Salvo 10.30.2023 7 minutes

The Crisis of the West Revisited: Self-Flagellation and the Great Liberal Death Wish

Tyre Nichols protest in Oakland, California

This crisis is nothing new.

From Sydney to London to untold numbers of American college campuses, we hear incendiary cries for destroying the Jewish state, for a new Jihad or Holy War, all in the name of an ostensibly noble and just “anti-colonialist” struggle. Tens of thousands march in major European cities, and with frenzied glee defend the indefensible. “From the river to the sea,” the mob of Islamists, Palestinians, activists, and radicals cry, shamelessly announcing their own genocidal sympathies and intent.

The “crisis of the West” is nothing new. In 1949, the political philosopher Leo Strauss lamented that the main currents of social science in the United States, and in the Western world more broadly, could not understand tyranny for what it was since they were blindly committed to the absurd position that “facts” had nothing to do with “values.” He added that a social science that could not speak reasonably, and forcefully, about the evil that is tyranny (especially in its modern ideological forms) was no better than a medical science that could not name and describe cancer. In the following decade, Raymond Aron and Hannah Arendt brought the full arsenal of political philosophy to bear on the “novel” form of tyranny that was totalitarianism and, in the process, lamented the indulgence of so many intellectuals toward it.

In 1964, James Burnham published a still potent and relevant book called The Suicide of the West, where he took aim at Western self-hatred, romanticism about what would soon be called the Third World (some of which came to resemble “Caliban’s kingdoms” in the striking and provocative words of Paul Johnson in Modern Times), and the degeneration of a once noble and hardy liberalism into rank sentimentality, free-floating compassion, and a suicidal preference for our murderous and tyrannical enemies over our sometimes imperfect friends and even our own country and civilization.

By 1970, the great English writer and journalist Malcolm Muggeridge could write with eloquence and biting wit about “The Great Liberal Death Wish” in a seminal 1970 essay by that name. Muggeridge saw in the decayed liberal mind a perverse preference for nihilistic self-flagellation that led to the systematic “depreciating and deprecating” of “every aspect of our Western way of life.” God and all moral certitudes were dethroned even as “a Praetorian Guard of ribald students, maintained at the public expense,” were “ready at the drop of a hat to go into action, not only against their own weak-kneed bemused academic authorities, but also against any institution or organ for the maintenance of law and order still capable of functioning, especially the police.” These words could have been written in the summer of 2020 amidst the violence, mayhem, and grotesque self-flagellation that followed the death of George Floyd, or in the hours and days after the savage Hamas assault on Israeli innocents on October 7, 2023. Muggeridge went on to opine that if, and when, the West fell, it would not be the result of a barbarian invasion, not because of the murderous enmity of communists, fascists, and Nazis, but because of the suicidal death wish of a liberalism gone badly awry. It is hard to say that Muggeridge was wrong.

The better liberals, humane and decent people, are rightly shocked by professors, students, and activists who celebrate or apologize for the savage nihilism of Hamas or who think that these cruel ideologues and terrorists, heedless to the lives of their own people, whose deaths they relish for the propaganda value, somehow represent the legitimate interests of the Palestinian people. But what reason do we have for being surprised? English departments everywhere have given up teaching literature and humane letters and now specialize in the hate-filled jargon that defines “post-colonial” studies and discourse. “Intersectionality” is the order of the day—everyone who desires to be ideologically correct must unthinkingly parrot demands for CRT, gender ideology, abortion on demand, environmental extremism, sympathy and support for radical regimes and ideologies, contempt for religion and traditional morality, and a hatred of the West—above all for Israel, which is freely compared to apartheid South Africa and, most obscenely of all, Nazi Germany. DEI departments on most campuses enforce this new regime in a totalitarian spirit that is hardly “soft” or benign. For too long, economistic and anti-intellectual conservatives thought this had little to do with the “real world” and still proudly sent their children to utterly corrupt but still prestigious universities and liberal arts colleges.

Political correctness has been the order of the day for many years now, but somehow former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, the quintessentially “moderate” politician, just noticed. He is a decent human being, and I am glad he is appalled by the fact that the University of Pennsylvania was incapable of truly, unequivocally condemning what Hamas so brutally did to innocents on October 7, 2023. He will no longer be a benefactor of this corrupt institution. But why precisely was he surprised? Penn was only being itself when it shamelessly indulged the enemies of Israel—and Western civilization. This is a university that took down, as if in a parody of political correctness, a picture of William Shakespeare in its English department. It regularly encourages every manifestation of crude, ritualistic anti-Western and “anti-colonial” ideology.

The institution has long hounded conservative and other independent-minded faculty (and students) for not toeing the party line. Progressive ideology requires absolute fealty to the cause. To be sure, many Arabs and Palestinians (and their Western sympathizers) freely give way to Jew-hatred. But progressives hate Israel mainly because they hate themselves and the Western world of which they are a part. A figure long at the head of this charge, the radical intellectual Noam Chomsky, accused Cambodian refugees of exaggerating the “excesses” of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge and wrote a foreword to a book by the French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson. Chomsky had no sympathy for monstrous regimes but he was adamantly committed, and remains committed, to the view that the United States, and the Western world more broadly, is the primary author of evil in the world. Chomsky embodies the reductio ad absurdum of self-flagellating radicalism.

Writing in The Abolition of Man in 1943, the Christian apologist and man of letters C.S. Lewis wondered why our contemporary “men without chests,” who had abandoned both reason and faith, who confused moral judgment with mere emotivism, and who belittled the virile virtues and the essential connections between reason and a spirited regard for liberty and civilization, were surprised by the inevitably destructive consequences of their doctrines. In words that stick to memory and that are as relevant as ever, Lewis writes:

In a sort of ghastly simplicity, we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

Those false liberals who actively supported the progressivist degradation of our colleges and universities ought to be ashamed of themselves. Those who marched with the totalitarian Marxists and Maoists of BLM (who now predictably cheer Hamas on) in the summer of 2020—whether foolish white progressives or “useful idiots” like Senator Mitt Romney—are complicit in the madness that has taken hold of our political culture. They are also fools, naïfs.

As Russianist Gary Saul Morson argued in a powerful piece that appeared recently in The Wall Street Journal (“Dostoevsky Knew: It Can Happen Here,” WSJ, October 18, 2023), those ideologues and intellectuals who justify the unjustifiable would do it to us if they had the chance. As Morson argues, the militant “anti-colonialism” that is regnant today on our campuses and in bien-pensant intellectual circles is only the latest totalitarian ideology to justify the destruction of their “designated enemies.” And the soft leftists—the naïve fellow travelers—always go first. One thinks of the politically correct bourgeoisie in St. Petersburg, as described so vividly in Solzhenitsyn’s The Red Wheel (March 1917), who proudly wore red and waved red flags to display their fine feelings and progressive leanings. They were the first to be condemned as class enemies and marched off to the camps in Lenin’s new totalitarian dispensation. It is high time for their American counterparts to be “mugged by reality” before it is too late for them, and for the rest of us.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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