George Weigel on Europe’s Two Culture Wars: Is This the Future for America?

As America awaits the big May 1 protest parades, with their likely demands for an unconditional amnesty for illegal immigrants, it is worth noting that many protestors so far reject any requirement for assimilation to historical American principles. This is a non-trivial issue for which the trends in Europe offer a perspective on what the long-term price could be for the failure to educate Americans.
This concern was reinforced this week when my children’s school – a fine school that has been a wonderful place for them – sent out a survey asking parents to judge the quality of their efforts at multiculturalism and diversity. There was a section for comments and I wrote these words:

I find the entire subject of multiculturalism to be fraught with definitional problems.
I do not know anyone that would suggest learning about world history is anything but an invaluable experience for our children.
But multiculturalism frequently sets a relativistic tone that values feelings and self-esteem over a rigorous differentiation between truly unique cultural traditions. Look at the definition of it in this survey: “bringing together and celebrating of many distinctive cultures…” Are those who promote multiculturalism willing to teach the superiority of some traditions over others and be able to offer reasoned arguments why? My experience is usually not.
As one writer said: “The foremost idea of multiculturism is the equal value of all cultures, or cultural relativism…Inherent in the idea of cultural relativism is the idea that culture, race, ancestry or gender determines our ideas.”
Do we believe in reason and the ability to distinguish between right and wrong? Do we believe in and teach the uniqueness of the American tradition?
As [Mac Owens, a contributor to this blog site] said: “Before the American founding, all regimes were based on the principle of interest – the interest of the stronger. That principle was articulated by the Greek historian Thucydides: “Questions of justice arise only between equals. As for the rest, the strong do what they will.”…It took the founding of the United States on the principle of equality to undermine the principle of inequality…it is the idea of equality in the Declaration of Independence, not race and blood, that establishes American nationhood.”
Are we teaching those principles to our kids? Are we teaching them what Roger Pilon said: “Appealing to all mankind, the Declaration’s seminal passage opens with perhaps the most important line in the document: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Grounded in reason, “self-evident” truths invoke the long tradition of natural law, which holds that there is a “higher law” of right and wrong from which to derive human law…It is not our political will, then, but moral reasoning, accessible to all, that is the foundation of our political system. But if reason is the foundation of the Founders’ vision, liberty is its aim…We are all created equal, as defined by our natural rights; thus, no one has rights superior to those of anyone else. Moreover, we are born with those rights, we do not get them from government…”
While we must be willing to acknowledge our failures to live up to the Founding standards, no other country in the history of the world was founded on such bold truths.
Are we teaching our children to be citizens capable of the self-government in the American tradition? Are we teaching them the uniqueness of the American tradition? Or, in the spirit of multiculturalism, do we treat our Founding as equivalent to others which can make no such claims? Are we teaching them about the killing fields in Cambodia, the gulags in the Soviet Union, the mass murders in the millions done by Mao, the gas chambers of Nazi Germany – all situations where a Nietzsche-like focus on power trumping all makes the only relevant issue be: who has the power to control?
And that does not even touch the frequently used but undefined phrase called “social justice.” Michael Novak paraphrased Nobel Laureate Friederich Hayek in these words: “…whole books have been written about social justice without ever offering a definition of it..The vagueness seems indispensable. The minute one begins to define social justice, one runs into embarrassing intellectual difficulties. It becomes, most often, a term of art whose operational meaning is, “We need a law against that.” In other words, it becomes an instrument of ideological intimidation, for the purpose of gaining the power of legal coercion.”
So let us teach our children to be colorblind in the way Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke, where people are judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. But let’s not let multiculturalism dumb it all down where there are no standards of excellence or truth discoverable by some combination of reason or faith.

What is the significance of these issues? What does it suggest could be our future? In the May 2006 edition of Commentary Magazine, George Weigel offers a view as he writes about Europe’s Two Culture Wars.

