Advice from the Enlightenment: In the face of crude bullying and humorless lies, try wit and a passion for justice.
We are living through a climate change in politics. Bigotry, bullying, mendacity, vulgarity — everything emitted by the tweets of President Trump and amplified by his followers has damaged the atmosphere of public life. The protective layer of civility, which makes political discourse possible, is disappearing like the ozone around Earth.
How can we restore a healthy climate? There is no easy answer, but some historic figures offer edifying examples. The one I propose may seem unlikely, but he transformed the climate of opinion in his era: Voltaire, the French philosopher who mobilized the power of Enlightenment principles in 18th-century Europe.
.. To those encountering him for the first time, Voltaire can look like a historical curiosity. His archaic wig and libertine wit seem to belong to a forgotten corner of the past. Moreover, he can be considered a conservative. He curried favor with the high and mighty, especially Louis XV. He was so deeply committed to the cultural system developed under France’s previous ruler, Louis XIV, that he would fail any test of political correctness today. And Voltaire opposed education for the masses because, he said, someone had to tend the fields.
.. So, forget the wig. But reconsider the wit. Nothing works better than ridicule in cutting bigots down to size. “I have never made but one prayer to God,” Voltaire wrote, “a very short one: ‘O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.’ And God granted it.” The first of the two most powerful weapons in his arsenal was laughter: “We must get the laughter on our side,” he instructed his auxiliary troops in the salons of Paris.
.. Ridicule works outside salons. We in America have Stephen Colbert on television. We had H.L. Mencken in the newspapers and Mark Twain in books. Yet wit can sound elitist, and Voltaire cultivated the elite, especially in his youth, when he celebrated wealth, pleasure and the good things of life. His poem “Le Mondain,” written in 1736, is an apology for worldly luxury — “the superfluous, a very necessary thing,” he wrote, in opposition to Christian asceticism.
That was Voltaire the young libertine. But now, in our contemporary crisis, I propose that we look also to Voltaire the angry old man. It was in his old age, during the 1760s and 1770s, that he wielded his second and most powerful weapon, moral passion.
In 1762 Voltaire learned about a case of judicial murder. The Parlement (high court) of Toulouse had condemned a Protestant merchant, Jean Calas, to be tortured and executed for supposedly killing his son, who supposedly had intended to convert to Catholicism. Not only were the suppositions wrong, but strong evidence pointed to Calas’s innocence.
Voltaire seized his pen. He composed the “Treatise on Tolerance,” one of the greatest defenses of religious liberty and civil rights ever written. He also wrote letters, hundreds of them, to all his contacts in the power elite — ministers, courtiers, salon leaders and fellow philosophers, working from the top down and manipulating the media of his day so skillfully that he created a tidal wave of public opinion, which would ultimately lead to the recognition of rights for Protestants in 1787, nine years after he died.
Voltaire ended many of those letters with a rallying cry, “Écrasez l’infâme” — “Crush the vile thing.” For him, the meaning of “l’infâme” could be extended from intolerance to superstition and injustices of all kinds. The opposing notion of tolerance shaded off into broader values, including civility — the virtue that we need so much today and that Voltaire identified with civilization. Voltaire saw the triumph of civilization over barbarity as the ultimate good inscribed in the historical process. He made the message clear in his most ambitious work, “Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations”— “Essay on the Manners and Spirit of Nations” — a survey of world history that he first published in 1756 and revised and expanded until his death in 1778.
What more can we aspire to in the age of Trump? The opposition to bigotry and the defense of civil rights once again call for a commitment to the cause of civilization. They require moral passion seasoned with wit.
The speed of America’s moral descent under Donald Trump is breathtaking. In a matter of months we’ve gone from a nation that stood for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to a nation that tears children from their parents and puts them in cages.
What’s almost equally remarkable about this plunge into barbarism is that it’s not a response to any actual problem. The mass influx of murderers and rapists that Trump talks about, the wave of crime committed by immigrants here (and, in his mind, refugees in Germany), are things that simply aren’t happening. They’re just sick fantasies being used to justify real atrocities.
.. And you know what this reminds me of? The history of anti-Semitism, a tale of prejudice fueled by myths and hoaxes that ended in genocide.
.. There is a highly technical debate among economists about whether low-education immigrants exert a depressing effect on the wages of low-education native-born workers (most researchers find that they don’t, but there is some disagreement). This debate, however, is playing no role in Trump policies.
.. What these policies reflect, instead, is a vision of “American carnage,” of big cities overrun by violent immigrants. And this vision bears no relationship to reality.
.. violent crime in America is actually at historical lows, with the homicide rate back to where it was in the early 1960s. (German crime is also at a historical low, by the way.)
