Saturday, December 22, 2007

Secular Europe or Religious America?

By Dennis Prager

Last week, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote a column titled "Secular Europe's Merits," in which he explained why he prefers the secularism of Europe to the religiosity of America.

To his credit (other New York Times columnists do not generally agree to debate anything they write -- Paul Krugman, for example, has refused to discuss his new book on liberalism with me), Cohen agreed to come on my show, and proved to be a charming guest. A distinguished foreign correspondent for Reuters and the International Herald Tribune, Cohen nevertheless betrayed what I believe is endemic to those who favor Europe's secularism to America's religiosity -- emotion rather than reason. Here are some of the points from his opinion piece followed by my responses.

Cohen: "The Continent has paid a heavy price in blood for religious fervor and decided some time ago, as a French king put it, that 'Paris is well worth a Mass.'"

There is no doubt that Western Europe abandoned religion and opted for secularism largely because of the blood spilled in religious wars, just as it abandoned nationalism because of all the blood it spilled in the name of nationalism during World War I. However, Cohen and others who argue for a secular society ignore the even heavier price in blood Europe has paid for secular fervor. Secular fervor, i.e., communism and Nazism, slaughtered, tortured and enslaved more people in 50 years than all Europe's religious wars did in the course of centuries.

This point is so obvious, and so devastating to the pro-secularists, that you wonder how they deal with it. But having debated secularists for decades, I predicted Cohen's response virtually word for word on my radio show the day before I spoke with him. He labeled communism and Nazism "religions."

This response completely avoids the issue. Communism and Nazism were indeed religion-like in their hold on people, but they were completely secular movements and doctrines. Moreover, communism was violently anti-religious, and Nazism affirmed pre-Christian -- what we tend to call "pagan" -- values and beliefs. In fact, the emergence of communism and Nazism in an increasingly secular Europe is one of the most powerful arguments for the need for Judeo-Christian religions. Europe's two secular totalitarian systems perfectly illustrate what G.K. Chesterton predicted a hundred years ago: "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing -- they believe in anything."

Cohen: "The U.S. culture wars have produced . . . 'the injection of religion into politics in a very overt way.'"

Cohen gives no examples, and though this charge is constantly repeated by many on the left, I have yet to figure out what exactly these critics mean. Do they mean, for example, that those who deem abortion immoral and wish to ban it (except to save the mother's life or in the cases of incest or rape) have injected religion into politics? If so, why is this objectionable?

What are those who derive their values from religion supposed to do -- stay out of the political process? Are only those who derive their values from secular sources or their own hearts allowed to attempt to influence the political process? It seems that this is precisely what Cohen and other secularists argue. But they are not even consistent here. I recall no secularist who protested that those, like the Rev. Martin Luther King, who used religion to fight for black equality "injected religion into politics in a very overt way."

The leftist argument against religious Americans' "injection of religion into politics" is merely its way of trying to keep only the secular and religious left in the political arena -- and the religious right, primarily evangelical Christians, out.

Cohen: "Much too overt for Europeans, whose alarm at George W. Bush's presidency has been fed by his allusions to divine guidance -- 'the hand of a just and faithful God' in shaping events, or his trust in 'the ways of Providence.'"

Cohen and his fellow Europeans sound paranoid here. President Bush has invoked God less than most presidents in American history, and the examples Cohen offers are thoroughly innocuous.

Cohen: "Such beliefs seem to remove decision-making from the realm of the rational at the very moment when the West's enemy acts in the name of fanatical theocracy."

At least in my lifetime, it is the secular left that has embraced far more irrationality than the religious right. It was people on the secular left, not anyone on the religious right, who found Marxism, one of the most irrational doctrines in history, rational. It was only on the secular left that people morally equated the United States and the Soviet Union. It was secular leftists, not religious Jews or Christians, who believed the irrational nonsense that men and women were basically the same.

It is overwhelmingly among the secular (and religious) left that people have bought into the myriad irrational hysterias of my lifetime -- without zero population growth humanity will begin to starve, huge mortality rates in America from heterosexual AIDS, mass death caused by secondhand smoke, and now destruction of the planet by man-induced global warming. It is extremely revealing that with regard to global warming scenarios of man-induced doom, the world's most powerful religious figure, Pope Benedict XVI, has just warned against accepting political dogma in the guise of science. We'll see who turns out to be more rational on this issue -- the secular left or the religious right. I bet everything on the religious.

