A. Reiner Hollbach
Reflections on the Core Values of Western Civilization
When you log in to your favourite news website – or opening a newspaper, the old fashioned way – you are greeted by an un-ending stream of news about wars and other violent conflicts abroad as well as angry divisions and political confrontations at home. What happened? World peace has not unfolded as we had expected.
After the Soviet Union collapsed and Francis Fukuyama famously declared the End of History, it seemed evident that the West, the guys in the white hats, had prevailed. Alas, we all know that this is not the way it worked out. Democracy as we know it in the West did not march triumphantly around the word. Instead, we are faced today with a depressingly long list of violent conflicts with no signs of abatement.
Towards the end of a brief period of triumphalism in the early 1990’s, Samuel Huntington fired a warning shot across our bow with his famous book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, in which he expounded the prospect of future confrontations with other cultures, such as China’s.
The focus of this essay is not, however, on dangers from without, but on dangers entirely from within, challenges to the democratic structure of Western civilization. And these arise entirely within the framework of our Western value system. To understand their root causes it may help to take a look at where these Western values originated.
Briefly, Western core values weren’t handed down on stone tablets, to be unalterable. They have their roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition as it has evolved over a long period of time. For the most part, the default governance of Western society was a mix of absolute religious and temporal dominance. For the fifteen centuries following the birth of Jesus Christ, Western Europe was steeped in an all-encompassing religious faith of an intensity that we find difficult today to understand. For example, during the Investiture controversy, a chapter in the ongoing struggle for dominance between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Holy See in Rome, Pope Gregory VII [1073 – 1085] punished the Emperor Henry IV by excommunicating him, a weapon so dreaded in those days that the Emperor had to grovel in the snow out-side the Pope’s palace at Canossa for three days [Jan. 1077] before the Pope relented.
The red hot intensity of religious fervor in those days was not diminished by the Reformation which championed its own brand of religious absolutism and intolerance. It was the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment that broke the mold and brought about a dramatic course correction, an event that led to the evolution of Western Civilization as we know it today. But the Age of Religion was not replaced entirely by the Age of Reason, ushered in by the Enlightenment.
To understand why we are currently so conflicted about our traditional values, it may help to have a look at a trait in human nature that has never been fully neutralized by rational Enlightenment thinking: mankind’s irrepressible need for a belief system. It was dominant in prehistoric times where it expressed itself in ancestor worship, and in Western Europe that need was met for a long time by two of the three Abrahamic faiths, with Christianity dominant. Then, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the influence of great minds like John Locke, Voltaire and a plethora of other Enlightenment thinkers, the profound grip that Christianity held on Western society began to abate. A new way of thinking arose, and with it came massive increases in human well-being. Steven Pinker, in his recent book Enlightenment Now, documents this process thoroughly. However, in addition to the incontestable benefits catalogued by Pinker, Enlightenment thinking also allowed a faith vacuum to develop which other belief systems were glad to fill. I have in mind one in particular that matches in fervor the intensity of beliefs that once characterized Christianity.
I am referring here to a religion founded by a cantankerous, bushy bearded nineteenth century refugee from the Continent who in-stalled himself in the Reading Room of the British Museum where he wrote the Communist Manifesto.
The influence of Karl Marx on Western intellectuals was, and continues to be, profound. Early in the twentieth century Lenin called Western sympathizers his ‘useful idiots’, and they served the Soviet Union well both during and after WW II. The names of Alger Hiss, Philby, Burgess and McLean come to mind, along with many others. Theirs were not criminal minds: rather they were possessed by a profound religious belief that an egalitarian communist society was the salvation of mankind, and they were determined to bring it about in their own society.
This belief system is a fundamental departure from the Enlightenment values that place the individual at the center of a social contract striving for the rule of law, equality before the law, rights of the individual as well as human rights more generally and, above all, tolerance. This is in stark contrast to Marxism which demotes individuals from their central position in human society to mere membership in a group. For Marx, there were two such groups, the capitalist oppressors, and the oppressed workers. The modern intellectual and political Left is still closely wedded to this basic Marxian concept, although the labels have changed. The capitalists have morphed into white male supremacists whose goal in life is to thwart the aspirations of victim groups such as persons of colour, First Nations, LGBT’s and women. It is thus not surprising that the modern Left is still deeply suspicious of, and hostile to, the free market system. Talk to someone of the Leftish persuasion, and you will soon detect a measure of disdain for making profits, and corporations, especially multi-national ones, are viewed with deep suspicion, often with downright hostility.
