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.
On October 4, 1936, tens of thousands of Zionists, Socialists, Irish dockworkers, Communists, anarchists, and various outraged residents of London’s East End gathered to prevent Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists from marching through their neighborhood. This clash would eventually be known as the Battle of Cable Street: protesters formed a blockade and beat back some three thousand Fascist Black Shirts and six thousand police officers. To stop the march, the protesters exploded homemade bombs, threw marbles at the feet of police horses, and turned over a burning lorry. They rained down a fusillade of projectiles on the marchers and the police attempting to protect them: rocks, brickbats, shaken-up lemonade bottles, and the contents of chamber pots. Mosley and his men were forced to retreat.
.. historian Mark Bray presents the Battle of Cable Street as a potent symbol of how to stop Fascism: a strong, unified coalition outnumbered and humiliated Fascists to such an extent that their movement fizzled. For many members of contemporary anti-Fascist groups, the incident remains central to their mythology
.. Bray is a former Occupy Wall Street organizer and an avowed leftist; he has intimate access to his subjects, if not much critical distance from them.
.. According to Bray, though, antifa activists believe that Fascists forfeit their rights to speak and assemble when they deny those same rights to others through violence and intimidation.
.. shortly before Peter headed to the rally in Charlottesville. “The thing about us fascists is, it’s not that we don’t believe in freedom of speech,” the younger Tefft reportedly said to his father. “You can say whatever you want. We’ll just throw you in an oven.”
.. the horror of this history and the threat of its return demands that citizens, in the absence of state suppression of Fascism, take action themselves.
.. Bray notes that state-based protections failed in Italy and Germany, where Fascists were able to take over governments through legal rather than revolutionary means—much as the alt-right frames its activities as a defense of free speech, Fascists were able to spread their ideology under the aegis of liberal tolerance. Antifa does not abide by John Milton’s dictum that, “in a free and open encounter,” truthful ideas will prevail.
.. In the late seventies, the punk and hardcore scenes became the primary sites of open conflict between leftists and neo-Nazis; that milieu prefigures much of the style and strategy now associated with the anti-Fascist movement.
.. Speech is already curtailed in the U.S. by laws related to “obscenity, incitement to violence, copyright infringement, press censorship during wartime,” and “restrictions for the incarcerated,” Bray points out. Why not add one more restriction—curtailing hate speech—as many European democracies do?
You fight them by writing letters and making phone calls so you don’t have to fight them with fists. You fight them with fists so you don’t have to fight them with knives. You fight them with knives so you don’t have to fight them with guns. You fight them with guns so you don’t have to fight them with tanks.
.. The idea can seem naïve in an American context, where, practically speaking, only white people can carry guns openly without fear of police interference.
.. Postwar antifa, as Bray details in earlier chapters, has largely been a European project, in which opposing sides sometimes beat each other senseless and stabbed one another to death. They didn’t have assault rifles. The Battle of Cable Street was fought with rocks and paving stones.
.. “An anti-fascist outlook has no tolerance for ‘intolerance.’ ” he writes. “It will not ‘agree to disagree.’ ”
This soft totalitarianism is routinely misdiagnosed as primarily a psychological disorder. Young “snowflakes,” the thinking goes, have been overprotected by helicopter parents, and now are unprepared for the trivial conflicts of ordinary life.
the Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation. From the moment its construction was announced, following an opaque artistic competition lacking public consultation, it had been the subject of heated dispute. Beginning with its very title, which labels the tempted movement of German soldiers onto friendly territory an “occupation” the memorial absolves Hungarians’ complicity in the Holocaust. Depicting the Archangel Gabriel (described in the plans as the man of God, symbol of Hungary) under attack from a sharp-clawed German Imperial Eagle, it portrays the Hungarian nation as a collective victim of Nazi predation. BLOCK This distortion of history obscures both the specifically anti-Jewish nature of the Holocaust and the Hungarian state’s active collaboration in mass murder.
.. By obscuring Jewish victimhood entirely and ascribing total innocence to Hungarians and total evil to Germans, the memorial is actually as exploitative as any Stalinist icon.
… [Prime Minister Viktor] Orban’s defense of the occupation memorial was also notable for studiously dodging the fact that the main victims of the Nazis in Hungary, as everywhere else in Europe, were Jews. “The victims,” he wrote, “whether Orthodox, Christian, or without faith, became the victims of a dictatorship that embodied an anti-Christian school of thought” — essentially claiming that Christians were as much victims of the Nazis as Jews, a word his letter does not use even once.
.. Second to Russia, no European country is manipulating its history for political purposes more egregiously than Hungary. In both places, rewriting the past is done with an eye to the future, as governments inculcate their citizenries with nationalism, irredentism, and intolerance and then marshal these attitudes in service of the state.
.. As Hungary creeps further into authoritarianism, its revisionism has worrisome implications for Europe’s future.
.. I’m sure there are some U.S. conservatives who conclude that because Orban heads up the party of the Right in that country’s politics, he must be the good guy. Eh, don’t be so sure. Back in 2014, he declared, “Hungarians welcomed illiberal democracy… ‘Checks and balances’ is a U.S. invention that for some reason of intellectual mediocrity Europe decided to adopt and use in European politics.”