There is no question but that most religious people have irrational religious views. However, as I wrote in my last column, theology and values are not the same. I am convinced that the human being is programmed to believe in the non-rational. The healthy religious confine their irrationality to their theologies and are quite rational on social issues. On the other hand, vast numbers of secular people in the West have done the very opposite -- rejected irrational religiosity and affirmed irrational social beliefs.


Anti-Americanism is just jealousy of American power and influence

How can America improve its image abroad? Answers to this question are being bandied by all of the presidential hopefuls. John McCain promises to "immediately close Guantanamo Bay." Ron Paul and Barack Obama both say they would withdraw American troops from Iraq. Implicit is the notion that George W Bush has tarnished America's reputation in the world, and that reversing some of his more contentious policies will make the United States popular again. If only it were that simple.

Although polls do indeed show that President Bush has brought anti-Americanism to the surface in many parts of the world, the roots of enmity toward America reach far deeper than one man and his policies. The problem of anti-Americanism will not go away just because Americans elect a new president. Contrary to much of today's conventional wisdom, anti-Americanism is not a recent phenomenon. In Europe, for example, anti-Americanism is as old as the United States itself. In fact, anti-Americanism is so established on the Old Continent that there are now as many different brands of anti-Americanism as there are European countries.

Take Spain, for example, where anti-Americanism goes back to the Spanish-American War, which in 1898 drove the final nail into the coffin of the Spanish empire and ended its colonial exploitation of Cuba. Many Spaniards also resent America's support for General Francisco Franco (1892-1975), who in his day was popular with the Americans because of his strong anti-Communist credentials.

In Germany, anti-Americanism is an exercise in moral relativism. Germans desperately want their country to be perceived as a "normal" country, and its elites are using anti-Americanism as a political tool to absolve themselves and their parents of the crimes of World War II. They routinely equate the US invasion of Iraq with the Holocaust, for example, as a psychological ruse to make themselves feel better about their sordid past.

In France, anti-Americanism is an inferiority complex masquerading as a superiority complex. France is the birthplace of anti-Americanism (the first act of which has been traced to a French lawyer in the late 1700s), and bashing the United States is an inexpensive way to indulge France's fantasies of past greatness and splendor.

As political realists like Thucydides (c 460-395 BC) might have predicted, anti-Americanism is also a visceral reaction against the current distribution of global power. America commands a level of economic, military and cultural influence that leaves many around the world envious, resentful and even angry and afraid. Indeed, most purveyors of anti-Americanism will continue to bash America until the United States is balanced or replaced (by those same anti-Americans, of course) as the dominant actor on the global stage.

In Europe, for example, where self-referential elites are pathologically obsessed with their perceived need to "counter-balance" the United States, anti-Americanism is now the dominant ideology of public life. In fact, it is no coincidence that the spectacular rise in anti-Americanism in Europe has come at precisely the same time that the European Union, which often struggles to speak with one voice, has been trying to make its political weight felt both at home and abroad.

In their quest to transform Europe into a superpower capable of challenging the United States, European elites are using anti-Americanism to forge a new pan-European identity. This artificial post-modern European "citizenship", which demands allegiance to a faceless bureaucratic superstate based in Brussels instead of to the traditional nation-state, is being set up in opposition to the United States. To be "European" means (nothing more and nothing less than) to not be an American.

Because European anti-Americanism has much more to do with European identity politics than with genuine opposition to American foreign policy, European elites do not really want the United States to change. Without the intellectual crutch of anti-Americanism, the new "Europe" would lose its raison d'etre. Anti-Americanism also drives Europe's fixation with its diplomatic and economic "soft power" alternative as the elixir for the world's problems. Europeans despise America's military "hard power" because it magnifies the preponderance of US power and influence on the world stage, thereby exposing the fiction behind Europe's superpower pretensions.

Europeans know they will never achieve hard power parity with America, so they want to change the rules of the international game to make soft power the only acceptable superpower standard. Toward this end, European elites seek to de-legitimize one of the main pillars of American influence by making it prohibitively costly in the realm of international public opinion for the United States to use its military power in the future. By ensconcing a system of international law based around the United Nations, they hope to constrain American exercise of power. For Europeans, multilateralism is about neutering American hard power, not about solving international problems. It is, as the clich‚ goes, about Lilliputians tying down Gulliver.

Many American foreign policy mavens refuse to recognize this. In fact, they often over-idolize European soft power, largely because they share the European belief that a multilateral world order is the proper antidote to global anti-Americanism.

