The Suicide of Reason, by Lee Harris, is the most frightening book I’ve read this year. Not because its language or rhetoric are scary—the book is actually a very scholarly academic treatise. Rather, because its conclusions are so troublesome and so hard to refute.
Harris claims that most people have behaved throughout history like tribal actors, not rational actors. They have banded together for self-preservation against their enemies, of necessity obeying the “law of the jungle.” Rational actors, by contrast, avoid violence, are willing to compromise, and tolerate other tribes and their traditions—values that are seen as weak and cowardly by tribal actors.
In the West’s battle with radical Islam, we are the rational actors while they are the tribal. As is historically the case in such clashes, the tribal actors are winning.
According to Harris, we have attempted three strategies, all of which are failing. First, we introduced Western-style democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, political corruption and radical Muslims’ opposition make the future in these nations very problematic.
Second, we have tried to assimilate Muslim immigrants in the West, but most resist such efforts and insist on Shariah-based lending laws, dietary restrictions, and other cultural accommodations. (The BBC is broadcasting the call to prayer in London across this year’s Ramadan.)
Third, we have tried to “seduce” Muslims with Western prosperity and culture, but jihadists reject both and shame their people for considering them. Even the 9/11 bombers, with their well-known proclivities for pornography and alcohol, chose to die in order to attack the culture that supplied such temptations.
Making matters worse, the West has assumed that the triumph of democracy would continue across the world and prevail in the battle with radical Islam. In Harris’s view, this is a misguided and naïve assumption.
He believes that American democracy resulted from three singular circumstances: we faced no enemies in this New World, carried no burden to reproduce Old World society, and were imbued with a Protestant work ethic which exalted the individual and his right to determine his own beliefs and future. As a result, we were afforded the luxury of Reason rather than the necessity of Tribalism. But in places where enemies, history, and creedalism conspire against individualism, we should not expect democracy to win the day so easily.
Now our culture is losing its commitment to the very values that made its democracy possible. Multiculturalism teaches our children that all cultures are equally valuable and depreciates the commitment to faith, family, and virtue which once formed the heart of American society.
Here Harris quotes Livy (59 B.C.-17 A.D), who explained the goal of his now-famous history of Rome: “to trace the progress of our moral decline, to watch, first, the sinking of the foundations of morality as the old teaching was allowed to lapse, then the rapidly increasing disintegration, then the final collapse of the whole edifice, and the dark dawning of our modern day when we can neither endure our vices or face the remedies needed to cure them.”
Harris concludes: “What is required is an immense social transformation of the kind that swept over Europe with the Protestant Reformation, the rise of the middle class, and the coming of the Enlightenment.”
In other words, what is required is a spiritual awakening before it’s too late.