March 3, 2006


The Pursuit of Democracy: What Bush gets wrong about nation-building (Michael Kinsley, March 3, 2006, Slate)

The case for democracy is "self-evident," as someone once put it. The case for the world's most powerful democracy to take as its mission the spreading of democracy around the world is pretty self-evident, too: What's good for us is good for others. Those others will be grateful. A world full of democracies created or protected with our help ought to be more peaceful and prosperous and favorably disposed toward us. That world will be a better neighborhood for us than a world of snarling dictatorships.

There is no valid case against democracy. You used to hear a lot that democracy is not suitable for some classes of foreigners: simply incompatible with the cultures of East Asia (because deference to authority is too ingrained there), or the Arab Middle East (because everybody is a religious fanatic), or Africa (because they're too "tribal," or too predisposed to rule by a "big daddy,"… or something). But this line of argument has gone out of fashion, pushed offstage by free and fair elections in some surprising places. Even those who still harbor doubts about whether democracy is possible in this place or that—and even those who think that any democracy achieved in such places is likely to be a real mess—don't generally oppose the attempt. As someone else once said, "Good government is no substitute for self-government."

But the case against spreading democracy—especially through military force—as a mission of the U.S. government is also pretty self-evident, and lately it's been getting more so. Government, even democratic government, exists for the benefit of its own citizens, not that of foreigners. American blood and treasure should not be spent on democracy for other people.

Hard to imagine someone more forthrightly stating the connection between isolationism and the denial of the injunction to love thy neighbor. It sums up much of why secular Europe and the Democrats have become useless.

One interesting thing to consider in this regard is that Mr. Kinsley is speaking for that portion of the West that has become feminized, criticizing George W. Bush who represents the more manly America, as suggested in this passage from Harvey Mansfield's new book:

It's...said that men are rational, women emotional. One can easily imagine a sexist male saying that in exasperation to, or about, a woman. A more refined version of this pairing might say that men are abstract and idealistic, women are empirical and realistic. How is that related to the basic stereotype of aggression and caring? One might suggest that men use their reason to yearn beyond, and to seek to abstract from, the present situation, while women use theirs to study and make the best of the present. Men are more decisive because they can reject what they see before them, and women are more perceptive because they hesitate to do that.

And now look at how easily that idea leads into this essay, about the divergence of Christian America's demographics from those of secular Europe, The Return of Patriarchy: Across the globe, people are choosing to have fewer children or none at all. Governments are desperate to halt the trend, but their influence seems to stop at the bedroom door. Are some societies destined to become extinct? Hardly. It’s more likely that conservatives will inherit the Earth. Like it or not, a growing proportion of the next generation will be born into families who believe that father knows best. (Phillip Longman, March/April 2006, Foreign Policy)
[S]ingle-child families are prone to extinction. A single child replaces one of his or her parents, but not both. Nor do single-child families contribute much to future population. The 17.4 percent of baby boomer women who had only one child account for a mere 7.8 percent of children born in the next generation. By contrast, nearly a quarter of the children of baby boomers descend from the mere 11 percent of baby boomer women who had four or more children. These circumstances are leading to the emergence of a new society whose members will disproportionately be descended from parents who rejected the social tendencies that once made childlessness and small families the norm. These values include an adherence to traditional, patriarchal religion, and a strong identification with one’s own folk or nation.

This dynamic helps explain, for example, the gradual drift of American culture away from secular individualism and toward religious fundamentalism. Among states that voted for President George W. Bush in 2004, fertility rates are 12 percent higher than in states that voted for Sen. John Kerry. It may also help to explain the increasing popular resistance among rank-and-file Europeans to such crown jewels of secular liberalism as the European Union. It turns out that Europeans who are most likely to identify themselves as “world citizens” are also those least likely to have children.

Does this mean that today’s enlightened but slow-breeding societies face extinction? Probably not, but only because they face a dramatic, demographically driven transformation of their cultures. As has happened many times before in history, it is a transformation that occurs as secular and libertarian elements in society fail to reproduce, and as people adhering to more traditional, patriarchal values inherit society by default.

At least as long ago as ancient Greek and Roman times, many sophisticated members of society concluded that investing in children brought no advantage. Rather, children came to be seen as a costly impediment to self-fulfillment and worldly achievement. But, though these attitudes led to the extinction of many individual families, they did not lead to the extinction of society as a whole. Instead, through a process of cultural evolution, a set of values and norms that can roughly be described as patriarchy reemerged. [...]

nce a society grows cosmopolitan, fast-paced, and filled with new ideas, new peoples, and new luxuries, this sense of honor and connection to one’s ancestors begins to fade, and with it, any sense of the necessity of reproduction. “When the ordinary thought of a highly cultivated people begins to regard ‘having children’ as a question of pro’s and con’s,” Oswald Spengler, the German historian and philosopher, once observed, “the great turning point has come.”

The Return of Patriarchy

Yet that turning point does not necessarily mean the death of a civilization, only its transformation. Eventually, for example, the sterile, secular, noble families of imperial Rome died off, and with them, their ancestors’ idea of Rome. But what was once the Roman Empire remained populated. Only the composition of the population changed. Nearly by default, it became composed of new, highly patriarchal family units, hostile to the secular world and enjoined by faith either to go forth and multiply or join a monastery. With these changes came a feudal Europe, but not the end of Europe, nor the end of Western Civilization.

