Three thoughts on an illiberal age

We are witnessing the dawn of an illiberal age, in which anti- democratic, group-obsessed voices shape public discussion in the US and Europe.  Any who doubt this I invite to read Paul Berman’s brilliant Flight of the Intellectuals.

In previous posts on the subject, I tried to describe and understand the retreat from liberal democratic principles by intellectuals who claim to embody such principles.  My opinions, while easy to detect, were implicit.

Here I want to make them explicit.  I want to say what I think about this brave new age in which I find myself.  For what it’s worth, I offer three personal judgments on the new illiberalism and the multicultural ideology out of which it arises.

ONEThe system is even worse than its output.  Multiculturalism rests on two pillars.  One is decision-making by an intellectual vanguard in disregard of public opinion.  The other is attaching moral standing, and thus civil rights, to groups rather than individuals.

Now, I don’t like many of the causes churned out by this ideology:  anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, anti-globalization, and so forth.  Other bits of advocacy, like special rights for gays, leave me mostly indifferent.  But it should be clear that the danger isn’t from this or that doctrine, but rather from an ideological structure which rejects the moral autonomy of the individual and the political sovereignty of the people.

By definition, illiberalism sweeps aside every barrier to the application of power.  The  illiberal regimes of the twentieth century saw their ruling vanguards, variously justified, slaughter without mercy the designated enemy groups – kulaks, deviationists, Mensheviks, Jews, gypsies, communists, many more.  Murdering individuals for the good of the whole seems inevitable:  a moral necessity to the survival of the system.  Once the vanguard has imposed its calculus of  good and evil, the killing fields must follow.

Nothing like this is on the horizon in the US or Europe.  But the system now embraced by intellectuals – the doctrines which command the highest degree of respect in the public sphere – these share a common ancestry  with the Khmer Rouge and the master race.  And there is today a longing for arbitrary power and dictated solutions, voiced by the most unlikely thinkers and pontificators, which betrays a willful ignorance of the rivers of blood spilled by illiberalism in power.

TWOIslamist terrorists are the storm troopers of multi-culturalism.  Every illiberal movement needs the threat of force.  Well-meaning democrats must be intimidated into negotiating away their rights and protections, while those who ponder the “root causes” of violence must be given the chance to see, in a killer, a victim.  The vanguard’s first claim to power is that it alone has the legitimacy and wisdom to stop the killing.  In places like Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, a fearful electorate acquiesced.

Multiculturalists have market-tested other intimidation options.  They preached climate doomsday, for example.  This failed to resonate or have much impact on the public.

Terror works.  The public is willing to yield on many points to regain a sense of security.  The would-be intellectual vanguard – as Berman shows – understands the political dynamic of terror, and has given primacy, among its many causes, to Muslim victimhood.  We should not be surprised to find, in tolerant Amsterdam, Muslim zealots beating up gays, or to see Western intellectuals trample Hirsi Ali, a campaigner for women’s rights, in their rush to embrace Tariq Ramadan, who only reluctantly would stone adulterous women to death.

During the 2006 controversy whether to republish the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, Jack Straw, then Britain’s foreign minister, remarked:  “There is freedom of speech, we all know that, but there is no obligation to be gratuitously insulting or inflammatory.”  In the streets of London at that time Islamist thugs carried signs which read BEHEAD THOSE WHO INSULT ISLAM.

Straw maintained, in sum, that free speech is only valid when it does not offend those who wish to destroy free speech.  This is a paradox only to the most naïve defenders of liberal democracy.

THREEReality enrages the illiberal mind.  The most repulsive intellectual trait shared by multiculturalists is their quarrel with reality.  They can’t describe what they see, or say what they think.  They stammer and mumble until the sacred formulas are mouthed.  They censor their own minds as a prelude to criminalizing the thoughts of others.

Ideology, for them, is truth.  In this ideologically correct universe, Israelis are always imperialistic, destructive, and murderous – even if it takes a little Photoshop to prove it.  Conversely, in the paradise of diversity of the multiculturalist mind, Islamist terror has nothing to do with Islam.

Attorney General Eric Holder was asked a simple question by Rep. Lamar Smith, pertaining to the Fort Hood murderer and the failed bomber of Times Square:   “Do you feel that these individuals might have been incited to take the actions that they did because of radical Islam?”  The attorney general responded with a masterpiece of evasion.

“Because of … ?”

“Radical Islam,” repeated Smith.

“There are a variety of reasons why I think people have taken these actions,” replied Eric Holder noncommittally. “I think you have to look at each individual case.”

The congressman tried again. “Yes, but radical Islam could have been one of the reasons?”

“There are a variety of reasons why people … .”

“But was radical Islam one of them?”

“There are a variety of reasons why people do things,” the attorney general said again. “Some of them are potentially religious … .”

