As we begin the 19th year of the 21st century, we no longer have the right to pretend the century is young—to believe that we cannot judge it in the way we can judge any previous century. Nearly a fifth over, the century demands analysis and criticism.
What would we write or say or argue or claim or believe that would make this century any better than the previous one? Whatever the horrors of communism, fascism, nationalism, tribalism, and racism that so often prevailed—to diabolic effect and the slaughter of millions of innocents—the lines of division were relatively clear. All those same deadly ideas linger to this day, but they have become almost relentlessly blurred, one easily bleeding into another.
The fascists and the anti-fascists of our day are, of course, both fascist, their tactics of bullying and violence indistinguishable in type or result. The anti-capitalists and capitalists, too, are often just capitalists, universally corrupt and willing to use whatever power exists in whatever form and to whatever degree for their own benefit. Certainly, those who riot against capitalism use the very tools and products of capitalism to challenge it. Perhaps the Apple Watch on the wrist of every protestor in Portland is just the piece of rope the capitalist is willing to sell to hang himself and his fellow profit-seekers.
The racists and the anti-racists of our day are both extremely racist, trading anti-black blusterings for anti-white blusterings. American society evolved (rather positively, overall) toward a neutral position on race in the 1950s and 1960s, only to have the government step in and codify that one moment of success through the federal laws of 1964 and 1965, thus trapping societal norms and derailing future progress. Whatever merits “affirmative action” might have, it is, of course, merely “positive discrimination,” and those who have benefited from it become suspect by their mere success. Did they succeed because of their excellence or because of their skin tone? Those who were left behind because of affirmative action carry with them—just or not—anger and bitterness. Fewer—if any—things could be more dangerous for the common good of a republic (the res publica, the good thing) than laws that benefit one any one segment of the people over another segment. That the Jim Crow laws were heinous is without question. But, the answer to such historical atrocity is not the same thing done against the abusers, but a level playing field. By almost every measurement, for example, racism is stronger in 2018 than it was, say, in 1990. By any just standard, discrimination against anyone because of the accidents of the person’s birth is both ethically evil and practically ridiculous. Socrates knew this 24 centuries ago, and our failure to understand this now is a comment on our ignorance and our sinfulness.
We 21st-century humans have, seemingly, abolished the sexes, trading what was once male, for example, for what is metrosexual, homosexual, bisexual, omnisexual, and the list of possibilities of variations seems unending. And, when the younger generations of the West are marrying, they do so with a million caveats that generally resolve not in a marriage, but in a temporary civil association and union, a kind of temporary business in which employees come and go, and products become secondary considerations.
In the traditional liberal arts (as understood in the West, but also within many traditional understandings in the East), one understands the incredible and complex diversity not only of all of existence, but of each individual thing within existence. The goal of liberal education, though, is never to celebrate such diversity, balkanizing one aspect of a thing from another, but to find its wholeness and, especially, its connectedness. In understanding its wholeness, a thing becomes no less complex, but it (or he or she) does become more mysterious. And, as opposed to “systems,” liberal education recognizes that some things can and never should be known. One might very well have come to understand—at least at a certain moment and place in history—the a, the d, and the e of a thing, knowing that the b and the c exist (indeed, must exist), but cannot or should not be known. Thus, the liberal arts demand a certain humility in both knowledge and wisdom. In a proper understanding, one does not exaggerate the a and the expense of the d and the e, but attempts to unify each with proportionality and balance, with dignity and sense.
It should not go unnoticed that the confusions of the 21st century are, each and every one of them, materialist confusions, with the typical heretical attempts to infuse some of the materialism with religious symbolism and fervor. By focusing only on the material, naturally, the material becomes bizarrely spiritual.
One of the many things the conservatives of the 20th century got right was the need to return not just to first principles but also to proper definitions. They attempted to define such vital terms as academic freedom, liberalism, dignity, freedom, liberty, community, individual, person, etc. If we cannot agree on the meaning of a word, we can have no debate and no serious discussion. Simply put, without defining our terms, we can make no progress in the least. It becomes impossible. And, thus, we find ourselves not just in a society of confusion but in a society that resorts more often than not in personal and community violence.
For those of us who reject ideologies, we have the supreme duty of bringing the conversation back to the most important things. We can only do that by example—but presenting our best selves. By arguing with depth, not soundbytes. By treating our opponents not as opponents, but as human persons, as flawed (if in different ways) as we ourselves are. We must also be willing to rest our arguments in mystery, offering more than a smattering of humility. None of this will change overnight, and, if it did, we should distrust it. Our current confusions sprang from a century or more of poor and arrogant academic thought and public acceptance of mediocre ideas and crass political solutions. A way out is certainly possible, but, as with all good things, it will take time, immensely hard work, and more patience than most of us currently possess.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Landscape With Figures” (1966), by George Tooker.