I was one of those who read/heard President Donald Trump’s recent speech in Warsaw as being, at least, not bad and, at best, an affirmation of American liberal values. I was, apparently, almost alone. Writing in The Atlantic, David Frum, a Canadian conservative who was a former White House speech writer, said that “As presidential speeches go, Trump’s address in Warsaw was fair. Ish. If you forget who is speaking and what that person has been saying and doing since Inauguration Day—since the opening of his campaign in 2015—and really through his career … [but] … if you remember those things, the speech jolted you to attention again and again … [because, for example] … “We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression.” This must be an example of what the grammarians should rename the “disjunctive we”: a we that does not include the speaker of the words.” OK, fair enough, I accept that President Trump does not come anywhere close to embodying the spirit of the words he spoke. The Economist said that “To some, Mr Trump’s speech may have sounded like typical American grandiloquence. In fact, with its echoes of Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilisations, it was a dramatic departure. Earlier American administrations defined “the West” with reference to values such as democracy, liberty and respect for human rights. Mr Trump and many of his advisers, including the speech’s authors, Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller, apparently see it as rooted in ethnicity, culture and religion. When George W. Bush visited Poland for his first presidential visit, in 2001, he referred to democracy 13 times. When Barack Obama spoke in Warsaw in 2014, he mentioned democracy nine times. For Mr Trump, once sufficed.” OK, again, no really big arguments from me there, either; I get it: President Trump (his speechwriters, anyway) is (are) someone who holds a view of “culture” that is not always popular in the most progressive circles. (And, yes, Samuel P Huntington did, unapologetically, sort “civilizations” and “cultures” on ethnic and religious lines.)
But, perhaps, the harshest criticism I saw was also from The Atlantic, in an article by Peter Beinart, that said “In his speech in Poland on Thursday, Donald Trump referred 10 times to “the West” and five times to “our civilization.” His white nationalist supporters will understand exactly what he means. It’s important that other Americans do, too … [for Trump (and speech writers Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller)] … The West is not a geographic term. Poland is further east than Morocco. France is further east than Haiti. Australia is further east than Egypt. Yet Poland, France, and Australia are all considered part of “The West.” Morocco, Haiti, and Egypt are not … [and] … The West is not an ideological or economic term either. India is the world’s largest democracy. Japan is among its most economically advanced nations. No one considers them part of the West … [for President Trump] … The West is a racial and religious term. To be considered Western, a country must be largely Christian (preferably Protestant or Catholic) and largely white. Where there is ambiguity about a country’s “Westernness,” it’s because there is ambiguity about, or tension between, these two characteristics. Is Latin America Western? Maybe. Most of its people are Christian, but by U.S. standards, they’re not clearly white. Are Albania and Bosnia Western? Maybe. By American standards, their people are white. But they are also mostly Muslim.” That goes far too far, even for a very “liberal progressive” thinker/writer like Mr Beinart. Trying to suggest that “the West” is, in any respect, or should be a geographical term is laughable because, as he, himself, says, Australia and New Zealand, for example, are charter members of the liberal-democratic West ~ it’s a silly, childish, straw-man argument at best. Most people I know do consider India and Japan part of the West, along with e.g. Taiwan and Singapore and Israel. India tried, back in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s to create a nonaligned block that could counter the impact of the East vs West Cold War but India always, even when it appeared to be at its most pro-Soviet and anti-American worst, held strongly to the core values of the liberal West ~ it did so at least as well as e.g. France.
“The whole point,” [of US post-Cold War policy] Mr Beinart says in his vituperate critique, “was that democracy and capitalism were not uniquely “Western.” They were not the property of any particular religion or race but the universal aspiration of humankind.“
Democracy and capitalism never took root anywhere that did not have very, very strong North Western European influence. I disagree with e.g Max Weber that democracy and capitalism are, somehow, rooted in the “Protestant work ethic.” Both, I think, can be seen, in embryonic form, in pagan North West Europe in the dark ages. There seems to have been something in the small, relatively poor (often seafaring) communities of the ancient North Sea regions that made both economic specialization and social cooperation necessary and desirable and, hundreds of years later, made both capitalism and liberal democracy work, too. But those historical facts (and I challenge anyone to refute them) seem lost on the screaming voices of the progressive left.
The progressive ‘voice’ in America, Canada and Europe is too loud and too much in chorus. It needs to be moderated in tone and informed by reason. Holding, for example, that the liberal West does not include China or the Arabs is not a racist or fascist point-of-view; it is one, but only one, quite reasonable interpretation of the visible facts. Saying that France Italy, Portugal and Spain, for example, are illiberal democracies while Singapore, as another example, is a conservative democracy is also not racist or fascist; it, too, is one reasonable reading of the evident facts. Other readings are possible but not, necessarily, more valid or 100% true. The progressive left needs to shout less and read more.
I am not suggesting, as many bloggers do, that there is some sort of “altLeft” conspiracy to shout down conservatives but I am suggesting that there are just as many uninformed, rude, and unhelpful ‘voices’ on the progressive left as there are on the hard right. This …
… is no more a useful response to the legitimate social, cultural economic and political grievances of e.g. First Nations and people of colour than was this:
A little bit of basic civility and good manners is not too much to ask and it might start, for the progressive left, by not branding every expression of traditional Western liberal values as being, somehow, racist or fascist. History is inconvenient, but, more often than not, points us towards the truth.