The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
7.2 (Spring 2007)
The Polis and Progress
Planet-Wide Cultural Struggles Over Definitions of Freedom, Order, and Security Will Determine the Shape of the Future
Issues of balancing freedom, order and security in society have clearly been given a higher profile because of the elevation of Western political philosophy in the world. Outside the West, many empires, kingdoms, nations, and peoples have been content to live for centuries in societies that offered order, without much of what is today defined as freedom. Even as the planet today moves towards a post-Western, globalized world, the urgency for freedom in many countries of the world can be partially traced to the impatience with traditional arrangements which has characterized many Western thinkers and societies.
The conventional definition of freedom is “doing precisely what one wants to do” (presumably as long as one does not harm others). Freedom, to many people today, is defined in terms of personal and sexual freedoms, i.e., listening to whatever music one wants, indulging in whatever tastes one wants, and living whatever lifestyle one wants, without reference to “received” traditions of religion, nation, or history—or, on the other hand, to various politically-correct guidelines, (for example, against sexism).
Conservative and some classical liberal thinkers have defined freedom in terms of persons aspiring to a more reflective existence, based on at least some study of the so-called “liberal arts” (philosophy, literature, classics, and history), which would allow people to live a more “rounded,” worthwhile life, and to exercise the full obligations of citizenship. According to this view, people have to be fairly strongly aware of the literature, history, and politics of their nation in order to be able to participate meaningfully in its political life. Freedom is defined as the responsible exercise of one’s civic duties (being highly aware of politics, frequently engaging in responsible political debate, voting in elections based on very responsible assessments of the candidates, possibly standing for office, doing one’s jury duty if one is called to do so). Freedom defined in this way is considered supportive to notions of security, social order, and virtue.
The third type of freedom is that as defined by many left-wing thinkers today. While it offers a lot of personal-lifestyle freedom, it also establishes very strong guidelines against various public behaviors and expressions considered impermissible and punishable by law or by social and professional ostracism. It also usually believes that one’s personal freedom is to a large extent dependent on one’s economic status—so a society where there are large disparities between rich and poor is criticized as limiting the freedom of the poor. It is often claimed that “economic democracy” (i.e., a more equitable distribution of economic goods in society) is more important than “political democracy” (such as the right to vote—which is often not exercised). Left-wing thinkers claim to encourage the obtaining of knowledge about politics and society, especially among those who are not economically privileged, and claim to embrace the idea of widespread political participation.
The fourth type of freedom is that as defined by libertarian or capitalist thinkers. They believe to a large extent in freedoms defined as personal and sexual freedoms. At the same time, however, they wish to free individuals from almost all government taxation and regulation. Libertarians believe in political participation if one voluntarily chooses do it, and if it is directed towards creating an ever-smaller state. Libertarians seem to combine aspects that could be conventionally seen both as ultra-conservative and as ultra-liberal.
It could be argued that within many Western societies today, one sees the triumph of the most polymorphous sexual and lifestyle choices, along with the strengthening of various types of left-wing political-correctness, especially in academic life. However, despite the strengthening of the left wing, there are also marked advances in corporate capitalism; for example, corporations are growing ever larger and more powerful, society is becoming consumption- and brand-driven, and an ever smaller proportion of the population is controlling an ever larger share of economic wealth.
The condition of many Western societies today has been characterized by some critics as decadence or decay. However, these critics—who stretch across various political outlooks—are often attacking the West from different angles, and criticizing it for different things.
The condition of the West today has introduced great strains and difficulties in the relations between West and non-West on the planet. For example, American pop-culture is being spread around the globe, and is bringing what is considered sexual decay into many non-Western societies, notably the Islamic ones. At the same time, the virtually open borders of the West mean that there is a huge influx of non-Western peoples into the West. Concurrently, the birthrates in Western countries have plummeted owing to the primacy of sexual and personal freedom and lifestyle choices in many of those societies. This combination of factors could introduce great stresses into Western societies.
The events of “9/11” brought into focus the fact that there is a significant group of persons on the planet implacably opposed to what the West currently represents. For the first time in its history, America was savagely struck at its very heart, in what was immediately, and correctly, called a “war”.
The events of “9/11” can highlight certain issues of security today. With the spread of technology around the planet, almost any faction with a grievance can command resources that can do enormous damage to those whom it seeks to harm. If a faction is fanatical enough, it will consider the use of biological or nuclear weapons as entirely justified. If it could obtain biological or nuclear weapons, it would probably not hesitate to use them.
So it has been resolved by most Western leaders (with the support of a majority of their populations) that the most fanatical factions must be harried without quarter.
Some have argued that root-causes such as poverty, or the dispossession of the Palestinian people, are the real reason for this fanaticism. Israel today, despite its massive armed forces, is in an increasingly intractable position. Any concessions it makes are likely to increase the contempt in which the Palestinians and other Arabs hold it. At the same time, it is probably temperamentally unwilling to undertake some truly draconian, punitive measures against the Palestinians, and Western opinion is highly unlikely to allow it to do so. What would be the world’s reaction if terrorists managed to detonate a nuclear bomb in Tel-Aviv? What would Israel ’s reaction be?
