Misjudging Western History

To the editor:
Victor Davis Hanson’s “Why the Muslims Misjudged Us” (Winter 2002) manages to turn ignorance into art. Every American has a right to patriotism and his opinion, but he has perpetuated the idea that keeps the Western world in a regime of arrogance, power, Eurocentrism, and inevitable conflict with those who pull its cargo. How do you presume the Western world remains at the absolute monarchy of the world? Ask the media for a body count of third-world countries throughout history, and you would find death tolls much greater than 5,000. Third-world genocides at the hands of Western governments are never seen or spoken of. Attitudes like Hanson’s mask the truth and send fallacies to the masses. As an American who is proud of this country and of my Islamic beliefs, I witness injustices on both sides. To Hanson and those who selected his article, thank you for an unoriginal idea. It seems many in this country like to see death and despair—as long as it isn’t their family, their country, or their problem.

Rasheeda Ali
Columbus, GA

To the editor:
Victor Davis Hanson clearly doesn’t bother to read history before invoking it. Greece “crushed” Persia the way Afghanistan “crushed” the British or Vietnam “crushed” America. (Yes, they lost, but that just meant that they did not extend their empires into those particular corners.) Not even Rome conquered Persia. Furthermore, the Eastern Roman empire was at all times richer than the West, which is why Justinian was willing to shed the West and give up even Rome itself to the barbarians. If the man had read a single book about the Middle Ages, he’d know the Westerners were the barbarians and the Muslims the civilized.

The triumph of the West is very recent in history; whatever it rests upon, it doesn’t rest upon a set of unchanging facts that guarantees it will endure forever.

Diana Jarvis
via e-mail

To the editor:
Victor Davis Hanson is an optimist about Western civilization and democracy: for him, the West is always Salamis and the triumph of the Greeks. While his view is a valuable corrective against defeatism and mindless opposition to the West, he is too sanguine. Western civilization and democracy is also Vichy in 1940: moral and political collapse followed by expedient collaboration with evil. We cannot yet claim victory: America is beset by lack of will, nerve, and morale, and Hanson’s serenity does not take sufficient account of the siege within. We face a brutal struggle against both the Persians and those who would surrender to the Persians. The compromisers—the Petains—are in every part of our society and government. Vigilance, not serenity, is the necessary antecedent to victory.

David Randall
via e-mail

To the editor:
“Why the Muslims Misjudged Us” was so profound that I could not resist responding. You articulated several aspects of Islamic thinking vis-à-vis the West that I have seen nowhere else in print.

I appreciate in particular the benevolence with which you close the article. One can indeed, as you note, identify Islamic society’s self-inflicted shortcomings while simultaneously recognizing that peaceful coexistence—or better, encouraging Islamic societies to import Western thinking—would be better for both societies. Your well-stated warning to the Middle East, that it risks creating a true enemy in the West, is likewise on target. I only wish—as I’m sure you do—that the odds of the warning being heeded were better.

David L. Cloutier Jr., Esq.
South Bend, IN

Victor Davis Hanson responds:
I thank Rasheeda Ali for granting me “a right to patriotism and (my) opinion.” But I am afraid that most of her points are little more than the empty clichés of the 1960s—“Eurocentrism,” “arrogance,” “the masses,” et al. Her emphasis on Western genocide on the contemporary global landscape, however, is curiously presented without concrete examples. Stalin and Mao killed nearly 80 million of their own. Cambodians, Rwandans, Iranians, Iraqis, Algerians, and others have recently added millions to the tally of the dead by butchering one another quite efficiently without Western help.

If we really wish to see more “death and despair” in the Middle East, then a good way would be to continue to ignore the region’s indigenous pathologies—fundamentalist extremism, religious intolerance, statism, tribalism, gender apartheid, anti-Semitism, and autocracy—that drive so many of its citizens to Western societies and ensure that the millions left behind in Cairo, Gaza, Khartoum, and Baghdad are hungry, without legal protection, and angry. In this regard, simply venting rage at the West—or the U.S. and Israel—is as unproductive as it is puerile.

I find Diana Jarvis’s take on history incoherent. Of course no empire exists forever, or can extend its power across the globe without confronting the natural limitations of manpower or logistical and spiritual exhaustion. Still, it is remarkable that a small country like Greece (less than 50,000 square miles and home to no more than 2 million people) defeated Persia in the not “very recent” fifth century B.C.—as Macedon decisively “crushed” it as an empire in the fourth. My point about Western dynamism was one of military efficacy, not necessarily morality: in the examples Jarvis cites, both England and America were fighting far from home rather than repelling Afghans and Vietnamese in London or New York, in a display of global military reach impossible for their adversaries. My essay was concerned with the unmistakable propensity of Western nations—Macedonians, Romans, Crusaders, Spaniards, Britons, and Americans—to project power far beyond their shores in ways incommensurate with their rather small populations and territories, and well beyond the ability of their enemies.