This ideological mindset seems to have found a comfortable home in the environmental movement. Remember Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring? Its publication in 1962 can be taken as the beginning of the modern environmental movement. Unfortunately, its gradual merger with neo-Marxian ideology has produced an ideological and political movement in pursuit of objectives that are often harmful to the humanity they are supposed to serve. An early example is the campaign against DDT, a highly effective weapon in the fight against malaria. This campaign was so successful that the death rate from malaria, particularly in Africa, has remained far higher than the minimum level that could be attained by modern science. The activists who succeeded in having DDT banned have on their conscience the deaths of literally millions of Africans, mostly children.
Another example, this one in the economic sphere, is nuclear power. The environmental movement has been so successful in con-vincing the general public of its dire dangers that governments now fear to go there. And under pressure from environmental groups, Western governments have over-regulated the industry to the point where new plants have become too expensive to build. China, not under the sway of the environmentalists, builds nuclear plans far cheaper and more quickly without, however, cutting corners on safety as the Russians had done with their Chernobyl class of reactors.
Nuclear power, contrary to the claims of environmentalists, is safe, and it could provide a vastly greater proportion of base load power without emitting a single molecule of CO2. The alternatives promoted by environmentalists, solar and wind, have the fun-damental flaw that they are intermittent and, in the case of wind, are often located far from large load centres. They have to be located where wind is abundant, rather than where people live. And there is no science-based reason for hoping that an as yet un-known technological break-through could change that in the foreseeable future.
Closer to home, here in Canada, the environmental movement has found an ideal villain, multi-national oil companies, whose output is an assault on Mother Nature, because it produces global warming. In that context we should remember that Canada’s total CO2 emissions, including those from the oil & gas industry, amount to less than 2% of total emissions worldwide. And that at a time when world-wide emissions from countries like China and India continue to rise unabatedly .
The campaign against Alberta’s oil patch carries with it profound economic and constitutional implications. On the economic side, Canada faces discouraging growth projects. The public debt burden, provincial and federal, is now so large that for governments to continue running large deficits is simply no longer an option. There are limits to the extent to which we can mortgage the future of our children and grandchildren. And in Ontario, the provincial government’s Green Energy Policy has turned the province from being North America’s lowest electricity cost sub-national jurisdiction to the one with the highest such cost. This has, of course, profound implications for the province’s business climate which has been deteriorating over the past few years.
In these circumstances the health of the oil patch is central to the county’s growth prospects. But here the news is grim. Without a capacious and efficient oil transport system, Alberta oil is locked in and can only be sold, mostly to the United States, at below world market prices. The obvious solution, the dramatic expansion of pipeline capacity, appears to be dead in the water.
And hereby hangs a constitutional tale with a potentially profound impact on democracy in this country. It doesn’t help that our Prime Minister has planted his pennant firmly in the camp of the environmentalists. His government cancelled the Northern Gateway pipeline, he stood idly by as the Canada East project fell apart due to governmental overregulation, and he imposed a ban on oil tanker traffic on the West Coast. More recently, the federal government opted to support the Kinder Morgan pipeline to the West Coast, albeit reluctantly and without conviction, as a political expedient. But the prospects for that project are not encouraging either. It is unconditionally opposed by a minority B.C. government and its supporters in the environmental movement. The latter have even threatened to stop the project by violence if the government dared to clear the way for its construction.
Thus we have now arrived at a point where the country faces a fundamental test of strength in a stand-off between the Federal Government and the environmental NGO’s (ENGO’s). Who is going to gain the upper hand, the NGO’s who are engaged in a cru-sade to protect the environment from the onslaught of profit oriented multi-national oil companies, or the Federal Government in Ottawa which purportedly represents the interests of all Canadians?
The outcome of this confrontation will have profound consequences for the future of democracy in this country. If the ENGO’s win, the result will be the emasculation of a democratically elected government, and the country will be under the sway of a small, unelected but well financed minority with the determination to impose their ideology on the rest of us, and at a staggering cost in foregone economic growth.
This vilification of the Alberta oil patch stems from the same ideology that is now all encompassing, and it is by no means limited to the economic sphere. It is also firmly ensconced in the social fabric of Western society. We encounter it daily in relatively harmless manifestations, like the current handwringing over gender-neutral pronouns.
