For the past decade, many in the West have been honing a historically unprecedented narrative -- one that not only renounces the culture they have inherited but that denies its very existence. A few examples:
During a press conference in Strasbourg in 2009, for instance, then-President Barack Obama began by downplaying the uniqueness of the United States. "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."
"I cannot figure out what Swedish culture is. I think that's what makes many Swedes jealous of immigrant groups. You [immigrants] have a culture, an identity, a history, something that brings you together. And what do we have? We have Midsummer's Eve and such silly things."
In November 2015, the newly sworn-in Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, gave an interview to the New York Times, and published a month later, in which he said:
"There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada. There are shared values -- openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice. Those qualities are what make us the first postnational state."
In 2015, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, "There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada. There are shared values -- openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice. Those qualities are what make us the first postnational state." (Image source: Canadian PM's Office)
In December 2015, Former Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, president of the European Council in 2009, gave an interview to TV4 ahead of his departure from the leadership of the Moderate Party, in which he asked rhetorically:
"Is this a country that is owned by those who have lived here for three or four generations or is Sweden what people who come here in mid-life makes it to be?... For me it is obvious that it should be the latter and that it is a stronger and better society if it may be open... Swedes are uninteresting as an ethnic group."
Notably, such statements emanated from leaders in the United States, Sweden and Canada -- countries with distinct literature, music, art and cuisine, as well as distinct judicial and governmental systems. What the views of the five leaders have in common, however, are a postmodern ideology and a need for minority and immigrant votes.
Postmodernism has two key elements: cultural relativism and postcolonialism. Cultural relativism -- developed by American anthropologist Ruth Benedict, author of the 1934 worldwide best-seller Patterns of Culture, and her mentor, the "father of American anthropology," Franz Boas -- posited that researchers must set aside their own cultural values and biases, and maintain an open mind about those of other peoples' cultures, in order to understand them. In the second half of the 20th century, anthropological theorists extended this to the field of ethics, arguing that judgements arising from one culture could not be applied to others -- thereby rendering all cultures equally good and valuable. This view led the American Anthropological Association in 1947 to reject the Declaration on the Rights of Man, which became the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, prepared in 1947 by the Commission on Human Rights of the United Nations.
Postcolonialism holds that peoples across the globe all got along with each other comfortably and peacefully until Western imperialists invaded, divided, conquered, exploited and oppressed them. Unlike postmodernism, which sees Western culture as no better than other cultures, postcolonialism considers Western culture inferior to other cultures.
Three factors appear to underlie this repudiation of Western culture: guilt, globalization and demography. Many Western societies -- such as Britain, France, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Portugal and Italy -- had empires in the South and East between the 17th and 20th centuries. Today, however, those past conquests are deemed evil by the very countries that engaged in them, and are also viewed negatively by non-imperial nations, such as Sweden and Canada, itself a Western colony. Germany, a late and marginal imperial power, seems still guilt-ridden over the Holocaust. Ironically, admitting countless newcomers to Europe as if they were the "new Jewish refugees" of this century has caused the second flight of Jews.
The guilt does not end there. Western countries are affluent, with most of their citizens enjoying at least a comfortable standard of living, while vast populations in Africa and Asia live in poverty. Many Westerners thus feel that redemption is required -- in the form of financial aid to ex-colonies, and in the unfettered entry of migrants and refugees from those areas into Western countries.
Meanwhile, economic globalization has led to Western countries having customers and investors around the world, from a wide range of disparate cultures, but Western triumphalism is viewed as ill-suited to productive business relations.
Where demography is concerned, the last decades have seen an increase in the flow of populations, occasioned in part by the low birthrate in the West -- with many far below replacement level. That, in turn, has highlighted the need for labor to sustain, if not grow, economies. The result is that the population in every Western country has become more ethnically, religiously and culturally mixed. To be welcoming to immigrants, and to aid in their integration into, and solidarity with, their new societies, Western countries have encouraged a multicultural openness while downplaying the particularity of their own cultures.
This brings us to elections: Politicians in Western democracies seeking election often downplay their own cultures to garner immigrant and minority votes. The larger the immigrant communities are, the stronger the incentive to curry favor with them. Some growing minority groups, such as Muslims in Europe, are now forming their own political parties to compete with traditional ones.
This marriage of postmodernism and electoral politics is having a terrible effect on societies that pride themselves on openness and diversity. Rather than enhancing Western culture through the enrichment different ethnic and religious groups provide in countries with a Judeo-Christian foundation, multiculturalists have actually been rejecting their own Western culture. While they encourage diversity of race, religion, and heritage, they forbid diversity of opinions, particularly those that do not conform to the postmodern narrative that rejects that the West. They also seem not to want to acknowledge that the West, even flawed, has nevertheless afforded more freedoms and prosperity to more people than ever before in history.
This skewed view of the West is only possible if one stubbornly refuses to see who, historically, the real colonizers were. How do they think virtually all of the Middle East and North Africa and the Middle East became Muslim -- through a democratic referendum? Muslims invaded and transformed the Christian Byzantine Empire, now an increasingly Islamized Turkey; Greece; the Middle East, North Africa, the Balkans; Hungary; northern Cyprus and Spain.
If Western civilization is to survive this defamation, it would do well to remind people of its historical accomplishments: its humanism and morality derived from Judeo-Christian traditions; its Enlightenment thought; its technological revolutions; the agricultural and industrial revolutions of the 18th century, and the digital revolution of the 20th century; its political evolution into full democracy; the separation of church and judiciary from state; its commitment to human rights and most of all its gravely threatened freedom of speech. Around the world, all advanced societies have borrowed many features of Western culture; they could hardly be called advanced if they had not. Much of what is good in the world is thanks only to Western civilization. It is critical not to throw it out or lose it.
Philip Carl Salzman is professor of anthropology at McGill University, Middle East Forum Fellow, and Frontier Centre Senior Fellow.