Friday, November 25, 2011

Why Civilizations Die

How Civilizations Die is perhaps the most important book I've read this year. It changed my mind about an important issue in American national security on which I thought I would never be moved. More about this later.

Mr. Goldman writes under the nom de plume "Spengler" after Oswald Spengler, the German author of the 1917 book The Decline of the West, an influential foundation for the social cycle theory. The book is structured around his italicized "Spengler's Universal Laws" sprinkled throughout the text which serve as something like thematic headings, as for instance:
Spengler's Universal Law #1--a man or a nation at the brink of death does not have a 'rational self-interest.'
It's also broken into three parts, one, The Decline of the East, two, Theopolitics, and three, Why it won't be a post-American World.

In part one, The Decline of the East, he makes the startling assertion (well documented by UN demographic data and other sources) that many predominantly Muslim countries, among them Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey, and Iran, are experiencing a decline in birthrate with a rapidity never seen before in human history such that they are heading, perhaps within our lifetimes, for economic collapse and eventually their extinction as nations. Consider this astonishing and counter-intuitive claim: Iran has become one of the least religious countries in the world. His supporting data is that on any given Friday in Iran only a little over 1% of the Iranian population attend a Mosque for prayer, less than church attendance in the most secularized post-Christian nation in Europe. I had read about the death-spiral decline in birthrate in Europe and Japan in Mark Steyn's America Alone and the demographic time bomb in China with the massive imbalance between men and women created as a product of their "one child" policy, but everything I had read or seen about the Middle East seemed to indicate their birthrates were high and that Muslim births were such in European countries that they threatened to "take over" many of those countries in a few decades. So it was a shock to read Mr. Goldman's case for the "closing of the Muslim womb" as he put it.

In part two, Theopolitics, he makes the case that these birthrate declines are nothing new, but have in fact been repeated many times in history. Indeed in the second chapter of part two he chronicles 3 great extinctions in history: 1, the Mycenae (prehistoric Greek), the Hittite, and the Egyptian empires; 2, the Hellenistic empire (historical Greece); and 3, the Roman empire. But more importantly he gives reasons why such die-offs occur. Consider this short example, an account by Aristotle of the defeat of Sparta by a second-rate Greek power:
Sparta once had 10,000 citizens, but by the middle of the 4th century B.C., Aristotle reports, the number had shrunk to only 1,000. …It is the first report in history of depopulation due to a reluctance to raise children. They concentrated wealth in the hands of an ever-narrower oligarchy, which raised fewer children the better to concentrate wealth in family hands.

Earlier in the book he explains that when a society or culture realizes it is doomed it responds in one of 3 ways: 1, it commits suicide, 2, it quits having children (historically by abortion or infanticide) and whiles away the remaining time in hedonism, and 3, it fights to the death to take as many as it can to the grave with them. The suicide response can be seen contemporarily in pre-industrial tribal cultures who are exposed to Western culture, such as New Guinea and Amazonian tribes whose youth, after seeing the wealth and opulence of the West and realizing they will never obtain this, commit suicide at an appalling rate. The childless hedonism we see in the post-Christian European countries and in Japan. But the 3rd alternative is the threat of Muslim Jihadism.

The heart of the book for me is found in the final part where he explains Augustine's rejection of Cicero's definition of society as a community of interests--a definition with economics at its core--to a people bound together by a common agreement as the the objects of their love. So, in short, civilizations die because they love the wrong things. In Theopolitical terms, this means they love a god who fails:
Pagans worship their own image in the person of gods who are like them, only better. Pagan faith is everywhere and always fragile, according to Spengler's Universal Law #15: When we worship ourselves, eventually we become the god that failed. The function of pagan gods in not to redeem us from death, but to bring us success. Pagan gods do not love men and women, although they may occasionally lust after them. Absent success, pagan societies lose their faith; the religion of the ancient world is a carnival-parade of new gods introduced by winners to replace the failed gods of the losers, as defeated tribes were absorbed into their conquerors. …Athens could not be assimilated; it could only perish of disappointment and disgust. Loss of faith sooner or later sapped them of the will to live. As Sophocles wrote, under such conditions it is better to die, and better yet never to have been born.

In the last half of part 2 he makes the case that Europe actually abandoned Christianity in the 17th century:
Two rival versions of Christianity fought to the death in the Thirty Years' War: the Catholic concept of universal empire, and the obsession of the French that they, among all the nations of Christendom, were chosen by god as his proxy on earth. Both of these were religious passions, and thus the Thirty Years' Was was a religious war. But it was not the Catholic-Protestant war about which he have all been taught. It was a war between Christianity and neo-pagan national idolatry, and Christianity lost.
He credits Cardinal Richelieu as the master manipulator of the war, prolonging the horror, slaughter, and death by starvation for the express purpose of weakening all the European nations involved--including fellow Catholic Spain and Austria--so that France could rise to ascendancy over all of Europe and rein as God's proxy on earth. This is proven by the fact that he maneuvered to support the Protestant resisters after they had been defeated:
By 1635, Austria--at terrible cost--had crushed the Protestant resistance once again. But then Richelieu sent two hundred thousand troops into Germany to fight on the Protestant side. Spain responded with it own forces, and the second half of the Thirty Years' War turned into a war of attrition between Catholic Spain and France, fought mainly on German soil.

