Why is it that those who so often claim to be interested in “saving” Western civilization know so little about it? In the US, this phenomenon’s most current iteration goes back to Newt Gingrich, who has made it a common theme. As he is a former history professor, we may have expected him to back up his claims of what was in danger with a few specifics, but very few, indeed, have been forthcoming. This may be because Gingrich has become a politician, and he has realized the dangers of positing specifics; it’s best to let the bigots he means to bring along fill in the gaps themselves.
But there’s something deeper here.
The self-declared saviors of Western civilization don’t seem too well versed in Beethoven and Bach. They seem not to mean civilization literally—in terms of cities—since they are more interested in maintaining outmoded rural and extractive/industrial lifeways than they are about preserving the buildings of, say, Mies van der Rohe or Christopher Wren. They may name-check a Scholastic philosopher but not an author of Modernist fiction. If they do give an example of what they would like to save, they often laud the US Constitution or the Christian bible. Of the former, they rarely recite much beyond one half of the 2nd Amendment, and of the latter little at all, save some vague attestations to its opposition to abortion or its promotion of male “headship.” They’re just as likely to cite John 3:16, perhaps because they saw it referenced on a sign held up at a football game.
This assertion of ignorance indicates another intent: rather than championing the cause of the spur, the screw, or the canvases of Cubism, these saviors of Western civilization are really just trying to express their opposition to all they claim that they are not, to excoriate the Other or anyone else they view as a threat.
And anyway, to mention specifics would be to weaken the case: the US Constitution rides on an ancient Hellenistic culture that owed more to pan-Mediterranean trade routes than to the cultures of Gallic or Teutonic tribes, and the Christian bible is a product of an ancient Hellenistic cultural pastiche from a part of the world that Europeans have been (with apologies to Edward Said) “orientalizing” since at least the Crusades. And it’s hard to say when Western civilization even begins. The best evidence shows that Europe has been overrun by “invaders from the east” multiple times throughout its history, assuring a motley set of genes and a variety of different sources of cultural practices and beliefs—none of them specifically European.
And now, especially, it’s hard to say what Western civilization even is. Is it a musical composition written by an Austrian composer and based on a Hungarian folk dance? Is it a musical style created in the US by the descendants of slaves from Africa and performed on instruments from European orchestras? And what do we do with the stories, languages, arts, and lifeways of the indigenous peoples of the Americas? They are distinctly west—moreso, in a geographical sense, than anything of European origin. But are they part of “Western civilization”? What about a Japanese orchestra conductor of European classics or a Korean boy band with a style patterned after American hip-hop? Are these people part of Western civilization or appropriators of it? Are the saviors of Western civilization really saying that Seiji Ozawa shouldn’t conduct or that BTS shouldn’t record?
We have now reached the point at which the material culture of Western civilization could not exist without the cheap labor of the global East and South. In order to become things, the ideas and designs of ostensibly Western companies must be outsourced to non-Western people. So is that phenomenon, and the interdependencies it creates, an example of Western civilization or not? Is your iPhone a product of Western civilization if it cannot be without a Chinese worker at Foxconn to make it?
Not only is it hard to say what Western civilization is, it’s hard to determine exactly what it was. If we want to restore it to a place of pure European origin, we will have to jettison coffee, certainly tea, and perhaps chocolate, French fries, and tomato-sauce, too. Our current reality is that we cannot eat, clothe ourselves, compute, communicate, or even leave the house without relying on a global supply chain, on concepts, products, and processes deeply embedded in the rest of the world.
Much more than ever, humans are cultural hybrids, drawing into our identities products, both physical and conceptual, that have their origins across the globe. Genes have never determined cultural identity, of course, no matter what our traditions or our commercial decoding companies want to believe. But especially now, the notion is difficult to defend. It is perhaps this reality of hybridity that makes the desire to forge an identity, to feel part of something to which we feel personally connected, of which we feel personally proud, all the more acute—and all the more dangerous.