How civilizations fall

by Kenneth Minogue



How do civilizations fall? Islamic thinkers had an image for it. Consider a civilization based upon a court in a thriving city— Baghdad, for example. Arts and the intellect flourish. But over several generations, as the great Islamic philosopher of the fourteenth century Ibn Khaldun put it, the civilized become decadent with luxury. They lose their sharpness and think only of the good and the beautiful. And then some tribe of fierce Bedouin, smelling out weakness, come thundering in from the desert and storm the city. As barbarians, they do not understand the usages of civilization. They stable their horses in the libraries and use sculptures as doorstops, pictures for target practice. Given a pillow, Ibn Khaldun tells us contemptuously, they suppose it to be a bundle of rags. In time, however, the power of a superior culture is felt, and these people adopt and sometimes extend the ways of civilization, until they too are overthrown in their turn.

This is the way the world goes. Sometimes it happens in one lifetime, as with those barbarian soldiers who rose to become Roman emperors, sometimes in slow motion, as with the fall of the Roman Empire, in which many centuries were to elapse before the new civilization emerged from the disorders of the barbarian invasions. With us, the decor is quite different, but the realities may be closer than we suppose.

One reason we may not realize this is that the very distinction between barbarism and civilization has been suppressed by the current relativism, which asserts the equality of all cultures. Nobody, of course, seriously believes this. Quite apart from technology, the moral inequality of cultures is conspicuous in the position of women in different cultures. It was only the West that abolished slavery. But it is a mark of current decorum—perhaps avoidance of the dreaded “triumphalism”—that we should not proclaim any superiority in European civilization, even though it is the one place the millions want to get into. Instead, we must make do with a rationalist doctrine which transposes the usages of European civilization into a rather unsatisfactory set of abstractions about universal rights. By this device, all cultures (including the Western) can equally be found guilty of moral violation in one way or another.

In the past, civilization was a sensibility shared by a class of people, while barbarism would be found not only in tribes beyond the frontier, but also in the slaves and the servile within the realms of civilization itself. In modern liberal democracies, this clear relation between a culture and a class has disappeared. Everyone is touched by the higher forms of culture. Schooling, museums, and the media are available to all. But barbarism remains an active force in modern societies, partly in gracelessness and ignorance, and partly in a loss of cultural coherence found among those who mistake a few years at an institution of higher learning for education itself.

In modern Europe, we don’t quite have Bedouin storming in from the desert (merely millions of depressed migrants trying to slip through the gates), but the tendency towards barbarism is an active force all around us. Hence the formula for overthrowing a Western society must be not “storm the walls” but “organize your own barbarians” within the walls. Those who hate European civilization know that it cannot be taken by direct assault. It must thus be captured from within. This was the plan adopted by many revolutionaries, most notably, of course, by Marx who constructed a new and hostile tribe within the West called “the proletariat.” They could be made into a revolutionary tribe by equipping suitable people (industrial workers for example) with a unified consciousness, so that in every transaction they understood themselves as a collective. They were being victimized by the oppressive bourgeois. Like the guardians in Plato’s Republic, these revolutionary insurgents had to be taught to be docile within the movement while snarling at those without.

Marx provided the model for all subsequent movements aiming to take power. His “make your own tribe” kit was found useful by nationalists, anarchists, and many brands of socialist. Hitler made the most creative use of it by playing down victimization and representing every Aryan as a superior type of person. It took the world in arms to get rid of him. But before long, revolutionaries discovered that a revolution based on the proletarian tribe only really worked if you were dealing with pretty unsophisticated peoples—preferably non-Europeans who lacked all experience of freedom and genuine political life. In socially mobile European states, the workers mostly found better things to do with their time than waste it on revolutionary committees and the baby talk of political demonstrations. Something new was needed.

It was provided by such socialists as Mussolini and Lenin who adopted the principle of the Praetorian Guard: a tightly knit vanguard party, which could use the masses as ventriloquial dummies and seek power on its own terms. This development was part of a wider tendency towards the emergence of oligarchies ruling through democratic slogans.

