Illiberalism Rising

Death of Socrates, Daniel Chodowiecki. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Death of Socrates, Daniel Chodowiecki. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“The election of Donald Trump has emboldened the forces of hate and bigotry in America. White nationalists…are celebrating.”—Senator Harry Reid

“Political correctness is the biggest issue facing America today. Even Trump has just barely faced up to it.”—David Gelernter, Weekly Standard.

Both the left and the right warn of a growing illiberalism.

Those on the left see it in a Trump presidency made possible by “deplorable”  white men (and a surprisingly high number of white women) clinging to guns and a Brexit vote fueled by growing European nativism. They see increasing terrorism at least partly as a natural consequence of colonial rule, poverty, and American neo-imperialism. They link recent police shootings and protests to America’s inability to purge itself of systemic racism. They see universities as safe-spaces from which to confront injustice and inequality. And they view the economy and democratic process as manipulated by a corrupt Wall Street elite.

Many on the right point to the same evidence, but to make different arguments. They link the success of Trump with the revolt against an over-reaching government and Brexit with a healthy rejection of an increasingly undemocratic European bureaucracy. They see the rise of “Islamic terror” as an assault on liberal Western civilization. They point to the police shootings and protests as a breakdown in law and order. They view universities as promoting intolerant radical orthodoxies and anti-bigotry campaigns that reinforce racial division. Finally, they see an economy threatened by a resurgent socialism, emanating from an ignorance of history and basic free market truths.

The right warns that the left’s anti-liberalism could usher in a brand of Chavismo, while the left has made Hitler comparisons a cliché. Neither side has much success in swaying the other (both stick to their preferred media outlets), but each would probably concede that History has not yet ended. At the very least, liberal democracy is facing an escalation of caustic rhetoric and could be one significant economic, political or security crisis away from a cataclysm.

The true source of the current trouble reaches back to the foundations of Western civilization and democracy. Greek and Judeo-Christian traditions, or “Athens and Jerusalem,” taught westerners to put their faith in God or reason, and often both, and to be wary of despots and demagogues. Although many have warned of the steady erosion of those traditions, the full consequences of their loss are not appreciated. For the first time, vast swaths of the West are living with the death not only of God but of reason as well. Such a vacuum makes ample room for opportunism and exploitation, while moral chaos invites tyranny.

The fate of the religious tradition is well known. Nietzsche’s obituary for God is now a commonplace. The assassin? Reason. As civilization matured, reason democratized. This was Kant’s own definition of the Enlightenment: “Have courage to use your own understanding.” It was only a matter of time before centuries-old habits and local expectations of behavior weakened sufficiently for individuals to question the fantastical assertions of a God-driven universe. No God proof ever arrived, and maintaining faith in a modern age was challenging. As Nietzsche predicted, it would take some time for us to grasp the enormity of the deed. Now, though, the sound of faith’s “long withdrawing roar” is undeniable–whether one is religious or not.

Similarly, the fate of reason, the Greek tradition, has “not yet reached the ears of men.” Reason dispatched God but in theory still gave us a basis for ethics, for meaning and purpose. Plato’s justice and Aristotle’s eudaimonia provided ultimate ends for a foundation of ethics that guided us toward fulfilling our natures, presenting us with a purpose, and laying the groundwork for our liberal, open societies. But after two millennia of philosophical addendums and questions that followed, we are far removed from what guided previous generations. Reason picked apart the “ends,” doubting that man had a certain nature. Without an end, ethics became unmoored, leaving an intellectual and moral landscape marked by disagreement and confusion. Reason alone fails to explain our origin, provide a purpose, or construct a moral framework capable of withstanding its own unabated skepticism. What remains today is opinion and emotion.

