Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Feb/19

11

A “new post-ideological strategic world order”?

Pepe Escobar sees Eurasian integration and associated trade developments as possibly marking the emergence of a new, post-ideological strategic world order. China, with its infrastructure-focused Belt and Road Initiative, is driving this process. By contrast, the US appears to be locked into a Cold War-like mentality.

There is some truth in this view. Certainly the latest annual Worldwide Threat Assessment released by the US Director of National Intelligence has explicitly categorized US–China relations in ideological terms. China is interpreted as seeking to propagate “authoritarian capitalism” and this is perceived as a direct challenge to Western liberal democracy.

And so it may be. But only if it delivers the promised benefits at a time when Western democracy seems to be losing its way. Our problems are of our own making and can’t plausibly be blamed on Russia or China.

Escobar rightly criticizes the tendency to conflate very different kinds of system; to equate, as he puts it, “Russian democracy with China’s one party rule, Iran’s demo-theocracy and Turkey’s neo-Ottoman revival.” Moreover, American criticisms of the illiberalism and authoritarianism of states which are perceived to be strategic rivals ring rather hollow while other equally illiberal regimes are given a pass.

It must be admitted that a pro-Russia bias is evident in Escobar’s article. The reference (quoted above) to “Russian democracy” is a case in point. And then there is this:

Last month in Moscow, I discussed Greater Eurasia – by now established as the overarching concept of Russian foreign policy – with top Russian analysts. They told me Putin is on board. He referred to Eurasia recently as “not a chessboard or a geopolitical playground, but our peaceful and prosperous home.”

All sweetness and light…

Some of Escobar’s substantive claims have merit, however. Claims about Russia’s strategic significance, for example, despite its relatively small economy (one tenth the size of China’s).

From boosting trade that bypasses the U.S. dollar, to increasing joint military exercises, the Russia-China symbiosis is poised to advance beyond political and ideological affinities.

China badly needs Russian know-how in its military industry. Beijing will turn this knowledge into plenty of dual use, civilian-military innovations.

Technology and trade are driving an historically and strategically significant process of economic and social change, no doubt about it. Escobar points out that Henry Kissinger saw this coming.

The Kissinger doctrine rules that, geopolitically, the U.S. is just “an island off the shores of the large landmass of Eurasia.” Domination “by a single power of either of Eurasia’s two principal spheres – Europe or Asia – remains a good definition of strategic danger for America, Cold War or no Cold War,” as Kissinger said. “For such a grouping would have the capacity to outstrip America economically and, in the end, militarily.”

Are we headed for a post-ideological world? It is a question of scope and degree. The fact that the West’s major antagonists have abandoned the ideology of Marxism-Leninism and adopted more pragmatic approaches makes it difficult if not impossible for the US and its allies to sustain with any degree of plausibility the simple dichotomies of a Cold War-style approach.

Our perceived strategic rivals have (as Escobar pointed out) adopted various ideologies and forms of government while, in the West, tottering liberal democracies are facing challenges from within. We see a swirling mix of views and outlooks. Various forms of nationalism, regionalism, separatism and internationalism compete with one another. Some groups focus on identity politics, others on radical environmentalism. Attempts are being made to revive various forms of socialism. Crackpot ideas like Modern Monetary Theory are being seriously entertained in some quarters.

In such a fluid situation it is hardly surprising that American attempts to utilize ideology as a means of cementing Western solidarity are failing. In recent years we have seen major US allies resisting America’s hardline approach to China and Russia. The current battles over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline are just the latest example. Generally, pragmatic considerations seem to be winning out as US allies are increasingly seeing the need to take a more independent line on foreign policy and trade.

This, I think, is a good thing. Social and political myths and the ideologies with which they are associated will always be with us. But, given the role that ideology has often played in exacerbating international tensions and fanning the flames of war, it is well to be wary of any attempt to deploy ideological considerations in the context of foreign policy and international relations.

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Feb/19

4

More than a crisis

Paris Breakfast, Arc de Triomphe (Photograph by Maurice Sapiro, 1956)

Variations on the general theme that things ain’t what they used to be are often heard but rarely taken seriously. And, as a general rule, the older the speaker is, the less seriously the claims are taken. Of course he would say that, the old codger. Life was so much better for him back then.

A couple of years ago the German-born fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld admitted to feeling that the world he had once lived in had ceased to exist. Paris, where he has lived and worked since the 1950s (when “it looked like an old French movie”) had never been as gloomy, dangerous or depressing as it was now.

