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Anti-This and Anti-That

FROM PLATO TO NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents.\o7 By David Gress (The Free Press: 560 pp., $28)\f7

July 19, 1998|EDWARD N. LUTTWAK | Edward N. Luttwak is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and the author of the forthcoming book, "Turbo-Capitalism," which will be published by HarperCollins

David Gress, the Anglo Americanized son of a Danish actress now back in Copenhagen at the Danish Institute of International Affairs by way of the Hoover Institution and fellowships further east, declares that his subjects in "From Plato to NATO" are "the logic of world history" and the "changing identities of Western civilization."

Gress does not lack ambition, but inevitably he fails in the first aim, perhaps not seriously meant: history, demonstrably, has no logic, so that none can be uncovered. True, the accepted record of past events often seems logical in retrospect, but that is only because we make sense out of incomplete information by imputing logical motives and presuming rational explanations. As soon as one starts investigating it in depth, "history" dissolves into an untidy mixture of contradictory human impulses and transient circumstances. The researcher who wants to denounce one more time, for instance, the cruelties unleashed on the populations of Central and South America by the blind fanaticism and murderous greed of the Spanish crown discovers that, by 1600, the archives of its Council of the Indies were stuffed with memorandums calling for the recognition of the inherent right of American natives to life, liberty and property.

Next, the researcher discovers from the bitter complaints of angry colonists that those memorandums became actual government policy. Long before Alexis de Tocqueville's splendidly democratic Americans started the large-scale expulsion of natives from desirable lands with the consequent episodes of starvation and massacre, the deeply reactionary Spanish autocracy (the Inquisition was going full blast) was actively protecting native rights wherever its writ was effective. Autocracy can be liberal; democracy can be illiberal. Likewise, during the imperial centuries of each, the British crown was increasingly democratic at home and firmly autocratic in its colonies, while with the Spanish crown it was the other way around. Each had its reasons, but no universal logic can be extracted from either.

When it comes to charting the changing identities of Western civilization, Gress revisits the familiar tale of how Western civilization could always be construed from any desired admixture of creatively individualistic Greece or systematic, order-inventing Rome, with Jewish, Christian and Germanic elements added. One's preferences create "history": Softies adore Greece but Catullus, too; toughies admire Rome but Sparta as well; German nationalists worshiped both classical Greece and Germanic warriors; Christians can include Virgil, if not pornographic Martial; and all can choose between Hobbes and Locke, Montesquieu and Rousseau. Each can have a choice because there never was a Western Civilization comparable to the fixity of, say, Chinese civilization (only experts can tell whether a scroll was painted in AD 200, 900, 1400 or last week), only a protean and dynamic cultural volcano that keeps erupting.

What Gress calls "The Grand Narrative" was the standard authorized version of American college education, much attacked from the 1980s as an elitist white male preserve by eminent "historians" such asJesse Jackson (at least as good a historian as Edward Said or Martin Bernal of Black Athena notoriety: Bernal says the Greeks stole all they knew from black Africans, which implies--as he seemingly does not recognize--that they have been declining for 3,000 years). The results were totally predictable. While college administrators tremble and appease (World History 101 from a strictly black-lesbian-handicapped perspective is no doubt being offered somewhere), those who seek to learn still start with Homer, Thucydides, Cicero and other Western classics. Only those who want teaching jobs in trendy universities read the unlovely outpourings of feminists, Afrocentrists or multi-culturalists as they write their own victimological dissertations.

Actually, lasting harm is not being done. True, many American students are wasting time reading laughably shoddy texts. But it all will pass soon enough, while Homer et al. will be read so long as literacy persists, long after current polemics are utterly forgotten. Who reads now the early Christian writers who wanted to abolish all pagan learning?

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