And so on.  A few weeks after that congressional hearing, Faisal Shahzad pleaded guilty to attempting a massacre of innocents at Times Square. He was proud to confess, and offered the following explanation for his actions:  “I am part of the answer to the U.S. terrorizing the Muslim nations and the Muslim people.”  When the judge wondered about his willingness to kill even children, Shahzad elaborated:  “One has to understand where I’m coming from.  I consider myself… a Muslim soldier.”

The denial of reality is a pathology, not an ideology.  Anger at brute facts is a sign of cognitive inadequacy and moral infantilism.  Political groups infected by this syndrome have, in the past, struck out barbarically against those who would insist on truth, then dwelled sullenly amid the wreckage of their ideological kingdom of lies.

Faisal Shahzad, Islamist destroyer, would take us there, while Eric Holder, in a multicultural trance, does nothing and looks the other way.

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5 Responses to Three thoughts on an illiberal age

  1. Brutus says:

    I appreciate your attempt to provide additional context and explanation to your previous posts. In summarizing and responding to Paul Berman’s book, I fear you have been too ambitious, lost your focus, and contradicted yourself numerous times. I find things with which to agree or disagree, but I can never quite get on the same page as you because your thrust always leads back to a liberalism that enables people to rationalize being perfect shits most of the time.

    My previous comment fell flat because what I considered an obvious synecdoche between the leftist intellectuals you and Berman lambaste and us (or we, as a society) did not even register on you. I see continuity between those groups, whereas you and Berman regard them as wholly discrete. Perhaps I erred in that regard.

    The multiculturalism preached by the so-called vanguard is simply an extension of the civil rights movement of the 1960s intended to extend to everyone rights previously reserved for a few. (Where do you get special rights for gays rather than equal rights?) Recognition of centuries of repression promulgated by a narrow class of landed gentry, later generalized as interventionist foreign policy instituted by a narrow political class, may account for the guilt and self-hatred of leftist intellectuals. It’s pretty well deserved, since there is a lot to answer for there, though you acknowledge nothing of it. I will agree, though, that too many are bending over backwards to accommodate violent behaviors of other cultures we are trying so hard to tolerate.

    Although civil rights was a populist movement, it really managed only to drive bigotry underground, where it slept, while the central ethic was raised to ridiculous heights in postmodernism and multiculturalism. Economic pressures, globalization, nationalism, and the communications revolution have awakened the sleeping monster, which has manifested in all sorts of perversions that have, on reflection, probably resulted in a giant rift between academics and pundits with their brand of right-think and the proletariat. Who, though, is the rightful inheritor of the great Western liberal tradition? Who assumes the mantle of leadership (society’s superego), as opposed to succumbing to mob’s cheese-doodle mentality (society’s id)?

    Whereas you have faith in ordinary folks’ inherent goodness and their ability to self-organize into a coherent, virtuous society via mechanisms not unlike those espoused by free marketers, the evidence of the last fifty years or so indicates that while Western societies enjoy considerable material abundance, they have essentially lost their soul. Plenty of precedent exists for cultural degradation and soullessness, but at no time in recent history has the evidence piled so high and deep that our everyday lives are awash in false idols, crass materialism, callousness, and nihilism. Whatever kernels of virtue and community lurk beneath the surface have been blotted out by a vulgar, false consciousness that shows no signs of abating.

    • Well, Brutus, this is your most interesting comment yet. It deserves a thoughtful reply. If I don’t get there, it won’t be for lack of trying.

      Do I contradict myself? I’m sure I must. There are two kinds of contradiction: gross error (I say UP but also DOWN), and explaining disparate phenomena (UP for this, but DOWN for that). If I’ve perpetrated error – and as I said, I’m sure I must – I appreciate having them pointed out.

      Liberalism doesn’t pretend people are inherently good – in fact that tends to be part of the illiberal story: people are born good (or free) but have been corrupted (and are in chains). Liberalism assumes that we are all shits, and the bigger the power we wield, the bigger the shits we tend to become. Therefore, power should be diffused and fragmented. There are no exceptions to this. There is no vanguard. We should each have autonomy over our own lives, and sovereignty as a people together, and for this political power must be severely limited.

      The civil rights struggle, which I am old enough to have participated in in a tiny way, had nothing to do with multiculturalism. It was about human dignity, not victimhood: a polar opposite position. Martin Luther King never asked for blacks to be treated differently, because of their past suffering. He demanded equality, because of their present dignity. Multiculturalism is in practice (I grant the intention is more benevolent) a kind of plantation mentality – some are in charge, some are taken care of. As I wrote in my post, the history of this political stance isn’t a happy one.

      Being gay implicates behaviors dealing with sex and marriage which are central to a lot of people’s idea of what morality is about. That will be very hard to change – my guess is, impossible. Unlike black civil rights campaigners, who asked only for what every white person in America already had, gay activists ask for special dispensations regarding marriage and family. That is what I meant. (And for what it’s worth, I have never seen the discrimination you speak about documented anywhere. Whereas Jim Crow kept blacks out of schools and jobs, I’m not aware that gays are any less educated or wealthy than the average American. I do know that when a gay colony is formed, as in South Beach, prices invariably go up rather than down.)

