The University of Texas at Austin   School of Law

Main menu:

April 05, 2004

Press Contact: Kirston Fortune, UT Law Communications, (512) 471.7330

The Decline of Western Civilization's Approval Ratings

by Philip Bobbitt
Published April 4, 2004 in the New York Times Sunday Book Review section.
Used with the author's permission.

The idea of "the enemy" is uncongenial to the countries of the post-cold-war West, countries that until recently believed they had no natural predators. Two new titles address the post-Sept. 11 recognition that we do indeed have enemies in the world.

Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit's book Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies is written against the backdrop of the late Edward Said's influential work Orientalism. Said drew attention to the West's elaborately constructed accounts of an exotic East, and to the grotesque generalizations of the many writers who depicted an Orient where life was cheap, the mentality inscrutable and people were either hopelessly passive or irrationally volatile.

As Said noted in one of his last essays, however, many in the Middle East had themselves "slipped into an easy anti-Americanism that shows little understanding of what the U.S. is really like as a society." They had adopted their own kind of overgeneralizations about "the Other," the West of the East. Buruma, a noted British journalist, and Margalit, a professor of philosophy at Hebrew University, call this "Occidentalism," and in their fine book they show that although such an image serves the purpose of militant Islamism, its history is far older than Al Qaeda and its influence far wider than Asia.

Occidentalism consists of a complex of assumptions about Western culture — that it is arrogant, materialistic, secular, superficial and rootless, and that the United States, against which such charges are scarcely without foundation, is its chief representative. The authors discover the origin of this stereotype not in the East, however, but in the reaction of elements within the West itself to the universalist ideals of the Enlightenment, a reaction that then spread to non-Western societies.

This claim is the most ambitious and impressive aspect of "Occidentalism," and yet as an argument it surely needs further development. Heidegger, Pol Pot and Mao Zedong may all have despised the cosmopolitan city, with its political corruption, loose sexual mores and commercialized glamour. Solzhenitsyn, Osama bin Laden and Herder may all have preached against sterile rationalism and the instrumental, secular view of life. But it is unpersuasive to locate the universalizing goals of Maoism in the ideas of the supremely localist Counter-Enlightenment, and just as unpersuasive to link the blood-and-culture movements of the Counter-Enlightenment to radical, global Islam. Buruma and Margalit are on firmer ground when they show that all these elements are united in their portrayal of the cowardly West as so weakened by its addiction to material pleasures that it is unable to make the sacrifices necessary for its own defense.

If Occidentalism can be found in the minds of Al Qaeda's supporters, it also makes an appearance in the writings of some of the West's defenders, like Lee Harris, the author of Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History. The title of this work brings to mind classic predecessors: Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents and Karl Popper's Open Society and Its Enemies. Unlike Buruma and Margalit, Harris does not strive to complement earlier work so much as to extend it to the contemporary political scene. Bin Laden, the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Iraq of Saddam Hussein are treated to a socio-psychological critique that would not be out of place in a Freudian analysis of a family: by bestowing unearned wealth, status and even statehood on certain groups, Harris argues, the West has encouraged their "fantasy ideologies," which intoxicate and decivilize them. As a consequence, we face antagonists who, regardless of our attempts to placate them, have made us their enemies for no other reason than that they profoundly wish to be our enemies. Because we do not appreciate this dynamic, we persist in trying to propitiate rather than confront them.

Much as Popper once attacked illiberal dogmatism, Harris now reproves the liberal West. In its complacency and comfort, it has forgotten the basis of its own existence — namely, a ruthlessness that it once practiced. We need, he says, to attend to the lesson of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai — that only violent men of honor can save us from the violent thugs who beset us. Unfortunately, he says (in his own display of Occidentalism), we have so debased our virility, our sense of shame and honor, that we risk not being able to produce men who can honorably practice the ruthlessness required to protect our society.

This is a bracing argument. Harris, who writes with considerable clarity and erudition, provides an antidote to the empty claims of some that if we change our behavior in any significant way, then "the terrorists win"; or that if we become more aggressive toward terrorists by moving away from a law enforcement model toward warfare, we have abandoned any claim to legitimacy; or that we can successfully defeat Al Qaeda if only we have better intelligence.

Nevertheless, the shortcomings of Harris's approach are pretty considerable. First, as Ariel Sharon has amply demonstrated, ruthlessness is not a policy; it is only a tactic. Despite Harris's repeated insistence that Clausewitz has nothing to say to policy makers today, we still must learn to calibrate the violence we employ to the long-term political goals it is meant to serve. The successful use of violence, rather than concord with a particular theory of justice, does indeed establish legitimacy, as Harris argues. Violence alone, however, cannot maintain legitimacy. "The strongest man is never strong enough to be master all the time, unless he transforms force into right and obedience into duty," Rousseau wrote. Our own people, to say nothing of the allies we must have in order to wage a successful war against terrorism, have to be persuaded that the violence we use will in fact result in a safer, more humane world.

Harris is a conservative essayist whose work has appeared in Policy Review, and this is a polemical book that must be taken on those terms. Even so, it would have profited from a more attentive editor. To take a single example, on one page Harris writes that "ruthlessness is the great driving motor of human history," while on the very next page he tells us that the "pattern of accidents and/or unintended consequences that are subsequently taken up and turned into a deliberate strategy is the driving engine of human history."

BOTH of these books deal with "the enemy," and so both have a good deal to say about fascism, an ideology built on demonizing the Other. It is good to keep in mind that it was fascism's ruthlessness that ultimately discredited it when it was defeated militarily. Most important, we should recall the words of the fascist Carl Schmitt (no mean Occidentalist himself): "The enemy," he wrote, "is our own question in visible form." What Harris sees in bin Laden is a reflection of what he sees as wrong in Western culture; what Buruma and Margalit see in Occidentalism is the reaction of elements within our own cultural heritage to the universalizing secular message of the West.

Freud and Popper were shaken by the collapse of the Weimar Republic, an enlightened, cosmopolitan state, and it is true that Weimar fell because too few enlightened liberals were willing to defend it, but I doubt this will be the case with the United States or with the West generally. Rather, it is another aspect of the Weimar experience, its internal lack of confidence, that 21st-century Western states will have to face up to. Confidence can be undermined when some Westerners — read "Americans" — are held in the contempt that invites aggression or excuses it by those who envy our success and feel powerless to dislodge us from our ever-growing heights of influence and willfulness. It is not our enemies so much as our unpersuaded friends — as well as numbers of our fellow citizens — who will pose the most difficult challenges for leaders at war with terrorism.


Philip Bobbitt, the author of the forthcoming "War on Terror," holds the Walker Centennial Chair at the University of Texas Law School.