Another notable old complainer is Paul Volcker. Late last year, past 90 and in very poor health, he spoke to the New York Times. Volcker saw “a hell of a mess in every direction,” including a lack of basic respect for government institutions:

“Respect for government, respect for the Supreme Court, respect for the president, it’s all gone. Even respect for the Federal Reserve… And it’s really bad. At least the military still has all the respect. But … how can you run a democracy when nobody believes in the leadership of the country?”

Quite. There are preconditions for democracy.

Human communities and societies have always been bound together and defined by sets of implicit rules and customs and, as societies become larger and more complex, political systems develop to deal with an inevitable proliferation of beliefs and practices. The best systems try to accommodate differences rather than trying to stamp them out.

On the whole, the modern, liberal, Western tradition struck a good balance between privacy and individual freedom on the one hand and the need to maintain a broad social and moral consensus on the other. The evolution of modern forms of government in Europe was not always a smooth or peaceful process but the trend (inexorable perhaps only in retrospect) towards the creation of liberal, secular states and associated institutions coincided with a flowering of creative energies such as has rarely been seen in human history.

Given recent developments in Western countries, however – spiralling debt, failing economies, loss of confidence in government and professional elites, the intrusions of fundamentalist Islam and rise of fundamentalist forms of Christianity and Judaism, increasing social divisions and apparently increasing social conflict and violence – we seem to be in the midst, not just of a crisis period (crises pass), but of a period of epochal change.

Comparisons are often made with the 1930s but the resurgence of religious fundamentalism suggests that liberal democracy is facing a different kind of challenge from that once posed by various forms of fascism and radical socialism. Our situation is also complicated by the yet-to-be-understood impact of digital technologies. In fact, in social and cultural terms, so much has changed – and changed so radically – over the last fifty or sixty years that it is tempting simply to see the tradition of Western thought which led to the creation of modern liberal democracy as having finally played itself out.

This is not quite true, of course. It was a rich and varied tradition comprising many elements, some of which continue to find expression in current institutional arrangements. But political ideas and institutions do not develop or exist in a cultural vacuum. They are necessarily dependent on – and only work well in the context of – particular social and cultural conditions. To a large extent, the preconditions for liberal democracy no longer prevail.

What these preconditions are (or were) is impossible to specify precisely but they would, I think, include relatively stable regional and national cultures (essential as a basis for trust), a sense of continuity with the past, and an enlightened and science-friendly perspective. A science-friendly – or at least technology-hungry – perspective still prevails, but the humanizing elements which once went hand-in-hand with science are failing.

In Western societies the erosion of traditional culture is already well-advanced and is evident not only in regard to the loss of shared narratives and traditions at local, regional and national levels but also in respect of stories and traditions which transcend national boundaries (the Western classical heritage, for example).  The loss of these cultural frameworks weakens and isolates communities, cutting them adrift from the past and leaving them more vulnerable to demagoguery, dogmatism and social fragmentation.

Part of the problem, in fact, can be seen to lie with classical liberalism itself – at least in so far as it constitutes a philosophy or ideology. Its fatal flaw relates to the rationalism from which it derives and manifests itself in a tendency to see societies and individuals in abstract, timeless and universal terms and to underplay the significance of social context and history.

Though we can reason, we are not the “rational beings” philosophers once imagined us to be. A self or a person is not some kind of metaphysical entity but rather the tenuous product of a particular set of social and cultural experiences and the constellation of social connections which this history makes possible.

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Dec/18

15

The problematic concept of religion

Christmas time highlights — usually in relatively trivial ways — the tensions between traditionalists and advocates of progressive forms of secularism and multiculturalism. The underlying issues run deep, however, and go to the heart of some basic political principles and assumptions. These issues are real and intractable. They will not be resolved by linguistic or conceptual analysis. But at least they may be clarified.

Recently I tried to articulate some nagging concerns I have about the concept of religion. My basic point was that no equivalent of our modern notion existed in the ancient or medieval worlds. Nor do you find such a notion in most non-Western cultures. These facts don’t necessarily undermine the concept of religion, but they should make us question it.

Take the Latin word ‘religio’. It did not mark out a separate (“religious”) sphere of living. This compartmentalized view of life only arose in the modern era and, though it seemed to work and bring social benefits, it could be seen to be both anomalous (historically speaking) and intrinsically unstable.

A standard Christian view is that there is no separate religious sphere of life: that life is an integrated whole and not compartmentalized into religious and secular components. I would argue that such a view, not dependent on an inevitably abstract and arbitrary notion of religion, is natural and robust and can work not only for those who are committed to traditional creeds and practices but also for those (like me) who are not.

