“Pity makes suffering contagious.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as moral indignation, which permits envy …  to be acted out under the guise of virtue.”

– Erich Fromm

 

Over the past few weeks we’ve been observing an arresting phenomenon: the decline of Europe as the standard bearer of European civilization. We’ve been viewing this calamity through the lens of Jean Raspail’s apocalyptic novel, The Camp of the Saints. Raspail’s book was lauded and despised (and probably deserved both), but the question he posed was a good and a large one: What makes a civilization worth preserving?

When the novel appeared three decades ago the leaders of European thought could still debate such questions, whereas today no one in Europe would know where to begin. I’ve speculated that the reason for the difference is that serious adults in Europe in 1973 had come to adulthood before the devastation of World War II and the Holocaust. They could still admire their own civilization and the extraordinary intellectual, scientific and artistic breakthroughs it had wrought.

Post-World War II Europeans, however, believed that European civilization had wrought only the Holocaust. They therefore declined to stand fearlessly on the shoulders of their forebears and continue the pursuit of knowledge and insight regardless of where it might lead. They knew all-too-well where it might lead.

The result is a shrunken and constrained and broken population, one focused only on its own wellbeing. Although Europe had dominated the world for centuries, after World War II the Europeans “had lost the will, the energy, and the wealth to maintain their power.”(1)

It’s a civilization that, astoundingly, cannot bestir itself even to see to its own national and Continental defense. It’s a world whose intellectual and emotional scope runs only from indignation to pity, two highly suspect emotions that speak more about the actor than the acted-upon.

This focus on personal comfort to the exclusion of almost everything else has led to a whole series of low-grade calumnies in Europe following the end of the war. As I noted, the Europeans were ravaged by World War I and yet failed to prevent World War II. But since the latter broke out in 1939,(2) Europe has not gone to war with itself for three-quarters of a century.

The Europeans attribute this to their (supposedly successful) efforts to lock Germany and France into an economic union that would make another conflict unthinkable. The economic success of the various European economic unions(3) and the fact that no new war has broken out has caused the Europeans to imagine that they have succeeded where their fathers failed. Earlier Europeans might have dared to think great thoughts, but they failed to prevent the desolation of two world wars. Better, says Europe, to focus on economic wellbeing and leave the intellectual heavy-lifting to others.

But the self-congratulation of the modern Europeans is at best meretricious and at worst mass self-delusion. There has been no war in Europe for the simple reason that two vastly more powerful nations – the US and the USSR – decreed that it wouldn’t happen.

Another astonishing phenomenon is the collapse of religious feeling across Western Europe since the war. In the home of the Catholic Church and the Reformation, fewer than 10% of people attend church regularly, while in America church attendance is at an all-time high. Why has Europe abandoned religion? Because, whether we agree with church teachings or not, religion deals with the hard questions, the great questions that bedevil humankind. Why are we here? Why must we die? What is good?

But this isn’t where Europe’s mind is focused today. As Walter Russell Mead has remarked, “Europe today often doesn’t seem to know … what Western civilization is for, or how it can or should be defended.”(4) Indeed, the contemporary counterpart of The Camp of the Saints is Submission, a French novel by Michel Houellebecq.(5) In this novel there is no “invasion” of non-Western people into Europe; France simply submits quietly to the Islamification of the country. Women must wear the veil and stay home, only Muslims can teach at the university, sharia is enshrined in French law. France submits impotently because it can’t think of any good reason not to.

If we were to stop any random European on the street and ask him or her to define European civilization, European culture, what it means to be a European, we would first encounter a blank stare. If we pressed the matter – say, by offering the fellow a free subscription to Charlie Hebdo – we would get something like this:

Well, um, it means having a cushy job I can’t be fired from no matter how crappy an employee I am. It means my employer can’t be put out of business by a more competitive firm, no matter how obsolete its business model is. It means I can commit any immoral or even illegal activity secure in the knowledge that Google has to expunge that material so I won’t be embarrassed. It means…

Well, we’ve heard enough. We might fondly hope that the Middle East will calm down soon. Syria will settle into a middle class suburb of Turkey. Iraq will drive out ISIS and adopt the euro. But if not, if the migrants keep coming and finally we have to ask the hard question posed by Jean Raspail so many years ago – but never mind, we know the answer.

(1) I’m dating the launch of the war to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, which led France and Britain to declare war on Germany. Since Japan was also an enemy combatant, some would date the beginning of the war to the eruption of Japan/China hostilities in 1937.

(2) The European Coal and Steel Community was formed back 1951 and led eventually to the organization of the European Economic Community in 1957. That in turn led to the creation of the European Union in 1993 and to the Eurozone of today.

(3) George Friedman, “Pondering Hitler’s Legacy,” Stratfor Geopolitical Weekly, 9/1/15.

(4) “A Crisis of Two Civilizations,” Wall Street Journal, 9/12/15, p. C1.

(5) I admit I haven’t read it. The English version was only published (in the UK) last month.

 

Next up: What Is J-Yell Smoking?

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