THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 640, October 9, 2011
"What is Western Civilization?
The undeniable triumph of the individual"
Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise
A while ago, a reader pointed out to me that I often mention the concept of Western Civilization in my writings, the importance of preserving and extending it, and the ways in which it's threatened by various ideas, individuals, and institutions whose activities must be countered.
My reader wanted to know what I mean by "Western Civilization"; I discovered I had always assumed everyone knows what it ishardly a safe assumption in an era where what passes for academia dismisses everything Western Civilization ever accomplished as the trivial, cruel, and exploitive product of "dead white European males"as if Aristotle, Maimonides, Bartolome de la Casas, David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Michael Faraday, and Thomas Edison were nothing more than sleazy grifters, bilking innocent Third World widows and slum-orphans out of the stunning concepts and brilliant inventions which they, in fact, had originated while gouging out their fields with a hand-held wooden plow or pounding tapioca in a hollow stump.
Sure, we've had our Inquisition, our slaughter of the Albigensians, and our Sand Creek massacres, but for some peculiar reason, nobody with three letters after his name ever contrasts the dead white European males they despise with the suave, sophisticated Aztecs, who murdered between 30,000 and 60,000 individuals every holiday weekend several times a year, or with the African tribal chieftans who sold their own people to Arab slavers, or with one vicious, dictatorial Emperor after another (including Mao Zedong) under the thumb of whom the Chinese people have suffered and died for twenty-two hundred years.
To me, Western Civilization is nothing, more or less, than the air I breathe, the air my mind breathes. But of what does it consist? Why do I believe that it's any more worth saving than, say, that of the Incas?
Primarily, what I find most attractive and commendable is Western Civilization's predilectionconscious or otherwise, deliberate or nottoward progress, particularly with regard to a rising social and economic importance of the individual. Civilizationin this case meaning "citification"is a direct result of the development of agriculture, an innovation that was not entirely without its costs (a subject I went into in some detail in my novel Pallas, inspired by a magazine article on the same subject by Jared Diamond). The ten thousand years that have followed have largely been concerned with correcting various damages that agriculture has inflicted on our species.
Step by step, inch by hard-won inchand not without occasional setbacksthe various people of those cultures in the historic line we call Western Civilization enjoyed greater freedom, rising life expectancies, and living standards, increasing technical and economic progress.
As time passed the curve got steeper. According to the late author and lecturer Robert LeFevre, the average life expectancy at birth for individuals living in London, the most advanced city on Earth, in 1750, was just twenty years, four months. (This expectation increased considerablyas it still doesif a child survived its first five years.) Two centuries later, thanks mostly to the manufacture of iron water pipe and washable cotton clothing, two early products of English capitalism, that number had grown to seventy-two, an increase of three and a half-fold: history's first example of life extension for the masses, and something no king ever accomplished and no commissar ever will.
English capitalism engendered respect for private property, which is the indispensable key to progress and prosperity. America brought a unique political egalitarianism to the table, and a form of social egalitarianism which most folks in the rest of the world still fail to understand.
It all comes to a focus in America, whose bywords are TANSTAAFL ("There ain't no such thing as a free lunch"), KYFHO ("Keep your fucking hands off"), and NOYB ("None of your business"). And yet for better or worse, this is the nation thatat the cost of 620,000 lives, tore itself in half, turned itself inside-out, in an effort, or so it was claimed, to put an end to slavery, and later, to accept the grandchildren of slaves as full participants in society. Add an abiding concern for justice (the first thing any American wants to know is who started it) and a store of accumulated knowledge available to absolutely anyone at a modest cost, thanks, in the beginning to "terrorists" like Benjamin Franklin, and "Robber Barons" like Andrew Carnegie.
Western Civilization is not without enemies, although (or, far more likely, because) it feeds, clothes, and houses more human beings at a higher level of quality, than any other civilization in history. It is impeded by the constant negative drag of religiosity. It is eroded by the caustic self-hatred of leftists. A pursuit of private interest is centrally important and yet historically, gods and governments have either been parasitic to the process or have actively gotten in its way. Nonetheless, each day we hear these obstructionists and saboteurs claimridiculouslythat they are the ones responsible for its success.
The system is such an unreservedly spectacular success that it is also awash, to its detriment, in limousine liberals and millionaire Marxists willing to spend staggering amounts of time and money trying to pull in the gangplank so nobody else can get a ride on the treasure ship.
Western Civilization is presently under the most brutal attack it has ever suffered. Its many enemies, all over the world and within its borders will do absolutely anything to being it down. Paranoia and mistreatment of othersespecially those who fled here from those uglier environmentswon't help it. Nor will irrational and costly wars.
Infantile whining that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights won't enforce themselves (of course they won't, and nobody ever expected that they would), and an overly fastidious reluctance, especially on the part of lace-panties libertarians too good to dirty their hands with politics, to maintain civilization, won't help, either.
What is Western Civilization? The undeniable triumph, ten thousand years in the making, of the individual, in a society of self-governing individuals, deeply rooted in a respect for knowledge and tradition, yet continually looking to a new and even better future, a system that cherishes institutions of private property, individual achievement, and equality before the law, whose only operational boundaries are purely ethical ones, and to whom, beyond that, not even the sky is the limit.
An Intellectual and Cultural History of the Western World (3 Volumes) by Harry Elmer Barnes
History of the Idea of Progress by Robert Nisbet
The Idea of Progress by Charles Van Doren
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