The statement of Barack Obama on the sadistic beheading of James Foley contains a worldview and it is this worldview, which is currently dominant in Europe and not quite yet dominant in America, which is the reason we will lose the war against barbarism. The worldview is called “Progressivism.”
The West won World War II against Fascism at great cost; the British Empire collapsed and the United Kingdom sunk into a socialism from which it has never recovered (though Margaret Thatcher made a noble and magnificent effort to reverse the decline). But America was there to take up the torch and provide some level of stability to the world and leadership in resistance to the Soviet totalitarian threat. But the West won the Cold War more by good luck than good management; Ronald Reagan was a sterling exception to the trend toward progressivism, but he could not stem the tide. America, only twelve years after Reagan’s term of office ended nearly elected the venal huckster Al Gore, the liberal version of Elmer Gantry. Then, eight years later it elected the most left-wing president since Woodwrow Wilson: a Progressivist with strong Marxist leanings who is highly sympathetic to Islam. This places the West in a precarious and dangerous situation. In what follows I hope to explain why this is so.
What is Progressivism? Progressivism is the 19th century ideology that emerged primarily in America (which was highly resistant to the Marxism that was so influential in Europe) and which embodies the Enlightenment drive toward enlarging the bureaucratic state for the purpose of creating a utopia on earth through education, rationality and the rule by experts. Revolutionary Communism seeks the same end goal but, unlike Progressivism, seeks that goal through violence and destruction. Progressivism and Marxism are both Rousseauean in that they believe in the inherent goodness of man, they blame social structures for all the problems of the world and they trust in education and reason as the means to utopia. Marxism and Progressivism both reject the Augustinianism upon which Western civilization was built. Progressivism, though, eschews revolutionary violence in favour of a Gramascian “long march through the institutions” with the goal of fundamentally transforming society.
Why is it dangerous? Well, as long as it remains the province of college sophomores and faculty lounge discussion it isn’t dangerous at all. In a healthy society it would be something that many people would simply outgrow as they gain real-world life experience. But this is not a healthy society in many, many ways. And when a man can become President of the United States while holding sincerely to this adolescent creed, the danger we are in becomes apparent.
According to the White House blog, Obama said:
“ISIL has rampaged across cities and villages – killing innocent, unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence. They abduct women and children, and subject them to torture and rape and slavery. They have murdered Muslims – both Sunni and Shia – by the thousands. They target Christians and religious minorities, driving them from their homes, murdering then when they can for no other reason than that they practice a different religion. They declared their ambition to commit genocide against an ancient people.
So ISIL speaks for no religion…”
Notice how he assumes the role of a scholar of Islam who gets to decide who is truly Islamic and who is not. One wonders by what right he does so. As a liberal Western progressivist, it seems he turns out to be a cultural imperialist after all! He defines Islam and denies membership in that religion to the fighters of ISIL, thus making himself the arbiter of who is in Islam and who is not. This is, to put it mildly, very weird. For three centuries now, Englightenment-inspired thinkers have been drilling into us the proposition that religion is evil, the cause of war and irrationality. Now he is affirming the opposite; religion is good and liberal and progressive so therefore ISIL are irreligious. This is a step beyond the modern attack on religion to a new phase in which religion is co-opted by progressives and turned into an expression of their ideology. (Progressives are already presuming to tell us what “real Christianity” is and is not.)
It is tempting to see Obama as an apologist for Islam, but in the end it is his idealized, liberalized, utopian notion of Islam that he likes, not Islam as it exists in the real world. Sooner or later there will be a tragic collision between progressivist dreams and actual Islamic imperialism, supersessionism and violent jihad. In fact, that collision is pre-shadowed in the beheading of James Foley, but Obama, safe in the White House, is able to ignore the unpleasant reality right in front of his eyes.
One gets the impression from this statement that ISIL’s greatest crime is killing Muslims. He at least mentions Christians in second place, but note that he never mentions the Jews, unless they are the “ancient people” threatened by genocide in the last sentence. (I don’t they are.)
But the next section of his statement is even more revealing of his progressivist ideology:
“People like this ultimately fail. They fail because the future is won by those who build and not destroy and the world is shaped by people like Jim Foley, and the overwhelming majority of humanity who are appalled by those who killed him.”