In the course of the 1960s, a new tribe was established that also sought to overthrow the Western citadel from within and had notably greater success. This was Betty Friedan’s radical feminists. It was a tribe constructed out of women who had taken some sort of degree and were living domestic lives. Technology had largely liberated them from the rigors of beating, sweeping, and cleaning, while pharmacology had released them from excessive procreation. In tactical terms, radical feminists made one innovation that has turned out to be crucial to the destiny of the West over the last half century. They suppressed almost completely the idea that their project involved a transfer of power and operated entirely on the moralistic principle that their demands corresponded to justice.

What lay behind this momentous development? It is a complicated question, but I think that Diana Schaub understood the essence of it in her essay “On the Character of Generation X”: [1]

[Betty] Friedan was right that the malaise these privileged women were experiencing was a result of “a slow death of the mind and spirit.” But she was wrong in saying that the problem had no name—its name was boredom. Feminism was born of boredom, not oppression. And what was the solution to this quandary? Feminists clamored to become wage-slaves; they resolutely fled the challenge of leisure.
And by “leisure,” Professor Schaub means something classically Greek: the higher employment of the mind once the necessities of life have been dealt with.

The first task of this new movement was to create the shared consciousness necessary for tribal functioning. Like all forms of psychic collectivism, “consciousness raising” (as it is known) exploits indignation and cultivates righteousness. It operated in this case with the basic liberatory image of the prison and, identifying happiness with being in the labor force, argued that only male oppression over the centuries had “confined” women to the domestic sphere. What radical feminism essentially did was to deny complementarity between the sexes and set men and women up as competing teams playing exactly the same game, but a game in which all the rules were stacked against the women. It was only on this eccentric assumption—i.e., that women had identical talents and inclinations to men—that they could support the conclusion that there had been foul play. As with Hitler’s appeal to the Aryan race, the basic principle was one of flattery: women, it revealed, are a marvelously talented set of people who have been iniquitously suppressed by males running a patriarchal system.

This message entrenched identity politics, an emerging form of fundamentalism in which every judgment must begin from a supposedly essential self-identity as female. One implication (as with Marxism) was that a class of experts understood social reality better than any particular woman could, and any woman failing to agree needed the falsity of her consciousness corrected. Joined together, these judgments constituted the new doctrine now simply called “feminism.” This was a massive psychic transformation in the life of European peoples. Back in the Second World War, Rosie the riveter was certainly a woman, but she was also a wife, a patriotic American involved in a struggle against fascism, and many other things besides. Most fundamentally of all, radical feminism attacked the very conception of the feminine as something that had been imposed upon women by superior force and had been reinforced by a culture of romance found in European art and literature.

All of this might be construed (as it was by radical feminists themselves) as a massive access of confidence among women, but it might also signify a complete collapse of the feminine in the face of a wider and more ambiguous project using women to create a totally androgynous (and manipulable) world. In such a world, men and women would become virtually indistinguishable.

Here then was nothing less than an attempt to destroy not merely an existing structure of power, but also the civilization that it sustained. In Ibn Khaldun’s terms, it was an attempt to conquer the West from within, not by directly attacking its power (for no one doubted that the men had all the power needed to repel such an attack), but by exploiting certain features in its culture. And in order to understand the significance of this movement, we need to characterize the European civilization that was the object of their attack.

The most obvious fact about it is one that we can hardly mention, now that the revolution has succeeded, without embarrassment or derision, because it is a fact which powerful contemporary forces make recessive. It is simply that this civilization is, in the crude terms of creative hits, the achievement of white males. The history of Western civilization is a succession of clever men developing the set of traditions or inventing the benefits which, intertwined, constitute the West. And from Thales and Euclid to Einstein and George Gershwin, nearly all of them were male. They constitute the set of “dead white males” whom the radical revolutionaries in the sub-academic culture have denigrated and vowed to remove from their pedestals. I once heard a feminist put it this way: “There’s no such thing as a great mind.” This doctrine is so powerful that the simple factual statement that it has been men who have created what is commonly meant by Western (and for that matter, any other) civilization seems like an insensitive affront to the equality of mankind. And the next step in my argument must be to deal with this as a problem.

