orator Isocrates elaborated, “The name ‘Hellenes’ suggest no longer a race but an intelligence, and the title ‘Hellene’ is applied rather to those who share our culture than to those who share a common blood.” And it was the Greeks who invented the idea of “cosmopolitanism,” of seeing the “world” as a kindred community of which one can be a “citizen.”
As for religion, the separation of Church and State––an idea too often honored in the breach in Western history––comes from Christianity. And the great variety of Christian sects that sparked religious violence makes the notion of some monolithic “Christianity” as the essence of the West silly. It was that confessional variety that made the Founders create the First Amendment prohibiting an established church and ensuring religious freedom. Faith must remain part of civil society, influencing politics and policy like any other free institution, but not monopolizing them. But this idea goes back even further in the West, to the recognition of religious diversity that brought to an end the wars of religion, to Dante’s notion of the “two swords” of church and state that should never be fused into one, to Jesus himself, who said “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Finally, the Atlantic article contrasts its caricature of the West with the naïve idea that Western goods like capitalism and democracy “were not the property of any particular religion or race but the universal aspiration of humankind.” We’ve already seen the Greeks making this point, but the mistake lies in “universal aspiration.” Of course, all the defining ideas of the West can be adopted by any people, as our history of immigration in this country, and the idea of assimilation, show.It was the progressive eugenicists like MIT president Frances Amasa Walker, not cultural traditionalists or Catholics, who in 1896 wrote that Hungarian, Bohemian, Polish, Italian, and Russian Jewish immigrants were “beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence,” possessing “none of the ideas and aptitudes which fit men to take up readily and easily the problem of self-care and self-government.”
But the “aspiration” is only “universal” because of the incredible domination of the world by the West, which brought these ideals, often at the point of a gun, to all peoples so that they could become “universal aspirations.” We should more accurately say that all humans have the potential to acquire and realize these aspirations. But what they aspire to is the “property of the West” that invented them. More importantly, different peoples have various other “aspirations” that conflict with Western ideals. The desire for freedom and prosperity and human rights can conflict with the desire to obey god and serve his will, exactly the conflict that derailed the “Arab Spring” and that modern jihadism has fed on, encouraged by the civilizational failure of nerve evident in Western self-loathing.
The attacks on Trump’s speech represent the bankruptcy of internationalist idealism and the hypocrisy of noble-savage multiculturalism. No matter what they say, the critics of the West have already voted with their feet for the superiority of the West in which they have chosen to live. The self-proclaimed “Palestinian activist” Linda Sarsour, who after Trump’s speech called for a “jihad” against “fascists and white supremacists and Islamophobes reigning in the White House,” would never go to Riyadh, Tehran, Ramallah, or Gaza and “speak truth to power” in such a way.
But Sarsour is a creature of the corrupt progressive university and a badly educated intelligentsia, both full of spoiled children who have turned biting the cultural, political, and economic hand that feeds them into a fashion statement and status symbol. If like the Poles they’d had to live under a brutal, totalitarian state, they would be cheering Trump’s speech as enthusiastically as the Poles did. It is a testimony to how ideologically debauched our intellectuals are that a supposedly crude, badly educated businessman and reality television celebrity understands the West better than the eggheads do.