Even as he drew his last journalistic breath, Anthony Lewis of The New York Times maintained his faith in moral equivalence, the ultimate affliction of the liberal mind. People like Mr. Lewis claim to consider one culture as good as another. They are embarrassed by the thought that the West, having accomplished much more during the last half-millennium or so, stands well above other contemporary civilizations.
On Dec. 15, writing his farewell Op-Ed column at the age of 74, Mr. Lewis said that Islamic fundamentalists threaten peace because they reject reason. We can imagine that one nanosecond after those words appeared on his computer screen, his political instincts kicked in, an alarm sounded, and he realized what he absolutely had to say next. So he began the following paragraph in ritual mode, with the classic "But ..." sentence that readers of today's journalism know so well: "But the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism is not to be found in Islam alone. Fundamentalist Christians in America, believing that the Bible's story of creation is the literal truth, question not only Darwin but the scientific method that has made contemporary civilization possible."
While true, that has no valid connection to what came before. It's pure intellectual reflex. He jammed zealots who employ murder and zealots who employ rhetoric into the same category, a perfect example of the way devotion to inadequately considered ideas produces intellectual dishonesty.
Even so, Mr. Lewis was edging toward what will surely be the central argument of this historic period. In the year 2001, an unprecedented atrocity reopened the subject of Western civilization's nature and role. Sept. 11 was an attack on the West, and the counterattack was vigorous. Still, questions remain. Do the people of the West, having taught themselves to question all doctrines (a uniquely Western habit of mind), now retain sufficient belief in their own way of life to defend it?
Since Plato and Aristotle, the great thinkers have assumed that their principles have universal value. Do we still believe that, or have we been so influenced by multiculturalism that we consider the West's philosophy no better or worse than others? There's a profound difference between a culture that possesses Western characteristics (free speech, democracy, independent judges, economic freedom, scientific independence) and a culture that doesn't. But in our schools and universities this point has ceased to be obvious.
In 1999, an article in the Library Journal in the United States expressed surprise at the appearance of some interesting books on Western civilization. After all, the widespread opinion that courses on this subject were "parochial, racist and sexist," as well as celebrations of "capitalism and the bourgeois pathology of greed," had been discouraging the teaching of Western Civ in universities for some years.
The Library Journal's surprise was understandable. In the 1990s, post-colonial theorists focused academic attention on everything that is vicious in the West and ignored the rest. No one claimed there was a superior way of life elsewhere, and there's no record of a post-colonial theorist abandoning the West for life in the Third World. Nevertheless, moral relativism had infected the study of societies, and (before anyone really knew what was happening) had come to dominate much of what was thought and said.
Can we legitimately compare Islamic and Western civilizations? Yes. A few hours in a museum of Islamic art may well convince you that no designer in North America today approaches the visual sophistication of Islam at its height. But Islamic political life remains a scandal. Islam has spawned no democracies, and no Islamic countries have joined the developed world. Half a century ago, South Korea and Egypt had the same standard of living. Today, South Korea's is roughly five times Egypt's. South Korea accepted the methods the West offered while Egypt rejected them.
This process of denial dominates the intense controversy described in "The Crash of EgyptAir 990," a memorable article by William Langewiesche in the November issue of the Atlantic Monthly. On Oct. 31, 1999, EgyptAir's New York-Cairo flight nosedived into the Atlantic, killing all 217 people aboard. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in Washington, asked by both governments to find the cause, concluded after a thorough study of the data that the co-pilot had, for whatever reason, intentionally plunged the plane into a fatal dive. EgyptAir's executives denounced that finding as offensive. They have since spent two years fighting it by all political and economic means. For reasons of diplomacy, the U.S. government forced the NTSB to withhold its report and consider every alternative explanation suggested by the Egyptians, no matter how outlandish.
Mr. Langewiesche, an experienced pilot, sees this as a question of competing cultures. He thinks the Egyptian officials, many of them sophisticated pilots, don't believe a word they are saying. They are fighting the truth because it hurts them emotionally. The result of an independent scientific investigation seems to them an insult to Islam. They live in a dream of defensiveness and self-righteousness.
Like many Islamic countries, Egypt suffers terribly from the refusal to absorb Western knowledge and build upon it. Those who embrace multiculturalism in the West often say that we should not attempt to "export our values" to other societies. All to the contrary. If the West hesitated to share experience and knowledge with the world, that would be cruel, thoughtless and bigoted.