Suicide of the West (Reconsidered)

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By:Chilton Williamson, Jr. | January 25, 2018

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From the February 2014 issue of Chronicles.

The elegant duplex maisonette at 73 East 73rd Street in Manhattan, formerly the residence of the late Mr. and Mrs. William F. Buckley, Jr., was recently bought by Mr. and Mrs. Mark Rockefeller, son and daughter-in-law of the late Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.  A writer for the New York Times, describing the architectural and decorative renovations made by the couple to the Buckleys’ old home, noted in paragraph two the irony inherent in this devolution of ownership: The political quarrel between Bill Buckley and Nelson Rockefeller became one of the most famous political rivalries of the second half of the American Century, when Buckley supported Barry Goldwater for the Republican presidential nomination at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in 1964.

The irony is mitigated somewhat by the eventual political cooperation and deep personal friendship between Mr. Buckley and Governor Rockefeller’s protégé, supporter, and political advisor during his run for the presidency, Henry Kissinger, who later became the architect of a policy of détente with the Soviet Union and the instigator of the Nixon administration’s rapprochement with communist China.  Buckley’s admiration for Kissinger was not widely shared on the American right, including importantly James Burnham, a senior editor and staff writer at National Review whose biweekly column, The Protracted Conflict, doggedly pursued and deliberately analyzed the confrontation between East and West from a point of view very close to Whittaker Chambers’.  For decades both Kissinger and Burnham dined regularly in Mark Rockefeller’s new dining salon, discreetly darkened each night at suppertime.  In the induced twilight, Jim Burnham in his sober dark suits seemed more understated even than usual, almost a negligible presence in fact—until he addressed in his quiet voice the guest seated to one side or the other of him, at which point conversation around the wide oval table ceased as everyone else bent an ear in his direction.

In the summer of 1976 Bill Buckley arranged a luncheon at the State Department to introduce the editorial staff of National Review to the secretary of state.  Although he brought with him the five of us, the unstated purpose of the meeting was to allow Henry Kissinger the chance to charm and impress James Burnham, and if not exactly to convert him to the secretary’s way of thinking about the world and America’s proper role in it, then at least to lessen the wise man’s objections to his ideas.  That afternoon Kissinger placed Burnham to his right at table and began nearly every sentence by directing it to the author of Suicide of the West.  Whether Kissinger’s arguments and attentions swayed Burnham in the least, I doubt.  He sat all afternoon with his head gently inclined toward Kissinger and Larry Eagleburger, Kissinger’s deputy secretary, smiling his politely distant smile.  At any rate, I don’t recall the arguments he made subsequently in The Protracted Conflict and around the editorial table every second Tuesday morning having undergone any perceptible change.

Joe Sobran believed that James Burnham did not expect his historical critique of U.S. foreign policy, and indeed his view of history, to influence anyone in a position to reformulate that policy, either during his lifetime or after, and that he was quietly reconciled to being ignored by established opinion.  It is certainly true that, for decades after Suicide of the West appeared in 1964 (the year that Buckley was enthusiastically politicking around the country on behalf of Goldwater against Rockefeller), Foggy Bottom’s Soviet policies changed either little, or, as in the case of détente, for what was in Burnham’s opinion the worse.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington tried to encourage the continuation of the spirit of Kissinger’s détente and to encourage the extension of Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost in its relations with the Russian Federation, even as the ingrained ideological enmity created by the Cold War was being replaced by the growing nationalist enmity of Vladimir Putin.  (This development tends to confirm John Lukacs’s contention over many decades that the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States was fundamentally a nationalist confrontation, and to weaken Burnham’s ideological, almost metaphysical formulation of the basis of the Cold War.)  At the same time, a succession of American presidential administrations, encouraged by Western liberalism’s incurable naiveté and egged on by their following host of liberal interest groups, lobbies, and advocates of various sorts, were working to undermine their own efforts by trying to elide a policy of diplomatic relaxation with one of Russian internal reform.  America and the West did not respond to the sudden demise of the long-hated and feared Archenemy, armed to the ears with weapons of mass destruction, by offering thanks to God, Pope John Paul II, and the Virgin Mary for this unexpected blessing and turning their attention to the many intractable problems confronting the United States and the world.  Instead, they began immediately to press their advantage by pushing the reform of their humiliated former foe in America’s own image, ostentatiously holding its illiberal defects up to the world, badgering and indirectly threatening Moscow to enact thoroughgoing liberal renovation, and offering support and comfort to the Russian government’s domestic enemies.  Had James Burnham lived to witness the fall of the Soviet Union (he died in 1987), he would instantly have foretold the West’s response—a response as ideological in its nature as the former communist system itself.  Burnham would have foreseen, too, the fruits that the West, the United States especially, stood to gather from a policy of post-Soviet aggression by Washington—exactly the bitter ones on which the Obama administration and its allies are choking today.  Since 1991, America has succeeded in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, as a story in today’s paper (December 17, 2013) reporting the Kremlin’s announced deployment of short-range ballistic missiles in extreme Western Russia confirms.

