When the center cannot hold, things fall apart

· Logos/Ethos

Dec. 4, 2019

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

                          from “The Second Coming” W.B. Yeats


The anarchy of which Yeats speaks is an apt metaphor for the deterioration and abandonment of Western liberalism which we are witnessing. The greatest prolonged period of human progress is on life-support as nation-states transition from liberalism to a form of populism widely referred to as “illiberal democracy”, characterized by its preference for authoritarian rule, waning interest in the rule of law, and protection of the rights of minorities.                          

Liberalism, the cultural and political philosophy which rose in the 18th Century, and gave birth to notions as revered as democracy, civil liberty under the rule of law, social equality and justice, capitalism and the mixed economy, is in decline and the West is far less stable than at any time in the post-war era.

To be clear, don’t confuse the idea known as Western liberalism with that faction of the Democratic Party in America known as liberals. Unfortunately, our President embarrassed himself (and us) when he was asked at last summer’s G-20 summit to comment on Vladimir Putin’s claim that “Western-style liberalism is obsolete.” He responded with, “I guess you look at what’s happening in Los Angeles, where it’s so sad to look, and what’s happening in San Francisco, and a couple other cities which are run by an extraordinary group of liberal people.” The Western liberalism of which I speak encompasses both the left and the right in today’s political parlance. Its adherents would include figures as diverse as Thomas Jefferson, Louisa May Alcott, Ronald Reagan, and Bono

The greatest threat to liberal democracy in America is the gross inequality in personal wealth. But because that has been widely discussed elsewhere, I’d like to focus on an equally serious phenomenon, the loss of social cohesion through the rise of tribalism in the form of identity politics.

The practice of identity politics has created a state of hyper-tribalism that is threatening much of the racial, sexual, and socio-political progress made over the past 50 years. Aligning in legions of sub-groups and citing perceived injustices and self-proclaimed victimhood, we have created a grievance culture which is paralyzing us and making progress impossible. College students are threatened and abused by new or troubling ideas; non-cisgendered humans (look it up; you’re likely one of them) clamor for recognition in the alphabet soup of sexual preferences (we’re up to LGBTQIA+ and counting); and both the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements, once serving a vital purpose in the protection of human rights, have taken to excesses that trivialize their mission and leave widespread rancor in their wake. Our tribes are ubiquitous and predictable fetishes abound. Victimhood is the coin of the realm and productive discourse is nowhere to be found.

The most profound impact of identity politics is its deleterious effect on conversation – our first and last hope for mutual enlightenment and democratic process. By pre-committing to a point of view based on identity, we forfeit any hope for rational discourse. There is no need to listen when we have already committed to a rehearsed response. This is not a new phenomenon, by the way. In the 1830’s Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Tell me your sect and I’ll anticipate your argument”. But the problem is magnified million-fold today by the presence of the internet and social media. Democracy is brought to a standstill when rational dialogue is abandoned. The U.S. Congress, “where the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”, is ample evidence of that.