The Enervated Man of the West

There are truths that must be stated. Mark Steyn starts down that road with the speech from which I quoted some hours ago, which has earned him a great deal of hatred; yet while he identifies the problem — that there is little in the multicultural identity, or lack of same, that can offer a compelling alternative to a determined, militant Islam for the individual Muslim — Steyn stops halfway in his search for a solution. We must regain calm self-confidence in our Western culture and heritage, Steyn says. Very good; yet what about our heritage are we to have confidence in? What specifically does the classical tradition hold that the modern multicultural society lacks, which is the essential point that will grant us victory in the long war ahead?

Steyn does not say straight out, aside from correctly stating that we will only fight to defend our society if we see it worth defending, as being superior to the opposing culture. But why does he not say clearly what in the Western tradition he thinks is superior and worth defending?

I hesitate to put words in Steyn's mouth; but he returns again and again in his writings to the example of the Thuggee cult in India, which would immolate young widows at their husbands' funerals. The response of the British General Sir Charles Napier to this charming custom (known as Sati) was not to ignore it as an expression of a different culture, but to eradicate the Thuggee cult from India. It seems, then, that one of our great virtues according to Steyn is that we consider human life sacred.

This by itself is easy; how difficult is it for an individual to abstain from killing people? The difference with the West is that we value life so much that we are willing to kill people to protect it. This requires a sterner mind than does simple nonviolence; it is not trivial to develop a philosophy in which you can willingly kill others at the same time as you hold life sacred, indeed, in service to that sanctity.

A word on sanctity. It necessarily implies that human life is sacred everywhere, at all times, regardless of prevailing social mores or laws. This carries with it the obligation to protect human life everywhere, to the best of our practical ability, and regardless of opposing social mores. Which is why Steyn is horrified that:
In London last summer, the Metropolitan police announced they were reopening investigations into 120 deaths among British Muslim girls that they'd hitherto declined to look at too closely on grounds of cultural sensitivity. Now think about that. Think about that. One hundred and twenty women are murdered and their murders go uninvestigated because the cops thought it was just some multicultural thing.
Steyn realizes that such murders are common in the Muslim world, of course, which is a large part of his implacable opposition to the spread of Islamic law. But what makes this truly horrifying to him (and to me, frankly) is that these murders went uninvestigated on British soil. That is to say, Britain had consciously abdicated its duty to defend human life even within its own sovereign borders, to say nothing of elsewhere.

Why? "Cultural sensitivity." Britain was unwilling to enforce the sanctity of human life among a community that thinks otherwise. Doing so might lead to a violent reaction, after all; better to let sleeping dogs lie and avoid trouble, no matter how many young girls are murdered in the meantime.

How could such a travesty occur? As I said above, it is difficult to reconcile the sanctity of life with the need to kill people in its defense. It is even more difficult for a decent person to kill another, himself (as opposed to supporting a champion who kills in his stead). And, most of all, it is most difficult to do so when it places yourself and your loved ones at risk. In short, we are dealing with an intertwining of philosohpical dissonance, misplaced mercy, and above all else a deep, pervasive fear.

All of these are symptoms of enervation. Intellectual enervation, in which elites who fear the abyss more than anything else have chosen to turn their backs on it, so that the abyss will not stare back at them. Moral enervation, in which individuals can reject necessary duties because they are distasteful. And enervation of the instincts, in which fear is allowed to dominate our minds above all else. We lack the fortitude, the iron determination, to do what must be done.


To approach our answer, let us return to the question of the hour: why will Islamic communities not assimilate into the West?

Set aside the various ways in which the West does not conform to Islam's ideal. I am not concerned with whether practicing Muslims feel at home in the West; I as an Orthodox Jew am not truly at home here even though I am a proud American from birth. What concerns me is why many Muslims are actively repelled by Western culture. Why do so many seemingly Westernized Muslims seem driven into the arms of the anti-Western exclusionism of the Jihad?

One finds this revealing sentence in a review of Osama bin Laden's writings by Printculture: "Democracy is at best a materialist doctrine for [bin Laden], a sinful worship of human desires of happiness." Similarly, a term that comes up over and over again is "decadence." The West puts the pursuit of pleasure above all else, so says the contemptuous Jihadi.

Materialism. Worship of human desire. Worship of happiness. All this set against the ultimate self-nullification of the suicide bomber.

But why should our decadence be so repulsive, and the alternative so attractive, to these Jihadis? After all, decadence is fun. It is pleasurable. It is so very easy! But (and here we tread on dangerous ground indeed) it is our decadence that is enervating us as a society. In the midst of our tremendous material wealth and power, we have grown so weak and stunted that much of the West cannot bear to use that power. Whereas, while the warriors of the Jihad are materially weak, they are indeed the mightiest of men. For they have offered up their very lives for their beliefs, and the halls of the powerful tremble with fear.

