Is it permissible to criticize the West? by Stefano di Lorenzo

Children in the West today are brought up to believe that the West is superior in every way to Africa, Asia, China, Russia: that the world outside the West is a garden of horrors…It seems almost paradoxical that the West, which sees itself as the inventor of Enlightenment reason against dogmatism, still arrogates to itself the right to have a monopoly on reason

Is it permissible to criticize the West?

By Stefano di Lorenzo
[This article posted on 1/6/2024 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

(Red.) Just back from Moscow and currently back in Italy, Stefano di Lorenzo reflects on why the West is so resolutely against Russia and why, conversely, criticism of the West is often simply dismissed as “anti-Americanism”. In addition to his native Italian, Stefano di Lorenzo understands and speaks German, English and Russian, and of course he reads newspapers and watches television in all these languages. (cm)

The war in Ukraine can be seen as a conflict between Russia and the West on the territory of Ukraine, a classic example of a proxy war. This is despite the fact that people in the West will no doubt say that the theory of a conflict between Russia and the West is just Russian propaganda. But you only have to listen carefully to the statements of our politicians, the various Von der Leyen, Borrel, Biden and others, or read one of the many editorials in the numerous European or American newspapers on any given day, to realize that the West is actively involved in the conflict in Ukraine and that it sees itself at war with Russia. After all, where does Western taxpayers’ money go if not into billions of dollars for weapons and aid in Ukraine? The West even wants to see itself as a victim of Russian aggression: Russia is waging a war in Ukraine against Western values and thus against the entire Western civilization itself.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is certainly no saint – politics is a dirty business, big politics even more so – but when you read that Russia is waging a war against the West, you do wonder what Putin has actually done to Europe and the West in general. Is it possible to name a single hostile act by Putin’s Russia towards the West in the last 30 years, since the end of the Cold War? Even just one? Not a hostile action against the interests of the West in other countries, in Syria or in Ukraine, but a hostile action against the West itself? What has Putin’s Russia done to Germany, France, Switzerland or the United States?

But let’s leave Russia aside for a moment. We want to focus here on a curious symptom that shows up very often in public discourse when it comes to the West, Russia and the West’s policy towards Russia and the West’s foreign policy in general. Confronted with a litany of criticism of the West, of the West’s mistakes towards Russia (one above all others: NATO’s eastward expansion), often exasperated professional experts, journalists or ordinary European or American citizens cannot help but reply: “Go and live in Russia! Russia is not a democracy! They will shoot you there, they will kill you if you don’t agree with Putin!”. As if to say: stop complaining about the West, in other countries freedom of speech is a luxury, we are special because here you have the freedom to say things that would be impossible in other countries. This argument should be the ultimate argument, after such an argument any discussion should become sterile, useless and meaningless: The West is a democracy and the others are not, so the West is right by definition. After such an argument, there is only the deluge.

People get tired of constant criticism, they need a positive message. Especially in the age of the internet, where the attention span of many people is very short, people have no desire to get lost in a long series of convoluted theoretical arguments, they prefer to be carried away by strong and captivating images. Freedom against totalitarianism, democracies against dictatorships and other such platitudes. In a democracy, the demos cannot consist only of philosophers and other sophisticated hyper-intellectuals.

It’s always a surprise to many, of course, but contrary to what the average European or American citizen believes, in Putin’s Russia today you don’t get arrested or even killed for mere words. But this is not about Russia. Russia is already demonized enough by others. The question is: where does this extreme intolerance towards criticism of Western politics come from? After Vietnam, Iraq, Libya and so many other unfortunate interventions by the West, there should actually be doubts about the eternal legitimacy of Western foreign policy, shouldn’t there? Instead, criticism of Western foreign policy is always rejected with irritation.

Sure, serious mistakes may have been made in the past, even in the not too distant past, but “this time it’s a completely different story”, and this time it’s always a completely different story. You end up trying to appeal to a kind of instinctive reflex of the tribe, a tribalistic “us versus them”. We are obviously better, they, the others, are not quite human, wild and half-mad, if not monsters. In a conflict with a dangerous external enemy, internal divisions must be set aside. Those who criticize the West do not belong to the West, those who criticize the West are enemies of the West.