.. places with a lot of immigrants, legal and undocumented, tend to have exceptionally low crime rates. The poster child for this tale of un-carnage is the biggest city of them all: New York
.. crime has fallen to levels not seen since the 1950s.
.. Where does this fear and hatred of immigrants come from? A lot of it seems to be fear of the unknown: The most anti-immigrant states seem to be places, like West Virginia, where hardly any immigrants live
.. a lot of the funding for anti-immigrant groups comes from foundations controlled by right-wing billionaires. Why do wealthy, successful people end up hating immigrants? I sometimes find myself thinking about the TV commentator Lou Dobbs
.. who is currently warning against a pro-immigrant plot by “the Illuminati of K Street.”
.. The thing about anti-Semitism is that it was never about anything Jews actually did. It was always about lurid myths, often based on deliberate fabrications, that were systematically spread to engender hatred.
For example, for centuries people repeated the “blood libel” — the claim that Jews sacrificed Christian babies as part of the Passover ritual.
.. In the early part of the 20th century there was wide dissemination of “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” a supposed plan for Jewish world domination that was probably forged by the Russian secret police.
.. The fake document received wide dissemination in the United States thanks to none other than Henry Ford, a virulent anti-Semite who oversaw the publication and distribution of a half-million copies of an English translation, “The International Jew.” Ford later apologized for publishing a forgery
.. Again, why would someone like Ford — not only wealthy, but also one of the most admired men of his time — have gone down this path? I don’t know, but clearly such things happen.
.. the atrocities our nation is now committing at the border don’t represent an overreaction or poorly implemented response to some actual problem that needs solving. There is no immigration crisis; there is no crisis of immigrant crime.
.. No, the real crisis is an upsurge in hatred — unreasoning hatred that bears no relationship to anything the victims have done. And anyone making excuses for that hatred — who tries, for example, to turn it into a “both sides” story — is, in effect, an apologist for crimes against humanity.
I propose we get our noses out of Jane Austen. Not her books, her life.
.. But there’s more than a little sexism in the condescension. We don’t call Charles Dickens, Charles; Joseph Conrad, Joseph; or Franz Kafka, Franz.
.. By personalizing Jane Austen, and trying to make the world of her novels continuous with our own, we denigrate her seriousness.
.. Only “Mansfield Park” speaks overtly of “barbarism.” But the prospect of moral chaos is never far away in any of her mature novels. Her seriousness of intent is not the stuff of literary prattle. Never mind whom she loved. And she isn’t Jane, your best friend. She is Jane Austen, a novelist of unfamiliar and uncomfortable genius.
Trump’s act of war is in violation of the Constitution, which requires congressional authorization for such an offensive use of military force, provoked by no aggression against our nation.
.. Bashar al-Assad’s continuation in power, dismal as that prospect may be, is in no way the worst conceivable outcome for American national security.
.. If the United States has not been attacked or threatened, congressional approval should be sought, not merely for legal purposes but also to ensure that complexities have been thought through and public support for a risky intervention has been won. Here, quite apart from the want of American legal footing, Trump lacks even the fig leaf of international legitimacy
.. count me out of the virtue-preening that obsesses over the type of monstrous weapons employed when the issue is the monster using the weapons — of any kind. Both Assad and his opposition jihadists regularly commit atrocious war crimes targeting civilians. It is not beneath Assad, his enablers, or his enemies — al-Qaeda, ISIS, and their fellow militant Islamists, all of whom seek and would use weapons of mass destruction — to enter a village and firebomb or shoot up several dozen civilians (including women, children, and “beautiful babies”) with conventional arms. That is a commonplace
.. The barbarism characteristic of Syria’s years-long civil war is not materially different because chemical weapons have been used
.. There is no American interest is deposing Assad if he would be replaced by
(a) a Sunni sharia-supremacist regime that is more likely than Assad to make Syria a platform for jihadist attacks against our homeland and interests or
(b) a Libyan-style failed state that has the same effect.
.. the principal American enemy pulling Assad’s strings is Iran
.. Until we have a strategy for both vanquishing the Sunni jihadists and choking the regime in Tehran
.. accommodations had been made with Russia — particularly in sharing air space — in order to promote U.S.-led coalition attacks against ISIS. Last night’s missile strike against the Syrian air base puts an end to those accommodations. Is the Assad attack worth it if it makes the ISIS campaign more difficult?
.. Proportionality means that a use of force, and the collateral damage it is sure to entail, should be reasonably related to the military value of a lawful objective. It does not mean that an unauthorized, unprovoked attack is legitimate as long as it’s not too big.
.. what are we going to say when Putin cites last night’s strike as justification for his own unilateral but “proportional” attacks in Eastern Europe?