Steyn cannot say this out loud (assuming he even thinks in these terms, which he may not) because if he does, he must identify those decadent ideas and practices that are to blame for our enervation. It is hard enough for him to argue that Western culture is superior to others because it holds life sacred; if he tried to explain why some no longer defend that sanctity, he would have to challenge not only ideas of the multicultural Left, but of classical liberalism itself — the founding political doctrine of the United States.

The tradition of classical liberalism is built around the social contract, in which citizens cede power to a government in exchange for the guarantee that their rights will be protected. The main rights, of course, are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," or alternatively "property." In essence, the government has a limited mandate: to ensure the security of material goods, and the negative good of freedom from oppression.

But what of our civic obligations? They are narrow indeed: obey the law. Beyond that, you are free to act however you wish. You may feel certain behaviors as an obligation, but the obligation does not come from government. The government will not force you to be a good person.

More than that, this freedom to act however we choose is extolled as a virtue. Matthew Arnold, in his work Culture and Anarchy, speaks of the British love for "doing as one likes," a love which largely carried over to America. Politicians, who need the support of the people to gain power, naturally celebrated this tendency and called "doing as one likes" a glorious expression of political liberty. In essence, they confirmed and celebrated the existing prejudice of the people.

What they did not do, and what few politicians do today, was use their stature to ecourage the people to become a better people. Indeed, there is no civic obligation in democracies for an individual to improve himself morally or physically, beyond a certain bare minimum. On the other hand, there is great civic value attached to gaining material possessions. This is not difficult to explain, and I have some related thoughts in a previous post. Put briefly, society agrees that material goods are better than their absence, and even has a standard for keeping score, i.e. money. This, incidentally, allows free markets to function well, since each individual can measure the effectiveness of his commerical transactions in absolute terms, setting up a constant feedback loop.

However, there is no single agreed-upon standard for morality. The standard against which you measure your moral choices is itself the product of a choice. The classical liberal government does not impose a uniform moral standard, thanks to Europe's long bloody history of religious war. Morality is essentially separate from civic obligation.

This was less of a problem in former years, when communal organizations and religious goups still commanded great authority, and public standards of behavior were agreed upon through collective consent, and not through government decree. However, as Socrates warned, the natural trajectory of democracies is to become dissolute; how can it be otherwise, when democracy is about rule by the majority, and not rule according to a set standard? Extragovernmental moral authorities held the line for a very long time, but have been effectively routed by the forces of eros and the everpresent love of "doing as one likes." Now, we live in a moral anarchy, where anything that is legal (and a few things that aren't) is considered acceptable behavior by large numbers of people.

All right; but why is this a problem? After all, why should an atheist care if the three monotheisms officially outlaw homosexuality, or premarital sex? It doesn't hurt anyone, does it? Why should someone avoid using profanity if it is considered acceptable in his social circle? If a person wants to eat a deep-dish pizza every day and play video games until his thumbs drop off, what business is that of anyone else?

The fundamental problem is that Western society is fast abandoning the concept of personal discipline, of measuring oneself against a standard which he must struggle to attain. In particular, we learn to immediately gratify our emotional impulses (especially sexual impulses), rather than controlling them and channeling them towards a higher use. There is no more place for the sublime. There is no example of the exceptional moral paragon which we are encouraged to emulate. Whereas before we could imitate Washington's honesty, Lincoln's steely resolve in the cause of anti-slavery, Franklin's homespun wisdom, now we are constantly reminded that these dead white guys are all flawed men and not worth paying attention to.

It is very hard work to seek moral and ethical improvement; not for nothing does the Bible speak of "refinement," being passed through the fires of the crucible to emerge purer on the other side. Now there is less and less reason for the average citizen to go through the effort. And this sloth is extending past the moral realm and into the material. Each generation has a poorer work ethic than the last; each has a larger obesity problem; each accumulates more debt. The mere presence of our abundance is excuse enough for citizens to gorge; that they could train themselves to hold back from immediate gratification seems laughable. Our society no longer teaches the young to accept hardship. Our wills are weak and flabby, unused to hard strain.

Not for nothing is the bulk of the U.S. military made up of the deeply religious. They are increasingly the only communities willing to shoulder the burden. They are the only communities who not only dedicate themselves to a higher purpose and to civic virtue, but actually accept significant limits on their behavior in the process.

