A French writer argues that “humanity” has become the accepted “version of the universal” in contemporary Western thought, functioning as the “action” of modern democratic polity. While Pierre Manent’s thesis is a convincing one, political and social occurrences in the past decade seem to indicate that the West’s humanitarian “version” is becoming discredited at an increasingly rapid pace in a world that since 1945 had appeared to play along with it, or anyway to honor it rhetorically. The West since the time of the Roman Empire has been tempted by the notion of the universal, while other civilizations and cultures have remained more or less content in their own particularism. The French Revolution initiated this universalist version at the end of the 18th century; the so-called American Century prepared the way for it in its 20th-century form; and the era of supposed American hegemony (only future historians will be positioned to say with any kind of authority whether it was actual or not) erected its banally imposing official monuments to it in New York, Washington, Brussels, The Hague, and elsewhere. It is unrealistic to imagine that these will be pulled down anytime soon, as statues of Lenin have been toppled across the former Soviet Union. Still, it is plain that ordinary citizens, formerly indifferent, are increasingly hostile to the articles and general assumptions of universalistic humanitarianism and that the elite responsible feels progressively insecure in representing these things, although so far its insecurity has only encouraged it to redouble its efforts to defend and realize them.
The present difficulties of the European Union are mainly the result of this movement. A significant number of people in each of the Union’s 28 member-states now opposes the undemocratic structure of the Union and resents the arrogant behavior of its officials, both unpleasantly demonstrated by the European Commission’s determination in 2007 to force the Lisbon Treaty upon its members by insisting that recalcitrant countries should be made to vote as often as needed on the treaty until they got it right. Since that revealing episode, the Union’s widely unpopular response to the European financial crisis that began the following year, and persists seven years later, has produced levels of widespread discontent and distrust unrivaled in Europe since the immediate postwar era. A direct result of discontent is the rise of political parties—some new, some not—protesting the not-so-distant tyranny of Brussels and demanding some degree or another of detachment from the continental project for a United Europe that began with the creation of the European Economic Community in 1957. Characteristically, the European and American media identify these parties as “right-wing,” “extremist,” and “xenophobic.” But crying “Xenophobia!” is the last refuge of postmodern scoundrels. The majority of these parties, including the U.K. Independence Party in Britain, the National Front in France, the Northern League in Italy, the Progress Party in Norway, the Danish People’s Party, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, and the Sweden Democrats, in any other time and place would be recognized simply as the patriotic parties they so frankly and uncomplicatedly are. All are agreed on their countries’ need to protect themselves against guaranteed freedom of movement within the economically, politically, and ethnically diverse countries of the European Union, and against mass immigration from the Third World and elsewhere that in recent decades has transformed their societies racially, socially, culturally, politically, and religiously. This is not patriotism but racism to their critics, who further equate Euroskepticism—resistance not only to bureaucratic fiat from Brussels but to compounding economic integration with political consolidation—with “populism,” which in Europe as in America is associated with ignorance, intolerance, backwardness, general unenlightenment, and pitchfork campaigns. In fact, these parties are generally more sophisticated than they are given credit for, even if they cannot express their insights with the precision and lucidity of a French political theorist. “Populism” is getting a hearing in Europe today because a substantial number of Europeans do not accept the assumptions of the “version of the universal” that has become the “action” of modern political theory and politics. Indeed, they are growing more unaccepting of it with every passing month. Journalistic stories about migrants within the European Union—Poles and Spaniards in Britain, for instance—often complain of what they perceive as coldness and indifference on the part of their “hosts.” To ascribe, as so often is done, this response to Britons’ native “racism” or “chauvinism” is preposterous given the history of dynastic marriage between members of British and Continental royalty over many centuries, and the welcomed presence of the Polish government-in-exile in London during World War II. On the other hand, Britain is Britain, Poland is Poland, and Spain is Spain; the Britons are the British, the Poles the Poles, the Spaniards the Spaniards, and “Vive la différence!” Peoples differ, and the louts who sign up with “xenophobic” parties cannot apparently be bamboozled into accepting that all these differences can plausibly be presented to them collectively as an abstraction called “humanity.” The single way to find out if they can be is to attempt the experiment on the scale that the European Union proposes and with the smooth bureaucratic fervor it employs. Today the results of this experiment are being registered, and we are beginning to glimpse the answer. So are the politicians and bureaucrats of the European Union, who never take “no” for an answer because they think they don’t have to. Smart like foxes, they are adepts, as all politicians are, at tucking concealed meanings into the official gibberish they write and “parsing” it later to their own advantage.