In the final section of the book Goldman makes the case that America will not go the way of Europe, Japan, and the Muslim Middle East because she loved the right right things, central among those is God. The first colonists were Christians who selected themselves from out of the paganized nationalism that had come to be called Christianity in the European nations in an effort to create a new society based on Biblical Christianity, the election of the individual through personal conversion, and adoption into God's spiritual commonwealth, Israel.
The Protestant radicals could flourish only by creating for themselves a new kind of country, on whose citizens would select themselves out of the world's nations. The European tribes, whom the Church had nurtured into nationhood, wanted to become the New Israel in their own tribal skin; the Protestant radicals sought rather to adopt individuals into a new chosen people in a new promised land. ...The Europeans were not content with adoption into Israel; they wanted to replace Israel. And they themselves became the god that failed. The Americans chose to build a City on the Hill that would select--in parallel to the Christian idea of conversion--individuals who wished to become part of it.
Europe, in loving their idolatry of nation descended into a kind of paganism, and that paganism, as all pagan gods do, failed. They have lost faith in their vision, and indeed in themselves, and they are dying--through indifference, concentration on frivolousness, and unwillingness to raise children.

This brings me to the crucial issue for which Goldman, through his brilliant arguments, has changed my mind: that of the nation-building efforts on the part of the United States and our battle against Islamic terrorism and its patronage states. Since the beginning, I've always rejected the argument that Iraq and Afghanistan were incapable of democracy. During the post World War II project in which the United States engaged in democratizing Germany and Japan, opponents had argued that they too were incapable of democracy, but men whose work and opinion I respected, such as Natan Sharansky and Fouad Ajami, pointed out that those projects had succeeded and there was no reason these would not succeed as well. Yet, the real question, from Goldman's perspective, is not whether they can become democracies, but whether they can adopt the American model of democracy, for as he says:
It seems pointless to argue whether the American political model is better or worse than any other. It's the world's only successful model.
Germany and Japan may have adopted a form of democracy and become peaceful allies, but they rejected the core of the American model:
America destroyed the German and Japanese delusions of racial superiority and their hopes of empire, and offered them instead a modest position in the world under the wing of American power. It appears that Germans and Japanese don't breed in captivity. Having lost their Christianity to nationalism, and lost their nationalism to losing, the Europeans do not appear to want to be much of anything…humiliated cultures turn sterile and pass out of memory.
The point is, they may have taken on democracy, but they are nevertheless doomed to self-extinction. And the same fate awaits the Islamic nations to which we have committed so much of American treasure.

Where Germany and Japan had worshiped a "god who failed" in the form nationalism and dreams of empire predicated on racial superiority, it is the character of the Islamic god which presents an insurmountable barrier to the American model:
In the American founding, the biblical concept of Covenant undergirds individual rights, for these are granted irrevocably to every member of society by a God who limits his own power as an act of grace…Muslim theology leads to a radically different concept, for an absolutely transcendent God leaves no room at all for the individual.

So what does Goldman advocate we do in dealing with these doomed states and the non-state jihadist entities, and our foreign policy overall? He starts off this way:
America should seek alliances with states that in some way approximate its own exceptional character--in other words, that love what we love--employing our good offices to help them succeed after our fashion. And we should isolate and contain the maleficent influences of states that, repudiating our principles, love other things.
He goes on to clarify this strategy in 6 ways: 1, cut our losses and remove the bulk of our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan with the exception of deterring Iran's encroachment on Iraqi oil fields and special forces to assist friendly local forces. 2, prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons--at all costs. 3, deploy our ground forces to neutralize threats to our security--destroy our enemies, not build the societies of other countries. 4, abandon balance-of-power politics in south Asia in favor of building strong alliances with our natural allies, such as India (not Pakistan). 5, engage China in rivalry without hostility. 6, Russia, he sees as a particularly difficult case with its move to once again obtain control over its former Soviet rein of influence. America's attempts at supporting freedom movements within Kyrgyzstan and the Ukraine have failed, but it's essential that we make clear to Russia that "Poland is a Western nation that must remain secure under the wing of American friendship, and that no form of intimidation will be tolerated."

What do I take away from this? I believe our military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq were absolutely necessary for the punishment and containment of these terrorist-supporting states in the wake of the 9-11 attack, but I now see the folly of our nation-building enterprise--in the long view it is doomed and a tragic waste of blood and treasure. So in this respect I have moved a long way toward the view held by John Derbyshire and, toward the end of his life, William Buckley Jr.

To those who are intrigued by these arguments, as well as those who remain skeptical, I urge you to read this important book and evaluate Mr. Goldman's full case as I'm sure my synopsis of them are sadly inadequate in doing them justice.


Jeannie said...

Awesome! I wish every American would read this.

Jeannie said...

Maybe, our involvement in the Middle East - Pakistan, Afganistan, Iran, Iraq, etc. is the force that lets those people see that what their leaders are telling them "aint neccessarily so."

Jeannie said...

And so that is why they are in decline... Like your example of amazon tribes.

Frank S