Symposium: The Problem with "Western Civ" - Intercollegiate Studies Institute: Think. Live Free.

Symposium: The Problem with “Western Civ”

There is no such thing as “Eastern Civ.”

Jesse Jackson and his disciples at Stanford proved that much in 1988. They succeeded in accelerating a growing disaffection for this thing called Western Civilization, but, liberated from those shackles, they had nothing to which to turn. There was no alternative of the same scale and scope, with the same coherence and grand sweep. What resulted was not disengagement with the West, but a grudging engagement predicated on hostility.

Had Jackson and the rest had an alternative to offer, Samuel Gregg’s recommendation in “Politics, Ideas, and the West” that conservatism champion “Western Civilization” would be much simpler. But the fact that we can’t “get outside” Western Civ, that the alternative for Western Civ opponents was not to study Chinese dynastic traditions but to launch a hunt for imperialist symbolism in Shakespearean sonnets, suggests that we are all, conservatives and liberals alike, fighting over the same thing—and all from the inside.

The conceit among some conservatives (I don’t think Mr. Gregg is so afflicted) is that Western Civilization is a decidedly conservative thing, that the arc of history and philosophy that stretches, rainbow-like, from Athens to Philadelphia, is the narrative of the success of trickle-down economics. Of course, the path from Homer to the March on Washington is much more meandering; in fact, we ought to be astonished that the whole thing did not meander over a cliff along the way. Because while Western Civilization contains Burke and Tocqueville and Churchill, it also contains Machiavelli and Marx and the Kennedys.

Western Civilization is a fussy thing. Conservatives cannot lay claim to the whole of it—and they should not want to. Western Civilization is chock full of events and philosophies that are decidedly un-conservative. The task of conservatism is one of sifting: of identifying that which is good and of showing the ways in which good things—good ideas, good principles, good ways of living, etc.—have worked their way down to our time.

But it may be that, in the end, those goods are rare and, like jewels, stumbled upon in the darkness and only extracted with much time and effort and care. If so, we ought not waste our time laying claim to the murk. Our confidence is not in “Western Civilization” as such, but in the things that have come out of it that are worth clinging to.

This article is in response to Politics, Ideas, and the West” and is part of the symposium on “What’s Wrong with Conservatism?

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