Friday, February 07, 2014

The Liberal Left and the New Religion

Narcissists? We've been heading
in that direction for some time.
In an over-used and most likely incorrectly attributed quotation, when asked what the influence of the French Revolution had been on Western Democracy, the Chinese Foreign Minister replied that is was too soon to tell.  Given the apocryphal nature of the story, and the layers of invention that the Internet places on such stories, we don’t know if Zhou Enlai smiled as he said it.  The most significant shift that happened with the French Revolution – and the Enlightenment generally – was the shift from peoples and tribes to individuals and rights.  The Cartesian fundamental coigito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) had made its way through the corridors of time and consequence from arcane academic existential consideration to politics, and war, and statecraft.  If Millenials are accused of being all about me, me and me on the cover of Time Magazine, it’s only because we've been heading that way for several hundred years.
An immediate consequence of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment was the destruction of two powerful institutions – the Church, and the Monarchy.  The first defined society, and the second defined power, although depending on your interpretation, perhaps the Church controlled both.  Either way, their late-medieval peak was already on the wane, and with France and America standing as proud beacons of Liberalism on either side of the Atlantic, gradually other countries went the same way.  Enlightened self-interest would guide the world in the future, spawning Capitalism, the Theory of Evolution, International Human Rights Law, and a reinterpretation of ancient Greek democracy through the political writings of Rousseau.

Today’s global consensus is astonishing.  Individual liberty remains the only aspiration worth fighting for, and remains at the heart of the rhetoric of statesmen irrespective of their behaviour.  Inequality is seen as a great evil, one to be attacked by economics, by affirmative action, and by law.  Discrimination is a great social ill, a shocking indictment on those who practice it, and invariably put down to either brainwashing, or a lack of education.  Yet those of us (and I include myself) in the great consensus, tolerate no dissent.  It is impossible that anyone could have another legitimate view.  So sure are we of our position, of our liberal, social righteousness, that we legislate to punish   those who would disagree with us, on the grounds of incitement to hatred, discrimination, or – increasingly – threatening State Security.  Worse still, we isolate those of a different opinion as troublemakers living in the past, deviants who can’t see past the blinkers of religion. 
I’m not sure who’s right any more.  In my experience – in Ireland – it is clear that the State is no better a moral guardian than the Catholic Church, which has been destroyed as an actor in Irish society.  Corruption, incompetence, and a seeming abdication of moral leadership combine to undermine faith in Government, and the State – and, by extension, in ourselves.  We pile up our cynicism, we vent our rage, and yet we really don’t know what we want.  We just know we don’t want this. 

Those who rail against the Iona Institute, who blindly support gay marriage (because it doesn’t affect me) and gay rights, who demand individual liberty and do not consider collective rights, who think communism was bad and democracy was good, who believe in pre-emptive intervention in International law, who think – in general – that they know as a principle what is the right thing for everyone and every group in this world – they should take a step back. If you campaign for women’s rights, for minority rights, for human rights – is there no circumstance where the extension of a right can actually be bad for a people?  Is their stage of development not a factor?  Child labour was commonplace in Ireland fifty years ago, yet now – being rich – we would deny other societies such resources?  Is child-rearing that much better in Ireland now that women are at work that as a society we can proudly foist such norms on others? 


Those of us who think we are right, who think that the principles of individual liberty and human rights and a common good are paramount for all peoples everywhere, are we really so na├»ve, so self-centered?  Have we not become that which we sought to defeat – an intolerant, dictatorial, unaccommodating overlord, creating a new disenfranchisement just as we cast off the old?  For our system, our ways, our beliefs have culminated in creating more inequality than the world has ever known, perpetual, pervasive poverty for the working classes, and new diseases and new cancers that are making our lives more miserable.  There are benefits, of course, but we should not be so quick to think that our ideology – substantially my ideology – represents a panacea for which there are no alternatives.

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