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Book Review: The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age (James Kirchick)

This is a silly and shallow book.  But it is not worthless, because it serves to exemplify and clarify modern political fracture lines.  In the West, the major political split today is between those who view the modern liberal project of maximum individual freedom and maximum democracy (as long as the voters make the correct choices) as the ultimate and unquestionable good, and those who view that project as either inherently defective or sharply limited in the good it brings to humanity.  If Ryszard Legutko, in his criticism of European “liberal-democracy” in The Demon in Democracy, had conjured that demon to physical form, it would be James Kirchick—although, perhaps, Kirchick would manifest only as an imp or familiar, in thrall to some greater demon lurking in the wings, such as George Soros.

In The End of Europe:  Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age, Kirchick (a clever but ignorant American thirty-something, whose admirably polished prose serves to obfuscate his puerility), lavishes unreflective worship on every single thing that Legutko despises.  Kirchick offers very many dark mutterings, but he does very little reasoning, and like many millennials, his historical knowledge can most charitably be described as spotty.  The net effect is that of a lengthy, unreasoned tirade, but one which serves to clearly mark one pole of today’s politics.

Despite his alarmist subtitle, Kirchick makes no effort to actually persuade the reader that there looms a “coming dark age.”  Rather, his book has two related objects.  The first is to claim that “liberal democracy” is the best system ever invented, with no drawbacks at all, and the measure of any society is solely where it stands on a scale drawn by Kirchick, with only movement toward the end of the scale being permissible, where a big red crayon has written out “100% LIBERAL DEMOCRACY!!!!!”  The second, closely related, goal is to persuade the reader that modern Russia is Mordor and Vladimir Putin is Sauron, whose baleful lidless eye is fixed on Europe, eager to twist to his evil purposes the uniquely powerful talisman of 100% LIBERAL DEMOCRACY, anything else than which is necessarily a “dark age.”

Kirchick begins with clearly laying out, without discussion or introspection, his view that the European Union is “the greatest experiment in political cooperation in human history,” whose only relevant characteristic is its supra-national commitment to “liberal democracy.”  He identifies any deviation from this paradise as “The European Nightmare” (the title of his Introduction), and he identifies such deviations in a number of so-called crises, each arising in a particular country and being a crisis only and to the extent it shows deviation from liberal democracy.

Kirchick makes extreme claims for the liberal democracy of the EU.  All these “crises share a root cause: the lack of solidarity.  They can be ameliorated only by cohesion:  political, economic, military, and cultural.”  None of “protection of individual rights . . . freedom of speech and religion . . . would be possible without European cooperation.”  Not for Kirchick any response to those who, like Legutko, note that the EU is only for individual rights and freedom of speech and religion if and to the extent to they serve liberal democracy—Legutko’s “coercion to freedom.”  No, for Kirchick, 100% LIBERAL DEMOCRACY is a delicious and refreshing melding of the Holy Grail and the Fountain of Youth.  Kirchick ends his Introduction by trying to show why Americans should care about Europe, claiming that “the arguments you are about to read stem from a conviction that the values and interests uniting Americans and Europeans are far more numerous, and of greater import, than anything which divides us.”

But there are no arguments in this book.  Instead, there is a series of what amount to journal entries on individual countries, in which Kirchick quotes and defers to exclusively left-wing and radically pro-EU academics and politicians, assembling not arguments but a litany of what are supposed to be horror stories about any individual or entity that does not bow down with joy before the EU’s priests.  And, since every morality play needs a devil, that role in every chapter is played by Vladimir Putin, whom Kirchick treats as interchangeable with “Russia.”

Despite referring to “liberal democracy” in reverent tones on nearly every page, and referring constantly to “illiberal democracy” as its supposed opposite, Kirchick nowhere attempts any type of definitions.  For him, a protean conception is useful, for reasons I discuss below, as well as easy, since, after all, thinking is hard, especially if you’re uneducated.  But I infer his definition is much the same as Legutko’s—it is a system where maximization of individual liberty is seen as paramount and inevitable, and more direct governance by the masses is always better—except where the holder of liberties dares to use it to suggest that maximum liberty is not always better, or that there should be limits on autonomic individualism, or that authority outside of the individual should exist, or where the holder of votes dares to vote for anyone who opposes what Kirchick demands.  In those cases, the holders of liberties and votes are the enemies of Man who would bring the “Coming Dark Age.”

