April 12, 2005
Faced with the prospect of war, a nation will look around for allies. Emergencies create incongruous partnerships, such as that between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Second World War, or that between Italy and Britain during the first. The purpose of an alliance is not to create a super-state; nor does an alliance depend upon shared values or common long-term goals. An alliance is essentially a measure of expediency, destined to last as long as the emergency that required it, but imposing no duty on either party to continue as allies or even as friends thereafter.
The nations of the Western world are under threat today, but it is not a threat of war. No state is preparing to attack them, and none of them is building up its army in anticipation of the need to defend itself. Attack, if it comes, will be by terrorists operating within the nation states. The aim will be to destroy Western societies, by attacking the infrastructure that makes them viable. For people who don’t mind dying in the course of it, this is an easy task – far easier than destroying a nation by making war on it from a point outside its borders. Western societies have grown to support enormous populations in hitherto unheard of conditions of ease and luxury. Hence they depend upon lines of communication that are maximally vulnerable to terrorist attack. Moreover, their populations are rapidly losing the art of fending for themselves. Such populations, raised in a risk-free environment on fast food, television, pop and porn, may prove unable to survive an emergency of the kind that the terrorists would like to create. We are all now aware of this; but we are far from sure what to do about it.
One thing is evident, which is that, in the face of this kind of threat, alliances are not much use to us. By allying itself with a nation targeted by terrorism a state exposes itself to the same threat, without adding anything to either party’s ability to defend itself. That is why, in the current situation, the alliances that shaped the post-war world are falling apart. This is the lesson of Madrid and of the Iraq war generally. The French, for example, have long been aware of the threat posed by the Islamic militants in their midst. They do not wish to augment that threat, by attracting the attention of al-Qa’eda. In their view they have nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by being associated with the American ‘war on terrorism’, even though it as a war that they profoundly wish to succeed.
This does not mean that alliances will henceforth be worthless. For it is still necessary to put what pressure we can on the states that breed terrorism, in the hope of changing them in a positive direction. We need the kind of ‘coalition of the willing’ that the USA tried to put together in its confrontation with Saddam’s Iraq, if only to press for reforms in places like Algeria, Syria and Saudi Arabia, where corrupt governments and unmanaged conflicts make ordinary people into implacable haters of their kind. But such reforms, which may very well bring about the end of terrorism in some future time, will not affect the intentions of al-Qa’eda, or the frame of mind of the terrorists who are currently arming themselves in our midst.
So what, then, is our defence, if any? It must come, initially at least, from within ourselves. It was a wise observation of Tocqueville’s, in his study of the French Revolution, that a powerful class or group is more likely to be attacked when it is losing power and cohesion, than when it is confidently asserting its dominion. The French aristocracy was overthrown not because it was oppressive but because it was in a state of decline. This decline gave rise to the thought that really these people, who enjoy so many unjust privileges, are of no great use to the rest of us, and could be swept aside without cost. In this way a class that loses all belief in itself invites its own destruction.
The same is true of nations. A nation that seems to enjoy massive advantages – material, cultural and political – but which is also uncertain of its right to them, will provoke attack from the resentful. It is not so much American success that has made this country into the target of Islamist terrorists, as America ‘s loss of belief in the right to it. For a variety of complex reasons, many Americans no longer feel entitled to their inheritance and their way of life, and by displaying their self-doubt they invite aggression. This is partly the result of the regime of ease and luxury that I mentioned earlier. But it also reflects a crisis of identity that is to a great extent artificially induced.
It seems to me, therefore, that the first step towards countering the terrorist threat is for Americans to reaffirm their identity, to stand together, confident in their right to be what they are and to own what they have. This means rediscovering the sources of social cohesion and endorsing them. It means looking for the good things in the social, religious, cultural and political inheritance of the country, and affirming them as a proof of legitimacy. It means making a collective effort to discover the moral heart of the American nation, so as to express its identity and resolve to be true to it. This won’t be a sure-fire deterrent to terrorists. But it will give them pause. It will awaken in their hearts the idea that it might be better to join this civilisation than to destroy it – which is the idea that has animated millions of refugees that have found shelter and protection in America.
