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Back to the Future: Transatlantic Culture Diatribes as Symptoms of an Alliance in Disarray? Back to the Future: Transatlantic Culture Diatribes as Symptoms of an Alliance in Disarray?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-01-04 12:18:00
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Lately one can detect in some of the otherwise excellent political contributions to Ovi from both sides of the Atlantic pond a tendency to mindlessly critique American and European cultures and pit one against the other. This is not to imply that all is well and there is nothing to critique. I for one have previously pointed out areas urgently in need of reform. But in point of fact, this knee jerk reaction seeking to place blame for one’s faults on alleged allies is nothing new. To feel more American it seems to be imperative to criticize all things European, and vice versa. E.g., on this side of the Atlantic, Greece has become the favored example of everything America ought to avoid politically and financially. On the other side, America is usually mentioned at the best example of a superficial, narcissistic, materialistic culture vulgarizing and trivializing everything it touches.

This is an ugly phenomenon of cultural anthropology as well as of psychology which, if truth be told, was present even before the current financial crisis ensued and may in part reflect a natural competitive streak between two economic giants. When one points out however that these diatribes may be a bit too simplistic and indiscriminate, the reply, more often than not, takes the form of an advice not to be too squeamish and thin skinned, that the criticism has no sinister intentions, it is meant merely as a sincere concern within an ongoing frank dialogue among friends and allies for the purpose of strengthening bridges of understandings that are now in disrepair. After all, it is argued, friends and allies who espouse a democratic system and promote free speech can well afford to be transparent with each other; it’s ultimately to their mutual benefit.  

Fine, but what remains puzzling is the fact that even initiatives for more friendly convivial relations promoted by President Obama in the last four years have not been spared this mindless and blunt criticism. The former anti-Americanism in some political sections of European society is as virulent as ever, and so does anti-Europeanism in the US, especially in academia. Without impugning intentions and descending to ad hominem arguments, I have been harboring lately a nagging counter-intuitive suspicion that this kind of critique is a bit too generalized, painted with too wide of a brush, and it contains too many shallow gratuitous caricatures and clichés, often promoted by those who are most ignorant of US or EU culture, who have never lived or studied on the other side for any length of time or at the very least studied its history. Those, in other words, who in an era of global anti-nationalism, federalism, multi-culturalism and solidarity  are rather contemptuous of those values.

One of the often heard cliché on transatlantic relations is this one: “there is so much more that unites us than divides us.” That was certainly true yesteryear and to a certain extent it remains true today. But one would have to be blind and deaf not to perceive that those transatlantic bridges of understanding, those ongoing dialogues so laboriously built by our forefathers after World War II are now in serious disrepair and in dire need of a second hard look. All I can hope to offer here is a very brief analysis of the problem, a preliminary theoretical diagnosis so to speak, which may be useful to those of us who may wish to attempt a pragmatic prognosis, especially those of us who have the resources and the authority to affect wide cultural and political changes.

It perhaps bears mentioning here that some years ago at a symposium at the University of Florida I heard a blunt speech on the subject, subsequently repeated in Chicago, by the EU Commissioner for external relations Chris Patten. In that speech Mr. Patten identified some general areas which unite us on both sides of the Atlantic. In short he defined them as: 1) common roots in the European Enlightenment, 2) common sacrifices of blood and treasure in defense of freedom and containment of communist totalitarianism, 3) promotion of open markets, democracy, the rule of law through global institutions such as the UN, NATO, the Briton Woods institutions, WTO, CSCE (Conference on Security and Cooperation) where the principle of intercession to protect human rights within the boundaries of another state was enunciated and established.

I happen to generally agree with that list of commonalities, with one important caveat: I would want to stress that the identity, the very soul of Europe, or better, of Western Civilization, will be hard to discern till we manage to focus more intensely on the Leitkultur or guiding cultural principles of Europe, how they arose, developed, and became what they are today. We need to go beyond the Enlightenment and the acerbic anti-clerical, anti-religion critical spirit of Voltaire. Then we may come to an understanding that, if Roman history is any guide, what comes at the end of a process is not necessarily the best. Sometimes it turns out to be the worst.

