“Western Civ.” and Toxic Nostalgia

The present assertion of a need to “preserve Western civilization” by figures such as Steve Bannon <link> is simultaneously also code for White racist supremacy and Christian nationalism <link>.

(An aside: Bannon has specifically cited the work of Julius Evola, a mid-twentieth century writer on religion who was affiliated with Fascists in pre-war Italy, and continues to be celebrated by neo-Nazis today, for example in both the United States and Greece. Distressingly, Evola’s writings are still given currency, not only in some conservative religious circles but also cited approvingly by some Western Buddhists <download 11payne>.)

As Buddhists in the United States, we may take our religious liberty for granted. But increasingly religious freedom is being understood not as the right to believe and practice the religion of one’s choice, but rather as the right to impose one’s religious beliefs on others. While this understanding of religious freedom is concerning in itself, the claim that the United States is a Christian country enables bringing the coercive power of the state to bear as the means of imposing a particular religious orientation. Consider for example the figure of Josh Hawley, who is famous for raising a fist in salute to the Jan. 6th insurrectionists. It is his desire to impose a medieval theology on the United States <link>. Consider also the consequences of Texas’ new abortion ban <link> which is fundamentally rooted in theological conceptions. (This latter link is to the substack of Heather Cox Richardson, American historian to whom I strongly recommend you subscribe because of her ability to place current events into historical context.)

Subtly but forcefully motivating this rhetoric about the need to preserve Western civilization is a nostalgia for the idealized view that Western civilization is the sole source of order and value in a chaotic and dangerous world. This nostalgia is the fantasy of a culture unified under the “stern but righteous” guidance of White, male, father figures modeled on the fundamentalist Christian understanding of a punitive God, and based on a decontextualized reading of the Hebrew Bible. It is not simply nostalgia in the sense of being a longing for an idealized past but is toxic in the claim that the present state of decadence is someone else’s fault. Such scapegoating is a threat to liberty and to democracy—and indeed to the lives of those directly affected by the laws being enacted. People will die because of Texas’ law.

This nostalgia can be seen in the Christmas card–like imagery of idealized New England villages and Midwestern small-towns. Fantasies of visiting Grandma, and happy family dinners on this Oh so special occasion. Such nostalgia is of course toxic on an individual level, where expectations that everyone will get along fine together become the imposed standard of behavior, ignoring disagreements and repressing awareness of, and by turning a blind eye enabling bad behavior.

While it may seem harmless in itself, such nostalgia lays the groundwork for the exclusion of those who don’t fit, the exclusion of Buddhists for example. Even the possible tokenism of adding a dharma wheel to civic Christmas displays only further imposes a unitary conception of what it means to be religious in America today—Buddha being equated with Jesus, nirvana being equated with Heaven, rebirth being treated as a doctrine that one is expected to believe if one is a Buddhist.

On a social level such toxic nostalgia is increasingly dangerous to the well-being of those who don’t fit in or don’t play along. Those idealized villages and small-towns are of course homogeneous—ethnically, racially, religiously, sexually, linguistically. Everyone worships the same God and cooks the same Christmas dinner. This societal nostalgia too easily morphs into the desire to preserve that idealized society, under the slogan of “Western Civilization,” and to do so by authoritarian means.

At one time, it was a commonplace of higher education to include required courses on “Western Civ.” (see link re. 1995 Yale program) In the desperate years before graduating, I (along with some 400 others who, like me, didn’t get the position) applied for an opening in Stanford’s Western Civilization program, which, as I recall it, was adding instructors in response to an expansion of the Western Civ. requirement. I thought that I was qualified since my own education had been structured by this conception of Western civilization—the triumphalist history written as a grandiose vision of progressive unfolding from the classical Greeks, through the Renaissance and Reformation, leading to the glories of modern capitalist America.

Also, I had by that time taught philosophy with its Western bias for over a decade—another way of venerating Western culture, but one that was structured to carefully ignore the social context within which these “great Thinkers of the Western tradition” lived and worked and wrote. At the same time, however, I wondered why, despite the need for a balanced education for America’s future leaders, whom Stanford claims to produce, there wasn’t a matching requirement in Eastern Civilization. Although specific course requirements seem to have largely faded, much of higher education remains constrained by the heritage of a “Western Civ.” orientation <see for example Jay Garfield and Bryan W, van Norden on the academic field of philosophy, link>.

As I understand it today, the push to structure higher education in a fashion that promoted Western civilization was much more indoctrinational than any present-day discussion of the 1619 Project. The trauma of WWII was recast in the 50s and 60s as the fight against “Godless Communism” in both its Russian and Chinese versions—significantly, both of which are categorized as not Western. The obverse, obviously, was the vision of a unitary Christian, white, paternalistic society, nostalgically idealized. Captains of industry united with conservative Christians to promote that vision and protect America from the dangers of Communism, and Socialism—themselves code for progressive taxation and the equitable treatment of American citizens (see Kevin Cruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Basic Books, 2016).

Religious liberty is a freedom that needs to be protected from toxic nostalgia for an idealized American past.