William Shakespeare knew a thing or two about human psychology. But he also understood a great deal about the body-politic and how small signs can be indicative of deeper traumas. So, when Marcellus tells Horatio at the beginning of Hamlet that you can almost smell the weakness permeating Denmark, it’s Shakespeare’s way of telling us to pay attention to what sticks out as abnormal and to ask what else it may portend.
It was difficult not to be reminded of this advice when reading that a majority of Germany’s Ethics Council recently called for the abolition of legal constraints upon incest. Referring to a case in which a man had entered into a relationship with his biological sister, the council declared: “The fundamental right of adult siblings to sexual self-determination has more weight in such cases than the abstract protection of the family.”
Note the association by a group of moral philosophers of the expression “fundamental right” with incest, but also their linking of the word “abstract” with the family. Language matters, and these words speak volumes about the health of academic ethical reflection in Europe today. Could it be, however, that this and similar developments reflect a deeper unhinging that’s well underway throughout the Old Continent, especially Western Europe?
In many respects, this crack-up might be described as a flight from reality: one that’s apparent among Europe’s elites and wider segments of the population. One example is how most European government leaders, even in the face of the barbarism-otherwise-known-as-ISIS, keep insisting that jihadism has nothing to do with Islam.
Take, for instance, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s response to gunmen slaughtering shoppers in a mall in Nairobi in September 2013. He condemned the perpetrators who “claim they do it in the name of a religion — they don’t.” Actually, the terrorists in this case did claim to do what they did in the name of their interpretation of Islam. It’s certainly true that the vast majority of Muslims aren’t terrorists with a macabre taste for decapitation. Nevertheless, most of the world’s terrorist groups do consist of Muslims and do draw upon strands of Islamic thought to legitimize their activities. Referring to the subsequent spread of violence, one of the world’s leading scholars of Islam, the mild-mannered Egyptian Jesuit Samir Khalil Samir, has said:
The problem … is internal to Islam from the start, because it is an ever-recurring phenomenon, the dogmatic statement: “Anyone who does not belong to authentic Islam must be eliminated,” the kafir. “Kafir” was a word that applied to those who do not believe in God, but it was broadened; declaring someone else “kafir” — in Arabic they say “takfir” — is one of the plagues of modern Islam, namely, saying that someone else is not a genuine Muslim and must be eliminated.
Father Samir goes on to state that, while “we certainly cannot say that this is Islam,” there’s no question in his mind that the current violence and its religious justifications are “a derivative of Islam.”
So, why do not-unintelligent people such as Cameron insist that Islam has nothing to do with what’s going on? Could it be that he and other European government leaders are so deeply in thrall to the imploding multiculturalist project that they can’t bring themselves to pay attention to what people who actually know something about the subject have to say about some of Islam’s theological derivations?
Another instance of denial concerns the reluctance of many of the same leaders, not to mention plenty of ordinary Europeans, to acknowledge that European welfare states simply aren’t sustainable in their present form. No doubt this has something to do with elections. To say, for instance, that nationalized health services generally can’t help but deliver sub-optimal performances is to invite political opponents to label you a devious “neoliberal” anxious to abandon Granny to a dog-eat-dog market.
It’s also the case, however, that radical reforms to European welfare states would mean conceding that there are many things that governments can’t do very well, and perhaps in some instances shouldn’t do at all, save as a last resort. For most of Europe’s political class, whether on the Left or Right, such thoughts are anathema. It would bring into question, among other things, the entire European Social Model in which they’ve invested so much political, economic, and moral capital.
What’s worse is that such head-in-the-sand responses to the dynamics slowly crippling European welfare states (e.g., aging populations, below replacement-level birthrates, endless bureaucratization) are undermining the capacity of European governments to do things that they’re actually supposed to do, such as national defense. Vladimir Putin has surely noticed that, with the exception of Poland, all European countries have steadily decreased defense expenditures in an age of increased insecurity. If it’s a choice between national security and welfare programs, many Europeans apparently opt for the latter.
But perhaps the most disturbing distancing from reality marking contemporary Europe is the visible rise in anti-Semitism, especially, as Roger Kaplan has illustrated, on the European Left. The recent Gaza conflict brought to the surface the anti-Semitic strains that lie just beneath the surface of many European societies. Even in countries with a reputation for tolerance such as Italy, slogans such as “Jews, your end is near!” were painted on buildings in Rome in August this year. And let’s not forget the protesters in Germany who called for the gassing of Jews back in July.
But as Brendan O’Neill demonstrated in a carefully argued recent Wall Street Journal article, the latest outbursts of European anti-Semitism have also been characterized by subtle revivals of some of the worst anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Pictures of European politicians, for example, dangling from the puppet-strings held by hooked-nosed figures wearing Stars of David featured in many European protests against Israel’s recent fight against Hamas (an organization that even the über-politically-correct EU designates as a terrorist group). That’s a throwback to nonsense such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The saddest thing about Europe today, however, is that few people of any stature seem willing to speak clearly and in a compelling way about the unhappy place in which much of the continent presently finds itself. Among religious figures, searching questions about Europe and its current paths were regularly posed by Benedict XVI and the equally sophisticated Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks. Both, however, are now retired from their positions. No religious leader in Europe today presently comes even close to filling the subsequent void.
What then of Europe’s intellectuals? Certainly philosophers such as Roger Scruton, Pierre Manent, Rémi Brague, Philippe Bénéton, and Robert Spaemann have been quite direct about the serious hollowing out of Europe’s identity. They, however, are exceptions in an academy that’s mired in what’s best described as soft nihilism. As for the political world, well, the less said the better. Today’s Europe is a statesman-free zone.
In short, it’s difficult not to conclude that, on so many levels, much of Europe is in an advanced state of unraveling. All the symptoms noted above — ethicists describing incest as a fundamental right, the unwillingness to acknowledge that certain strains of Islamic theology are feeding today’s terrorism, the reluctance to engage in serious economic reform, the resurgent anti-Semitism laced with paranoid conspiracy theories, the absence of any real leadership anywhere — suggest that many Europeans, like Hamlet, are fleeing the truth, dimly aware that something’s wrong but trapped in a funk of navel-gazing inaction.
In the end, of course, Hamlet did something about his situation: but not before he danced around the problem, fled into introspection, and helped ruin the lives (not to mention sanity) of many of his nearest and dearest. It was all too little too late. That’s precisely the prospect facing Europe today. And it’s nothing for anyone — least of all Americans — to celebrate. After all, we’re hardly that far behind in the denial stakes.
Instead, our lament should be that of Hamlet himself: “That it should come to this!”
This article first appeared at The American Spectator.