Kathryn Lopez' Q&A with me this week at NRO probes places in The Death of the Grown-Up (the second, culminating half of the book) that the majority of reviewers ignored--from John Leo in the Wall Street Journal on pub date last August to Midge Decter in The Claremont Review this winter, with many in between. Whatever the reason (didn't read, didn't want to read), the debate over political correctness, infantilization and how they relate both to each other and to our woeful responses to Islam and Islamization was never joined. Here are Kathryn's excellent questions on the subject and my response.
Lopez: What is the real culture war?
West: “The real culture war” is the reason I wrote this book. We are in the middle of it, whether we know it or not.
Recall the academic “culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s — a struggle that was, in large part, a war over cultural identity. Were we going to remain heirs to the Western canon, or become children of a multicultural world? Because that question was asked of a post-grown-up society exhibiting classic symptoms of “identity crisis,” the winning answer came decisively from the multicultural Left.
I didn’t realize the full extent of that victory until much later, beginning on 9/11, when the Multicultural States of America—a nation that had taught itself to believe, for example, that the complete works of Alice Walker and William Shakespeare were interchangeable, offering equal enlightenment and meriting equal study (giving Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt) — came under cataclysmic attack. Was it a real war, this time, not a culture war … or was it a real culture war?
And here we go again. Many of the same questions that drove the theoretical culture wars of the past came back in this more literally perilous era. What do we stand for, and, no less important, what do we stand against? Is the West itself going to remain intact, or is Western-style liberty going to be transformed by contact and conflict with, in this test case, Islam? These are the questions that the post-grown-up, multiculturalist society we have become is having trouble answering. It’s not just the mystery identity of “we” that’s problematic at this point. When a civilization defines itself by an eternally youthful pliance and infinite openness — just as its citizens define their personal lives, not at all coincidentally — it’s difficult to determine what, if anything, that same civilization can be definitively closed to. In this real culture war, the stakes are much higher than they used to be: that is, we’re not just discussing whether Rigoberta Menchu has a place in the canon alongside (or instead of) John Milton; we’re talking about whether Islamic law (sharia) has a place alongside (or instead of) Western law. Having caved on Rigoberta Menchu et al, it shouldn’t be surprising that we are also caving on sharia. I am hoping the latent grown-up in us all can put a stop to this.
Lopez: “Jihad is from Mars and Islam is from Venus”?
West: Ah — you have seized on my spoofy punchline about the extent to which the myth of Bad Jihad-Good Islam has become our conventional wisdom. Such “wisdom” requires us to remove jihad from Islam entirely, allowing us to frown on the former and embrace the latter. This is a dangerously misleading strategy.
I have come to believe that the Western way of life — which I’ll define in brief as life lived according to Judeo-Christian-evolved morality and liberty — is imperiled by the demographic spread and influence of Islamic ideology and laws. Notice I didn’t say the spread of “Islamism.” Or “Islamist-ism.” Or “Islamofascism.” Or just “Wahhabism.” Or “fundamentalist militant extremism.” Over the years, I have used most of these “ists” and “isms” in my column, trying them out one by one until I got to the point where I realized they were serving as a distraction, a form of verbal camouflage that turns our attention away from the ideology and laws of Islam itself. In the cause of not-giving-offense — the highest cause of Westerners-turned-multiculturalists—we have prevented ourselves from undertaking a hard-eyed appraisal of Islamic ideology as a whole, jihadism included, and engaging in a serious discussion of how to contain it.
Lopez: What should the war be called? The name matters, doesn’t it?
West: Yes, it most certainly does matter. For starters, the war should not be called “the war on terror,” which, as many have pointed out, is a tactic, not a nation or coalition or ideology. It is as if in 1941 the U.S. had raised an army to fight “the war on surprise attack,” or “the war on blitzkrieg.” “The Global War on Terror” isn’t any better on this count, just geographically bigger. And I don’t like The Long War, either. I don’t think this war would be a “long” war if we had the courage and clarity to identify the jihadist ideology and aims, and set our minds to protecting Western societies from both. I probably favor “war on jihadism.” Islamic jihad is what threatens us; and a war on jihadism suggests a war that is being mounted defensively to repulse an aggressive movement.
