WASHINGTON, D.C. - The New Republic published a piece by Columbia University political philosopher Mark Lilla I thought ought to have a long shelf life. Entitled “The Truth About Our Libertarian Age,” the essay commences with this:
“We all sense that ominous changes are taking place in our societies, and in other societies whose destinies will very much shape our own. Yet we lack adequate concepts or even a vocabulary for describing the world we find ourselves in. The connection between words and things has snapped. The end of ideology has not meant the lifting of clouds. It has brought a fog so thick that we can no longer read what is right before us. We find ourselves in an illegible age.”
Lilla writes with the erudition and sweeping historical references that, he says, are lacking in our boring political writing. His general thesis (do read it, don’t rely on me) is that since the End of History – that is the decline of any ideology to compete with democratic capitalism – Western political theory has gotten flabby, inarticulate and unambitious. Lilla thinks the ideals democratic capitalism has embraced in real life have been assumed rather than championed. Indeed they are barely ideals.
One is the assumption that economic growth is the be all and end all of society. There is no holier grail.
The other is libertarianism, which he defines this way:
“The social liberalization that began in a few Western countries in the 1960s is meeting less resistance among educated urban elites nearly everywhere, and a new cultural outlook, or at least questioning, has emerged. This outlook treats as axiomatic the primacy of individual self-determination over traditional social ties, indifference in matters of religion and sex, and the a priori obligation to tolerate others. Of course there have also been powerful reactions against this outlook, even in the West. But outside the Islamic world, where theological principles still have authority, there are fewer and fewer objections that persuade people who have no such principles. The recent, and astonishingly rapid, acceptance of homosexuality and even gay marriage in so many Western countries — a historically unprecedented transformation of traditional morality and customs — says more about our time than anything else.”
Spoiler alert: Here’s the last paragraph of this very brilliant essay:
“The libertarian age is an illegible age. It has given birth to a new kind of hubris unlike that of the old master thinkers. Our hubris is to think that we no longer have to think hard or pay attention or look for connections, that all we have to do is stick to our ‘democratic values’ and economic models and faith in the individual and all will be well. Having witnessed unpleasant scenes of intellectual drunkenness, we have become self-satisfied abstainers removed from history and unprepared for the challenges it is already bringing. The end of the cold war destroyed whatever confidence in ideology still remained in the West. But it also seems to have destroyed our will to understand. We have abdicated. The libertarian dogma of our time is turning our polities, economies, and cultures upside down — and blinding us to this by making us even more self-absorbed and incurious than we naturally are. The world we are making with our hands is as remote from our minds as the farthest black hole. Once we had nostalgia for the future. Today we have an amnesia for the present.”
A less grandiose but useful historical insight into one of our current squabbles can be found in The Washington Post’s Outlook section. Knowing how ticked off some people are by Dick Cheney’s seemingly un-vice presidential heckling of the current president, historian Chris DeRose reminds us of how five different ex-presidents badgered Abraham Lincoln. The worst was probably Franklin Pierce, the 14th president:
“Pierce labored tirelessly throughout the war to elect candidates who opposed Lincoln. He remained a critic of the president, especially on civil liberties, and publicly fought with the administration, which accused him of treason. When Jefferson Davis’s Mississippi home was captured by Union forces, Pierce’s secret correspondence with the Confederate president was revealed, sealing his unpopularity. Despite their fierce political disagreements, Pierce, who had lost his only surviving son in a train accident on the way to his inauguration, wrote Lincoln a heartfelt note after the death of the president’s 11-year-old son, Willie, in 1862.”
So at least politicians in the midst of a civil war were civil and polite, which seems to be more than our current crop can say.
Last and totally least, a piece in The New York Times that I chose not to believe. In The Trauma of Parenthood, Northwestern University psychology professor Eli J. Finkel writes that among new parents three to six months after birth, “42 percent of mothers and 26 percent of fathers exhibit signs of clinical depression.”
Are we really sure about that? Almost half of all new mothers are depressed? Not just tired, scared and adjusting to the totally new, but depressed? A quarter of all dads?
If that’s true, it’s the most depressing story I have ever read. If new parenthood is depressing, just wait till, say, middle age and then death! Oy.
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