Problems arise, of course, when people committed to very different views and traditions live together, and the secularization of politics and public life could be seen as a sensible and pragmatic solution — perhaps the only viable and humane solution.

My focus here is not on policy prescriptions, however, but rather on certain fundamental ideas about religion. These ideas are important at least to the extent that they motivate and help to justify political judgments and prescriptions.

Typically, traditional liberal approaches have not been based solely on pragmatic concerns but have been motivated also by metaphysical views, often involving a generalized religious perspective deriving from Stoic and Neoplatonic sources. Human rights talk, for example, derives from the natural law tradition which in turn owes much to Stoicism. And the modern notion of religion (against which the secular is defined and upon which notions such as religious freedom depend) could be seen as deriving in large part from Renaissance Neoplatonism.

A number of key 20th-century liberal thinkers, though ostensibly agnostic, took religion very seriously indeed. The views on religion of Ludwig von Mises were not atypical.

Though lacking any specific religious affiliation, Mises was a relentless critic of behaviorism and a believer in human freedom, not just in a political but also in a metaphysical sense. In Theory and History (1958) he states that he sees an essential truth lying behind sacred scriptures and mythic narratives of the fate of the soul. These “rather crude representations” have been sublimated, he claims, by religious doctrines and by idealistic philosophy. Neither reason nor science is able “to refute cogently the refined tenets of religious creeds.”

History can explode many of the historical narrations of theological literature. But higher criticism does not affect the core of faith. Reason can neither prove nor disprove the essential religious doctrines.

Essential religious doctrines? Mises expresses a commonly-held view, but it is one which I personally cannot make sense of. What is this essential religion exactly?

One does not lightly dismiss a body of concepts and practices which has, one way or another, underpinned political thinking in the West for hundreds of years. But times change and current levels of social discord would seem to indicate that classical liberal principles have lost traction. Whether they can be reworked and applied effectively to the sorts of societies we now have is a moot point.

At the very least, however, these ideas and their motivating principles need to be subjected to critical scrutiny and reframed in terms which can be understood without recourse to the idealism and essentialism of another age.

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Nov/18

23

Radicalism, religion and climate change

Although Christianity is now in rapid decline, secularized versions of Biblical ethics and eschatology still flourish and continue to exert a profound influence on moral and political thinking, especially in left-wing and radical circles. But a case can be made that adopting, in the absence of religious belief, the absolute judgments and sharp moral imperatives which are characteristic of the prophetic and apocalyptic literature and the New Testament doesn’t really make sense; that it is a recipe for cognitive dissonance and worse.

Self-protective moral contortions and distortions, compartmentalized thinking, cynicism and hypocrisy are not restricted to the atheistic left but such cognitive and moral aberrations are certainly in evidence in contemporary progressive circles. Making matters worse, in the absence of actual religion, social and political causes have a tendency to become cults, or at least vehicles for cultish behavior.

In this connection, the behavior of climate change activists and their followers has often been remarked upon. Committed environmentalists often seem curiously uninterested in understanding the actual impact of various kinds of activities and processes. If it’s “renewable”, or involves recycling, it’s good. The virtue signalling side of this is all too obvious.

Amongst activists the focus is very much on polemics and political action rather than open discussion and persuasion. The problem is that this sort of approach is not conducive to forming the sort of broad coalition which is usually necessary to achieve effective and lasting policy change.

Due to a family connection, I ventured out of my comfort zone recently to attend a climate change meeting. I was expecting a discussion or debate, but there was little discussion of the facts, no science, just consciousness-raising and a bit about strategies for influencing legislation.

Most of the participants (who were obviously very sincere and intelligent people) had a moral focus and talked about modifying their own lifestyles, but the main speaker was too partisan-political for my taste. She had recently become an advisor to a former trade union leader who had moved into politics.

It was noted at one point that only two or three percent of scientists questioned certain apocalyptic predictions. “Let’s hope they’re right,” I commented. Dead silence. Disapproval. This was not what one was supposed to say (though I assume the thought, the hope, was kosher). I had revealed myself not to be one of them.

“So, Mark, you are a climate change skeptic!” interjected my cousin (who was hosting the event). In a very weak sense, perhaps I am. As I explained to the group, it’s not something I know a lot about. I think the climate is changing, and it seems very likely that human activity is playing a significant role, but beyond that there’s nothing useful I can say.

What struck me above all was the initial response to my off-the-cuff comment, that awkward silence. There was something amiss here. It was as if even the possibility of a relatively optimistic climatic future was not to be countenanced or publicly acknowledged.

