November 30th, 2006

Hanson puts his finger on it

The wonderfully intelligent and clear writer Victor Davis Hanson has another fine piece, entitled “Losing the Enlightenment,” about the decline of will and conviction in the West. I suggest you read the whole thing.

One sentence in particular struck me as a good summation of a phenomenon I’ve noticed before, but haven’t been able to put as succinctly:

…the technological explosion of the last 20 years has made life so long and so good, that many now believe our mastery of nature must extend to human nature as well…

Exactly. It’s a sort of hubris and naivete, as well as a fervent hope, nurtured by the great advances the West has actually been able to make. For the most part our lives are indeed so much less fraught with the hardships of disease, or wrestling with the elements, or dealing with famines and other basic questions of survival, that many have come to think life itself could somehow be made nearly perfect, and that even stress and unpleasantness could be reduced to virtually nothing.

That goes, of course, for messy things such as war, people who hate, those who want to kill and who seem to get a certain amount of joy from doing so. Would that it were possible to off them as easily as we’ve conquered smallpox–not that that was easy, actually, but it was a relative piece of cake compared to changing human nature.

Hanson goes on to write about the savvy of al-Qaeda in taking the moral and spiritual temperature of the West:

By past definitions of relative power, al-Qaeda and its epigones were weak and could not defeat the West militarily. But their genius was knowing of our own self-loathing, of our inability to determine their evil from our good, of our mistaken belief that Islamists were confused about, rather than intent to destroy, the West, and most of all, of our own terror that we might lose, if even for a brief moment, the enjoyment of our good life to defeat the terrorists. In learning what the Islamists are, many of us, and for the first time, are also learning what we are not.

Hanson doesn’t end his essay with pessimism, however. He ends it with the idea that this realization can create the opportunity to remember and regain our strengths. He quotes Churchill’s “These are not dark days: these are great days–the greatest days our country has ever lived.”

I wouldn’t quite say that, although I appreciate Hanson’s optimism. I’ll add to it, though, with another Churchill quote, to wit:

For myself I am an optimist – it does not seem to be much use being anything else.

35 Responses to “Hanson puts his finger on it”

  1. Steve Says:

    Everytime I read something by VDH I think he must be getting paid by the pound.

    He has a tendency to write extremely long litanies in the form of artful periods and after reading it, I still don’t know what he was putting his finger on. Unless it was the scale.

  2. dicentra Says:

    Wow, Steve. Way to turn a criticism of someone else into an extremely revealing comment about yourself.

    Don’t understand what he was saying? Then it’s because you’re trying to understand differential calculus without knowing your times tables. Wish I could help you, but I know I can’t.

    Neo, I remember some time ago that you commented on someone who had said that religion is the key to defeating the Islamists, and you thought that was exactly the wrong answer, given that the Islamists were being motivated by religion.

    The trouble with the word religion is that it encompasses a lot of stuff, and with most endeavors in the human realm, most of it is garbage. The will to power (which is what is really motivating the Islamists) clothed in the rhetoric of religion isn’t the same as real religion.

    Real religion begins with the following assumption: humans are fallen beings and we can’t get up by ourselves; ergo, we need divine assistance if we are to ever have hope of being better than the rotters that we tend to be.

    It’s like the basic assumptions of the 12-step programs: your problems are out of your control and you need to resort to a higher power to overcome them.

    The secular idea of the perfectability of human nature through “education” or material success or any other top-down method is diametrically opposed to the religious idea that human nature can change only from the inside-out, and if you get enough changed humans, the macrostructures (society, governments) will improve as well.

    In other words, the secularists would take the man out of the gutter, but religion takes the gutter out of the man, who then takes himself of the gutter.

    However, the sheer number of people who actually avail themselves of religion for the purpose of removing the gutter within is small compared to the general population and to the general religionsn population. Most people treat religion as a social club or as a superstition or whatever, so it’s difficult to point to a general population of ostensibly religious people and see any improvement.

