To judge from Rick Salutin’s op-ed in the Toronto Star yesterday, the culture wars may have reached their zenith. The intellectual left in Europe and North America—which is to say, the well-educated and world-weary progressives behind the lecterns rather than the idealistic young acolytes listening intently in the front row—now routinely accuse the likes of Donald Trump, Victor Orbán, Germany’s AfD, and now Québec’s CAQ of using the defence of Western civilization as rhetorical cover for racism and xenophobia. The logical end point of this critique is to dispose of the “trope” of Western Civ altogether—along with the “toxic” idea that there are, or ever were, civilizations of any description.
If you are one of those unregenerate dinosaurs still labouring under the delusion that the founding ideals of Western civilization—reason, rights, the rule of law—are worth not only preserving but fighting for, then Professor Salutin wants to set you straight. Western Civ, he avers, was never anything more than a “fabrication” built by Europeans to rationalize their conquest of other stereotypical civilizations, including the Orient and Arab world.
The sleight-of-hand at work in Salutin’s thinking—which is now so de rigueur on the left as to pass unnoticed—is to reduce the concept of Western civilization to something ethnic, and thus to position it as the antithesis of multiculturalism. “Of course there are human groupings, but they’re a huge, intersecting mishmash, hybrids and mongrels all,” Salutin writes. “Trump’s racist response is to call for Norwegian, not Arab, immigrants—a sure sign of his logical western inheritance.”
Prof Salutin has, to his immense credit, always been one of Canada’s most resolutely anti-nationalist pundits—even when his deep-seated aversion to “atavistic, race-tinged nationalism” has landed him on the wrong side of the Canadian left. In this respect, as he well knows, his is part of a distinguished and world-leading Canadian intellectual tradition whose essential aim is to imagine how cultural and ethnic difference can flourish in a free and democratic (i.e. rights-based) society.
This is no time for Salutin and others who think as he does to relent. The bastardization of the highest ideals of Western civilization by the populist right is no reason for the left to follow suit. The Salutin of old would have known this.