November 21, 2009


Where has the world headed after 1989? (Ian Buruma, 21 November 2009, Times of India)

Twenty years ago, when the Berlin Wall was breached and the Soviet empire was collapsing , only die-hard believers in a communist utopia felt unhappy. [...]

Democratic idealism was once the domain of the left, including social democrats and liberals. But, in the late twentieth century, it became more important to many leftists to save "Third World" culture, no matter how barbaric, from "neocolonialism ," than to support equality and democracy. People on the left would defend brutal dictators (Castro, Mao, Pol Pot, Khomeini, et al) simply because they opposed "Western imperialism."

As a result, all politics that were derived, no matter how loosely, from Marxism, lost credibility, and finally died in 1989. This was naturally a disaster for communists and socialists , but also for social democrats, for they had lost an ideological basis for their idealism. And, without idealism, politics becomes a form of accounting, a management of purely material interests.

This explains why Italians, and later Thais, chose business tycoons to lead their countries. They hoped that men who managed to accumulate so much personal wealth could do the same for their voters.

Yet the rhetoric of idealism has not quite disappeared. It merely shifted from left to right. Once the left abandoned the language of internationalism - democratic revolution, national liberation, and so forth - it was taken up by neoconservatives . Their promotion of American military force as the strong arm of democracy may have been misguided, crude, arrogant, ignorant, naïve , and deeply dangerous, but it was indisputably idealistic .

The allure of revolutionary élan has drawn some former leftists to the neo-conservative side. But most liberals were deeply alarmed by the neo-cons , without being able to find a coherent answer .

Having lost their own zest for internationalism, a common response among liberals to neo-con radicalism has been a call for "realism," non-interference in others' affairs, and withdrawal from the world. This may be the wiser course in many cases, but it is hardly inspiring.

Coincidentally, I just found and read a copy of Jedediah Purdy's infamous polemic against irony, For Common Things, not coincidentally published shortly after the End of History. Early on, he says the following, in trying to define irony and describe what's wrong with it:
It is a fear of betrayal, disappointment, and humiliation, and a suspicion that believing, hoping, or caring too much will open us to these. [...]

In roughly the past twenty-five years, politics has gone dead to the imagination. It has ceased being the site of moral and historical drama. It has come to seem petty, tedious, and parochial.

This change would signify less if politics had mattered less than it has in recent decades. However, for more than two hundred years, politics has been among the great sources of inspiration and purpose, giving shape to many lives. From the radical period of the French Revolution onward there has stood the promise that politics can change the human predicament in elemental ways. Politics, on this promise, could erase all the foolish, cruel, maddening accretions of history and replace them with fair and humane arrangements where for the first time people would live as free as they are born. For both the revolutionaries whose ambitions convulsed the world and the crusading reformers of Britain and America, politics was the fulcrum on which women and men could move the lever of history. They needed only a firm place to stand to take up Archimedes' old boast and move the world.

This extraordinary promise attracted the people with the greatest capacity and need for hope, the ones with the keenest sensitivity to suffering and cruelty and the strongest impulse to work against them. Politics was the means by which those who were most keenly aware of what should be could turn that moral truth into historical reality. Politics in effect took over the role of religion for many people in both this century and the last. It gave purpose to individual lives. Its aim of remaking the world carried the promise of redemption, both of whole societies and of the long labors of the individuals who worked to change them. Politics was the way to service, to heroism, and to sainthood.

There's something spine-chilling about a guy who laments the end of the mass-murderous period of ideology that the French Revolution ushered in and complains that liberal democracy has triumphed, ending the "drama." Sure, America is generally pretty boring. But our dramatic periods have come when we've been forced to crush chattel slavery, Imperialism, Nazism, Communism, Islamicism, all the isms that tried to replace religious morality with utopian politics.

We were fortunate to avoid most of the damage from these cancers of the Age of Reason here in the Anglosphere, precisely because our culture of irony immunized us to the delusions of the true believers:

[W]hat emerged was a re-articulation of a great American theology: the ironic strain of Protestant faith. In 1952, Reinhold Niebuhr described this part of American religious-political character in his book, The Irony of American History. Irony, as Niebuhr described, is not humor. Rather, it is an understanding that American history was full of unexpected twists, that the most innocent political intentions had often undermined virtue.

“If virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its own limits - in all such cases, the situation is ironic.”

Irony runs deep in the Protestant soul, finding its original voice in St. Paul, who said, “We know that the law is spiritual, but I am flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

    The Rebirth of Irony (Diana Butler Bass)

It was thanks to our distrust of merely human ideas and our recognition of human frailties that we didn't get sucked into the great Rationalist experiments upon mankind. (A people whose God so badly screwed up His own Eden are hardly likely to make the mistake of believing they can create paradise themselves.) Indeed, it was the uniquely ironic disposition towards Reason itself that saved us.

While it is easy enough to understand why "Progressives" should be so disappointed that political thought has made no significant progress in hundreds of years and that the stuff we have right derives from accepting non-rational truth, that's no reason to take their whingeing seriously.

Turns out, Judeo-Christian theology is progressive; progressivism is retardant. Move on...

N.B.: Note too that it is the inability of the Left to accept the irony inherent in Creation that makes all humor conservative.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 21, 2009 7:05 AM
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