Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Remembering Auschwitz

Sixty years ago this week, the Red Army entered the German extermination camp at Auschwitz. What they found there shocked the world. In the next months, similar camps would be liberated. This is an appropriate time to reflect on how the concentration camps and the Second World War changed the world.

WWII was an anti-fascist war. It changed the ideology of the Western civilization. Broadly put (and of course, putting anything broadly risks over-generalization), the ideology of liberalism and humanism was triumphant. In the years immediately following the war, this had a profound impact on the Western world. It marked the moral demise of imperial foreign policies -- the idea that it was appropriate for a powerful country to exploit and oppress its neighbors. In the US, there was a direct connection between the war and the struggle for human rights and democracy at home in the 1950s and 1960s. Women's equality also was lifted by these ideas. In short, victory put liberty, equality, peace, and above all human rights, at the center of world political and moral discourse. Liberal ideology condemns slavery, racism, and torture, and that has became the dominant ideology of the Western world. In the 1990s, liberal ideas began to dismantle the oppression of gays and lesbians. The ascendancy of these ideas has made the ideological atmosphere pre-WWII world, where eugenics and mandatory sterilization were practiced even in the USA, almost impossible for most of us to imagine. The point is not that everything has changed, but that the dominant hegemonic ideas have changed.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the following went from being dominant to the defensive: official racism, anti-semitism, sexism, religious intolerance, and elitism. The headmaster of Eton remarked that before 1964, all the working-class boys tried to imitate the accents of their "betters." By the late 1960s, that had reversed. Before WWII, the dominant political ideology in the West was that white men of the upper classes were destined by God to christianize and subdue the rest of the world, using any means. Today few advocate this openly -- those who do so couch their ideas in the language of the times, the language of universal human rights and democracy.

In many ways, however, this is a failed revolution. Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur remind us that we have not even abolished genocide. Slavery is on the resurgence in Africa, and human trafficking has brought it into Europe and America again. The Economist estimates that the price of a human being, approximately $100, has never been cheaper. Religious intolerance in the form of fundamentalism is on the rise. Fundamentalist militant Islam is part of the picture. So is "fundamentalist" hinduism, ultra-orthodox judaism in the West Bank settlements, fundamentalist Christianity that preaches substituting allegiance to selected biblical passages over conscience. Bombing abortion clinics and "reform schools" that young boys and girls who sexually "misbehave" are examples of religion that has been cut loose from moral moorings.

The liberation of Auschwitz is, above all, a time to recognize that the liberal ideology that was triumphant and ascendant in the latter half of the 20th century is now on the defensive everywhere. To give you an idea, just try to imagine - even as late as the Reagan administration - Republicans and Democrats discussing what kind of torture is acceptable. Try to imagine Clinton calling Rwanda genocide (as Powell has called Darfur genocide) and then doing nothing about it. Clinton resisted calling it genocide because he assumed that once he did so, he would have to act. It would have been unthinkable in 1989, when the Berlin wall was being breached, for the Israelis to have built their "security barrier" in the West Bank. Now the unthinkable has become commonplace.

The problem is that powerful conservative political elements in the USA have never adopted these values. Conservatives fought civil rights. Then, conservatives said "yes, but not women's rights." Next it was "yes, women's rights, but not gays." Conservatives opposed divorce, then accepted it. Now they want to "protect marriage" as we understand it in the 2005 (with easy divorce, and no legal enforcement of monogamy), and pretend this is as it always was. Each time, conservatives pretend they have a moral basis for the next opposition, when it is actually political expediency. At each stage, until now, they have lost and regrouped. Now, they may be winning. The result -- US government using torture and offensive war -- is sad to see. Europeans haven't indulged in this backsliding nearly as much. European rightist movements are minorities; here, they are the Republican majority.

The anniversary of the liberation Auschwitz should be a reminder for liberals to focus on the battle at hand. Liberal ideas became detached from philosophy -- indeed postmodernists decry any kind of unifying worldview at all. The result is that we have lost the ability to talk about morality in a way that allows us to demand that others desist from immoral behavior. Conservatives know how to talk about morality. The 2004 election showed that Americans perceive conservatives as morally steadfast, as 'firm in their convictions' but cannot say the same for liberals. In much of the 20th century, until the 1960s, liberalism expressed itself often through religious ideas, but liberal christianity is a small force today, a shadow of the 'social gospel' and the early 20th century. Also, multiculturalism has made religion an inadequate moral framework for modern ideas. I do not know how to begin to fight back for liberal ideas. Auschwitz, however, reminds us why we cannot fail. Once conservativism succeed in persuading us to bite into the apple and trade away the value of human dignity for other chimeric but tempting goals such as 'security,' or 'prosperity', we have lost our moral compass. We become unmoored. We can, in the tsunami of fear, be led anywhere. Without a map, without a compass, without our moorings, the roads lead to dark places beyond the edge of our imagination.

7 comments:

Raised By Republicans said...