I remain convinced that we need to explore more carefully that wonderful synthesis of Antiquity with Christianity which is Italian Humanism and Renaissance. That is to say, the Enlightenment that thinks of itself as the culmination of the cultural best still needs to enlighten itself. We need to go back to the future, so to speak, and take as our guide not only Voltaire but also Montesquieu, Vico (the father of historicism), Joyce who knew Vico well and revolutionizes Western Literature, Dante, who in the 14th century had already envisioned in his De Monarchia, a United Europe based on cultural principles, Christopher Dawson and his The Making of Europe, just to mention a few. I have elaborated this idea of LeitKultur in an essay in my book  A New Europe in Search of its Soul  titled “Voltaire or Montesquieu? The Janus-like Face of the EU: A transatlantic View on Cultural Identity and the Emerging EU Constitution.”

But to return to Chris Patten’s list of common interests and concerns, it is perhaps even more interesting that at the very outset of his speech he also mentions some glaring areas of misunderstandings and divergences in outlook. I would like to focus on one in particular; in Mr. Patten’s own words: “There has long been an ugly tendency for some on our side of the Atlantic to measure their commitment to the European cause by their anti-Americanism. And there has been a tendency on this side of the Atlantic to dismiss European consensus-seeking as impishness: condescension masquerading as sophistication. There is resentment, too, that Europeans—never properly grateful for your help in two World Wars and for being put back on their feet with Marshall aid—have for so long taken free shelter under your security umbrella.”

Those are disturbing words indeed. Let me now furnish an example out of my own experience as a participant in the online Debate on the Future of Europe inaugurated by Tony Blair and Romano Prodi (the then EU Commissioner) at the turn of the new millennium. On 17 of September 2002, to be precise, I wrote a four page piece for this debate titled “On the spirit of the Age and reinventing the Wheel.” I added a postscript furnishing the data of an upcoming Congress at Miami College on Building Transatlantic bridges of understanding. I offered the information as a sign of hope that ordinary citizens, having recognized that there were indeed misunderstandings in the transatlantic alliance, were wisely coming together to examine and discuss them openly and democratically. The very next day a reply to this particular contribution of mine was posted. It was from a French man (or perhaps a French woman) by the name of Arpad. First name? Last name? Assumed name? Assumed country? No way to know. But that should not be important in a debate where ideas, not personalities, are being discussed and those ideas can be enunciated even incognito by masked individuals.

Leaving aside for the moment the psychological Pirandellian problem of the point at which one becomes one’s mask, let me read verbatim the short reply; I believe it illustrates my concern about bridges in disrepair and the need for a deeper dialogue between the two sides of the Atlantic: "The program for your Miami conference is quite self-revealing. I don't see any imprint of the anti Machiavellian 'spirit' you try to disseminate in this Forum. Phrases like 'global governance', 'global leaders', 'Americans and Europeans lead the world' sting into the eyes. But the most threatening is the title of your own panel: 'Will Europeans and American societies tend to converge in the next decade?'  Jesus, I hope not. And it should not be in your interest either if you take your own contributions to this Forum serious [sic]. Let's hope that Europe will be able to escape the sirens of materialistic over-kill from across the Atlantic." What Mr. Arpad seems to have overlooked is that the Congress was organized by his French-European fellow nationals, not by Americans. He has hurried to judge the book by its cover before having given himself an opportunity to read and ponder it. Also he conveniently overlooks that the title of the panel is not a statement but a question to be explored and answered. This cavalier mode of criticism is often typical of the transatlantic diatribes mentioned above in the title of this essay. One begins to wonder if an ax is not being ground rather than the search for truth.