In this talk I want to survey some of the factors that should be borne in mind, by anyone who wishes to rediscover and reaffirm the ‘first person plural’ of America. They are factors that used to be in every American’s mind, and which were publicly expressed and endorsed during the Second World War and the ensuing Cold War. However, they are now either forgotten or – if remembered – subjected to active denigration, by the elites who have gained control over so many channels of communication in this country. Even to mention them is – in certain circles – to attract hostility, and it is one of the worrying things about contemporary America, to an outside observer, that the so-called ‘culture wars’, which are wars over the very self-image of America , are so bitterly and intransigently fought. This makes it difficult for me to say what I have to say in the way that I would want to say it, namely eirenically. Nevertheless, it is only by peaceful accommodation that unity can be achieved, and the task is to find a way of re-presenting the truths that I wish to put across, in a language that will not prove offensive to those who have tried to repudiate them.
The first of these truths concerns the Christian heritage of America. The ‘no establishment’ clause in the Constitution is often cited by liberals as a cornerstone of the American settlement, and in a way it is. However, it should not be taken – as so many seem to take it – as authorising the exclusion of religion in general, and the Judaeo-Christian faiths in particular, from the public life and offices of the nation. On the contrary, the Founding Fathers could be confident in their stand against any established church precisely because they believed that, despite all their diversity in practice, the American people were united in their God-fearing attitude, and in their acceptance of the Christian religion as a firm foundation for the moral life. The original settlers came in flight from an established church, and were in no mood to re-establish one. But when, on that first Thanksgiving, they took stock of their situation, it was to reaffirm their faith in a benevolent God and in the Christian Bible.
That was then and now is now, the critic will say. And of course it would be impossible, now, to forge an American identity around the religion of the Pilgrim Fathers. The religious profile of the country has been changed by countless waves of immigrants, Jews, Orthodox, Hindus and Muslims, among many others. Moreover, the Christian majority contains an ever-growing Roman Catholic contingent, due to immigration from South America .
To acknowledge those facts is not, however, to reject either the Christian inheritance of America , or the public endorsement that this inheritance has hitherto enjoyed. For this endorsement has been made, not by way of imposing a single religion, a single doctrine or a single church on the American people, but by way of submission to a higher power, as ‘one nation under God’. Americans have on the whole assumed that a nation is better disposed and better governed, if its rulers humbly recognise from time to time that we are God’s creatures, and that we ought publicly to acknowledge our weakness and dependence and publicly to express our desire to live up to something better than ourselves. And Americans are right to assume this, and right to believe that no other public language is available to them in making public display of their piety than that provided by the Christian Bible and the Christian style of prayer.
Advocates of multiculturalism object to any emphasis on Christianity, believing that, by affirming one faith, you exclude the others. This seems to me to be nonsense. It is surely entirely right that a country like Egypt with a Muslim majority, should pay some kind of political service to the God of the Koran, humbly acknowledging that political decisions are judged by Him and the Egyptian people dependent upon Him. This does not make Islam into a state religion, even though we know that Islam finds it very difficult to stop short of that, once allowed a dominant voice. The important thing, in the Egyptian case, is to ensure constitutional protection for the Coptic minority, not to forbid the majority from securing public recognition of its faith. How much more right does it seem to allow the American nation to see its majority faith reflected in its official pronouncements, given the known tolerance of Christianity in modern times, and the constitutional provision that forbids an established church?
Put the matter in another way. Suppose an American liberal were to take up residence in Greece, beginning at once to protest against the lip service paid by Greek politicians to the Orthodox Church. Or suppose he were to settle in Morocco, and promptly press for legislation forbidding the political elite from prefacing its official utterances with the words ‘In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful’. Would you not take exception to this kind of impertinence, seeing in it an arrogance unbecoming in a recent immigrant, dependent as he is on the hospitality of his neighbours? Why is it not similarly impertinent, for a liberal American residing in America , to wish to police the schools, public offices and official business of his country, in order to remove all reference to, and all observance of, the majority faith? Such was certainly not intended by the Founding Fathers, nor does it offer an interpretation of the constitution that would be intuitively acceptable to the mass of ordinary Americans.
I would go further, and point to the very great good that has come to America from its Christian inheritance, a good from which even the most rigorous atheist can benefit. For it is thanks to this inheritance that America has been able to accommodate its immigrant communities so easily, and to establish a society in which forgiveness, the great Christian virtue, has a permanent place in the political process. In the end, that is what toleration amounts to: forgiveness of a fault, or what is believed to be a fault by the one who forgives it.