    Though it is worth noting that in his book on who gives, Arthur Brooks notes that devoutly religious people are by far more generous than their secular couterparts.

    In short, VDH’s observation that human nature hasn’t changed, and that our inherent barbarism is covered by a thin veneer of civility, makes religion more useful in predicting human behavior—as well as in improving it—than the stultifying secularism that is killing us now.
    .

  3. Steve Says:

    The heritage of the Enlightenment was not Religion. That much I do know.

    Indeed, the problem with the article is that the points are confused. On the one hand, he seems to be saying that elites have contempt for the poor. As someone who grew up poor, I can tell you that that’s nothing new.

    On the other hand, he seems to suggest that our elites have lost “confidence” apparently because they stifle themselves when confronted with extremism (as in Europe.) Yet these same elites have been stifling themselves when confronted with PC in the US for close to 20 years now (and that’s how VDH got his start, BTW.)

    So the goals seem to be contradictory. On the one hand, he seems to excoriate the loss of nerve to allow true freedom of speech, one true inheritance of the Enlightenment. On the other hand, he adjures the elites to have more solidarity with the poor, who, frankly, are not interested in cultural innovation. And then on the third hand, he suggests that no society long survives without an ideology to which everyone can subscribe and (presumably) be willing to die for. Yep, that’s the Enlightenment in a nutshell. If the article was any more opaque I could use it as a shade.

  4. Webutante Says:

    What a terrific post by Dicentra which I most certainly agree with. Always fun to read a post like that I wish I had written.

    I am currently reading “The Confessions of Saint Augustine,” written when he was 40 in about 397 AD. Considered one of the first Western autobiographies, it chronicles his wayward youth, his journey into strange schools of thought, religion, and overwhelming lust before his eventual conversion to the living Christ. Anyway, what strikes me here is nothing’s changed from his time to now on the depravity meter, so to speak.

    Our nature today is the same fallen state as thousands of years ago. And until one has an authentic experience of God it remains that way. Then one begins to change from the inside out and it’s often not a very fun process.

    Anything else is sheer naivete.

  5. Ymarsakar Says:

    He has a tendency to write extremely long litanies in the form of artful periods and after reading it, I still don’t know what he was putting his finger on. Unless it was the scale.
    Steve | 11.30.06 – 2:53 pm | #

    Projection steve. You’re not a link clicker, are you?

  6. Ymarsakar Says:

    I learned a lot by reading VDH. He is at the level, you know.

    But mostly, what he is speaking of, is what I understand to be the dichotomy between civilization and barbarian protectors. A civilization is made up of people who have free time, farmers, artists, and politicians. So who do you get to protect that civilization from their enemies? Farmers, artists, and politicians? I think not. You need fighters, you need barbarians, those who grew up FIGHTING. Bred and true warriors.

    Too many warriors and you end up with not enough engineers to maintain the public works, as with Western Rome. Too many effete dudes and you get France with the riots.

    A civilization must keep this weird and paradoxical dichotomy between order and chaos, if it is to thrive. America does it in part due to the brain drain it has on the world. Grabbing new blood so to speak. And primarily, America maintains our status of power because of Jacksonians in civilian life, and warriors in the military. As you saw on Flight 93, Americans are anything but effete sheep that you can lead to the slaughter.

    The military fights so that Americans are protected. But this very act of safeguarding America, creates weakness and lack of will, and the ability for Americans to IGNORE the threat or become demoralized. It is just part of human nature. And people who study human nature, like VDH, understands it. But people who do not understand human nature, steve, do not get it. Ah.

