Thursday, February 02, 2017

A few thoughts on saving civilization

A few inchoate thoughts triggered by reading Umair Haque's recent post "The Impossibility of the Good":

I find myself wondering why postwar liberal democracy, if it's really "humanity's single greatest achievement", suddenly seems so fragile? If, as Umair suggests, civilization depends on "civilising little beings into enlightened people", isn't that something the best-educated society in the history of the world should actually be pretty good at?

Francis Fukuyama famously invoked the "end of history" after the fall of the Berlin Wall, only for history to come roaring back just a few years later. In the 21st century, why has the tolerant and open society proven so susceptible to enemies from without and within? Certainly it is the latter who have done more real damage to the fabric of society, if only by feeding on the fears conjured up by the sinister work of the former. Is tolerance really unsustainable? How do those of us who embrace not just tolerance but xenophilia as a core value confront that sort of question? If our open, pluralistic, tolerant society really is as brittle as it currently seems, and is therefore pretty sure to fail before long, one way or another, how much energy is it really worth devoting to saving it? And if "we" the decent majority do succeed in beating back the current pack of monsters and starting to rebuild an open society, as I fervently hope we will, how can we make the next phase more robust?

If Umair is right that the bedrock of civilization is a foundation of shared values, I suppose a first step might be to concede the right's point about the corrosive power of moral relativism — while still, crucially, rejecting the tyrannical social power structures sustained by conservative religion and blind adherence to tradition. One of our fundamental values has to be the individual's right to question anything and everything — including the fundamental values themselves. How do we square that circle?

If I'm going to grapple with this stuff, maybe it's time to think about going back and studying philosophy. I already knew I need to read up on epistemology in order to think more clearly about the wave of "fake news" and other assorted weaponized bullshit engulfing the public conversation. Now it looks like I may need to add a course in ethics to the reading list.

Another direction to explore: in America, we the decent majority have at least temporarily been deprived of the federal government as a tool for organizing ourselves and shaping the world. The familiar postwar liberal narrative envisions democratic government as supported and sustained by institutions of a pluralistic "civil society". Why do those institutions now seem so inadequate to meeting the challenges of Trump, or Brexit, or the rise of populist movements in continental Europe? In America at least, I suspect part of the answer is that many of those institutions have been reduced to nothing more than fundraising machines rather than real vehicles for participatory engagement.


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