The Slow Suicide of the West

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El lento suicidio de Occidente (Spanish)

The Slow Suicide of the West

Jorge Majfud

The West appears, suddenly, devoid of its greatest virtues, constructed century after century, preoccupied now only with reproducing its own defects and with copying the defects of others, such as authoritarianism and the preemptive persecution of innocents. Virtues like tolerance and self-criticism have never been a weakness, as some now pretend, but quite the opposite: it was because of them that progress, both ethical and material, were possible. Both the greatest hope and the greatest danger for the West can be found in its own heart. Those of us who hold neither “Rage” nor “Pride” for any race or culture feel nostalgia for times gone by, times that were never especially good, but were not so bad either.

Currently, some celebrities from back in the 20th century, demonstrating an irreversible decline into senility, have taken to propagating the famous ideology of the “clash of civilizations” – which was already plenty vulgar all by itself – basing their reasoning on their own conclusions, in the best style of classical theology. Such is the a priori and 19th century assertion that “Western culture is superior to all others.” And, if that were not enough, that it is a moral obligation to repeat it.

From this perspective of Western Superiority, the very famous Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci wrote, recently, brilliant observations such as the following: “If in some countries the women are so stupid as to accept the chador and even the veil, so much the worse for them. (…) And if their husbands are so idiotic as to not drink wine or beer, idem.” Wow, that is what I call intellectual rigor. “How disgusting!” – she continued writing, first in the Corriere della Sera and later in her best seller The Rage and the Pride (Rizzoli International, 2002), referring to the Africans who had urinated in a plaza in Italy – “They piss for a long time these sons of Allah! A race of hypocrites.” “Even if they were absolutely innocent, even if there were not one among them who wished to destroy the Tower of Pisa or the Tower of Giotto, nobody who wished to make me wear the chador, nobody who wished to burn me on the bonfires of a new Inquisition, their presence alarms me. It makes me uneasy.” Summing up: even if these blacks were completely innocent, their presence makes her uneasy anyway. For Fallaci, this is not racism; it is “cold, lucid, rational rage.” And, if that were not enough, she offers another ingenious observation with reference to immigrants in general: “And besides, there is something else I don’t understand. If they are really so poor, who gives them the money for the trip on the planes or boats that bring them to Italy? Might Osama bin Laden be paying their way, at least in part?” …Poor Galileo, poor Camus, poor Simone de Beauvoir, poor Michel Foucault.

Incidentally, we should remember that, even though the lady writes without understanding – she said it herself – these words ended up in a book that has sold a half million copies, a book with no shortage of reasoning and common sense, as when she asserts “I am an atheist, thank God.” Nor does it lack in historical curiosities like the following: “How does one accept polygamy and the principle that women should not allow photographs to be taken of them? Because this is also in the Q’uran,” which means that in the 7th century Arabs were extremely advanced in the area of optics. Nor is the book lacking in repeated doses of humor, as with these weighty arguments: “And, besides, let’s admit it: our cathedrals are more beautiful than the mosques and synagogues, yes or no? Protestant churches are also more beautiful.” As Atilio says, she has the Shine of Brigitte Bardot. As if what we really needed was to get wrapped up in a discussion of which is more beautiful, the Tower of Pisa or the Taj Mahal. And once again that European tolerance: “I am telling you that, precisely because it has been well defined for centuries, our cultural identity cannot support a wave of immigration composed of people who, in one form or another, want to change our way of life. Our values. I am telling you that among us there is no room for muezzins, for minarets, for false abstinence, for their screwed up medieval ways, for their damned chador. And if there were, I would not give it to them.” And finally, concluding with a warning to her editor: “I warn you: do not ask me for anything else ever again. Least of all that I participate in vain polemics. What I needed to say I have said. My rage and pride have demanded it of me.” Something which had already been clear to us from the beginning and, as it happens, denies us one of the basic elements of both democracy and tolerance, dating to ancient Greece: polemics and the right to respond – the competition of arguments instead of insults.

