The West may be SLEEP­WALK­ING into an­other catas­tro­phe


The Nation - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - MAX BOOT MAX BOOT is the au­thor of the forth­com­ing“The Cor­ro­sion of Con­ser­vatism: Why I Left the Right ”.

Want to ex­pe­ri­ence cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance? Try read­ing Ge­orge Or­well’s “Homage to Cat­alo­nia” while visit­ing Cat­alo­nia. That’s what I did in mid-Au­gust.

When Or­well was in Barcelona in 1937, af­ter hav­ing been wounded fight­ing against the Fas­cists dur­ing the Span­ish Civil War, the city was con­vulsed by con­flict be­tween an­ar­chists and com­mu­nists. “The sun­lit streets were quite empty,” he wrote. “Noth­ing was hap­pen­ing ex­cept the stream­ing of bul­lets from bar­ri­cades and sand-bagged win­dows.”

To­day, by con­trast, the streets are thronged with pros­per­ous-look­ing pedes­tri­ans. The big­gest ex­cite­ment is pro­vided not by sol­diers, but by the stars of Barcelona foot­ball team. You would think the res­i­dents of Barcelona would be liv­ing in bliss. In­stead, many peo­ple are ag­i­tat­ing for in­de­pen­dence for Cat­alo­nia, the re­gion of which Barcelona is the cap­i­tal. Never mind that Cat­alo­nia has been part of Spain since the mod­ern state was founded in the 15th cen­tury. Be­cause it has a dis­tinct cul­ture and lan­guage, ac­tivists ar­gue it should be its own coun­try. Last au­tumn, se­ces­sion­ists staged a ref­er­en­dum in which they claimed 92 per cent sup­port among the 43 per cent of el­i­gi­ble vot­ers who turned out. The cen­tral gov­ern­ment in Madrid de­clared the ref­er­en­dum il­le­gal, sus­pended the re­gional par­lia­ment and locked up nine in­de­pen­dence lead­ers on charges of sedi­tion. You can see posters scat­tered through­out Barcelona de­mand­ing “Free­dom for all Cata­lan Po­lit­i­cal Prison­ers & Ex­iles”, as if Spain were a po­lice state.

What is hap­pen­ing in Cat­alo­nia is be­ing repli­cated, in one form or an­other, across the West, in­deed the world. Every­one from Sile­sians to Si­cil­ians to Scots seems to want au­ton­omy or in­de­pen­dence. The Bri­tish voted to leave the Euro­pean Union, and hos­til­ity to the su­per­state is ris­ing across the con­ti­nent. The growth of na­tion­al­ism and trib­al­ism is ev­i­dent not just among mi­nori­ties but also, even more men­ac­ingly, among ma­jor­ity groups. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is tap­ping into white na­tion­al­ism in the United States, Vladimir Putin into Rus­sian na­tion­al­ism, Vik­tor Or­ban into Hun­gar­ian na­tion­al­ism, Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan into Turk­ish na­tion­al­ism, Xi Jin­ping into Chi­nese na­tion­al­ism, and so on. Their tried-and-true tech­nique is to play up fear of “the other”– whether it is Mex­i­cans, Mus­lims, Kurds, Gu­lenists, in­ter­na­tional bankers, the CIA or other bo­gey­men.

You would think peo­ple would be im­mune to such fear-mon­ger­ing, given that the world has never been more peace­ful or pros­per­ous. In­ter­state war­fare is all but ex­tinct, and deaths from vi­o­lence, as a per­cent­age of pop­u­la­tion, are at the low­est point in his­tory. In pre­his­toric so­ci­eties, there were as many as 1,000 vi­o­lent deaths per 100,000 peo­ple. In 2007, by con­trast, there were just 0.33 vi­o­lent deaths per 100,000 peo­ple ac­cord­ing to Ox­ford economist Max Roser. (Us­ing a dif­fer­ent mea­sure, the World Bank recorded 5.3 homi­cides per 100,000 peo­ple in 2015.) Mean­while, the per­cent­age of the world’s pop­u­la­tion liv­ing in ex­treme poverty has fallen from 94 per cent in 1820 to 9.6 per cent in 2015.

Of course, not every­one has ben­e­fited equally from these trends. Some peo­ple, such as the un­em­ployed coal min­ers and steel­work­ers of the Rust Belt, have been left be­hind by grow­ing pros­per­ity. Some groups, such as the Uighurs and Kurds, are strug­gling against gen­uine op­pres­sion. But it is strik­ing the ex­tent to which so much na­tion­al­ist ag­i­ta­tion is tak­ing place among Western­ers who have never had it so good – whether they know it or not.

We now have lead­ers, such as Trump and the Brex­i­teers in Bri­tain, who are en­dan­ger­ing the hard-won achieve­ments of the post-1945 era by em­brac­ing na­tion­al­ism and call­ing into ques­tion in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tions such as the Euro­pean Union, the World Trade Or­gan­i­sa­tion and Nato. For many politi­cians, this is a cyn­i­cal ex­er­cise: They are man­u­fac­tur­ing griev­ances to jus­tify their lust for power. But why are so many or­di­nary peo­ple will­ing to go along?

The mil­i­tary his­to­rian Michael Howard pro­vided at least part of the an­swer in a brief but wise 2000 book, “The In­ven­tion of Peace”. “Bour­geois so­ci­ety is bor­ing,” he wrote. “There is some­thing about ra­tio­nal order that will al­ways leave some peo­ple, es­pe­cially the en­er­getic young, deeply and per­haps rightly dis­sat­is­fied. ... Mil­i­tant na­tion­al­ist move­ments or con­spir­a­to­rial rad­i­cal ones pro­vide ex­cel­lent out­lets for bore­dom. In com­bi­na­tion, that at­trac­tion can prove ir­re­sistible.”

Bore­dom with the long pe­riod of post-Napoleonic peace in Europe, along with the rise of vir­u­lent na­tion­al­ism, con­trib­uted to the out­break of World War I. The chief of the Ger­man Gen­eral Staff, Erich von Falken­hayn, wrote in 1912 that all of the Euro­pean pow­ers would suf­fer from a “great Euro­pean war” and that the chief ben­e­fi­cia­ries would be the United States and Japan. But, he added in­sou­ciantly, “For me it will be all right. I am most tired and ex­tremely bored by this lazy peace­time life.”

Two world wars later, Euro­peans and Amer­i­cans longed for noth­ing more than the re­turn of the “lazy peace­time life”. But with the pass­ing of the Great­est Gen­er­a­tion and even the Silent Gen­er­a­tion (those, like John McCain, born be­tween 1925 and 1945), we seem to have for­got­ten how pre­cious peace and pros­per­ity can be – and how hard to main­tain. I fear the West may be sleep­walk­ing into an­other catas­tro­phe out of sheer bore­dom as much as any­thing else.–The Wash­ing­ton Post

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