…Earlier this year, five days short of the second anniversary of the Madrid bombings, the Zapatero government, which had already legalized marriage between and adoption by same-sex partners, and sought to restrict religious education in Spanish schools, announced that the words “father” and “mother” would no longer appear on Spanish birth certificates. Rather, according to the government’s official bulletin, “the expression ‘father’ will be replaced by ‘Progenitor A’ and ‘mother’ will be replaced by ‘Progenitor B.'”…
…For the events of the past two years in Spain are a microcosm of the two interrelated culture wars that beset Western Europe today.
The first of these wars…call[ed]…”Culture War A” – is a sharper form of the red state/blue state divide in America: a war between the post-modern forces of moral relativism and the defenders of traditional moral conviction. The second – “Culture War B” – is the struggle to define the nature of civil society, the meaning of tolerance and pluralism, and the limits of multiculturalism in an aging Europe whose below-replacement-level fertility rates have opened the door to rapidly growing and assertive Muslim populations.
The aggressors in Culture War A are radical secularists, motivated by what the legal scholar Joseph Weiler has dubbed “Christophobia.” They aim to eliminate vestiges of Europe’s Judeo-Christian culture from a post-Christian European Union by demanding same-sex marriage in the name of equality, by restricting free speech in the name of civility, and by abrogating core aspects of religious freedom in the name of tolerance. The aggressors in Culture War B are radical and jihadist Muslims who detest the West, who are determined to impose Islamic taboos on Western societies by violent protest and other forms of coercion if necessary, and who see such operations as the first stage toward the Islamification of Europe…
The question Europe must face, but which much of Europe seems reluctant to face, is whether the aggressors in Culture War A have not made it exceptionally difficult for the forces of true tolerance and authentic civil society to prevail in Culture War B.
Western Europe’s descent into the languors of “depoliticization,” as some analysts have called it, once seemed a matter of welfare-state politics, socialist economics, and protectionist trade policy, flavored by irritating EU regulations…indeed there has been no let-up in Europe’s seeming determination to bind itself ever more tightly in the cords of bureaucratic regulation…
What does all this have to do with Culture War A? The plain fact is that even as Europe’s regulatory passions continue to bear deleterious economic consequences, they have also been sharpened to a harder ideological edge, not least where religion is concerned…
…Culture War A represents a determined effort on the part of secularists, using both national and EU regulatory machinery, to marginalize the public presence and impact of Europe’s dwindling numbers of practicing Christians…
Culture War A finds expression as well in efforts to coerce and impose behaviors deemed progressive, compassionate, non-judgmental, or politically correct in extreme feminist or multiculturalist terms. In recent years, this has typically taken the form of EU member-states legally regulating, and thus restricting, free speech…
…the most dramatic fact about the continent in the early 21st century: Europe is committing demographic suicide, and has been doing so for some time…
…Not a single EU member has a replacement-level fertility rate, i.e., the 2.1 children per woman needed to maintain a stable population. Moreover, eleven EU countries – including Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungary, and all three Baltic states – display “negative natural increase” (i.e., more annual deaths than births), a clear step down into a demographic death-spiral…
Over the next quarter-century, the number of workers in Europe will decline by 7 percent while the number of over-sixty-fives will increase by 50 percent, trends that will create intolerable fiscal difficulties for the welfare state across the continent. The resulting inter-generational strains will place great pressures on national politics…Demography is destiny, and Europe’s demographics of decline – which are unparalleled in human history absent wars, plagues, and natural catastrophes – are creating enormous and unavoidable problems.
Even more ominously, Europe’s demographic free-fall is the link between Culture War A and Culture War B.
History abhors vacuums, and the demographic vacuum created by Europe’s self-destructive fertility rates has, for several generations now, been filled by a large-scale immigration from throughout the Islamic world…
Far more has changed than the physical appearance of European metropolitan areas, though. There are dozens of “ungovernable” areas in France: Muslim-dominated suburbs, mainly, where the writ of French law does not run and into which French police do not go. Similar extraterritorial enclaves, in which sharia law is enforced by local Muslim clerics, can be found in other European countries. Moreover, as Bruce Bawer details in a new book, While Europe Slept, European authorities pay little or no attention to practices among their Muslim populations that range from the physically cruel (female circumcision) through the morally cruel (arranged and forced marriages) to the socially disruptive (remanding Muslim children back to radical madrasses in the Middle East, North Africa, and Pakistan for their primary and secondary education) and the illegal (“honor” killings in cases of adultery and rape – the rape victim being the one killed)…
Sixty years after the end of World War II, the European instinct for appeasement is alive and well. French public swimming pools have been segregated by sex because of Muslim protests. “Piglet” mugs have disappeared from certain British retailers after Muslim complaints that the A. A. Milne character was offensive to Islamic sensibilities. So have Burger King chocolate ice-cream swirls, which reminded some Muslims of Arabic script from the Koran. Bawer reports that the British Red Cross banished Christmas trees and nativity scenes from its charity stores for fear of offending Muslims. For similar reasons, the Dutch police in the wake of the van Gogh murder destroyed a piece of Amsterdam street art that proclaimed “Thou shalt not kill”; schoolchildren were forbidden to display Dutch flags on their backpacks because immigrants might think them “provocative.”…
These patterns of sedition and appeasement finally came to global attention earlier this year in the Danish-cartoon jihad…
The response from Europe, in the main, was to intensify appeasement…the EU’s justice minister, Franco Frattini, announced that the EU would establish a “media code” to encourage “prudence” – “prudence” being a synonym for “surrender”…
For all the blindness of the politicians who in the 1930’s attempted to appease totalitarian aggression, they at least thought that they were thereby preserving their way of life. Bruce Bawer…suggests that 21-st century Europe’s appeasement of Islamists amounts to a self-inflicted dhimmitude: in an attempt to slow the advance of a rising Islamist tide, many of Europe’s national and transnational political leaders are surrendering core aspects of sovereignty and turning Europe’s native populations into second- and third-class citizens in their own countries.
Bawer blames Europe’s appeasement mentality and its consequences on multiculturalist political correctness run amok, and there is surely something to that. For, in a nice piece of intellectual irony, European multiculturalism, based on postmodern theories of the alleged incoherence of knowledge (and thus the relativity of all truth claims), has itself become utterly incoherent, not to say self-contradictory…
[You have to read some of the examples cited throughout the article to fully appreciate how extreme things have become.] Yet to blame “multi-culti” p.c. for Europe’s paralysis is to remain on the surface of things. Culture War A – the attempt to impose multiculturalism and “lifestyle” libertinism in Europe by limiting free speech, defining religious and moral conviction as bigotry, and using state power to enforce “inclusivity” and “sensitivity” – is a war over the very meaning of tolerance itself. What Bruce Bawer rightly deplores as out-of-control political correctness in Europe is rooted in a deeper malady: a rejection of the belief that human beings, however inadequately or incompletely, can grasp the truth of things – a belief that has, for almost two millennia, underwritten the European civilization that grew out of the interaction of Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome.
Postmodern European high culture repudiates that belief. And because it can only conceive of “your truth” and “my truth” while determinedly rejecting any idea of “the truth,” it can only conceive of tolerance as indifference to differences – an indifference to be enforced by coercive state power, if necessary. The idea of tolerance as engaging differences within the bond of civility…is itself regarded as, well, intolerant. Those who would defend the true tolerance of orderly public argument about contending truth claims (which include religious and moral convictions) risk being driven, and in many cases are driven, from the European public square by being branded as “bigots.”
But the problem is deeper still. For one thing, however loudly European postmodernists may proclaim their devotion to the relativity of all truths, in practice this translates into something very different – namely, the deprecation of traditional Western truths, combined with a studied deference to non- or anti-Western ones. In the relativist mindset, it thus turns out, not all religious and moral conviction is bigotry that must be suppressed; only the Judeo-Christian variety is. In short, the moral relativism of Europe is often mere window-dressing for Western self-hatred…

