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The Decline of Europe By: Theodore Dalrymple
Claremont Review of Books | Friday, November 03, 2006


That Western Europe suffers from a state of general paralysis is a truth too universally acknowledged to require much reiteration. Slow growth and high unemployment; an aging and shrinking population; scientific and cultural irrelevance to the rest of the world; a large, unassimilated alien population much of which is hostile to the very countries into which it has immigrated—these are just a few of the problems that Western Europe not only fails to solve, but even properly to recognize.

While Europe Slept, Menace in Europe, and Londonistan all deal with the European disease (if such a metaphor may be allowed for shorthand purposes), from slightly different perspectives. Bruce Bawer, an American writer resident in Norway, deals mainly with the threat of Islamism in northwestern Europe; Melanie Phillips, a distinguished British journalist, treats the specific case of Islamism in what might be called its international nerve center, London; and Claire Berlinski, an American writer living in Paris and Istanbul, analyzes the general state of the European psyche. Read in conjunction, they are far from reassuring.

The publishing history of Londonistan is by itself diagnostic of the European disease. Phillips claims that the British government and intellectual elite has been complicit in allowing the dangerous ideology of Islamism—which threatens the security not only of the British state, but of Europe and North America—to take deep root in Britain. The recent plot to blow up ten airliners en route from Britain to America appears to bear her out. Furthermore, an amalgam of cowardice, moral frivolity, lack of conviction, and political correctness (all of which are, of course, intimately interrelated) has ensured that almost every policy decision taken by the government has worsened the situation rather than ameliorated it. Phillips provides a lot of evidence for her claims, some of which (especially the words emanating from the mouths and pens of the hierarchs of the Church of England) would be funny if their pusillanimity were not so typical of the British establishment.

You might have thought such a book, written in clear English, would be snapped up by British publishers, especially as it has sold well in the United States. But it was turned down by all the major publishers in Britain, and eventually taken only by a very tiny house (Gibson Square Books, Ltd.). Its widespread rejections cannot be explained on narrow commercial grounds, or on purely literary ones: 200,000 books per year are published in Great Britain, not all of them by any means imperishable literary masterpieces or bestsellers. The only reasons that withstand scrutiny are precisely the ones that the author offers for the enfeebled stupidity of British government policy. In other words, we are dealing with a deep cultural problem, not just a problem of the wrong personnel being in charge. Mr. Blair, in all his blustering faintheartedness, is unfortunately a true representative of his people.

Phillips's book, being the most narrowly focused, is the best-documented and freest of error. Both Bawer and Berlinski sometimes let their rhetoric run away with them. For example, in order to counter a Norwegian's condescension about America's contribution to the world, Bawer lists American inventions and discoveries, quite a few of which, unfortunately, were not American.

The dangers of painting with a broad brush are that nuances may easily be brushed out. Bawer tells us, for example, that in Britain patriotism has become so inadmissible that showing the flag is associated with fascistic tendencies. This is a slight but significant mistake. Showing the Union Jack—that is to say, the British flag—is not a sign of fascistic tendencies; however, showing the English flag (the cross of St. George) is, or at least has been until very recently, strongly associated with such tendencies. A reluctance to display the English, as against the British, flag therefore has nothing to do with the decline of patriotism, and everything to do with a dislike of the chauvinistic hooliganism that, unfortunately, the older flag has come to represent.

In like fashion, Berlinski accepts uncritically the deeply conventional, but nonetheless mistaken, idea that because British society was class-ridden there was little social mobility within it. A class society is not, however, a caste society. On the contrary, Britain was—at least, before the advent of the supposedly egalitarian social policies that Berlinski correctly identifies as stultifying—the most socially mobile society in Europe, and among the most socially mobile in the world. On Berlinski's view, the immense social, financial, professional, and intellectual success of those Jews who arrived in Britain penniless from the shtetl would be inexplicable. The difference between the success of the Sikhs and the Hindus compared with the relative failure of the Muslims is not attributable, as she claims, to differences in their initial social class and level of education: there must be some other explanation. When an informant tells her that there are, indeed, a few Indian physicians in Britain, a piece of information that she appears to take at face value, she demonstrates a certain detachment from current British social realities: there are, in fact, whole hospitals with scarcely a British doctor employed among their senior staff. Indeed, the senior staff of the hospitals in which I last worked in Britain could almost have furnished a General Assembly of the United Nations, with the Indians being by far the largest delegation.

However, a few errors or even misconceptions do not vitiate wide-ranging books. Both Bawer and Berlinski understand that Europe's inability, indeed unwillingness, to confront the danger in its midst is linked to some deeper pathology, while Phillips provides an important case history, that of Britain. Bawer is particularly strong on the unreflecting anti-Americanism of much of the European intelligentsia, a mixture of historical condescension, envy, and bitterness at loss of status in the world. Europeans often speak to Americans as they would never speak to other foreigners, certainly not to North Koreans for example (were they ever to meet any). As all three authors are at pains to point out, it is possible to disagree with American foreign policy without likening George W. Bush to Hitler, a preposterous comparison often made that reveals that, for the person who makes it, American policy is the pretext rather than the cause of anti-American feeling.

