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.
World War I and the adversarial mentality.
It’s the eternal argument. When you are fighting a repulsive foe, the ends justify any means and serve as rationale for any selfishness.
Dax’s struggle is not to change the war or to save lives. That’s impossible. The war has won. The struggle is simply to remain a human being, to maintain some contact with goodness in circumstances that are inhumane.
Disillusionment was the classic challenge for the generation that fought and watched that war. Before 1914, there was an assumed faith in progress, a general trust in the institutions and certainties of Western civilization. People, especially in the educated classes, approached life with a gentlemanly, sporting spirit.
As Paul Fussell pointed out in “The Great War and Modern Memory,” the upper classes used genteel words in place of plain ones: slumber for sleep, the heavens for the sky, conquer for win, legion for army.
The war blew away that gentility, those ideals and that faith in progress. Ernest Hemingway captured the rising irony and cynicism in “A Farewell to Arms.” His hero is embarrassed “by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression, in vain.” He had seen nothing sacred in the war, nothing glorious, just meaningless slaughter.
.. European culture suffered a massive disillusion during the conflict — no God, no beauty, no coherence, no meaning, just the cruel ironic joke of life. Cynicism breeds a kind of nihilism, a disbelief in all values, an assumption that others’ motives are bad.
Fussell wrote that the war spread an adversarial mentality. The men in the trenches were obsessed with the enemy — those anonymous creatures across no man’s land who rained down death. “Prolonged trench warfare, whether enacted or remembered, fosters paranoid melodrama,” he wrote.
The “versus habit” construes reality as us versus them — a mentality that spread through British society. It was the officers versus the men, and, when they got home, the students at university versus the dons.
George Orwell wrote that he recognized the Great War mentality lingering even in the 1930s in his own left-wing circles — the same desire to sniff out those who departed from party orthodoxy, the same retelling of mostly false atrocity stories, the same war hysteria. As Christopher Isherwood put it, all the young people who were ashamed of never having fought in the war brought warlike simplicities to political life.
.. Some of the disillusioned drop out of public life, since it’s all meaningless. But others want to burn it all down because it’s all rotten. Moderation is taken for cowardice. Aggression is regarded as courage. No conciliatory word is permitted when a fighting word will do.
Today we face no horrors equal to the Great War, but there is the same loss of faith in progress, the reality of endless political trench warfare, the paranoid melodrama, the specter that we are all being dehumanized amid the fight.
Finally, I think what’s important about all this that we’re also coming to understand on a whole new level is that that kind of getting calm inside, that kind of grounding ourselves as we move through the world, as we are not just present to the world, but a presence — in our workplaces, in our families, with strangers, with the people we love, but also the people who drive us crazy — the more calm and grounded and full and whole and conscious our presence can be — that is civilizational work. Especially in a moment like this, where everyone is on edge, and all of our devices of culture — our technologies, but certainly journalism and news and so many of the images that are coming at us — they are designed to put us on edge. The more we can embody the reality that there’s more to us and there’s more to a day, that we are capable of calm presence; of presence; of, also, the joy that can rise up from our deep places that is different from the pleasure of the instant hits — that that is an offering, not just to our own resilience, but to everybody around us, in a way that I don’t think it was a few years ago.
In Mr. Trump we encounter a politician who uses social media to bypass the realm of ideas entirely, addressing the sentiments of his followers without a filter of educated argument and with only a marginal interest in what anyone with a mind might have said.
.. National identity is the origin of the trust on which political order depends. Such trust does not exist in Libya or Syria. But it exists in America, and the country has no more precious asset than the mutual loyalty that enables the words “we, the people” to resonate with every American, regardless of whether it is a liberal or a conservative who utters them.
.. Those first words of the United States Constitution do not refer to all people everywhere. They refer to the people who reside here, in this place and under this rule of law, and who are the guardians and beneficiaries of a shared political inheritance. Grasping that point is the first principle of conservatism.
.. Our political inheritance is not the property of humanity in general but of our country in particular. Unlike liberalism, with its philosophy of abstract human rights, conservatism is based not in a universal doctrine but in a particular tradition, and this point at least the president has grasped.
.. But as Edmund Burke pointed out in one of the founding documents of modern conservatism, his “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” we must “reform in order to conserve.”
.. In another of conservatism’s founding documents, “The Wealth of Nations,” Adam Smith argued that trade barriers and protections offered to dying industries will not, in the long run, serve the interests of the people. On the contrary, they will lead to an ossified economy that will splinter in the face of competition. President Trump seems not to have grasped this point. His protectionist policies resemble those of postwar socialist governments in Europe, which insulated dysfunctional industries from competition and led not merely to economic stagnation but also to a kind of cultural pessimism that surely goes entirely against the American grain.
.. Conservative thinkers have on the whole praised the free market, but they do not think that market values are the only values there are. Their primary concern is with the aspects of society in which markets have little or no part to play: education, culture, religion, marriage and the family.
.. He is a product of the cultural decline that is rapidly consigning our artistic and philosophical inheritance to oblivion. And perhaps the principal reason for doubting Mr. Trump’s conservative credentials is that being a creation of social media, he has lost the sense that there is a civilization out there that stands above his deals and his tweets in a posture of disinterested judgment.