How lame can one get in the face of barbarism? They “ultimately fail.” Of course they do, but that those who destroy also build empires while others are sitting around waiting for them to “ultimately” fail is also a fact of history. The Roman Empire “failed” – after a thousand years. The Soviet Empire failed too but only after millions perished in the Gulag. And it did not topple over until a Reagan had the courage to stand up to it and give a push. Hitler failed, but he failed because of people like Churchill and Roosevelt and millions of soldiers who gave their lives to stop him. The Christianity of the West gave millions of ordinary people the courage to sacrifice even their lives to stop evil.
What is the source of Obama’s faith? He tells us:
“Friends and allies around the world, we share a common security and a common set of values that are rooted in the opposite of what we saw yesterday. And we will continue to confront this hateful terrorism, and replace it with a sense of hope and civility.”
This is pure nihilism. Our values are rooted in the opposite of beheading? In replacing hateful terrorism with “hope and civility?” Terrorism is just a means to an end; it is a tactic. It can be deployed in the service of dozens of different ideologies or goals. We cannot defeat a tactic. We cannot be at war with a tactic. We cannot solve this problem by focussing on the tactics of the enemy, as if imposing Sharia law on the world by conquest is just fine as long as you don’t resort to terrorism.
The “values” of civility and hope and a civilized abhorrence of beheading innocent journalists do not arise from human nature when it is uncorrupted by bad social structures and enlightened by reason. They are rooted in the great ethical systems of the world, such as Judaism, Christianity, Confucianism and Stoicism. Human beings are not naturally innocent; we are tainted with the flaw of original sin and we need moral discipline and moral struggle in order to be civilized. Civilization is an accomplishment, not our natural state as fallen sinners.
The basic idea of progressivism is that barbarism is an earlier phase of the human race that has now been superseded by the enlightened phase of the human race: the Age of Enlightenment. Evil is back there; Utopia beckons us to the future. This is why the biggest insult Obama could think of to hurl at ISIL is that it “has no place in the 21st century.”
I give Obama credit for saying that there has to be a common effort “to extract this cancer, so that it does not spread” and that “There has to be a clear rejection of these kind of nihilistic ideologies.” Here the clouds appear to part slightly permitting a ray of light to shine on the situation. But the appearance is illusory. He has already made it clear that he is not really talking about the violent jihadist ideology that pervades contemporary Islam; he is talking about ISIL as a mutation, an eruption of evil in the midst of the “religion of peace.” By isolating ISIL as an aberration, he makes it clear that what he is really talking about is not Islamic supremacism or the idea that sharia law should be imposed even on non-Muslims, but only about the specific tactics of ISIL. They went too far and are making Islam look bad; that is their real crime in his eyes.
He could have linked the emergence of ISIL to the genocidal attacks of Hamas on Israel. He could have talked about the need for Muslims to renounce dreams of conquest – in Israel, in Spain, and so on. He could have pointed out that ISIL embodies a militant Islamism that has, for the last hundred years, plagued the Middle East and increasingly the world under different names and in different forms. He could have called for the civilized nations to fight this genocidal, imperialist, supersessionist impulse with all the resources at our disposal. He could have announced the intention of the United States to destroy ISIL and all its works.
But to do so would be to admit that his progressivist creed is a sham and the progressivist dream of utopia a failure. And Obama will never, ever do that. He is intelligent enough a man to learn, embrace and practice an ideology; but he is not reflective or educated enough to let life experience call his ideology into question and seek to correct it. He is trapped in the eighteenth century, just as surely as ISIL is trapped in the seventh century.
If the West cannot shake off the blinders of progressivism and Marxism long enough to confront the reality that civilization is always going to be threatened by barbarism, then it will crumble from within just like the Roman Empire did. History is not the march from barbarism to civilization to utopia. It is a constant struggle of civilized people to fend off the barbarians on the borders long enough for peace, beauty and science to flourish. Augustine was right; Rousseau was wrong. If we cannot get this basic perspective clear we can never see what is right in front of our eyes accurately.
But civilizations rise, prosper, decline and fall; history is unequivocal on this point. And sooner or later the West will fall. As long as is elects college sophomores as its leaders it only hastens the evil day.