The decline of Western civilization and its values

David Brooks is my favorite commentator writing today. I don’t always agree with him — too much religion — but in most ways his head’s screwed on right and his work repays attention. A recent column crystallizes well my own global perspective.

Brooks starts by citing Will and Ariel Durant’s popular mid-20th century multi-volume opus, The Story of Civilization. It was really the narrative of Western civilization and the values undergirding its flourishing, including reasoned discourse, property rights, and a belief in human progress. I would add accountable democratic government, open markets, and scientific inquiry. It was the emergence of these Enlightenment ideas that propelled the West’s phenomenal achievement in improving people’s quality of life.

But this narrative, especially in universities, has lost its mojo — intellectually speaking. People don’t read the Durants, or their like, any more. Indeed, the construct “Western civilization” has actually fallen into bad odor, as “a history of oppression.” Now we are being educated to distrust, rather than honor, what it means. “The great cultural transmission belt broke.”

This intellectual reversal has had huge real-world impacts. There have always been forces eager to tear down what the West stands for. But now the citadel has few defenders against these onslaughts. So we see the rise of “illiberal” strongmen — Putin, Erdogan, al-Sisi, Xi, Trump — who, unlike previous bad guys, don’t even give lip service to democratic Western values.

Turkey’s recent vote turned its back on them. Democracy is no longer seen as the wave of the future. In “advanced” nations, the center doesn’t hold. In Europe mainstream political parties lose ground to fringe ones with fierce ideologies. In America, where you’d expect universities to be redoubts of intellectual freedom, the opposite is seen — destruction of those values, as nonconforming voices are literally shouted down. America’s president (an historical ignoramus) cozies up to some of the world’s worst thugs.

“The basic fabric of civic self-government seems to be eroding following the loss of faith in democratic ideals.” The percentage of young Americans polled who say it’s “absolutely important” to live in a democracy has dropped from 91% in the 1930s to only 57% today. In his campaign, “Trump violated every norm of statesmanship built up over these many centuries” — and every norm of civic decency — and too few voters seemed to care.

Brooks sadly concludes that defenders of the great tradition of Western values are now down to “a few lonely voices.”

Count me one of them. I wrote The Case for Rational Optimism in 2009 when those Western values — and rationality — still seemed ascendant. Today fools prance triumphant around bonfires of reason. I’ll end with Schiller’s words: “Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain.”

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6 Responses to “The decline of Western civilization and its values”

  1. gallerydavid Says:

    The ability of the “Rational Center” to hold sway over the uneducated and ignorant segment of American Society and Western Civilization can be attributed in part to the power of media and propaganda which Had Been controlled to a large extent, although ostensibly free, through government liscensing, fees, fines, regulation, agencies such as the FTC, and so on.

    The FTC effectively regulated debate and controlled attitudes of the populace through its political power, producing a pro capitalist pro American Media that dominated cultural life through the late 1990s.

    At some point, in the late 1990’s-2010, the Internet began to usurp traditional FTC controlled media as a source for news and information. This new media, the internet, unlike previous incarnations, is largely free from FTC or governmental restraint.

    Thus Wiki Leaks and worse is able to generate millions of hours of viewership to an audience that is neither educated nor intelligent enough to realize they are consuming false Political propaganda produced by forces that stand opposed to Western Liberalism and seek its demise.

    The major FTC regulated media did it’s best to discredit and distroy Trump as it has successfully discredited and distroyed so many populist politicians of the past.

    However the Internet and such platforms as Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook provided a direct line from the populist leader to the unhappy populace of voters.

    We can count on more populist and possibly dangerous authoritarians taking advantage of these channels in future elections.

    I fear what may follow, and I ascribe most of the blame to the elites of Wall Street and Washington who are unwilling to share thier immense wealth with the many tens of millions of hand to mouth poor human detritus that fill this land from coast to coast.

  2. Greg Says:

    Western civilization and democracy doesn’t set a good example when political extremes become ascendant and paralyze the system. In my opinion, that is the core reason why Trump was elected.

    The answer is to move back to the middle — where we should have been all along in this country. Step 1: outlaw gerrymandering in every state.

  3. Lee Says:

    I do not follow your point about the Western civilization vs. Eastern civilization dichotomy. Surely there are plenty of instances in the East of reasoned discourse, property rights, belief in human progress, democratic government, and scientific inquiry, which you described as the values of Western civilization. I see those values in much of the world historically and at present. Likewise, if one wants to find something negative to talk about, such as failure to appreciate democracy, one can look West or East. One might mention the Axis powers of World War II to get a sampling of both.

    Instead of fighting over West vs. East, let us instead directly value democracy, reasoned discourse, and so on.

  4. bruce Says:

    gallerydave,
    well said, though I disagree,. I put it down to the governance of Universities.
    And I suppose to the natural decomposition of societies when things are too good. Only a great official at that point can sustain society, Fate has dealt it’s cards, there was NOBODY with the right mind to be chosen in this last election, or in my adult life. But then realistically has there ever been such a leader?
    There are interesting times ahead, should be a wild ride for those who can stand it.

  5. gallerydavid Says:

    Thats a good point Lee, there are about half dozen or so major cultures on the planet that interplay with one another, Western, Chinese, Indian, islamic, greek orthodox, jewish, as well as dozens of smaller cultures.

    theres plenty of room for us all, we just need to stop killing each other over ideology and belief.

  6. rationaloptimist Says:

    Lee, the word “East” does not appear in what I wrote.

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