Adam Ash

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Monday, May 29, 2006

Bookplanet: those 'suicide of the west' books

So, six things made the west great but now civilisation is 'drifting' towards suicide. In 42 years, I'll prove that's wrong – by Stuart Jeffries

There are two books entitled Suicide of the West. One was written 42 years ago and, unfortunately, its thesis proved disastrously wrong. The other is just out and hopefully will be equally misbegotten.

James Burnham's 1964 book contended that effete liberalism would cause the collapse of western civilisation. He envisaged an assisted suicide, with gleeful Soviets pressing a pillow into our decadent, possibly pop culture-addled, faces. His book was at least beautifully written: the Englishman described liberalism as "a swansong, a spiritual solace of the same order as the murmuring of a mother to a child who is gravely ill". The seeming swansong, though, was a song of the sirens, luring Trabants to cross the iron curtain. Communism, not the west was doomed.

The new book is not so well written. Former culture secretary Chris Smith and businessman Richard Koch have collaborated on a book that contends "a drift toward collective suicide is evident". We have lost confidence in our civilisation, liberal values, scientific achievements, our commitment to growth. Bin Laden is too feeble to suffocate the west; it is our old friend, dwindling self-esteem, that will be our undoing. Can one drift towards suicide, you ask? Hold that thought.

This is not a book that will have critics sharpening their disembowelling cutlasses as they did for Smith's 1998 literary foray, Creative Britain, which provoked possibly the harshest review ever. "This is an appalling book, a small tragedy of a book," wrote George Walden in the Sunday Telegraph. "No words can convey the depths of his fatuity, except his own."

Smith has crawled from this literary drubbing to posture as one part Oswald Spengler, the German Cassandra who thought the west was in decline, and two parts Blairite Pollyanna, arguing: "Guys! We must recover our nerve! Enough victim mentality and corrosive cynicism! Don't you see?" It is a literary sub-genre hitherto monopolised by male conservatives who don't like the way the world is going and often write for the Daily Telegraph saying so.

What is Smith, self-styled democratic leftie, doing in the tradition of Spengler, Burnham and Roger Scruton, whose post-9/11 meditation, The West and the Rest, is used as a chapter heading (although the author is not cited)? One good thing Smith does is to round on ex-colleagues whose anti-terror legislation is part of a "reinforcing cycle of terrorism and domestic authoritarianism". He's surely right about that, if nothing else.

The book is at least timely. It comes when some think that to safeguard our civilisation we must assert what we stand for, preferably in bullet points on one side of a single sheet in big type. This week, the higher education minister, Bill Rammell called for British values to be taught in schools, so that children can understand why our polity is worth defending. Rammell hasn't specified what those values are yet, which might prove a problem for teachers.

By contrast, Smith and Koch boldly cite six factors that made the west allegedly the best civilisation there has ever been: Christianity, science, growth, optimism, individualism and liberalism. They aren't values, but maybe they could be part of Rammell's new curriculum: double optimism on Wednesdays would be a hoot.

When told by Smith that western civilisation was founded on Christianity, Islamic thinker Tariq Ramadan fumed on the Today programme earlier this week. Weren't Judaism and Islam instrumental? Afraid not. Smith and Koch regard Christianity as "the world's first individualised, activist self-help movement" and thus uniquely able to fire up the self-reliant, ingenious western types who eat other civilisations for breakfast.

They don't consider that western civilisation is oxymoronic: I looked under G in the index for Gandhi, pointlessly. The Mahatma, certainly, did not think western civilisation incarnated the ideals the authors claim for it, including abolishing poverty, relieving suffering, human rights for all, ending hierarchy. When will these civilised values be widespread? How about never? Is never good for you? None the less they, too, could become core curriculum subjects. Expect high truancy rates for Relieving Suffering, though.

Smith and Koch must hope history doesn't repeat itself. How sad if their thesis proves as misconceived as Burnham's. Maybe they have got everything wrong - including the title. To justify that, they cite Chambers Dictionary's definition of suicide: "The bringing about of one's own downfall, often unintentionally." It's hardly authoritative: the Concise OED defines suicide as "the action of killing oneself intentionally". As Smith and Koch know, though, The Calamitous Consequences of Unwitting Western Self-Neglect Considered would not have been as catchy.

They hear the west's swansong everywhere - instead of the noble silence of deferred gratification, we have the racket of consumption; instead of responsibility to others, narcissistic victimhood; not reason, but emotion; not wisdom, but experts; not role models, but vapid celebrities. The problem with these juxtapositions is that each latter term risks being overstated, harking back to a non-existent halcyon age, and together they make up only a grab bag of moans that have no coherence as critique.

Suicide of the West argues that we need more old-style optimism, but I take succour from, say, the philosopher John Gray's lack of faith in western technological progress. Consider what Stewart Lee, author of Jerry Springer: The Opera, said about the difference between Christianity and Islam. He described the latter as more "conscientious about protecting the brand". But such conscientiousness is not strength. The west is, precisely because of its ability to doubt itself, in ruder health than these tendentious authors dare imagine. In 42 years' time, death permitting, I will return to this subject and clinch the point. Won't Smith and Koch look silly when I do?


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