Case in point is a new report on "smart power" recently released by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The document proffers policy advice based on the fiction that the blame for anti-Americanism lies entirely with the United States. It calls on the next president to fix the problem of anti-Americanism by pursuing a neo-liberal norm-based internationalist foreign policy; it argues, predictably, that America can restore its standing in the world by working through the United Nations and by signing the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court.

But the report says not a word about the gratuitous anti-American bigotry of Europe's "sophisticated" elites. Nor does it acknowledge that most European purveyors of anti-Americanism are far more opposed to what America is than to what America does. It is not primarily US foreign policy they seek to change: What Europeans (and many of their American converts) want is a wholesale re-creation of America in the post-modern European pacifist image.

To earn the approbation of Europe's sanctimonious elites, the next American president would (for starters) have to relinquish all use of military force, surrender US sovereignty to the United Nations, adopt a socialist economic model, abolish the death penalty, accept an Iranian nuclear bomb, abandon US support for Israel, appease the Islamic world in a high-minded "Alliance of Civilizations"... and so on.

Anti-Americanism is (at least for the foreseeable future) a zero-sum game because the main purveyors of anti-Americanism are in denial about the dangers facing the world today. They believe the United States is the problem and that their vision for a post-modern socialist multicultural utopia is the answer. Never mind that most Europeans do not have enough faith in their own model to want to pass it on to the next generation.

This is the dilemma America faces: If it wants to be popular abroad, it will have to pay in terms of reduced security. And if it determines to protect the American way of life from global threats, then it will have to pay in terms of reduced popularity abroad. But if America loses out against the existential threats posed by global terrorism and fundamentalist Islam, then the issue of America's international image will be moot. Better, therefore, if the next president focuses on keeping America strong and secure, rather than on pleasing those who will never like the United States, even if its foreign policy changes.

Better, also, for the next president to focus on wielding American power wisely, because doing so will earn the United States (grudging) respect, which in the game of unstable relationships that characterizes modern statecraft, is far more important than love.


Rewritten history risks the future of democracy

In October, the Spanish parliament passed a law of historical memory that banned rallies and memorials celebrating dictator Francisco Franco. His Falangist regime will be officially denounced and its victims honoured. There are plausible reasons for enacting such a law. Many people killed by the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War lie forgotten in mass graves. There is still a certain degree of nostalgia on the far Right for Franco's dictatorship. People gathered at his tomb earlier this year chanted: "We won the civil war", while denouncing socialists and foreigners, especially Muslims.

Reason enough, one may think, for Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to use the law to exorcise the demons of dictatorship for the sake of democracy's good health. But legislation is a blunt instrument for dealing with history. While historical discussion won't be out of bounds in Spain, banning ceremonies celebrating bygone days may be going a step too far. The desire to control past and present is, of course, a common feature of dictatorships. This can be done through false propaganda, distorting the truth or suppressing the facts. Anyone in China who mentions what happened at Tiananmen Square (and many other places) in June 1989 will soon find himself in the less than tender embrace of the State Security Police. Indeed, much of what happened under Mao Zedong remains taboo.

Sometimes the wounds of the past are so fresh that even democratic governments deliberately impose silence to foster unity. When Charles de Gaulle revived the French Republic after World War II, he ignored the history of Vichy France and Nazi collaboration by pretending that all French citizens had been good republican patriots. More truthful accounts, such as Marcel Ophuls's magisterial documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), were, to say the least, unwelcome. Ophuls's film was not shown on French state television until 1981. After Franco's death in 1975, Spain, too, treated its recent history with remarkable discretion. But memory won't be denied.

A new generation in France, born after the war, broke the public silence with a torrent of books and films on French connivance in the Holocaust, as well as the collaborationist Vichy regime, sometimes in an almost inquisitorial spirit. French historian Henri Russo dubbed this new attitude the Vichy Syndrome.

Spain seems to be going through a similar process. Children of Franco's victims are making up for their parents' silence. Suddenly the civil war is everywhere, in books, television shows, movies, academic seminars and now in the legislature.

This is not only a European phenomenon. Nor is it a sign of creeping authoritarianism. On the contrary, it often comes with more democracy. When South Korea was ruled by military strongmen, Korean collaboration with Japanese colonial rule in the first half of the 20th century was not discussed, partly because some of those strongmen, notably Park Chung-hee, had been collaborators.