And those enemies of Man are legion, at least in Kirchick’s fever dreams.  Naturally enough, Kirchick begins with Russia.  In order to grab the reader’s attention, he starts with the threats Russia poses to its neighbors, the Baltic states and Ukraine.  Those threats are real enough, and if I were Estonian, I’d bury machine guns in back yards too (something Estonia is having its citizens do, although Kirchick doesn’t mention it, probably since outlawing any private holding of guns is a key component of liberal democracy, in which only certain freedoms are permitted).  But Kirchick quickly pivots to his real objection to Russia—it lacks “our values,” and the only way it can be allowed to be “regarded as an equal in the international system” is by “earning that privilege” through achieving “measurable tasks (modernization and liberalization).”  Russia must be treated as a pariah unless it pursues “joining the West and embracing its liberal values,” for after all, the West is nothing but a “group of societies defined by shared values.”

Thus, Russia’s values are the opposite of the West’s supposedly “shared values.”  And what are Russia’s unacceptable, “reactionary,” values?  Why, Christianity and nationalism, of course, which are “illiberal [and] authoritarian.”  Kirchick is appalled, and assumes the reader is equally appalled, by Putin saying of the West:  “We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization.  They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities:  national, cultural, religion and even sexual.”  Kirchick’s deep and panicked fear is that “Russia now provides a sort of intellectual glue to unite disparate illiberal forces across the continent and around the world.”  He quotes an American academic, that because of “Moscow’s leadership . . . norms privileging state security, civilizational diversity, and traditional values over liberal democracy now enjoy significant backing, and they are reshaping the international environment.”  Kirchick presents no argument about this—he simply assumes that is obviously a terrible outcome.  The unmitigated horror of “privileging state security, civilizational diversity, and traditional values” is apparently self-evident.

I don’t know about you, but all that makes me think Putin is awesome, because he’s totally right, and he’s totally privileging the right things.  Let’s not go too far—Putin is very much not a nice man, and Russia’s interests diverge from America’s (just as ours do from Europe’s).  But that doesn’t mean he’s not correct about many things, and that he is correct, frankly, makes him more of a potential ally to American conservatives in the real global struggle to renew our civilization than Angela Merkel or any analogue.  Perhaps aware that his claims are weak and far from self-proving, Kirchick deliberately and repeatedly conflates Soviet Russia with today’s Russia and strongly implies that today’s Russia is the greater threat because of its evil values of Christianity and nationalism, for the one value that cannot be questioned is that “a human being is an end unto himself.”  This is the core of Kirchick’s “thought” and the closest he comes to an argument in favor of liberal democracy.  No traditional conservative would agree with that sentiment; why, precisely, is beyond the scope of this review, but we can agree that Kirchick has hoisted his pirate flag and flown it high, such that there is no doubt where he stands, even if we are never given any clear reason why.

Having done the reader the favor of showing his real fear, which is a set of universal, and formerly universally honored, values rather than the country or rulers of Russia, Kirchick turns to other countries.  First up is Hungary, about which I know quite a bit, since I’m half Hungarian and have spent quite a bit of time there.  It does not appear that Kirchick has spent any time there, and he apparently knows none of the language, since he refers to it as “inscrutable.”  Instead, he relies on the rantings of a handful of leftist academics and journalists.  Naturally, he begins with a highly inaccurate history of Hungary’s role in World War Two and the Holocaust, seemingly attempting to establish that anyone whose highest value isn’t liberal democracy really wants to kill Jews.  Then he spends the rest of the chapter attacking the wildly popular right-of-center government led by Viktor Orbán for having the wrong values and bad taste in sculpture to boot.  Orbán’s unforgivable sin is that he has dared to call for “breaking with the dogmas and ideologies that have been adopted by the West and keeping ourselves independent from them.”

