A Defense of Western Civilization


By: Warner Todd Huston

The French leftist turned conservative, Jean-Francois Revel, once said of the Cold War era Western world that it was “… the first system in history which, confronted by a power that wants to destroy it, accuses itself …” And what truer charge could be leveled at the post modern west?

The leftist, elite tells us that it must somehow be all our fault that others wish us ill. Our enemies scold us that our own actions are the sole reason for attacks on us and apologists within agree with them. Those same internal apologists turn us away from the evils perpetrated by our enemies to give our faux introspection greater weight. And all past positives we are responsible for are papered over with a series of asides that are meant to make hypocrisy of our success.

Certainly we should look inward to explain our own actions, to identify our past mistakes, and to assure greater success and improved morality for our future. As Socrates is credited with saying, “An unexamined life is not worth living”, meaning that introspection is a necessity for growth and continued improvement. That is true for the individual as well as the society. However, introspection cannot incorporate a nihilistic moral relativism, for if nothing can be applauded as a positive advancement because of the mere existence of a negative, then no improvement can ever be realized as all efforts will forever be voided and deemed pointless over niggling mistakes. After all, why keep trying if no progressive achievements can ever be made? What would be the point of the struggle? Why not just devolve into strict self-interest?

It’s bad enough that any improvements of the human condition created by Western culture and ethos is mitigated or eliminated by the nihilistic left, but any ills perpetrated by our enemies is forever ignored by the same people who so focus on our own mistakes. Worse, our enemy’s outrages are often excused as necessities toward their improvement. As they pontificate in their ivory towers, Western leftists not only turn a blind eye to the millions upon millions murdered by Mao and Stalin, but many have claimed that such purges were necessary to remake man in a new form, just as Marx theorized. In the general act of life it is, of course, silly to mourn the broken eggs for the omelet, but to dismiss the elimination of millions of human lives for an experimental “recreation” of man is inexcusable and immoral.

The United States of America, the ultimate product of Western advancement, is the greatest success for individual liberty in history. Yes, we have had past mistakes that would seem, at first blush, to be an abrogation of that principle. But, put in the context of the world’s history, our successes far outweigh our mistakes. Further, our mistakes have been corrected in due course usually without widespread bloodshed and revolutionary turn overs of society and government.

Without question we enslaved the black man in the US in a direct refutation of the principle of liberty and freedom. But, looking back to when this country was formed, our nation was only one of dozens that trafficked in human bondage. Nearly every nation on the planet and throughout history previously had indulged in slavery. Yet, it was the West, led by Great Britain that abolished slavery for the first time in man’s history. Every great Western nation followed Britain’s lead and eliminated the moral ill of enslaving others, whether they be black, white or any other race, color or creed. Never in history had slavery been proclaimed an evil. The West is responsible for improving humankind’s morality on this issue. That it once sponsored slavery is no reason to deny the great moral leap forward that was the Western abolition of slavery.

Yet, this moral achievement is said to be hypocrisy when measured against a past history of enslavement. But, what the left lacks, even purposefully avoids, is perspective. When viewed against the fact that nearly every people throughout history prior to the abolition of slavery practiced this evil, doesn’t it make the elimination of that evil all the more heroic, all the more enlightened? Not to the left, unfortunately.

A review of Western history from the Reformation forward is a slow, inexorable march forward in a progressive improvement of the human condition. Religious freedom begat a greater flow of ideas. A greater flow of ideas begat improved economic conditions and prosperity. A focus on economics begat capitalism and a further inclusion of more and more people in that prosperity. Prosperity begat the ability to focus on charity, education, and the arts. More inclusive systems of more educated people found more and more of their fellows becoming vested in their world and allowed them greater influence in their own governance. That influence spread from the traditional landed gentry, to the professional man, to the common man and thence to the inclusion of women and minorities who had previously been excluded. There can be no denying that every decade has brought man’s lives toward a richer expression and a greater liberty and freedom.

The third world, by comparison, has stagnated in 16th century thinking where the powerful control everything and the common people are trodden upon at every turn with little opportunity to advance themselves and no opportunity for the liberty and freedoms enjoyed by Westerners.

Morality is not a game of equality. By the very definition of morality some behavior must be considered wrong else that behavior that is right can have no meaningful definition. Consequently, bad behavior must be evinced so that good can be defined. And, in a land of liberty, both the good and the bad come into conflict constantly in an ever-evolving dance of definition. So, the key to an assessment of the good society is how often the most moral behavior wins the day and how often liberty and civil rights reign supreme for the most citizens of that society.

In the United States, liberty and civil rights have always been on the march toward a greater fulfillment for the majority of the citizenry. Using single examples that cannot be said of the old U.S.S.R., or the current China. It cannot be said of 1930′s era Imperial Japan or today’s Iran. It cannot be said of Fascist Mussolini’s Italy of the 1940′s or Chavez’ Venezuela now. But it can be said of the US and Europe as a whole, it can be said of Western tradition and its historical advancement over the long term.

So, when someone begins a conversation with you by denigrating the West, remind them that freedom and liberty exist because of Western thinking and the Western struggle to advance, improve, and progress toward greater and greater liberty.

The West has done some bad things we should admit. But the good far outweighs the bad.

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