Reason’s flaw was present at its birth; the death of Socrates foretold reason’s fate. The philosopher ultimately failed in his project. His reasoning ways tested the beliefs of the Athenian youth. A generation questioning the foundations of any polis might take up arms against it or fail to defend it. So Socrates—reason’s avatar—was offered the choice of exile or hemlock. The Athenians acknowledged, consciously or subconsciously, that reason eroded the narratives they lived by without supplying an acceptable substitute—or at least one they could comprehend. Group cohesion in an anarchic world is serious business. So Athens acted, preferring cave dwelling and shadows to sunlight. Perhaps even Socrates knew this, refusing exile and, in a sense, taking his own life. Reason killed itself—consumed itself. The metaphor was there all along as a warning. Reason could deconstruct, but appeared incapable of constructing enduring structures. From its beginning, reason alone proved insufficient, though the West was even longer in coming to accept this reality than it was to accept the death of God. But today, whether one accepts the death of God or the insufficiency of reason, most people in the West behave as though both were effectively true.

The collapse of the two core Western traditions does not mean the Hobbesian war of all against all has commenced. We have moral reserves, sustained through habits and customs that take time to deplete. Our supra-rational Tocquevillian and Burkean moral reflexes unravel slowly. Most Americans (and possibly Europeans) still “believe” in God, though not in the same way they once did. Similarly, we still go through the motions of following a reason-based morality, cultivating a diluted version of Greek virtues (and their descendants), but less because we understand or have characters built on courage, temperance and justice than out of slowly fading habit. Modernity, Machiavelli’s spawn, moves each succeeding generation further and further away from the traditions, customs, and habits of their predecessors toward lives governed by feelings, or what philosopher Alasdair McIntyre calls emotivism. The Republic warned of just this degradation in democracy. Moral chaos begets tyranny. Vacuums demand filling—even if the answer is illiberal. The German interwar period offers the starkest example of this and affirms Aristotle’s warning that without virtue man becomes the “most savage of animals.”

In modern Western democracies, this decline proceeds even as traditional culture and its inherent wisdom give way to a new universal culture, the labeling of which as globalism obscures its full meaning.

The new culture has taken form from what was left behind by the two receding traditions: freedom, Enlightenment skepticism, relativism, and consumerism. While alluring, such goods offer no explanation of the world or our place in it. Wisdom is replaced by a cold scientism that is incapable of substantive guidance. So we are, to paraphrase Stephen Hawking, reduced to “chemical scum” gripping a random dirt clod circling a random star. The dominant moral principle that remains is that we may do as we please as long as we avoid harming others, a bastard version of utilitarianism. This translates to relativism, essentially nihilism—despite the claims of neo-Darwinists that virtue was hiding in our genes all along. A crisis of meaning was the natural result. Emerging in the nineteenth century, it has becomes only more evident in our present time.

Lamentations for the decline of Western civilization are now almost reflexively derided as nostalgia, a form of privileged blindness. And it is true that many who pine for fading worlds downplay the fact that a long parade of horribles—slavery, tyranny, sexism, racism, among others—only began to be addressed in more recent, post-Enlightenment centuries. Certain traditions, belief, and practices were long overdue for radical change or elimination. In fact, the effort to critique such ills has consumed much of the moral and political discourse of the last few centuries. Crudely put, on one side are those attempting to preserve Athens and Jerusalem as repositories of virtues and wisdom, which they still believe, if rightly understood and applied, provide the best means of achieving freedom, equality, justice and meaning. On the other side are those who view these traditions as fatally flawed products of ignorant, bigoted cultures that must and can be replaced by modern thinking in order to achieve real freedom and equality for the disadvantaged, the oppressed, the exploited.

Until recently, the opposing sides of this debate were broadly labeled conservatives and liberals. Today each side faces troubling questions. The key issue for those on the right is whether reason or God (or both) can be resurrected to perform their former duties as foundational elements of character and liberal democracy, or whether there was a fundamental flaw at the birth of Western civilization—reason’s inability to escape the slide into skepticism and doubt—that leads inevitably to moral chaos and the threat of illiberalism. The key question for the left is whether liberal democracy can be maintained when historical guides are jettisoned, when individuals are shaped more by opinion and emotion than by the cultivation of virtues leading to character, and when increasingly illiberal means are justified in the name of tolerance and full equality.

