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Book Review: Reflections on the Revolution in Europe

November 16, 2009

An essence is an unchanging quality. Apples are red and round, essentially. Summer is sunny and warm. Women are – perhaps more difficult to sum up. Ask any English professor and she will list for you a dozen qualities historically deemed “essentially” feminine, most of them unflattering. So perhaps each of these essences has its own story involving a male protagonist standing to benefit from the view that woman are fragile or weak or submissive or unstable. One can imagine similar stories involving ethnic and religious minorities, gays, and foreigners.

Based on this simple observation, English professors have often concluded that essences — along with their close relative, universal Truth — necessarily stand in the way of social progress. If it can be shown that race, gender, and other categories are mere social constructions, the thinking goes, harmful stereotypes will lose their hold over individuals. An analysis of The Prioress’ Tale might, for example, show that Chaucer’s depiction of Jewish violence was a mere “construction” serving the interests of medieval Christians who wished to disassociate themselves from Judaism. Medieval tales of Jewish villainy (there were many) sought to establish firm boundaries between peoples whose respective identities tended to commingle, especially as debtor and creditor. By observing that the categories of “Jew” and “Christian” are interdependent, English professors seek to disrupt negative Jewish stereotypes, both then and now.

Anti-essentialism cuts both ways, however. As Stanley Fish once put the point, no “normative conclusion — this is bad, this must be overthrown — can legitimately be drawn from the fact that something is discovered to be socially constructed; for by the logic of deconstructive thought everything is; which doesn’t mean that a social construction cannot be criticized, only that it cannot be criticized for being one.” Put another way, no logical connection exists between the observation that human identity or belief do not rest on unalterable principles and the belief that patriarchy, capitalism, or some other perceived evil ought to be overthrown.

What does any of this have to do with a book review? The short answer is that Christopher Caldwell’s “Reflection on the Revolution in Europe” mounts a conservative attack on the Islamic presence in Europe without once resorting to universal principles and, in so doing, proves Fish right and his colleagues wrong. (Caldwell’s book takes its name after Edmund Burke’s “Reflection on the Revolution in France,” so there are obviously significant differences between his intellectual heritage and that of English departments.)

It is no coincidence that literary scholars have recently turned their attention to Jews and Saracens in medieval England. While few Europeans today practice the religious faith of their ancestors, the European man-in-the-street continues to look on Islam as an alien, and even hostile force. Elite opinion has changed somewhat since 1215, however, and now aligns pretty closely with the views held by most literary scholars. To list a few truisms: the category “Muslim” is empty of content and conceals important differences among Arabic peoples; too much talk of violence and rioting on the part of Muslims encourages dangerous stereotypes; Europeans are “rapacious and exploitative by nature” (Caldwell’s words).

If elite opinion is relativistic in theory, it is often coercive in practice, criminalizing opinions it doesn’t agree with – denial of the Holocaust, for example. Caldwell seizes upon this point, arguing that neutrality is in practice impossible: one group must always be favored over the others. Europeans must, in Caldwell’s view, either embrace Western values – gender equality, freedom of speech and religion, and so on – or succumb to Islamism. Significantly, Caldwell – at once a social constructionist and ardent conservative — doesn’t defend Western values on the grounds that they are universally valid, but on the grounds that they are Western.

Caldwell’s narrative begins in 1968, when British parliamentarian Enoch Powell made a series of haunting prophesies about the future of immigration. A few weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and ensuing race riots, Powell warned that Britain too might see its neighborhoods transformed into ghettoes if it continued to accept large numbers of immigrants. Later that year, Powell warned that native British citizens would eventually be “dislodged” by immigrants. For decades to come, Powell’s remarks have framed the immigration debate, which, according to Caldwell, has been “essentially, an argument over whether Enoch Powell was right.” Elites have focused on the moral aspect of the question. With the memory of colonialism and Nazism still fresh, many deem Powell, an unrepentant lover of empire, morally wrong in his dislike of immigration. Meanwhile, the British working class has tended to focus on whether Powell was factually right – which he most certainly was.

Leaving aside the moral question for a moment, Europe’s Muslim population has ballooned in recent years from next to nothing in the mid-twentieth century to between 15 and 17 million today, proving that Powell was at least half right. In Britain, the initial immigration boom resulted from the 1948 Nationalities Act, which granted citizenship to Britain’s former colonial subjects. Meanwhile, a post-war labor shortage in France, Sweden, and Germany led these countries to form guest worker programs. At the time, few Europeans imagined that the Indians and Pakistanis arriving in Britain, Algerians in France, and Turks in Germany would settle permanently. Yet that is precisely what many of them did.

For a unique post-war moment, immigration served European self-interest. By the late 1970s, Britain, France, and Germany had come to realize that immigration would not bring to Europe the economic benefits it had promised. And yet foreigners kept coming. At this point, political leaders devised the moral justification for immigration: the duty of Europeans to provide asylum to “those threatened by violence, poverty, or political persecution.” This shift on the part of European elites from arguing on the basis of economic self-interest to arguing on the basis of universal principles – in this case, the ancient tradition of hospitality – would make immigrants extraordinarily difficult to get rid of. As Caldwell explains, the shift was part of a larger change “from a passive population of immigrants to a willful population of immigrants.”

