What is the West?

What is the West? July 8, 2017

As the Polish experience reminds us, the defense of the West ultimately rests not only on means but also on the will of its people to prevail and be successful and get what you have to have. The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?

July 6, 2017, Donald Trump’s speech in Poland

Yesterday’s news media was flooded with commentary about the first speech of Trump’s second trip abroad – to Europe, which he began with a visit to Warsaw. One NPR commentator noted a significant shift from previous presidential rallying calls for unity with other nations. While nearly all presidents have spoken of a desire to advance democracy, few have drawn such a sharp ¨us¨ vs. ¨them¨ narrative.

Who are the us and them? When Trump speaks of the ¨West¨ that is supposedly under threat, what is he talking about? Is he simply drawing out a Samuel Huntington-esque ¨clash of civilizations¨ delineation between Muslims and Christians? If that is the case, then what are we to say about those Muslims who have lived in Europe and North America for generations? Are they not truly part of our society?

Terms like ¨the West¨ or ¨Western Civilization¨ are used so frequently, and I must admit that I have never quite understood what they mean. Do they refer to a geographic area? Not really – as far as I can tell, many of the countries of the Western Hemisphere (particularly those with largely indigenous or mixed-raced populations) are not considered part of the West. Does it mean countries where the people are predominantly white? Not exactly – countries like Iran and Turkey (where many people are as light-skinned as Polish-American me) are not included. Does it mean countries that are historically Christian? As far as I can tell, Russia and other former Soviet countries are generally not included under the banner of ¨the West.¨

Giving thought to all of this, I am wondering if most people who speak of ¨the West¨ are referring to those European countries that remained under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church until the Protestant Reformation, as well as the colonies that seemed most to resemble them (such as the US, Canada, and Australia). But, what exactly is it that binds these countries together now? The fact that they are economically dominant in the world? The reality that, while religion is practiced in all of them, it is basically a private matter, making them essentially secular societies?

I find it interesting that Trump chose to make his statement in Poland. Whatever ¨the West¨ may be, Poland has wanted to be part of it since its founding in 966, when Mieszko I (the first historical ruler) chose to be baptized Catholic rather than Orthodox, beginning an affinity toward Western Europe that continues to this day. Most Poles I have met cringe if their country is referred to as being part of ¨Eastern Europe¨; for a long time they have preferred to learn German rather than Russian; the oppression of the Soviet satellite regime they lived under for twenty-four years seems to haunt them worse than the horrors the Nazis committed against them in World War II. Trump’s team was indeed very savvy in choosing to have him make this particular speech in Poland, a country so eager to affirm its own Western-ness.

However, a closer look at Poland gives a sense as to why Poles might be feeling insecure about their identity. Throughout its history, Poland was invaded by Mongolians, Cossacks, Turks, and Swedes. Though the people are often described as ¨homogenous,¨ I would dare to suppose that if all Poles were to trace their genetic ancestry, they would find their roots extend far and wide. Though traditionally seeing itself as a Catholic country, Poland was a hotbed of the Protestant Reformation and one of the main Jewish strongholds in Europe until World War II. Those Poles who fear Muslim immigrants should remember that Muslims have lived in their country since the fourteenth century – the Eastern Tatars, who helped the country fight many of its foreign wars. Last summer, while taking a course on the history of the Polish language, I was shocked to learn that it contains not only French and German and Italian words (which I would have expected) but Turkish ones as well.

If we take even a cursory look, we will see that there is no such thing as a ¨homogenous society.¨ Every culture is an exquisite, ever-changing jewel composed of many different minerals. As much as we would like to polish these jewels and isolate them into different boxes, we cannot extract them from the common rock we are all part of: humanity.

There are many worldviews, but there is only one world, and the challenges it is currently facing belong to all of us. I hope the time will soon come when we no longer feel this need to rally behind the banner of ¨the West -¨ to identify ourselves against a perceived cultural outsider whom we do not even understand. Though we undoubtedly live in a period of political instability and security concerns, we can come to see that we do not need to fear or devalue the cultures of others in order to appreciate and honor our own.

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