Now, under President Roh Moo-hyun, a new truth and reconciliation law has not only stimulated a thorough airing of historical grievances but also has led to a hunt for past collaborators. Lists have been drawn up of people who played a significant role in the Japanese colonial regime, ranging from university professors to police chiefs, and extend even to their children, reflecting the Confucian belief that families are responsible for the behaviour of their individual members. That many family members, including Park's daughter, Geun-hye, support the conservative opposition party is surely no coincidence.

Opening up the past to public scrutiny is part of maintaining an open society. But when governments do so, history can easily become a weapon to be used against political opponents and thus be as damaging as banning historical inquiries. This is a good reason for leaving historical debates to writers, journalists, filmmakers and historians.

Government intervention is justified only in a limited sense. Many countries enact legislation to stop people from inciting others to commit violent acts, though some go further. For example, Nazi ideology and symbols are banned in Germany and Austria, and Holocaust denial is a crime in 13 countries, including France, Poland and Belgium. Last year, the French parliament introduced a bill to proscribe denial of the Armenian genocide, too.

But even if extreme caution is sometimes understandable, it may not be wise, as a matter of general principle, to ban abhorrent or simply cranky views of the past. Banning certain opinions, no matter how perverse, has the effect of elevating their proponents into dissidents. Last month, British writer David Irving, who was jailed in Austria for Holocaust denial, had the bizarre distinction of defending free speech in a debate at the Oxford Union.

While the Spanish Civil War was not on par with the Holocaust, even bitter history leaves room for interpretation. Truth can be found only if people are free to pursue it. Many brave people have risked or lost their lives in defence of this freedom. It is right for a democracy to repudiate a dictatorship, and the new Spanish law is cautiously drafted, but it is better to leave people free to express even unsavoury political sympathies, for legal bans don't foster free thinking, they impede them.


What Part of Catholic Do You Not Understand?

Someone needs to ask the US bishops conference (USCCB) movie reviewer, Harry Forbes what part of the concept “Catholic” he does not understand. Mr. Forbes gave a glowing review to the film, The Golden Compass, and put all American Catholic bishops on record as supporting the work of an atheist! Subsequently, New Line Cinema attempted to do a full-scale promotion of the movie using diocesan newspapers claiming that the bishops’ movie office had declared the film to be “entirely in harmony with Catholic teaching.” Just to set the record straight: this movie has been condemned or criticized by at least one Cardinal, several Archbishops and Bishops in the US and the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. In fact, the latter called it “the most anti-Christmas film possible,” referring of course to its deliberate release during the Advent season. Wisely, the USCCB removed Mr. Forbes’ positive review of the movie from their website as soon as the controversy started.

Mr. Forbes is entitled to his own opinion on any matter, but he is not entitled to give his own opinions in the name of our bishops. The bishops deserve better—Mr. Forbes deserves to be fired.

This matter goes deeper than just one incident. We can rightly tolerate honest mistakes and errors of judgment when they happen. We are all human, and we would all like that same tolerance directed toward us for our mistakes. What is less tolerable and cause for appropriate action is a pattern of malfeasance. Mr. Forbes has a track record of shaming our bishops with his upbeat reviews of films that do not remotely reflect the values of any Christian let alone the bishops.

In 2005, Harry Forbes gave such a positive review to the homosexual promotional film, Brokeback Mountain, that the bishops had to withdraw the shameless review and replace it with another. Still stinging from the priest scandals of 2002 and beyond, the review was not only morally wrong, it was imprudent, ill-timed and embarrassing. In his original review of the two homosexual lovers and their infantile problems, Forbes soft pedals the gross man-on-man sex scenes and ends by saying that the bishops’ rating of the film indicates that “some adults” may have problems with the moral content of the movie. That’s like saying that “some wives” may object to their husbands having affairs with other women.

Forbes’ track record does not stop there. It has recently come to light that in 2005 he issued another glowing review for a salacious homosexual movie called Rent based on a Broadway production of the same name. LifeSiteNews has recently documented the offensive commentary which was posted on the Catholic News Service website; suffice it to say that the bishops should not have to be on record as supporting that one either.

What we are expecting is standard practice in the business world: namely, that those who present their company’s (or church’s) views to the public represent the views of their employers faithfully. If they make a mistake they can be forgiven and the damage repaired; but if they misrepresent their bosses consistently and on fundamental matters, they should be fired to defend the very integrity of those who they speak for in public. Simple as that!



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For times when is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here.


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