The president heaped praise on Poland as a country "at the center of
European civilization" and warned that our shared Western civilization is
threatened by "totalitarian forces in the world who seek . . . to further their
barbarous assault on the human spirit." He called on the West to defend "the great civilized ideas: individual liberty, representative government, and
the rule of law under God" and criticized "the shyness of some of us in the
West about standing for these ideals."
The president in question was not Donald Trump, whose recent speech in Warsaw calling on the West "to summon the courage and the will to defend
our civilization" has drawn irrational criticism here at home. It was
Ronald Reagan, in his famous 1982 Westminster address promising to
"leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history."
In fact, Trump's words could have been delivered by almost any American
president of either party in the past century. They could have been
delivered by Harry S. Truman, who in 1952 praised the United States for
saving "Western civilization from enslavement by a godless creed." They
could have been spoken by John F. Kennedy, who in a 1963 speech in
West Germany spoke of "preserving Western culture, and Western religion,
and Western civilization" and defending "our common heritage from
those who would divide and destroy it." They could have been uttered by
Lyndon B. Johnson, who warned in 1966 of "ideologies . . . that threaten
the very roots of our common Western civilization." They could have been
spoken by Bill Clinton, who declared in 1994 his belief that "Western civilization
was the greatest of all, and America was the best expression of
Western civilization because of its commitment to . . . the belief that the future
could be better than the present and that we have an obligation to
make it so."
Never mind all that, according to Sarah Wildman of Vox, Trump's call
to defend Western civilization "sounded like an alt-right manifesto," as the
headline on her article described it. In the Atlantic, Peter Beinart complained
that "Trump referred 10 times to 'the West' and five times to 'our
civilization' " and that "His white nationalist supporters will understand exactly
what he means" because "The West is a racial and religious term."
No, it isn't. Quite the opposite, Western civilization is founded on ideas
that transcend race and religion. As Yale historian Donald Kagan put it:
"Americans do not share a common ancestry and a common blood. What
they have in common is a system of laws and beliefs that shaped the establishment
of the country, a system developed within the context of Western
civilization." He added that every student should study "the philosophical,
scientific, agricultural and industrial revolutions in the West" which allowed
human beings "to produce and multiply the things needed for life so
as to make survival and prosperity possible for ever-increasing numbers"
and gave birth to "the theory and practice of the separation of church from
state, protecting each from the other, and creating a free and safe place
for the individual conscience."
These ideals are described as "Western" not because they are exclusive
to the West, but because of the historical fact that they emanated from
the West: the first democracy in Greece under Pericles (which predated
Christianity by more than four centuries); to the principles enshrined in
Magna Carta; the works of the Renaissance humanists; and the treatises
of Enlightenment philosophers that inspired the authors of our Declaration
"Western" values are universal values, and Trump affirmed their universality
in Warsaw, declaring that "we value the dignity of every human
life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to
live in freedom."
Since the 1980s, the left has been on a tireless crusade to drum the
study of Western civilization out of universities in the name of fighting "Eurocentrism."
Now, apparently, they want to drum Western values out of
presidential rhetoric. We must not let them do so.
Trump has said many objectionable things, but his eloquent defense
of Western civilization in Warsaw was not one of them. It is ironic. The left
likes to paint Trump as a threat to democracy. But the real threat to democracy
is when the leader of the free world can no longer defend the ideals
of the West — which, Reagan told us, "have done so much to ease the
plight of man and the hardships of our imperfect world" — without being
accused of bigotry.