The Problem with Defending Western Civilization

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Defending Western Civilisation has become all the rage among various groups of Conservatives recently. Two high-profile examples from the past few weeks include Gavin MacInnis and his gang of matching polo shirt bros, who describe themselves as “Western chauvinists”, and various right-wing bloggers and social media users praising Donald Trump’s speech in Poland and his “defence of Western Civilization and its fundamental roots in Christianity and the culture and traditions it created.” While it isn’t exactly clear what constitutes these western values, many conservatives seem ready to embrace this vague concept as an antidote to the Muslims, Feminists, Queers and Beta-Males who, in their mind, threaten the future of “The West.” The reason, of course, why the idea of “Western Values” or “Western Civilisation” is never clearly articulated is that it doesn’t exist. Even if such a geographic entity as “the West” exists, it doesn’t share any identifiable values which any scholar could definitively hold up as an example. Rather, people like Donald Trump and MacInnis pick and choose ideas they like from various intellectual traditions while discarding anything they disagree with then justify this lazy, buffet approach, to ideas by labelling them “Western Values.”

For many American Conservatives, Christianity has become synonymous with western values and stands in opposition to Islam on one hand, and the left’s advocacy of moral relativism/postmodernism/Social Marxism on the other hand. However, this equation of Christianity and the West is problematic for numerous reasons. The most obvious being that it overlooks substantial schisms within Christianity. Not only is there a five hundred year history of divergence between various Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church, there is the near 1000 year split between the Eastern and Western Roman Catholic Church. If you reduce Christianity to only what Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics and most major Protestant denominations agree on, you have a pretty bland statement of principles, principles that are espoused by almost every organised religion in the world, including Islam. So what makes these ideas uniquely Western again?

Furthermore, this equation of Christianity with the West overlooks the substantial role that other religions have played in the development of Europe and North America. It is beyond argument that Ancient Greek and Roman religious practices and mythology has had an enduring influence on European culture, while the multitude of ways that various Pagan beliefs from Northern Europe were overtly incorporated into Christianity is also well documented.  But beyond these obvious examples, treating Islam as somehow outside of or opposed to “Western Civilization” is ahistorical. Since the 8th Century Islam has been an integral part of European history. From the Umayyad rule over Al-Andalus and Sicily to the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans to Böszörmény Muslims in Hungry, one cannot separate the history of Islam from the history of Europe. To suggest that modern day Muslim communities in European cities represent a new alien or foreign threat is simply wrong. Even if we overlook Turkey, a key NATO Ally and World War One belligerent, Bosnia and HerzegovinaAlbaniaKosovo, parts of BulgariaMacedonia and Montenegro, as well as some Russian regions in Northern Caucasus and the Volga region all have indigenous Muslim majority populations.

Beyond the influence of Christianity, references to “Western Values” always includes some amalgam of liberal-democratic principles that vary between individuals. The first problem with this approach is that many of these values have historically been in direct conflict with Christianity.  Much of the political and cultural history of the Ancient Mediterranean that the Church deemed as contrary to Christian doctrine was purposely destroyed. Ironicly, it was only because of the work of Islamic scholars that we in “The West” have access to the ideas of people like Aristotle. Furthermore, Enlightenment values of rational inquiry were actively suppressed by the Church, as Galileo among others found out the hard way. Traditionally the Church, be it Orthodox, Anglican, Roman Catholic or Lutheran has served as the defender of entrenched interests and stood in opposition to democratic or liberal reforms. Remember, the violence and terror of the French Revolution was equally directed towards the Catholic Church as it was the French Royal Family. To then turn around and suggest that somehow these ideas, Christian and secular, are part of one grand intellectual tradition that needs defending is absurd. One suspects that Pope Pious IX, Robespierre and J.S. Mill would each object at being lumped together as all part of one big school of thought.

Finally, while not even touching on the hypocrisy of Trump’s speech in Poland, many of the ideas which these people claim are destroying “The West” are actually as much a part of any Western intellectual tradition as the ones Conservatives are trying to defend. While many Cold Warriors were keen to depict the struggle as one betwee the East and the West, Marxism, as well as modern day boogeymen postmodernism and multiculturalism, are all products of the economic, social and intellectual influences present in Europe and North America during the 19th and 20th century as capitalism, liberalism and democracy are. Poland was once at the heart of the Eastern Block, with their military alliance even being named after the capital of Poland, yet only 25 years later Trump is telling us that Poland is a bastion of western ideas. But again, proponents of “Western Values” take a buffet approach, belligerently advocating for certain ideas while excluding anything they don’t agree with as dangerous or foreign.

To suggest that the idea of “Western Values” is fictitious does not mean that that one cannot or should not defend liberal-democratic values. Rather, it is important to recognise that these values are not limited by geographic, ethnic, or religious factors. One can easily defend the rule of law, pluralistic societies, women’s right and numerous other positive values without simultaneously demonising Islam or people who don’t share your ethnic or racial background. Functioning and stable democratic states exist on every continent as do autocratic and corrupt ones. To suggest that only European states and their majority white successor states are the only ones capable of defending any set of political principles is not only demonstrably wrong it also reveals the racism that lurks at the root of any defence of “Western Values”.



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