But I do not possess a name as famous as Fallaci – a fame well-deserved, we have no reason to doubt – and so I cannot settle for insults. Since I am native to an under-developed country and am not even as famous as Maradona, I have no other choice than to take recourse to the ancient custom of using arguments.

Let’s see. The very expression “Western culture” is just as mistaken as the terms “Eastern culture” or “Islamic culture,” because each one of them is made up of a diverse and often contradictory collection of other “cultures.” One need only think of the fact that within “Western culture” one can fit not only countries as different as the United States and Cuba, but also irreconcilable historical periods within the same geographic region, such as tiny Europe and the even tinier Germany, where Goethe and Adolf Hitler, Bach and the skin-heads, have all walked the earth. On the other hand, let’s not forget also that Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan (in the name of Christ and the White Race), Stalin (in the name of Reason and atheism), Pinochet (in the name of Democracy and Liberty), and Mussolini (in his own name), were typical recent products and representatives of the self-proclaimed “Western culture.” What is more Western than democracy and concentration camps? What could be more Western that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the dictatorships in Spain and Latin America, bloody and degenerate beyond the imagination? What is more Western than Christianity, which cured, saved and assassinated thanks to the Holy Office? What is more Western than the modern military academies or the ancient monasteries where the art of torture was taught, with the most refined sadism, and by the initiative of Pope Innocent IV and based on Roman Law? Or did Marco Polo bring all of that back from the Middle East? What could be more Western than the atomic bomb and the millions of dead and disappeared under the fascist, communist and, even, “democratic” regimes? What more Western than the military invasions and suppression of entire peoples under the so-called “preemptive bombings”?

All of this is the dark side of the West and there is no guarantee that we have escaped any of it, simply because we haven’t been able to communicate with our neighbors, who have been there for more than 1400 years, with the only difference that now the world has been globalized (the West has globalized it) and the neighbors possess the main source of energy that moves the world’s economy – at least for the moment – in addition to the same hatred and the same rencor as Oriana Fallaci. Let’s not forget that the Spanish Inquisition, more of a state-run affair than the others, originated from a hostility to the moors and jews and did not end with the Progress and Salvation of Spain but with the burning of thousands of human beings.

Nevertheless, the West also represents Democracy, Freedom, Human Rights and the struggle for women’s rights. At least the effort to attain them, and the most that humanity has achieved so far. And what has always been the basis of those four pillars, if not tolerance?

Fallaci would have us believe that “Western culture” is a unique and pure product, without the Other’s participation. But if anything characterizes the West, it has been precisely the opposite: we are the result of countless cultures, beginning with the Hebrew culture (to say nothing of Amenophis IV) and continuing through almost all the rest: through the Caldeans, the Greeks, the Chinese, the Hindus, the southern Africans, the northern Africans and the rest of the cultures that today are uniformly described as “Islamic.” Until recently, it would not have been necessary to remember that, while in Europe – in all of Europe – the Christian Church, in the name of Love, was persecuting, torturing and burning alive those who disagreed with the ecclesiastical authorities or committed the sin of engaging in some kind of research (or simply because they were single women, which is to say, witches), in the Islamic world the arts and sciences were being promoted, and not only those of the Islamic region but of the Chinese, Hindus, Jews and Greeks. And nor does this mean that butterflies flew and violins played everywhere. Between Baghdad and Córdoba the geographical distance was, at the time, almost astronomical.

But Oriana Fallacia not only denies the diverse and contradictory composition of any of the cultures in conflict, but also, in fact, refuses to acknowledge the Eastern counterpart as a culture at all. “It bothers me even to speak of two cultures,” she writes. And then she dispatches the matter with an incredible display of historical ignorance: “Placing them on the same level, as if they were parallel realities, of equal weight and equal measure. Because behind our civilization are Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Phidias, among many others. There is ancient Greece with its Parthenon and its discovery of Democracy. There is ancient Rome with its grandeur, its laws and its conception of the Law. With its sculpture, its literature and its architecture. Its palaces and its amphitheaters, its aqueducts, its bridges and its roads.”

