June 2007

While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West from Within.  By Bruce Bawer. Doubleday. 256 pages. $23.95.

Menace in Europe: Why the Continent's Crisis Is America's, Too.  By Claire Berlinski. Crown Forum. 288 pages. $25.95.

Appearances can be deceiving when dealing with those who invest great energy in constructing a façade of sophistication to cloak over the approaching darkness in their own corner of the world. The Europe that so humbly sees itself as the hallmark of civilization is collapsing into the void of its own emptiness. Two books document how Islam is rising to fill that void: Bawer's While Europe Slept and Berlinksi's Menace in Europe.

Both books hit on the same theme: Europe is unable to deal with militant Islam. The post-modern doctrine of tolerance that self-proclaimed "enlightened thinkers" have subscribed to is found impotent in the face of Muslims who actually believe something.

The Christian Faith is barely existent on the Continent, much less capable of handling a foe like the one now on its doorstep. Nationalism has been shoved underground and repressed. While many nations — notably Germany — have tragic histories with nationalism, this is a force of human history that can't be suppressed. It will emerge in either a healthy way or a pagan way. By choosing their current path of suppression, Europe has all but ensured it will be the latter. Europe cannot turn to the Faith it has spurned, or to a healthy nationalism in its hour of crisis.

Europe's rejection of the Christian Faith has placed it in a terrible bind. Its population is dying due to the birth dearth, its declining workforce incapable of supporting expansive welfare-state policies. With Muslim immigration the only viable alternative, Europe's choice is to either slash its welfare state and risk major civil unrest, or import more immigrants who have no intention of assimilating — and risk major civil unrest.

Muslim immigrants have already made a political impact. Bawer, an active homosexual, writes disapprovingly how the British Parliament dropped "gays" from an anti-discrimination bill that included Muslims. Parliament feared offending Muslims with such an association. Given that Britain's estimated "gay" population still outstrips the Muslims, Bawer wonders what will happen once Islam inevitably catches up. Furthermore, the Islamic rise has led to a renewal of anti-Semitism. The Continent's record on this is not exactly sterling, and both books document the renewed outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence.

It's been said the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. By this measuring stick, Europe has lost its mind. Even though appeasement has never worked before, Europeans are determined to try it again.

Bawer's book exposes an irony in the European landscape. The author left the U.S. for Europe primarily to live in a culture "tolerant" of his homosexual lifestyle — and instead found something quite different developing. The irony is that after decades of militant homosexuals proclaiming everyone opposed to their lifestyle as "homophobic" or "hateful," with militant Islam they're finally staring the real thing in the face. Even Bawer was forced to concede that whatever distaste he had for Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and the rest of the Religious Right, they'd never actually advocated executing him.

Bawer's prescriptions also point to the Catholic conundrum. He recognizes that tolerance itself is an empty vessel — or "self-extinguishing," to borrow a phrase that Berlinski uses. Bawer places himself behind strong assimilative measures that involve recognition of same-sex relationships as acceptable. When one considers this in light of the fact that it was support from Muslim nations that helped John Paul II ward off Clinton Administration-led efforts to make abortion an international human right at the 1994 UN conference in Cairo, it's enough to make one wonder which side really represents the bigger threat to the Catholic world.

One can't read these books and walk away optimistic about the future of Europe. Both authors reference the 2004 murder by a militant Islamist of Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker who directed a 10-minute film critical of Islamic treatment of women. His last desperate words to his attacker were, "Surely we can talk about this!" Time will tell if Europe will find a renewed will to live — or if those words are the symbolic last gasp of the Continent itself.

- Dan Flaherty



Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church's Betrayal of American Nuns.  By Kenneth Briggs. Doubleday. 247 pages. $24.95.

