Commentary Magazine

Continental Woes

To the Editor:

George Weigel’s article, “Europe’s Two Culture Wars” [May], contains many perceptive reflections on the political and social challenges facing Europe, but like so many assessments of Europe from the conservative camp, its excesses limit its contribution. Ideological salvos crowd out empirical and analytic accuracy, turning what could have been a sober evaluation into a Europhobic tirade.

Mr. Weigel begins his story with the 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid and the Spanish elections that took place soon thereafter. He is correct that the railway bombings played a central role in leading the Center-Left to victory over José María Aznar, who had supported the Iraq war and sent Spanish troops to join the coalition. The new prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, promptly withdrew his country’s forces from Iraq, as he had promised during the campaign. Analyzing these events, Mr. Weigel claims that “Spanish voters chose appeasement,” and he goes on to take the Zapatero government to task for “aggressively secularizing” the country and legalizing same-sex marriage. Entirely missing from his account are important parts of the story.

Aznar initially blamed the bombings on Basque separatists, though apparently he knew otherwise. In the critical hours before the election, his alleged dissimulation became public, pushing voters toward Zapatero. Many analysts maintain that Aznar’s missteps, not only the bombings themselves, affected the election’s outcome. Moreover, the vast majority of the Spanish electorate opposed the Iraq war, a factor that was undermining support for Aznar well before the terror attacks. Mr. Weigel’s omission of these issues is quite curious.

Mr. Weigel goes on to portray the European Union as a cabal of “radical secularists” bent on using “bureaucratic regulation” to “eliminate the vestiges of Europe’s Judeo-Christian culture.” He may not like the fact that Europeans are not going to church as often as they used to or that the EU constitution—now on ice after failed referenda in France and the Netherlands—did not reaffirm Europe’s Christian roots. But Europe remains the main repository of Judeo-Christian culture, even if traditional religious practice has fallen off.

Would Mr. Weigel prefer the current situation in Poland, where nationalistic, anti-immigrant, and populist politics are triumphing? Is he aware that the call for a return to traditional Catholic values there is accompanied by a creeping anti-Semitism as well as open hostility toward European integration? Would he prefer a Europe where Jews are not welcome and which again falls prey to the dangers of national jealousies?

Mr. Weigel also errs in his discussion of Europe’s handling of its Muslim immigrants. Again, he resurrects the Munich analogy: “Sixty years after the end of World War II, the European instinct for appeasement is alive and well.” To be sure, Europe’s governments have been too lax in dealing with homegrown extremism, as the bombings in Madrid and London made all too clear. But the sole source of the problem is hardly, as Mr. Weigel has it, Europe’s excessive “liberality” and political correctness. On the contrary, Europe’s tradition-bound approach to matters of ethnicity and nationhood is a major part of the problem.

The radicalization of Europe’s Muslims is to a considerable degree a response to exclusion, not appeasement. With ethnic conceptions of nationhood still competing with civic definitions of citizenship on the continent, many Muslim immigrants—even of the second and third generation—feel as if they do not belong. Mr. Weigel writes that “Europe’s native populations” are becoming “second- and third-class citizens in their own countries,” but exactly the opposite is true. It is the immigrants who are being denied social and economic opportunity, which often leads to alienation and radicalization. One need only look at America’s Muslim population to see the beneficial effects of economic opportunity and a successful model of multiethnic integration.

Mr. Weigel is right to worry about Europe’s declining birthrates and their economic and social implications. But the sobering reality of demographic decline only reinforces the need for Europe to become multi-ethnic in spirit as well as in fact by working much harder to integrate Muslim immigrants into the social mainstream.

There is much that is good as well as much that is troubling about today’s Europe. For whatever reason, Mr. Weigel wants to tell only one side of the story. Perhaps he and kindred spirits should probe the deeper sources of their Europhobia.

Charles A. Kupchan

Georgetown University/Council on Foreign Relations

Washington, D.C.


To the Editor:

George Weigel correctly identifies a mortal threat to Europe from its Muslim immigrants, and he is right to see low indigenous birthrates as a key component of the problem. But he is wrong on just about everything else.

Europe’s aging population and declining birthrates have nothing to do with political secularism. During the past twenty years, Mexico has experienced the fastest decline in fertility in modern history; Jordan has seen its own birthrate almost halve. Neither country is commonly regarded as liberal or secular, and each has seen its decline without legalizing homosexuality, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, abortion-on-demand, or any of the other liberalizations upon which Mr. Weigel is so quick to pin responsibility for Europe’s demographic trends.

When I visited Spain in 1969, women were still washing their clothes in streams, no more than 20 miles from Madrid. The stifling hand of the Catholic Church attached to the iron arm of Franco’s fascist state excluded Spain from the postwar economic miracle that transformed its neighbors in the European Union, another target of Mr. Weigel’s polemic. Life expectancy and per-capita income for most people in 1970’s Spain were roughly the same as in Algeria. That is now, thankfully, a distant memory. Parents of newborn children and the overwhelming majority of Spanish citizens know the vital importance of keeping religion out of the public arena.

The EU can be a dumb bureaucracy, and jokes about such silliness as the prescribed size of European bananas abound. Still, all the risible regulations that Mr. Weigel recounts amount to a heap of nothing. It may take more than a man and a ladder to change a light bulb in Britain, but the UK still enjoys an unparalleled level of prosperity and a record-breaking period of economic growth. Polish eggs may come stamped with EU digits where once they were bare, but the real difference is that Poles can now actually afford to buy them, as well as cars and televisions and cell phones. As Faustian pacts go, it has not been a bad one for the people of the EU.