The logic of America’s Russian policy during the successive presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama has been impeccable.  By 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved almost overnight, liberal America had already made considerable progress in its evolution from Cold War liberalism to advanced liberalism; the postmodern doctrines of multiculturalism, inclusivism, and a new kind of nontheological unitarianism were in the early stages of their development.  To liberals who accepted as basic principle the proposition that all peoples, races, cultures, and nations are the same if only one takes the trouble not to stare at them hard enough and long enough, post-Soviet Russia was ripe for conversion and wholesale reconstruction from the bottom up in agreement with the Western model.  In their view, the West is everywhere.  On the assumption that the Balkans (the Muslim parts, though not, of course, the Christian ones) do not differ inherently from France, Britain, and the United States, President Clinton used NATO to transform what only appeared to be a radically different civilization into a recognizably Western one by resort to high-explosive bombs dropped by high-altitude warplanes.  Acting on a similar assumption, President Bush in 2003 sent a multinational force of nearly 200,000 soldiers to overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party, confident that the grateful and jubilant Iraqis would reward their saviors by replicating late 18th-century Philadelphia in Baghdad.  And, in the mistaken belief that the vast majority of Muslims have generous feelings toward Christians and Westerners in general, while reserving their hostility solely for the Republican Party in the United States, President Obama went to Cairo in 2009, where in a speech his aides called “A New Beginning” he effectively apologized for 60 years of U.S. policy in the Middle East and pledged to the Muslim world that henceforth the Great Satan would go and sin no more.  Any head of state who addresses the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims in tones more suitable to the hundreds of thousands of Christopher Robins who had helped elect him the year before must be in for the surprise of his life, which is just what Obama got with the Arab Spring, the fall of Mubarak in Egypt, and the subsequent deposition by the Egyptian military of the Islamic government that succeeded him.  This massive rebuke of the President’s naiveté has not prevented him and his administration from condescending to, lecturing, and indirectly threatening Vladimir Putin—perhaps the toughest, strongest, least sentimental, and most competent politician on the international stage since 1945—as if he had Mitt Romney to deal with.  It was inevitable that, whatever the circumstances, resentment and general bad feeling between the United States and Russia should persist for decades following the demise of the Soviet Union, after nearly a century of enmity between the two countries.  But Obama and his people—as oblivious to tender nationalist sensibilities (including a deeply felt humiliation and patriotic self-regard) as Woodrow Wilson had been at Versailles to the historical reality of pre-war boundaries and the distribution of European populations in the immediate aftermath of the Great War—ensured that such resentment would be far deeper than it needed to be.

“Who says A must say B” was a favorite and oft-used maxim of Jim Burnham’s.  Whoever says that Russia is coextensive with the West (a view disputed among the Europeans and the Russians themselves for the past six or seven centuries) must say also that the West is Russia, which is tantamount to denying differences and distinctions between East and West, or North and South for that matter, because nothing is the West, and the West is nothing.  Everything that is human, beneath the thin if gaudily colored tissue of appearances, advanced liberalism claims to be in fact the same.  The iron doctrine of inclusivism, which today is taken for granted as the collective perception of simple common sense among nearly all educated people in the post-Western world, has implications for Burnham’s suicide of the West thesis that are as direct as they are obvious.

This long, self-inflicted goodbye, comparable to the slow-motion suicide by individuals through the deliberate abuse of alcohol, tobacco, or sex, continues apace today, as it did in 1964 and was doing yet when James Burnham breathed his last in Kent, Connecticut (where he was a neighbor of Henry Kissinger’s).  Only it is proceeding by other means: in place of compromise, retreat, and capitulation (at least as Burnham, Buckley, their magazine, and most conservatives understood global reality in those days), negation and denial of the historical fact of the West—self-negation, itself a form of suicide.  Postmodern liberalism, which is too shallow and self-contradictory to survive in the long run, is nevertheless often shrewd, and sometimes even clever.  In the present case, the pressing need to overcome a problem it prefers to ignore—how to ensure the survival of Western liberal institutions by means that do not violate liberal principles, an historic and perpetual dilemma of liberalism that, as Burnham pointed out in Suicide, demonstrates its incoherence as a philosophical system—has goosed its inventive genius to come up with the necessary, the perfect, indeed the only solution, which is flatly to deny that any problem requiring a solution actually exists.  By conjuring the West out of existence and presenting it as the illusory perception by several millennia of dead white rich superstitious aggressive exploitive and manipulative males, concepts like suicide, decline, capitulation, and cowardice, on the one hand, and defense, resistance, freedom, liberty, honor, and civilization, on the other, are erased in a single bold sweep from Western discourse and the public mind.  They become irrelevant and unreal, like the West itself—so much sound and fury signifying cultural chauvinism, the rhetoric of scoundrels.  Wars between good and evil, religious belief and unbelief, one religion and another, communism and the system of private property, freedom and liberty, all belong, in the eyes of postmodern liberalism, to that long series of historical scrapes and cataclysms—comic episodes, really, had they not inflicted so much human devastation and misery—into which all those unenlightened generations down to the generation currently in power have fallen through their own ignorance, blindness, and corruption.  To “the people we have been waiting for,” in Barack Obama’s description, the only war worth the candle is the ages-old conflict between biological life and death, since for postmodern liberals biological life is all there is, and death a mere “falling into darkness,” as Theodore Roosevelt imagined it.  Therefore, life must be defended, and death resisted, though for only so long as resistance doesn’t entail excessive physical, mental, and emotional pain.  When it does, death itself is no longer worth resisting, and mass euthanasia becomes the way out—a collective act of mass assisted suicide, precisely what James Burnham thought he was witnessing.  The alternative to death—likely the preferable one at this point for the cringing, cowardly, complacent, self-distracted, inattentive, materialist, dishonorable proletariat that the peoples of the West have allowed themselves to degenerate into since 1945—is slavery, which Burnham also plainly had in mind as a plausible future for the Western world.

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