A different and much more persuasive analysis of Europe’s culture wars has emerged from a remarkable dialogue that took place in 2004. The partners in this conversation may seem an unlikely pair: Marcello Pera, an agnostic Italian academic turned politician (and president of the Italian Senate), and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger [now Pope Benedict XVI]…
Pera had given a lecture on “Relativism, Christianity, and the West” at Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University; Ratzinger, at Pera’s invitation, gave a lecture in the Italian Senate on “The Spiritual Roots of Europe.” The two men then agreed to exchange letters exploring the striking convergence of analysis that had characterized their two lectures. Both the lectures and the letters were published in a small book in Italy in early 2005 and created something of a stir…The Ratzinger/Pera volume has now been published in the United States under the title Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam.
Long before becoming pope, Joseph Ratzinger…had been warning his fellow Europeans that their dalliance in the intellectual sandbox of postmodernism was going to cause severe problems for their societies and their polities. Those problems, he argues here, are at once intellectual, spiritual, and moral…
Europe’s secularists have heard critiques like Ratzinger’s before, and dismissed them as the special pleading of committed Christians. The welcome surprise in Without Roots is Marcello Pera’s answer: in effect, a parallel critique from a self-described non-believer and philosopher of science. “Infected by an epidemic of relativism,” Pera writes, Europeans believe “that to accept and defend their culture would be an act of hegemony, of intolerance, [betraying] an anti-democratic, anti-liberal, disrespectful attitude.” But precisely this toxin has led them into “the prison house” of political correctness, a “cage” in which “Europe has locked itself…for fear of saying things that are not at all incorrect but rather ordinary truths, and to avoid facing its own responsibilities.”
Pera is also blunt about Europe’s unwillingness to defend itself against radical Islam. Do Europeans understand, he asks,