Kirchick does not give any examples of actual illegitimate behavior by Orbán, since Hungary (unlike Russia) very much has “the rule of law . . . a free press, individual rights, an independent judiciary, and respect for due process.”  Instead he claims Hungary is not a “real democracy,” because “a key feature distinguishing real democracies from ones that exist solely on paper is respect for the culture and spirit of democracy, a quality defined, in the truest sense of the word, as ‘liberalism.’”  In other words, if you don’t agree with Kirchick’s program, you have false consciousness, so you’re not a democracy at all.  Kirchick therefore demands that Hungary be punished by the EU, by aggressive financial penalties and expulsion if Hungary will not do as it is told, thus exemplifying what tolerance actually means to people like him.

Kirchick does not at any place state what “traditional values” are or why they bad, just that they reside in the outer darkness relative to the life-giving light of liberal democracy.  They are dreadful and even referring to them in a positive manner should result in removal from any civilized community of nations.  Presumably he thinks any objective moral standards are “traditional values,” since to be an end to oneself, totally atomized and under no authority, is explicitly Kirchick’s highest human good.  Although he nowhere mentions it in the book, Kirchick’s primary career is being a homosexual activist, whose main claim to fame is appearing in 2013 as an invited guest on Russian television and being kicked out after refusing to address the topic at hand (Bradley Manning’s sentencing), instead ranting about Russia’s inadequately enlightened treatment of homosexuals.  His homosexuality is not incidental to his views in this book.  As has become clear in America, and more generally in the West, homosexual activists (though not necessarily homosexuals per se) are the enemy of all traditional values and of Christianity, which embodies those values, in particular.  Rather than accepting a compromise of sorts, which could have been envisioned just a few years ago, homosexual activists increasingly demand the extermination of all opposing views and the destruction of traditional Christianity (and of Islam—perhaps one reason Kirchick is highly Islamophobic).  The reader is justified in concluding that much of Kirchick’s demand for liberal democracy is the smokescreen of a bigot, concealing a demand for greater acceptance of his sexual practices and the destruction of opposition to his sexual practices, which, if you look at his personal website and other writings, are clearly the main focus and driver of his political thought.

As far as Hungary goes, fortunately, Orbán is still in power, and Kirchick and his dubious friends are not.  I note with pleasure that this month (April 2017) Hungary passed a law effectively attacking Central European University in Budapest, which the malevolent George Soros has used as a beachhead to attack traditional values (full disclosure:  I took courses there in 1991).  In fact, such actions by Orbán should serve as a model for American conservatives.  For decades, liberals have attacked and repressed conservatives, while conservatives refused to stoop to brutal political tactics and the use of personal and career destruction.  This was a mistake.  The only way to win is to punch back twice as hard, and keep punching.  We should all emulate Orbán in this, and celebrate his successes.  I certainly do.

Next Kirchick has a long chapter on Germany, a country about which, unlike Hungary, he actually seems to know a lot.  (It appears he lives, or lived, there, and speaks fluent German.)  Germany, of course, has all the correct values (other than a few benighted souls, who have been effectively and justly repressed in order to end repression), so the point of his chapter is that the Germans as a country need to step up and aggressively defend liberal democracy against Sauron.  Again, Kirchick treats Putin as at least a great a threat to the West as the Soviet Union; he lectures us that the Cold War worked out for Germany despite widespread and dubious unilateral pacifism, but it may well not work out against the equally great threat of Putin.

This boring chapter segues into the next, on the European Union as a whole.  Here Kirchick, to his credit, is honest about the huge problems caused by Muslim immigration to Europe, from economic parasitism to massive increases in rape, as well as the illiberal measures taken by countries such as Germany and Sweden to suppress native-born dissent and pretend Everything Is Wonderful.  At first glance, this seems a bit odd, since Kirchick’s position here opposes that of the EU’s liberal democratic rulers, who uniformly preach how wonderful unrestricted immigration is.  But upon reflection, Kirchick does this in service of his broader thesis, since his main point here isn’t the problems created by immigration, but the reaction by conservatives and right-wing groups in Europe, which is meant to show that the fascists are lurking everywhere, just waiting for the will of liberal democracy to waver so they can take over and impose evil “traditional values.”  Naturally, Kirchick nowhere notes that the EU itself is highly undemocratic, with its structures deliberately designed to prevent elections resulting in any change of or deviation from the ruling ideology.

