Saturday, July 04, 2009

July 4th

Holidays generally catch me by surprise. I find the post office closed and realize that it is a holiday. In the case of today's celebration of American patriotism, I was not caught completely off guard. The post office closed yesterday at noon. I had forewarning. But I have been busy working on a short presentation I will make at a conference next week in London – the theme of which is the relationship between Europe and Islam. On the spur of the moment I have decided to use my opening remarks for next week's little talk as my Fourth of July posting. In due course, if I think it of more general interest, I will post an audio version of the longer presentation. Meanwhile here are the opening few paragraphs:

I speak today as the son of a man who lost his life fighting on European soil for the survival – not of American democracy – but of Western Civilization. If I speak to my hosts and my host society more candidly than is perhaps appropriate for a visiting guest, I do so in the name of those whose bodies are buried in countless cemeteries all across Europe – men and women who crossed the Atlantic to risk and lose their lives in defense of the greatest civilization in the history of the world. I speak as one who believes, as they did, that this civilization – for all its failures and shortcomings – is not only eminently worth saving, but that it was then and is now the last best bulwark against the return of barbarism that now threatens us.

Unlike the generation that sacrificed so much to preserve our civilization, many of us have lately come to believe that our present responsibilities amount to little more than relaxing the religious, moral, social and cultural traditions lest those who opt for the culture’s fruits but reject the seeds that produced it might not feel unwelcome. This minimalist assessment of our cultural responsibility is a striking example of what G. K. Chesterton called Christian virtues gone mad. Contrary to its apparent logic, it has resulted in an alarming number of European newcomers who feel both unwelcome and ungrateful for the undemanding welcome their hosts have extended to them.

The transmutation of Christian virtue into madness has a long history. Long before we became enchanted with ideological multiculturalism, and before the prevailing bias of academic intellectuals and the commentariat was labeled political correctness, Chesterton himself described its English antecedents:

. . . there has been a queer habit among the English of always siding against the Europeans, and representing the rival civilization, in Swinburne’s phrase, as sinless; when its sins were obviously crying or rather screaming to heaven. . . . Now it is very right to rebuke our own race or religion for falling short of our own standards and ideals. But it is absurd to pretend that they fell lower than the other races and religions that professed the very opposite standards and ideals. There is a very real sense in which the Christian is worse than the heathen . . . But there is only one sense in which he is worse; and that is not in being positively worse. The Christian is only worse because it is his business to be better.

If at first this attitude of cultural diffidence and deference seems virtuous, on closer inspection it can be seen as a shrugging refusal to take mature responsibility for the often onerous task of protecting and preserving and passing along to posterity hard-won religious, moral and cultural treasures.

If our civilization is to survive in any form recognizable to those who went to such heroic efforts to fashion and preserve it, it will be because we will have recovered a degree of Churchillian and Chestertonian vigor, from the lack of which our culture has been suffering for decades.

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