There is a kind of liberal position that makes disapproval of our neighbour’s lifestyle, of his religion, of his sexual and social conduct into a crime. According to this position the person who disapproves of homosexuality, for example, displays homophobia; the person who finds Islam abhorrent is suffering from Islamophobia. And so on. One by one the moral reactions of conservatives are dismissed as ‘phobias’, and the liberal world-view is promoted as the only morally acceptable alternative – the only one that is truly inclusive. What needs to be said, however, is that this position is not liberal, in the proper sense of the word, at all. It is not tolerance that it advocates towards other faiths and other life-styles, but a kind of indifference, a refusal to regard them as ‘other’. True tolerance is, as I remarked, a kind of forgiveness: you forgive your neighbour for doing and thinking what you believe to be wrong. You can only tolerate that of which you disapprove. The new-style liberalism in America is in fact a form of extreme intolerance. For it will not tolerate disapproval that it does not share, and it can accept lifestyles and religions only by ceasing to disapprove of them.
I want to pause a little here, in order to examine the nature of Christian forgiveness, and the way in which it transforms the life of the state. For it seems to me that this topic is not only pertinent to our current situation but also widely misunderstood by those whose aim is to de-Christianise Western society. Nietzsche saw Christianity as an expression of the ‘slave morality’, the morality of those whose principal social passion is not desire for success but resentment of the success of others. Ressentiment – as he called it – is the root, according to Nietzsche, not only of Christian humility, which is the inverted form of the desire for revenge, but also of the egalitarian and socialist ideologies of the modern world. In a virtuous society resentment would be kept in check, as the strong exert their control over the weak. In a Christian society, however, resentment is the guiding principle of the culture, and the source of the egalitarian attitudes and abject defeatism by which Nietzsche saw himself surrounded.
Max Scheler, in Ressentiment, his book on this topic, offers a decisive refutation of Nietzsche’s critique of the Christian religion. Far from being an attempt by the weak and the cowardly to seize power over their betters, he argues, Christianity is an attempt to confer power on everyone, through spiritual discipline and the regime of forgiveness. Resentment exists in modern societies not because of Christianity but in spite of it. The principal cause is not religion but its opposite – the obsessive fixation on the things of this world, which causes people to envy their neighbours and to seek to dispossess them. The true vehicle for this resentment is the socialist state, which is able to confiscate the rewards of successful individuals and satisfy the vengeful feelings of the failures. I am inclined to agree with Scheler, both in his critique of a certain kind of socialism, and in his exculpation of Christianity from the charge levelled by Nietzsche.
Why should we resent rather than rejoice in the good things that others possess? It is a striking feature of animal behaviour that members of herds and packs do not harbour resentment, even when they fight. Once the pecking order is established, peace prevails, and all antagonism is quickly forgotten. People are not like that, for the reason that they live as moral beings, in the shadow of judgement. Hence they can feel humiliated, worsened, degraded; they can harbour thoughts of revenge and triumph, and invest in these thoughts all the self-centred ambition of their slighted natures.
The anthropologist René Girard has considered this matter in a series of striking books: Violence and the Sacred, The Scapegoat, and Things Hidden Since the Beginning of the World. Girard believes that violence proceeds from the ‘mimetic’ nature of social ties, formed by rivalry and imitation. This violence must be released from time to time, and such is the function of the scapegoat, the victim, the one who is ‘cast out’, and who bears the collective guilt on his shoulders. Through his death the scapegoat relieves us of pent-up anger, and allows us once again to live with our neighbours on terms. That is why he is both violently killed and, once dead, revered as a saviour. Victimisation is therefore a way in which societies establish internal peace. One function of religion is to limit the damage that this victimisation causes, by providing sacrificial surrogates, such as the animals slaughtered at the altar, or the fictional narratives of gods that die and rise again. Girard finds a kind of proof of the Christian morality in his observations, Christ being identified as the one scapegoat who was able to understand and forgive his persecutors, and therefore to establish forgiveness, rather than violence, at the heart of the social order.
Those speculations may seem wild to you, and I confess that I am not sure what to think about them. Nevertheless, there is no doubt in my mind that we rational beings are given to irrational violence, that resentment is a large part of its cause, and that typecasting and scapegoating may permit its release but may also vastly amplify its extent. (This is what we witness, indeed, in the anti-semitism of the Nazis, the anti-bourgeoisism of the communists, and the anti-Americanism that prevails in the world today.) And I am inclined to agree with Girard, that the Christian gospels set before us an example of the only known antidote to this potentially disastrous human failing – an antidote that finds no real equivalent in the unforgiving pages of the Koran.