The starchy smell of white habits and whiffs of lemony floor wax wafting down school halls are the strongest sensory recollections I have of 12 years' worth of Catholic education in the 1950s and 1960s. Briggs's new book, Double Crossed, ushered me back to this bygone era, revisiting the days when numerous orders of American nuns ran parochial schools and hospitals of all sizes. This book is primarily concerned with the dramatic decline of religious orders since Vatican II. Briggs takes a complex situation that combines thousands of players struggling with major changes and tenders a gripping, unsettling study. His thoughtful narrative, with insight gained from time, distance, and research, offers a fresh interpretation on the (mis)fortunes of convents after Vatican II.

Briggs's brisk, thorough review of Vatican II reforms is one of the book's shining strengths. Perfectae Caritatis, the directive of Vatican II concerning religious communities, counseled "an adjustment of the community to the changed conditions of the time." Many nuns, awakened to the world outside, embraced this call and ran with it. Convent wonderlands with arduous rituals underwent fresh scrutiny. Many pieties of the time are recalled with a bittersweet nostalgia, such as the "permissions," a humility that required endless entreaties for basic personal supplies. Radio and television were largely forbidden to nuns, and contact with relatives was rare. Nuns' personal mail was opened and censored. Long periods of silence, especially during meals, were de rigueur, even after tediously long work days.

Inspired by Vatican II's calls to renewal (without the support of specific guidelines) non-contemplative orders embarked on uncharted waters of reform. Vatican II coincided with a huge cultural shift in the country; Briggs's analysis of the period refreshes on the rise of feminism, drug use, and divorce that eroded traditional social mores. In 1972 the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, representing most American nuns, discovered the mighty effects of political activism — all outside their convent walls.

Briggs's treatment of the sudden, post-Vatican II hemorrhaging of nuns from their communities elicits sobering reflection. One significant source of the bleeding was the push for a college-educated membership. Nuns made the adjustment to turbulent college campuses pulsing with political turmoil. Campus life called for flexible living arrangements and comfortable clothing; traditional habits were viewed as cumbersome, and lighter fabrics gained currency with nuns working in unstructured settings.

Another contributory factor in the decline of female vocations goes largely unexamined by Briggs. Catholic girls from large families who saw their mothers worn down from caring for many children on a workingman's wage revered the convent as a refuge. Tiptoeing awestruck through the convent dining room to the library where sisters taught piano on gloriously shiny, pitch-perfect keys was a sublime, spiritual experience for many. Tables were laid with linens showing off sparkling crystal and silver. Everything was immaculate, uncluttered, quiet, solemn, and smelled good — no ashtrays and no animals. Although the individual sister was subordinate to the community, her life was meaningful and stable. Many working-class daughters eyeing education, service, and art coveted such serenity. But opportunities for girls in the 1970s increased as blue-collar parents considered college for daughters; low-cost community colleges with evening classes were a boon for countless young women. The convent was no longer the only way to a Catholic female career of sorts; Briggs could have fully explored this factor.

Briggs does not neglect the ongoing dispute between convents and Church hierarchy, and his subtle, measured sympathies rest with the sisters. The decades after Vatican II saw increased censure from bishops and priests trying to limit congregational reform. By 1976 almost a third of all nuns had returned to lay life, and Briggs's discussion of the resulting labor crisis in parochial schools and convent-run hospitals is an exceptional, integral part of his book. His coverage of some nuns through the 1980s questioning the Church's patriarchal structure, attacking institutional clericalism, and seeking ordination underscores ongoing conflicts.

Briggs's analysis of the financial structures of convents is an eye-opener. Like many people, I assumed they received a portion of parish contributions. Not so, according to Briggs, whose research shows that most convents (pre-1970) were comfortably supported by their members — hardworking, poor earners in schools and hospitals. Many convents also managed farms. But financial troubles skyrocketed with college tuitions and the maintenance of elderly nuns. As with all entitlement programs, sufficient numbers of youthful workers are needed to sustain the old, but convents found themselves bereft of new recruits. Briggs observes that many bishops and priests live well yet exhibit a dryly unsympathetic attitude toward the sisters' vows of poverty, exempting them from claims on diocesan dollars. In 1971 U.S. Congress made social security benefits available to nuns, and in 1988 a lay organization put the burden on parishioners with annual special collections that have proven to be dismally inadequate.