Europe can profitably learn from America about many things: efficient labor markets, reduced bureaucracy in finance and business creation, the encouragement of risk-taking and entrepreneurialism through the tax system. But what Europeans do not need are lessons in public theology, a field in which we Americans are already far too proficient for our own good.

In Europe, the horrors of the first half of the 20th century gave way to a concept of the public good as expressed in the welfare state, with its promise of cradle-to-grave security. It is hard to understand the reluctance of the French to reform their bloated state apparatus until one spends time in France and sees just how good life really is for the average Frenchman. The drowsiness induced by a life almost miraculously full of material plenty and security is the cause of Europe’s feeble response to the Islamic menace, not secularism. Sad to say, but the awakening of the EU will arrive only in response to further Islamic outrages, not to the atavistic exhortations of the failed culture of public faith.

Max Davies

Orlando, Florida


George Weigel writes:

I thank my correspondents for taking the trouble to write, and for confirming my sense that perceptions of Europe’s current situation often reflect an observer’s stance in America’s own culture war. I also want to take the occasion to correct two small errors of fact in my article. On page 32, I identified the assassin of Theo van Gogh as of Indonesian rather than of Moroccan origin; on page 33, I placed a graffito proclaiming “Thou shalt not kill” in Amsterdam when it was in Rotterdam.

Charles A. Kupchan is correct to say that Spanish voters were inclined toward appeasing aggressive Islam and international criminals like Saddam Hussein before José María Aznar’s mistakes in the initial handling of the Madrid bombings. But that hardly changes the fact that a vote for José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was a de-facto vote for appeasement. That vote has also had the unhappy effect of empowering a government that perhaps only an academic would not recognize as aggressively secularizing.

I wish Mr. Kupchan were right about Europe remaining “the main repository of Judeo-Christian culture.” Two intellectually impressive products of European high culture, the late Pope John Paul II and the current pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI, have had a much less sanguine view of the degree to which Europe is still nourished by its Judeo-Christian roots. If “Judeo-Christian culture” includes certain moral understandings, and if those moral understandings are now considered “intolerance” or “hate speech” by the European Parliament, it is hard to understand just how Europe is a main repository of that culture.

I hold no brief for the nationalist Right in Poland. But after spending more than a month in that country earlier this year, during which time I had the opportunity to discuss the current situation with political and religious leaders across the spectrum of sane opinion, I can assure Mr. Kupchan that his suggestions of an impending pogrom there are, to put it gently, greatly exaggerated. Those who want to worry about renascent anti-Semitism in the European Union might instead turn their attention to France.

Europe does tend to handle assimilation badly, as Mr. Kupchan observes and as the unhappy suburbs of Paris bear out. The British bombers of the London subway in 2005 were not, however, the wretched refuse of an unassimilated population but members of a population that by most visible measures had assimilated rather well. The seductions of jihadist Islam, it seems, work on both the middle class and the underclass, the assimilated and the unassimilated.

Finally, on the matter of my alleged Europhobia, may I refer Mr. Kupchan to my book, The Cube and the Cathedral, where he will find his indictment refuted, chapter and verse?

Max Davies’s letter raises the important question of what accounts for the unprecedented decline in fertility being experienced around the world—save in places like Yemen, which in a few decades may have a population larger than Russia’s. In truth, no one knows with any certainty why fertility is plummeting, and attempts to identify a single cause are likely to be frustrated (and wrong).

Likely there are different primary causes of the decline in fertility in different parts of the world, even as certain factors, like the availability of contraception and the changing social roles of women, have an impact across the board. That Europe’s demographic suicide—and there is now no other word for it—has something to do with what many now recognize as the problem of Europe’s spiritual boredom ought not be doubted. Amidst a soured nihilism about the very mystery of being, there is, it seems, very little interest in creating the human future—especially when the responsibilities of children to their aging parents have been assumed by the nanny state. I do not, by the way, “pin responsibility for Europe’s demographic trends” on the libertinism now being set in legal concrete throughout much of Western Europe; I regard that libertinism and Europe’s demographic decline as two manifestations of the same spiritual wasting disease.

As for Spain’s welcome development (hardly an economic virgin birth, for the groundwork had been laid during the latter Franco period), the question remains as to what will happen to Spanish prosperity if over the next century Spain becomes once again al-Andalus. European prosperity, too, is unmistakable at present, although virtually every serious student of economics with whom I am familiar believes that “old Europe” is heading toward a fiscal train-wreck, as aging populations put increasing burdens on a womb-to-tomb welfare state being supported by a decreasing number of taxpayers.

As for “keeping religion out of the public arena,” there is a wide terrain of sanity between old Spanish altar-and-throne arrangements and Zapatero’s naked public square. Moreover, no one of a democratic cast of mind should want to proscribe religiously-informed moral argument from public life, for that would be to disenfranchise believers. I do not quite know what Mr. Davies’s “failed culture of public faith” is, but his recognition that the “drowsiness” induced by unprecedented prosperity helps explain Europe’s appeasement of Islamic aggression should remind us that (as an old book once put it) “man does not live by bread alone.”

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