Citizens of this country who consider themselves classical liberals in the Enlightenment tradition have cause for concern. Progressivism is now nearly universal in the Social Science faculties in the North American academe. Witness the recent dust-up over Lindsay Shepherd, a Wilfred Laurier University teaching assistant who dared to show to her class a clip from a Steve Paikin/TVO Agenda episode featuring the bête noir of the Social Justice Warriors, Professor Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto. Also, over the past few years, there have been several instances of student groups obstructing and causing the cancellation of scheduled events by speakers of whom the Social Justice Warriors disapproved. So much for free speech.
Over the past few decades, this ideology found its way into provincial education curricula. And it is there to stay, because the kids of yesteryear are now University Professors, able to pass the torch to the next generation. We have now reached the point where the minds of the little ones are so filled with fervor for Social Justice and Group Rights that there is not much room left for critical analysis and independent thinking.
Progressivism is now rooted firmly in much of the legal profession as well. Witness a recent edict of the Law Society of Upper Canada requiring its members to submit a Statement of Principles in which lawyers are ordered to state that they value and practice equality, diversity and inclusion. More consequential was the reaction of an Ontario Law School to the Not Guilty of second-degree murder verdict in the case of Gerald Stanley, a Saskatchewan farmer who shot, by accident he claims, a young First Nations member in a confrontation during a trespassing incident. The Law School declared the Canadian legal system to be oppressive. It issued a statement that “Canada has used law to perpetuate violence against Indigenous People”, and it added that “a reinvention of our legal system is necessary” . This view clearly resonated with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and some of his Minsters who chose to comment on the case. Trudeau declared that “Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians alike know that we have to do better.”
So where is all this going to lead us? Adherents of the political Left are all too ready to see totalitarian traits in those who don’t share their ideological bent. For example, in the proceedings of the Wilfred Laurier University Committee struck to discipline Lindsay Shepherd, she was told that her action was similar to showing a speech of Adolph Hitler. And the accusation of being a racist or white supremacist is all too readily being levied at those who do not subscribe to the official doctrine. But it is the Social Justice Warriors who display totalitarian instincts, similar to some members on the extreme right that are capturing headlines at times in the United States. This is not unique. We have seen it before:
Back in the days of the Weimar Republic in Germany after WW I, two radical groups battled with each other, Hitler’s Brownshirts and the Communists. They loathed each other because they were so similar. For movements of that nature the difference between right and left becomes meaningless. For them the political spectrum ceases to be linear, left to right, but becomes a circle, with the extremes meeting each other cheek by jowl.
Does all this foreshadow an Orwellian future for us? Hopefully not. Common sense, moderation and tolerance have not been added to the endangered species list, and there are encouraging signs that they will reassert themselves over time. For example, the indignant reaction to the vilification of Jordan Peterson is quite encouraging. All of a sudden, literally millions of ordinary folks take notice and tune in to what the man has to say. This is quite encouraging. It suggests that there are a sizeable number of people out there, perhaps including Mrs. Clinton’s Deplorables, who are not impressed by the doctrine so popular among the political and intellectual elites. And as long as we still live in a functioning democracy, this vox populi cannot be ignored indefinitely.
Clearly, the time has come for those who have retained their faith in Classical Liberalism to speak up. It is time to have a dispassionate debate on the kind of society we would like to bequeath to our grandchildren. And there is no better way to start than to dust off some of the societal building blocks of classical liberalism that were bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment. Here are some samples, in no particular order:
The Rule of Law
We often use this phrase without giving much thought to what it actually means. Laws of one kind or another have been around for a long time in some form or another, probably since the days of knuckle-dragging cave dwellers. Laws have all too often been no more than an absolutist ruler’s set of instructions to his henchmen on how to keep unruly peasants in line, a practice that was used to great effect in Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany.
In today’s Western world, at least in countries following the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition, the Rule of Law has a number of very specific elements, such as:
- Equality before the Law
- Presumption of innocence
- Burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt
- The jury system
- An independent judiciary, i.e. freedom from political interference
The recent case of Gerald Stanley is an example of how the judicial system should work. The judge strictly applied the above principles. Alas, it is also an example of how these principles can be undermined by Federal Government Ministers who denigrated the process by which the verdict of innocent was obtained.