Double Crossed is a title that precisely sums up Kenneth Briggs's heartfelt, scholarly documentation of the decline of an inestimable asset (and legendary power) of the ancient Faith — a work long overdue. Sic transit gloria mundi.

- Mary McWay Seaman



A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now.  By Peter Wood. Encounter Books. 304 pages. $25.95.

Anyone who doubts that American political discourse has shifted dramatically in recent years need not go far for evidence. Obscenity-laden anti-Bush T-shirts, vituperative bumper stickers, news pundit shows that amount to little more than hour-long shouting matches — all of these point to a new, angrier, nastier approach to public affairs. This movement away from civility toward ostentatious political rage has not gone unnoticed by Wood. How did America, a country that once prided itself on the virtues of restraint and self-control, change so fundamentally in its attitudes toward open displays of anger?

Wood sets out three characteristics that define "New Anger": First, it is performed for an audience; second, it extends beyond the political arena; third, it is considered to be a mark of authenticity. Wood attempts to trace the "angri-culture" from its origins in 1960s counterculture up through its present manifestations in music, art, psychology, and day-to-day relations, and is, for the most part, very successful in his efforts. Wood's analysis of New Anger's defining traits is right on the mark, and he provides several shining examples that demonstrate his point admirably. Those who surrender to New Anger are less focused on seeing a particular grievance redressed. Wood contends that they are more concerned with showcasing their own feelings in hyperbolic displays of fury. Whereas uncontrollable anger was classically seen as a sign of weakness and looked upon with shame, it is now a badge of legitimacy, rewarded with popular approval.

Wood convincingly makes the case that this authenticating, demonstrative kind of anger was fathered by the likes of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Alan Ginsberg, and Timothy Leary, all of whom, in one way or another, radically rejected American culture in favor of narcissistic self-fulfillment outside the constraints of the nation and the traditional family. New Anger has been incubating for a very long time, and Wood demonstrates how it has manifested itself during the Democratic National Convention of 1968, in the protest songs of Bob Dylan, and in some of the right-wing attacks against former President Clinton.

Wood is quick to point out that the political Left doesn't have the market cornered on New Anger, and he tries to demonstrate how New Anger shows up in Republican as well as Democratic rhetoric. Nevertheless, the true strength of this book is not in its indictment of any particular group, but in its revealing how radically the character of anger has changed in recent years. New Anger is not confined to its articulation by a political party, rather, it is an "all-but-invisible background in our everyday lives." It is the anger of a society that, having severed itself from God, family, community, nation, and every possible source of meaning, is left to rage futilely against itself in a solipsistic search for personal authenticity.

Wood's book is a wonderful tool for understanding a fundamental cultural shift that has taken place over the past generation. He writes with a deft hand and genuine wit, and succeeds in delivering penetrating insights into our angry new world.

- Joe Hemmerling



The Siege of Vienna.  By John Stoye. Pegasus Books (45 Wall St., Ste. 1021, New York, NY 10005) . 226 pages. $24.

The re-publication of Stoye's The Siege of Vienna comes at a most opportune time. As Europe struggles to deal with a renewed Islamic threat, it is instructive to be reminded how Christendom formerly rallied to its own defense. Stoye's book, first published in 1964, details the great siege of the 17th century, when a mammoth Islamic force was turned back at the gates of Vienna, essentially saving Europe from being overrun by the Turks.

In May 1683, Mehmed IV, Sultan of the Ottoman-Turkish Empire, entrusted Islam's sacred "Flag of the Prophet" to Grand Vezir Kara Mustafa for a decisive campaign against Austria for the purpose of capturing its capital, "the splendid Christian city of the infidel Emperor." Its success would strike a tremendous blow against all of Christendom, as it would be a victory over the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, the eastern shield of the Christian Faith against Islam.