Berlinski, apart from being by far the funniest of the authors, digs deepest where the existential problems that underlie Western Europe's paralysis are concerned. There is a crisis of meaning and purpose in Western European societies that she spells out with admirable clarity. They are almost entirely post-religious, but they have found no form of transcendence to replace religion, and none is on the horizon. An awareness of belonging, or of contributing to, a collectivity or endeavor of world-importance is no longer possible for them (the European Union is the creation of bureaucrats, by bureaucrats, for bureaucrats). Modern Europeans believe in very little, except in as comfortable and safe a life as possible. Indeed, health and safety have altogether replaced faith, hope, and charity as the cardinal desiderata. It is scarcely any wonder that, when faced by people who, quite mistakenly and with a combination of staggering ignorance and arrogance, believe themselves to be in possession of a truth that justifies almost any atrocity committed, if not by them, exactly, then by those whom they have indoctrinated, modern Western Europeans do not know how to react. They have either forgotten what it is to believe in anything, to such an extent that they cannot really believe that anyone else believes in anything, either; or their memories of belief are of belief in something so horrible—Communism, for example, or Nazism—that they no longer believe that they have the right to pass judgment on anything. This is not a strong position from which to fight people who, by their own admission, hate you and are bent upon your destruction, brought about preferably at your own expense. First, you can't take them seriously; second, you suspect they might in any case be right. European multiculturalism is self-hatred writ large—and in the meantime is an employment opportunity for cultural bureaucrats.

Unfortunately, Berlinski herself indulges in the kind of historical criticism that Gramsci would have approved of as a means of undermining and weakening Western societies, and whose adoption by a large proportion of the population has rendered it vulnerable to the kind of nihilism she deplores. She says that the history of Europe is the history of war and genocide, which is about the same as writing that the history of the United States is the history of slavery and racial prejudice. "Ethnic wars," she writes, "class wars, revolutionary wars, religious wars, wars of ideology, and genocide are not aberrations in Europe's history; they are its history" (emphasis in the original). Two hundred pages later she writes again, of Europe's history, "century upon century of unmitigated slaughter and butchery…a tradition of virtually uninterrupted warfare since the sack of Rome." Unmitigated? Nothing else worth recording? Can she really think of no achievement worth mentioning, of nothing achieved in Europe except slaughter?

The whole of German history is treated as if it were but the run-up to Hitler, omitting its very considerable glories, and rendering inexplicable the loyalty of so many pre-Nazi Jews to Austro-German culture. The hapless loyalty of the great writer Joseph Roth, for example, to the memory of the Emperor Franz Josef, which was only half-ironic and bespoke an infinity of feeling, is quite unfathomable in Berlinski's simplistic view.

Both Bawer and Berlinski insist that one great difference between Western Europe and America is the survival of religion in America, which gives Americans a moral backbone (for want of a better term) that Western Europeans do not have. For myself, I am somewhat skeptical of the strength of American religious feeling compared with the breadth of the religious affiliation that they claim. If Americans were to experience a loss of confidence in their country's power, whether objectively justified or not, the crisis of meaning and purpose might strike them too. After all, pusillanimity is not even now confined to Western Europeans, though it is no doubt at its worst among them; the American response to the Danish cartoon crisis was little short of disgraceful, both in the government and the press. Indeed, the French for once were considerably less cowardly.

Phillips draws our attention to the paradoxical nature of Britain's Prime Minister, who appears so resolute in foreign, and so utterly spineless in domestic, policy. While he is not in any straightforward way an opportunist, and genuinely if delusively believes himself to be a man of principle, the fact is that going to war with Mr. Bush was the only means by which he could achieve personal world importance. Given America's overwhelming military might, he did not risk military defeat; but he was vulnerable at home because several vital parliamentary seats, traditionally Labour-voting, were strongly Muslim. And therefore he did not scruple to allow his party to make use of scarcely concealed anti-Semitic images during an election in which his chief opponent was Jewish; permitted his wife to appear in court to defend the supposed right of Muslim schoolchildren to go to school completely covered, in the full knowledge of what this really meant; and corruptly permitted the extension of postal voting to Muslim constituencies, thereby in effect disenfranchising Muslim women. Phillips makes clear the many ways in which Mr. Blair's government has been complicit with Islamism, and I doubt she will be receiving many invitations to Downing Street as a reward for her efforts.

Will these books appear to have been unduly alarmist in half a century's time? I certainly hope so, and indeed suspect that it might be so. We have had many perils and predicted apocalypses before. Islamism, and indeed (in my belief) the whole of Islam, is potentially very vulnerable to the corrosive effect of the intellectual acid-bath of rational criticism. Therefore, what we have to fear is fear itself: a fact of which the Islamists are themselves fully aware. I hope only that the ultimate critique of Islam in Europe is not a fascist one.

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Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.


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