There Was Once a Road Through the Woods

Perry de Havilland at Samizdata has linked to a piece in the Christian Post written by somebody apologising for being an ardent defender of Islam in recent times, somebody who now feels the critics of Islam were right all along.  This paragraph in particular nudged me into writing a post I’ve been meaning to for a while:

Though we claim the mantle of human rights, free speech and equality, we lack the courage of our convictions when it offends someone. We make the cowardly lion look like Churchill.

Principles are strange things in the sense that they do not necessarily have to be pleasant to be attractive, and that even appalling principles can be more attractive (to some) than none at all.  I recall a section in David Hackworth’s book About Face where during the Vietnam War he interviewed an NVA prisoner to try to understand what made them fight.  Once the prisoner realised Hackworth wasn’t going to torture him, and in fact wasn’t after military information at all, he opened up.  It transpired that the prisoner was four-square behind the idea of Communism and the principles that the leadership in Hanoi was preaching and practising.  Hackworth remarked that although he didn’t agree with the cause the man was fighting for, he could not help but admire the fact that his prisoner was willing to endure extreme hardship in order to do so, and noted that he had a fist-sized hole somewhere on his person (I forget where) that was a result of some battlefield injury incurred earlier in the war.  Hackworth contrasted his prisoner’s dedication with those of the feckless ARVN who generally lacked the motivation to fight, were happy to dodge the action and let the Americans do the (literal) grunt work, and represented a regime that was morally bankrupt, corrupt, brutal and stood for nothing whatsoever other than not being Communist.  He concluded that unless the South Vietnamese get off their arses and start fighting in the way his prisoner was, they would ultimately lose the war.  And he was right.

I am about as far from a Communist as it is possible to get, yet there is no denying the ideas and principles attracted – and continue to attract – millions of people.  I have read enough Cold War history to know that the Chinese fought with fanatical, suicidal dedication to the Communist cause in North Korea, that millions of Russian soldiers died with Stalin’s name on their lips, and that a huge percentage of the Soviet people worked willingly in support of the Socialist cause for decades.  These people might be brainwashed, and they might be complete idiots, but the fact is that having been presented with a set of principles – however warped both in theory and practice – millions of them followed with unflappable dedication.

So how come the Commies lost the Cold War?  Theories vary, but one crucial element in the Western victory was the upholding of certain principles which the Communist Bloc didn’t recognise: free speech, liberty, property rights, the right to a fair trial, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, freedom of artistic expression, etc.  Granted most, if not all, Western countries upheld these principles imperfectly at various times but this does not equate to an absence of principles any more than the largesse of the Politburo meant an absence of collectivist principles in the Soviet Union.

By upholding these principles that were alien to the Communists, the West was able to achieve two things:

1. Demonstrate how they were fundamentally different from the Communists in a positive way, i.e. better than them.

2. Provide an alternative set of principles for those in the enemy camp who wished to reject the Communist principles.

Convinced of its own superior system of government, the West thought nothing of blasting the populations trapped behind the Iron Curtain with propaganda, urging them to convert to its own way of thinking.  An American president – the leader of the free world – called the Soviet Union an evil empire not only because it was, but also because he knew those living under its rule against their will would take great heart from his words and continue to struggle.  The conviction of the West in shamelessly and incessantly promoting its own principles over the Communists’ likely did as much to inspire internal resentment over the Soviet leadership as their own degeneracy: without the former, against what standard could the Soviet leaders and their own circumstances be measured?

This brings me onto what I want to talk about, which is a thought that first started churning in my head in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  That is, the question as to why moderate Muslims don’t speak out and condemn the atrocities carried out in the name of Islam.  It is tempting to say that many probably agree with the atrocities, leading one to question just how many moderates there actually are.  But shortly afterwards I read a comment in a blog by somebody who suggested putting yourself in the shoes of a moderate Muslim and asking whether you yourself would speak out.

And in doing so it became a lot clearer why they don’t.  What we are asking moderate Muslims to do is speak out against those whose actions are incompatible with our way of life.  But what we really want is confirmation that moderate Muslims have themselves accepted our way of life and the principles that underpin it, and will therefore reject the extremists in their ranks.  In theory, this isn’t much different than hoping citizens of Communist countries would accept our way of life and make things difficult for their overlords by seeking change.  But whereas during the Cold War we had clearly defined principles that we genuinely believed were superior and were not afraid to advertise them, what principles are we supposed to be waving in front of Muslims?