It is of course true that Christian civilisation has gone through violent episodes, and the wars of religion in Europe do not exactly cast credit on the Christian inheritance, any more than does the civil war in America. However, in judging a religious inheritance it is wise to consider its effect in peace time, and its ability to create the kind of small-scale and localised tranquillity which is the best we can hope for on earth. Looking at things in this way you will notice a remarkable fact, which is that, with few exceptions, all the stable democracies in the modern world are countries with a Christian inheritance, and that the exceptions – Turkey, Indonesia, India, Japan and Israel – have been democratised by Christian states, have taken Christian states as their model, or have (in the case of Israel) been shaped by the long residence of their people in Christian lands.
This democratic inheritance is ultimately to be explained, in my opinion, by the radical innovation noticed by Girard, namely: the redemption offered to mankind by their own sacrificial victim, whose forgiveness brings peace. To forgive the other is to accept his otherness, and therefore to grant him, in your heart, the freedom to be. It is therefore to acknowledge the free individual as sovereign over his life, and free to do both right and wrong. A society founded on forgiveness therefore tends automatically in a democratic direction, since it is a society in which the voice of the other is heard in all decisions that affect him.
From this great spiritual innovation there flows the long tradition of constitutional government in Christian Europe. Thanks in part to the inheritance of Roman law, in part to the contest between ecclesiastical and secular authority that shaped the institutions of medieval Europe , the ethos of Christianity, in which respect for the free individual is the ruling public idea, has found the space that it needs for its realisation as a political project. This has been especially so in our own Anglo-Saxon tradition, which is founded on the common law and the maxims of equity. The sovereign power, be it a monarch or a Parliament, has never been able to over-ride the individual except by actions judged to be illegal in the sovereign’s own courts.
This also partly explains the emergence, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, of ‘republican’ government (in the sense subsequently defined by Kant) – i.e. government in which legislators are also representatives of the people who must obey their laws. Such governments emerged in the Netherlands, in Britain and in Scandinavia during the aftermath of the Reformation. Eventually, with the birth of the Enlightenment and the spread of republican ideas, the entire face of Europe was changed. But the seeds of this change were there in the Christian tradition, and in the Protestant conception of religious belief, as a personal matter between the individual and God.
Whatever the cause, it is surely undeniable that the great American experiment could hardly have occurred without the Christian legacy. The movement towards republican and secular government, and the Protestant belief in freedom of conscience are both affirmations of the individual against arbitrary power. Both express the underlying idea, that the individual must offer forgiveness, if he is to receive it. The American Constitution is often praised as the quintessence of Enlightenment thinking in the matter of government, and (so long as you detach the document from its more ideologically-inspired applications) this is true. But the Enlightenment is simply the long-term result of Christian charity – the result of granting to the other the freedom to be other than you.
It is often said that Islam has never had an Enlightenment, and that this is why it has found it so difficult to coexist with democratic institutions. The problem, however, is that Enlightenment is not some outside force that overtakes a religion, but an internal tendency, one that grows over time but which is there in the very nature of the faith. That, it seems to me, is what Jesus established when, instead of threatening the world with destruction if it did not accept his religious leadership, he offered himself for sacrifice, in order to purchase forgiveness for our sins. Enlightenment began on the cross, and will always be foreign to Islam, which regards itself as duty-bound to impose the faith, by force if necessary, and in any case with no obligation to tolerate those who do not adopt it.
This does not mean that Islam is incompatible with democracy. But it does mean that it will be persuaded in a democratic direction only by external example. This was the example given to Pakistan at the end of the British Empire , when the greatest effort was made to forge a modern constitution and a secular rule of law for a self-consciously Islamic republic. Up to a point, it worked. But not, alas, for long. We must continue to set such examples, by showing how to tolerate those who offend us, and how to settle our disputes with them by law and not by force. If Muslims can learn to follow those principles then we shall have made a step towards overcoming our present problem.