And this brings us back to Mr. Patten’s declared “ugly tendency” as exemplified by the above response. It seems to me that the understanding of how those transatlantic relations are damaged, and consequently how we may proceed to repair them, would be a lot easier if we explored the historical roots of the current cultural diatribes still ongoing, and then examined how and why Europeans and Americans perceive them differently. I would suggest that the first thing that needs to be done is to clear the underbrush of a superficial analysis that pits European cultural superiority, smacking of cultural elitism, to American condescension and naiveté in world affairs, redolent of neo-imperialism and issuing in slogans such “Americans from Mars, Europeans from Venus.” I am suggesting that we should understand those diatribes as an internal struggle going on within Western Civilization on both sides of the Atlantic. 

The culture diatribes that one discerns in various transatlantic forums of the 21st century have to be seen for what they are: a pitting of “orthodoxy” against “progressivism.” This division cuts across religions, faiths, secular ideologies, agnostic ideologies, national and transnational boundaries, even those with an ocean in between. In general the progressives identify with the radical Enlightenment of a Voltaire and Rousseau all the way down to their philosophical heir, the late Richard Rorty. This Enlightenment of theirs is not to be confused with the Enlightenment of a Montesquieu who wants to simply understand historically what Western Civilization’s identity might be. The radical Enlightenment of Voltaire and Rousseau combines rationalism with individualism. Truth itself seems to be progressive, to be understood as a process reality, a reality that is never stable and absolute but continually changing and unfolding within time and space. Hence that mind-set has a tendency to brand itself “progressive.” The philosophical scaffolding is Hegel’s: there is a thesis confronts an anti-thesis  resulting is a synthesis who then becomes a thesis in search of another anti-thesis; and so on ad infinitum till “geist” (spirit) comes in sight on the horizon. What is lost sight here is that the whole scheme is deterministic and robs man of his free will and his ability to determine his ultimate destiny and destination. To be sure, the father of existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard, was quick to point out this flaw in the theory.

The political right and left extremes of this process philosophy spectrum is what in America goes under the name of libertarianism, a radical freedom taking precedence even over truth, if it must. It is not “the truth shall make you free” but “freedom shall yield you truth.” Here there is no right or left, just the freedom to be an individual and ignore, if one must, even the common good. Somehow, within this laissez-faire doctrine, if everybody takes care of his own individual good, the common good will somehow take care of itself. This of course has echoes of Alfred Whitehead’s process philosophy, not to speak of Adam Smith or the social Darwinism of Ayn Rand.

Progressive ideals tend to re-symbolize even historic faiths, such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, in line with the prevailing assumptions of modern contemporary life. They are in fact the current politically correct ideals. Where those assumptions may came from is not questioned too much; the future destination is much more important than a hard look at the past and recovering one’s lost historical memory and imagination. These are the men and women with binoculars but no rear view mirrors. The true believers in this group have a tendency to become fanatical and brutal once they accept and implement an ideology such as that of Nazism or Communism.

The orthodox, on the other hand of the spectrum, are those who just as fanatically, and of whatever religious or political stripe, want to impose on the rest of society the idea that moral authority comes from above and it is timeless. They want to anchor cultural norms on a commitment to an external, transcendent authority. Within Catholicism they are more Catholic than the Pope in Rome. Within Protestantism they are fundamentalists who have made the Bible an idol of sort conveniently forgetting that for the first 60 years or so of Church history there was no New Testament but just an oral tradition on Jesus of Nazareth.

It seems that this culture war cutting across religious and moral traditions within Western Civilization, is in reality a conflict over the means of cultural production and the power to define the meaning of Western Civilization. Because both groups do not bother much to examine and reason over their taken for granted assumptions and ideologies taken on faith, so to speak, no reasonable compromise or synthesis seems achievable any time soon; at least not one that in any shape or form resembles that wonderful synthesis of reason and revelation brought about by a Thomas Aquinas.

Consequently, religious and political traditions that were formally united are now split. For example, the former enemies, Catholicism and Protestantism, are now busy conducting a cultural war between the orthodox and the progressives in their own midst. In other words, the struggle is over the “Enlightenment”, understood not as an historical era but as what does it mean to be in the light, on the side of truth and outside of obscurantism. I have suggested elsewhere that in their eagerness to throw away the dirty water of clerical corruption these progressives have ended up throwing the baby with the dirty water and setting up the goddess Reason on their altars and proclaiming brotherhood without fatherhood. More often than not they become faithless unbelievers and consider it a liberation of sort to be emulated by other “enlightened” people.

