Listening to NPR the other day, I caught a story on the haranguing of Muslim refugees by natives in Clausnitz, Germany. A bus transporting migrants to a shelter in the small town was stopped by nearly 100 Germans, who opposed forced settlement in their town by yelling such things as “Get Lost” and “Go Home if You Don’t Like it Here.” Not kind words, but not off the mark either.
While reporting the bus episode, the radio host blithely referred to the protestors as “neo-Nazis.” Her guest, a Canadian immigrant who organizes aid services for refugees, let the Nazi charge go unchallenged. Without a lick of evidence, they both agreed that the protesters were Führer worshippers. The idea that those who resents the forced relocation of foreigners in their town are Hitler acolytes was treated as accepted wisdom. And this was an ostensibly nonpartisan program!
Occasions like this – that is, the assumed maliciousness on the part of ideological opponents – are becoming increasingly prevalent in western democracies. Whatever one’s political leanings, there is a sense that common consensus is gone. One side is right; the others are morally and ethically wrong, and don’t deserve a fair hearing.
How have we gotten to this point?
Western civilization was supposed to be the marriage of Christianity and Grecian philosophy. The freedom to express ideas was based on the Christian concept of tolerance. The notion that objective truths about life was derived from Platonic teachings. Intertwined, Jesus and Aristotle were supposed to provide a coherent framework for interpreting man’s place in the world (with a path to salvation as an added bonus).
But now, normal ideas about society and flourishing are in a constant state of flux. Concepts like right and wrong, race, gender, culture, and even facts are considered fluid and impermanent. And everything is considered debatable, leaving no concrete foundation on which to argue from. As one liberal academic put it, “reality is socially constructed.”
In an insightful essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Skidmore College professor Robert Boyers digs into the impasse modern society has reached when it comes to debating and sharing ideas. He writes, “it is now harder than ever to argue about ideas without first ascertaining that you and your antagonist share even rudimentary assumptions about what exactly is intended when a concept is invoked.”
Think about it: Everyday words no longer have the meaning they once did. Talk of truth and objectivity is looked upon as white colonial oppression. Caution over unchecked immigration is denounced as racist. Testaments of religious belief and conscience are considered dirty bigotry.
Politically opposed Americans can no longer have a conversation without the cornerstone of a deliberative democracy: A shared assumption of good faith.
Boyers notes that “on several fronts our liberal societies are advancing toward what a number of thinkers, from Isaiah Berlin to John Gray, call ‘missionary regimes’ promoting what they take to be ‘advanced values.’”
No doubt, you’ve been witness to the Left’s advanced values. They include shouting down people you disagree with, blocking the highway to a Donald Trump rally, and calling on white Americans to commit mass suicide. Very enlightened. Super pluralistic. And oh so tolerant.
Liberalism, with its dedication to free expression as a universal value, was not supposed to be this way. Its result, however, has been a militantly homogeneous regime dedicated to enforcing its multicultural ideals. You either accept the new rule, or you’re cast out of polite society.
Does this mean that liberalism’s inevitable standardizing of thought brings about its own end? Will western values eventually eat themselves?
Not necessarily. On paper, diversity in views and opinions is a good thing for enriching life and providing new avenues to experience the world. But societies first need a solid center before alternative ideas can be explored. Daniel J. Mahoney calls this center the “conservative foundations of the liberal order,” which include a “healthy family life, a moral code rooted in religion and natural law, prudent and far-seeing statesmanship, the rule of law, a respect for legitimate institutions, love of truth.”
Without this foundation, the house of liberalism cannot stand. American progressivism has spent nearly a century chipping away at the societal goods Mahoney outlines. Leftist public policies undermine the family, strip civil institutions of their purpose, turn statesmanship into the cynical pursuit of votes, and question truth to the point where nearly everything becomes morally relative.
In the absence of a unifying force, vox populi is determined by emotive impulse. The end result is that you can call immigration opponents neo-Nazis and not get a second look. You can malign poor, uneducated folks without a sense of solidarity for your fellow countrymen. You can ruthlessly attack your intellectual adversaries without giving them the tiniest bit of legitimacy.
The moral code that guided George Bailey’s America is long gone. Increasingly, our country is losing its spiritual but rational center to the forces of strident, unthinking ideology.
It sounds cliché but there is a need in this country for a great unifier. At America’s founding, it was an allegiance to British legal traditions and a shared Protestant belief system. During World War II, it was the desire to beat back the forces of tyranny. Even Richard Nixon brought the country together during the calamity of inner-city riots and the Vietnam War.
The kind of unity America saw less than century ago is unheard of today. Modern liberalism’s emphasis on material satisfaction and unlimited choice does not fulfill our need for a national core. So what, then, will be the next vision or idea we can all coalesce around?
I don’t have the answer. But refraining from likening each other to Hitler is a good start.