If there was any doubt that Western civilization is withering like last summer’s roses, it should be removed by the reactions to the remarks of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that the West is superior to the civilization of Islam. What’s really convincing that the West is dripping down history’s drainpipes is the reaction to the Prime Minister’s remarks not just from his critics but from those who agree with him.
No doubt over-wrought by all the global chest-thumping that has been popular since Sept. 11, Mr. Berlusconi pronounced to a group of journalists last week, “We should be conscious of the superiority of our civilization, which consists of a value system that has given people widespread prosperity in those countries that embrace it, and guarantees respect for human rights and religion. This respect certainly does not exist in Islamic countries.” (Washington Post, September 28,2001, ‘Muslims Call Italian’s Take on Islam ‘Racist’)
Of course, saying one’s own civilization is better than someone else’s is Taboo No. 1 in the new table of commandments handed down by the multiculturalism, multiracialism, and egalitarianism that dominate the emerging global regime—at least if one’s own civilization is white, Christian, and Western. It’s perfectly OK to say your own civilization is superior to that of the West if it’s non-white, non-Christian and non-Western, but unfortunately Mr. Berlusconi is none of the above.
The Italian opposition leader Francesco Rutelli at once denounced the Prime Minister’s remarks, while the New York Times quoted the head of Italian Jewish Organizations, Amos Luzzatto, as declaring, “In my opinion, one can not speak of the superiority of one culture over another.”( NYT, September 28,2001, Berlusconi Comment About Superiority of West Stirs Furor) Is that so? I’ll bet there was a “culture” prevailing in Europe about 60-70 years ago that Mr. Luzzatto would denounce.
Yet the Western reaction was tepid compared to that of the Muslims. The secretary general of the Arab League informed the world that “I consider his remarks racist” and that Mr. Berlusconi has “crossed the limits of reason and decency,” while the prime minister of Iran said the remarks were due to Mr. Berlusconi’s “ignorance about Islam’s culture and civilization,” and a Turkish newspaper called the Italian leader “a new Mussolini.”
It’s not surprising that non-Westerners wouldn’t care for the prime minister’s sentiments, but why is it so hard for Westerners to believe their own civilization is better than others? If they don’t believe that, why don’t they move to another one?
But then, some in the West did defend Mr. Berlusconi, and it immediately became apparent why more Westerners didn’t: Quite simply, the West has forgotten how to tell whether one civilization is better than another.
Thus, Jonah Goldberg of National Review Online easily explained why the West is better. “There’s not a single category of enlightened governance in which the West broadly speaking isn’t superior to the Islamic world—again, broadly speaking. Religious freedom, social mobility, and tolerance, the guarantee of rights and liberties in law, prosperity—you name it, and we beat the robes off them (though in family cohesion, they probably have the edge on us).” (VDARE.COM NOTE: Click here for the an Islamic site’s version of family cohesion in Islam, here for the State Department’s report on Human Rights in the Middle East, detailing the abuse of women who fail to cohere.”)
It doesn’t occur to Mr. Goldberg (or to several other neo-conservatives who offered similar answers) that citing Western values to defend Western values is something of a vicious circle. Muslims could just as easily say their civilization “beats the robes” off ours because they punish blasphemy and don’t allow women to go around half naked in public. Of course the West is better at practicing Western values than other cultures—that follows by definition, but it proves nothing.
What virtually no Westerner seemed to say or grasp is that a civilization can be said to be better than another if the fundamental ideas and values it incorporates in its institutions are “better”—that is, more true, more reflective of reality. Some civilizations (like that of Europe and its descendants) survive and flourish and even drive out other civilizations, precisely because they have a better grip on reality, a better and truer vision of reality.
They attain that vision through a variety of perspectives—science, philosophy, religion, art, literature—and if a society lacks such perspectives or has contempt for them, one can safely say that it is not civilized. Societies that don’t have much of a grip on reality often don’t last long, especially in conflict with those with better grips.
By that standard, is the modern, liberal, secular West that Mr. Berlusconi and Mr. Goldberg and most of the prime minister’s other defenders invoke really superior to that of the Muslims? I have no doubt that the historic West that defeated and eventually surpassed the Arabic civilization built by the ancestors of today’s Arabs was superior. As for the one Mr. Berlusconi and Mr. Goldberg think is so terrific, the “civilization” that now dominates the planet—well, I wouldn’t bet the ranch.