To say that men created all these things is true, and significant, but it is rather like stranding a lot of fish on a barren shore. It leaves out the medium of social and political life without which none of this could have happened. Like all social life, Europe was a world of sexual complementarity, and there is no reliable way of sifting out what was contributory from what was not. But of women we may say what Falstaff said of himself—namely that he not only had wit but also was a cause of wit in others. But by seeming to set women up as a weak team in relation to inventive men, I am merely pointing to the mistake radical feminists, who have accepted the abstract idea that the one thing that counts is who invented this or created that, themselves make. It is in pursuit of this mistake that they have attempted to set up a competing canon of writers, philosophers, painters, and so on whose talents were suppressed by the patriarchy. These resuscitated figures are often worth looking at in their own terms, but they cannot serve as a new canon. Camille Paglia famously said that if we had waited for women to invent civilization we should still be living in grass huts. It is also true that if we had waited for men to make life comfortable we should still be living in pigsties. For centuries women have determined the way we live. Radical feminist doctrine is that this is not enough: women can only be recognized as equal, and enjoy equality of esteem with men, if they are recognized as excelling in exactly the same activities as men. Women must, as a team, be able to point to a scoreboard of artistic and technological achievements on the same scale as men. Feminist tribal consciousness depends upon absorbing this and similar beliefs. But the whole rigmarole depends upon assuming that women are the same as men, that their happiness is found in exactly the same areas as that of men. But this is quite untrue, and it is a mistake that could only have occurred to a set of women whose minds had been deranged by a superficial contact with education in the humanities.

The point can be put another way: Western civilization is distinguished by an unusual curiosity about both nature and the lives of other societies. Europeans have appropriated many of their ideas and inventions from other civilizations. Partly for this reason, it has been extraordinarily open to others who wish to engage in its activities. Its religion, its languages, and its knowledge have been widely diffused, and by the twentieth century people from all over the world had become scientists, historians, novelists, artists, etc., in the Western manner, many of them indeed coming to live in the West. Some people from customary societies abroad have found Westerners cold and remote, but many more have experienced the West as a liberation.

The same is true for women. At various times in the past many women have had access to education, and, from the eighteenth century onwards, some women developed an increasing taste for taking up professions previously restricted to men. By the late nineteenth century they were making their way into universities. In doing so, they often suffered a certain derision from the more brutish among their male confrères. Other men were always on their side, however, and during the first half of the twentieth century women broke into many fields previously restricted by convention. Radical feminism as a tribal consciousness needs to tell this story as a struggle against oppression, and so in some ways it was. But we ought not to get this out of proportion. We are not talking of slavery or war.

The beneficiaries of this new development were for the most part middle-class white women, and they were merely experiencing the resistance common to any form of upward mobility. They were unmistakably following a rising wave created by the increasing flexibility of Western societies. It was in any case a Christian civilization, which meant that individual character counted as much as customary status. In most civilizations, human beings fit into a customary schema as warriors, wives, priests, scholars, artisans, merchants, and so on. The West became, as Ernest Gellner used to put it, “modular” in that individuals have multiple talents and skills and can fit together with others in flexible ways responding to new situations. Like furniture that can be rearranged at need, Europeans have the versatility to fit into many possible arrangements of work or pleasure. As women began to develop a taste for education and had opportunities to participate in a world beyond the domestic (previously available only to the rich), they soon succeeded (as they usually do) in getting what they wanted. Liberal feminism was thus a natural development from within the civilization. Suddenly in the 1960s, this development was overridden by the new radical doctrine that women could and should do everything men did. Liberal feminism emerged from the Western tradition, and traditions are flexible. It had no problem in admitting women to new professions without dramatically altering the wider relations between the sexes. But, radical feminism was doctrinaire and demanded that all women should live in the one true manner. A melodrama of oppression was needed to fire up the new tribe. Just as Buddhist priests must meditate on a human skull so that they will develop the right consciousness of human mortality, so feminist doctrine thrives on horror stories of women not allowed to take degrees at Oxbridge until this century. By contrast with the horrors of the twentieth century (or indeed the situation of women elsewhere in the world), we may diagnose a certain lack of proportion.

The openness of Western cultures is shown by the way in which, during the first half of the twentieth century, Western women were enjoying higher education and finding distinction in professional and academic fields. The numbers of women who largely devoted their lives to these fields was relatively small, and some people thought this was a problem, but it was only a problem for those who took their bearings from statistics rather than from the responses of actual people. The false assumption of male and female isomorphism is, however, the reason why at frequent intervals feminists in journalism become lobbyists and set up, as a defect in society, any difference in average wages between men and women or in the relative percentages of women in top jobs. This was the continual drip of the movement against patriarchy, and it is a well-known principle of propaganda that a proposition repeated enough will crush opposition. But these figures and this argument make no rational sense, and the fact that they appear regularly in newspapers as if they did make sense is why they must be challenged.

