Looking Backward |
Pat Buchanan's world.
by Josh Chafetz
02/18/2002, Volume 007, Issue 22
The Death of the West
How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our
Country and Civilization
by Patrick J. Buchanan
Dunne, 320 pp., $25.95
Pat Buchanan's thesis in "The Death of the West" is simple
enough: The "cultural revolution" that swept across the West in
the 1960s led to wide-spread libertinism, one consequence of
which has been a drastic lowering of the birthrate in Western
societies. As a result, the United States and Europe face a
stark choice: We can either allow our populations to dwindle
away, or we can surrender to the invading hordes of immigrants
from the rest of the world and wind up living in a "Third World
America." Either way, Western civilization dies.
Buchanan is surely right that the second half of the twentieth
century was not particularly good for Western culture. Allan
Bloom made the point brilliantly in his classic "The Closing of
the American Mind." But Buchanan forgoes an intelligent and
subtle analysis in favor of a simple and superficial one. In his
view, the problems all began with (naturally) a group of
foreigners--the cultural Marxists of the Frankfurt School, many
of whom fled to America in the mid-1930s.
The theorists of the Frankfurt School believed, rightly, that
the West would never accept communism as long as it held to its
Western cultural heritage. So they set about trying to overturn
that heritage through what came to be known as "Critical
Theory," which involved showing that every institution of
Western civilization is grounded in oppression, with the obvious
conclusion being that these institutions should be overthrown.
As Buchanan sees it, the most baleful influence of this theory
was on women's sexual mores. In fact, Buchanan places almost all
the blame for the West's declining population squarely on women.
"German women are refusing to have children," he writes, and
"European women consider [their] personal desires to be far more
compelling than demographic studies describing what Europe will
look like when they are seventy or eighty."
TO PROVE that declining birthrates are linked to the cultural
revolution, Buchanan quotes from admittedly outrageous
denunciations of Western culture from Susan Sontag, Catharine
MacKinnon, and the 1973 "Humanist Manifesto"--which leaves the
reader with a curious juxtaposition: Sontag's impassioned
insistence that evil right-wingers like Buchanan run the world,
and Buchanan's equally impassioned assertion that evil militant
liberationists like Sontag are in control.
Buchanan's heavy-handed cultural commentary forces him to insist
that nearly every change in the last fifty years has been bad.
His populist economics and cultural pessimism combine to produce
such claims as "When the income tax rate for the wealthiest was
above 90 percent in the 1950s, America, by every moral and
social indicator, was a better country." One wonders what that
says about 1950s segregation, but Buchanan glosses over the
entire civil rights movement in two sentences: "America said
yes. Black and white together, America went out and buried Jim
Crow." At the same time, he spends pages decrying the fact that
"America's cultural elite is almost slavishly on the side of
those who wish to dishonor every banner and disgrace every
leader associated with the Confederate States of America."
Throughout, it is on the issue of race that Buchanan's book is
at its ugliest. His view of Western civilization is irreducibly
racialist. His argument that unchecked immigration spells the
death of Western civilization makes sense only if he assumes
that the assimilation of new immigrants is impossible. But since
America has always been a land of immigrants, and they have
always assimilated before, he must argue that recent immigrants
are different. And here, he stands on race. In discussing Great
Britain, he approvingly cites Paul Craig Roberts's statement
that "by the end of this century the English people will be a
minority in their homeland." Of course, what Roberts and
Buchanan actually mean is that white people will be a minority.
Britain is becoming what America has always been: a land of
immigrants--a fact which then foreign secretary Robin Cook
recognized last year when he declared that chicken tikka masala
is "Britain's true national dish." Just as Americans no longer
think of Italian food as foreign or of Americans of Italian
descent as foreigners, so too many Britons of Indian descent are
becoming assimilated citizens.
Buchanan's reply is that Italians are white, while Indians are
not. And, to Buchanan, "History and experience teach us that
different races are far more difficult to assimilate." History
teaches no such thing. As Ian F. Haney Lopez demonstrated in his
1996 "White By Law," what history actually teaches is that
groups not originally considered white come to be thought white
precisely as they are assimilated. Italians, Greeks, Slavs,
Jews, and many other groups were long declared non-white in
American society. Today we can have a bagel for lunch and
lasagna for dinner without ever thinking we are eating ethnic
Against this, Buchanan suggests that the new waves of immigrants
don't want to assimilate: "Mexican Americans are creating an
Hispanic culture separate and apart from America's larger
culture. They are becoming a nation within a nation." Leaving
aside the obvious point that first-generation immigrants in
earlier waves were at least as ghettoized, it is not even clear
that Buchanan is right about this. He argues that Hispanics vote
increasingly as a bloc. The falsity of the claim is demonstrated
by numbers Buchanan himself cites earlier in the book, showing
that George W. Bush got 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000,
while Bob Dole got only 21 percent in 1996. In New York's recent
mayoral election, Republican Michael Bloomberg received 47
percent of the Hispanic vote in his victory over Mark Green.
ONCE upon a time, Buchanan was a sharp journalistic writer,
which makes it odd that "The Death of the West" is so
gracelessly written. The prose is both labored ("Like colon
cancer, the long-term threat to the West lies deep within") and
clich ridden ("And we cannot go gentle into that good night").
The real problem, however, is that it profoundly misunderstands
the civilization whose eulogy it gives. Yes, religion and
traditional morality are components of Western civilization. But
that's true of every civilization. One of the things that makes
Western civilization unique is how it deals with newcomers to
its shores. We may not be assimilating immigrants as well as we
used to, and we should do better, but ceasing to accept
them--that would be the death of the West.
Josh Chafetz, an American Rhodes Scholar, is a graduate student
in politics at Merton College, Oxford.