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OPINION
Columns
Opinion articles written in the style of their author. These texts are to be based on verified facts and must be respectful towards people, even though their actions may be criticized. All opinion articles written by individuals from outside the staff of EL PAÍS shall feature, along with the author’s name (regardless of their greater or lesser renown), a footer stating their office, academic title, political affiliation (if any) and main occupation, or the occupation related to the topic being assessed

State of alarm

Our world is in decline. To a large extent, the tools that made Western dominance possible are growing rusty or eroding at a rapid pace

Guerra de Rusia en Ucrania
A statue honoring a Soviet soldier in the courtyard of a Ukrainian house destroyed by Russian bombs in Avdiivka.Libkos (Libkos via Getty Images)
Félix de Azúa

I believe there is a widespread feeling that we are experiencing the end of something: the end of an era, of a civilization, of a way of life, of a world. Moreover, in recent months the wars in Ukraine and Israel have reconstructed a globe divided in two, the world that dominated in previous eras. The old dichotomy between the free world and the communist world has changed into the Western world and everything else. Westerners have the sense of being surrounded by enormously populous and distant enemies like Muslims, Chinese and Russians. For the first time in several hundred years, we make up a threatened minority.

Martín Caparrós has written a very compelling book on this issue (El mundo entonces [The World Then]). He uses the classic device of editing chronicles signed by someone completely alien to our world, as Montesquieu did in his Persian Letters, and as imitated by Spanish author José Cadalso in his Cartas marruecas [Moroccan Letters]. In such missives, someone completely alien to European culture judged the customs and follies of the inhabitants of the old continent. Caparrós uses a similar device in his fiction: this time, it is a historian from the year 2122 who describes the life of Westerners in the previous century. He evokes the same result as his predecessors: surprise, scandal and, often, laughter and despair.

However, this crazy world (ours) is also a dangerous world and, especially, a world in decline. To a large extent, the tools that made Western dominance possible are rusting or eroding at a rapid pace. Scientific and philosophical thought, the arts, knowledge and memory, pride and dignity, common life based on tolerance and intelligence, are all on the decline.

Before his death in 2020 at the age of 90, George Steiner, one of the twentieth century’s best minds, gave an interview with Nuccio Ordine, published under the title El huésped incómodo (The Uneasy Guest). In it, we find the last lament of a Jewish literary critic and writer who, throughout his long life, had contributed and devoted himself to raising the pinnacle of Western culture. His last words are despondent. He is aware that the decline of everything that formed the bases of the Western world’s greatness has begun an accelerated race toward its death. Thus, he says, he finds it hard to “understand why every day the distance that separates me from modern irrationalism, and I dare say, from the media’s growing barbarism, from the dominant vulgarity, grows more and more. I think we are going through a period that is becoming increasingly difficult...” That statement could be attributed to a problem of old age, if it were not for the fact that a much younger man like Caparrós thinks the same.

If it were only the increasing triviality of American campuses or the destruction of the European humanities, it would not be fatal, but Steiner intuited that such degeneration would have immediate physical effects. “There is a dangerous air on our continent today. The xenophobic and anti-Semitic wind blowing in many European countries frightens me. The hatred of the foreigner, the hunting of the Jew, the apologia for self-defense and weapons are the dangerous signs of a terrible regression, a prelude to violence.”

Steiner has not experienced the latest events of the Muslim war against Israel, nor has he seen the demonstrations of support for Islam in Western countries. If he —who was horrified by Nazi extermination— had, he would clearly see the inevitable link between the end of the democratic and liberal principles that consume our culture and a future marked by massacres.

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