Copenhagen and the politics of cultural despair

I borrowed my title from Fritz Stern’s 1961 book which examined the “pathology of cultural criticism” in pre-Nazi Germany.  Certain German writers, Stern found, experienced a profound alienation from their own culture, and felt a revulsion against modernity for having transformed it.  These men led a kind of literary jihad – an “ideological attack on modernity, on the complex of ideas that characterize our liberal, secular, and industrial civilization.”  The corruption and moral smugness of modern Germany nauseated them.  They cried for its destruction.

By the time Hitler arrived on the scene and granted their wish, the writers studied by Stern were dead.  But they had made straight the way for totalitarianism in their country.

It’s interesting to apply these concepts to the goings-on at the climate summit in Copenhagen.  We should be clear about what the participants are doing.  They are conducting a criminal trial against Western culture:  against modernity.  Further, the verdict is already in.  Even if the science isn’t, the morality, in the minds of the elites gathered at Copenhagen, is settled.  We are guilty of destroying the world.

“Today we have reached the point where consumption and people’s desire to consume has grown out of proportion,” intones Rajendra Pachauri, head of the IPCC, the UN’s climate prosecuting body.  “The reality is that our lifestyles are unsustainable.”  He advocates severe global regulations, and eating no meat.

Another UN climate prosecutor, Yvo de Boer, blames the Western lifestyle for a cyclone which killed 146,000 in Burma, including a six-year-old called Nyi Lay.  “The clock has ticked down to zero,” de Boer warned at Copenhagen.  “. . . Ensure that millions of children across the world don’t suffer the same fate as Nyi Lay.”  He too demands global regulations to break us of our monstrous way of life.

The calls for a regulatory straightjacket betray a visceral loathing of liberal democracy and the marketplace.  Personal choices, in this view, have led to perdition.  “Climate change is a result of the greatest market failure the world has seen,” proclaims Nicholas Stern, economist and author of a 700-page study on the problem.  He places the blame squarely on the rich Western countries, which should pay billions in carbon-blood money to nations untainted by our culture.

At the wacky edges of this moral consensus we find Al Gore, who lectures us to “consume less,” “bag your groceries . . . in a reusable tote,” and – like Pachauri – “modify your diet” to eat less meat; while at the political extremes we find green radicals raging against “our whole polluting, plundering and materialistic industrial society.”

A way of life responsible for the deaths of 146,000 innocents is an abomination.  A culture of injustice, gluttony, and filth can’t be redeemed by any measures.  The whole edifice must be burned to the ground.

Western culture is a disruptive force which has always produced its own antibodies.  Affluent, well-educated individuals have sought liberation in cultural suicide.  Probably because the financial crisis has shattered the confidence of Western politicians, these people are ascendant today.

Obsessed by failure, wishing to atone, the powerful are seduced by the pure idealism of the purveyors of cultural despair, yet appear oblivious to the quick descent – in Fritz Stern’s words – “from idealism to nihilism.”  The beautiful ideal embraced by presidents and prime ministers in Copenhagen is in reality a corpse.

The verdict, however, is in.  All that remains is the sentencing phase.

Here the story gets interesting.  The politics of cultural despair are caught in a vise, with extreme moralistic assertions nullified by an even more extreme timidity in the embrace of radical new policies – in the willingness to move beyond words.

The potentates now at Copenhagen compete with the most radical greens in the verbal prosecution of their own culture.  “We can’t compromise with the catastrophe of unchecked climate change,” the UK’s Gordon Brown said on arrival there.  “The climate crisis threatens our very survival. . . no one is listening to the cries and suffering of our people,” France’s Sarkozy has charged.

Even President Obama has been gently mocked for claiming his nomination to the presidency marked “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow.”

These men must manage a political process in which they no longer believe.  If liberal democracy and the marketplace are responsible for such suffering and death as to destroy their moral legitimacy, not to mention threaten our survival, then an overthrow of the system is in order.  At the very least, life-threatening surgery must be conducted on the pestilential body of Western culture.

Certainly, at the height of the financial crisis the very same men didn’t hesitate to break the furniture and allocate enormous resources to stabilize the situation.  Today the President of the United States can fire the CEO of General Motors.  Whether such policies achieved their goals is besides the point here:  they were quite clearly the actions of troubled and desperate men, who truly believed economic survival was at stake.

By comparison, the proposals floated at Copenhagen taste like thin gruel.  The EU has “called for” $3 billion to be given annually to non-Western countries.  Various voluntary limits on carbon emissions are being discussed.  The compulsory regulation of Western behavior which, all agree, the magnitude of the crisis requires, appears nowhere in sight.

Thus the current politics of cultural despair are doubly despairing.  The politicians have sat with the prosecution and agreed with the verdict, but are unable to carry out the sentence.  It may be Western leaders are so demoralized as to believe any action will be insufficient for such a cosmic disaster.  Or they may be cynics who simply wish to pose as saviors of the earth while doing nothing much.  Possibly, Western culture, with its freedom and affluence, its innovative genius and egalitarian ways, shimmers before them, and takes away the club from the hand that would smash it to pieces.

Our Western leaders are not totalitarians.  But they are weak and confused, and seem to prefer the good opinion of the media and bureaucratic elites which surround them to the common sense of the ordinary citizen.  They wish to become our shepherds rather than our servants, and lead us to some promised land, away from our bondage to a rotten culture.

This moment won’t last.  We must go one way or the other – to the defense of the Western way of life, or to a regulated regime which makes a mockery of democracy and puts an end to free markets.  For those of us who prefer the first alternative, the lack of courage of the present crop of leaders isn’t necessarily to be regretted.


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