The key to modern Western civilization is its openness to talent wherever found. The feminist demand for collective quotas has overturned this basic feature of our civilization. The crucial point is that the character of a civilization is revealed by its understanding of achievement. European civilization responded to achievement wherever it could be found. To replace achievement by quota entitlements is to destroy one civilization from within and to replace it with another. We are no longer what we were. The problem is to explain how the West collapsed.

It did not result from warriors storming the walls of a decadent civilization, but by a fifth column exploiting weakness from within. And the weapon of attack was not the sword, but a moral rhetoric demanding justice. Economic and political implications (such as that able men would be denied jobs now having to be filled by quota) seldom featured in discussion. The defenders of the status quo found themselves profoundly confused, partly because they had earlier acquiesced in regarding moral and religious ideas as merely subjective. They could not agree on a line of defense, and the attack often came from within their own families. The objective of the attack was to get women with degrees into the higher ranks of the labor force. Of the more profound implications of this structural collapse, I am are not here concerned. I must concentrate on the more pressing question of why the defenders so easily capitulated.

In earlier centuries, the project of getting women into the labor force would have been visionary, partly no doubt because no one thought in terms of a labor force. For one thing, women were necessary to keep the home fires burning. In any case, the world of work outside the hearth was hardly inviting. Ploughing the land required relentless physical input beyond the strength of most women; nor were they keen to exercise the broadsword. And, during a longish stretch of life, women would have their hands full with bearing and nurturing children.

In the modern world, however, getting women out of the home and into work was not at all visionary, since the thing called “work” was now largely done in centrally heated offices in front of a computer. In the push-button world men had created, physical strength was hardly ever needed, especially in the more attractive jobs. Work had been the curse of Adam, parallel with childbirth as the curse of Eve, but work now turned out to be a rather agreeable shuffling of symbols in an office full of friendship and event. It was not difficult to present this kind of work—the kind that interested the humanities graduates who largely fuelled the radical movement—as a liberation from the confinement of family life and the tedious babble of the toddler. And it fitted into a wider socialist notion that a person’s value was the contribution made to the welfare of others. It had been an old dream of Zionist socialists and Bolsheviks (among others) to absorb the family into society with everyone living communally, restaurants and daycare centers replacing family arrangements, and women working each day alongside the men. Here this dream was reborn, no longer as an aspect of utopia, but as the final achievement of justice against an oppressive world.

Let us now turn to the nub of this question: why did the insurrection succeed? There was no question of the insurgents disposing of superior firepower or warrior virtues, though the tribe of radical feminists certainly displayed intrepidity of the first order. Indeed, the key point is that it was their very weakness that was the condition of their success. Even the fact that, intellectually speaking, radical feminism had nothing to say that had not been said by earlier forms of social perfectionism merely meant that the opposition had already been softened up for victimological attack. And for all the indignation about oppression, radical feminists were less a moral force than a naked interest, demanding jobs for their members, jobs carrying the same salaries and status as men. It was even commonly admitted that outstanding women had not in recent times had much trouble making their way in the academic and workaday world. The issue was to get women of merely average abilities into these positions.

In principle, the men held all the cards. They were the managers, the rulers, the professors, and the directors of enterprises. And they were the trustees of the one thing on which their civilization depended: namely, the career open to talent. No doubt there were times where prejudice prevented women from getting such and such a job, but hiring able women was something managers had long been doing. For in the early twentieth century, women resembled Jews: some people might not want to hire them but the failure to recognize ability would soon be punished by competitors stealing an advantage. These considerations soon ceased to apply once radical feminism has established the basic idea (always denied) that the program was to establish a 50 percent quota for women in all desirable jobs.

We may understand what happened by considering a similar assault on tradition mounted about the same time as the radical feminist challenge. In the 1960s the universities of the Western world were shaken by enemies who turned academic self-understanding against itself. Universities were commonly recognized as communities of scholars and students. “Well,” said the radicals, “if it’s a community, why are we students left out in the cold, with no power on university committees? Why are we not consulted about the content of our curricula? Why are we subject to god-professors imposing on us courses of study irrelevant to our needs?” Dazed and confused by these questions, which were often expressed (as is the technique) with almost samurai displays of fearsome aggression, the dons yielded. They betrayed their trust in the scholarly vocation partly from confusion and partly in order to avoid unpleasantness.