      You use terms with which I would quarrel, because I think words are important. With the accepted exception of “Forbidden Planet,” there is no id or superego. Those are hollow Freudian terms. There is no false consciousness. That’s a hollow Marxist phrase. Cultural degradation is possible, however. My blog is a small voice arguing against that path, which is a chosen one. Is the hour too late to defend virtue? Our perspectives clearly differ on that point. Mine is formed from having lived and traveled overseas. Compared to what I have seen elsewhere, the parts of American society I come in contact with are marvels of self-discipline and self-organization.

      Vulgar means “of the people.” Vulgar morality is a morality based on public opinion, which the Greeks (and all rationalists) thought was a terrible thing. I realize some of us are more refined than others, but I look at the basics – family life, hard work, civic duty – and, by and large, I don’t despair.

      • Brutus says:

        Your response amounts to a series of “is not” rejoinders, which is why I don’t generally point out contradictions in my own series of gotcha comments that only put people on the defensive. I’d rather have a discussion, grant some points, learn some things, and agree to disagree where necessary.

        So the superego, id, and fall consciousness don’t exist or are so hollow as to be meaningless? Not even as ways of understanding human foibles? If we drop the Freudian references, do conscience and preverbal, irrational motivation also not exist? Are there no ways of imposing an inauthentic impulse on a credulous public? I believe that conscience in the form of a shared sense of civic duty does in fact exist. Many who join the military or volunteer in charitable organizations exhibit that sensibility. For others, obligations to anything or anyone other than themselves is severely muted. There’s a whole range. As to irrational motivation at the societal level, that is what the mob is. It erupts infrequently, but its subtle machinations are omnipresent, and to deny its existence just boggles me. Further, manufactured desire for overpriced commodities (diamonds, anyone?) and celebrity worship are good examples of false consciousness where we are instructed to care about things that really don’t matter. Happens all the time.

        The important connection between civil rights and multiculturalism is that one follows from the other in an intellectual lineage. So what if civil rights didn’t emerge as multiculturalism?

        Of course I should have known better than to use the word vulgar in its general sense and risk objection over your more specific etymological usage. Words do matter, but you can’t really claim proprietary use of a term ex post facto. Whatever other terms I employed that gave you fits I can’t guess, but I’m not heedless or sloppy about my word choice (the stray typo or word omission excepted).

        I still don’t quite get why you’re so enamored of the people (variously, the citizenry, the masses, the rabble, the mob, or the Volk (in Heidegger’s sense)). You admit they/it can be, shall we say, less than civilized, yet your aversion to government involved in people’s day-to-day lives veers toward an extreme most recognize as near-anarchy. Considering the finite habitable space on the planet, social organization is inevitable, and some restraints must be placed on the people, who don’t generally restrain themselves. It’s a balancing act, and too far to one extreme or the other leads to ruin. As with most things, a thermostatic response, adjusting up or down as need arises, may be optimal rather than a permanent doctrinaire shift in either direction.

      • Well, I guess my attempt at thoughtful was a fail – either that, or someone stole your puppy, Brutus. In any case, sorry to disappoint.

        I am comfortable judging an individual I have known reasonably well – I almost feel I know you well enough from your comments that I can judge you. Almost, but not quite. I don’t feel smart or morally superior enough to pass judgments on all my peers in a single bunch. I don’t understand how you can despise people as a whole, and think them untrammeled and uncivilized, yet insist that this same species be given greater power over the rest of us. Who on earth will staff the government? How will these individuals subdue their own uncivilized, untrammeled cravings? All things being equal, who knows best about your needs, Brutus? And if the answer is “Me, of course,” what makes you think the rest of us feel differently?

        I have said many times in the blog that I believe in government – what else is a democracy? I’m not an anarchist, and I’m not a libertarian. I don’t rail at politicians because they take up burdens I myself, for all my talk, would rather pass on. And I agree with you to this extent: it’s always a balancing act between order and freedom. But again, all things being equal, would you prefer a top-down system which keeps the mob at bay (and maybe makes trains run on time) or a bottom-up system which incorporates as large a number of personal opinions and decisions as is consistent with public order? If the latter, then we agree completely on the scope of government.

        Don’t be so thin-skinned about my criticizing your terms. It wasn’t you I was criticizing, it was the thought systems behind the words, which have long been discredited. Nothing I can say about Marxism or Freudianism will add an ounce to Karl Popper’s arguments in The Open Society, so I’ll just point that way and be quiet.

  2. […] are those – and they include some of the more intelligent commenters of this blog – who believe the government must intrude on private morality, because of a […]

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