One might almost characterize Caldwell’s method as genealogical. Caldwell describes competing discourses of immigration primarily in terms of their moment of origin – usually some historical rupture or act of violence. As the result of Jewish experience in Nazi-occupied France and similar instances, the twentieth century witnesses an “erosion of the distinction [in the discourse of hospitality] between people who come for refuge and people who come to stay”; decolonization and post-war economic devastation inspires European leaders to welcome immigrants, while the presence of these immigrants has the unintended effect of producing further immigration; the European masses resist this, leading their leaders to invoke hospitality under the new guise of political asylum. Edmund Burke, meet Michel Foucault.

Like the postmodernists whom he would surely despise, Caldwell has little hope that human reason or moral precepts will successfully mediate between competing interests. The West simply arises out of one soil and Islam out of another, with the result that the two cultures are unintelligible to each other. The standard liberal view of riots in Muslim neighborhoods or terrorist attacks is that some legitimate grievance must underlie such violence. In response to the 2005 Paris banlieu riots, for example, the International Crisis Group (ICG) recommended that the French government end police repression of Muslims, encourage their political participation, and address discontent over Palestine and Iraq. The idea was to look at what Europe had done to provoke the riots, rather than view them as an outgrowth of Islam itself. Yet, as Caldwell is eager to point out, the report also observes that the youths “sympathized with jihad,” were “furious partisans of the Arab cause” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine, and embraced an “autodidactic version of fundamentalism that the report’s authors called ‘shaykhist salafism.” Another way to view the riots, then, is as an expression of Islamic identity, with which there could be no negotiating. In a later section of the book, Caldwell builds on this idea, proposing that there is “no course the West can follow to defuse terrorist grievances, because those grievances are numerous and protean.” We cannot even tell if the “basic gripe of al-Qaeda and kindred organizations” is “geostrategic, metaphysical, or sociological.” Islam is – to use a word cherished by postmodernists – wholly other.

The fundamental error of European liberals is, in Caldwell’s view, to mistake European provincialism for universal Truth. Gender equality, freedom of speech and religion – these are not ideals that Islam can accept, just as Westerners cannot accept jihad. The ideal of religious freedom, for example, arises not out of a European wish to constrain “religion in the abstract” but “Christianity in particular.” What no one had been expecting was that Islam — a “mighty identity, shaping every aspect of a believer’s life and reducing lesser allegiances to unimportance” – would be the primary beneficiary of religious freedom. Few Europeans practice the religious faith of their forbears, with the result that attacks on Christianity, however severe, mostly go unnoticed. Islam has, by contrast, used Europe’s formal neutrality toward religion to its advantage, encouraging the Blair government in 2006 to suppress Salmon Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in a “law against incitement to religious hatred,” for example. And then there was the Danish cartoonist incident, in which depictions of Mohammed – forbidden by Islam – produced bomb threats, violence, and boycotts throughout the Muslim world.

European leaders might have maintained neutrality while nevertheless deciding that freedom of speech trumped freedom of religion in these instances. Instead, they have consistently portrayed Muslims as victims, likening them to European Jews before World War II and censoring criticism of Islam. A compromise was even proposed whereby it would be “henceforth okay to attack ‘religion’ in the abstract . . . but not Islam in particular.” For Caldwell, such retreats from freedom of speech expose European universalism as a self-defeating fraud.

So what is the alternative? Caldwell claims that European cultures depend for their stability on “certain ethical survivals of Christianity,” adding that Europeans would “have a difficult time defending” their values without them. Only Christianity, argues Caldwell, can restore European dynamism — by grounding the ideals of human rights and equality in a specific tradition and encouraging the higher fertility rates necessary for demographic stability. Caldwell’s rejection of universal principles, however, undermines, rather than strengthens, his case for a return to Christian values. To revisit Stanley Fish’s point, the observation that all truths (those of secular Europe notwithstanding) are social constructions has no implications whatsoever. It is impossible to criticize Europeans for straying from their Christian heritage for the sake of tolerance, fairness, and multiculturalism without turning Christian heritage itself into its own universal principle. Caldwell, in other words, confuses the view that Europeans do in fact act according to the self-interest shaped by their customs and collective habits with the view that Europeans ought to act according to self-interest by embracing once again Christianity. The conclusion that one should become a Christian follows only from the premise that Christianity is, in fact, true – a premise Caldwell’s methodology does not allow him to even consider.

One could, I suppose, argue that Christianity is a social construction and, at the same time, the best source of universal principles Europe has at its disposal. This line of thinking would allow Caldwell to argue that Christianity is better – more desirable, that is – to Europeans than secularism, if only because it is better equipped to stave off Islam. While logically consistent, such a claim is a dead-end – for Europeans must either convince themselves that they are true believers or make a travesty of Christianity, which, after all, claims to be true and not merely convenient. (Unlike postmodernists, Burkean conservatives, and Enlightenment thinkers, Christianity bridges the divide between social constructions and human reason via its unique blend of mythology, history, and philosophy.)

Overall, Caldwell’s book offers a powerful critique of European liberalism — particularly its false pretension to neutrality — and an eye-opening account of how Islam has profoundly transformed Europe in a matter of decades. In large part due to its ideology of tolerance, secular Europe has failed to articulate positive ethical commitments in the way that Christianity has in previous generations. A renewed appreciation for the strengths of Christianity need not, however, entail a wholesale retreat into traditional Christian values. Nor is the crusading mentality Caldwell endorses at all helpful. The way to counter militant strains of Islam is not with a militant Christianity, but with an ethically committed Europe — a Europe that reaffirms its tradition of human rights and civil liberties with pride and, yes, authority.

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