The surest symptom of moral atrophy is smugness. The conviction of inalienable righteousness ignites a love affair with oneself that can be consummated only at the expense of everyone else.
Americans are often accused of just such a passion, particularly when it comes to our dealings with the world – but we are plainly too ornery to settle down in front of the mirror. We dispute. From Terri Shiavo to social security, we disagree. Too often, we rant: that is our peculiar failing. I find it perverse in the extreme, and have on occasion warned of its consequences. But we are morally alive. Even the ranters can see that there’s another side to the question.
Smugness is the European disease. An entire continent seems enthralled by the number of things they will never, ever do: the death penalty, preemptive war, defend democracy abroad, cut taxes, allow part-time work, get married, have children, produce popular movies, and so on, a long list of virtuous Euronegatives. Inertia, on this view, defeats sin. Of course, death would have the same effect, but that would remove the one great joy of existence, which is to be able to say – as the “leader of Norway’s conservative Christian Democrats” is quoted as saying in The Nation – things like this:
“We have decided that raising a child is real work. And that this work provides value for the whole society. And that the society as a whole should pay for this valuable service. Americans like to talk about family values. We have decided to do more than talk; we use our tax revenues to pay for family values.”
Oh, the rapture: family values = the government minds the children = higher taxes = Norwegians are far, far better than Americans. Buried in the “raising a child is real work” complaint is the fact that the current crop of virtuous Norwegians won’t reproduce themselves at parity.
Am I being unfair? Self-questioning Norwegians exist – Bjorn Staerk Blog, an island of sanity and intellectual curiosity amid the heat and blather of the Web, is proof of this. But the environment observed and commented on by Bjorn is one of massively conformistic Euronegativism.
How does an entire continent succumb to self-love? That is a question too large for this humble blog. Some blame the alienation of Europeans from their Christian roots, but that just pushes the question back a step: why the alienation? In the end, it boils down to behavior, to human actions directed by the human will. There are many things the Europeans don’t wish to do, and few that stir them into action.
Among the things they will do is consume. If you don’t believe in religion, work, marriage, children, or country, and are peaceably disposed, what else is left? Europe may be weak militarily, but it has formidable powers of digestion. The EU is predicated on the proposition that democracy and all its restless striving can be tranquillized by offering a large enough trough to feed at. The new EU constitution is a mountain of consumables, tidbits not unlike the chunks of fish with which trainers reward performing seals. This approach has sold well in the past.
Externally, the EU has grown by digesting country after country. It now borders the patchwork of violent, mutually hostile tribes that is the Balkans, at the edge of which stands Turkey, far less secular, and soon to be more populous, than any other nation in the union. The prospect of such fare makes even the gastro-imperalistic Europeans feel queasy. The French contemplate the Turks and wonder who, in truth, will be swallowing whom. According to polls, large numbers of them are threatening to vote Non on the EU constitution.
In this commentary in the Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash makes the case for continued expansion. “In the Balkans,” he writes, “the choice is Europe or war.”
According to the Amato commission, the EU’s choice is simple: enlargement or empire. Either we in the EU accept that we will have virtual colonies in our Balkan backyard for decades to come, or we start preparing the conditions in which the Balkans can join the European Union. The commission comes out decisively for enlargement. At a meeting next year, the EU should commit itself to a plan to bring the Balkans in by 2014 – an event that could be celebrated in a summit in Sarajevo, on the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war. This would give a new and more positive meaning to a phrase popularised during the last war in Bosnia: “From Sarajevo to Sarajevo”. […]
The authors of the report…pose the alternative to the EU as “enlargement or empire”. But seen from Kosovo, one could also say “from empire to empire”. For the European Union is also a kind of empire, a modern – or, according to some, a postmodern – version not of the centralised Roman or British empires, but of the medieval Holy Roman empire, with most of the effective power held by its constituent parts. And what is proposed here is that Europe’s postmodern or neo-medieval empire should now absorb the remains of Suleiman’s empire. That becomes clear if you add the EU’s confirmed intention to take in the heartland of the Ottoman empire, now called Turkey.
Garton Ash is that rare bird: an appealing EU promoter. Maybe because he’s British, he hasn’t yet found his Nirvana of eternal smugness. But the path he prescribes demands courage and character of Europeans. The Balkans are a womb of wars and holocausts. The Turks are a fierce, domineering people. What if the choice isn’t “Europe or war” but Europe and war? What if the “neo-medieval empire” pits aggressive, fast-reproducing Muslims against inert, infertile secularists? Who will impose order, and on the basis of which rules?
I suspect the question of the EU’s enlargement to the southeast will be settled by default. A generation of Europeans, content to do no harm by doing nothing at all, may well seize the opportunity to do the same again.