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Our Decline and Fall


There is a connection between the West’s weak response to the bloody reign of Islamic terror and American universities’ weak response to the reign of student fascism on college campuses.

But no one is talking about it.

We used to turn to our great public intellectuals—men like Lionel Trilling, Daniel Bell, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Sidney Hook, and Jacques Barzun—to guide us on such matters.

They are all gone now, and no one has taken their place.

Fortunately, before Barzun passed away three years ago at the age of 104, he left us a brilliant explanation of the turmoil that is wracking Western civilization. He published what many consider his masterwork, a book called From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Cultural Life.

The New York Times headlined Barzun’s obituary CULTURAL CRITIC SAW THE SUN SETTING ON THE WEST. The obituary writer noted that Barzun believed “the liquidation of 500 years of civilization” was caused “by an internal crisis in the civilization itself which…had come to celebrate nihilism and rebellion.”

Like many intellectuals of his time, Barzun started off as a liberal. His conversion to cultural conservatism took place during the student protests in the late 1960s, when a mob held the dean of Columbia College hostage and invaded the university president’s office and defecated on his desk.

As Barzun pointed out, “How a revolution erupts from a commonplace event—tidal wave from a ripple—is cause for endless astonishment.”

He then went on to explain:

“Manners are flouted and customs broken. Foul language and direct insult become normal, in keeping with the rest of the excitement—buildings defaced, images destroyed, shops looted. Printed sheets pass from hand to hand and are read with delight or outrage—Listen to this! Angry debates multiply about things long since settled: talk of free love, of priests marrying and monks breaking their vows, of property and wives in common, of sweeping out all evils, all corruption, all at once—all things for a new and blissful life on earth…

“Voices grow shrill, parties form and adopt names or are tagged with them in derision and contempt. Again and again comes the shock of broken friendships, broken families. As time goes on ‘betraying the cause’ is an incessant charge, and there are indeed turncoats. Authorities are bewildered, heads of institutions try threats and concessions by turns, hoping the surge of subversion will collapse like previous ones.”

That was written 15 years ago when Barzun was a spry 92. But his words are as relevant today as when he first wrote them.