The Crisis of Western Civilization?

I don’t know whether right-wing talk radio guy Jesse Kelly is punitive, authoritarian, or a Trump/DeSantis fascist. Maybe he’s all three. But Kelly’s certainly worked up about the attack on the Berlin airport by the climate group “Last Generation.” Perhaps Kelly was already wound up about the attacks by climate activists on Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring” and seems to view the “communist hordes as on the march. Kelly’s eagerness to punish is standard American white conservatism and much of the reason why the U.S. hands out such long prison sentences. But Kelly’s also concerned with “Western Civilization” as a social and political entity and is highly suspicious of the ability of “Western Civilization” to defend itself against the “Last Generation” and other “climate communists.”

But what is “Western Civilization?” Therein lies a problem. The idea of Western Civilization with which I grew up was part Ancient Greece and ancient Israel coming together in the Roman Empire, part civilization being “lost” during the “Dark Ages” and then re-emerging during the Renaissance (or was it the Late Middle Ages?) to form the Western Civilization with all the accomplishments in art, science, and philosophy along with the global political and military power that were created initially by colonization. For U.S. conservatives, America is the high point of Western Civilization because it had a Constitution that assumed human equality and protected rights to freedom of speech, the press, political assembly, and religion. U.S. conservatives are especially proud of the active role of Christianity in American society and consider the United States as particularly blessed by the Christian God of the West.

It doesn’t take much effort to punch holes in the whole narrative of Western Civilization and most historians don’t bother with the concept. How the flag of Western Civilization ended up being carried by Great Britain and the United States is one of history’s mysteries. In fact, the culture of the Ancient Greeks played out in Constantinople rather than Rome and it was the Romans who ended Athenian democracy with Rome’s sack of Athens in 86 bce. Then there’s the inconsistency in the treatment of various countries. Spain was seen as part of “the West” for colonization but not for subsequent colonial rule let alone the Inquisition. Italy was also dropped from the West a couple times with the Fall of Rome and then the end of the Renaissance before reappearing at the end of WWII. The story of Western Civilization seems to be identified with Protestantism because France gets short shrift compared to England and Great Britain.

What’s striking about conservatives and Western Civilization is that American conservatives like Jesse Kelly identify strongly with Western Civilization train but are also profoundly ambivalent about the “progressive” elements that developed in Western Europe and the U.S. after the American Revolution and might be more accurately considered as “out” of the story of Western Civilization (to the extent there is one). Two of the main points are extending principles of equality beyond white men and the inclusion of Western Civilization into what’s shaping up as a global culture. The first is when societies in Western Europe and North America extended the idea of freedom and rights from white men to women, racial minorities, and sexual minorities. Within American conservatism, there is considerable pressure to roll back both the recognition of black people, Jews, Asian-Americans, Hispanics, and LGBT people as full human beings and the gains made by all these groups over the last 60 years. The pressure has been particularly intense on transsexuals and other LGBT folks but has made life more difficult for marginalized people in general. Recent mass shootings of black people in Buffalo, Hispanics in El Paso, Jews in Pittsburgh, and a gay club in Colorado Springs represent just the surface of the right-wing rage at people enjoying rights against traditional bigotries. In this sense, American conservatives have revolted at the universal rights of Western Civilization becoming any more universal than they were during the 1770’s and refused to accept Western Civilization as it developed through the first two decades of the 21st century.

The second point concerns Western Civilization and a developing global culture. Overlap was inevitable. Spain, Great Britain, and France had global empires from the 16th through the 20th centuries and U.S. and European institutions have dominated politics and the global economy since WWII. The globalizing impulse was understood first as the “civilizing mission” and then “Americanization” but few anticipated the iconic status of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, the global impact of American movies, jazz and hip hop, or the spread of anime, K-Pop, and voodoo to the United States and Western Europe. There was even less anticipation of the decline of Christianity in Europe and the United States and the openness of Western societies to both “non-Western” religious practices, holidays, and immigrants.

Conservatives reject all of this and much more. They passionately reject Western Civilization as it’s developed in the United States and Western Europe and they just as passionately reject the thickening links between mainstream American culture and other globalizing cultures. Jesse Kelly insults American, Western and global culture by calling it communism but the depth of white conservative rejection is expressed by the extent that conspiracy theories, gun culture, and the religious right have developed into a counter-culture that embraces traditional patriarchy, white supremacy, and male predominance, rejects science, and embraces violence as one of the good and necessary things in life in the manner of Southern plantation owners.

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