The answers are largely moot given the ubiquity and momentum of the universal culture. While the seed for the universal culture came from Athens and Jerusalem, it is the now the modern left’s grand project, and it is undeniably successful. Even if the election of Donald Trump disheartened the left, the centuries-long macro-trend—the broad arc of history—bends toward the success of this universal culture. The work to eliminate “deplorable” elements will continue toward the ultimate aim: a new person who is enlightened, scientific, open-minded, free of prejudice, a champion of equality, without need of a national or cultural tribe, a globalist repulsed by profit and nativism, generically communal, and, above all, sensitive and tolerant.

Anyone opposed to this seeming objective good would certainly appear to be illiberal. Yet the creation of just such an “enlightened” person necessitates re-educating those still clinging to the patriarchal, sexist, racist remnants of the Greek and Judeo-Christian traditions. The anti-Ancients, the intellectual children of Machiavelli and Rousseau, believe they must dismantle Western national identities that adopted and localized these toxic traditions. The idea of being English, French, or German must be replaced by the new global, multicultural person—in overt denial of nativism and exceptionalism.

Yet ironically, the same multiculturalist strain of the universal culture can lead to the promotion of a reactionary identity politics among those groups long seen as the victims. Members of these groups are encouraged to assert their historical identities and promote their “exceptionalism,” while everyone else is told to check their “privilege” and join the universal citizenry. The implicit demand made upon the latter group is to become a-tribal, free of bigotry and allegiances to national identities that reflexively promote the powerful over the weak. At work is a neo-Nietzschean master-slave principle. But this time it is not Christians promoting weakness (love) as an ethic to rule the strong; it is the universal culture attempting to create a new ethic of selective “tolerance” that empowers historically dispossessed groups.

The impulse is understandable. But in the end, it is a utopian notion that the mass of humanity can be reformed into beings capable of understanding and embracing abstract principles of universal citizenry cleaved from location as well as from any meaningful historical narrative, customs, or habits—all of which took time to become second nature. In the past, similar attempts to “fix” human nature and create a generic man ended in illiberalism or, less euphemistically, mass death. The French Revolution and Communism—themselves products of an evolving universal culture—both rationalized the mass culling of disagreeable souls, those “guilty” of not living up to the new ethics.  Bloody wicker baskets and gulags were the price of the “greater good.”

A related, although more benign, example of creating this new and improved person is the resurgence of a radical political correctness and multiculturalism. While the more radical strain resides in the university, violating the tenets of this orthodoxy anywhere results in shame and banishment (from place, income, and friends). In the modern parlance, to be against this universal culture is to be evil. The seductive reasoning leaves open the question about what means are not permitted when battling “intolerance.” Again ironically, the universal culture employs tactics similar to those of the formerly dominant culture it targets, isolating and dehumanizing opponents as a means of neutralizing them—a process that historically preceded even greater illiberalism and suggests that the issue here has more to do with power than justice.

This perspective helps illuminate recent events. The receding of the two grand traditions left individuals insecure, without an understanding of their origins, purpose, or death. This condition is now being exacerbated by the left’s demand that everyone become a new, enlightened person, conform to a construct that, to many, offers no inherent meaning or security. This naturally spawns movements that promise security and answers in an indefinite world. These movements are often reactionary and illiberal,  offering reassuring narratives that provide an explanation for the world and one’s place in it. This is the attraction of Donald Trump, Brexit and the European nationalists. All of these figures and movements, in their own ways, promise a return to a time when the world was more secure and sensible. This is the appeal of Trump’s comments about the threats posed by immigrants, free trade and lawlessness. He is perceived by his followers as someone who speaks the “truth” and defies the political correctness of the “multicultural agenda.” The European hard-right parties are growing for similar reasons, focusing on immigration and a nostalgia for a time of greater geographic and moral order, a counter to the meaningless blur of the universal culture.

The irony, of course, is that the anti-nativist push for the universal person fans the flames of nativism, which some then point to as proof of the need for a more aggressive promotion of the universal ideals. The result is spiraling resentment and hostility driven by the opposing sides to the only likely outcome: increasing intolerance in the name of tolerance, and the triumph of the illiberal mind.

B.A. Brown is a startup entrepreneur based in the San Francisco Bay area. He was previously a deputy editor with the Wall Street Journal Europe and has written for the New York Times, Weekly Standard, San Francisco Chronicle, and Daily News among others. 

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