And that’s a question I can’t answer.  Whatever free speech we currently enjoy is fast being eroded: when citizens can be jailed for offensive Tweets or nasty Facebook comments, and homophobic remarks are grounds for arrest as a matter of course, then we can probably say that this isn’t solid ground on which we can fight a battle of ideas.  Individual freedom is rapidly disappearing as a concept now that refusing to bake a wedding cake is a matter in which the full force of the law is brought to ensure conformity: I’d not fancy my chances arguing that individual freedoms in the West are nowadays sancrosanct in a way that they are not in the Muslim world.  The state is becoming ever more intrusive, particularly into family matters: with Scotland now setting up a truly Stalinist system of shadow parenting by state officials (H/T Samizdata) it would take a brave soul to try to win over a Muslim by pointing to our superior methods of running a family.

That’s not to say the West has nothing to offer Muslims, because it clearly does.  But the differentiator which enabled them to offer all people – not just Muslims – something better was the society that resulted from first fighting for, and then upholding, the principles on which it was based.  The West appears to have forgotten that it was these principles that made its society attractive in the first place, and it doesn’t seem to realise that if it abandons those principles then it won’t be the same society; and if it’s not the same society, who is to say it will be an improvement on any other, particularly one that’s been aroud awhile?

To repeat what I quoted from the Christian Post:

Though we claim the mantle of human rights, free speech and equality, we lack the courage of our convictions when it offends someone.

If our leadership – and I use that term loosely – lacks the conviction to uphold the principles which supposedly define the West, why the hell should we expect Muslims to come out in support of them?  I suspect for many, faced with a choice between leaning towards Islamic principles and Western principles, many moderate Muslims are choosing the former because they are unconvinced that the latter even exist.  Hell, I’m not convinced they exist in any meaningful sense any more, so why should somebody who comes from a culture where they have been historically absent?

As the aforementioned blog commenter asked, if you were a young Muslim living in Britain over the last few years, which way would you lean?  Which way is the wind blowing?  When you have elected officials condemning the publication of blasphemous cartoons, and newspaper columnists suggesting Charlie Hebdo was probably at fault, would you stick your head above the parapet and argue that insulting the Prophet is a fundamental right?  When any atrocity is immediately followed by politicians mumbling vague approximations of supposed bedrock principles which they contradict in the very same sentence through use of the word “but”, and fall over themselves to assure you – a Muslim – that this is nothing to do with your own principles and faith, and then an utter headcase is invited for an interview on the state-owned TV channel where he defends the bloodshed and nobody says a peep: which way are you going to jump?

As the Christian Post article goes on to say:

In reality, those who criticize Islam, especially reform minded Muslims, are the bravest of the brave. They are literally putting their lives at risk by the simple act of criticizing the Quran, Muhammad, and Sharia.

It’s hard enough as it is to get Muslims to question aspects of their faith they might find distasteful and risk the opprobrium of their family, friends, and community.  But it was equally hard to get Russian citizens to criticise their own people and system as well.  Back then, we realised the importance in upholding our own convictions and demonstrating our principles in the struggle to convert people away from Communism and to adopt our way of life.

But today we have abandoned our principles, yet at the same time we expect Muslims to start questioning theirs.  Somebody with principles will not abandon them – even if they are appalling – unless there are alternatives on offer.  And although I see much merit in the principles on which Western society was based, the past decade or two has seen them eroded to such an extent that their function as an alternative which others can adopt has diminished to the point that few appear to be taking them up any more.  What’s more worrying, as David Hackworth’s prisoner demonstrated, those with principles – regardless of what they are – tend to prevail over those who are operating with none.

If the West wants its way of life to continue its citizenry had better rediscover the principles on which it developed and not only start upholding them, but demanding their leaders do the same.  They’d be wise to consider that the Muslims they are hoping to convert already have principles, they’ve been following them faithfully for hundreds of years, and there is very little they would have seen in recent years which would make them do otherwise.

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13 thoughts on “There Was Once a Road Through the Woods

  1. And then the questions arise:

    1) How we got to this point? And do not say anything about the media or craven politicians; we had those during the Cold War and we still won.

    2) How we get out of this mess?

    FD

  2. Frederick,

    Firstly, thanks for visiting!

    Secondly, to answer your questions:

    1) My theory is life got too comfortable in the West. Once the Cold War had been won and the major threats to our way of life diminished (i.e. no possibility of a Communist government coming to power or a nuclear strike on London) we had pretty much cracked society’s major problems, i.e. security, housing, food, health, employment plus a good many of the minor ones. With the big issues largely solved politicians should have spent more time back in the constituencies, or taken time off and gone fishing, but instead they started fiddling. My Dad used to say “idle hands make the devil’s work” and nowhere is this more true in Western societies which have by and large solved the major problems humanity has faced through the ages. Coupled with this was the burgeoning of an industry hooked onto the back of government which meddled, fiddled, and interfered all in the name of “improving” society. This industry has existed for a long time, but finally the West was wealthy enough to tax the productive sectors to pay for it while still leaving the taxpayers with enough money to live reasonably well. In effect, the West got a bit too rich and we had enough surplus to pay people to meddle and interfere instead of working for a living. (Incidentally, one of the reasons I quite liked living in Russia is that life was not as easy in the West and they didn’t have time for any of this bullshit.)

