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BOOK REVIEW

'Reflections on the Revolution in Europe' by Christopher Caldwell

In Europe, the author argues, the clash between Western civilization and the Muslim world has already been lost -- in the latter's favor.

August 19, 2009|Tim Rutten

When an author with Christopher Caldwell's impeccable conservative credentials glosses Edmund Burke in his book's title, it's a safe bet that he's engaged a question whose implications he believes are absolutely fundamental.

Burke's great masterpiece of political criticism -- "Reflections on the Revolution in France" -- is, after all, both the foundational text of contemporary conservatism and a continuing inspiration to classical liberals. Caldwell's closely argued thesis in "Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West" is that the massive migration of Muslim immigrants into Western Europe now represents as much of a consequential break with Europe's cultural traditions as the utopian rationalism of revolutionary France did for Burke.

Wherever a reader may fall on the political spectrum, those familiar with Caldwell's work as a senior editor for the Weekly Standard and, particularly, as a columnist for the Financial Times, know him as an opinionated but fair-minded writer of impressive range and bracing clarity. "Reflections on the Revolution in Europe" does not disappoint, though many may find its essentially despairing conclusion debatable, if sobering.

Those familiar with Western Europe's current social tensions won't find much new information here, but the author's synthesis and analysis are hard-eyed and bracing. A relatively weak, self-doubting Europe, he argues, has allowed mass immigration from a fundamentally alien, basically antagonistic culture on such a scale that the continent's future is no longer its to decide. Caldwell's Cassandra is the brilliant anti-immigrant Tory parliamentarian Enoch Powell, who sacrificed a promising career to this issue. In fact, this book can be read as an extended apologia for Powell's views, which became more extreme over time.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, Caldwell accepts Samuel P. Huntington's concept of the "clash of civilizations" and puts Western Europe on what the Harvard scholar characterized as Islam's perpetually "bloody borders." Caldwell's assessment of what's at stake can also be adduced from his approving citation of philosopher Jurgen Habermas, an atheist, who after a dialogue with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) declared: "Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights and democracy. . . . To this day, we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter."

For his part, Caldwell does a particularly deft job of sorting through the ways that fumbling accommodation of Europe's assertive new Muslim minorities has accelerated the transmutation of an intellectually fashionable anti-Zionism into a virulent new form of anti-Semitism that, according to French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, "will be for the 21st century what communism was for the 20th century: a source of violence."

Though he's at pains to point out that most Americans oppose continued large-scale immigration into this country, Caldwell also argues that the issues raised by the mass movement of Muslims into Europe are nothing like those connected to mostly Latino migration into the United States. Latinos, he writes, simply speak another European language and bring with them a culture "that is like the American working-class white culture of 40 years ago. It is perfectly intelligible to any American who has ever had a conversation about the past with their parents. . . . [I]t requires no fundamental reform of American cultural practices or institutions. On balance, it may strengthen them."

The U.S. experience

On the other hand, he argues, even America's past experience with immigration has been more dislocating: "[T]he arrival of the Irish in Boston destroyed the Protestant culture of one of the most important cities in the history of Protestantism. The destruction occurred not only because the Irish arrived but also because New England Yankees chose not to live in an Irish-run city that was increasingly violent and corrupt." Caldwell cites historian Oscar Handlin's conclusion that "only half the descendants of the Bostonians of 1820 still lived in the city 30 years later." Caldwell is fond of that sort of epic -- and iconoclastic -- generalization. The problem is that history -- like God -- is in the details, and their accumulation seems to undercut the author's intention. One can bemoan the passing of Massachusetts' Protestant culture, but for all their turbulence, it wasn't New England's Irish immigrants who executed "witches," nor did the Puritan stock surrender without a fight and simply slink away. Boston was a center of violent mid-19th century nativism -- the place where "no Irish need apply" ubiquitously accompanied announcements of vacant situations.

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