What’s So Great about Western Civilization

A view of the facade of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, April 16, 2019 (Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool via Reuters)

Telling people they’re bigots for taking pride in the civilization that brought them forth better than any other is like taking a sledgehammer to your own soapbox.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (Redacted: Harm to Ongoing Matter),

One of the things I tell new parents is something that was told to me when my daughter still had that new-baby smell: “Prepare for long days but short years.” No statement more succinctly captures the exhaustion, excitement, and melancholy nostalgia that come with parenthood. I have no doubt whole books have not covered it more eloquently.

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This week I had a similar sensation thinking about the two big news stories of the week: The fire at Notre Dame and the release of the Mueller report.

Time may be linear, but our comprehension of it isn’t. All around us events are taking place that we do not perceive as events because they are moving at a pace that we really can’t comprehend. Imagine if you could make a film of the planet earth from its birth to its demise. If you played the movie fast enough, the formation of mountains would look like terrifying clashes between continents. The breakup of Pangaea might look like a jigsaw puzzle thrown into a hot tub. Playing the film a million times slower would still probably make the rise and fall of ancient redwoods seem like nothing more than the instantaneous and momentary emergence of some colors on a canvass. Think of it this way: If you reduced the entire history of the planet to a 24-hour cycle, humans don’t even show up — some 2 million years ago — less than one minute before midnight.

Against such a backdrop, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris emerges and disappears too fast for the naked eye. As for the controversies about Donald Trump, never mind the Mueller report, they take up a fraction of time words cannot capture.

But if you slow things down enough for the mind to take it in, Notre Dame is like a mountain. Not quite eternal in a literal sense, but eternal enough by human standards. As I mentioned the other day, I once wrote and produced a documentary called Notre Dame: Witness to History (I don’t really recommend it; I wasn’t a great TV producer and I certainly didn’t have a great budget). The title was clichéd but accurate. Notre Dame was the central location for so much of French and really Western history, its scars and embellishments are almost like rings in an ancient tree recording whole eras of Western history. Signs of the Huguenots’ assault on the Church — and the Church’s assault on the Huguenots — can be found in its nooks and crannies like the tiny indicia of a plague of locusts in a bisection of an ancient oak. The last time the Spire burned, it was at the hands of the Jacobins who briefly turned Notre Dame into a “Temple of Reason.”

Putting History on a Stop Watch

I bring all this up for a few reasons, not least because the “process” for this “news”letter amounts to taking my brain pan and upending it like a kid emptying his toy chest in search of the Lego pieces required to build a time machine. The controversies of the day are important, but they are like the crises of parenthood: Hugely important in the moment, but likely to turn into the faintest squiggles in the tree rings of time. That’s not foreordained, of course. There are daily crises with your kids that can turn into existential ones — as anyone who’s taken their child to an emergency room can attest — which is one of the reasons the days of parenthood can feel so much longer than the years.

I’m not sure what the right terms are, but there’s an analogy here. Some controversies are important (and some are just incredibly stupid) but they are important in the moment alone. Others transcend the fierce urgency of now and apply across generations. For some, climate change is precisely such a challenge. For others, it is the civilizational friction between the Muslim world and the rest, or the rivalries between America and China. The Cold War was certainly larger than any confirmation battle or scandal.

The most worthwhile daily arguments are the ones that work within a timeline measured by more than 15-minute increments in a Nielsen report on last night’s cable ratings. For instance, Jussie Smollett’s transgressions are great for feeding the ratings beast, but they are only significant to the extent they illuminate the larger dysfunction of a culture that encourages racial hoaxes because we have turned victims into heroes. And even then, that context is usually used as a pretext just to keep jaw-jawing and preening for the perpetual outrage machine.

I’m the first to admit that it is hard to know where to draw the lines between seriousness and exploitation, or mere infotainment, particularly since this “news”letter darts back and forth across the borders like the Viet Cong running the Ho Chi Minh trail. But one of the things I despise about the current moment is how the Big Things are so often turned into just another Twitter controversy and the Small Things are elevated into existential crises of the first order.

