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November 21, 2017

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West’s future may lie in post-WWII vision

While Donald Trump was giving a speech in Poland last week depicting a West whose values, heritage and freedoms are threatened by the weakening of borders and a loss of confidence within, I was reading about the last days when European empires ruled the globe.

Those years, the years of decolonization that followed World War II, are the subject of a book by anthropologist and historian Gary Wilder, “Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization and the Future of the World.” Wilder follows two black intellectuals and politicians, Aimé Césaire of Martinique and Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal, who shared a striking combination of anti-imperialist zeal and desire for continued political union with the French Republic.

Césaire’s tiny Martinique did indeed become a French département. But in Senegal and Africa and the once-colonized world writ large, their project never had a chance. Once the age of empire ended, political separation became inevitable.

Yet against critics who deemed both men sellouts and self-haters for desiring to remain in some sense French, Wilder argues that their vision was complex and potentially prophetic.

They were Western-educated Francophones who read deeply in the European canon, who believed in the “miracle of Greek civilization,” who drew on Plato and Virgil and Pascal and Goethe. At the same time, they argued for their own race’s civilizational genius, for a negritude that turned a derogatory label into a celebration of African cultural distinctiveness.

And finally they believed that part of the West’s tradition, the universalist ideals they associated with French republicanism and Marxism, could be used to create a political canopy — a transnational union — beneath which humanity could be (to quote Césaire) “more than ever united and diverse, multiple and harmonious.”

This vision was rejected by both the colonized and the colonizers. But in certain ways it was revived by global elites after the Cold War’s end, with neoliberalism substituted for Marxism, and a different set of transnational projects — the European Union, the Pax Americana — taking the place of the pan-ethnic, multicultural French Union envisioned by Césaire and Senghor.

Of late, though, this project has run into some of the same difficulties that made theirs an impossibility. The cultural reality that Césaire and Senghor grasped — that civilizational difference is real and powerful and lasting — has a way of undoing the political unity for which they fondly hoped.

On the evidence of recent European controversies, it is hard enough for a political union to reconcile the different branches of the West — German and Mediterranean, French and Anglo-Saxon. It becomes harder when that same union is trying to manage a society so multicultural — as European nations under the pressure of mass migration may become — as to lack religious or linguistic or historical common ground. And it becomes harder still when your ruling elite’s cosmopolitanism is essentially superficial, more “eating ethnic food and cheering for Obama” than “celebrating negritude while reading Goethe.”

Thus the nationalist backlash against cosmopolitanism, embodied in its starkest form by Trump, is somewhat equivalent to the anti-colonial nationalism that rejected Senghor and Césaire’s unionism as hopelessly naive.

Yesterday’s African nationalists argued, reasonably, that you cannot develop an African civilization if your center of political authority is still in Europe.

Today’s Western nationalists argue, also plausibly, that many European distinctives are unlikely to survive if nation-states are weak, mass immigration constant, Christianity and Judaism replaced by indifferentism and Islam, and young elites educated as global citizens without knowing their own home.

This nationalist argument comes in racist forms, but it need not be the white nationalism that Trump’s liberal critics read into his speech. It can just be a species of conservatism, which prefers to conduct cultural exchange carefully and forge new societies slowly, lest stability suffer, memory fail and important things be lost.

As such, it’s a view I endorse. But in the European case I don’t necessarily believe that it will prevail. I certainly don’t believe in Trump as its paladin — not when his entire career makes a mockery of faith, family, tradition, virtue. Nor do I have much confidence that the present burst of European nationalism is more than a spasm, a reflex — not when religious practice is so weak, patriotism so attenuated, the continent’s birthrate so staggeringly low.

What’s more, I can read the population projections for Europe versus the Middle East and Africa, which make ideas like “managed migration” and “careful cultural exchange” seem like pretty conceits that 21st-century realities will eventually explode.

Which brings me back to Césaire and Senghor, men who loved their African heritage and yet also knew European civilization better than most educated Europeans do today.

Their fantasy of a post-imperial union between north and south, white and black, was in their times just that.

But as a striking sort of African-European hybrid, as prophets of a world where the colonized and the colonizers had no choice but to find a way to live together, the West’s future may belong to them in some altogether unexpected way.

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.

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