The valour deficit

When I am asked, “So what would you do?” about the circumstances I touched upon yesterday, I reply by looking glazed. Fortunately for me, if not for others, I do not hold a powerful political office, and am quite unlikely ever to do so. As a pundit once, I believed it my duty to think in these terms, however: not only negatively, to describe what is wrong, but positively to propose or imply what is right. Yet one must acknowledge limitations of view. Power corrupts, as Lord Acton said, but only from within a position of power can one see many of the pieces in play. From outside one must use the projective imagination.

That we have difficulties in and from “the Middle East” — essentially a continuum from Morocco to West Irian, as Christendom was once a continuum from Ireland to, say, the Urals — is the consequence of our own failings. Prior to the Great War we had few problems on that geopolitical front. This was because we occupied most of it. Extraordinary acts of self-destruction were necessary to get ourselves into the position of weakness in which we are now found. What led to August 1914 is too long a story; what led from it is too long a story. The transformation of Europe by that War, or rather, the completion of its transformation, is too long a story.

Recently, breezing through Margaret MacMillan’s blockbuster, Paris 1919 (2003) — the kind of book I am apt to pick up from the Salvation Army thrift shop — I considered her mildly revisionist account of the Peace Conference that held the world rivetted through the first six months of that year. Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George, and Georges Clémenceau are rightly absolved of responsibility for everything that happened in the next twenty years; for there were clowns after those clowns.

I think of them as the “Three Stooges of the Apocalypse.” They were themselves not causes but symptoms of a disease, which for a word we might call post-modernism. President Wilson did the most permanent damage. He was the Barack Obama of that historical moment, enjoying an immense charismatic popularity in Europe. A moral and intellectual simpleton, he had handy to his lips a short list of glib progressive nostrums that appealed to great masses of the war weary.

All three were men of terrific ego, and little substance: models for the new kind of politician that would emerge more fully from the War. Each was from his own peculiarly desiccated cultural background a man largely free of any religious conviction. Wilson had the Calvinist Puritan sensibility, to the degree that he was privately well-behaved; Lloyd George and especially Clémenceau were just old rogues and whoremongers, charming from a distance. Paradoxically, it might have helped had Wilson been more corrupt, and less “principled,” for his principles were exactly those on which post-modern liberalism was awkwardly erected: democracy, equality, bureaucracy, national self-determination, and all the rest of that rot.

To the point, the British and French dealt out pieces of the collapsed Ottoman Empire between themselves like patches on a Monopoly board, except for the Turkey of Ataturk’s fait accompli. Wilson watched with mild distaste while focusing his own efforts on rewarding every poisonous little balkanic European nationalism he could find under a rock. Other problems, like the new Soviet Russia, that could not be painlessly fixed, were progressively ignored. The Old World of aristocratic family orders, above nationalism, was unceremoniously trashed for the new one of seething demagogic republics, and all that would follow from that. It was a Brave New World that would be implicitly, and often explicitly, post-Christian.

This was the opposite of what was required. The Great War was caused by demagogic politics, and the real problem of statesmen was to find a way to put nationalism back in the bag. Instead they emptied the whole bag out on the table. Too, the agonizing economic decisions needed for the generous settlement of unpayable debts, and the restoration of hard, gold-based currencies, were omitted for a first frolic in the new fairyland of Keynesianism. It was the birth of that perpetual “creative destruction” that now endears itself to the adepts of “change,” both Left and Right.

A worse mess resulted than even war could cause, and while they hardly foresaw it, the Three Stooges and their vast supporting casts opened the road to the roaring ’twenties and the catastrophe of the ’thirties that would inevitably follow. Yet invincible error forgives the participants.

There were superficial, material effects, which in themselves contributed to the moral and spiritual disaster of the twentieth century, but something deeper had happened. The cancer beneath the skin was not addressed. Western man had abandoned his religion as a factor in public life. The very idea of Christendom — of an order larger and more consequential than that of any nation state — had been definitively buried. We had done to ourselves inwardly what we had done to the Ottomans outwardly. We had emasculated ourselves.

I cannot tell the history of a hundred years in an Idlepost, but I can insist on a single point, and this would be it for today. Western, and once Christian, man has lost his ability to man up in the face of evils he cannot avoid in this world. He has become chestless, he has lost the convictions of his Christian heart. He has, practically, no stomach left for the long haul, for maintaining permanent institutions, for keeping boots on the ground even where they must be kept (in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and so forth). He cannot face any large problem, in other than a mechanistic way, looking for the quick fix.

And this is one of those problems: the re-irruption of a violent, seventh-century tribal religion from beyond the civilized frontier, after centuries of effort to contain it (as much by noble effort from within Islam, as from active external resistance).

The spirit of the Crusades, persisting over so many generations, and likewise of the Reconquistas in the Iberian peninsula and across the Hungarian plains, were those of a manly civilization, self-consciously determined not to be rendered extinct. Western Christendom stood up to the Islamic threat, over centuries, though deficient in wealth and resources, through a kind of “holy will.” We would not accept any setback as permanent, we would not adapt to the consequences of defeat, we would keep fighting. Curiously, the much admired, but only slightly Christian, Winston Churchill briefly embodied this old, “mediaeval,” knightly ideal: that we must “never surrender.” He was also among the last statesmen to speak of Islam without an affected awe.

Without a conviction that our own civilization is worth defending, or even imposing in response to attack, I don’t know where we are. The idea that we must not only resist Islamicization, but roll it back, is inconceivable to contemporary Western man. He is incapable of stating: “No, your religion is wrong, and this is why. Yes, our religion is right, and this is why. Therefore you must abandon Muhammad, and follow Christ.” (That, incidentally, is what the real Saint Francis of Assisi did.) Without that, Western man is defeated before he starts. For his vague belief in “progress” carries no real conviction, only the convenience of avoiding thought, commitment, labour, and risk.

Let me add, to avoid confusion, that by “manly” I do not mean specifically, “ready for military action.” That is only part of it. I mean more fundamentally, ready to uphold the Christian standard in heart, soul, and mind. This is a multi-dimensional proposition, and requires valour in every dimension. But we have abandoned the Source of that valour.