The specific problem of our unbunded sexual impulses is, I think, a primary contributor to our societal enervation. Sex is not simply a method of cooperative amusement; it is an incredibly powerful innate drive. It is the source of much of our emotional vitality. And how the sex drive is cultivated will have dramatic effects on a personality. If you are used to gratifying every urge, not willing to let even the slightest sexual tension accumulate, then you will lose a great source of emotional power and discipline. Not for nothing did the Victorians refer to orgasm as a "little death." Almost every program of spiritualism calls for periods of abstinence, because of the dramatic power that will accumulate during these periods: power which can then be applied in your daily life. Recall the movie Raging Bull, in which the protagonist avoids orgasm in the days leading up to a big fight. Recall, too, that in Orwell's 1984 the Party sought to suppress sexual activity to keep its members at a constant fever pitch of frenetic energy.

And yet in the West, every institution for channeling and controlling the sex drive has been devalued. Premarital sex is commonplace; adultery is shrugged off. Masturbation was even encouraged by Surgeon General Elders, under the most apropos of presidents. This is one part of the reason why the young seek ever-more-extreme diversions: when the pinnacle of primal experiences has become commonplace, life loses some of its color.

Compare the preceding with Islam. Much like traditional Judaism, Islam sees no distinction between government and religion; indeed, it is the duty of government to enforce the dictates of religion. Muslims must discipline their dietary habits according to the laws of halal, must pray five times daily, and — perhaps most importantly — must severely control their sexual behavior (at least in theory, though this is more rigorously enforced on women than men). Across entire societies, material goods are seen not as the prime societal good, but as a means for attaining the true good: submission to Allah. There is very little "doing what one likes" in Islam in the sense which it is found in the West; all Muslims have a duty to continually perfect themselves (as they understand the term), and activities that detract from that goal are condemned. Here, we have a society founded on discipline, submission to a greater good, and continual focus on serving Allah. Is it any surprise that the most fanatical should look at the West with contempt, even as the outputs of Western culture are eagerly consumed?

I fear that so long as Western culture permits the soft nihilism of "doing what one likes" instead of restoring the concepts of discipline and self-perfection as civic virtues, that the secular Western world will fall. In its place will rise the deeply religious communities of all stripes, those with the fortitude and will to fight for their beliefs. Religious commitment is already associated with high birthrates, compared to more secular populations; if only religious communities are prepared to fight in their own defense — or, more ominously, as an aggressor — then it is only a matter of time before secularism passes from the earth.

(Is this all a gross generalization? Absolutely. There are many secular stalawarts, just as there are many religious sluggards. But demographics are all about generalizations; and demography is destiny.)

Will the secular world meet the challenge? Or has it already become too enervated to escape its own nihilistic implosion?


Francis W. Porretto said...

"Sex is not simply a method of cooperative amusement; it is an incredibly powerful innate drive. It is the source of much of our emotional vitality."

This is the starting point of an insight I've strained to develop further. From one of my novels:

He had always been puzzled by sexual hunger. His lack of understanding had made him more than a little afraid of it. He was beginning to see. It was not the savage abandon of animals in rut. Nor was it a vanquishment of the mind by baser and more powerful impulses of the body.

It was a rising, an exaltation.

We spend our lives locked in prisons of flesh, yearning to believe that there might be something greater than our individual selves, and that someday, with enough preparation and enough effort, it might allow us to become part of it. Corporations, armies, governments and religions are all part of the same pattern. Yet how many would believe that such a thing might be possible to any two people sufficiently unafraid of one another to touch without fear? To offer themselves without reservation?...

The beast with two backs, they used to call it. God is truly good.

Mastiff said...

There is another aspect to sex in addition to the "rising" you speak of: it is an act of potential creation. Jewish sources speak of God's presence (so to speak) resting over a couple who come together in a spirit of holiness. Sex, when done with the right mindset, is an act of partnership with God in the Creation of the cosmos.

As such, it is the focus of much spiritual power, which can be used for good or ill. (Read "emotional" or "hormonal" for "spiritual," if you are so inclined, though it will not capture my full meaning.)

Anonymous said...

Willpower is “Free Will”, I see no distinction. Yet lack of it is lack of free will. This is the resistance towards what you are that helps you become something else! Otherwise if one is already happy about remaining an animal, then he has already given up most of his free will. That leads to question what really Freedom is.

To remain ignorant because of being free of hardship is in essence being prisoner of ignorance. So what is this greater freedom? Are we really born having it initially? I doubt it, freedom is not something you can get from someone else, every single human mind must earn it and work for it individually.

“Oh Allah(swt) you have not created all this in vain!”