The Old Continent(s?)

At present, I am sitting in the bar of an old hotel in Lisbon, nursing a drink while my beloved has a pot of tea. Over the last couple of days, we have walked all over this city.

Europe is the cradle of Western Civilization; it is breathtakingly beautiful and its inhabitants have refined the enjoyment of life’s physical delights to a high art. Even so, its present state saddens me: Europe is tired.

For those who have money and live here or, like us, are just passing through, life is still beautiful, but whole countries look backward with nostalgia and forward with concern.

Europe’s native populations have opted for the illusions of security – personal and societal – provided by their local governments and the EU – over grander visions and more sustaining values.

For most Western Europeans, Christianity and individual salvation are distant echoes and empty churches. They have adopted, instead, faith in the state as the ultimate provider of succor. It is a poor substitute.

European demographics are in a state of collapse: native birthrates in Germany, for example, have been hovering at about 1.4 children per woman for decades, inevitably presaging catastrophic population declines. Birthrates are inversely proportional to the size of governments. Savings rates, too: governments are all about today, often at the expense of tomorrow.

As a consequence, rapidly aging populations hold fast to dreams of pensions that their young will not be able to pay. There are too few young, and they are unemployed.

Unemployment is staggering – 25% in Spain, for example – and nearly as high elsewhere. Those who do have jobs fight for legal protections that discourage companies from hiring new employees. Freedom of contract and employment at will belong to an earlier era. The employed perceive themselves as an interest group, as do the unemployed, pensioners, students, etc. It’s group against group, us against you, whoever you are.

Everybody fights to keep what they have. Western Europeans speak of having rights  to jobs, healthcare, government pensions, shelter, unemployment benefits, education, whatever – as if God or, if you prefer, nature itself were paying, rather than their fellow citizens. We are entitled to these jobs! We are entitled to these benefits! We are entitled to protection from competition! The neighbors, and the future, be damned: what matters is us, now.

Immigrants come and do not assimilate; secular humanism and consumerism do not inspire. As with Rome and Constantinople, more vibrant tribes settle within the walls long before the civilization fails. The coup de grace follows killer taxation and demographic decline.

Western Europe and North America are analogous to the two halves of the Roman Empire – separately governed societies that sprang from common parentage. We are both (as are our technologies and, ultimately, our material wealth) children of the Enlightenment, but the fundamental distinction between the two halves is that European countries are descended from tribes that created and adopted (and then, alas, in part abandoned) Enlightenment ideals regarding individual rights, whereas North America is home to nations that are defined by our commitment to those ideals, rather than to tribe or religion. (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”).

Our own commitment to Enlightenment ideals seems to be fading, though. Our current President and our most recent former Secretary of State (herself now a leading Democratic candidate for President) have shown a staggering disregard for the fundamental rights that defined us as a nation and set us on a course for growth and success. Our putative leaders have shown their contempt for the ideals that made our country what it is.

The President, for example, declared before the United Nations in 2012 that “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam” – betraying centuries of American commitment to freedom of speech. Where was his accompanying statement that we cherish the right of those with whom we disagree to forthrightly express their views? Nowhere. His mouthpiece, Jay Carney, too, said of the cartoons “We have questions about the judgement of publishing something like this.”

How could the radical Islamists have interpreted these statements as other than craven retreats from our stated principles? How could they not have concluded that they could intimidate us into silencing the (to them) unpleasant voices? They kill to intimidate us because they see that we can be intimidated.

Our former Secretary of State, while mendaciously blaming an internet video for the deaths of the consular personnel in Benghazi for whose safety she bore direct responsibility, promised the wife of one of the decedents that the maker of the video would be jailed – and he was. How many bedrock principles of American culture was she betraying? Freedom of speech? Check. The independence of the judiciary? Check. The presumption of innocence? Check. This woman seeks to lead us – but where?

We even coerce each other to limit our freedoms of speech and thought through voluntary and institutionalized “politically correct” speech codes. We are losing the habits and mindsets that are based on assured, individual liberties.

Western Europe and, yes, North America – following on Europe’s path to ever larger government and ever more parched views of individual rights – are in need of revivals. We need to revive the spirit that built the Western World. That spirit depends on, indeed flows from, an understanding of individual, not group, rights and responsibilities that grew out of the Enlightenment. We are not classes, we are individuals who “are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights”. In recent decades, we have let that vision slip; we have forgotten our history and we have averted our eyes from the future.

While I was writing this post, across the room two couples chatted quietly. When they stood to leave, I heard one say, referring to last week’s murders of cartoonists and Jews in Paris. “This is the beginning of the end. We will not be able to live here any more.” The others agreed.

God forbid.


M.H. Johnston 1/12/15

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