This example not only illuminates the success of radical feminism, but also reveals something of the long-term significance of these massive shifts of power. For the real threat to universities came not from students but from government. Students were a minor irritant in academic life, but governments were now bent on destroying the autonomy of the institutions of civil society. Students merely functioned as their fifth column. They had the effect of forcing universities even more into a public domain. Students wanted the academic to become the political and that was the effect they had. Before 1960 universities largely ran their own affairs. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, they had all succumbed to the state subsidies that destroyed their autonomy.

The success of the radical feminist assault on European civilization operated in a parallel fashion. “You say you believe in equal opportunities for women, but why are there no women in management, or as bishops, or as professors, or heads of big corporations?” “Why are women paid on average only x percent of what men get paid?” The real answers to these questions would take one deep into the role and structure of the traditional family, the difference between the things that make men and women happy, and the different relative suitability of men and women for different tasks. And such real answers would obviously have to dissolve the rather gross distinction between “men” and “women” in order to recognize that, over a wide range of activities, especially activities such as those of management, it was the individual that counted, not what in technical femspeak is called “gender.”

Any recognition of these complexities dissolved before the fact that the questions being asked were rhetorical. In fact, as with student radicals, they were not questions at all, but slogans masquerading as questions. These pseudo-questions set the agenda, and the only admissible answers would be the dogmas of the doctrine: Only patriarchal oppression prevented men and women being equally represented in “positions of power.”

The politics of this assault were clear enough, and they illustrate what Mancur Olsen diagnosed as the Achilles heel of democracy: that a small group passionately campaigning for specific benefits will always prevail against a large majority whose direct interests are but marginally affected. Radical feminists were a relatively small group, but their message was plausible at some level to most women, and in families men had wives and daughters whose good they wished to promote. No political party would take up all of this program, but it did electoral prospects no harm to convey a general sympathy for the cause, and once in government enthusiasts would advance legislation under the motherhood slogan of equal opportunity. Very soon a network of powerful bureaucracies was bringing radical doctrine to bear on all areas of government. The courts could be relied upon to extend their power by regulating contract and by extending the law of tort. Within a generation, the revolution had not only succeeded but also created throughout Western nations an occupying army of equal opportunity officers entrenched in personnel departments up and down the country.

And why not? It might well be demanded. Many women have great abilities and a modern society ought not to abide by conventions which may have been necessary in the past but which progress had made unnecessary. The most successful societies have been those in which women have been freest to participate widely. All of that is true and was already recognized in the advance of liberal feminism before the 1960s. The problem only arises with female quotas throughout the world of work.

In a few significant areas, however, no such demands are made. These areas are either where women graduates have no wish to go (rough outdoor work) or where lack of ability could lead to instant disaster, such as brain surgery or piloting commercial aircraft. Women are to be found in both, but only on the basis of ability. Universities are obviously a soft touch because the consequences of educational betrayal take decades to emerge. The effect of university quotas for “gender diversity” for example has often been to fill humanities departments with women in order to equalize numbers “distorted” (one might say) by technology and the hard sciences where even passably able women are hard to come by. Many women in the humanities departments are indeed very able, but many are not, and they have often prospered by setting up fanciful ideological courses (especially in women’s studies), which can hardly pretend to be academic at all.

What however of areas where women are patently unsuited—such as the army, the police force, or fire fighting? They have in fact all been under attack because although women are unsuited to the rough work at the bottom, these areas have enviable managerial opportunities higher up. They are one more irresistible gravy train. The fire-fighting case was dramatized by the New York judicial decision that a test of fitness for the force that nearly all women failed must be discriminatory, and therefore illegal, an extension of the idea of “the rule of law” far beyond any serious meaning. This was the doctrine called “disparate impact.” Similar considerations have affected women in the armed forces. Standards of entry have been lowered in order that women may qualify. One argument for so doing is that the rejected tests looked for qualities only rarely needed in the field, and that may indeed be true. Yet, the idea that soldiers are heroic figures doing something that women generally cannot do has forever been part of the self-understanding of men, even those who have never heard a shot fired in anger. A small boy inclined to cry out at the sting of iodine or the prick of an injection might be told “be a soldier.” Today according to the feminist doctrine he is more likely to be told to express his feelings.