Byzantium did not “shed the West” because it was “at all times richer.” Rather, it realized by the fifth century that the Western empire was strategically indefensible and culturally indistinct from much of northern Europe, and so marshaled its limited resources to save what it could in the East. I have in fact read many books about the Middle Ages: I recommend that Jarvis read Ayton and Price’s The Medieval Military Revolution. No one should deprecate Islam’s achievements in the Middle Ages—“barbarians” and “civilized” are Jarvis’s terms, not mine. Yet in a military sense, after shedding old Roman conquests in Asia and Africa, a religiously and politically fragmented West was amazingly resilient in protecting Europe, both by means of its military technology—plate armor, sophisticated fortification, crossbows, Greek fire, early cannon, etc.—and by its ability to transport large armies across seas. “Whatever it rests upon” is a rather incurious way of characterizing the reasons for Western ascendancy; they are not hard to determine: secular rationalism, civic militarism, consensual government, free critique, civilian audit, and individual freedom, all of which began with the Greeks and persist today.

Who knows what, if anything, “will endure forever.” But if 2,500 years of history—or the present spread of Western notions of politics, economics, and culture—are any guide, the Middle East, to be successful, will more likely emulate the West than vice versa. The difficulty a traditional society faces in acknowledging this reality may well lie at the heart of our dilemma—and cause more conflict in the future.

I do not understand why David Randall thinks Vichy in 1940, which for four years allowed fascism into France, need be symptomatic of a pervasive Western impotence—especially when British and American democracy destroyed Nazism for good in about the same space of time. The GIs who landed on Normandy beaches and the Marines who died in the coral morasses on Okinawa were hardly soft—and not all that different in spirit from those now fighting in caves in Afghanistan. I do share, however, Randall’s concern for the future of the West: the freedom and affluence that accrue from democracy and capitalism can create periods of laxity—a common theme from Sallust and Juvenal to Hegel and Francis Fukuyama. Still, I believe that the sudden arousal of a somnolent United States after September 11, while it has stunned the world, is characteristic rather than atypical of democracies in the aftermath of unprovoked attacks, as successful mobilizations from Thermopylae to Pearl Harbor attest.

I thank David Cloutier for his kind words, and take solace that, while City Journal and I received a few angry letters, the great majority expressed similar feelings of concern, and grasped that the essay was not a condemnation of the Islamic world but a heartfelt admonition about what increasingly separates our respective societies. The irony of the present crisis is that many of the most free-wheeling Middle-Eastern critics of America are based in the West and thus enjoy traditions of religious tolerance and freedom of expression that are simply absent in every one of their home countries. It is not the responsibility—and perhaps not within the power—of the U.S. to ensure the introduction of such Western values in Islamic countries. Widespread and grassroots democratic revolutions will require the bravery and sacrifice of Muslims themselves. Such radical change must be their choice, not ours; but we should remember that the course of action they choose will determine how—and whether—we can and should remain friends.

What’s the GED Really Worth?

To the editor:
In “GEDs Aren’t Worth the Paper They’re Printed On” (Winter 2002), Jay P. Greene argues that high school graduation rates are reported with smoke and mirrors and that the GED program is the “man behind the curtains.” Rather than focusing on the outcome of a high school education, Greene sets up a false dichotomy between those who are certified in a traditional manner and those who demonstrate high school competencies through a valid and reliable assessment. His article is replete with distortions about the GED, and he denigrates millions of adults who have passed it.

For 60 years, the GED program has provided adults a second opportunity to certify their high school–level academic knowledge and skills. The GED does not promise that test passers will earn more money, go to college, or become better citizens—although this often occurs. Rather, the GED promises that those who earn the credential possess competencies to meet certain standards.

There is no trickery in the reporting of educational statistics. In its Digest of Educational Statistics, the Department of Education identifies how it counts GED credentials. The National Center for Education Statistics publishes a table segmenting the types of high school credentials awarded.

The GED is not easy to pass: for most of its history, one out of three seniors would fail. The new minimum passing standard—normed in 2001 and based on the performance of a nationally stratified sample of 15,000 graduating high school seniors—is now set so that 40 percent of high school graduates fail—the most rigorous standard in the test’s history.

