Springtime for the west?


A couple of recent opinion columns by Berlingske Tidende’s opinion editor Pierre Collignon offer some hopeful signs that at least parts of Denmark’s thinking class may have begun to realize the depth of the hole we’ve dug ourselves into. . . and may have begun speculating on ways to actually climb out of it.

Collignon is one of those public intellectuals with whom I sometimes find myselves in total and emphatic agreement while at others I just want to shove them down a flight of stairs. I realize that’s praising him with faint damnation, but it’s worth noting that there are only a small handful of Danish commentators with whom I ever find myself in total agreement.

The columns that have me thinking well of him right now are both from this month:

Biden gave his speech as a victor – but the war has exposed the weaknesses of the West
March 12

New suspicion of adolescents dysfunction: it’s depressing to be left-wing
March 18

They’re both big-picture think pieces anchored to specific news items: the first to Joe Biden’s Warsaw speech, the second to a Financial Times article connecting the surge in mental health problems among adolescents to smart phones, social media, and, ultimately and most significantly, political outlook.

Both acknowledge a universal reality that I had the pleasure of discussing with friends over copious amounts of alcohol on Friday evening, and that universal reality is that we’re fucked. Really and truly, good and hard. (More about that conversation will be appearing on Nagan of Copenhagen shortly, if it hasn’t already.)

Not right now. Not today. As bad as things feel at the moment, they’re almost certain to get dramatically worse in the relatively near term—but only if present trends continue. And by “present trends” I actually mean “our present stupidity.”

I have a little index card on my desk on which I’ve written INDEFATIGABLE OPTIMISM. It’s a reminder to myself to keep my chin up. I am in fact an optimist by nature. Not because I don’t see the evil that men do, or understand the fragility of human existence, nor even because I’m just plain stupid (although caveat emptor on that one) but because I genuinely believe that in the long term humanity is a wonder and a marvel and will conquer every obstacle that comes along. I’m every bit as naive as Candide in my optimism for the future… but as a consequence of that optimism I can get awfully prickly about the present state of affairs, as anyone who’s ready pretty much anything I’ve ever written in any medium at any time can probably confirm.

That is: we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, but with surprisingly little effort we could.

The index card became necessary at some point last year because things were beginning to look so bleak I found myself focusing too much on the miseries of our now instead of the shining splendor of our tomorrow. I was losing my way.

Optimism is necessary it doesn’t help anyone to tell them how miserable they are and why: the important thing is to get the wretched to raise their sights and focus on the higher ground that’s so easily accessible if only they’d stop sitting around and bitching about the mud they’re stuck in. Good religions do that; bad religions do the opposite.

The ascendant religion of the west right now is a bad one. The combination of climate apocalypticism, “social justice” mania, and identity politics is built up from the notion that people are bad and life is a misery. (And yes, it’s finally outed itself as a religion now that St. Greta of Stockholm has been awarded an honorary doctorate in theology by the University of Helsinki.)

You, reader, you produce too much carbon dioxide, you consume too many resources, you are responsible for centuries of oppression, and the world is about to end thanks to your selfishness. Also you’re either a highly privileged person living off the suffering of others or your prospects are hopeless because of all those privileged people keeping you down.

So say the preachers.

To say otherwise is to consign oneself to the flames of Hell as a heretic.

Collignon’s columns give me hope in that the first actually discusses how wrong we in the west have been in our approach to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the second tackles head-on the consequences of an entire generation being catechised into this bad new religion of despair and self-loathing. The first addresses how the west can reassert its dominance and dynamism with respect to external threats while the second addresses how the west can reclaim its civilizational vigor and optimism internally.

It boils down to a couple of very simple observations: we need to acknowledge how good we’ve got it, and why we’ve got it so good, and then we need to defend that goodness with all the strength we can muster—and we don’t owe anyone anywhere apologies for any of it.

Collignon’s recommended corrective is actually pretty weak in the article about the malaise of our youth:

Just as when identity-political activists encourage white men to check their privileges, one could encourage young, left-leaning Americans who are struggling to check their psychological reflexes. The world can certainly be grim, but we must not lose our courage and belief that we can make things better.

Weak, right? You can’t hammer kids with messages about how wretched they are, and deserve to be, and have to be if the world is to be saved, and then suggest that if that makes them miserable then they should just stop being so miserable. Stop telling them they’re awful! Stop telling them their mere existence is the problem!

But I’ll give credit to Collignon for at least identifying the actual problem and suggesting that there’s a solution.

His corrective with respect to the geopolitical situation also has its weak spots. He offers seven key suggestions, each of which strikes me as generally spot-on:

  1. We must militarize.
  2. The whole society must be prepared against security threats.
  3. We have to pick our battles.
  4. We must create alliances.
  5. We must ensure broad prosperity.
  6. We must defend democratic ideals at home.
  7. We must stay focused.

That’s a no-shit list.

That such a laundry list of obviousness needs to be pitched to the public as a recommendation—that it’s not just a checklist of stuff we already do—is a damning indictment of where we stand.

We need to be strong, confident, and resolute. We need to build alliances. We need to keep our economic engine humming. We need to defend our values and focus on the here and now.

Who knew?

And yet, I’m glad to see this being communicated on the opinion pages of a major Danish newspaper because things are indeed to bad right now that people need to hear these things. People need to be reminded that peace comes from strength, that real threats exist, that independence requires vigilance, and that our governments can only shower us with their largesse when they’re got a wealthy enough citizenry to take that money from in the first place.

My only criticisms arise from the details he offers under two of those suggestions.

In item five he’s not talking about the establishment of conditions allowing for maximal economic growth: he’s been drinking Danish water too long for that. He’s calling for expanding the welfare state:

Extreme inequality and a lack of economic growth can create deep dissatisfaction in both established and not least in new, more fragile democracies. We cannot be content to think of democracy in legalistic terms. We must ensure that democracies also deliver cash benefits to the population.

It’s stupid on the face of it: you don’t “ensure broad prosperity” by handing out money to your citizens, but by creating conditions in which your citizens can create their own prosperity. We’re never going to bribe people into understanding the magnificence of our Enlightenment inheritance—and, as I’ve already noted, even we wanted to we couldn’t unless our people were wealthy enough to be taxed at a level allowing for those bribes to be funded.

You can probably predict where he goes with the item about defending democratic ideals in item six:

The far left has been clamoring for leftist dictatorships, and national conservatives have hailed both Putin, Trump and Orbán in a way that revealed a fatal lack of democratic backbone. We must be wary of authoritarian populism.

His reference to leftist authoritarianism is appreciated, but lumping in Trump with Putin is monstrous unless you’re ready to lump Biden in with Xi—and yes, I mean that. Play it both ways or don’t play it at all.

My own quibbles aside, this is progress. I see it as the civic equivalent of the crocuses and snowdrops popping up through the cold, cracked soil of Denmark as winter finally begins yielding to spring.

We are indeed well and truly fucked right now, but we don’t need to be, and if we’d just wake the hell up and take some very elementary steps back toward sanity we could have things cleaned up in a flash.

It’s up to us.