  7. Ymarsakar Says:

    The resource for VDH material

  8. Mitch Miller Says:

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.
    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of “Spiritus Mundi”
    Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again; but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

    William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

  9. Ymarsakar Says:

    Neo is going to love that, Mitch ; )

  10. expat Says:

    I have an example from another perspective of your comment that advances have led many to believe that life could made nearly perfect. On BBC World’s Hardtalk yesterday, Steven Sackur interviewed a geneticist from Salk who worked on a study showing that there are more genetic differences among humans than previously believed. The reason is that differences occur not only in the alphabetic sequences of DNA but also in the number of repeats of sequences. Sackur immediately tried to pin the scientist down to the medical implications of this. He asked (in essence-I didn’t take notes) whether having a complete DNA sequence for every person would allow doctors to prevent or treat disease. My take on his question was that he thinks there is THE ULTIMATE DNA SEQUENCE that would maximize health and, if his thinking is followed to its logical conclusion, humanity. It is exactly the same type of perfectability thinking you describe applied to biology rather than culture. I amazed at the pervasivenes of this thinking.

  11. DonkeyKong Says:

    “Hanson put’s his finger in it”, would have bee a better title to your post Neo.

    Hanson is on autopilot.

    “What are the proximate causes here in America that send liberal criticism over the edge into pathological hysteria? Is it only that George Bush is a singular polarizing figure of Christian and Texan demeanor? Or is the current left-wing savagery also a legacy of the tribal 1960s, when out-of-power protestors felt that expressions of speaking bluntly, even crudely, were at least preferable to “artificial” cultural restraint?”-VDH

    I see, is it “left-wing savagery” or “pathological hysteria” that has gotten us to this point? Lack of any sacrifice, planning or debate about increasing an army that would fight this war is superflous.

    VDH is a pacifier for the ideologically infantilized.

    Example:

    “We especially ignore among us those who work each day to keep nature and the darker angels of our own nature at bay. This new obtuseness revolves around a certain mocking by elites of why we have what we have. Instead of appreciating that millions get up at 5 a.m., work at rote jobs, and live proverbial lives of quiet desperation, we tend to laugh at the schlock of Wal-Mart, not admire its amazing ability to bring the veneer of real material prosperity to the poor.”-VDH

    “Schlock” of Wal-mart bringing a “venner of real material prosperity?” that elites can laugh at? That according to him makes us weaker and willing to abandon the enlightenment? “the culprits are now more often us. In the most affluent, and leisured age in the history of Western civilization.”

    Does this clown have an editor.

  12. Tatterdemalian Says:

    Life can only be maintained by effective use of barriers. Everything in the natural world follows that simple fractal pattern, from protozoas that use cell walls to differentiate their protoplasm from the surrounding environment, to animals with hides that hold their internal organs safe from the pathogens that pervade the environment, to governments that use their militaries to create areas of relative peace and greater productivity, and to protect them from attack by those who would rather see the world destroyed than let it exist in a way that offends their religious beliefs.

    Every living entity requires some sort of barrier, to gather and retain that which is good or useful, and keep out that which is worthless or dangerous. Any entity that does not, is nothing more than a pile of inert molecules waiting to be consumed by something that is alive.

  13. Steve Says:


    Every living entity requires some sort of barrier, to gather and retain that which is good or useful, and keep out that which is worthless or dangerous. Any entity that does not, is nothing more than a pile of inert molecules waiting to be consumed by something that is alive.

    So – why is President Bush opposed to controlling illegal immigration?

    The more I think about VDH’s article the more I am reminded of Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech. Except that Carter actually had a point he was trying to make.

  14. We've always been at war with Says:

    Why does Victor Davis Hansen hate America?

  15. a guy in pajamas Says:

    DonkeyKong: Does this clown have an editor.

    That’s funny. :-D

  16. Ymarsakar Says:

    Looks like steve hasn’t been paying attention. Bush called himself what he really was. A compassionate conservative.

    If you listened to Bush’s nature, you wouldn’t be stumped asking these kinds of no brainer questions, steve.

    Tatter, nice biological example.

    The only thing Steve has in his arsenal is Bush senior, Carter, and high ton conversations. Not too lethal in that department.

  17. pete Says:

    Neo keeps ringing the same bell which is: You don’t want our country to be viewed as weak do you? So kill kill kill!

