Western Civilization: force for good or source of evil?
Religion & Liberty Online

Western Civilization: force for good or source of evil?

No one event prompted me to write about this topic—it is a general, and certainly growing, impression. But a glance at various happenings in recent years gives some indication of what I want to comment on. In 2016, for instance, Yale students called on the university to “decolonize” a reading list of canonical poets—people such as Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and so on—saying the course “actively harms students” and creates a “hostile” culture. That same year, Stanford students overwhelmingly voted down a proposal to restore a Western Civilization course requirement. And of course just a few weeks ago the University of Notre Dame announced that it will cover up a dozen murals of Christopher Columbus’s exploits in the New World. My goal here is not to pass judgment on any particular one of these events, but to comment on a prevailing attitude that promotes a one-sided focus on Western culture’s faults and failures, and paints every affront to select sensibilities as emblematic of insidious broad currents that have been built into our civilization.

In many quarters, especially “progressive” ones, it has become unacceptable to praise the West as such—we can only make reparation for its past sins. Obviously the sins of the West are sins, just like the sins of any culture, and on these we can all agree. But the very fact that we can recognize those as sins, that we can engage in self-criticism, is a testament to the greatness of the West. And those shortcomings are far from being the entirety of the cultural tradition. Simple justice—to say nothing of filial respect—demands that we give the West’s greatness its due. When someone says he loves his parents, no one imagines he means they’re perfect. It’s ironic that in an era when self-esteem is touted as a paramount value, our cultural self-esteem has tanked.

In the introduction to their 2004 Patriot’s History of the United States, Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen put it well, I think. “We utterly reject ‘My country right or wrong’—what scholar wouldn’t? But in the last thirty years, academics have taken an equally destructive approach: ‘My country, always wrong!’ We reject that too.” Replace “country” with “culture” and it’s quite fitting.

On July 6, 2017, Donald Trump gave a speech in Krasiński Square in Warsaw that touched on some of these ideas. Whatever one may think of Trump or his sincerity, for me it was refreshing to at least hear words like this on a world stage.

“We write symphonies. We pursue innovation. We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs, and always seek to explore and discover brand-new frontiers.

We reward brilliance. We strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works of art that honor God. We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression.

We empower women as pillars of our society and of our success. We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the center of our lives. And we debate everything. We challenge everything. We seek to know everything so that we can better know ourselves.

And above all, we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom. That is who we are. Those are the priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies, and as a civilization….

Our own fight for the West does not begin on the battlefield—it begins with our minds, our wills, and our souls. Today, the ties that unite our civilization are no less vital, and demand no less defense, than that bare shred of land on which the hope of Poland once totally rested. Our freedom, our civilization, and our survival depend on these bonds of history, culture, and memory.”

Much contemporary dismissiveness centers on the idea of the “whiteness” of Western civilization in general and many of its shining lights in particular. This is not the place to go down the rabbit hole of “institutional racism” or “critical race theory” or any of today’s chic academic causes—I will limit myself to pointing out that I (and not just I) say the West is great not because of its members’ race, but because of the cultural value it holds. Look back at the writers rejected by Yale students. Yes, they were white. But Shakespeare is a great author because he produced great literature, not because of what race he happened to belong to. Aquinas and Descartes and Kant are remembered not for their skin but for their ideas. A Monet painting is a great painting quite apart from the characteristics of the one who painted it. And so on. And the equation of “West” with “white” doesn’t hold up anyway—when’s the last time anyone cast off Augustine because he was African or Gabriel García Márquez for being Hispanic?

Incidentally, this is also what makes Iowa representative Steve King’s recent comments—which seemingly equated white supremacy with Western civilization—doubly problematic. Not only was he defending the indefensible, but he conflated the eminently defensible with it.

In any case, it is true that Western civilization has not been an unalloyed good—no culture is. But it is a no less damaging approach to focus exclusively on the negative, as if one culture were uniquely bad. Some Westerners have declared their culture guilty of all the world’s ills, imagined or real. But not all evil is from us, nor is all good from outside us. There is a lot of good along the path that has brought us where we are. Of that good we can be proud, and we don’t have to be sorry for it.

(Homepage photo credit: Public domain.)

Joshua Gregor

Joshua Gregor is International Relations Assistant at the Acton Institute. Before coming to Acton he received a BA in philosophy from the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome and an MA in linguistics from Indiana University.