The Abyss Widens

Post-modern civilization is threatened.

In the absence of global wars  the inevitable ups and down of civilization are economic.  And the the rich have been more than ready to play.  Unrestrained capitalism has corrupted the political system and created an abyss between the haves and have-nots in both Europe and the US.  The oligarchs of wealth have choreographed the rise of emotion over logic during the past 20 years, which has come to fruition with regressive authoritarian populism.  The ruling class – the haves – have expanded the abyss by changing the rules of the game.  They trump conflicts that don’t exist, ignore facts and science, and sell an alternate reality.  A billionaire was voted in the White House against the clear self-interest of his voters – the have-nots.

The good news is that progress is rarely linear.  The current Hot Tub Time Machine return to 1950s cannot be permanent. Political complacency on the left has been replaced by a new engagement. The pendulum will swing back, though the cost may be great.  Rationality will return victorious, but only after a painful lesson in humility.

One cost that’s not fully collected yet is the damage to traditional liberalism.

The continued protest on college campuses over nationalist and ultra-conservative speakers is one example.  The tumult on campus has been troubling. But it’s not just a few people or one school.  It’s easy to denigrate students and call them pampered babies.  There is something significant that is not being heard.

Ulrich Baer writes in the NY Times that the campus change is generational in What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right About Free Speech.

During the 1980s and ’90s, a shift occurred in American culture; personal experience and testimony, especially of suffering and oppression, began to challenge the primacy of argument. Freedom of expression became a flash point in this shift. Then as now, both liberals and conservatives were wary of the privileging of personal experience, with its powerful emotional impact, over reason and argument, which some fear will bring an end to civilization, or at least to freedom of speech. …

The recent student demonstrations at Auburn — as well as protests on other campuses against Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos and others — should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people, rather than censorship. Liberal free-speech advocates rush to point out that the views of these individuals must be heard first to be rejected. But this is not the case. Universities invite speakers not chiefly to present otherwise unavailable discoveries, but to present to the public views they have presented elsewhere. When those views invalidate the humanity of some people, they restrict speech as a public good.

The pure free speech argument is a longtime liberal plank.  It has a lot of merit.  But there is a bigger picture in which to view these campus protests.   The controversial speakers are yet another example of false equivalencies.  In civilized society freedom of speech is a public good.  But we’re no longer in that idealized world when reality itself is under assault.

The campus protests illustrate the corrosive effect of the oligarchic programs on not just their followers but also the liberals on the other side.  When formerly common facts are denied, the middle ground for agreement vanishes (thus the Republican party asymmetrically becomes a party of No, not governance).  First principles are not always accurate.   Nuance becomes increasingly important and as we’ve seen with campus protest, it’s … HARD.  If it’s challenging for people committed to self-reflection, what hope is there for those in the Time Machine who don’t question Fox News? The gulf between the haves and have-nots can exponentially increase.

The pendulum will swing back.  But how far can it go when the abyss continues to widen?

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