    It does not matter to Neo that we are killing and being killed for no good reason. She has given up on trying to convince anybody that such reasons exist. From here on out she will be appealing to American pride alone. This is always the end game for imperialism and it always fails.

    The question for the rest of you is: How far do you want to go down that dead-end road?

  18. pete Says:

    Tatterdemalian

    I love folks like you. You build up these little house-of-cards philosophies and expect that nobody would be so cruel as to knock them down.

    The organism called BushCo has extended its tentacles into far to many biological niches occupied by formidible tenants. Like soo many organisms BushCo has created the conditions for its own demise.

  19. Justaguy Says:

    Tentacles?

    That reminds me of a joke, and it goes something like this…..

    An Octopus walks into a bar and says “I can play any musical instrument you like”.
    An Englishman gives it a guitar, which it plays better than Jimi Hendrix.
    An Irishman gives it a piano, which it plays better than Elton John.
    A Scotsman then throws it a set of bagpipes.
    The octopus fumbles about for a couple of minutes without a sound from the bag pipes.
    The Scotsman then asks, “What’s wrong wi ye, can ye no play it”?
    The Octopus says, “Play It? I’m gonna f*** her brains out once I get her pyjamas off”

  20. Loyal Achates Says:

    I dunno, maybe a lack of will to fight unnecessary and misguided wars is a good thing.

  21. Zeno Says:

    Reading VDH’s column, and then some of the posts here, illustrate very well this strange ideology of accomodation sweeping the West. It’s so strong that some people can’t even seem to understand human nature anymore. As if we had “evolved” to some other category, not prone to violence anymore… As if, if Bush went away and we closed our eyes, everything would be “peaceful” and the enemies of the US would stop hating it. Or as if we only have “enemies” because we fight against them. Let’s be nice with Iran and Al-Qeda and they will be nice with us too. Let’s ignore there’s evil people and cultures fighting each other for power in the world. Let’s ignore the last three thousand years of History.

    Paradoxically, it’s only the fact that justaguy, pete et al live sheltered lives in rich countries in the West that permits their blind criticism. It’s not that there is nothing to criticize in the US, in its external policy or in lots of things. It’s the blind, the sheer suicidal criticism that is strange. “VDH is an idiot, I’m much smarter.” Doh. This can only come from the total ignorance of how other, worse systems, function. I’d like to see these people living their lives under Saddam or other despot, or even under Castro’s socialist paradise. “Criticize that”.

  22. Ymarsakar Says:

    The people criticizing the Shah, and siding with the Mullahs. Guess what happened to them after their little Revolution succeded?

  23. Jay Says:

    Good article, but there is an historical flub. The church never persecuted scientists because of their theories- they were attacked more because of blasphemy or personal vendettas with Catholic laymen or officials. The church, which funded many scientists herself, went along with the general flow of scientific thought that the universe wasn’t helocentric, and in a sense you can’t blame them, as people like Galileo couldn’t refute Aristotle’s main points on geocentrism.

    Galileo, by the way, was slapped around because he was a total prick, who poked fun at the current pope, Urban XIII (who was a prick in his own right), in a play. Combine that with the fact that Galileo went around saying heliocentrism contradicted (his own interpretation of) scripture, and you can see why they got all Inquisitorial on him.

    Also, as a general point, for those who think otherwise, Christianity has had a long history of supporting the sciences. The artificial wall of science vs. religion has gained ground in the last century or so because of the liberalization/secularization of academia and the American evangelical response to it.

