Common Interests, Common Problems

This is my first published essay, which appeared in the November 2005 issue of Right Now!, a now-defunct magazine that was edited by Derek Turner. Right Now! deserves to be remembered as a great English-language forum for both European nationalists and the “alt Right” (though no one used that term at the time). I was certainly overjoyed to see my byline in its pages.

I wrote the article while spending a very bohemian summer in France and Germany in 2005, just before I entered a Ph.D. program at Duke University. (I thought it would be best to publish “right wing” articles abroad, so as not to alienate my professors.)

Naturally, there are opinions here that I no longer agree with; indeed, there are opinions here that I didn’t quite agree with when I wrote them. It wasn’t so much a case of intellectual evolution as my unwillingness to fully commit to ideas that I clearly knew were true.

That said, there are some constants. My antipathy towards “American conservatism” is one, as well as my eagerness to get beyond both the Euro-/Franco-phobia and “l’anti-americanisme” that characterized the 2000s. My sense, then and now, was that Europe and America were caught in the same downward, nihilistic spiral. America was hardly a “conservative” or “moral” alternative to “decadent Europe” and, indeed, had much to learn from the culture of our common home.

The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics without God

George Weigel, Gracewing, Leominster, 2005

On 12 September 2001, the front-page headline of Le Monde famously read “Nous sommes tous americains.” Four years later, such sentiments sound either quaint or ironic, as the Atlantic Ocean seems to have widened considerably since. But did the often painful debate over the war in Iraq really result from the fact that Europe and America have fundamentally parted ways strategically, and even ideologically and culturally? More and more, a wide swath of Americans and Europeans would answer, yes. In many ways, the very publication of The Cube and the Cathedral is an indication of this. The volume is aimed at a wide, educated audience, and is representative of a new le divorce sub-genre of American non-fiction (most of which consists of worthless exercises in France-bashing).

A flashpoint of this debate has been the rather unfortunate terminology set down in Robert Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power (2003): basically, “Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus.” Kagan argues that the “power gap” between America and Europe arises as both a cause and consequence of an “ideological gap.” Put simply, Europe believes that all the world’s problems can be solved by a World Court, economic redistribution, and collective security organisations; America does not. This premise is accepted not only by American Republicans, but also by the blithest of Europhiles (e.g., Mark Leonard, who argues for “the power of weakness”).

George Weigel, an American Roman Catholic theologian and biographer of Pope John Paul II, seems to have been spurred to write The Cube and the Cathedral after most of Western Europe refused to support Operation Iraqi Freedom. But then, unlike his neoconservative colleagues (including Kagan), Weigel has a far more passionate attachment to the continent, and calls up much of his inspiration from Western European and Slavic thinkers. Weigel criticizes contemporary Europe in an effort to inspire them—and America—to reconnect with what he most admires of their shared European past.

Weigel conceives his critique through the architectural metaphors of Paris’s Notre Dame (1260-1345) and La Grande Arche de la Défense (1982-1989), a minimalist cube in the corporate district large enough to contain Notre Dame in its hollow inner sanctum. Weigel first asks, who were the Frenchmen who built the cathedral? What constituted this culture whose central monument emphasized communal worship and the contrasts of stone and glass, support and lightness, unity and hierarchy? Weigel then looks across town, and asks, who are the Parisians who constructed the Grand Arch? What constitutes this culture which builds a “monument to humanrights” as a kindofüber-corporate headquarters? (The Arch was dedicated on the bicentennial of the French Revolution by François Mitterand.)

Weigel’s more central questions are, despite the Grand Arch’s pretensions, which culture would better protect human rights? Which culture would more firmly secure the moral foundations of democracy? The question cuts right to the heart of the modern superstition that it is only after tradition and religion have been abandoned that ethical societies can be forged and individuals inspired to flourish. Of course, Weigel’s architectural metaphor is flawed within the context of the book. For what is “the cube” but a French attempt to outdo American corporate culture? Put another way, what is it about, say, the architectural landscape of Huston, Texas, that leads it to be the stronghold of the “faith-based values,” which Weigel so admires?

This quibble aside, Weigel’s critique is most piquant in his look at Europe’s fundamental failure to create a vital culture on the most basic of levels, as expressed by, in the words of Niall Ferguson, the “greatest sustained reduction in European population since the Black Death.” As of 2004, no western European nation comes close to replacing its population: Germany’s birth rate is 1.3 children per woman; Catholic Italy and Spain, 1.2 and 1.1 respectively; France’s is slightly better by dint of its expanding immigrant population. This decline is both silent and entirely self-inflicted. It might be tempting to blame it all on feminism, self-absorbed consumerism, the welfare-state tax burden, or careerism, but all of these explanations are insufficient. What one witnesses in post-war Europe is a culture that, for all of its undeniable achievements, simply does not believe in its future.

Writers like the American environmentalist, Bill McKibben, cogently argue that a reduction in population is beneficial in that fewer people offers the prospect of smaller communities with lightened ecological impact. But such arguments collapse in the face of the reality that not only do modern economies and social programmes rely on sustained populations, but that, in Weigel’s words, “Demographic vacuums do not remain unfilled.” As of today, 20 million Muslims reside in Europe

most of them having arrived legally. The question must be asked, how European will Europe be when, for example, the majority of teenagers of the coming Dutch generation will be of Middle Eastern ancestry?