President Trump, lacking anything like a historical memory, is fond of claiming that this or that outrage or accomplishment is the worst or best thing “ever.” “Our African American communities are absolutely in the worst shape they’ve ever been in before,” Trump declared in 2016. “Ever, ever, ever.” That might have been news to the Africans-Americans lynched in the 1920s or the Africans auctioned off in Charleston in the 1820s. I still laugh whenever I think about Sebastian Gorka ranting about the alleged FISA warrant abuses of the Obama administration. “It has to be put in the context of the history of our great nation,” he said in expert-mode. “This is 100 times bigger.” More recently he explained that the Democrats were a continuation of Stalinism because they’re coming for our hamburgers.

Western Civilization 0, Twitter 1

The other day Ben Shapiro offered what should have been an utterly banal statement about the fire at Notre Dame:

Now, I have no problem with quibbles (and neither does Ben) from Catholics who point out that Notre Dame was a monument to the glory of God and what Catholics believe to be the One True Church as delineated in the Nicene Creed. But, I doubt any of those Catholics took offense at what Ben said. And if they did, they should probably lighten up. I’d also point out that Cathedrals were the space programs of their day (“The Knights Templar were the first Space Force”: Discuss). Cities and nations constantly competed to see who could build the tallest Cathedral — which is why most are built on the tallest ground available. The idea was both theological and political. Theologically, the idea was to get as close to God as possible. Politically, it was a desire for, well, national greatness.

Anyway, what I have a huge problem with is the bonfire of asininity that ignited from people who think “Western civilization” is a term reserved solely for the alt-right and other bigots (David French addressed the point well here). In a piece about Ben’s excellent book on Western civilization — I’ll reserve my quibbles for later — The Economist labeled him an “alt-right sage” and a “pop idol of the alt right.” To The Economist’s credit, they retracted and apologized. But the immediate assumption that praise for, or pride in, Western civilization is a species of bigotry and racism is a perfect example of the sort of civilizational suicide I describe in my own book on the subject.

So adamantine is this absurdity that some Shapiro haters actually assume he’s not actually saying he thinks the West is superior, only “tacitly” suggesting it.

Ben might as well be standing in the center of Times Square waving a giant foam finger that reads “Western Civ #1” on it. But the idea is so offensive to some people they think he wouldn’t dare say it outright.

What’s So Great about Western Civilization?

I’ve covered much of this at length — book length but also in this G-File — elsewhere. So I’ll go in a slightly different direction.

Forget calling it Western civilization for a moment. Instead think of a kind of party platform with a bunch of planks:

  • Support for human rights
  • Belief in the rule of law
  • Dedication to democracy
  • Free speech
  • Freedom of conscience
  • Admiration for science and the scientific method
  • Curiosity about other cultures
  • Property rights
  • Tolerance or celebration of technological and/or cultural innovation

I’ll be generous and stipulate that 90 percent of the people who are offended by pride in Western civilization actually believe — or think they believe — in most or all of these things. They just have a problem connecting the dots, so I’ll try.

Where do they think most of these ideas come from? Where were they most successfully put into action? What civilization today or in some bygone era manifests these values more? Chinese civilization? Islamic civilization? Aztec? African? Indian? Persian? Turkish?

I’m not trying to belittle any of those cultures, nor deny their contributions to human history. I’m not even trying to argue – here, at least — that Western civilization is objectively superior in some scientific or God’s-eye-view sense. As with the debates over nationalism, there’s no arguing — and no reason to argue — with a French patriot about whether or not America is “better” than France. I would think less of a Spaniard who didn’t love Spain more than he or she loves France. It’s like arguing whose family is better, we love what is ours. As Bill Buckley liked to say, De gustibus non est disputandum.

But the weird thing is that many of the people who are outraged by benign nationalism or the benign pan-nationalism that is pride in Western civilization take no umbrage when someone from Iran or China says they think their civilization is best.  This of course is a manifestation of the ancient cult of identitarianism, which the best traditions of the West have battled internally at great cost for thousands of years. Saying Western civilization is great hurts the feelings of some people invested in some other source of identity. And it hurts the feelings of some Westerners because they think it’s a sign of enlightenment to get offended on other people’s behalf or to denigrate the society that gave them their soap box.

The irony is that the willingness to entertain the possibility that some other culture has something important to offer or say to us is actually one of the hallmarks of Western civilization (and the condescension with which many Americans treat other cultures is also a more regrettable side of Western culture). We “borrow” stuff from other cultures constantly, starting with Christianity itself.

This is particularly true of America, which is why our menus read like the requested meal plans from a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. This profound lack of self-awareness manifests itself most acutely among progressives who wear their Europe-envy on their sleeves. Oh, they’re so much more civilized over there. Well, what civilization do you think “over there” is part of?

