In 1978 when Alexander Solzhenitsyn delivered his now famous Harvard University commencement address, he both challenged and enraged his student audience. While denouncing the evils of communism, he also decried the state of Western culture as a “calamity” brought on by the repudiation of “the moral heritage of Christian centuries.” By abandoning God and moral values, and by embracing materialism and narcissism instead, the West had forfeited much of its claim to moral superiority.
A number of important figures have been making similar observations recently. As just one example, Nobel prizewinner and libertarian economist Milton Friedman recently said in an interview: “I think our real problems today are not economic. Our real problems are social – deteriorating education, lawlessness, homelessness, the collapse of families, teenage pregnancies, the crisis in medical care.”
A new book by Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, argues a similar case: moral and cultural disintegration is the real cause of the demise of the West. America in particular will not retain its role as leader of the free world if it does not seek a return to some moral sanity: “Unless there is some deliberate effort to re-establish the centrality of some moral criteria for the exercise of self-control over gratification as an end in itself, the phase of American preponderance may not last long, despite the absence of any self-evident replacement.”
The problem, as Brzezinski sees it, is what he calls “permissive cornucopia”, or the priority given to individual self-gratification. This new hedonism is brought on by the “massive collapse, especially in the advanced parts of the world, of almost all established values.”
Like Solzhenitsyn, he applauds the collapse of totalitarianism, but laments “the role of religion in defining moral standards has also declined while an ethos of consumerism masquerades as a substitute for ethical standards.” And echoing Friedman, he describes the inner weaknesses of modern society as “derived more from cultural than from economic causes.”
In a properly functioning society, external laws and rules are complimented by internal restraint and personal morality. But modern society, with its emphasis on self-gratification, has precariously upset this balance:
“An increasingly permissive culture, exploiting the principle of the separation of church and state, squeezes out the religious factor but without substituting for it any secular ‘categorical imperatives,’ thereby transforming the inner moral code into a vacuum.”
The absence of internal moral self-control has resulted in external constraints seeking to do the job of both, with the courts and legal system now becoming the final arbiter of right and wrong. Such a situation is exactly the breeding ground for the emergence of more totalitarian systems.
The view that the twentieth century is the epitome of progress and civilization is obviously not shared by Brzezinski. While very real progress did take place this century in areas like health care, education, and communication, to name but a few, the progress was not complete: “this progress, unfortunately, was not matched on the moral level – with politics representing the twentieth century’s greatest failure.
As but one indicator, Brzezinski provides a statistical accounting of the extraordinary toll of politically motivated killings. By his reckoning, this century’s wars “extinguished no less than approximately 87,000,000 lives, with the numbers of wounded, maimed, or otherwise afflicted being beyond estimate.”
Add to this another 80,000,000 individuals killed not in actual combat, but “because of doctrinal hatred and passions.” Of this latter figure, some 60,000,000 were killed in the effort to build communism in the twentieth century, “making communism the most costly human failure in all of history.” Thus Brzezinski comes up with a cumulative toll of about 170,000,000 human beings destroyed by wars and totalitarian genocide.
Other indicators can of course be mentioned, but the sheer toll in terms of loss of life gives lie to any utopian vision of progress and development. Morally speaking, we have been regressing, not progressing.
The case for a moral resurgence takes up roughly the first third of Brzezinski’s book. The remainder focuses on geo-politics, international relations, and the future of the post-communist global community. But these issues are all viewed from the context laid out in the beginning of the book. The moral/ cultural question is pre-eminent. Says Brzezinski:
“Ultimately, the effort to gain control over the collective destiny of mankind will succeed or flounder on the critically important philosophical/cultural dimension. It is this dimension that shapes the critical ideas that guide political conduct. And to the extent that the West is still the spearhead of social progress and of political democratization worldwide, it will need to undertake a philosophical and cultural reorientation.”
Liberal MP Peter Costello recently gave a talk in which he said the Australian Liberal Party must broaden its vision beyond mere economic concerns. It must look at the wider moral and cultural issues that need addressing.
In the light of Brzezinski’s book, this is not bad advice. Indeed, if political parties do not wake up to the very real dangers of moral and cultural decline, they may find that the political fabric of society will not be sufficient to hold things together.
Politicians could start by reading this book.