As hinted above, historically, there is a more moderate, less fanatical Enlightenment, that of Montesquieu and Vico, an Enlightenment that wants to understand the historical conditions of the origins and development of Western Civilization so that its survival may be envisioned, if indeed it be worth preserving. This more moderate and imaginative Enlightenment understands reason not as the slave of passions or an absolute in itself, a la De Sade or a la Descartes (“cogito ergo sum”) or a la Bacon (“knowledge is power”), but as a tool to better understand history. This is crucial, given that as Vico has taught us, Man is indeed his own history. But it would appear that within Academia, this moderate Enlightenment has won precious few supporters.

While enjoying all the material comforts of the West, these intellectually pusillanimous men that Nietzsche would dub “the last men,” are busy predicting the “end of history” and the demise of the West. They go by the name of multiculturalists, environmentalists, gender scholars, post-modernists, deconstructionists, you name it. They want to save the whale but cannot save their soul. They can all be grouped under the umbrella of Anti-Westernists. Anti-Westernism has indeed become another “politically correct” position. Some of them will claim that they wish not to subvert but to improve the West, make it live-up to its own ideals. In reality they are sabotaging in susceptible young minds any cultural confidence in the enduring legacy and the future of the West. This happened especially in the 90s when a revised story of the West was taught, one as a flawed experiment by mostly white European old men needing a cure from an enlightened progressive elite, themselves. This going on, mind you, at the same time that Christopher Dawson’s book The Making of Europe was acquiring influence and popularity. Quite puzzling!

Let us now briefly examine how this culture war has been misinterpreted and promoted by fanatics on both sides of the Atlantic as EU culture vs. US culture. Some time ago, there was even a song out in England titled “I am afraid of Americans.” How have we gotten from “the Russians are coming” to “The Americans are coming!”? On this side of the Atlantic, the multi-culturalists who attack the modern West argue that the United States is no longer part of the West and that in fact it should be seeking for a new identity that goes beyond passé anachronistic European legacies such as Judeo-Christian liberalism, or scientific positivistic knowledge.

Paradoxically, in Europe America is no longer seen as the core of the West but as a degradation of sort: an immoral, uncultured, exploitative West best left behind. This echoes Toynbee’s thesis that the West should jettison an American influence which does not respect the particularities of the European cultural heritage. Not to speak of Baudelaire’s assertion that “technology shall Americanize us all.” The Cold War, after its demise, begins to be seen as an American device to impose American economic and cultural hegemony. Allegedly this phenomenon was not perceived when Western Europe, being under Communism’s gun, so to speak, accepted unconditionally the protection of the American nuclear umbrella. No wonder people on both sides of the Atlantic are now wondering if this transatlantic partnership has always been one of mutual convenience and exploitation having nothing to do with an understanding of common origins and common values.

Be that as it may, beginning with the 60s cultural anti-Americanism in its left wing version was a definition of the West as a capitalist, secularist, money-grubbing, oppressive culture with its source and its core in America. To abolish this kind of West and emancipate humanity one had to abolish America first. This thesis was of course accepted at the time by all the neo-Marxists of Europe still looking to Russia for their ideological inspiration and condemning an Ignazio Silone and a Solzhenitsyn for having dared denounce the Machiavellian real politik paradigm of Russian Communism. When Solzhenitsyn and Silone, however, came to America to denounce the same Machiavellian real politik in the West, (what Kissinger used to call the “ultimate aphrodisiac’), they found themselves declared “persona non grata.”