Worth noting is that poll after poll in the Muslim world indicate that Muslims believe the “war on terror” is in reality a “war on Islam.” Are they correct? As the war is currently designed, I would have to say yes, they are — although this is surely not the president’s intention. If, however, you understand that freedom of conscience and sexual equality, to take just two basic ideals of the president’s democratization strategy, are seen as antithetical to Islamic law, it becomes clear that bringing such freedoms to the Islamic world would certainly appear to Muslim believers as being part of a war on Islam.
Consider the overarching conception of “freedom” itself. The entry on freedom, or hurriyya, in the Encyclopedia of Islam describes a state of divine enthrallment that bears no resemblance to current Western understandings of freedom as predicated on the workings of the individual conscience. But multicultural “we,” rigorously trained to see all peoples and all cultures and all religions as ultimately wired in precisely the same way, persist in overlooking such distinctions. We instead regard our kind of “freedom” as being one-size-fits-all “universal” freedom — universally valued and universally desired. Then we scratch our heads when large swaths of the monocultural Muslim world regard it as an ineluctably Western (if not infidel) threat to Islam. Frankly, I don’t think that convincing Islam otherwise is where our security interests will be met, or even can be met. Me, I would like to see us get out of the high-end democratization business to concentrate more specifically on warding off Islamization in the West and jihadist terror via a “war on jihadism.”
Lopez: How are “dhimmi life under Islam” and “PC life in a multicultural world” similar?
West: For me, this pairing was something of a “eureka” moment in the writing of the book.
I would describe PC life in a multiculti world as being marked in part by self-censorship based in fear — fear of professional failure, opprobrium or social ostracism. I would also describe this same self-censorship as a form of childishness. During one lecture on The Death of the Grown-Up, I took a question from a man who wondered, in a rather agitated way, if I were actually saying that multiculturalism is juvenile. I hadn’t phrased things that way, but, on quick reflection, I told him that, yes, that was indeed what I was saying. The fact is, buying into multiculturalism — the outlook that sees all cultures as being of equal value (except the West, which is essentially vile) — requires us to repress our faculties of logic, and this in itself is an infantilizing act. I mean, it’s patently illogical to accept and teach our children the notion that a culture that has brought liberty and penicillin to the masses is of no greater value than others that haven’t. In accepting the multicultural worldview, we deceive ourselves into inhabiting a world of pretend where certain truths are out of bounds and remain unspoken — even verboten.
Our adoption of PC norms and multicultural speech codes, of course, came about independently of the historical conditions of the dhimmi, who, as Jews and Christians living under Islamic law, developed cultures of self-censorship and self-denial at a far remove from anything going on in the United States. But that doesn’t negate the comparison between what may be regarded as two cultures of self-censorship. Indeed, it helps explain the terrifying compatibility between the conditions historian Bat Ye’or has chronicled as “dhimmitude” and the multicultural mindset that flourishes in a post-grown-up world.
For death-of-the-grownup purposes, one aspect of dhimmitude has particular resonance, or, perhaps, non-resonance; and that is the silence of dhimmitude regarding Islam. Among dhimmi populations, it is the silence of an insecure, fearful, self-censoring society. In the West, it is also the silence of the post-adult, identity-less society, the one that never quite grows up into itself. And the similarities between the two are alarming.
Maybe this hush of dhimmitude fell over the West after the 1989 Salman Rushdie fatwa, when the notion of “protected” Islam — “protected” from criticism on pain of death—was first communicated to a wide Western audience. And now? It’s become a part of our world. In the nearly two decades since the Rushdie case, we have seen, to take just a few random examples, a British broadcast watchdog group note that “Islam was accorded far more respect on television and radio than other religions”; the EU racism watchdog shelve a report on antisemitism in Europe because it concluded Muslims and Palestinian groups were responsible for most of the incidents; a British Foreign Office minister apologize repeatedly for a line in a speech that called on British Muslims to choose between political dialogue and “the way of the terrorists”; and an American president end his “crusade” before it began and declare Islam a religion of peace. (I refer to President Bush’s early post-9/11 remarks: “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.”)
Is this dhimmitude under Islam? Or PC life in a multicultural world? Or have the two worlds morphed? I try to answer these questions in the book.