The Fight Over Western Civilization

WESTERN civilization, Allan Bloom contends, ``... is the majestic and triumphant march of two principles: freedom and equality.'' William Bennett has asserted that those two principles ``now define no less than a universal standard of legitimacy.'' Charles Krauthammer even suggests, ``The perennial question that has preoccupied every political philosopher since Plato - What is the best form of government? - has been answered. After a few millenia of trying every form of political system, we close this millennium with the sure knowledge that in liberal, pluralist, capitalist democracy we have found what we have been looking for.'' Nevertheless, Western civilization is under attack. Most paradoxically, the hour of apparent triumph is precisely when many universities are abandoning the study of Western civilization to pursue ideas that might supplant liberal, pluralist, capitalist democracy. This points out two areas of great public concern.

First, though the West may have triumphed over other competitors for three millennia, many people are uncertain why. Are the ideas of freedom and equality superior to the alternatives? What are the alternatives? Is this a justified conquest, or an accident based on economic power, not ideas? What other principles were rejected for freedom and equality to win? In short, how well do we understand the principles that occasioned this apparent victory?

Second, Western civilization remains under attack, not merely by people who assaulted student protesters in Tiananmen Square, but by others within American society who believe that there is something better. ``Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho/ Western culture's gotta go,'' might well be the chant of a nihilist, but it could also be the creed of someone who thinks he has a vision of a better way of life. Is there a new system to replace Western freedom as a guiding principle? Or are there alternatives that will surpass or enlighten Western principles, even in this moment of apparent success?

If there is to be a struggle for the world's future, a thorough understanding of Western civilization is a starting point. Those who would defend the apparent victory of liberal, capitalist, pluralist democracy should know what they are defending and why. The best way to understand the principles of Western institutions is to read the authors who developed them, often in the heat of long-forgotten struggles. Abandoning the study of these great minds in our universities is intellectual disarmament in the enduring war of ideas.

Those who would surpass Western civilization can do little better than focus new attention on ideas and arguments that have been advanced against our way of life. To recognize the depth of Marx's criticism of liberal democracy, to understand the limits that Nietzsche saw to democratic life, or to comprehend reasons why critics as diverse as Moses, Socrates, Jesus, and Freud can hardly be understood as advocates of American democracy is to begin true cultural criticism. Critics of liberal democracy should be able to explain exactly what they would cast aside from our current heritage, and what is better.

A serious understanding of the arguments the West has produced is necessary for future progress. Whether people wish to build upon or reject the currently triumphant idea, the future can improve upon the past only to the extent that people understand what might be gained, or lost, in altering or abolishing Western forms of government. President Bush said in his inaugural address, ``For the first time in this century - for the first time in perhaps all history - we don't have to talk late into the night about which form of government is better.'' But the events in Tiananmen Square and the effort to reshape the study of Western civilization on American campuses both indicate that some are unconvinced.

If ideas rather than force, are to guide progress, no one can ignore the battles over books.

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