This returns me to the topic of identity. When Americans contemplate their political inheritance one thing above all inspires them with pride, and that is the historical attempt to establish, in the new republic, a form of government by consent. In order to turn attention away from this attempt, America’s detractors, both at home and abroad, obsessively reflect on the period of slavery, when blacks were regarded as chattel. Undeniably the wound inflicted by that episode has never fully healed, and no comparative judgement – no pointing of the finger at the many societies, then and now, that live from slavery – can deflect the accusations made against America . However, there is also a response to these accusations that Americans should learn to make and which ought to give them pride, namely, that their country has been able to acknowledge the wrongdoing of its forebears, has been able to incorporate into its legal and political process a kind of recurring act of penitence, and has done its best to forge a future in which racial discrimination is neither legally nor morally permissible. Of course this discrimination occurs, and moves towards ‘affirmative action’, as it is euphemistically called, threaten to bring back racist thinking in another form. However, it should surely be recognised as a remarkable achievement, that this nation does not merely aim to improve itself, but also makes public acknowledgement of its faults. When has Saudi Arabia ever made a confession to the world, either about its treatment of women or its involvement in slavery, an involvement that continues to this day? When have the French ever apologised for Napoleon or the Turks for the massacre of the Armenians? Sure the Germans have apologised for the Third Reich; but their forced confessions also have an unhealthy air of self-castigation, and the habit of rubbing the German nose in the Nazi excrement seems to many people like a way of turning attention from the crimes of communism – crimes in which the Western left has persistently neglected to acknowledge its complicity.
The habit of taking responsibility for faults goes hand in hand with the search for consensual government. This is as true of individuals as it is of nations. Consensual relations can occur only between people who take responsibility for their actions, acknowledge their faults and make amends for them, and in general behave in a way that inspires other people to trust them. Trust and consent are two sides of a single coin. That is why democratic measures so often fail when introduced into societies that are divided along confessional lines. In the absence of trust people do not properly give their consent to transactions: they withhold the vital part of what they appear to promise, ready to withdraw completely as soon as their suspicions are confirmed. The American case is not like that. Here people enter openly into engagements, the spirit of contract animates their dealings, and when things go wrong they know that they can achieve redress, either through arbitration or through legal action.
This explains the easy-going ways, the untroubled politeness and the constant exhilaration of the Americans. For nothing is more agreeable than agreement, and Americans, who go out in search of it each day, come home refreshed and renewed by the deals they have struck with strangers. If there is one reason above all others to regret the welfare provisions that have been subjected to such searching criticism in recent years, it is that they create a class that does not live by agreement, that falls out of dialogue with neighbours and strangers, and takes no pleasure in the mutuality that comes, when people compete for attention in the public sphere. This underclass, which is a by-product of the modern state, is also a threat to it, since it provides the store of resentment that can be recruited by those whose aim is to destroy.
It is in this context that one should view the free economy, and all that it means. There has been a tendency among neo-conservatives to identify the West with freedom, and to see the free economy as the paradigm of the values that distinguish the West from the rest. My own view is that the free economy is not the root of Western society, but one of its fruits. Nor is freedom as such the factor that distinguishes us, for there is plenty of freedom in Africa , including the freedom to kill and be killed. The distinctive mark of western societies, it seems to me, is the search in everything for agreement, and for an order based on consent. This search is an offshoot of the Christian ethic, which involves a comprehensive endorsement in all our thoughts and deeds of the other who is other than us. The Christian is prepared by his faith and by Christ’s example for a life among strangers, in which he seeks to negotiate his passage by agreement, submitting his disputes to impartial justice and accepting his losses when the fault is his own. From this outlook springs much that is distinctive of the Western approach to politics: the rule of law; free association and the institutions that have grown from it; the free economy; and government by consent.
Anybody who has looked with a comparative eye on human history will recognise that those things are both valuable and rare. We have every reason to stand by them, since they create a kind of solidarity among us that is both more open and less liable to fission that the solidarity of the tribe or the sect. It is thanks to this desire to found our lives in agreements with strangers that the West has been able to endure through wars, to regain equilibrium after every shock, and to survive natural disasters with its institutions intact. This could be taken as a defining part of our identity, and of the American identity in particular. It is also what proves most offensive to the pundits of al-Jazeera – our ability to resolve our disputes without fighting, to submit to impartial justice, and to bind our energies with nothing more robust than a legal agreement. How soft and unmanly this seems to the desert nomad, and how vulnerable we appear in his eyes! And then, discovering the strength that we have derived from this unexpected source, the knowledge, technology and readiness for action, the nomad is stirred to a violent resentment. His visceral loyalties, which he took as the sign of a manly resolve, tie him to customs that defy the modern world and are constantly rebuffed by it. If you were looking for an explanation of al-Qa’eda, that surely is as good as any.