A Turkish assault upon the Danube crushed the Hapsburg Imperial troops. Then, in July, a quarter of a million warriors from ten Muslim nations marched upon Vienna and its 50,000 inhabitants. The siege seemed to portend the end of the Austrian city and the collapse of Europe's bulwark against the encroaching Muslim empire. But in Vienna, every man, woman, and child fought side by side at the barricades under the command of Rudiger Starhemberg. On August 26, the Turks demanded the surrender of Vienna, but Starhemberg firmly refused. By the beginning of September it was clear that Vienna's walls could not hold out much longer.

Meanwhile, a counter-offensive was forming, led by Pope Innocent XI, who implored all Christian states to abandon their quarrels and unite against this advance of Islam. (The Holy Father's efforts, central to rescuing the besieged city, inexplicably receive scant attention from Stoye.) Of the great Catholic princes of the West, only Leopold's archrival, King Louis XIV of France, refused the Holy Father's request. Because the 60,000 Austrian troops commanded by Charles V, Duke of Lorraine, were insufficient, the Pope sent financial assistance, together with an army of 25,000 crack troops led by King John Sobieski of Poland. While Lorraine and a German contingent held the Turks on the Danube's north bank, the Polish army under Sobieski marched 350 kilometers in just 14 days. It was the Poles's heroic charge from Kahlenberg Hill that saved Vienna. "The Christian army…," writes Stoye, "became a flood of black pitch coming down the mountain, consuming everything it touched."

The Turkish retreat began and Emperor Leopold's imperial army took the offensive. A Holy Christian League organized by Rome carried the war into the Ottoman-Turkish Empire, "the last of the crusades." The Sultan was forced to sign the Peace of Karlowitz in 1699, under which he abandoned Transylvania and the entire Hungarian plain. This routing of the Turks changed the face of Eastern Europe for the next 300 years.

The Siege of Vienna is a standard reference on the subject, lauded by London's Times Literary Supplement as "worthy of the pen of a Herodotus." This is surely overblown adulation, yet it is indicative of the respect Stoye's work receives. No volume in the English language is more often cited as a source document on the Great Siege. Yet, despite the book's exalted status, a number of comments are warranted.

First, one wonders who will read such a book today. In our age of appalling historical ignorance, The Siege of Vienna is certainly not for the amateur historian. The author assumes a detailed knowledge of 17th-century European history and politics and an understanding of the continental rivalries for territory and treasure. In particular, the book presumes awareness of the enmity between Louis XIV and Leopold of Austria and familiarity with such figures as Charles V, Frederick William, Sultan Mehmed IV, Grand Vezir Kara Mustafa, and a cast of others. Thus, for those without a general grasp of European history, the book will be tough sledding.

Second, Stoye's writing is as dry as unbuttered toast. While the book is edifying, Stoye's characters fail to come to life as fully rounded personalities. Instead, the author's turgid, academic style, while conveying objectivity and detachment, fails to make the story of the Great Siege come alive.

Finally and most notably, Stoye overlooks the religious nature of the conflict. The major role played by Pope Innocent XI in the victory of Christendom is almost wholly neglected. The religious motive of the Muslim drive to conquer and bring Europe into the Dar al-Islam ("Abode of Islam") is never discussed.

Despite its flaws, The Siege of Vienna is an essential source document for historians and those with a deep interest in this epic event. More importantly, it reminds us that as late as the end of the 17th century, Europe, despite having its unity shattered by the long civil war known as the Protestant Reformation, still had leaders with enough notion of Christendom to stand together in its defense. The importance of this lesson seems lost on those in the West today, as they exchange a glorious past for a barren, childless future, while ancient enemies bide their time, waiting patiently to fulfill their dream of subsuming Europe into Dar al-Islam.

- James Bemis





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