We at the GED believe that students in school should stay there. But over 46 million adults lack a high school education, and every year 500,000 students leave school without graduating. The GED program offers a modest but effective method for individuals to demonstrate their high school–level knowledge and skills and move toward their future goals.

Joan Chikos Auchter
Executive Director, GED Testing Service

Jay P. Greene responds:
If the GED is as rigorous as its executive director claims, its recipients should improve their chances of graduating from college or increasing their earnings by getting the credential. They don’t: GED recipients hardly fare better than dropouts and fare significantly worse than regular high school graduates. Auchter off-handedly responds that the GED makes no promises that it will provide such benefits to recipients. But if it doesn’t, what is it really worth?

Auchter charges that I denigrate GED recipients in voicing doubts about the rigor and wisdom of GED policies. First, they are not as rigorous as she claims. She creates a statistical sleight of hand: the high school students’ failure rate of 40 percent she claims is in fact 14 percent—although the statistical argument is too complex to rehearse here.

Second, her charge of denigration reveals the GED’s primary mission: to improve self-esteem. The fact that lax GED policies may entice students to drop out of high school in the first place, that (contrary to Auchter’s assertions) the GED masks an increase in dropout rates over the last few decades, and that the GED provides few tangible benefits to its recipients—these are all trumped by the need to make people feel good about themselves. But nothing feels as good as real accomplishment.

An Alarmed Reader

To the editor:
Brian C. Anderson’s hatchet job on car alarms (“Let’s Ban Car Alarms,” Winter 2002) was so packed with bizarre distortions—and a nearly pro-criminal attitude—that it’s hard to know where to begin to refute it. His central premise, that these “infernal gadgets” don’t do “a nickel’s worth of good” is self-evidently false.

Car alarms work, and have been a major factor in the decline of auto theft since 1991. The website of the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NIBC) reports that “vehicle theft rates have declined in recent years, thanks to the effective efforts of law enforcement and the increasing use of deterrent devices.”

Anderson doesn’t even mention the primary function of car alarms: to alert car owners that their security system has triggered! In praising the LoJack system, he fails to note that LoJack does nothing to prevent theft and is only useful after the vehicle has been stolen.

Anderson quotes an “anti-noise activist” who rails against the “selfishness” of vehicle owners trying to prevent their cars from being stolen. Anti-noise activists would prefer that we didn’t even own internal combustion vehicles—or wear leather or eat hamburgers. But Anderson is willing to quote this nut job to bolster his bucolic argument that a car-alarm ban will make New York City a paradise. Car thieves love anti-noise activists. In fact, wouldn’t it be wonderful if all the cars in the city were stolen?

I am through with my rebuttal.

Kennedy Gammage
Directed Electronics, Inc.

Brian C. Anderson responds:
Mr. Gammage defends car alarms because his company is a leading manufacturer of these useless, civility-shattering devices. But there is no rebuttal beneath all the splutter and invective.

He quotes the NICB’s belief that vehicle-theft-rate declines owe something to the use of “deterrent devices.” But “deterrent devices” in this context include noiseless ones that I say do work, like the “immobilizers” that shut off the engine if someone tries to start your car without the right computer-chip-encoded key. The NICB offers no evidence that noise alarms do anything but anger the sleep-deprived. Tellingly, Gammage ignores the insurance-industry evidence in my piece that compares the theft rates of cars with and without noise alarms and finds zero difference.

Gammage says that my article “doesn’t even mention” the primary function of alarms. Huh? One of my main arguments—supported by the testimony of police officers, insurers, alarm retailers, and personal anecdote—is that alarms often don’t get their owners’ attention. They’ve become so ubiquitous and go off by mistake so often that owners assume it’s someone else’s car blaring.

Gammage also seems to have missed the paragraph where I describe how LoJack works. And his letter fails to mention a key fact about LoJack: equipping just 2 percent of the cars in a given neighborhood with the system can cut car theft by up to a third by helping the police catch red-handed the professional car thieves who commit the bulk of auto crime.

Which anti-noise activists does Gammage know? None struck me as a “nut job,” and none mentioned being an animal-rights activist. I hate car alarms and love hamburgers; so might they, I imagine. As for making New York a bucolic paradise: I’m no utopian. I just think citizens shouldn’t have to suffer 125-decibel honks at 3 AM, especially since the noise doesn’t stop car thieves and since there are noiseless anti-theft devices that actually work.


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