Stephens: The real 'existential' threat?

Stephens: The real 'existential' threat?

July 22nd, 2017 by Bret Stephens/New York Times News Service in Opinion Free Press Commentary

FILE - In this July 7, 2017, file photo, President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany. Trump had a second, previously undisclosed conversation with Putin at the summit it Germany. White House spokesman Sean Spicer says that Trump and Putin spoke during a world leaders’ dinner at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg earlier this month.(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Photo by The Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Dear Dennis,

To err is human. To tweet is to regret. When I decided last month to leave Twitter, it was in part because I knew that, while I couldn't avoid the former, I could at least escape the latter. Not everything that pops into the heads of smart people is smart. Still less of it needs to be shared.

"Silence is better for the wise, and how much more so for fools." I'm sure you know the proverb.

So it was with a grain of salt that I read your Bastille Day tweet:

"The news media in the West pose a far greater danger to Western civilization than Russia does," Dennis Prager tweeted.

It sounded, frankly, like the kind of involuntary mental wet burp many of us have at moments of peak ideological irritation — for conservatives, often while reading the editorial pages of [The New York Times].

I didn't think you could possibly mean it. Turns out, you do.

On Tuesday you doubled down with an online column for Townhall. "The real threat to Western civilization is Western civilization ceasing to believe in itself," you write. "And, in that regard, Russia poses no danger, while the left-wing dominated media and universities pose an existential threat."

You're a smart guy, Dennis, and it's not a dumb column. "Attacking what the media is doing is not the same as attacking the existence of the media," you say. True. "Putin is indeed a murderous quasi-dictator," you acknowledge. Delete "quasi"; otherwise correct.

You end with a list of various things being done to Western civilization in the name of multiculturalism, none of it with the help of Putin. Much of it is indeed bad, though I'm not sure that Justin Trudeau declaring there is "no core identity, no mainstream in Canada" counts as a Spenglerian moment in the story of Western decline.

But, yes, there's a lot that's dumb about the academy and a lot that's wrong with journalism. It should be criticized, not feared. Foolish conservatives often assume every instance of institutional malfunction is a symptom of civilizational cancer. Wiser conservatives know, as Adam Smith did, that "there is a great deal of ruin in a nation."

Wiser conservatives — and I count you among them, Dennis — also know that when we speak of "the West," what we're talking about is a particular strain within it. Marx and Lenin, after all, are also part of the Western tradition, as are Heidegger and Hitler.

For us, on the other hand, "the West" is the liberal-democratic tradition; the one most succinctly expressed in the Declaration of Independence. "All men are created equal." "The consent of the governed." "The Laws of Nature and of Nature's God." "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." All the rest, from Exodus to Gettysburg, is commentary.

That's why the intelligent conservative has no time either for illiberalism, often of the right, or relativism, typically of the left. And that's why wise conservatives take the threat from Vladimir Putin seriously. He is the champion and most insidious exponent of both.

To be indifferent to every claim of truth or fact is the ultimate assertion of power. It is to say: Nothing restrains me, not what I promised yesterday, not what I am saying to you now, not what I might do tomorrow. That's how Putin operates in his sphere.

Dennis, you got your wish: Hillary Clinton isn't president and never will be. But the responsibility of a public intellectual like you isn't to spend the next several years justifying your vote. It's to see things plain and in their true perspective. To suggest that Vladimir Putin is a distant nuisance isn't seeing things plain, to put it mildly.

Don't be a hater, Dennis. Disavow, delete and rethink that stupid tweet.

New York Times News Service

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