    The problem now is that we no longer have the money to pay for it, but the industry has managed to convince those with the guns that they are indispensable to the functioning of society and we must sacrifice our standards of living and plunge ourselves into centuries of debt in order to keep paying for this meddling and interfering.

    2) How we get out of it? I suspect eventually we will be able to ignore the economics no longer and the parasites will be thrown onto the street to fend for themselves. This probably won’t happen any time soon, but eventually there will come a time when somebody will not watch his children go hungry while an overweight, useless social worker whose wages he pays sanctimoniously lectures him on the dangers of drinking beer once a week. There is a good chance that the West will see a marked reduction in its standard of living before minds are focussed enough to once again appreciate the values we have so casually abandoned, and a mighty shitfight may well ensue, but I am confident that eventually the founding principles will prevail – and that will benefit Muslims as much as us.

  3. And this is the 800th year of Magna Carta.

    I’d be interested to hear people’s opinion of when the high tide was for the rights of the individual in the UK.

    Obviously, it’ll be a different date to the USA, a country founded on the principle that the individual only lends power to the state.

  4. Much of the contemporary commentary on the Vietnam war was worse than useless, and much of it is recycled still. It was long after it ended that I learnt that “a regime that … stood for nothing whatsoever other than not being Communist” wasn’t true. It stood for Roman Catholicism, which is why much of the Buddhist peasantry was disinclined to support it. (And why it mattered that a Buddhist monk publicly burned himself to death in protest at events.)

    I don’t mean this in some simple, papist-bashing way; it’s just that the French colonisation had resulted in a part-westernised native ruling class, with its religion naturally being part of that.

  5. “the USA, a country founded on the principle that the individual only lends power to the state” and on the other principle that the rise of abolitionism in Britain must be kept far from American shores.

  6. Tim

    There is a very large elephant in the room here: religion. Or, more particularly, the disappearance of religion in the West and especially Western Europe. For better or worse, the West, as a concept, is a product of Christianity; it is not for nothing that its previous description was ‘Christendom’. No culture/empire in history has survived the collapse of its religious underpinnings and I see no reason why our current circumstances and direction of travel should lead to a different outcome.

  7. dearieme,

    It was long after it ended that I learnt that “a regime that … stood for nothing whatsoever other than not being Communist” wasn’t true. It stood for Roman Catholicism, which is why much of the Buddhist peasantry was disinclined to support it. (And why it mattered that a Buddhist monk publicly burned himself to death in protest at events.)

    Yes, that’s a fair criticism of what I wrote. To be honest I don’t know much about the society of South Vietnam other than that the rulers were pretty corrupt and rather stupidly brutal at times. The point I was trying to make was that, for whatever reason, the ARVN troops didn’t seem interested in fighting for it.

  8. Recusant,

    That is an interesting point. My personal opinion is that the ’60s liberal revolution had to happen but they threw the baby out with the bathwater. The same can probably be said about the decline of religion in the UK: I am not religious and detested being made to go to chapel services at school, but at the same time I think there were a lot of positive societal elements which were based around church attendance have been lot in the process. What is amusing is hearing anti-religion lefties complaining about families not eating together any more, perhaps not realising that it is a lot easier to get a family around the table for lunch on a Sunday if everybody attended church that morning. Like you, I suspect the UK will realise too late that it should not have discarded Christianity so readily.

  9. TNA,

    I’d be interested to hear people’s opinion of when the high tide was for the rights of the individual in the UK.

    It’s interesting, but as somebody pointed out on another blog, there has never been a time when people could say what they wanted: the subjects which are verbotten have merely changed.

  10. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Prime Minister of Turkey kind of summed it up a few years ago,according to him Moderate Islam is an ugly and offensive term,there is no moderate Islam,Islam is Islam.I sometimes wonder if our politicians are unaware of this fact.

  11. Great article Tim, couldn’t agree more.

    But incidentally: “…the USA, a country founded on the principle that the individual only lends power to the state”

    So was the UK. Unfortunately, we have allowed our executive branch to usurp and hold that power excessively. But then, so have you guys – just look at Obama, the IRS, the EPA, the TSA, the Patriot Act, and so on.

    Americans no longer have anything to feel superior about.

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