A Sense of Ending

There’s a well-written and insightful piece by Gavin Jacobsen in The Times Literary Supplement, about the modern-day sense of things coming to an end. I am currently writing on religious liberty and have noticed the same malaise in many voices discussing that topic too–as if history cannot continue on in the way it has and the old systems are no longer working. Optimism has given way to this-or-that-ism, liberalism or justice, freedom or protections, rights or duty. The future is a age of mutual exclusion.

Since the financial crash of 2008, across Europe and in the United States, there has been (to borrow a phrase from Frank Kermode) a “sense of an ending”. Liberal orthodoxies have fallen into radical doubt. Populist movements are arrayed against the political and economic order that has stood in place for the past fifty years. Electorates have leaped into unknown futures. The grounds of civilization won’t break up under our feet so much as recede under melting ice caps and rising seas, while the indices of progress – life expectancy, equality, happiness and trust in political institutions – have gone into reverse in many parts of the world. Recent headlines sum up the mood: “Happiness is on the wane in the US, UN global report finds”, the Guardian, March 2017; “Trust is collapsing in America”, the Atlantic, January 2018; “Life expectancy in America has declined for two years in a row”, the Economist, January 2018; “Is inequality rising or falling?”, the Economist, again, March 2018, bolstered by the “World Inequality Report: Executive Summary, 2018” by Thomas Piketty et al. The World Bank has also reported that while fewer people are living in extreme poverty around the world, the decline in poverty rates has slowed. This narrative of decline and fall exists alongside more positive assessments of humankind’s peaceful and enlightened trajectory, such as those advanced by Steven Pinker. But the optimists have seemed less persuasive, generally unable to nullify the vogue for Apocalypticism.

Perhaps the note of fear about the future will lead us to a socially beneficial reevaluation of what we hold most dear. Jacobsen concludes.

Nor has there been any attempt to face up to the fact that over the past few years it has been liberals, as well as demagogues on the Right, that have relied on the politics of fear, if only because, as the political thinker Corey Robin pointed out in Fear: The history of a political idea (2004), fear, like terror, “possess[es] an easy intelligibility”, requiring “no deep philosophy, no leap of reason, to establish its evil: Everyonef knows what it is and that it is bad”. But if, as the recent flurry of books have argued, democracy is facing its doomsday, it won’t do to presume that with a bit more emotional tinkering here and there we may return to some prelapsarian time before populism shook everything up. Rather, liberals must confront the tougher questions of why people should care about liberal democracy at all, why virtues such as love, and norms of civility and equality, are supposedly inviolable, and why, in the words of John Milton, we should prefer “Hard liberty before the easy yoke / Of servile pomp”.

We can hope.

Read the rest here.

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