I think it is worth reflecting further on freedom and the free economy, if only to understand the competing ideas of American identity that have been paraded in recent years, and the need to have a clear sense of the issue between them. One idea, associated with the ‘neo-conservative’ movement, sees freedom as the root American value, and the American nation as forged by the bids for freedom that have brought wave after wave of people to these shores. On this view the free economy is one aspect of a society of individuals, each taking the risk of his own life, and each asserting himself against the illegitimate attempt of states, elites and sovereigns to take control of him and his possessions.
Of course it can easily be objected to that view that many who came to these shores were brought as slaves, and many were sent here as criminals. But that is not to refute the idea behind the neo-conservative vision. Every national self-image involves an idealisation, and the history of any nation will correspond only imperfectly to the ideals that animate its present members. The important task of a national myth is to situate the present members of the nation in the context of an idealised history, and to give them a sense of a shared purpose that includes them all. This is what the invocation of freedom is supposed to do.
Freedom, wrote Matthew Arnold, is a very good horse to ride, but to ride somewhere. To invoke freedom as an absolute, ignoring the destination to which your own brand of freedom might lead, is to leave your followers without any real sense of purpose. Of course, it is undeniably part of the American dream, as it is part of the American reality, that people strive to be free in this country from the constraints of meddling officialdom. But, as Tocqueville saw in his great study of American democracy, it is not freedom that has created the shared loyalty to the American nation but what people here have done with their freedom, which is to associate, and so to surrender their freedom to their social membership. America is the one country in the modern world where people build societies and institutions rather than cliques, mafias and gangs. Every town and village in this country has a plethora of churches, schools, teams, volunteer squads, reading circles, dance troupes, clubs, bands, orchestras and choirs, all functioning privately and outside the reach of the state. This, Tocqueville argued, is what has created the unique form of patriotism that we witness in America: an attachment to the place and the people that endures from generation to generation without being imposed on the citizens by any chain of command. Small-town America is a paradigm of the spontaneous order praised by Hayek, and the free economy is just one, albeit very important, aspect of it. Of course, like all small things, this America of ‘little platoons’ can be held up to ridicule. But somehow the ridicule doesn’t stick: whether affectionate in the manner of Garrison Keillor, or acid in the manner of John Updike, it turns quickly to a kind of acceptance. This land of small societies shows people as they truly are, and what they are is, in the last analysis, good. American high culture has always, in its heart, accepted this, and each composer, novelist, poet or painter has made his own particular ‘fanfare for the common man’, reaffirming the American love of life. From Charles Ives to Leonard Bernstein, from Winslow Homer to Edward Hopper, from Walt Whitman to John Berryman, from Mark Twain to Armistead Maupin, we see a high culture dedicated to the presentation of ordinary social beings in their small-scale attempts at goodness, and this is the vision of America that remains when all the fluster of power and politics is set aside. Nor does American popular culture really dissent from that vision, despite the inroads made by nihilism and salaciousness in recent years. Underneath all the grossness and bad taste, the sentimentality and emotional disarray – themselves everywhere to be observed in the modern world and more the product of the mass media than of any locally generated pattern of sociability – you still discover the society depicted by Tocqueville, in which people cheerfully combine to take charge of their shared situation, and form the kinds of spontaneous institutions that attach us to each other and to our home.
Free association leads to enduring institutions, and institutions build themselves through offices and rules. The result begins, after a while, not to look like freedom, as the anarchists and drop-outs envisage it. The institutions of a free society give authority to office-holders, they demand obedience from their members, they seek to celebrate and endorse their own existence through uniforms, ceremonies and formal manners of address. There is a certain kind of mentality that reacts against this. For such a mentality authority and freedom are opposites, and the emergence of structures of authority poses a threat to individual choice. This is the kind of mentality that cannot be content with freedom, and which fails to see that the price of freedom is obedience. Obedience, however, is of two kinds: the submission to superior power, and the acceptance of authority. Power coerces, authority persuades. And the effect of free association is to produce authority ‘by an invisible hand’, as the unforced by-product of transactions based in consent.
