Following Hamas’ terror attack on Israel, tens of thousands took to the streets. They marched in Manhattan and Chicago, as well as London and Paris. Rallies were held on the campuses of colleges across America.
Were the protesters lamenting the death of Israeli civilians? Not at all. Were they there to demand the release of young children taken hostage by Hamas? I missed that bit.
Instead, in the wake of a pogrom that saw the murder of 1,400 Jews, tens of thousands of Americans marched in support of their killers. The protesters literally chanted for the destruction of the state of Israel.
How can it possibly be that the great grandchildren of the generation of Americans that liberated Dachau could think this way?
For a generation, ‘woke’ ideas have been left to fester on college campuses. Over the past few weeks, we have started to see the real world consequences.
If we are to put this right, we first need to understand what has gone wrong. Looking at the protesters on social media, I was struck by the farcical contradictions.
Feminists were out there in support of an Islamist ideology that denies women rights. Self-styled democrats sided with those seeking to establish a theocracy. On social media, I saw a group calling themselves “Queers for Palestine”, holding aloft a rainbow motif. How long do you imagine they would survive in Gaza?
This confusion by the pro-Hamas protesters, which would be comical if it were not so grim, points to the root cause of the problem; for millions of young Americans, a creed of cultural relativism has been allowed to establish itself as a secular belief system.
If all cultures were of equal worth, then every culture would be as capable of producing science, innovation and political liberty – not to mention a US Constitution. Most cultures are not.
The trouble is that if you refuse to accept that some ways of life are better than others, you have no means of measuring what is good. In your twisted belief system, the head hackers of Hamas are no different from the Golani reservists prepared to take great personal risks to minimize civilian casualties.
Cultural relativism begins by applying double standards. It rapidly descends to favoring the non-Western over the Western.
Taught to believe in decolonizing the curriculum at school and university, perhaps you start to see Hamas terrorists as noble savages, battling to decolonize Palestine from the wicked West. Often unconsciously, we have raised an entire generation to see the human condition as Rousseau perceived it, rather than though the hard-headed realism of Hobbes. No wonder some then think like latter-day Jacobins. No surprise that the BBC, a once credible organization, refuses to call Hamas terrorists.
Ambivalence about the Western way of life slips into open animus.
“But what do you mean by Western way of life?” some will ask. “What do people living in the southern US or in Scandinavia possibly have in common with those in the Negev? There is no single Western culture”.
Culture is indeed complex, like the branches of a very tall tree. But within the tree of culture there is a definable trunk that one might call Judeo-Christian culture, from which extend a multiplicity of off shoots.
Culture, as with the branches of a tree, can sometimes be grafted, some cultures fused onto another. You even get what arborists call ‘inosculation’, when branches that had separated fuse back together as one again.
But as any arborist also knows, not every kind of graft will work. Not every kind of culture can be fused with every other. Some are incompatible. Nor can every way of life coexist alongside every other. Those Western feminists marching in support of Hamas seem not to have understood this. Their children and their grandchildren will.
Nor, perhaps, have Western progressives understood that Western culture, whether we are conscious of it or not, is a product of a distinctive set of ideas, both secular and ecclesiastical. I doubt many atheists would appreciate me pointing it out, but even their humanist belief system is a product of something uncontestably Judeo Christian. (Try living under Hamas as a secular humanist and see how long you last).
None of this really matters when everyone around us shares the same underlying Western cultural assumptions. To a degree that might surprise both evangelicals and atheists, they fundamentally do share a common set of assumptions. The trouble is that there is a growing body of those living in the West that don’t. There are an increasing number of people in the US, Britain and Europe – not to mention the Middle East - whose world view is shaped by the ideology of political Islamism, and Islamism’s principle proponent, Sayyid Qtub.
When political Islamism comes into conflict with Western ways, as it has with increasing frequency since the Salman Rushdie affair in the 1980s, the cultural relativists living in the West have no idea where to draw the line. Indeed, they do not even appreciate that there is a line to be drawn.
“But what about the sins of Western culture?” some will counter. “Weren’t Western countries once at the center of the slave trade? Didn’t women and minorities have to endure unequal treatment within living memory?”
Almost every contemporary non-Western culture around the world today falls short of the standards set by campus progressives. Only in the West are individual rights respected, often at times imperfectly (as the campus puritans are quick to point out). Anyone who does not know that may not know much about life outside America.
That the West today is a far more pleasant place for minorities than it was in the past is not evidence of Western guilt. It shows that cultural progress is possible. The way we used to live is not as good as it is today. Not every way of living is of equal worth. That cultural progress is possible is proof that cultural relativism is a nonsense, and that some ways of life are worth fighting in preference to others.
Here in the southern US, the Mississippi Center for Public Policy tries to teach a cohort of young Americans some of the underlying ideas and principles that underpin Western liberty. Through our Leadership Academy, we introduce them to the history of Western thought – Hobbes, Locke and the Founding Fathers. We discuss with them the morality of the free market, and American exceptionalism.
Students graduating from our program will, I hope, see the world very differently from the day they started. The insights and lessons we teach will, I hope, remain with them for life.
When we launched the Academy two years ago, I saw it was important, but no more than a nice-to-have. After the events of the past few weeks, I see it as perhaps the most important thing a think tank in America could be doing.