The assault of women on areas such as the church raises similar issues. In principle there is not the slightest reason why women should not take on a priestly role, and one might indeed suspect that feminists may be right in diagnosing resistance in part to an unhealthy attitude to women on the part of some of the clergy. In a pastoral role, women might well be better than men, as some women are in politics. The problem is that women priests raise very awkward questions of Christian theology. Jesus selected only male disciples. Was the son of God then merely a creature of his own culture? Here most conspicuously the entry of women changes entirely the conception of the activity and not for the better. Female clergy have done little to reverse the current decline of the church. Indeed while women as individuals have often enhanced what they have joined, the entry of women in general has seldom done much for any area previously dominated by men—except, significantly, bureaucracy.

It is the military case that is the most telling. No one doubts the inferiority of women in physical strength and sport. No football team would think of fielding women against a first-class team of men. Yet the governments of Western countries, currently feeling unthreatened by any major military power, are prepared to gamble their security on female warriors. It would not be so serious if female battalions had been formed whose performance in action could over time be tested in real situations without endangering the security of Western countries. But the feminist program is to make the army, like the rest of society, conform to an idea, and the women want to go where the men are, to be fully integrated so that when dirty and unfeminine jobs must be done, there are men to do them. Liberal feminists took the risk of setting up academic colleges of their own, but radical feminists needed to have men around. They wanted to be integrated. And all of this happened not because political wisdom declared it necessary for the defence of the country, nor because the electorates pushed for it, but as the result of agencies set up legal and bureaucratic strings.

Let us now return to the teasing question of why the male custodians of our civilization sold the pass. Some element of cowardice must certainly be recognized, because the radicals were tribal warriors making ferocious faces and stamping their feet. The defenders were white, male, and middle class, and the radicals had long been engaged in a campaign to erode the morale of each of these abstract categories. They denoted racism, sexism, and elitism respectively. Caricatured in terms of these abstractions, men found it difficult not to be written off as oppressors of women. Again, the defenders were not united. Many had been longstanding advocates of liberal feminism and from confusion believed that radical feminism was merely a rather hysterical version of classical liberalism. Retreat is a notoriously difficult maneuver to control. Each concession could be used to demand further concessions in the name of consistency. Hence the appearance in all English-speaking countries of legislation mandating equal opportunities—and who could possibly be against that? Before long, the movement had taken over the universities, many public bodies, industrial firms and, above all, the media. Quite rapidly, hiring for status-giving jobs requiring degrees had become closely circumscribed by a set of rules. The dogma was that 50 percent of all jobs belonged to women, though the reality of quotas was long denied.

There are, of course, deeper currents. One of them is that men tended to react to radical feminism with a high-minded feeling that nothing but justice, a notoriously fluid idea, should determine public policy. The balancing of justice with power, which constitutes the art of prudence, was being lost. This was a collapse of practical wisdom not difficult to explain. It is a consequence, we may guess, of the collapse of religion in the West. Christianity requires individuals to sacrifice everything for the nicest points of perfection, but it does not require that worldly institutions should do the same. But cocooned as prosperous Westerners so often are from the immediate consequences of folly, and increasingly detached from any profound understanding of the culture that had produced them, the trustees of our civilization have indulged in the most exquisite forms of self-abnegation. They were soon believing, for example, that language itself had rendered women invisible and that justice required the corrective use of the generic feminine. They were no doubt able to indulge such fancies because they had long ago picked up the idea that political correctness was really a bit of a joke, something of no practical significance in the real world. Hardly a week could pass without some piece of politically correct absurdity surfacing and being laughed over and forgotten by the men who had now lost both the will and the capacity to resist.

But beyond lie far deeper currents in Western societies. Just as the ferment in universities led rapidly to the state taking them over, so the ferment of radical feminism carries out the old Bolshevik program of creating a community of homogeneous creatures animated by some single project —in fact, the totalitarianism which, as an external assault on the walls of the West, we thought we had vanquished in battle with external enemies.

