Reflections On The New Tribalism

A Symptom.— Public shaming implies a character that is incapable of mercy, which implies a lack of empathy, which implies an inability to recognize one’s likeness in the other, which implies seeing the other as specially separate and thus essentially unfamiliar.

The inability to recognize one’s likeness in the other, i.e., to see the subjectively unfamiliar as objectively familiar, indicates an uncivilized man. And I mean “uncivilized” here not in any metaphorical or hyperbolic sense, but in its proper connotation, namely a fundamental ignorance of one’s surroundings stemming from a deficiency of humanizing awareness, i.e., a lack of even the bare minimum of genuine learning and moral maturation, the threshold that distinguishes primitive man in his pre-moral condition from the early development of man as an animal capable of living in a community with basic rules and a shared language.

When faced with the unfamiliar, the man of maturity and understanding will investigate it, ignore it, or try to teach it. The weak and ignorant man runs away from the unfamiliar, lives in dread of it, or tries to kill it. 

Saving Democracy.— There is a lot of talk these days about “dangers to democracy” and the struggle to “save democracy.” As has been true of all such waves of popular rhetoric, for over a century, the loudest cries in defense of democracy, and against alleged existential threats to it, tend to come from progressives and populists (masterminds and demagogues) — two factions, or two sides of a coin, which not only themselves represent the most fundamental danger to democracy, but which more importantly manifest the most essential danger of democracy. For every regime has its innate method of disintegration or implosion. In the case of democracy, the special weakness is the potential for the practical mechanisms of self-government to be exploited, and the institutions of public life corrupted, by those who would undermine the spiritual conditions that make true, rational self-government possible. 

The Fruits of Modernity.— The progressive is preternaturally obsessed with the future, and specifically with ensuring that the future be endlessly improved. And so essential to his understanding of improvement (progress) is a heightened degree of pleasure, convenience, risk-avoidance, and security, that he is prepared to sacrifice everything else — freedom, beauty, profundity — to these ultimate social goals. But today’s radical progressives would trace their ancestry, if they had the inclination or wit to do so, to the early modern philosophers who most embodied the spirit of the age in its original, more liberal form — Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza. For these men set the progressive ball rolling, in that they were variously certain that new notions of scientific certainty were the true goal of thought and the foundation for modern society, that the ancient thinkers were dissembling demons or sophistical fools, and that in the end the true and proper goal of life (and thought) was nothing but the preservation (i.e., prolongation) of life, meaning specifically one’s own life.

This was the seed of modern progressivism, right there in the dream of a perfect certainty that would somehow issue in political and practical imperatives securing a longer, safer life — and, above all, in the absolute rejection of all the wisdom of past thinkers that is perceived as running counter to the goals of self-preservation and material utility. And what exactly is the wisdom of past thinkers that so haunts and perturbs the progressive modern mind? To state it in its pithiest form, that of Socrates himself, the wisdom that progressivism cannot abide is that the best human life is the life of practicing for death. For progressivism is, at heart, the child’s perspective elevated to a ruling philosophy.

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