THE NEW VICHY SYNDROME: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism by Theodore Dalrymple ( Encounter, 2009)
Europeans have it good these days. Their life expectancy has never been higher. Benevolent state health care systems take care of their ailments from cradle to grave; working hours are short and vacations long; they are the wealthiest inhabitants of the continent in history, possessing an average continent-wide per captia income of $22,500.
Then why are they so damn miserable?
The European impending sense of doom is addressed in Theodore Dalrymple’s The New Vichy Syndrome : Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism.
A fatalistic world view is certainly not new to Europe. Since the First World War, French artists, Spanish writers, Italian politicians and British poets have predicting the demise of the West and the collapse of social order. That grew, as Dalrymple points out, from a manifest disillusionment about a war that served little purpose yet annihilated an entire generation.
Dalrymple quickly puts to rest an argument offered by a host of other polemicists such as Mark Steyn and Bruce Bawer, that Muslim population growth and declining European fertlity rates will soon enough result is a catastrophic demographic shift. In fact, fertility rates are declining in the Muslim population almost as rapidly as they are in regular European society. In addition, Muslims are assimilating faster than either Bawer or Steyn would care to admit, even though what remains publicly apparent is the extremist version of Islam, represented by flailing Imams and rioting youth.
No, Europeans, according to The New Vichy, are undergoing a far more devastating internal existential crisis, one in which they can no longer see much value in Europe’s storied past or undoubted achievements and can’t see much of a future either.
What are the symptoms that Dalymple, a retired physician, has diagnosed in his patient?
The first is bitterness at the loss of European power and significance. Since the end of the Second World War, Europe has lagged behind the United States in both production and productivity while allowing the technological revolution to be centered in places like Silicon Valley and Herzilya and not at the Sorbonne or the British Midlands.
Second, they bear limitless guilt for having imposed upon the world colonialism, the Holocaust and a raft of totalitarian ideologies which resulted in the mass murder of tens of millions.
The Europeans can’t seem to forgive themselves for having ruined the world and for having been tied to every malevolent development in world history since the beginning of the 20th century.
Third, is the sense that the elites of Europe – the intellectuals, political class, media and entertainment communities have felt the loss their entitlements as leaders of social change. And what better way to achive social change than the wholesale restructing of society to suit their own ends? This underlines the reason the environmental movement and global governance movement has gained so much traction in Europe. They offer these same elites a respository for their disillusion and a way forward for the reconsolidation of their power.
It all adds up to an acute attack of miserablism, an orotund term that Dalrymple coins as a designation for the nihilistic disease which afflicts European elites today.
Well, that all could be. But the author seems to skip over the most salient fact of all – Europeans have opted to live in the apparent comfort of a post-enlightenment world, where there is neither good nor evil, right nor wrong and where the benefits of democracy and the results of a hard won freedom are largely ignored in favor a politically relativist culture. Europeans have forgotten what it means to be free and in the process, denuded their own culture and civlization of any moral purpose.
Dalrymple might have developed this theme a little more forcefully by actually focusing on the writings of leading contemporary European intellectuals and revealing how morally spent they are. Offering an examination, for example, of the writings of Labévière, del Valle, Burgat or Gallois might have buttressed his argument with specific examples of the kind of intellectual, political and economic malaise he describes.
For all that, The New Vichy Syndrome is a powerful book which raises some significant questions about the fate of Europe and the bloated Union it has established. At the very least the book furnishes proof that there do exist Europeans who are still capable of understanding the mess continent is in and willing to state plainly how it got that way.
On a recent visit to Israel I had quite a bit of time on my hands to catch up on some reading. Here are some comments on a few of the books I managed to ply through on planes and between flights:
Start Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle by Saul Singer and Dan Senor. A powerful, anecdote- driven account of Israel’s rise from impoverished economic back water to its emergence this century as a high tech powerhouse. Singer and Senor provide fascinating portraits of some of the individuals behind this remarkable boom, including politicians such as Benjamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres , the entrepreneurs such as Shai Agassi and Dov Frohman and the venture capitalists – Erel Margalit and Jonathan Medved. On the way, the two authors reveal one of the primary reasons Israel has been able to produce more start ups per capita than any other nation on earth - a military training which encourages innnovation, experimentation and individuality. You can find my interview with Saul Singer here.
State of Fear by Michael Chrichton. This is a book I have wanted to read for years, not because I think Crichton is much of a novelist, but because as a public figure he took such a defiant stand against radical environmentalism and the rush to judgment over anthropogenic global warming. It was an unusual position for a celebrity writer of his stature. The novel is, suffice to say, a fairly pedestrian thriller, involving the attempt of a group of environmental ” realists” to prevent a band of environmental extremists deliberately precipitating catastrophes around the world in order to bring further world attention to their cause. It is full of the usual wooden characters and preposterous plot lines that I have come to expect from Crichton. But what is fascinating is the author’s message , tacked onto the end of the book, in which he goes to town on the environmental movement, decrying its fixation with 1970s styled ideologies which are out of keeping with current research and technologies.
This quote itself was quite startling:
“In the 35- odd -years since the environmental movement came into existence, science has undergone a major revolution. This revolution has brought new understanding of non linear dynamics; Complex Systems, chaos theory, catastrophe theory; It has transformed the way we think about evolution and ecology. Yet these new ideas have hardly penetrated the thinking of environmental activists, which seems oddly fixated on the concepts and rhetoric of the 197os”
Shortly after State of Fear was written Crichton delivered his famous address Environmentalism As Religion at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. You can read that marvelous speech here. A brief glimpse into his thinking might be helpful:
“Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism. Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists. Why do I say it’s a religion? Well, just look at the beliefs. If you look carefully, you see that environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.”
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Ok, its quite unlikely I would have read this if my 15 – year-old son was not studying the book at school and I was not being prevailed upon to help him with a class assignment. I had read the book twice before – once in my early teens and then again in my late 20s. I had always considered it a great adventure story, full of powerful imagery and detailed description which is exciting for any child or adult. What I had not remembered as clearly was the magnificently drawn characters and the way their emotional lives lend full blooded color to the story which, then, virtually lifts off from the page. It puts to shame Crichton’s novel in the sheer power of the writing and author’s descriptive skill. It is a must read for any aspiring novelist, to be advised that even the most high octane plot is nothing if it not driven by memorable, believable characters.
Why Are Jews Liberal? by Norman Podhoretz. A recent book, ( published in August , 2009) it is the second time I have read it, this time in preparation for my interview with Norman on December 16. It is , first and foremost, a great work of history, tracking the rise of antisemitism from the emergence of Christianity to its manifestations in the 20th century and revealing how Jews increasingly came to view oppression as coming at them from the right and therefore viewed the left as their safe harbor. This was despite the fact that there was often even greater animus to Jews there, which only grew with Bolshevism’s rise. Podhoretz comes to the conclusion that Jews have adopted liberalism as a religion in its own right, grafting their new faith’s tenets onto their old one by explaining Judaism’s major focus as a “universalistic” quest for ” social justice.” He goes to some lengths in pointing out that gay rights, feminist attitudes, gun control, abortion rights, affirmative action and sexual liberation have almost nothing to do with traditional Jewish teachings. But, of course, this does not not matter much to the modern liberal Jew. His world is essentially detached from the learned world of his forefathers, making it one of the great tragedy of our times.Yo u can listen to my interview with Norman Podhoretz here.