Certainly, the reaction was political and revealed a strong in-group/out-group dynamic. It was also consistent with something which many have suggested before me, namely that the main driving force behind (at least some of) the activism in this area may not be the well-being of the biosphere at all, but broader political goals which a climate crisis makes more attainable.

As I see it, the excessive politicization of environmental concerns is counterproductive to the activists’ own stated goals. It leads to suspicion and resistance on the part of conservatives, for example, who might under different circumstances be sympathetic to cooperative action on the environment. If climate change does require urgent action, openly talking about the science and the inevitable uncertainties involved will not block the way.

And the more serious the projected problems are seen to be, the more imperative it is to move questions of climate change and potential preventative or mitigatory action as far as humanly possible away from the realm of partisan politics; to unbundle the issue, in other words, from the set of irredeemably contentious social and political causes with which it is all too often perceived to be associated.

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Oct/18

18

Fantasies, facts and values

The Western cultural tradition, which combined various elements (religious, intellectual, scientific) into a rich and resilient and trans-national framework of thought and practice, is all but dead.

Witness, for example, the increasingly propaganda-ridden media environment, the absurdities of identity politics where whims and fantasies routinely trump objective reality and, more generally, the self-righteous and narrow dogmatism of the progressive left.

The deep causes are not just ideological, but ideas and ideology play a role.

The notion that the world of which we are a part is a certain way and that we can have objective knowledge of that world is a crucial tenet of Western thought. Closely associated with this idea is the distinction between factually-based and values-based claims.

For all sorts of reasons the fact/value distinction needs to be maintained. It is basic to a sensible, modern view of the world. Unfortunately many philosophers and other intellectuals have in recent decades sought assiduously to undermine it. In so doing they have (wittingly or unwittingly) given cover and support to those who reject the idea that the sciences and rigorous forms of scholarship (coupled with common sense and ordinary observation) reveal an objective reality which is not at the mercy of our whims and preferences and prejudices.

Philosophies like Pragmatism are very popular these days, largely because they blur the fact/value distinction. William James had a religious view of the world, and his form of Pragmatism supported it. John Dewey had strong social and political commitments to which his form of Pragmatism lent a spurious intellectual authority.

Richard Rorty was another influential (and politically motivated) Pragmatist. He incorporated elements of Romanticism into his thinking and, unlike Dewey, disparaged and tried to undermine the status of the sciences.

Rorty wrote clearly and well, by and large avoiding the jargon-dense obscurity of the Continentals. He should also be given credit for seeing as totally futile much of the self-perpetuating philosophical and metaphysical discourse which was produced by analytic philosophers in the late 20th century. But his anti-science attitude, driven by the same general forces which drove many literary men and women before him — a kind of donnish snobbery bolstered by Romantic notions — was unfortunate.

Sure, it is sometimes difficult to disentangle the potentially factual from the value-related aspects of a statement or claim. But an ability to do such disentangling is one of the most important things that a basic education should develop. Not much chance of this when educators’ heads are stuffed full of postmodern fantasies. What they seek to encourage in their students is not independent thinking or real creativity (which is always based on actual competence) but rather a witless conformity masquerading as creative self-expression and a blind adherence to a mishmash of liberal or progressive dogmas, clichés and slogans.

The silliness and emptiness of all this is evident to many, of course, and not just to old fogeys and traditionalists. ZeroHedge reports:

The “weaponized autists” at 4Chan have done it again, because they can; a new meme suggesting that liberals are soulless idiots who can’t think for themselves has gone viral. The concept compares Democrats to “nonplayable characters,” or NPCs – the recurring characters in video games with repetitive lines and limited knowledge. Lack of an “inner voice” is a dead giveaway that someone may be an NPC… The NPC meme [is] meant to ridicule the post-election perpetual outrage culture in which liberals simply parrot the latest talking points from their favorite pundits, who do their thinking for them… The 4chan version is a simple greyed out, expressionless face known as “NPC Wojak” – which has triggered the left so hard that Twitter conducted a mass-banning campaign for accounts promoting the meme, and the New York Times wrote an entire article trying to figure it out.

I acknowledge that education, especially in the early years, is largely about imparting values, practices and myths. Values are an important part of education. The question is, which values?

A rudimentary education in science and/or some form of rigorous scholarship (disciplines which are dependent on virtues such as attention and patience) is crucial, in my opinion, for giving students a sense of objective knowledge. Such disciplines are always in a healthy tension with mythmaking on the one hand and ideological conformity on the other.

We can’t escape myths and ideologies. But if a good part of our thinking is grounded in objective reality we are at least less likely to be consumed by them.

 

 

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