Today, some believe that there is even a dangerous excess of self-criticism in the West, a self-destructive self-criticism, some speak of Western suicide: the West can no longer believe in itself and in its own values, the defenders of the West complain. But a clarification is needed here. In the West today, social criticism is fashionable, criticism of patriarchy is fashionable, anti-racism is fashionable, even criticism of capitalism is fashionable, LGBT discourse is fashionable. For many conservatives, this is a dangerous symptom of a self-destructive drive. But in this flood of criticism, criticism of the West’s (i.e. America’s) actions in the world, of the West’s foreign policy, doesn’t really seem to be in vogue. People react to criticism of the America-centered world with fatigue, as if in front of a speech they have heard a thousand times before. The great intellectuals and systems theorists pull the term “anti-Americanism” out of their hats, an irrational feeling of hostility towards America, of course a completely unfounded feeling. It is, of course, a term that does not have the same rhetorical power as “anti-Semitism”, but it works in the same way: Anyone accused of anti-Americanism cannot be taken seriously. Anyone who criticizes America is perceived as a fanatical anti-American, an anti-Westerner, a “communist”, an enemy of freedom, as in the Cold War system of binary thinking. Isn’t it time to free ourselves from the Manicheanism of the Cold War? Criticizing the West does not mean endorsing a communist dictatorship or any other despotic regime. Shouldn’t a little self-criticism be a sign of maturity? A strong society with strong cohesion, unlike a fragile community, should not react to every criticism with outrage. Gustave Le Bon, Sigmund Freud and Elias Canetti believed that the collective psychology and that of an individual within a mass always fall back on simpler mechanisms than the psychology of each individual: Not only are the masses not particularly intelligent, they are driven by a herd instinct and are profoundly irrational. Against this background, the question arises: how much self-criticism can a society tolerate? Are we really so much better than those we constantly criticize, the opponents of the West, if we react to criticism by preferring to banish our critics?

Because one often gets the impression that the West acts as if it is the holder of absolute truth. As if there were an absolute truth, a material and objective truth that must necessarily be universal and shared by all. However, according to the most modern philosophy, truth is closely linked to the society that produces it, especially with regard to truth in the human and social sciences, such as history: truth is consensual, it is the result of a social agreement. So it is perfectly fine for the West to have its truth and for Russia to have its truth. If Russia feels surrounded by NATO because NATO has moved several hundred kilometers closer to Russia over the years, then that is Russia’s truth, and it doesn’t suddenly become a lie just because we in the West say it isn’t so.

And we don’t even want to talk too much here about the fact that even the term “West” is a superstructure, a nominal concept; the idea of the unity of the West is a product of the Cold War, in which the “free world” was pitted against the “communist dictatorship”. In reality, the West is not so unique. Isn’t it a bit arrogant to be so firmly convinced of this? The myth of our unrepeatable and absolute uniqueness, the basis of our truth, is certainly a myth that warms the souls of many Westerners and which Westerners, like so many other peoples, have a psychological need for. But despite what the prophets of the end of history have been saying for a long time, the world has so far stubbornly refused to become a unipolar world.

The deep conviction of the exceptionalism of the West, of the West as the only society in which virtue and values are possible, of the West as the cradle of democracy and freedom, leads us to react to criticism with the indignant question: “And what about Russia, and what about China?”, in one of the most typical examples of whataboutism. Isn’t that the sin we always attribute to others? When Russia responds to accusations that it has violated a sovereign country by pointing to Iraq and Libya, Russia thinks così fan tutte, everyone does that. The principles of international law are a fair thing, but it is hypocritical to blame others when we know that the world works differently in real life. When the West responds to criticism by saying: “What about Russia? What about China?”, it wants to reaffirm its own sense of superiority: We may have made mistakes, but that was a long time ago, and others are much worse than us anyway.

The new woke culture, the new Christianity of the 21st century, which wants to redeem the last of yesterday and make them the first of tomorrow, which wants to erase centuries of history in the name of political correctness, also fits perfectly into the scheme of the superiority of today’s Western world on closer inspection. In fact, only the West has achieved the level of social progress that our times demand by finally granting women, homosexuals and ethnic minorities the rights they have long been entitled to. The others are lagging behind. Children in the West today may be truly colorblind to their immigrant classmates, but they are brought up to believe that the West is superior in every way to Africa, Asia, China, Russia: that the world outside the West is a garden of horrors. Only the West is the guarantor of progress and social rights – a discourse that obviously suits the Western elites, who base their power on their ability to exercise global power and influence. But it seems almost paradoxical that the West, which sees itself as the inventor of Enlightenment reason against dogmatism, still arrogates to itself the right to have a monopoly on reason. This is certainly not what Rousseau had in mind. Our century undoubtedly requires a new way of thinking about politics on a global scale.