that their very existence is at stake, their civilization has been targeted, their culture is under attack? Do they understand that what they are being called on to defend is their own identity? Through culture, education, diplomatic negotiations, political relations, economic exchanges, dialogue, preaching, but also, if necessary, through force?

In his own essay in Without Roots, Ratzinger, adopting an idea from Toynbee, proposes that any renewal of Europe’s civilizational morale can be effected only by “creative minorities” who will challenge secularism as the EU’s de-facto ideology by means of a re-encounter with Europe’s Judeo-Christian religious and moral heritage. For his part, Pera suggests that the needed “work of renewal…be done by Christians and secularists together.” That work, he writes, will involve the development of a “civil religion that can instill its values throughout the long chain that goes from the individual to the family, groups, associations, the community, and civil society, without passing through the political parties, government programs, and the force of states, and therefore without affecting the separation, in the temporal sphere, of church and state.”
Pera’s proposal for this “civil religion” is left rather vague, but in February its contours came into somewhat clearer focus when he launched a new movement called “For the West, the Bearer of Civilization.” The movement’s manifesto begins by briskly describing Europe’s two culture wars, goes on to affirm Western civilization as a “source of universal and inalienable principles,” and commits its signatories…to a broad agenda of renewal to “deprive [terrorism] of every justification and support”; to integrate immigrants “in the name of shared values”; to support “the right to life from conception until natural death”; to dismantle unnecessary bureaucracy; to “affirm the value of the family as a natural partnership based on marriage”; to spread “liberty and democracy as universal values”; to maintain the institutional separation of church and state “without giving in to the secular temptation of relegating the religious dimension solely to the individual sphere”; and to promote a healthy pluralism in eudcation. The manifesto concludes with a call to arms and a warning: “People who forget their roots can be neither free nor respected.”
It remains to be seen whether initiatives similar to Marcello Pera’s…can begin to get a purchase on the cultural high ground in Europe. Some would argue that it is already too late, that the demographic tipping points has been reached and that…with the successor population [i.e., Islam] already in place,…the only question is how bloody the transfer of real estate will be. But if Europe’s two culture wars are not to result in the accelerated emergence of “Eurabia”…something resembling Pera’s initiative will have to lead the way, and soon…
Nihilism rooted in skepticism, issuing in the bad faith of moral relativism and Western self-loathing, comforting itself with a vacuous humanitarianism: not only is this not marvelous, it has contributed to killing Europe demographically, and to paralzying Europe in the face of an aggressive ideology aimed at the eradication of Western humanism in the name of a lethally distorted understanding of God’s will…