My view is, then, that the radical feminist revolution is nothing less than a destruction of our civilization. It has all happened in such a way that people have not yet realized what has happened. And there are some who might say, well, at least it has improved the condition of women. But this, I think, is a mistake. Such a view would accept the initial dichotomy, so fatal to European civilization, that men and women have separate destinies. In fact, of course, they do not. Still, it is no easy business to give an account of quite how they fit together. Indeed, no comprehensive theory of this relationship can be given. But many things we can confidently say. One is that women have specifically feminine qualities of their own which prevent them, as a general rule, from fitting entirely successfully into the structures men have created. No problem, say the radical feminists: let us change the structures! That can indeed be done, but something is lost. The point is that “men” put “women” (if we may generalize wildly) on a pedestal, and also despise them as weak; love and adore them in chivalrous terms, but also tend to oppress them and use them. A parallel ambivalence will be found in the way women treat men. A whole world of games and conventions has grown up around these attitudes, and they look different viewed from the barracks and from the bedroom, in the sitting room or in the shop. Radical feminism is essentially a humorless rationalism which seeks a single right attitude to be imposed on men and women alike.

There is a further point, and a more complex one. European civilization, we might say, has only stayed ahead of the game of world power because it is so remarkably innovative. It lives off ideas. Sometimes academics attempt the paradoxical business of trying to theorize innovation and creativity, but the results are inevitably banal. Creativity is essentially mysterious. Yet every so often, some movement gets into its head the idea that it has cracked the innovation code and found the formula for progress. This is what I am inclined to call the Bolshevik fallacy, because Lenin and his associates actually believed it, and the Soviet Union showed us what happens as a result of such hubris.

But the problem is wider. The whole world is now involved in the business of modernization, which means copying the mode of life constantly being transformed in Europe, and now in America—by white males, now often joined by clever individuals (both men and women) from other parts of the world. Globalization and the computer are the latest of the marvels with which our civilization has astonished the world. The point is that so far, no other civilization has been able to pick up the torch of innovative leadership. It may even be that Europeans themselves have lost the trick, or gone as far as they can go; or it may not. We simply cannot know.

What does seem to be clear, from the record so far, is that women do not have this capacity to innovate. They bring great talents to developing what Thomas Kuhn called “normal science,” but they have no record of creating the “paradigm shifts” that lead in new directions. It may be, of course, that as the feminists sometimes claim, this is because they were never encouraged to engage in these activities. But to need encouragement, to depend on models to follow, is precisely not to have a capacity to innovate. It has been men who have invented things and found challenges in nature, such as climbing high mountains or sailing alone around the world. And once men have done it, women will also do it. These remain highly notable enterprises, well beyond the reach of all but a few men, but they also exemplify the fact that innovation remains largely the specialization of white males. Women can do marvellous things with a house, but they do need the house to be there in the first place.

My argument is, then, that European civilization has been attacked and conquered from within, without anyone quite realizing what has happened. We may laugh at political correctness—some people even deny that it exists—but it is a manacle around our hands. It binds us quite tightly, though some freedom must be left, because without the contribution of subjugated males, things would very rapidly decline. What political correctness amounts to in reality is a treaty of accommodation reached between the conquerors and the conquered. Women have forced their way into money and status, sometimes beyond their merits, but they have also lost a freedom (Professor Schaub calls it “leisure”) that might have saved them from being formularized in terms of contemporary Western styles of work. Had this not happened, we might well have been saved from some of the discontents that currently afflict us. To be “socially included,” as women have been in the workforce, has many practical advantages, but it involves a spiritual loss. So far the conquerors have not destroyed the geese that lay the golden eggs, so the surface of our civilization does not reveal how profound the change has been. But underneath that surface, there are currents which no one understands.

There has been a revolution, then, but a silent one. It has taken place with such stealth, and so gradually, that people have become accustomed to it little by little. I am reminded of the famous Chinese executioner whose ambition it was to be able to cut off a head so that the victim would not realize what had happened. For years he worked on his skill, and one day he cut off a head so perfectly that the victim said: “Well, when are you going to do it?” The executioner gave a beatific smile and said: “Just kindly nod.”


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  1. See The Public Interest (Fall 1999). Go back to the text.

From The New Criterion Vol. 19, No. 8, April 2001
2001 The New Criterion | Back to the top |