Staff writer for The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik, also author of A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism Basic Books (Basic Books, 2019) argues that “liberalism” is not a political ideology, but a way of life.
9:30 In France, Emmanuel Macron attempted a Green New Deal with gasoline price hikes and faced revolts.
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.
Conservatives who enter progressive domains like the academy or elite media are quite familiar with the idea of tolerance. Such institutions place an enormous amount of emphasis on it, in fact, so much so that they reserve the right to be intolerant to preserve the tolerant ethos of the community, sometimes explicitly. In one of my favorite First Amendment cases, I sued a university that declared in no uncertain terms, “Acts of intolerance will not be tolerated.”
.. We know what the university wanted, a catch-all provision it could use to expel, punish, and silence anyone who ran afoul of the prevailing campus orthodoxy.
.. a person on the left will claim that they’re tolerant because of their regard for “gays, lesbians, bisexuals, asexuals, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, transgender people, and Jews.” But ask that same person a simple question, “What’s wrong with gay people?” and the answer is immediate: “What do you think I am, some kind of homophobic bigot? Of course I have nothing against gay people.”
Then, guess what, you’re not tolerating anything.
.. I like Alexander’s definition of true tolerance: “Respect and kindness toward members of an outgroup” — not respect and kindness toward members of what others would define as an outgroup, but rather respect and kindness toward people that are out of your group.
.. The result of this flawed understanding is that millions of people misapprehend their own values. To the very marrow of their being, they believe that they’re something they’re not.
.. The justification for Kevin’s firing — as repeated endlessly on Twitter — is that women don’t want to “share office space with a man who wants them dead.”
.. He’s the son of a teen mom, born shortly before Roe v. Wade, and narrowly escaped being aborted.
.. Their views on abortion aren’t just tolerable, they’re glorious. They’re liberating. They’re the linchpin of the sexual revolution, the key to women’s liberation. What was intolerable was the notion that a man — no matter how courteous and professional in person — could sit next to them advocating ideas they hate.
.. But in polarized times, “of no party or clique” is a hard space to occupy.
.. progressives be honest about your purpose. You can call it tribalism. You can call it social justice. Just, please, do not lie and call it tolerance.
In retrospect, the civil war in the Balkans was the most important event of that period. It prefigured what has come since: the return of ethnic separatism, the rise of authoritarian populism, the retreat of liberal democracy, the elevation of a warrior ethos that reduces politics to friend/enemy, zero-sum conflicts.
.. Back in the 1990s, there was an unconscious abundance mind-set.
.. Today, after the financial crisis, the shrinking of the middle class, the partisan warfare, a scarcity mind-set is dominant: Resources are limited. The world is dangerous. Group conflict is inevitable. It’s us versus them. If they win, we’re ruined, therefore, let’s stick with our tribe. The ends justify the means.
.. The scarcity mind-set is an acid that destroys every belief system it touches.
.. Now, Donald Trump leads the Republican Party, the personification of the scarcity mind-set. Fox News, with its daily gospel of resentments, is the most important organ of conservative opinion.
.. Republicans are happy to trade away their fiscal principles if they can get their way on immigration, which is what they did in last week’s budget deal.