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The Weekly Standard
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 foods.

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. What bloc?

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.


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