After some time off the grid, I've begun to come up to speed on the reax to President Trump's Western civ speech, which burns with an intensity mismatched with those few airy gusts of pro-West rhetoric Trump delivered in Warsaw last week. For example, that man of letters, Jonathan Capehart, declared himself "triggered" by Trump's having noting that "We," the Western world, "write symphonies." The lovely Amanda Marcotte (she who described abortion as akin to removing a cavity and babies as time-sucking monsters) trashed Trump's address as "alt-rigth" and "white nationalist rhetoric." I am sure they would all say the same of the Constitution.
Not that Trump's Warsaw speech is in that class, of course. It is a noteworthy fact, though, that our place on the continuum (down, down, down...) prohibits expressions of love for all aspects of ancient indigenous European/American culture, whether symphonies and the Bill of Rights, or iambic pentameter and penicillin.
But that's not even what I wanted to write about. Once again, the hostility and poison all around and inside the Trump presidency become a distraction from this presidency. This time, though, the subject I don't want to lose sight of is "the West," even if it is itself slipping from sight.
I heard Rush Limbaugh today speaking of the mad media reaction to this same speech, which he finds unprecedented. It is not. Right after 9/11, another Western leader, Italy's Silvio Belusconi gave a much stronger speech than Trump's about the superiority of Western civilzation to Islam in terms of liberty, prosperity, human rights and other jewels in the Western crown. Where Trump was all open-ended diffidence and glaring omission (the new Islamic hijra, Mr. President?), Berlusconi was frankness itself. Then the attacks on him began. Then his apologies began, too. I treat the whole tragic episode at some length in The Death of the Grown-Up.
Fifteen years later, however, Trump didn't really say (and he certainly hasn't done) all that much to "apologize" for. The "triggerings," then, are so many ritualized aftershocks, more stylized, more disconnected from reality than ever.
For the record, here is the essence of the Trump speech -- including a set of rhetorical questions I would feel more confident about if Trump were to fulfill his promise to Build the Wall and stop Islamic immigration/refugee resettlement.
We have to remember that our defense is not just a commitment of money, it is a commitment of will. Because as the Polish experience reminds us, the defense of the West ultimately rests not only on means but also on the will of its people to prevail and be successful and get what you have to have.
The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it? (Applause.)
We can have the largest economies and the most lethal weapons anywhere on Earth, but if we do not have strong families and strong values, then we will be weak and we will not survive. (Applause.) If anyone forgets the critical importance of these things, let them come to one country that never has. Let them come to Poland. (Applause.) And let them come here, to Warsaw, and learn the story of the Warsaw Uprising. ...
Rather remarkably, Trump goes on to tell a story of the Warsaw Uprising, which, as a general metaphor for the future defense of "the West," foretells wholesale destruction and slaughter by our enemies (Hitler) and, simultaneously, betrayal by our allies (Stalin and Roosevelt). Somehow, I am thinking, this was probably not the message the White House speech shop was trying to push.
In any event, fifteen years earlier, Berlusconi was practically speaking another language.
From The Death of the Grown-Up:
The BBC translated his remarks this way:
"We have to be conscious of the strength of our civilization. We cannot put the two civilizations on the same level. All of the achievements of our civilization: free institutions, the love of liberty itself--which represents our greatest asset--the liberty of the individual and the liberty of the peoples. These certainly are not the inheritance of other civilizations such as Islamic civilization."
And the AP wrote:
"We must be aware of the superiority of our civilization, a system that has guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights and -- in contrast with Islamic countries -- respect for religious and political rights, a system that has as its values understandings of diversity and tolerance. [Western civilization is superior because it] has at its core, as its greatest value, freedom, which is not the heritage of Islamic culture."
Versions vary somewhat, but the gist is clear. Maybe the bilionaire media-mogul-turned-politician was an unlikely champion of the virtues of Western civ -- or anything else for that matter. After all, the almost operatically buffoonish and scandal-ridden Berlusconi was in the public eye practically as much for his outrageous financial maneuvres as for his political programs. Nonetheless, this Italian prime minister was the lone ranger on the international horizon to seize on and uphold the essence of Western civilization — liberty, prosperity, human rights — and point out the obvious: Liberty, prosperity, and human rights are not part of Islamic civilization. We have to be conscious, we must be aware of this distinction. It was something worth fighting for, Berlusconi presumed, against Islamic terrorists and the Islamic nations and networks that openly, secretly, tactically, financially or religiously support them. ...
