Saturday, April 3, 2021

Pessimism of the West - Snippets from First Things column by R. R. Reno

Some sections I wanted to preserve from the Jan 2021 issue:

Western civilization exerts unprecedented influence. Science commands the intellectual loyalty of elites around the world. Western strands of Christianity have enjoyed extraordinary missionary success in Africa and Asia. Communism—a Western ideology—migrated to China, destroyed its Confucian culture, and over the past generation has evolved into a materialist and technocratic mentality far more indebted to Bentham than to Mencius. Globalization is an American-led project, and it has gone from strength to strength. Yet, at the apogee of the West’s cultural power, we are riddled with guilt and doubts.

China poses a threat, but as was the case with early-­twentieth-century Japan, which brought war to Asia in the 1930s and to the United States in 1941, Chinese power today arises from the great extent of its Westernization. The clearest sign of cultural triumph is when one’s adversaries adopt one’s weapons. My fear of Chinese dominance is not a fear of being under the thumb of an alien Confucian civilization. Rather, I see in twenty-first-century China a perverse version of the West: the promise of wealth and security in exchange for submission to ­technocratic control.

What, then, accounts for our gloom? To some degree, it arises from our investments in failed utopias. As the Christian vision of the final triumph of God’s justice and peace was secularized in the modern era, the West gave birth to many vain dreams of reason. Descartes epitomized the “begin afresh” mentality, one that imagined that with sufficient intelligence and goodwill we could demolish the flawed city we had inherited and rebuild it as an impeccable empire of reason. In this spirit, we proclaim that democracies don’t go to war with one another. Or that global trade brings peace. Or that scientific management can eliminate inequality, poverty, and every other social evil.

For a recent football game, the University of Minnesota replaced the players’ names on their jerseys with the words “End Racism.” It was but an instance of today’s desperate ambition. But the modern Western spirit of “eliminationism” is countermanded by reality. Man combines the noble with the base, the grandeur of transcendence with grave defects that can never be eliminated—short of eliminating mankind, which is what environmentalist radicals and population-growth fanatics propose. Nobody was more pessimistic about postwar prosperity in the West than the ardent Marxist. He saw the spread of prosperity as a curse, not a modest blessing. Its meager satisfactions induce false consciousness and delay the revolution that will eliminate all injustices—the only aim worth attaining.

The West is not Marxist, but all of us are affected by the secular utopianism to which Marx gave powerful expression. Why hasn’t the “spirit of progress” triumphed? Even if things get better, utopianism exercises such a powerful influence over our public imagination that we can see ourselves only in the dark light of present (and past) failures. That a single black man should be wrongfully killed by police is intolerable, and society explodes with outrage. That one woman in college should feel pressured to have sex is unacceptable, and we set aside due process. Anything short of perfection is cause for upheaval. We have always still farther to go.

Ironically, modern utopianisms, for all their idealism, are built on drab utilitarian foundations. This, too, contributes to our malaise. Noble acts inspire men. Warm rhetoric stirs hearts. Yet such appeals have no place in the empire of reason. Technocracy operates in accord with the predictable. As a result, the modern West tends to reduce human beings to congeries of interest. We tell ourselves that we are utility-maximizing machines—or, if we are sufficiently postmodern, power-hungry organisms bent on domination.

We often hear about the great sins of the West: ­colonialism, racism, genocide. This litany demoralizes us. But our sense that we are unfit to govern the world we dominate (as we nevertheless do, often without hesitation) stems above all from the low view of the human person encouraged by technocratic reason. We lack a vocabulary with which to articulate freedom’s heroic possibilities. Thus, the singular triumphs of the West seem unmerited, even perverse. We turn to the myth of the noble savage. Multiculturalism denigrates the West while championing anything it imagines unsullied by Western influences. The “non-Western” offers us our best hope for moral and spiritual survival.

John Paul II had a name for the pessimism of the West: the culture of death. It is manifest in the widespread acceptance of abortion, the death-dealing tool by which we prevent new life from interfering with what we take to be our “essential interests.” The same holds for euthanasia, which is often freely chosen to relieve us of life’s final burdens.

These are efforts to wring from life what we can get, rather than accepting life as a gift. The increasing childlessness of adult life in the West is less manifestly death-dealing, but it has a pervasive influence. In Norway, the number of women who had no children by age forty-five went from 9 percent in 1985 to 15 percent in 2017; for men, the percentage went from 14 to 25. To one degree or another, most countries in the West are trending toward childlessness, including the United States.

Children are the future. They are lines we cast forward in time. In children, we are drawn toward emotional investments in affairs beyond our limited years. The children in whom we place our hopes need not come from our loins. Parents have fundamental rights that must be given priority. That said, the public is rightly concerned with the welfare of children, which is why we quarrel over how to educate them. In a society charged with the current of new life, we are drawn beyond ourselves, giving birth to ideas, inventions, and endeavors that outstrip our ­immediate interests as we seek to provide the next generation with things we will not survive to enjoy.

Look around and count the absent children. In 2017, demographers reported the lowest birthrates on record for the U.S. The birth-dearth is unprecedented in human history; it is chosen, rather than imposed by disease and famine. In 2020, the diminished scope of our concerns led us to borrow money from the future to sustain our lockdowns, during which we have suspended the education of children, curtailed their play, and retarded their development so that eighty-year-olds will enjoy a marginally lower risk of dying. Long gone is the Christian horizon of life, which refuses death’s final and supreme claim. We imagine ourselves committed to ideals. Yet the culture of death empties ideals of their power. Frustrated by our inability to confect redemption on earth, humiliated by the disenchanting effects of technocratic reason, and increasingly childless, we’re reduced to the animal imperative of survival.

Is it any wonder that the West is haunted by our perceived inability to make the world more just, more sustainable, more at peace? Perhaps we are unworthy because we are impotent. We have inherited a vital civilization that has captured a great deal of the world’s imagination. But we are becoming, at best, its sterile custodians.

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