Is it really necessary to remind Fallaci that among all of that and all of us one finds the ancient Islamic Empire, without which everything would have burned – I am talking about the books and the people, not the Coliseum – thanks to centuries of ecclesiastical terrorism, quite European and quite Western? And with regard to the grandeur of Rome and “its conception of the Law” we will talk another day, because here there is indeed some black and white worth remembering. Let’s also set aside for the moment Islamic literature and architecture, which have nothing to envy in Fallaci’s Rome, as any half-way educated person knows.

Let’s see, and lastly? “Lastly – writes Fallaci – there is science. A science that has discovered many illnesses and cures them. I am alive today, for the time being, thanks to our science, not Mohammed’s. A science that has changed the face of this planet with electricity, the radio, the telephone, the television… Well then, let us ask now the fatal question: and behind the other culture, what is there?”

The fatal answer: behind our science one finds the Egyptians, the Caldeans, the Hindus, the Greeks, the Chinese, the Arabs, the Jews and the Africans. Or does Fallaci believe that everything arose through spontaneous generation in the last fifty years? She needs to be reminded that Pythagoras took his philosophy from Egypt and Caldea (Iraq) – including his famous mathematical formula, which we use not only in architecture but also in the proof of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity – as did that other wise man and mathematician Thales. Both of them traveled through the Middle East with their minds more open than Fallaci’s when she made the trip. The hypothetical-deductive method – the basis for scientific epistemology – originated among Egyptian priests (start with Klimovsky, please), zero and the extraction of square roots, as well as innumerable mathematical and astronomical discoveries, which we teach today in grade school, were born in India and Iraq; the alphabet was invented by the Phoenicians (ancient Lebanese), who were also responsible for the first form of globalization known to the world. The zero was not an invention of the Arabs, but of the Hindus, but it was the former who brought it to the West. By contrast, the advanced Roman Empire not only was unfamiliar with zero – without which it would be impossible to imagine modern mathematics and space travel – but in fact possessed an unwieldy system of counting and calculation that endured until the late Middle Ages. Through to the early Renaissance there were still businessmen who used the Roman system, refusing to exchange it for Arabic numerals, due to racial and religious prejudices, resulting in all kinds of mathematical errors and social disputes. Meanwhile, perhaps it is better to not even mention that the birth of the Modern Era began with European cultural contact – after long centuries of religious repression – first with Islamic culture and then with Greek culture. Or did anyone think that the rationalism of the Scholastics was a consequence of the practice of torture in the holy dungeons? In the early 12th century, the Englishman Adelard of Bath undertook an extensive voyage of study through the south of Europe, Syria and Palestine. Upon returning from his trip, Adelard introduced into under-developed England a paradigm that even today is upheld by famous scientists like Stephen Hawking: God had created Nature in such a way that it could be studied and explained without His intervention. (Behold the other pillar of the sciences, rejected historically by the Roman Church.) Indeed, Adelard reproached the thinkers of his time for having allowed themselves to be enthralled by the prestige of the authorities – beginning with Aristotle, clearly. Because of them he made use of the slogan “reason against authority,” and insisted he be called “modernus.” “I have learned from my Arab teachers to take reason as a guide – he wrote – but you only adhere to what authority says.” A compatriot of Fallaci, Gerardo de Cremona, introduced to Europe the writings of the “Iraqi” astronomer and mathematician Al-Jwarizmi, inventor of algebra, of algorithms, of Arabic and decimal calculus; translated Ptolemy from the Arabic – since even the astronomical theory of an official Greek like Ptolemy could not be found in Christian Europe – as well as dozens of medical treatises, like those of Ibn Sina and Irani al-Razi, author of the first scientific treatise on smallpox and measles, for which today he might have been the object of some kind of persecution.

We could continue listing examples such as these, which the Italian journalist ignores, but that would require an entire book and is not the most important thing at the moment.

What is at stake today is not only protecting the West against the terrorists, home-grown and foreign, but – and perhaps above all – protecting the West from itself. The reproduction of any one of its most monstrous events would be enough to lose everything that has been attained to date with respect to Human Rights. Beginning with respect for diversity. And it is highly probable that such a thing could occur in the next ten years, if we do not react in time.