In a pre-PC time, such remarks would have been regarded as boiler-plate bromides, the platitudes of a politician trying out new applause lines at the outbreak of war. But back to real life. According to the “international community” circa September 2001, Berlusconi couldn’t have said anything more horrifying. First, there was the outcry from the EU outposts of Berlusconi’s beloved Western civ:
“I can hardly believe Mr. Berlusconi made such remarks because the EU
is based on values such as multiculturalism and the meeting of different civilizations ….”
“These remarks could, in a dangerous way, have consequences…”
“All I can say is that the values of Europe do not allow us to consider that our civilization is superior to another.”
“It is clear that Mr. Berlusconi’s remarks were offensive and offense has been taken…and they were culturally inaccurate.”
“We certainly don’t share the views expressed by Mr. Berlusconi ….”
Not surprisingly, “Islamic civilization” was even more put out. Jordan denounced the remarks as “chauvinistic, fascist and repugnant,” while, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) called them “an act of aggression unbecoming of a civilized nation.” The Arab League said it was “waiting for either a denial or an apology,” which I guess left Berlusconi the option to deny or apologize for the fact that Western-style freedom isn’t a hallmark of Islam. Egypt more subtly demanded “clarifications” -- which, in diplospeak, means tracks-covering obfuscation, and which, in fact, is what Berlusconi ultimately expressed. Amid the sputtering, though, no one seemed to notice that West and East had found common ground, unity even, a place to vent their shared contempt for these bumptious declarations of the singularity of Western liberty and human rights.
Which again raises the question: Is this any way to fight a war? Berlusconi hadn’t said anything even remotely false. Liberty, prosperity, human rights are hallmarks of Western civilization; liberty, prosperity and human rights are not hallmarks of Islamic civilization. End of story. They are also not only what is worth fighting for, but also what comes under attack every time an Islamic terror network successfully detonates, beheads, bombs, and burns a Western or Western-allied target — thus stealing the liberty, destroying the prosperity and revoking the human rights of us all, not to mention those of its victims. So why, then, did the prime minister of Italy, land of Leonardo and La Scala, the Bridge of Sighs and the Vatican, apologize ?
The late Oriana Fallaci answered this way in The Rage and the Pride, a book she wrote immediately after 9/11, when “I did not eat, I did not sleep, I fed on coffee, I kept awake with cigarettes, and the words fell on the paper like a waterfall.” She wrote:
"I have just read that, albeit grossly and inadequately, you [Mr. Berlusconi] preceded me in the defense of the Western Culture. But, as soon as the cicadas yelled racist-racist, you retracted at the speed of light. You spoke of unfortunate blunder, involuntary mistake, you promptly presented your apologies to the sons of Allah, then you swallowed the affront of their refusal and meekly accepted the hypocritical reprimands of your European colleagues plus the scolding by Blair. In short, you got scared."
Yes, and he also got stampeded.
... When Berlusconi’s Euro-confreres juxtaposed their horror at the virtues that define Western civilization with their avowal of the European Union “values” of “multiculturalism,” they were expressing not just a bureacratic consensus, but a fervent orthodoxy. In this new secular religion, notions of the superiority of Western culture are heretical, an imminent threat to the leveling arrangement that makes the EU’s so-called “meeting of different civilizations” possible. As the Eurocrats put it, “the values of Europe do not allow us to consider that our civilization is superior to another.” Berlusconi’s apostasy, however short-lived, threatened to up-end those “values,” and with them the postmodern “meeting of different civilizations,” thus threatening to restore the traditional hierarchy that put Western civ, for having enshrined liberty and human rights, at the pinnacle.
This would never do — and, of course, it didn’t. It couldn’t. Let Berlusconi’s remarks stand and someone might declare that Shakespeare amounts to more than Alice Walker, or that Ancient Greece surpasses Tolmec culture. The next thing you know, the Multicultural World Order has toppled. Naturally, Berlusconi apologized, and no world leader has made the same “blunder” since. ...