Partisans of the political vision and the moral ideal implied in the modern “version of the universal” view the ultimate perfection of the European Union as the necessary foundation of the new world order on which they intend to raise a Temple of Humanity, a secular House of Many Mansions in which each of the nations of the world will have its own room. Once the foundation is solidly in place, the next order of business will be to ensure that each and every nation is converted to the religion of Democracy, with its subsidiary doctrines of human rights, inclusivism, social and economic equalitarianism, diversity through uniformity, official secularism, and so on. Clearly the establishment of world democracy can be accomplished only in the way Stalin learned world socialism could be established: one country at a time. So when the revolutions of the Arab Spring occurred three years ago—in Tunisia first, then in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and finally in Syria—the principal Western governments supported them rhetorically and eventually, in the case of Libya, with military action in aid of the rebels against Qaddafi and his political and military establishment. The Arab Spring nations, lying at the heart of one of the world’s most autocratic regions, became for advocates of a democratic-universalist world order the new City on a Hill, the latest symbol and encouragement.
Three years later most of these revolutions, with the exception (for now) of the Tunisian uprising, have failed or are failing, as have so many revolutions in history. It is not failure itself, indeed, that bodes ill for the architects of a future world of political, social, and cultural inclusiveness dedicated to the universal attainment of human rights. It is the ideas the revolutionists themselves have either hinted at or else frankly declared of their own best-of-all-possible worlds, all of them directly contrary to the schema of the postmodern Western enlightenment.
The West excepted, the values of most people the world over are unrelated to universalism, humanitarianism, human rights, antiracism, cosmopolitanism, secularism, religious freedom, ecumenism, tolerance, or even basic fairness, which they largely oppose. Even for those who claim to want it, democracy means “democracy for me”—and after that for people of my own race and my own culture, and for my coreligionists. This does not mean necessarily that they are bad people, only that they are human beings, tightly circumscribed members of a particular race, country, religion, and culture. “World opinion” seems to suppose that Egypt’s best hope lies with her secular liberals, who are however a minority in their own country. But even were they the majority group, they would still be Egyptians, shaped by a society that has formed a more or less recognizable Egyptian character common alike to Egyptian Muslims, militarists, revolutionaries, and secularists. Neither the Brotherhood nor the Egyptian military honors human rights, democracy, universalism, and multiculturalism, and some of their members have said so frankly. As for the liberal secularists, the history of liberalism shows that liberals have frequently been the most illiberal of people, and liberal doctrine the most intolerant of all doctrines. Northward in Syria, the vastly more complicated nature of the situation only reveals it in greater clarity. Anyone who can discern in this bloody arena of political and religious confusion, of savagery, blindness, pigheadedness, bigotry, hatred, intolerance, stupidity, and, most of all, utter want of individual and collective self-control, the faintest possibility for the emergence in the next thousand years of the Western version of the universal anywhere in the Middle East takes a view of the world that makes Dr. Pangloss’s seem Machiavellian by comparison. If there are any gardens remaining still to cultivate in Syria, they’ll all be bulldozed or blown up in the next year or so.
Today the European Union is humiliated by the revolt in Ukraine, an uprising that is substantially of its own making and that demonstrates the impotency of its imperialist aim to extend the universal imperative to Eurasia, a region still in ideological and political turmoil in the wake of the collapse a quarter-century ago of an earlier universalist system that was also an invention of Western minds. Here the European Union is constrained not only by the practical limitations on its ability to intervene effectively in the crisis but by the logic of the universalist version and the paralysis of liberal-democratic bureaucratic government. The first cannot provide the fundamental “action” for a political polity; the second lacks the moral confidence to act concretely and indeed to govern in nonadministrative ways, as Pierre Manent has noted. Paralyzed similarly by the modern version of universalism, the United States is equally impotent, frustrated, and embarrassed. President Putin is not. The West is at a disadvantage, one of its own making entirely. The world goes its own way anyhow.