Related postings include:
Rediscovering Civility and Purpose in America’s Public Discourse
Happy Birthday, America!
Becoming Americans
Liberal Fundamentalism, Revisited
More on the Religion of Liberal Fundamentalism
The Naked Public Square Revisited, Part I
The Naked Public Square Revisited, Part II
The Naked Public Square Revisited, Part III
The Meaning of Tolerance
Respectful Competition: A Basic Requirement for a Healthy Democracy
What Does “Social Justice” Mean?
Coerced Charity vs. Voluntary Charity
Discussing Justice, Rights & Moral Common Sense
We Are Paying Quite a Price for Our Historical Ignorance
Rediscovering Proper Judicial Reasoning
Countering the Intolerance of Left-Wing Secular Fundamentalists
“It Is Liberalism That Is Now Bookless And Dying”
To Nurture Greater Ethical Awareness, Students Need Practice in Moral Discernment
Religious Without Being Morally Serious Vs. Morally Serious Without Being Religious
Spreading Falsehoods in our Children’s Education about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the American Founding
John Paul II, Requiescat in pacem
Pope Benedict XVI: Proposing Faith as an Antidote to Relativism
Follow Me: John Paul II Roused Us From a Lethargic Faith
Pope Benedict XVI: “A Man With Great Humility & Gentlemanliness”
A Poignant Reflection on John Paul II
Pope Benedict XVI: Good Friday Reflections & More

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18 years ago

This is an outstanding post that captures the anxieties that many parents feel but usually fear sharing publicly. The brutal truth is that our children are not going to the schools we remember from 40 years ago. Rather than being taught by WW2 vets and people who grew up through the depression, too many of our children today are being indoctrinated by leftist ideologues. Just sit down and talk to them; you don’t have to listen too long to hear the telltale phrases. And then push back and challenge them to explain their arguments, and confront them with contrary facts. You will soon see that critical thinking is no longer high on the agenda of the teachers unions and education bureaucrats. Don’s makes a central point: people like Bob Walsh and Marcia Reback, so deeply steeped in left wing ideology, cannot understand how any truth (apart from pay us more money) can be “self-evident”, much less teach that to our children. Don’s connection of this to the European experience is also spot on. Having lived for years in Europe, I can attest to the points he makes. It is very clear to me that the critical difference between Europe and the USA is that, in our case, provided you subscribe to our core beliefs (“We hold these truths…”), and came here legally (another argument altogether), we treat you as an American, regardless of whether your ethnic heritage is Italian or Hmong or Polish. In Europe, you will never be seen as “one of us” if you haven’t lived on the same piece of ground (figuratively) for a thousand years or so. In this sense, Europe is far less capable of absorbing immigrants (and all they add to a culture and economy) than we are — yet our advocates of of… Read more »

18 years ago

It’s not about left- or right-wing ideology, it’s about not being dictated to by somebody else’s set of religious beliefs. Political correctness is in the eye of the beholder, whether that eye is fundamentalist Judeo-Christian or Islamic – those who believe PC is only practiced by the left are living in ignorance.
I don’t appreciate Christian fundamentalists (through threatened advertiser boycotts or other intimidation of networks) trying to decide what I can or cannot watch on American television. I would be equally cheesed at the thought of Muslim fundamentalists deciding who I can or cannot swim with, or interfering with my enjoyment of chocolate ice cream. People living in Utah also deal with the reality of a religious group encroaching upon the freedom to do what they wish in their everyday lives.

Anchor Rising
18 years ago

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