Indeed, it can be seen that modern technology has intensified a sense of dire threat to world politics.
The West enters the war against terrorism with various advantages and disadvantages. For example, the superb space-based and electronic technology of the West allows for fairly tight monitoring of much of the planet’s surface, and of electronic communications planet-wide. Its electronically based weaponry allows it to soundly defeat any conventional army in the field.
However, many of the ideas prevalent in the West today tend to inhibit a successful prosecution of the war. The Western military effort is clearly hampered by an extreme aversion to take casualties, as well as by the imperative of not doing anything that would appear to be contrary to the rules of civilized war. Its opponents can act with total ruthlessness and callous disregard for lives (including their own), which could to some extent compensate for their lack of advanced technology.
There has also occurred something which many would consider a disastrous mis-deployment of Western strength, in the take-down of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq —which some now see as a veritable “Sicilian Expedition”.
There are nevertheless many intrinsic aspects of Western societies today that weaken them in regard to terrorist attacks. Large sectors of Western societies are highly critical of the West—from a multiculturalist direction—as well as very strongly concerned about possible human rights and privacy abuses in the prosecution of the war against terror. The West also has fairly open borders, and large immigrant populations in which the terrorists can blend.
However, it is unlikely that there could be the imposition of very tight border controls, immigration restriction, or massive curtailment of civil liberties in the West today. So the West to some extent shares the dilemma of contemporary Israel .
One way for the current-day West to become more secure in the world would be an ever-accelerating process of cultural globalization. It is anticipated that non-Western societies will become increasingly like the West today. That is, they will increasingly exalt sexual and personal freedom. Their birthrates will decline, they will become increasingly prosperous and consumerist, and American pop-culture will become the global culture. However, a strong U.S. military will have to be maintained for a considerable time to deal with the possible final backlashes of traditional societies that are being assimilated to the global culture.
There is also the issue that some societies—for example, in sub-Saharan Africa—face such great obstacles today that they might never be able to become prosperous and consumerist. Another serious question is whether the extension of the consumer society and consumer habits will not result in the destruction of the ecosphere. While, on the one hand, population is expected to decline as a result of consumerism, the populations of Third World countries are already very high, and the shift in consumption-styles from those typical of Third World countries to those typical of richer Americans will place an even greater stress on the environment.
The main alternative to the universal globalization model would probably be some kind of conservative restoration in the West. In regard to security issues, this would allow the West to defend itself more vigorously, sometimes with rather punitive and draconian methods—but at the same time to disengage from many “global democratizing” projects. Such a restoration would also presumably curtail the global reach and lifestyle extremes of American pop-culture.
In such a scenario, most non-Western societies could probably better maintain their cultural distinctiveness, but the planet could possibly resemble a series of armed camps, as these civilizations would almost invariably clash. The renewed self-confidence and willingness to exercise its power—including technological power—of the West would presumably shield it from the dangers posed by rival power blocs. Nevertheless, there would possibly be a series of “cold wars” and/or peripheral skirmishes.
While these neo-traditionalist Western societies would claim to properly balance freedom, order and security, they would doubtless be considered as highly repressive by left-wingers and libertarians. There would be far less freedom of sexual and personal lifestyles.
The global-culture society, on the other hand, would be characterized by various combinations of extreme sexual lifestyle freedom, left-wing political correctness, and capitalism. It is difficult to see if any one of those tendencies would ever gain a global ascendancy. This kind of society could be seen as an ever-shifting kaleidoscope, as various ad hoc accommodations and coalitions between these three main outlooks would occur.
As the global-culture society was getting underway, there would be a period of extreme danger of a possible final backlash from some traditional societies. Thereafter, the primary dangers to security in most of the global-culture society would likely be internal, such as those arising from violent crime and economic disturbances in a society with few stable anchors. Among the forms these economic disturbances could take would be: the overstretch of the welfare state, which would in the end entail massive cuts to entitlements; declining living standards in advanced economies because of competition from the less-developed world; a presumably transitory period of extreme exploitation of cheap labor in the less-developed world; possible business malfeasances such as those at Enron; ever-increasing numbers of various fraudulent or semi-fraudulent money-making scams—a society-wide collapse of trust; and the tendency of people to define their lives by their consumption habits, abandoning thrift and falling into massive debt. A global-culture society would be extremely unsettled, hyper-modern, and in many ways vulgar and coarse. And, while organized warfare between countries might disappear, violence arising from organized crime, or between ethnic and cultural groups—or simply between individuals—might intensify.
The global-culture society—which is far from being the utopia some might imagine it—looks to be the more likely outcome, from the current vantage point.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian journalist based in Toronto. He has frequently contributed essays and book reviews, mostly about pop-culture and political ideology, to Praesidium. His voice is also heard more and more in what are often called “paleo-conservative” circles.