Many would dismiss this discussion as “racist,” and claim that these new Europeans will become valued citizens (and there is no reason why this could not be the case). However, Muslim immigrants who entered Europe *en masse *in the second half of the 20th Century have on the whole lacked inclination towards assimilation and espouse little in the way of loyalty towards their host nation. Weigel expresses appropriate alarm at these developments, but then, any kind of real definition of what modern European citizenship should be is seriously lacking, and deserves to be fleshed out here. As citizenship based solely on race is equally impossible and undesirable—as it would exclude Arabs who seriously want to become European—it is all the more important for conservatives to base citizenship on allegiance to a nation. Such distinctions allow the Right to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of, on the one hand, hateful racism and, on the other, the “citizen of the world” globalarchy expressed by free-marketers, liberals, and Europhiles alike.

In this line, Weigel is certainly justified in excoriating the EU Constitution writers who avoided even facing this problem. Leaving the door open for Turkish EU membership, they instead indulged in a concept of “tolerance,” which amounts to little more than indifference. Could the EU Constitution, which does not acknowledge the continent’s Christian heritage, truly “give an account of why Europeans should be tolerant and civil? Why not?” The point is well made, but the obvious counter-example is the remarkably secular Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution, and, in the end, it is difficult to fully accept that a nation must avow Christian faith to act ethically.

Still, viewed within its proper context, Weigel’s Catholic-tinged notion of a kind of “Christian Union” seems to reveal a crucial historical aspect of the EU overlooked in the current Europhile/Eurosceptic debate. Whatever kinds of reconstructed Trotskyites support the EU now, one must not forget that the devout Catholics Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schumann were two of the most important in envisioning the project. It should thus be less surprising that Pope John Paul II actively supported Poland’s membership of the EU. For them, a European union, on a very basic level, represented a new Christendom—certainly a Christendom in tune with secular modernity, but a Christendom nonetheless. The current state of the EU is all the more depressing in that such sentiments are now completely absent in the way that “Europe” is conceived by supporters and detractors alike.

Unfortunately, Weigel is less insightful in his discussions of 20th Century European culture and current foreign affairs. In Weigel’s analysis, Europe’s catastrophes arose from a deep and lasting cultural breakdown at the gateway to the 20th Century:

World War I, the Great War, was the product of a crisis of civilizational morality, a failure of moral reason in a culture that had given the world the very concept of moral reason.

The source of this crisis is, for Weigel, intellectual, and consists of the usual suspects: Comte’s positivism, Feurbach’s and Marx’s messianic socialism, and Nietzsche’s embrace of “the will to power.” The rest was inevitable.

This is not a particularly original argument and amounts to a gross oversimplification of late 19th Century thought, particularly in the case of Nietzsche. But even if one were to grant the point, Weigel’s true problem is his complementary claim—sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit—that America has represented a moral alternative. Weigel certainly does not deny the influence of Nietzsche, Marx & co in American life, but still wants to imagine that America has trodden a different, more dignified path into modernity.

One could take issue with Weigel on a variety of fronts—for example, the appalling death of civility in America represented by Wal-Mart, mega-churches, and uncentered suburban sprawl. But this is also a weak argument on the political level as well. It is certainly easy to bemoan Europe’s fraction into extremist ‘isms’ in the first half of the 20th Century. But it is more difficult—and thus all the more pertinent—to look critically at militant universalism in American foreign policy stretching across the entire century, what Claes G. Ryn (a Catholic political scientist more perceptive than Weigel) has called, “America the virtuous.” That is, if one is to argue that the First World War resulted from Europe’s spiritual tragedy, then one must be equally skeptical an American president, Woodrow Wilson, who claimed that America’s national interest lay in “a war to make the world safe for democracy.”

But Weigel reduces the Catholic tradition of “just war” theory to a moral obligation and licence to save the world at gunpoint (although in op-eds, he uses the conservative-sounding language of “advancing the cause of world order”). But he fails both to reveal American interventionism’s ethical foundations, as well as to offer any compelling reasons why Europeans should support the noble cause. In the end, Wilson’s defeat of the German Empire ensured the sustainability of Bolshevism just as Bush’s overthrow of Iraq has galvanized Islamic violence. A proper understanding of America’s “just wars” overturns most of Weigel’s oppositions. Today, President Bush’s most fervent supporters are evangelical Christians, groups who claim to be not only the most conservative, religious, “real” Americans, but hold that it is the military’s duty to expand universal values abroad. America has her own form of decadence, but it is something that cannot be measured by church attendance as Weigel would like.

Weigel’s book was published before the seismic shift in European politics following the non vote in France and the Netherlands rejection of the EU Constitution. Interestingly, the No “coalition’”in both countries included not only the nationalist Right but, perhaps to an even greater extent, a faction of the socialist Left. In turn, in Germany, it is not just the right-wing Junge Freiheit that warns of “the dictatorship of the bureaucrats,” but the Social Democratic Der Spiegel. Furthermore, while the current state of the American two-party system offers no choice for the real Right, in Europe, this is increasingly not the case. And yet Weigel’s deprecation of Europe and sanctification of American “conservatives” offers no space to consider these developments.

Despite these criticisms, as a popular book that brings questions of philosophy and national character pressingly to the fore, *The Cube and the Cathedral *deserves to be read—perhaps most of all because, despite himself, Weigel leaves one with the impression that Europe and America fundamentally share the same problems and interests, both of which are centered on the question of the very possibility of retaining communities, nations, spirituality, and dynamism in a world not only of mass immigration, but of consumerism, economic efficiency, universalism and self-satisfaction.

A crucial case study in survival and triumph mentioned by Weigel is Poland. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, Poland existed solely as a plot of land to be divided and traded between the great powers. The 20th Century brought far worse horrors. Is it not then a miracle that Poland played as significant a role as any in bringing the Soviet Union to an end, and afterwards emerged unified as a nation and people? Weigel is right to find the source of the Poles’ enduring strength in their culture. Even accounting for terrorism, Americans and Europeans face nothing even resembling the direct threat to survival experienced by the Poles. Yet their shared culture is no less at stake.