Kirchick rejects offhand the main practical justification for allowing unfettered immigration—that since Europeans have such a low birth rate, young people have to come from somewhere to work and maintain the welfare state.  (We can leave aside the question whether immigration in practice actually accomplishes that goal.)  His (brief) argument is that unemployment is already high, so why do we need more workers?  That seems simplistic to me, but more importantly, other than one mention here of “declining birthrates and an aging population,” at no place in the book does Kirchick even once address the massive demographic decline, and associated enervation and stagnation, that constitutes one of the, if not the, main structural challenge for Europe as a whole.  Perhaps this is because it does not fit his thesis of “liberal democracy makes everything wonderful,” or because Putin’s Russia has a higher birthrate that is getting higher, presumably showing the confidence of Russians in Russia’s future.

Next up is France, where again Kirchick’s focus is on the problems caused by Islam, including (but hardly limited to) extensive anti-Semitic violence (the title of the chapter, in fact, is “France Without Jews”).  Then Kirchick covers Britain.  The UK, of course, is a huge problem for Kirchick, since Brexit suggests that in a democracy, the people may in fact not want more liberal democracy, and he can’t make up lies about Britain like he can about Hungary, because Americans actually have direct access to the truth.  Kirchick flails about, incorrectly claiming that Brexit has brought economic catastrophe to Britain—in fact, as of April 2017, the British economy has done better than before Brexit.  He breathlessly claims “a 500 percent increase in hate crimes in Britain”—but his “evidence” is a left-wing newspaper article published a week after the vote, where online (!) “331 hate crime incidents [were] reported to [a] site compared with a weekly average of 63.”  These incidents included the horror of “negative social media commentary” and apparently involved no violence at all, if any of the reports were even true at all (unlikely given that we have seen that essentially all reports of pro-Trump violence after the November election were fabricated, as these probably were too).  He attacks Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson (and again Kirchick shows his literary/historical ignorance, quoting an anonymous attack on Johnson as “Boris told such dreadful lies/it made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes,” unaware that is a quote from Hilaire Belloc’s satirical children’s poem Matilda:  Who Told Lies, And Was Burned To Death).  Kirchick jitters about like a decapitated Chicken Little, whose severed head chants “The sky is falling!”  Which, for him, perhaps it is, as shown by Brexit’s very happening.

Kirchick finishes his list of “crises” with a chapter on Greece, which, like the country, is dull and pointless, not to mention that Greece is totally peripheral to Europe; and a chapter on Ukraine, about which Kirchick doesn’t care except that if Putin manages to dominate Ukraine, it “would signal a decisive blow against the values of liberalism,” and therefore cause Kirchick’s head, already in terrible pain from Brexit, to explode.

And, tellingly, Kirchick ends the book with a paean to Europe.  Not to any of its historical glory, beauty and innumerable accomplishments, of course, such as leading the world in all ways for hundreds of years.  Rather, to Europe as represented today by “a bearded Austrian drag queen named Conchita Wurst [who] won the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest, provoking denunciations of European decadence and depravity from Russia and other predictably reactionary quarters.”  But, to Kirchick, “it was heartening to see a wide-ranging assemblage of European voices rise up in her [sic] defense and assert, yes, this is a product of European ingenuity and pluralism and we are proud.”  If this is what Kirchick has to offer, it is no wonder that he feels the ground slipping away from under him and fears a supposed “dark age.”  For the reality is, if history teaches us anything (it has not taught James Kirchick anything), it is that any society which thinks its highest accomplishment is to celebrate the pop songs of sexual deviants is not long for this world, and it should rightly fear that its future is more in the mold of Vladimir Putin that the repulsive Conchita Wurst.

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