The decades in which it was able to develop its high ideals of universal human rights, including the right of the distressed to seek havens in Europe, was made possible, it is now clear, by the oppressive regimes that once held sway on its periphery. The Arab world was slammed shut for decades by prison states whose dictator wardens kept their people in order. Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Assad family in Syria, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya—they allowed to Europe to have its idealistic cake and eat it too.We know now what happens in the absence of these regimes. With the strongmen who headed them gone (only Assad remains), chaos ensues. Europe is now dealing with the consequences of policies that ousted these leaders, and it is not at all clear that people in the Middle East themselves are better off for it.
But foreign policy aside, it is interesting to note the dilemma such states as those in the Middle East find themselves in: Either submit to the autocratic rule of a dictator or face anarchy. Why do these countries find themselves with only these two alternatives when countries in the West have always had other options, sometimes benevolent monarchies and, today, constitutional democracies?
Is there something the West has that the Middle East does not that gives its nations the ability to self-govern without facing either tyranny or anarchy?
I submit that the West is able to do this largely because its citizenry is educated in a way that the citizenry in Middle Eastern countries is not. And furthermore, the kind of education that gives Western nations stability is an education of a particular kind which consists of a consistent kind of acculturation.
In short, Western countries have traditionally imparted, not only certain basic learning skills (how to read, write, and figure), but also a body of cultural background knowledge and a set of moral values.
The most essential aspect of these last two latter kinds of literacy—the cultural, and moral—is their shared nature. The background cultural knowledge and the set of values were held in common. In fact, it is only by virtue of this shared body of knowledge and ideals that we could say that we had a culture at all. A culture is nothing if it is not this shared body of ideals and values.
Furthermore, this shared body of ideals and values was based on a shared religion. As T. S. Eliot pointed out, religion and culture are just two sides of the same coin. Cultures can also cohere on the basis of common racial characteristics, but only because racial identity usually involves a shared religion. Even those of the same race can be subject to societal deterioration if there are divergent religions within the racial group.
The good news is that this connection—the close relation between culture and religion—can produce a stable society. The bad news is that it falls apart without it.
One of the main problems in the Middle East is that fact that, although their cultures are undergirded largely by Islam, the different forms of Islam bring about cultural divisiveness. The cultural divide in Iraq is primarily along the fault line between Shia and Sunni Muslims. And although the Syrian conflict is complex and the loyalties complicated by larger regional politics, the divisions are still largely based on religious loyalties, complicated by the fact that one of these factions, the Alawite minority, has traditionally ruled the rest.
The religion that undergirded the culture of the West was Christianity. But now rival world views have arisen, primarily that of secularism, the technocratic religion of materialism. The Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft has pointed out that every religion has three aspects to it: a creed, a code, and a cult: a set of beliefs, a methodology, and something which it hopes for or aspires to.
For Christianity, these characteristics are expressed (roughly) in the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer. Secularism's creed, on the other hand, is materialism, its code or methodology is that of scientific method, and its aspiration is for a technocratic utopia, a world in which science has solved every material riddle.
The first problem is that the political, economic, and moral order of Western society is based on this older, Christian model—a model the Church formed on the basis of the cultures of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem that preceded it, and which it transformed in accordance with its to own unique theological beliefs, becoming the basis for the societies and governments of Europe and America. And without the support of the ideas that formed them, these beliefs and institutions must change—or die.
The second problem is that the ideology that is replacing the older Christian order cannot inform and uphold the culture in way that an authentic religion can. A belief system like secular liberalism, which is purely instrumental and materialistic, is inherently incapable of providing the kind of visceral motivation that must inform the higher aspirations of a society—aspirations that are necessary to provide social cohesion. No one wants to go die in a ditch in some foreign country for a higher national GDP. No one wants to risk his life for greater employment opportunities or lower prices. People will fight and die for a way of life, but materialist technocracy has cut itself off from half of what people really value in life. A ruling philosophy that is concerned only with the how can never provide the why required to give a civilization some life force.
But now we are dismantling this cultural system, sometimes actively (as we see through the open hostility toward Western values displayed at many of our colleges and universities), but mostly passively, as we see in our elementary and secondary schools. Here, rather than open hostility toward the ideals of Christian culture, these ideals are treated with implicit indifference, which is just as bad.
We are now two or three generations away from a time when our culture was being passed on in our schools. We can still hear it articulated, if we listen, by our grandparents, to whom it was a living tradition. But our parents are less well-versed in it, and to their children, who were never taught it, it doesn't even amount to a heritage.
Although this abandonment is not necessarily explicit, it was intentional. George Steiner has aptly called it "planned amnesia." The intention too is now passing from cultural memory, since modern educators (not to mention everybody else) do not generally know the history of their own profession. But those familiar with the education battles around the turn of the 20th century can easily see its origins in John Dewey's progressivism and William Heard Kilpatrick's pragmatism, the twin ideologies that displaced the older classical education: progressivist political indoctrination (environmentalism, global warming, race and gender politics) or pragmatist job and life skills (drivers ed, sex education, STEM, and vocationalism in general).
All modern education stems from the implementation of Dewey's progressivism in the 1920s and the Life Adjustment Movement of the 1940s and early 1950s. They are inconsistent, of course (as Dewey, who later repudiated the pragmatism that hijacked his Progressive Education Movement, realized), but they have dominated education philosophy in America in an uneasy alliance ever since.
And so today, lacking the active cultural transmission that was the goal of classical education, there is nothing left by which a coherent culture can be passed on. Education has always been the means by which a culture is transferred from one generation to the next. But when the system of education no longer sees it as its role to perform this task, it is simply not done at all.
And since political indoctrination and job training do not amount to an education as we traditionally understand it, you get an uneducated citizenry, an acultural culture. Instead, we mistake technological sophistication for learning. We produce button-pushers thinking we have done our job when, in fact, all we have produced is technological barbarians.
The glue that holds a society together—shared beliefs and ideals—loses its hold, and you get cultural fragmentation, a fragmentation that, lacking a common culture, can only be brought back together by the charisma of a political strongman. And of course since the order is dependent upon a particularly leader, it is only assured until that particularly leader is gone.
We haven't faced it yet, but if we continue down the road of cultural disintegration, we too will face something like we now see in the Middle East. The founders knew full well the importance of those things that ground cultural cohesion, as their many remarks about the necessity of religion and morality to a free people attest. They knew that the absence of these things led to either autocracy or chaos.