It seems to me that Americans ought to be most proud, in their political inheritance, of this kind of genial and self-imposed authority. It is the sign and fruit of free association, and is the very opposite of the arbitrary and oppressive power that prevails elsewhere in the modern world, whether under the offices of a single-party state, or under the rule of the tribal chieftain and the self-appointed Imam. By emphasising freedom as the great American ideal, you do nothing to challenge the power of the strong men, the tribal chiefs and the religious fanatics: on the contrary, you merely provoke the rejoinder that freedom is a danger, until it is led. By emphasising the kind of spontaneous authority that emerges from the American habit of institution-building, you provide the world with a genuine alternative to the oppression that prevails elsewhere. You also attach yourself to what is truly admirable in American politics, which is the exercise of legitimate authority, through offices whose dignity is bestowed on them by the people themselves.
I suspect that the real difference between old American conservatism and the neo-conservative movement lies in this: that, while the old conservatives place their faith in American institutions, and the indigenous forms of authority that have grown in and through them, the neo-cons emphasise the freedom of the individual, including his freedom to act outside institutions. But the difference here is one of emphasis. Properly understood, American freedom is not anarchy or libertinism: it is the freedom to associate, which comes from the underlying Christian attitude to your neighbour, as one who must be respected and who cannot be coerced. From this freedom stem the American institutions and the authority that they generate.
I have been speaking of America. We should not ignore the fact that the inheritance of Anglo-Saxon common law distinguishes America and Britain from the continent of Europe, and that the history of revolution and dictatorship has distanced the continental powers from those to the North and West of them. Only with certain qualifications can my arguments be applied to France and Germany as they are today. In the last analysis it is for each nation to define its identity according to needs and ideals of its own. Nevertheless, for all of them, it seems to me, the confrontation with terrorism requires the kind of positive thinking that I have been attempting in this lecture – the search in the archive, so to speak, for the legitimate title to what we have and what we are. The European powers are reluctant to do this. Indeed, the European elites wish to dissolve the nations of Europe in a Union that wipes out the memory of national loyalty, and which is governed by a ‘constitution’ whose only memorable feature apart from its absurd length and vague language is that it makes no mention of the European religion. Whether or not we agree with George Weigel, that these and similar features reflect the ‘Christophobia’ of the European elites (see The Cube and the Cathedral), we should recognize that a spirit of repudiation has rapidly gained ground in Europe. Faced with unassimilated and increasingly aggressive Muslim minorities and with a declining indigenous population, the European elites have decided to disclaim their inheritance, not recognizing that the target of resentment is precisely the one who enjoys a privilege while refusing to affirm his right to it.
The culture of repudiation that has exerted such a paralysing effect on European politics has also begun to infect the media and academic institutions here in America. Until recently there was a kind of tacit understanding that the normality of American society, founded in marriage and the family, in private property, community and church, was secure against assault from the purveyors of culture, that it was a normality to which all rebels would, in time, return, and that it guaranteed the future, just as it honoured and preserved the past. This understanding no longer exists. Indeed, the curriculum in university humanities departments is now shaped by its rejection. There seems to be an underlying assumption that the old culture should be exposed to criticism and pushed aside to make room for the alternatives, as defined by the gay and feminist ‘agenda’. Church and community must be reshaped to accommodate the ‘alternative lifestyles’, and the old culture and the old language must be purged of all reference to the exclusive normality of the traditional way of life.
For some people this culture of repudiation is simply the latest manifestation of the American idea – a direct consequence of the belief that the individual is sovereign and not to be trapped by any institution or arrangement that he himself didn’t choose. And to some extent that is true. However, we should not ignore the quite extraordinary vehemence of the new culture, its censorious and persecutory habits, and its manifest desire to prevent the expression of all opinions at variance with its own. Those who give voice to traditional American values are demonised as racist, sexist, homophobic, or part of the ‘Christian fundamentalist right’, and those who attempt to teach in a university are subjected to rigorous ideological vetting lest, by intimating that they do not entirely endorse the liberal agenda, they create ‘an atmosphere of intimidation’ in the classroom.
It is very clear to an outside observer that the culture of repudiation is not in the business of discussing the new options, or debating with the old. It is in the business of displacing the old culture, of driving it from the citadel of social power, and of putting a large and non-negotiable negative in the place of it. In other words, it is in the business of denial: denial of the history, culture, allegiance and ideals that define our civilisation and the nations that enjoy it. How we confront it is, I believe, one of the great questions of our time. If we do not do so; if we allow it to corrode our allegiance and destroy our identity, then we shall find ourselves bereft of the principal weapon that we need, in the fight against our new and invisible enemy. That is why I welcome the founding of the Wynnewood Institute, devoted to the task of reaffirming our identity against those who, while seeking to reject it, have nothing whatsoever to put in its place.