This is really quite a recent invention of Western civilization. Textbooks on the subject usually invoke the Magna Charta as the starting point of its evolution, but for hundreds of years thereafter English-style government could be more aptly described as aristocracy, oligopoly, or plutocracy, because until fairly recently in European history, the elites who had forced their previously absolute sovereign to share power were invariably powerful rich landowners and merchants. In those days the ‘demos’ in ‘democracy’ were the landless peasants, slaves and women who had no voice. They were mere property. Thus democracy, as we understand it today, is really quite a recent phenomenon. It is only after the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century and the advent of universal suffrage including women in the twentieth that something emerged which we can truly call democracy.
But true democracy is now being compromised by radical ideologues who don’t feel constrained by traditional democratic principles based on majority rule. The new Progressive ideology has created for itself the tool of ‘Social Justice’ which they use with great abandon to thwart, if need be, the will of the majority. Just one example: A friend of mine told me that the Principal of his children’s school had decided that report cards should no longer show grades, presumably on the grounds that little Jamie’s ego might be hurt if his report card displayed low grades. So my friend organized a protest by parents to insist that grades be included. But when the report cards came out, there were no grades. When confronted by parents over this, the Principal replied: 'sometimes real democracy is when the majority allows the minority to decide'. That speaks for itself.
There have been numerous incidents at North American universities in recent years where free speech was pushed off the campus through actual or threatened violence. This is quite alarming, not only because of the ruthless tactics of radial student groups, but perhaps even more so because of the pusillanimous stance of university administrators who should have been the first line of defense against such attacks on free speech. And they go about this in rather devious ways. In one recent case they advised the organizers of an event featuring a controversial speaker that they would have to bear the full cost of security arrangements for that event. But these costs were then set so high as to force the organizers to cancel the event. One can readily visualize the smirk on the faces of the officials who had dreamed up this novel way of shutting down an event they did not want to tolerate on their campus.
Karl Marx famously described religion as the opiate of the people, invented by the ruling class to keep the populace quiescent. Some traces of this view survive in the attitude of today’s Progressives towards the Christian faith. A crucifix had to be removed from the Assemblée Nationale in Quebec City, and Christian symbols elsewhere are frowned upon, even where they are still tolerated (for now). Fortunately we have not yet reached the point where Christian churches may no longer display a cross on the exterior of a church building. It seems that to Progressives, Christian educational institutions are undesirable, if not downright unlawful. Witness the unsuccessful attempts by Trinity Western University in B.C. to obtain accreditation for a faith-based Law School.
On the other hand, cultural relativism demands that Sikhs are allowed to carry ceremonial daggers and wear turbans when riding motor cycles, while such helmets are mandatory for everyone else. You figure.
This seems to be in short supply these days. In fact, identity politics achieves the very opposite by exacerbating differences be-tween groups, rather than seeking and strengthening common ground.
Have George Orwell’s predictions already come to pass? Hopefully not. There are signs, straws in the wind, to indicate that ordinary folks are starting to become aware of being patronized, and they don’t like it. Witness the phenomenal, instant world-wide fame of Jordan Peterson when his stand on mandated speech forms became known to the general public. Brexit and the election of Trump are seen by some as a sign that the elites have lost touch with the grass roots, and that the elites’ efforts to bring about universal conformity to Progressive norms may soon encounter something called the “Will of the People”.
These reflections started with a brief reference to geopolitical challenges appearing on the horizon that may become major threats to Western civilization. If these threats should gain in strength, the West will be in a weakened position owing to self-doubt and guilt feelings about its imperialist past. Let us not go any further down that road, but rather make sure that our society is reinforced with inner moral strength and pride in its positive accomplishments, so that we can successfully stand by the core values that made Western Civilization great.
A. Reiner Hollbach – May 2018
Huntington: Christianity – Pluralism – Individualism – the Rule of Law
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr: Individual liberty – Political Democracy – the Rule of Law – Human Rights – Cultural Freedom
Bruce Pardy: The Rule of Law – equal application of the law – presumption of innocence – freedom of expression and of thought, conscience and religion.
Friederich Hayek: Classical Liberalism – Free markets
Suggested Reading List
12 Rules of Life – by Jordan Peterson
Enlightenment Now – The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress – by Steven Pinker
Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism – by Larry Siedentop
The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save it – by Yasha Mounk
The Fate of the West – The Battle to Save the World’s Most Successful Idea – by Bill Emmott
The Once And Future Liberal – After Identity Politics – by Mark Lilla
The Retreat of Western Liberalism – by Edward Luce