We may witness a similar transformation during this century. In Europe today, for example, how many children different people have, and under what circumstances, correlates strongly with their beliefs on a wide range of political and cultural attitudes. For instance, do you distrust the army? Then, according to polling data assembled by demographers Ronny Lesthaeghe and Johan Surkyn, you are less likely to be married and have kids—or ever to get married and have kids—than those who say they have no objection to the military. Or again, do you find soft drugs, homosexuality, and euthanasia acceptable? Do you seldom, if ever, attend church? For whatever reason, people answering affirmatively to such questions are far more likely to live alone, or in childless, cohabitating unions, than those who answer negatively.

The great difference in fertility rates between secular individualists and religious or cultural conservatives augurs a vast, demographically driven change in modern societies. Consider the demographics of France, for example. Among French women born in the early 1960s, less than a third have three or more children. But this distinct minority of French women (most of them presumably practicing Catholics and Muslims) produced more than 50 percent of all children born to their generation, in large measure because so many of their contemporaries had one child or none at all.

Many childless, middle-aged people may regret the life choices that are leading to the extinction of their family lines, and yet they have no sons or daughters with whom to share their newfound wisdom. The plurality of citizens who have only one child may be able to invest lavishly in that child’s education, but a single child will only replace one parent, not both. Meanwhile, the descendants of parents who have three or more children will be hugely overrepresented in subsequent generations, and so will the values and ideas that led their parents to have large families.

One could argue that history, and particularly Western history, is full of revolts of children against parents. Couldn’t tomorrow’s Europeans, even if they are disproportionately raised in patriarchal, religiously minded households, turn out to be another generation of ’68?

The key difference is that during the post-World War II era, nearly all segments of modern societies married and had children. Some had more than others, but the disparity in family size between the religious and the secular was not so large, and childlessness was rare. Today, by contrast, childlessness is common, and even couples who have children typically have just one. Tomorrow’s children, therefore, unlike members of the postwar baby boom generation, will be for the most part descendants of a comparatively narrow and culturally conservative segment of society. To be sure, some members of the rising generation may reject their parents’ values, as always happens. But when they look around for fellow secularists and counterculturalists with whom to make common cause, they will find that most of their would-be fellow travelers were quite literally never born.

Advanced societies are growing more patriarchal, whether they like it or not. In addition to the greater fertility of conservative segments of society, the rollback of the welfare state forced by population aging and decline will give these elements an additional survival advantage, and therefore spur even higher fertility. As governments hand back functions they once appropriated from the family, notably support in old age, people will find that they need more children to insure their golden years, and they will seek to bind their children to them through inculcating traditional religious values akin to the Bible’s injunction to honor thy mother and father.

Though none of the three would be likely to put the pieces together, it can hardly be surprising that we see such differences between a Judeo-Christian America that is forward looking and freedom-oriented and a secular Europe that is focussed on the here and now and selfish security.

Perhaps if we bring in Eric Hoffer again we can see why the pursuit of freedom is so distinctly a manly virtue:

Free men are aware of the imperfection inherent in human affairs, and they are willing to fight and die for that which is not perfect. They know that basic human problems can have no final solutions, that our freedom, justice, equality, etc. are far from absolute, and that the good life is compounded of half measures, compromises, lesser evils, and gropings toward the perfect. The rejection of approximations and the insistence on absolutes are the manifestation of a nihilism that loathes freedom, tolerance, and equity.

Mr. Mansfield says of manliness that it "seeks and welcomes drama," as Mr. Hoffer likewise essentially says that free men must accept the dramatics of an imperfect world. For believing Jews and Christians this is all a matter of dogma, Man having accepted a life of imperfection and struggle in the Fall. The renunciation of that faith is the flight from drama and risk, though which drives which may be unanswerable. Suffice it to say, we find secularism, selfishness, security and cultural suicide all inextricably bound up together like chains, dragging down the folks for whom Mr. Kinsley speaks into the depths.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 3, 2006 4:36 PM

"American blood and treasure should not be spent on democracy for other people."

Well, Mr. Kinsley, you have convinced me that we should stay home and mind our own business. Next time that we are both in New York, let's meet at Windows on the World, and I'll buy drinks...

Posted by: b at March 3, 2006 5:02 PM

Seems to me that Kinsley is only half correct in his analysis. GWB is the first president to realize in the modern era that what happens on the other side of the globe has a direct effect on the citizens of the USA. Bush changed his ideas about nation building 180 degrees after 9/11. It was a wake-up call for the President but Kinsley and his illiberal freinds have fallen back asleep.

Posted by: morry at March 3, 2006 5:14 PM

His first paragraph says that spreading democracy is good for us. His second paragraph says that we shouldn't do it because there's nothing in it for us.


Posted by: David Cohen at March 3, 2006 5:43 PM

The Longman article "discovers" something from 19th Century Sociology. Certain folkways confer survival advantage. Since the bearers of those values out-survive and out-reproduce those bearing less adaptive ways of living, the ideas themselves surpass.

In this case, that folkway is what the writer calls "Patriarchy."

Now to a homosexual or to a Deiphobe, "Patriarchy" is worse than extinction. However, that is not a decision for him or her to make. The decision to not exist in a decision to have no meaning or consequence.

Reply obj: We need not be distracted with the childish arguement that mere gross spawning confers survival advantages. It might, if it were in competition with other similiarly benighted populations. Quite evidently, the successful system allows enough time off from making babies to make ballistic missle submarines.

The point being made here is that the ideas themselves out-survive the ideas which spurn reproduction.

Posted by: Lou Gots at March 3, 2006 10:08 PM