Christchurch and Western Culture, Part 2

[Note to the reader: This is the second part in a three-part series. Part I can be found here.]

PART II: Critical Errors

In the context of the more thorough understanding of what is meant by the word “culture” that I presented in Part I, let’s evaluate the New Zealand shooter’s rationalization for mass homicide. Politically, the shooter describes himself as an “eco-fascist” whose views are most closely aligned with the late Sir Oswald Mosley, a British politician and leader of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. He backs up his love of authoritarianism by praising China as the “nation with the closest political and social values to my own.” From his writing, he appears to be not so much a white supremacist as an ethnic separatist, the distinction being that ethnic separatists do not necessarily believe that races are inferior or superior to one another, but that they should remain separate from one another culturally and geographically. Despite reports in the media to the contrary, his actions were not inspired by Candace Owens, a black conservative commentator. His reference to her in his manifesto was clearly intended as a sarcastic jab, and was followed by the mocking admission that “Spyro the dragon 3 taught me ethno-nationalism. Fortnite trained me to be a killer and to floss on the corpses of my enemies.”

The shooter’s basic argument goes something like this: Western nations are under attack from Islamic invaders, who are implementing a long-term plan to effectuate genocide of white people and to replace Western culture with an Islamic one. Because Western governments are not defending societies adequately, he feels justified in using violence against people he views as aggressors. He believes that eventually his viewpoint will be vindicated, and on that day he will be released from prison and lauded for being one of the first people to take violent action against an enemy of the state. One of the dangers of the shooter’s treatise is that he offers evidence to support some of his assertions, thus providing a veneer of legitimacy that may seduce fringe elements of society into following in his footsteps unless someone helps to adequately equip them with counterarguments. Fear of this fuels my motivation to write about such a gruesome event.

The shooter’s yearning for ethno-nationalism can be seen as a natural response to a perceived existential threat from an outside culture when viewed in the context of two critical errors: (i) inextricably linking race with culture; and (ii) failing to identify those fundamental characteristics of Western society that are actually worth defending. Let’s unravel those two errors.

Conflating Race with Culture

The myth that race and culture are inherently bound to each other is common, but it is straightforward to dispel. Unless you’re a genetic reductionist, it is easy to see that sharing basic philosophic principles and cooperative strategies does not require that your skin contain a certain amount of melanin, or that other physical attributes fit any particular set of parameters. Ending the analysis here, however, is incomplete because it fails to address the reason why ethno-nationalists repeatedly link race with culture, which is: unexamined empiricism. In fact, for most of human history viewing race and culture as synonymous made a certain amount of sense. Cultures evolved from groups of people living in proximity to one another, which also meant breeding with one another. A common culture was typically coincident with a shared environment and shared genetic material. As it turns out, in a Venn diagram of race and culture there is an uncanny amount of overlap. Throw a dart at a map of the globe and try not to hit any water. With few exceptions (and those mostly in the West), you’ll likely land on a country with very little racial diversity. Note that this is not the same as “ethnic diversity,” which is typically approximated by measuring linguistic or religious differences. Indeed, among genetically similar groups there are often many disparate cultures, but the reverse is rarely true: throughout history and even still today, most cultures are racially homogeneous (including the shooter’s beloved People’s Republic of China). Heritability of personality traits aside, this correlation between race and culture is primarily an accident of evolutionary circumstances, not a law of nature. Ethno-nationalists tend to miss this nuance. To the shooter, an attack on Western culture is synonymous with an attack on white people. Diversity zealots tend to ignore the correlation altogether, which makes them look awfully suspicious in the eyes of the ethno-nationalists. It’s important to simultaneously recognize both: culture and race are not the same thing, but when evaluating demographic data one must remain aware of the close association between them so as not to assume “racism” is the primary motivating factor behind every conflict. As is often the case, the truth is uncomfortably messy.

The Value of Western Culture

Let’s take a look at the shooter’s second major error. Before you can claim to be a defender of Western culture and Western civilization, you must accurately identify the essential characteristics that make the West worth defending in the first place. If culture is a loose societal agreement on basic philosophic premises and cooperative strategies, which part of that agreement makes the West uniquely valuable? It’s certainly not our manners that matter most. The same could be said for our aesthetic values. If there is an attack on Western culture, then our aesthetic values may be targets, but we wouldn’t classify them as primary targets. We don’t really need to focus on saving The Beatles, pizza, and Die Hard as much as we need to save a political and cultural structure based on the philosophical products of the Enlightenment. Historically, these have been on display more clearly in the United States than anywhere else. The United States is widely regarded as the archetype of modern Western civilization, and for good reason: the founding of America represented a fundamental advancement in both the political and cultural relationships between individuals and the state. First and foremost, it’s the ethical foundation of America that must be saved.

Some would argue that the essential characteristic of America’s moral foundation is not Enlightenment values, but Christianity. They are wrong. Christianity has existed for two thousand years, and even in recent history there has been no shortage of nations that tout their Christian beliefs while embodying varying degrees of authoritarianism, whether through direct dictators and monarchs or under the more modern socialist cloak of empathy for the downtrodden. Without the Enlightenment, Christianity directly contributes very little to the ethical questions of individual rights and relation of citizens to the state. What makes America unique — or at least did — is not devotion to Christianity, or European aesthetics, or Caucasian genes, but a moral rejection of the state as dominant over the individual. Thanks to Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, who rejected age-old precepts like the “divine right of kings,” at America’s inception individual rights were not viewed as some lucky gift granted by benevolent rulers, but as qualities more fundamental to human existence and antecedent to the formation of a state. Individual rights, as Jefferson wrote, were “unalienable” and “endowed by our Creator,” not nice-to-have gifts from political leaders elected by a mob.

Of course, there were huge contradictions in the application of this philosophy at the time, codified slavery and the lack of women’s suffrage being two obvious examples. But those flaws were not unique to America or to the West — slavery and male-dominated political structures were endemic to human society all across the globe for as long as there had been such a thing as human society. What was unique to America, however, was the idea that each individual member of society had intrinsic rights that transcended the plans and desires of kings, senators, presidents of banks, and even mobs of voters. In terms of founding a nation, that idea was brand new, and the consequence of adopting it — even sloppily and inconsistently — was an explosion of human flourishing the likes of which our species has never before experienced. The moral perspective of individuals as sovereign agents is the most precious — and, it seems, fragile — element upon which modern Western Civilization is built.

Philosophically, the opposite of this individualist outlook is collectivism — the idea that the group, or community, or race, or class, has the right to use force against any individual who stands in the way of what the group deems desirable (almost always articulated by group leaders naively presumed to be completely benevolent). Politically, collectivism can manifest as both communism and fascism. Under communism, absolute power over individuals is granted to a small cadre of leaders purportedly representing a particular class (typically the “working class”). Under fascism, absolute power over individuals is granted to a single leader purportedly representing a particular race, ethnicity, or nation. Communism and fascism are not opposites; they are two sides of the same worthless coin. Fundamentally, neither is compatible with the values of the West. No one who ascribes to any form of collectivism can legitimately call himself a defender of Western civilization.

[To continue to Part III, click here.]

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