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February 12, 2004

Young Whippersnapper Old Europe

I mostly try to avoid politics here, at least overt politics. If we would believe modern academic thinking, all acts are inherently political, so by that definition this is a political blog too. But that definition is so broad as to be useless in categorizing anything, which, I'm sure, is the ultimate idea behind it. Categorization leads to comparison, and comparison to judgment, and judgment is bad, right?

That said, this is at least tangentally political by my stricter standards. I do believe in classifying and categorizing and comparing, and even judging.

Somewhere in all the swirl of blogs and news on opinions about the Iraq War I started musing over the assumed moral authority of what Donald Rumsfield (or was it Vice President Cheney?) labeled "Old Europe." This, I found, a very amusing topic on which to think in circles. Many on the anti-war side would have us grant some sort of extra value to the opinions of those countries. Why exactly this is they don't say. They want consensus, and what Chirac says seems to hold especial weight, but no one really comes out and says why. Doing so would certainly open their reasoning (or lack thereof, perhaps) to attack.

Let me play my mental game out here:

If their reasoning goes along the lines of, "Well, they are older civilizations and they have more experience of these things, so we should listen," there is some attraction to that from where I sit and type. I am, after all, a believer in the value of Western Civilization. If the views of Old Europe are those of Western Civilization, as it seems they must be since they were the cradle, or the adolescent playroom, of that civilization, I would indeed be interested in and value that opinion.

But are they? Western Civilization as we think of it is considered to have begun in Greece, at least generally speaking. The Greeks, of course, borrowed and stole ideas from all around the area. They then hammered the ore of those ideas into a finer work, which they passed on to the Romans. And so forth. But do we lend the modern Greeks any special weight in their opinions? Or, for that matter, the Italians, the successors of the Romans? Not ever the Greeks that I can think of, and rarely the Italians.

I'm setting aside, at least for the moment, the whole issue that many of those promoting the idea that we shouldn't act without the advice, and perhaps consent, of Old Europe (via the United Nations, partly, but not entirely) consider Western Civilization no better than any other. They are multi-culturalists of the school that doesn't make value judgments on those sorts of things. Instead, I'm considering whether for the wrong reasons they advocate a position that actually makes sense for someone more conservative.

The "older (and more mature) civilizations" thought is certainly implicit in a lot of the opinion coming across the Atlantic. We, here in the 228-year-old United States of America, after all, are mere children compared to them! Or so they claim.

Is it really the duration of a civilization that matters, though? And can those actually be considered to be ongoing civilizations separate from a greater concept of Western Civilization?" Or is it a matter of government systems?

If duration of civilization is indeed of key importance in judging the opinion of peoples vis-a-vis the actions of the United States, why don't we grant China a lot more importance? Or for that matter Korea? Or Africa, to hear a lot of modern scholars of Africa tell it?

I can only presume that the duration of a civillization isn't really relevant. It's just a handy claim for superiority (not usually required when it's clear something is actually superior) for those who seek moral authority of some sort to add weight to their opinions, probably because on their own they lack weight. (Why else would they need to add more weight?)

If it isn't the duration of civilizations that matters, is it perhaps the duration of their form of governing themselves? This one is equally problematic. The form of government that most parties involved in the debate seem to agree is best is democracy. Okay, their definitions of "democracy" vary, if they can actually articulate one, but I think you would agree this is a fairly safe assumption. Not many of them will profess to wanting something other than democracy, though the forms of government they might wish elected in that fashion may diverge widely.

If we take democracy as the form of government most worthy of respect and consider the seniority of democracies in their durations, that would be us. I mean, the U.S. (if you aren't part of that 'US'). Some might dare argue that France is a close second, sort of a later fraternal twin (the French are big on fraternity, after all). But that ignores the fact that French democracy has not continued unbroken for the whole period since the establishment of the irst republic. What are they on now, the fourth? Or is it the Fourth Reich in Germany? It's hard to keep track, isn't it? Duration is not a strength of European continental governments. The current French government, and the current German government, are mere toddlers when compared to the American democracy. And both were re-established by the American democracy's generosity in the wake of World War II. I dismiss arguments that either of them deserve any continuity with pre-war governments. Neither has any moral authority for that claim. Neither would exist in present for today except for U.S. intevention. (Of course, Franch would disavow any need for any "moral" authority, then claim implicitly that they had the moral authority to judge the U.S., all in the same paragraph, but that's not part of the argument, just an easy aside. I'll grant Germany more sense than that, probably too generously.)

Let's look at the durations of these representative governments as human lifetimes and consider the American democracy as middle-aged. I choose that rather than more "mature" to avoid easy assumption of moral superiority that would inhere from the logic of the "old is more authoritative morally" line of thought. And because, in fact, I hope American democracy is a mere toddler itself, that it will continue growing for many more generations of its citizens.

If American democracy is 40 and has existed unbroken for 228 years, the conversion ratio is 1:5.7. Since the French and German governments date back to the end of World War II, which was 1945, they are 59 years old (give or take a few years, depending on when they actually got elections up and running again). That translates to 10.

If they want to claim American democracy is a babe still, what does that make them? Exactly how much importance do we want to give these people's opinions based on the age of their democracies?

Okay, neither of those produces anything terribly encouraging for arguments that the opinions of the Old Europe democracies matter. We could approach this from the perspective of seniority in the tradition of Western Civilization (again, because some of us believe that Western Civilization is A Good Thing, at least when compared to the alternatives). Doing so presupposes that they remain in the tradition, and it's arguable that they have wandered far out to the fringes already. I could argue that other countries, the United States, for one, are far more centrally positioned in the continuum of that tradition now. As such, that position gives the U.S. the "seniority" of opinion.

Instead, the let the tradition itself hold the moral superiority, let it speak through the voices of those who actually transmitted that tradition down through time to us. Some of those are French and German. Let's listen to Alexis de Tocqueville and Benjamin Constant and others, not to Chirac. Go back to the sources closer to the primary sources, not those derived from the derivatives of derivatives.

The tradition of Western Civilization is so watered down in Old Europe (and in the American academy) today that I expect Asian knock-offs will soon dominate the world market in any case.

Posted by dan at February 12, 2004 11:38 AM | TrackBack
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