Robinson Crusoe, as the lit boys would say, is an “iconic” character, whose mastery over nature—and over the savage Friday—expresses the West’s sometimes contemptuous sense of superiority over other cultures. In the 500-year-long iconoclastic age that is just now coming to an end, icons are made only to be broken, and in such films as Man Friday (1975) and, more particularly, Crusoe (1988), starring Rockford’s own Aidan Quinn, the European is viewed as the enemy of nature and the destroyer of all that is real and authentic in human life. However, Crusoe turns out well in the end: After being subjected to a properly multicultural indoctrination, Quinn finally wakes up, joins the other side, and liberates a slave from a European ship.
Crusoe’s indoctrination is virtually identical with the cultural education given to American (and European) students at every level. If the old “bigotry” taught us “European good, others bad,” the new bigotry, without ever enlightening students on the facts of Chinese civilization or Aztec culture, simply reverses the terms. Most Americans know all this, or ought to. Students of literary history will recall that French surrealists, back in the 1920’s, were saying much the same thing, and a few scholars might even be able to trace the anti-Western tradition back to 18th-century French intellectuals such as Voltaire and Montesquieu, who used oriental aliens as positive foils for debunking their own country’s traditions.
In some cases (like that of T.E. Lawrence or Lafcadio Hearne), multiculturalism may be no more than the reaction of (often weak) Western minds to the shock of an alien culture. But there is more to multiculturalism than a fascination with the alien. Fundamental to the quest for diversity is an explicit hatred of all things European, Christian, and white, and here the fault does not lie with the politicians of both parties who refuse to defend our borders against the invasion that is called “immigration” or even with the handful of ne’er-do-wells who direct and woman the cultural programs of high schools and universities. The fault, alas, lies deep in the origins of our own modern West, within the Renaissance itself and unless we can free ourselves of the superstitions we began to adopt in the 16th century, we shall never breathe the pure, free air of Christendom again.
Obviously, the late Renaissance is a brilliant period in which Western artists and intellectuals created masterpieces, while European adventurers opened up the New World. It represents one of the greatest expansions of Western man in all of our history. It is also, however, a retreat. In the preceding century, Western Christians had not only allowed the Turks to conquer the Serbian and Byzantine empires, but they had learned to accept the presence of an Islamic empire on European soil. In time, the French and English would prefer Turkish advances to the possibility of a consolidated Habsburg power in Europe. There were distinguished exceptions, of course, like the first great American, John Smith, who enlisted as a mercenary and, in 1600, went to fight against the Turks.
But the painful fact is that Europe’s concentration on the New World is, in part, a confession of failure. Even the redoubtable Captain John Smith returned from Transylvania to seek his fortune in Virginia. We abandoned our Christian brothers in the Middle East, Greece, and the Balkans and allowed them to be murdered, raped, enslaved, and oppressed by the Turks. But, what the heck, Columbus found out that we might reach the Orient by going in the other direction, and right between us and China lay two vast continents to explore, exploit, and colonize.
The Spanish and French even came to Christianize. Many of the early priests were serious Christians, and they complained about Columbus and his successors, who were interested more in enslaving than in converting the natives. Bartolme de las Casas went to an extreme in defending Indians against the charge that they routinely killed the innocent and violated the basic terms of natural law (guilty on both counts!), but he also knew firsthand what the Indians were suffering at the hands of their conquerors. His father had sailed with Columbus, and before becoming a Dominican father, he had been a planter. He did not oppose colonization per se, which he saw as an occasion for converting the Indians, but in his natural and laudable zeal to defend the helpless natives from exploitation, he considerably exaggerated their merits and virtues, thus setting the stage for the first great promoter of Western self-hatred. He also bears responsibility for the importation of African slaves into die New World.
Las Casas’ major historical work was not published until the 19th century, but his arguments and writings had caused a stir for decades, when Montaigne wrote his “Essai des Cannibales” in 1580. How much he had heard—much less read—of Las Casas remains a mystery, but the Christian defense of Native Americans, passing into the hands of a master ironist, was forged into a major weapon to be deployed against Christendom itself.
There is little to be gained from repeating the case against Montaigne: his sly campaign to undermine Christianity, his sexual obsessions, his destructive theories of child-rearing and education (see “Burn This Book,” Perspective, September 2000) or even the dishonesty of his “Cannibals” essay, in which he feigns a knowledge of Brazilian natives he could not have had—Montaigne’s imaginary cannibals do not seek wealth or status, and their language is “sweet, with a pleasing sound, whose endings are reminiscent of Greek in its endings.”
Montaigne has several purposes in this famous essay: Primarily, he wants to show, as when he contrasts the healthy Brazilians with the puny Charles IX, that French institutions are so corrupt that even savages are superior to the French. His larger purpose, however, is to debunk the entire concept of higher and lower civilizations, declaring that “there is nothing barbarous and savage in this people . . . except that each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own custom.”
This ulterior motive explains the curious beginning of the essay, which invokes King Pyrrhus’s famous observation that the Romans might be barbarians (a term the Greeks applied to all foreigners), but their troop formations were anything but barbaric. The implication, that the difference between Europeans and Indians was no greater than that between Greeks and Romans (or that Brazilians spoke a classical language), would have been ridiculed if Montaigne had stated it openly, but he is clever enough not to telegraph his punches.
Is it irony or historical fate that European man should have begun to embrace noble savagery, natural innocence, and the anti-Christian pursuit of false gods at the very time in which he was turning his back on the Christian East and destroying the savage cultures of the Americas? Perhaps the gentle Spanish Dominican had seen the writing on the wall five centuries ago.
