TUESDAY, MAY 22, 2007
GUNS, GERMS AND ISLAM: CONQUEROR’S REMORSE
History records the drama of competing forms of social organization, the success of some of which presage a dark age, while the success of others leads human civilization into its far better destinies.
The Islamist challenge to the West is as serious as any in our history. The outcome will be governed by our “moral confidence quotient”.
The ultimate survival of any civilization is the product of two things: (1) its economic vitality and (2) its “moral confidence quotient”. I am long term optimistic because I believe that any Islamist dark age that is ushered in over the feeble protests of an intimidated West will eventually gutter out. But I am short term worried because the post-modern West finds itself unusually divided, ambivalent and irresolute. The West’s moral confidence quotient is as dangerously low as the sub-replacement birth rate in continental Europe.
It comes down to this: For the US, Japan, the UK and Europe (this century’s most powerful developed nations), the simple matter of morale will determine survival. The West faces the great question posed in Hamlet, to be or not to be, but Western civilization’s various tribal, secular and religious elements are divided on the question.
Moral ambivalence can easily snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, while moral confidence can make short shrift of the challenge posed by an unstable alliance of terrorists and West-hating neo-Medieval jihadists. The present economic strength of the Western nations is potentially the trump card even in the absence of a well developed and deployed military establishment. After all, America created the most powerful navy in the world after losing almost every naval asset in the Pearl Harbor attack.
Because Europe has given up military prowess in favor of an oxymoron (soft power) and Japan has yet to emerge from its WWII era pacifist constitution, American forces are overextended in the world. We are like a wounded lion surrounded by jackals, but we’re reluctant to raise American military capabilities closer to their Cold War levels, in part because we resent Europe’s voluntary weakness. Europe is unwilling to raise its military capabilities to the level worthy of a world power, in part because they love comfortable denial and resent “crude” American strength. An energized Western pan-national patriotism would end the jihad, curb China’s nascent “hegemonia”, and stabilize the third world, all in short order. But the West has been temporarily paralyzed by conqueror’s guilt.
Why doesn’t China have conqueror’s guilt? This is a question worth considering at greater length.
Like any other world civilization, China was built on the fruits and territory of conquest. Unlike any other world civilization, China is still a going and growing concern, occupying and controlling almost all of its former territory, and preserving a history and institutional memory that is unique. The shadowy beginnings of urban civilization, itself, are located at the beginning of 10,000 year timeline leading to the “modern era”. China’s historical continuity occupies more than half of that timeline beginning with the “Yellow and Fiery emperors”, then consolidating during the Han period (about 5k years ago). The most recent conquest-expansion period was during the Qing Imperial era (1600-1800) when China acquired control over most of Eurasia.
I can locate no period of Chinese history to the present date when there was any measurable guilt.
I’ve concluded that Euro-guilt is a recent development in history, and that subsequent centuries may well regard it as a passing phase in the human story. I am personally persuaded that achievement guilt the post-modern malaise of Europe (and of a subset of the American intelligentsia) is more historical anomaly than wave of the future.
Civilizations are large scale zones of social order that enable peaceful human activities to go on free from predatory interruption. At their very core, civilizations are social technologies. Some are better technologies than others.
Civilizations tend to compete in part for the traditionally understood reasons (territory and resources) but they also compete in the same way that technologies compete. “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond (1999, 1997 Norton) is usually cited as a comprehensive deconstruction of Eurocentrism. Diamond advances the theory that Europeans succeeded less because of superior intellect than because their appropriation of Fertile Crescent agricultural technology gave them a decisive competitive edge, enabling concentrated urban populations to breed germs that would kill off rural aboriginal populations, and so on.
I found two subtext points in GG&S that were even more relevant to the current situation:
(1) Civilizations are technologies
(2) Conquest is what they naturally do … sometimes even without trying.
If the present demographic, social and political trends continue unchecked, Europe may be the first civilization in history that succumbs to an existential, potentially mortal threat, because it is paralyzed by guilt. But the Islamist threat is so retrograde and utterly alien to modern sensibilities that it may be the only possible development that could actually force Euro-thinkers to reappraise the value of their civilization and overcome their guilt in creating it. If so, the jihad will have been a gift of sorts.
The Islamist challenge to the West is an opportunity to reconfigure, consolidate and promote a robust new consensus. The case for a free, vigorous, creative civilization is compelling and it transcends all tribal, religious and secular boundaries within the modern world.
For a preview of what that consensus might look like – and of the scope of the problem of generating such a consensus – go to my essays “Secular Steel”, posted at http://jaygaskill.com/secular.htm ; “Summoning Our Fiercer Angels”, posted at http://jaygaskill.com/SavingDemocracy.htm ; and “The Lucifer and Lamb Project” posted at http://www.jaygaskill.com/TheLUCIFERLAMBProject.pdf .