The Cultural War on Western Civilization. (the Survival of Culture: V)

By Windschuttle, Keith | New Criterion, January 2002 | Go to article overview

The Cultural War on Western Civilization. (the Survival of Culture: V)


Windschuttle, Keith, New Criterion


In the last week of September, shortly after the terrorist assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, made an extraordinary statement. During a visit to Germany, he declared Western civilization superior to Islam. He said:

   We must be aware of the superiority of our civilization, a system that has
   guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights, and--in contrast with
   Islamic countries--respect for religious and political rights.

The minute he had uttered these words, a bevy of European politicians rushed to denounce him. The Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, said: "I can hardly believe that the Italian Prime Minister made such statements." The spokesman for the European Commission, Jean-Christophe Filori, added: "We certainly don't share the views expressed by Mr. Berlusconi." Italy's center-left opposition spokesman Giovanni Berlinguer called the words "eccentric and dangerous." Within days, Berlusconi was forced to withdraw.

It is true that the statement could have been more diplomatically timed, made as it was while American officials were trying to put together an anti-terrorist coalition of Islamic allies. But there is little doubt it would have generated just as many denials no matter when it was uttered. The statement was extraordinary because, although Western superiority in every major area of human endeavor, especially in political and individual liberty, is patently obvious to everyone, it has become a truth that must not be spoken.

The chief reason is the prevailing ideology of the Western intelligentsia. For the past two decades and more, the leading opinion makers in the media, the universities, and the churches have regarded Western superiority as, at best, something to be ashamed of and, at worst, something to be opposed. Until thirty years ago, when Western intellectuals reflected on the long-term achievements of their culture, they explained it in terms of its own evolution: the inheritance of ancient Greece, Rome, and Christianity, tempered by the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the scientific and industrial revolutions. Even a radical critique like Marxism was primarily an internal affair, intent on fulfilling what it imagined to be the destiny of the West, taking its history to what it thought would be a higher level.

Today, however, such thinking is dismissed by the radical intelligentsia as triumphalist. Western political and economic dominance is more commonly explained not by its internal dynamics but by its external behavior, especially its rivalry and aggression towards other cultures. Western success has purportedly been at their expense. Instead of pushing for internal reform or revolution, this new radicalism constitutes an overwhelmingly negative critique of Western civilization itself.

According to this ideology, instead of attempting to globalize its values, the West should stay in its own cultural backyard. Values like universal human rights, individualism, and liberalism are regarded merely as ethnocentric products of Western history. The scientific knowledge that the West has produced is simply one of many "ways of knowing." In place of Western universalism, this critique offers the relativism of multiculturalism, a concept that regards the West not as the pinnacle of human achievement to date, but as simply one of many equally valid cultural systems.

Although originally designed to foster tolerance and respect for other cultures, these sentiments were subsequently captured by the radical left and manipulated to the point of inconsistency. Their plea for acceptance and open-mindedness does not extend to Western culture itself, whose history is regarded as little more than a crime against the rest of humanity. The West cannot judge other cultures but must condemn its own.

Though commonly known as multiculturalism, this position is defined by its supporters with a series of post prefixes: postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism. …

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