Asked recently whether he thought Brexit was a pivotal moment in European history, the writer Alain Finkielkraut responded: “In order to put an end to the distinction — judged potentially genocidal — between an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, the European Union has sedulously drained Europe of all content. It has replaced civilization with values, it has dissolved identity in rights, norms and procedures. The English have said “no” to these developments: we [the French] don’t need to emulate them, but seize the occasion of Brexit to reconstruct the European Union.”
And thereby “defend our European civilization”. Mathieu Bock-Côté, the québécois sociologist, shares this formula with Finkielkraut, and in the article translated below asks what precisely it is that must be defended. A good question that demands another: that of how European civilization is to be defended, assuming that it can be identified.
❝ This alien therapy has produced a cultural auto-immune reaction, a kind of political lupus eating away at Europe’s prodigious heritage.❞
The “replacement of civilization with values”, and identity with a porridge of “rights, norms and procedures” is the foul work of generations of European politicians and bureaucrats. European “civilizational identity”, to use Bock-Côté’s formula, has been redefined as its own self-abnegation, as the endorsement of everything exotic. This alien therapy, exercised through the education system, has produced a cultural auto-immune reaction, a kind of political lupus eating away at Europe’s prodigious heritage. What is it that we wish to defend? An inconvenient question with an even more inconvenient answer — to which Bock-Côté alludes: thirty centuries of European high culture, the sine qua non of continuity and development through education. Who today would come to the defence of that, apart from Matteo Renzi? In an apparent response to the destruction of the temple at Palmyra, the Italian prime minister announced last year that on attaining his or her majority, every citizen would receive from the state a debit card charged with €500, to be used exclusively to gain entry to institutions where heritage was protected and revered. An exceptional gesture for a politician of the Left, and one that cannot be imagined coming from the islamo-gauche in France.
It is high culture that teaches values, not the other way around as neoliberal orthodoxy demands. High culture is the criterion, literally the senate, by which values are made true. On the other hand, received ‘values’ such as human rights and the rule of law, while essential for a functioning society, are defenceless against corruption. Only ‘civilizational identity’ has the authority to regulate them. Abuses of the rule of law, as of human rights, are legion. In Germany, one may not insult a foreign dignitary or deny the Shoa. Everywhere in the so-called liberal democracies, freedom of speech is honoured only in the breach. Representative democracy represents only those who own the law and profit from it. The law itself is becoming indistinguishable from a taxonomy of victimhood.
❝ It is high culture that teaches values, not the other way around as neoliberal orthodoxy demands.❞
High culture, by contrast, is the senior authority standing above received values, which are essentially bureaucratic in timbre. It is free of humbug and corruption, because winnowed by time and the force of countless great minds. A piece of ancient architecture might be eroded according to the second law of thermodynamics, or even physically attacked, but it cannot be corrupted in the sense meant here in relation to ‘values’. The Greeks taught Europeans how to think, but that lesson is immune to corruption. The mysterious theme that arrives in the first movement of Mozart’s 40th symphony might be mangled by pop culture, but the original endures and cannot be corrupted. Lilliputian minds dice up the freedom to speak according to the demands of this or that self-referential group of victims, and this is what is served up by western political elites as a received ‘value’. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains the reductio ad absurdum of received ‘values’: in this respect it is resistant to improvement. Meanwhile, high culture, ‘civilizational identity’, legislates for taste and discrimination and common sense humanity. Who then are the preferred lawmakers: Mozart and Brahms, who taught us how to feel; Euclid, who taught us how to think; or the mandarins of the European Union, who are showing Europe how to die in the name of ‘universal’ — in truth, ephemeral — values?
That is the essential point. Received values, being corruptible, cannot stand the test of time. ‘Compassion’, raised to Angela Merkel’s geopolitical scale, can lead in time only to resentment or worse, and finally to its own antithesis. As for the defence of our European civilization, the struggle has one primary theatre: education.