The seed is there and it only requires a little water. I have heard dozens of times the following expression: “the only good thing that Hitler did was kill all those Jews.” Nothing more and nothing less. And I have not heard it from the mouth of any Muslim – perhaps because I live in a country where they practically do not exist – nor even from anyone of Arab descent. I have heard it from neutral creoles and from people of European descent. Each time I hear it I need only respond in the following manner in order to silence my interlocutor: “What is your last name? Gutiérrez, Pauletti, Wilson, Marceau… Then, sir, you are not German, much less a pure Aryan. Which means that long before Hitler would have finished off the Jews he would have started by killing your grandparents and everyone else with a profile and skin color like yours.” We run the same risk today: if we set about persecuting Arabs or Muslims we will not only be proving that we have learned nothing, but we will also wind up persecuting those like them: Bedouins, North Africans, Gypsies, Southern Spaniards, Spanish Jews, Latin American Jews, Central Americans, Southern Mexicans, Northern Mormons, Hawaiians, Chinese, Hindus, and so on.

Not long ago another Italian, Umberto Eco, summed up a sage piece of advice thusly: “We are a plural civilization because we permit mosques to be built in our countries, and we cannot renounce them simply because in Kabul they throw Christian propagandists in jail […] We believe that our culture is mature because it knows how to tolerate diversity, and members of our culture who don’t tolerate it are barbarians.”

As Freud and Jung used to say, that act which nobody would desire to commit is never the object of a prohibition; and as Boudrillard said, rights are established when they have been lost. The Islamic terrorists have achieved what they wanted, twice over. The West appears, suddenly, devoid of its greatest virtues, constructed century after century, preoccupied now only with reproducing its own defects and with copying the defects of others, such as authoritarianism and the preemptive persecution of innocents. So much time imposing its culture on the other regions of the planet, to allow itself now to impose a morality that in its better moments was not even its own. Virtues like tolerance and self-criticism never represented its weakness, as some would now have it, but quite the opposite: only because of them was any kind of progress possible, whether ethical or material. Democracy and Science never developed out of the narcissistic reverence for its own culture but from critical opposition within it. And in this enterprise were engaged, until recently, not only the “damned intellectuals” but many activist and social resistance groups, like the bourgeoisie in the 18th century, the unions in the 20th century, investigative journalism until a short time ago, now replaced by propaganda in these miserable times of ours. Even the rapid destruction of privacy is another symptom of that moral colonization. Only instead of religious control we will be controlled by Military Security. The Big Brother who hears all and sees all will end up forcing upon us masks similar to those we see in the East, with the sole objective of not being recognized when we walk down the street or when we make love.

The struggle is not – nor should it be – between Easterners and Westerners; the struggle is between tolerance and imposition, between diversity and homogenization, between respect for the other and scorn and his annihilation. Writings like Fallaci’s The Rage and the Pride are not a defense of Western culture but a cunning attack, an insulting broadside against the best of what Western culture has to offer. Proof of this is that it would be sufficient to swap the word Eastern for Western, and a geographical locale or two, in order to recognize the position of a Taliban fanatic. Those of us who have neither Rage nor Pride for any particular race or culture are nostalgic for times gone by, which were never especially good or especially bad.

A few years ago I was in the United States and I saw there a beautiful mural in the United Nations building in New York, if I remember correctly, where men and women from distinct races and religions were visually represented – I think the composition was based on a somewhat arbitrary pyramid, but that is neither here nor there. Below, with gilded letters, one could read a commandment taught by Confucius in China and repeated for millennia by men and women throughout the East, until it came to constitute a Western principle: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In English it sounds musical, and even those who do not know the language sense that it refers to a certain reciprocity between oneself and others. I do not understand why we should scratch that commandment from our walls – founding principle for any democracy and for the rule of law, founding principle for the best dreams of the West – simply because others have suddenly forgotten it. Or they have exchanged it for an ancient biblical principle that Christ took it upon himself to abolish: “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Which at present translates as an inversion of the Confucian maxim, something like: do unto others everything that they have done to you – the well-known, endless story.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

Jorge Majfud,

Originally publish in La República, Montevideo, January 8, 2003


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