We live in a world that is divided as never before by competition for the supremacy of ideas, such as Islamism, Islam, democracy and freedom of speech, socialism and capitalism, fundamentalism and individualism.
Many people in modern society are alienated from that world of ideas and even more of them, are alienated from politics. Increasingly, the more educated we become, the more we become alienated from religion in favor of consumerism and its comforting convenience. To be engaged with something takes effort. In a world of ideas that are constantly clashing it is far easier to either ignore or suppress whatever creates unease.
At the turn of the Common Era, the competition for whichever god or group of deities we chose to worship, was fierce. Aspects of worship were the fashionably contested marketplace of ideas that engaged slaves and aristocrats, workers and bureaucrat alike. But then life was simple, ideas uncomplicated and existence precarious so a bit of extra help from the divine was at the very least, a psychological tonic!
As a species we began as pure instinct — how else could we have survived in an unremittingly hostile environment where weather, the search for food and shelter, predators and disease hunted us remorselessly? And then we discovered the usefulness of relationships. We discovered the utility in trusting associates, first families and then tribes. We discovered that mutual interest was a powerful force for survival. Trust grew out of physical and psychological familiarity — even if we did not, as yet, understand this. As we moved away from being instinctual human beings we needed the community to back us up, to protect us from other community competitors. As communities became settlements then tribes, city states, regions then nations, laws became a means by which we regulated and therefore controlled behavior.
It has taken us thousands of years to reach the point where the individual is once more at the center of society. Primitive man (woman) lived at the caprice of the elements. The modern individual no longer needs to labor to survive and he or she may choose to live a life with a minimum of human interaction. That also means that our responsibility towards each other is no longer a necessity for our mutual survival and the danger is that our species’ responsibility for each other is being reversed. We are at a different stage of growth (or decay) — depending on how we interpret society and whether we look forward or backwards for our inspiration.
Technology has enabled us to have partial control over disease and our physical environment. Our laws force us to exercise restraint and Western society encourages its’ citizens to be tolerant of that with which it is unfamiliar, and uncomfortable. And yet, we still have this competition for ideas which brings us into conflict across the globe with people who owe no allegiance to those ideals that have made us so theoretically tolerant. Those people are using our tolerance against us.
Individualists demand self-expression as the highest ideal within society but it is conditional. What conditions that self-expression is an absence of censorship. That means, when we disagree on a fundamental level with our neighbor we must ignore those differences in the name of tolerance. The problem is that a community can be equally committed to an ideal that is the antithesis of the freedom that gives us our right to individuality. Unless we are willing to fight for our own rights of self-expression we will be censored and our articles of freedom will be used against us to undermine those very freedoms we so passionately defend.
In the 1920s and throughout the 1930s the Nazis used our ideals of freedom to undermine and overthrow democracy. They used censorship to shut down any valid criticism and they used discrimination to appeal to the ignorant middle classes whose ballot they needed to be legally voted into power. The individual was always the greatest threat to the Party’s power because they were less likely to accept whatever they were told as absolute truth, and they could infect others with their criticisms and their doubts.
Al Qaeda and Islamic State (Daesh) have their model for their ideal community and it negates what enabled our society to achieve our individual-centric society with its laissez-faire morality, its hedonism and its idolization of consumerism.
This is where the current cult of the individual fails every one of us.
And a simple example exists of this breathtaking naivety with which we have embraced our enemies while they openly treat us with contempt. The Huffington Post launched an Arabic language edition in July 2015 called Huffington Post Arabi. It is in competition with al Jazeera which is owned by Qatar and therefore reflects its anti-Western, pro-Islamist agenda. Because it is in competition with a successful Arab model which is reactionary, biased and sectarian, in order to compete it is satisfied to mimic it in its illiberal prejudices. In an article I read as recently as January 25, 2016 there were references to World War 3, the term used to describe the conflict between Islam and the rest of mankind.
So let us be clear on what is being offered to the Arab world. We have a popular, commercially successful, Western, liberal, internet newspaper applying Western values as justification for funding the production of a prejudiced Arab-Muslim tabloid that in turn provides a veil of respectability to Arab prejudice. It censors debate and encourages the idea that ethnic conflict is legitimate; it is contemptuous of free speech and despises the freedoms that encapsulate our Western Society.
Arianna Huffington appears to be motivated by contempt and self-loathing. Perhaps our captains of industry have always been self-serving and contemptuous of the society that nourished them. It is society’s embrace of individualism that has enabled us to make stunning advances in every field of science and technology while simultaneously it is helping our enemies to undermine our civilization.
A second example is that of the recent case of an American university professor, Joy Karega, who spreads her anti-Semitic ideology and conspiracy theories on American campuses. An academic institution permits Karega to spread her malignant views without consideration of any action being taken to contain the influence of this repulsive individual. If this person represents our free speech legacy then colleges must permit all intellectual rabble-rousers a campus forum. If hate is a permitted commodity then there should be no bars to who may preach it.
To extrapolate what such a toxic equilibrium promotes is not difficult: at best, assassination, at worst, civil war. If society understands this fundamental threat to its survival then how can it justify the continued employment of such a venomous creature?
We have been here at many other times in history. The most recent outbreak of this intellectual contagion was during the first half of the twentieth century when fascism was violently expressed by both left and right. Their most enthusiastic proponents were ultimately responsible for the murders of tens of millions of human beings. But it was only seriously acknowledged that the extreme right wing committed crimes against humanity. It was our greatest error because it inoculated Left wing fascists against any criticism of their beliefs and tactics for as long as they did not wear an armband adorned with a swastika.
In our world of ideas, fascism’s anti-Semitic cheer-leaders are ascendant. Meanwhile, we show far more concern for their right to abuse us than we do, our right, to live without the concomitant negative consequences their abuse entails.