I always thought it would be difficult to imagine a period in which the West would be more adrift than the 1970s. Being a child at the time, I was spared consciousness of most of that miserable decade. Thus far, however, the second decade of the 2000s seems likely to give the 10 years that spawned Watergate, stagflation, the Carter presidency, the Oil Crisis, Idi Amin, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, Jim Jones, Pol Pot, the Red Brigades, and the Iranian Revolution (to name just a few of the star attractions) a serious run for its money as a byword for Western decline.
One everyday sign of this malaise is the fact that much of the West remains, as in the seventies, mired in what’s now called the Long Slump. And persistently unhealthy economies are usually symptomatic of an unwillingness to acknowledge deeper problems. Examples are most Western governments’ reluctance to accept that it’s game-over for the regulatory and welfare state as-we-knew-it, or to do something about the growing cancer of crony-capitalism.
Sometimes, however, an event occurs that highlights the more fundamental crises that bedevil a civilization. The rise of a movement as diabolical as ISIS, for instance, has surely underscored the bankruptcy of what might be called the sentimental humanitarian outlook that dominates so many contemporary shapers of the West’s cultural consensus.
Sentimental humanitarianism has several features. One is the mind-set that reduces evil to structural causes. “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains,” proclaimed Rousseau in his Du contrat social. From this, many concluded that evil would disappear if the right people were put in charge to change the structures.
Sentimental humanitarianism also assumes that all religions are more-or-less the same and, given the right conditions, will vacillate their way towards something as innocuous as today’s Church of England. But as a wise recently retired pope once wrote, a major failure of imagination since the 1960s has been the disinclination to concede that thereare “sick and distorted forms of religion.”
Despite its claims to take the mind seriously, sentimental humanitarianism is also rather “uncomfortable” (to use classic sentimental humanitarian language) with any substantive understanding of reason. It tends to reduce most debates to exchanges of feelings. You know you’re dealing with a sentimental humanitarian whenever someone responds to arguments with expressions such as “Well, I just feel…” or “You can’t say that,” or (the ultimate trump-card) “That’s hurtful.”