Anti-Americanism also has its right wing version such as that of Augusto Del Noce, an Italian philosopher and an anti-communist, who advocated a distinction between “Westernism” centered in America and the religious spirit needed to recover its identity in opposition to the godless American West. Curious indeed, given that this is the only country in the world with the slogan “in God we trust” on its currency and invoking the Creator in its Constitution, a country wherein some 60% of the population attend religious services weekly compared to 25% for Europe. Be that as it may, Del Noce correctly predicted that Communism would be defeated because it was less able than secular capitalism to provide consumerism to the masses of Europe. But, as the argument goes, this general “Western” hedonism promoted by capitalistic America, would eventually usher in a return journey to the transcendent faith and genuine Western values. In other words, before they got better, things had to get much worse. I would wager that many present day fundamentalists in America, the children of Calvin and Puritanism, (see Charles Colson’s Beyond the Night: Living in the New Dark Age) would wholly subscribe to such a thesis.

The paradox seems to be this: Del Noce, in denouncing a West devoid of history, culture, religion, tradition, was advocating precisely what the American anti-Westerners wanted. The West that they rejected was what conservatives like Del Noce wanted to keep, the common transatlantic culture of Christianity, democracy, liberal philosophy, science, the common literary and political traditions; in short, the west of the Enlightenment which did not reject religion, that is to say, that of a Montesquieu more than that of a Voltaire.

And here is how the misperception developed: outside the United States the attack on the West took the form of Anti-Americanism. In America, especially in Academia, it took the form of anti-Eurocentrism. One party’s target was the other’s goal. Some Anti-Americanists (and one can easily spot them in the debate on Europe) vehemently proclaim that they want to restore those cultural traditions that in America are called Western and are attacked or defended accordingly. More often, the American anti-Westerner wants a rootless, content-less culture. The kind of culture declared by the likes of Del Noce as empty, meaningless, nihilistic and defined as “Weternism.” Indeed all those students shouting “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go” at American campuses in the 80s and 90s would have been quite surprised to find out that, according to their European counterparts, they were not rejecting the West but representing its worst aspects. Oh, the ironies of history!

One modest suggestion and I close: it seems to me that one way of resolving the above described paradox of a West that is hated in America for being European and hated in Europe for being American is to begin to perceive, as Montesquieu and De Toqueville certainly perceived, that culturally we are dealing with two sides of the same Janus-faced complex of institutions which have a common origin. When one returns to those origins one begins to perceive that within Western Civilization on both sides of the Atlantic, for better or for worse, scientific reason, tradition, consumer culture, secular liberalism, are not necessarily parts of opposites but parts of the New West. The questions that then remain to be explored are these: does this New Transatlantic West of the 21st century, know where it’s coming from? Is it minimally conscious of its own rich historical heritage and tradition? Does it have a strong enough cultural identity or a soul to permit the forging of a viable future? Or should the operative metaphor within a complex cultural anthropology be that of the Titanic journeying full speed ahead into a future menaced by the sinister icebergs of nihilism? Would it not be wiser by far to envision the paradox of “back to the future”?

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Emanuel Paparella2013-01-04 13:21:10
Errata: At the end of paragraph 19 (7th from the bottom) I left out the last name of Christopher Dawson. Sorry for the oversight.

The Ovi Team2013-01-04 13:26:55
Fixed :)

Emanuel Paparella2013-01-04 15:59:53
Many thanks to the Ovi editors. The oversight was completely mine.

A footnote on passant if I may: a glaring example of the critique I have levelled in the above posting is the most recent article on Europe posted in Ovi which begins the narration of Europe's history with medieval feudal times. The implication is rather obvious: nothing greatly important happened before and Feudalism is ground zero. From then on, it's all progress. To the contrary, my contention for five years of writing on the subject in Ovi is that the history of Europe, if we are to assign an origin, properly speaking begins in ancient Greece and continues with the Roman Empire as Greco-Roman civilization, a civilization resurrected in the Renaissance which literally means rebirth. Basic ignorance of that simple historical fact means that one will arrive at the wrong diagnosis and the wrong prognosis to boot. We may even arrive at a denial of rational science in post-modern philosophy and indeed we have. Stay tuned for more on this.

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