  24. george hoffman Says:

    Victor Davis Hanson is an intellectual reactionary in his political opinions, as clearly demonstrated in his recent address before the Claremont Institute entitled, “Losing the Enlightenment.”
    Reeling from the historic midterm elections, in which Americans gave a clear and resounding no-confidence vote on President Bush’s war in Iraq, Hanson reacts with intense passion rather than clear and analytical reason, one of the hallmarks of the Enlightenment, on who we must blame for this reversal of political fortunes.
    He starts his investigation with the blanket statement that “the culprits are now more often us.” But from this observation, he narrows his focus and blame on “the present generation of Europeans (who) is really heretical, made up of traitors of a sort.” So he has gone from a position of we are all part of the problem to the real culprits are the heretical traitors in Europe. That lets Hanson and us off the hook quite conveniently. Then in his condemnation of Europe, he concludes: “They themselves, not just their consensual goverments…have endangered their centuries-won freedoms of expression.”
    Having condemned those complacent Europeans, he moves on to his real target, the enemies living among us at home. How do we identify these enemies? Hanson states: “We on this side of (the) Atlantic are showing different symptoms of the same Western malaise, an endemic self-loathing.” Oh, I see: Because I trudged thorough the early morning rain on November 7th and voted to replace the Republican Senator Mike De Wine with the Democratic candidate and current Representative Sherrod Brown, who voted against the resolution authorizing President Bush to prosecute his war in Iraq, I really wasn’t exercising my right to vote but rather expresssing my self-loathing.
    Gee, I know I have some personal issues to deal with, Hanson, but could you cut me some slack? I actually voted for Brown out of my personal conviction that DeWine has supported a foreign policy debacle that now rivals LBJ’s quagmire in Vietnam. But since I am a Vietnam veteran, according to Hanson’s reasoning, I voted for Brown because I am a self-hating Vietnam veteran.
    Yet, who are exactly the real culprits, the heretical traitors among us on this side of the Atlantic that resulted in the Democratic majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate that forced me, a self-hating Vietnam veteran to the polling booth? It is “the current left-wing savagery of the tribal 1960s when out-of-power protesters felt that expressions of speaking bluntly, even crudely, were at least preferable to ‘artificial,’ cultural restraint.” I didn’t see many aging, long-haired, and dirty hippies at the polling booth that morning chanting, “Hey, Hey, LBJ/ How many people have you killed today?” But then again I live in northeastern Ohio, a cultural backwater in the heartland. So who knows? He may be right.
    Finally at the end of his speech, Hanson pulls out his sharpened, ideolo

  25. unknown blogger Says:

    Don’t stop there George, keep going!

    I was going to write a comment on this post Neo, but George has done it so well, just read his.

    I knew it would be this way, when things didn’t turn out well, just blame the left, blame the media, blame the “élite,” since if they had all just gotten on board and rooted hard for the home team from the beginning, everything would have turned out ok. You can practically see the drool running out the side of Vic’s mouth as he rants.

    (Also thanks for the octopus joke, loved that one.)

  26. bugs Says:

    Once again, certain commenters above criticize neo’s position by creating a false dilemma. VDH (and neo)believe the West needs a greater will to fight for its own existence. The trolls respond with “Oh, so your solution is more war, kill, kill, kill.”

    No, the solution is restoring pride in Western achievement, the belief that our heritage is worth preserving (even while acknowledging its present and historical flaws), and the will to practice our culture without shame. These changes need not lead directly to war, but we cannot rule out war when “others” with fewer moral qualms attempt to force their wishes upon us with violence.

  27. a guy in pajamas Says:

    Jay, I think we agree on the broad outlines, but …

    Jay: Galileo, by the way, was slapped around because he was a total prick, who poked fun at the current pope, Urban XIII (who was a prick in his own right), in a play. Combine that with the fact that Galileo went around saying heliocentrism contradicted (his own interpretation of) scripture, and you can see why they got all Inquisitorial on him.

    Actually, it was a book, not a play, the pope was Urban VIII, and Galileo didn’t go around saying heliocentrism contradicted scripture. Galileo was deeply involved in patronage relationships in Rome, including with the pope through his secretary, Ciampolo. When Ciampolo fell from favor with the pope, Ciampolo’s buddy Galileo also became a target. The whole trial, etc., was mostly a patronage relationship gone bad, and Galileo’s theories were tangential. Galileo even had prior approval from both the pope and a Catholic censor to publish the book. See Mario Biagioli, Galileo, Courtier, for all the sordid details.