Over the past ten years, the Turks and their coreligionists have again been knocking at the gates, and not just of Belgrade, Budapest, and Vienna, but of Paris, Berlin, and Washington, and the Western response remains what it has been since Montaigne and Voltaire: irony, indecision, and self-hatred. This defeatism is no longer restricted to effeminate intellectuals and elite classes with too much time on their hands; hatred of our ancestors, our civilization, and ourselves is the new jingoism, just as stupid as the old jingoism and vastly more destructive. The real “suicide of the West” should never have been measured by our susceptibility to the Marxian heresy but by the degree to which we are turning against our own civilization. Marxism, evil as it is, is only a minor symptom of a deeper sickness.
The progress of self-hatred in America, just in the past generation (that is, roughly 30 years), should inspire awe. hi the Kennedy years, we were still —at least on the surface—an exuberant European colony, leading the free world in its democratic- socialist struggle against revolutionary communism, sending our bright young things around the world to teach those poor, benighted primitives how to become Americans. Our education, impoverished and feeble as it was, paid lip-service to the Western classics, and if students did not actually read much Homer, Dante, or Shakespeare, they had probably heard of them and glanced through the Cliff’s Notes on Julius Caesar long enough to catch an allusion to the “Ides of March” in the name of a 60’s pop band, and if we had never seen Rossini’s Barber of Seville, we knew enough to get the joke in Warner Bros. “Rabbit of Seville.” That time is as foreign to us as England in the days of Elizabeth and James, and it is almost as superior to our own age as the age of Elizabeth was superior to the age of Ike.
Now we live in the age of apologizing—to women and homosexuals, to Africans and Indians, to Jews and Muslims—and even, from the Pope, a perfunctory “I’m sorry for what other people did a long, long time ago” to Orthodox Christians. And despite the feeble efforts of “cultural conservatives” (What wry humor that fraudulent term now elicits!) and of the self-appointed critics of multiculturalism, the great retreat from Christendom proceeds at an ever faster pace.
The American melting pot is hardly a likely place from which to stage the counterattack. Fewer and fewer of us even have an ancestry with which we can identify ourselves. Like it or not, Lenny Kravitz and Tiger Woods (visiting Rockford for a minority golf clinic even as I write these lines) may be the exemplary Americans of our time. We lapse from being Anglo-American or Polish American into being generically American, which—loosely interpreted-now seems to convey no more than rootless hedonism, moral and mental immaturity, and an obsession with theme parks. As children, they live for the moment they can visit Disney World and Six Flags, and as faux grown-ups, they save up all year long to afford Vegas or Cancun or a Princess cruise.
Ethnic confusion is only one reason (and not the most significant) why even conservative Americans, who campaign against high taxes, pornography, and infanticide, will scarcely lift a finger either to limit immigration or to arrest the onrushing tide of compulsory uniform diversity. The best they can do is to turn the enemy’s arguments against them.
“Your people enslaved my people,” shrieks the Afrocentrist.
“Yeah, well, your people enslaved each other,” retorts the Eurocentrist.
“Your ancestors were bigots,” sings the anti-Christian chorus of racial and sexual minorities.
“So’s your old man,” goes the best answer the opponents of multiculturalism have given, insisting that the Western tradition is more tolerant, more open to diversity, less rooted, and less traditional than any of its competitors. But even if the ex-Marxists (like the late Sidney Hook) who make this argument were right, no civilized person would want to live in their Karl Popper/George Soros vision of the Open Society. If the only alternative to multicultnralism is the global culture promoted by democratic capitalists, we had better go to a tanning spa and learn Mexican Spanish or start wearing baggy trousers below the navel, listen to hip-hop, and proclaim ourselves “wiggers.” (Better a wigger than a Whigger.)
I know all about what the anti-multiculturalists do not like, but I am waiting to hear what it is they like—apart from platitudes about democracy and contempt for other people because they are other. Negative criticism has its uses—otherwise we should not be in business—but the response to those who are in the business of “Hating Whitey” has to be something better than simply hating those who hate whitey.
There were Catholics and Protestants who debunked Montaigne in the 16th century, but the most effective response to his glorification of the cannibals was and remains Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a play which gives no quarter to Caliban (a profoundly ignoble savage) but also holds out the noblest possible vision of Western man and his tragic project of transcending human limitations. Prospero can perform miracles, but his confidence in supernatural technology has deluded him into thinking he can manage the dukedom of Milan by staying holed up in his library.
Indeed, for all his nobility and magic, Prospero has also been a fool who could not fully grasp the human motivations of his enemies. He triumphs in the end, partly through the power of his magic but also because his very humanity causes the king of Naples to repent just as Miranda’s beauty wins the heart of the king’s son. In the end, Prospero is restored to his dukedom, and the fairies are dismissed in a speech that is often taken as Shakespeare’s farewell to the theater.
The Tempest is a thoroughly Christian answer to the multiculturalists, which may explain why the critics of multiculturalism do not read Shakespeare—or any other English classic. In Crusoe’s place, they would have begun by indoctrinating Friday into the theory of class struggle and ended by having him for breakfast. Shakespeare, by contrast, understands human weakness, and he holds out hope even for the savage Caliban, once he comes to his senses and realizes that, in following a butler instead of a duke, he was “an ass . . . to take this drunkard for a god.” Prospero himself, who has perhaps relied too much on fairy spirits for his own good, assures us in the last lines of the play, that
. . . my ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be
Let your indulgence set me free.
In this conventional appeal for applause, Shakespeare has inserted the central insight of Christian morality, an enduring challenge to the poisonous lies of Europhobia and of the futile response mounted by those who are as alienated as any Aztec from the civilization of Shakespeare.