In the Summer 1993 issue of Foreign Affairs, the late Samuel P. Huntington published an essay titled “The Clash of Civilizations?”. The essay’s thesis has maintained an extraordinarily high value over the ensuing decades. In many ways, it became the dominant narrative among certain elements of the political right, particularly in the years immediately following 9/11. The clash, these elements have told us, is between the Judeo-Christian “civilized” nations of the West and Eastern barbarism, usually represented by Islam. While I will not summarize at length Huntington’s piece as it is not the focus of this response, I will say that its core argument is that “the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations”. In other words, states will organize into a handful of blocs built around similarities in cultural identity rather than some unifying ideological principle (e.g. economic model or political philosophy). One of the primary elements Huntington describes as a basis for this geo-political realignment is religion and it is the alleged incompatibility of Western cultural and spiritual traditions with those of the East that has informed international relations and popular discourse for nearly 30 years.
With this hypothesis in mind, let us examine Walter E. Williams’ essay “Assault on Western Civilization” which , at least at first glance, suggests a continuation of Huntington’s original line of thought. In reality, what Williams does is use Huntington’s nomenclature and contort it to create a kind of hybrid where conflict arises not only from external pressures between the civilized West and uncivilized East, but between groups of differing political visions within the same Huntingtonian cultural blocs. In the simplest terms we could say that the “fault lines between civilizations” in this context emerge between the ‘civilized’ supporters of “church, Christian values and family” and the depraved armies of secularism, globalism and liberalism. This is not an unfamiliar refrain. Innumerable books have been published outlining the myriad ways liberals and atheists are corrupting the very fabric of the American ‘way of life’. Entire TV networks have launched for the single purpose of generating and stoking constant fear that feminists and socialists have overrun our nation’s universities and courts in an effort to cultivate generations of weaklings and godless freeloaders. It is the “left’s agenda” that is the opposition, not the ethnic or cultural Other.
This argument, while compelling in a visceral and partisan sense, is a dangerous one as it fails to account for Western civilization’s many failures and shortcomings and chastises those who push back against a millennium of Western imperialism, colonialism and domination. The writer highlights recent remarks made by former vice-president Joe Biden on the subject of sexual assault and violence against women in which he characterized the American justice system as a product of “a white man’s culture” that “[has] got to change”. Williams proceeds to counter by claiming that women, as a result of Western law, actually “fare better under it than any other culture”.
While the statement is in large part true, it ignores the efforts underway at this moment in many ostensibly conservative states to impose significant restrictions upon women’s right to abort a pregnancy. Perhaps this is not at the same level as genital mutilation (a practice, Williams rightly reminds us, that remains a global issue), let us not forget that in the countries where it is still practiced it is likely unlawful or, at least, socially discouraged. What has happened in Missouri, Alabama and other US states is a concerted effort to enshrine in law the kind of regressive policies for which Williams admonishes foreign cultures. He draws a clear line connecting Biden, feminists and the political left as a whole to the ‘uncivilized’ Eastern lands where honor murders and the criminalization of female sexuality take place. A better question might be one that interrogates whether the average American woman prefers the godly and ‘civilized’ right wing policies that threaten their liberties and bodies or the heathen liberal policies of Western Europe that protect those liberties and help to secure their bodies.
The maligning of the political left continues as Williams denounces higher education in our country as a vast network of anti-American incubators that serve only to undermine and “downgrade” our founders and the American achievement”. This complaint is not limited to the United States; similar grumbling can be heard from conservative commentators in Canada as well. The humanities and social sciences, the legends go, seem to only cultivate liberal hysteria and produce leftist layabouts at the expense of “viewpoint diversity”. This call for equal weight and credence to be given to conservative voices in our lecture halls is not new nor is it a bad idea. It is certainly beneficial to have genuine debates on thorny topics, but only if both parties are genuine and arrive prepared to conduct a proper discussion and not simply hurl insults, pseudo-scientific findings and groundless accusations at one another.
There are, however, certain elements of the political right (and, in the spirit of viewpoint diversity, political left) whose behavior and views should preclude them from any sort of meaningful dialogue. Such carnival barkers as Dinesh D’Souza, Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones have made it obvious their interests have little to do with actual policymaking or rational discourse and more to do with intentional rabble rousing and profiteering. Williams warns us that the liberalization of American students creates an “ignorance” that makes them “easy prey to charlatans, quacks and liars” of the nefarious left. Truly I can think of no better descriptions for those aforementioned personalities who have done far more to harm American political discourse than all Prius driving, kale-munching feminazis that supposedly occupy our university faculties. Perhaps in Williams’ view promoting radical ideas like environmentalism, feminism and multiculturalism are tantamount to a betrayal of American values, but if these lessons also keep young people from succumbing to faux patriotic claptrap and the sermons of incorporated preachers, then I’d say we’ve accomplished something positive.
Huntington, Samuel P. “The clash of civilizations?” Foreign Affairs ; New York Vol. 72, Iss. 31 (Summer 1993): 22. Via ProQuest.
Williams, Walter E. “Assault on Western Civilization” Creators Syndicate ; Online, (3 July 2019).
Associates Press. “Joe Biden criticizes ‘white man’s culture’ and his own role in Anita Hill’s hearing” Los Angeles Times ; Online, (27 March 2019).
Dummit, Christopher. “Canadian universities have a viewpoint diversity problem. We should all be worried” National Post ; Online, (4 July 2019).