    The artificial wall of science vs. religion has gained ground in the last century or so because of the liberalization/secularization of academia and the American evangelical response to it.

    Actually, it started more in the 18th century with the Enlightenment and the attempt to replace Church authority with reason as the foundation of civilization.

  28. a guy in pajamas Says:

    Mr. Hoffman: Gee, I know I have some personal issues to deal with, Hanson, but could you cut me some slack? I actually voted for Brown out of my personal conviction that DeWine has supported a foreign policy debacle that now rivals LBJ’s quagmire in Vietnam. But since I am a Vietnam veteran, according to Hanson’s reasoning, I voted for Brown because I am a self-hating Vietnam veteran.

    Actually, VDH isn’t saying you hate yourself as an individual. I think he believes the general reaction against Bush is part of a reaction against America that the left seems to have bought into. I have no idea about you personally, but I do agree that the left in general seems to have an intense dislike for the US as a nation.

  29. a guy in pajamas Says:

    unknown blogger: I knew it would be this way, when things didn’t turn out well, just blame the left, blame the media, blame the “élite,” since if they had all just gotten on board and rooted hard for the home team from the beginning, everything would have turned out ok.

    Hmmm, let’s see … If only Al Gore had taken his rightful place as president in 2000, 9/11 would have engendered a period of American soul-searching, a dialogue with those responsible, greater global understanding, repentance and mutual forgiveness (them for the small crime of 9/11, us for the huge crime of capitalism / imperialism); global warming would have been stopped; poverty eliminated; AIDS cured (instead of bombs bought); freedom and liberty spread …

    Right?

  30. unknown blogger Says:

    By no means. what crystal ball did you pull THAT out of? I meant just what I wrote.

  31. Ymarsakar Says:

    Come on Unk, you’re on the shrink blogs. It is all about reading past to your Real motivations. So tell us how you really feel, don’t hide.

  32. Sergey Says:

    “The heritage of the Enlightenment was not Religion. That much I do know.”

    Pity for you, if this trivial statement is all you know about Enlightenment and religion. Of course, religion is much more deep and ancient that Enlightenment. But the latter in no way replaced or outshine the former, as is implied in your declaration. Quite contrary, Enlightenment gave Christianity a new dimension and depth: individual responsibility and perspective of unlimited spiritual growth. Of course, if Enlightenment for you is associated only with such figures as Didro or Laplace, this common fallacy of opposing Enlightenment and religion, or faith and reason, is understandable: these French philosophers were atheists. But Enlightenment also included deeply religious figures, even mystics, as Bles Pascal, Isaak Newton, George Berkeley and David Hume, representing Renaissance Augustinianism.

  33. david foster Says:

    “the technological explosion of the last 20 years has made life so long and so good, that many now believe our mastery of nature must extend to human nature as well”…C S Lewis made a similar comment, pointing out that since a new model of a machine is usually better than the old model, people assume the same to be true of human affairs. (Of course, the “newer is better” mere isn’t always true even of machines: manufacturers will often mess up a successful model while trying to improve it)

  34. Sergey Says:

    VDH concept of Enlightenment is much more wide that usually is associated with this notion in popular thought. It includes 2500 years of European history, not only last 300 years. It includes Socrates and Plato, Euclid and Euripid, heroism of 300 Spartans and explain why Greeks defeated Persians and Romans defeated Carthago. In short, for him Enlightenment is the soul of Western civilization in all its achievements in sciences, religion and philosophy, the unique quality that makes it so exceptional and mighty, so superior over any other culture in almost every conceivable aspect. Many critics there, it seems, misunderstood this point completely and try to reduce this deep and wide historical perspective to trivial domestic issues of fleeting importance. This myopia is exactly one of symptoms of sickness of modern West that was the theme of his essay.

  35. Ariel Says:

    Sergey | 12.02.06 – 4:48 am

    Well said.

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