NEW GEOGRAPHY-“Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” — Arnold J. Toynbee. From the heart of Europe to North America, nativism, sometimes tinged by white nationalist extremism, is on the rise. In recent elections, parties identified, sometimes correctly, as alt-right have made serious gains in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, pushing even centrist parties in their direction. The election of Donald Trump can also be part of this movement.
Why is this occurring? There are economic causes to be sure, but perhaps the best explanation is cultural, reflecting a sense, not totally incorrect, that western civilization is on the decline, a movement as much self-inflicted as put upon.
French intellectuals first to see the trend
In 1973 a cranky French intellectual, Jean Raspail, published a speculative novel, “The Camp of the Saints,” which depicted a Europe overrun by refugees from the developing world. In 2015 another cranky Frenchman, Michael Houellenbecq, wrote a bestseller, “Submission,” which predicted much the same thing, ending with the installation of an Islamist government in France.
Both novels place the blame for the collapse of the Western liberal state not on the immigrants but on cultural, political and business leaders all too reluctant to stand up for their own civilization. This is reflected in such things as declining respect for free speech, the importance of citizenship, and even the weakening of the family, an institution now rejected as bad for the environment and even less enlightened than singlehood.
Critically, the assault on traditional liberalism has come mostly not from the reactionary bestiary, but elements of the often-cossetted left. It is not rightist fascism that threatens most but its pre-condition, the systematic undermining of liberal society from within.
Undermining liberalism from within
Both in Europe and North America the heritage of western civilization increasingly tends to be more often demonized than celebrated. There is an assault on anything that smacks of “bourgeois values.” To assert these values might work can now land professors, as recently seen at the University of San Diego, in hot water with craven administrators and largely leftist faculty.
Most American college students, notes a recent Brookings study, have little trouble with banning, or harassing, speakers with unpopular views. Some 20 percent even support employing violence to shut down offending presenters. This rejection of western values comes even as political Islam, and even Chinese authoritarianism, are excused and even celebrated.
Also thrown out with the bathwater is Christianity, whose tenets are widely derided, and increasingly ignored. In Europe, Pew notes, more Christians are dying than are being born. “Without Christianity,” observes Houellenbecq, “the European nations had become bodies without souls — zombies.”
The assault on historical statues — including Christopher Columbus, whose holiday recently has been trashed in Los Angeles — reflects a Stalinesque amputation of the past. The jihad is now extending to such pivotal figures as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, George Washington and the admittedly loathsome Woodrow Wilson. Salon thinks the national anthem should be rethought because it’s yet another “Confederate” symbol. Vice, another voice of the hip-left, suggests we might consider dynamiting Mt. Rushmore while we are at it.
These attitudes flow into the world of politics and policy. With little belief in their own past, the progressive community here and in Europe, and their allies in government and business, doesn’t see any use for the traditional nation-state. In contrast, most Europeans, including in Germany, wish to curb this mass-migration but if they do so loudly, they are often denounced as racist (and some no doubt are) while the mainstream media leadership tries to suppress stories of abusive refugees.
There is a threat — and it is us
This collapse of the western value system comes at a vulnerable time when many countries, particularly in Europe but increasingly the U.S. and Canada, face a demographic implosion brought on by low birthrates among native-born people. Immigration under such circumstances should be more important but that’s a hard case to sell when newcomers are not expected to embrace what are castigated as regressive national values.
Once widely accepted across the political spectrum, the word nationalism is now quickly associated with fascism and racism. Trump’s combination of neurotic bluster and lack of self-control has made things worse, turning what should be a rational debate about the future of our civilization into a screaming contest. The assaults on our basic political values only benefit the worst forms of nationalist impulse.
The only obvious way out is not through a mindless defense of the past, but on preserving values, such as free speech and equality under the law, critical to liberal culture. In America today, and even Europe, many people whose roots lie somewhere else often adopt the basic ethos of democratic society. After all, they know firsthand the difference between a liberal and illiberal society.
Without a greater embrace of these basic values, we can expect to see more manifestations of the crude nationalism of Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump. The antidote to their disease is not open borders or rejection of our heritage, but a reengagement with the liberal ideal that, for all its flaws, has driven much of human progress.
(Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism). Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
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