Western civilization is a work in progress because that’s what civilization means. If you want a Cliff’s Notes version of what my book was about it’s simply this: Every generation, humans start from scratch. As Hannah Arendt said, every generation Western civilization is invaded by barbarians — we call them “children.” As babies we come into the world with the same programming as Viking, Hun or caveman babies. These barbarians need to be civilized and that’s a job primarily done by families, which is why the days are long and the years are short. We teach barbarians how to be citizens in the broadest sense of the word, through formal education, religious teaching, social norms and the modeling of proper behavior. In other words, we assimilate people into a culture.

As Alan Wolfe writes in his discussion of Immanuel Kant:

As cultivating a field yields a better product, the arts and sciences cultivate us by improving the quality of who we are. No wonder, then, that when we look for a term that expresses the way we improve upon nature, we use “culture,” which has the same root as “cultivate.” And civilization—expressed in German not only as Zivilisation but also as Kultur — far from corrupting our soul, makes it possible for us to bring good out of evil.

The way you sustain and improve upon a culture is by fostering a sense of gratitude for what is best about it. You celebrate the good in your story while putting the bad in the correct context. Conservatism is gratitude, and as I noted on Fox the other night, one of the most compelling things in reaction the fire of Notre Dame was seeing how many people recognized their own ingratitude for this jewel of their own civilization. The Church was in peril because the French took it for granted. But, like that feeling one gets deep in the soul when a loved one in peril, millions were overcome with a sense of what they might lose. And now France is devoting itself to restoring what was almost lost.

Has Western civilization made mistakes? Sure (cue the Monty Python skit about Rome). Terrible things have been done in its name, a statement one can make about every civilization that has ever existed. But to say that the mistakes define us more than the accomplishments is suicidally stupid. And if you subscribe to those planks I mentioned above, I’d like to suggest that telling people they’re bigots for taking pride in the civilization that brought them forth better than any other is like taking a sledgehammer to the soapbox you’re standing on.

And to do it in the name of virtue tweeting is one of the purer forms of asininity.

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: Pippa’s limp keeps coming back when she overdoes it, which is a challenge since Pippa only has a handful of settings. Overdrivewaiting for opportunities for overdrive and recharging after overdrive. Zoë in her middle age has a richer emotional range. We’ll be taking her to the vet if it persists. Some readers have suggested it might be from an infection like Lyme disease. We’ve seen that sort of thing before. Zoë once had a terrible infection from a tick bite, that cleared up very quickly with the right medication, but it was scary how fast and severe it came on. But they remain decidedly happy beasts. Though it seems like they have a problem with Bernie Sanders.

Some of my Twitter followers have protested about Gracie, AKA the good cat, getting equal time in my feed. They think it’s “off-brand.” I get it, but she’s such an exceptionally good cat (admittedly graded on a feline curve) and besides my daughter lobbies on her behalf so much, that I think you’ll just have to put up with it. Besides, I find her contempt for the dogs hilarious.

I’ll be on Meet the Press this Sunday.

Oh, and if you’re curious about what’s going with my next thing, I’m afraid I can’t share much right now. But you should check in to my personal website from time to time for updates. The first such update is here.

And have a Happy Pesach and/or Easter!


Last week’s G-File

On Notre Dame

On Trump’s lib-owning

Skinflint Beto

Bernie and abortion

This week’s Remnant

Mueller report muddle

My Monday hit on NPR

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Thursday links

Beautiful photo of horses galloping through a lake

Florida man steals a police car immediately after getting out of jail

Asteroid bombing

Drinking beer helps you lose weight… why hasn’t that worked for me?

Real life battle-royale

Marvel Studios’ secrets revealed

Haunted Appalachian mountain with disembodied voices

Doc Oc on the roof


The most relatable Florida man yet

Bedazzled skeletons

Giant sea cucumber species named Cthulhu

Brad Pitt, Baby Shampoo, and a Unitard: The Story Behind That Meet Joe Black Car Scene

Scientists partially revive disembodied pig brains

65 year old Florida woman fends off half naked burglar with baseball bat

Selfie deaths are getting out of hand

Australian real estate company’s raunchy property advertisement

Oil rig workers save a dog 135 miles out to sea

What would actually happen if Thanos snapped?

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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