Yes, the Shoa should and the world's reaction to it reinvigorated what concepts like liberty and freedom and human rights mean.

I agree with LTG that World War II was in many respects a war of ideology. Its outcome determined the ideological framework that would guide global development for the next 100 years. That the Communists share of the victory in World War II was "Phyric" shortened their opposition to the Liberal paradigm. And in the end that was a good thing.

But let us also be aware that the politics of ethno-religious identity that caused the Shoa and justified it to its perpetrators are still around. The ethnic genocide in Rwanda, the religious genocide in Bosnia and the combination of the two in the Middle East are all reminders that the Liberal revolution is incomplete (but not dead).

Conservatives appeal to religion because those who are frightened by change declare their loyalty to God rather than admit their fear. Society (and the nature of religion) always changes, it never remains the same. To the extent that the Conservatives want things to stay the same, they will always be defeated sooner or later. Either through policy imposed by governments or by the glacier-like irresistability of social change.

Bell Curve said...

It is a strange time to be a liberal Christian. Tell people you're a liberal and they assume you're godless. Tell them you believe in God and they assume you're anti-gay. This is a gulf that needs to be overcome, and I don't see why it can't ... there are as few as two liberal Christian members on this blog and maybe as many as four. I really haven't asked about it ... maybe that is part of the problem. I think I'm rambling and that this is a subject for another post.

Raised By Republicans said...

Actually, I think there are two atheists on the blog and 3 believers.

As for religion, conservatism etc. It must be frustrating to be religious and progressive (I will try to reserve the word liberal for a more specific ideology). The overwhelming majority of regular church goers are also politically and socially conservative. I believe it is spurious relationship. Its not that religion makes people conservative, its that people are afraid of change turn to BOTH conservative politics and religion for comfort. Conservative politicians recognize this and do everything they can to take advantage of it by making grand appeals to religious terms.

In the United States, "religious conservative" is really just code for Christian conservative. While some Jews are included polls show that Muslims and Budhists need not apply to the club.

"Religious progressives" however is a more inclusive category.

I've been saving a bunch of posts about Chrsitian conservatism and policy for some time. Perhaps the time is coming to post them.

Dr. Strangelove said...

LTG writes, "Without a map, without a compass, without our moorings, the roads lead to dark places beyond the edge of our imagination." I believe LTG gets the award for Most Poetic post. I enjoyed reading this thoughtful piece. Many of us have expressed that liberalism has lost its way, and LTG warns us how treacherous the wrong path can be.

LTG points out that most Americans believe that conservatives have clear moral values--even if they don't agree completely--whereas they feel liberals offer no coherent alternative. LTG says that religion used to be deeply embedded in liberalism, but in the new "multicultural" enviornment, religion can no longer provide an adequate framework for liberalism.

While as an atheist I certainly sympathize with this view, I wonder if LTG is not giving short shrift to the "secular Christian" movement out there. The idea that Christianity is more about universal peace and love than about the divinity of Jesus. The idea that Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, etc., all share a universal set of values based on the golden rule, "do unto others as you would have others do unto you." These are the modern religious common values of charity, kindness, sharing, tolerance, understanding, and being true to oneself.

I called these "community values" but I'm sure there's a better name that encompasses the deep, modern religious roots of these values as well. (An aside: RbR speaks of the "communitarian" ethic, which is probably the proper term, but I think that sounds too much like "communism" to work as a catch-phrase. It's in the same mould as the idea that "it takes a village" to raise a child, but I don't think "village values" sounds good either.)

It's time for liberals to talk about the decay of moral values in this country. It's time we warned that the rise of the "me"-culture is undermining the "we"-culture that is the foundation of civil society. It's time that we decry the assault on "community values" by groups that would use hatred and violence to divide us. It's time we spell out these "community values"--which are indeed also multicultural religious values!--and start standing on those principles. It's time that liberals start doing what we do best: understanding those who disagree with us and finding a common ground. I see some movement in this direction with the abortion debate... may there be more.

Dr. Strangelove said...

I wrote elsewhere that I think liberals keep trying to re-fight the battles we've already won. I think that this makes liberals look silly, forces them to take positions that appear extreme or nonsensical, and costs them great credibility. I offer a few examples.

1. Driver Licenses for illegal aliens.
2. Extreme versions of "hate speech" regulations on colelge campuses that have become censorship.
3. Sexual harassment policies so cautious and hypersensitive as to be impractical.
4. A forced vocabulary so soaked in moral relativism that we cannot say words like "evil" and "liar".
5. Dogmatic suppression of all religion in public life instead of an intelligent sensitivity toward minority religious views in a majority Christian culture.
6. Excessive product liability lawsuits.
7. Reflexive ad hominem attacks, where anyone who disagrees with any of the above is automatically called racist, sexist, bigoted, a stooge of Corporate America, etc.

I'm afraid George W. Bush isn't the only one with a black-and-white, "you're with us or you're against us" mentality in politics. Unfortunately, stubborn bigotry does not require religion :-)

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