Shaken universals

September 11 launched a paradoxical process, involving a painful re-examination of the Western world but, at the same time, an aggressive reassertion of Western, liberal values. We now know that the world where the individual is respected is fragile and perishable. Above all, we know that our world is not all the world there is. Perhaps looking at our world, we did not see another until it hit us. The triumphalism of the 1990s, fanned by the belief that the global predominance of liberalism was not too far in the future, has been dashed. Now we are even beginning to fear that there may not be a future at all, or at least much of one. Nuclear weapons are not in our own hands only. A single madman can bring about death on an unprecedented scale; anytime, anyplace. It took the United States 30 years to realize it was a superpower. It took no more than 18 minutes to realize it is just as vulnerable as everyone else. The strong proved to be weaker than anyone imagined. In light of the terrorist blitz, the drive toward a universal civilization should be discarded as another of the failed projects buried by the rubble of the World Trade Center. At the same time, however, Western belief in the superiority and the universality of its values continues. It is mirrored in the US-led war on Afghanistan. The West is not just fighting this war out of self-interest, to safeguard itself against terrorism; that would be a justifiable cause in its own right. The underlying goal of the military campaign is to replace an obsolete system with a new political and moral order in our own image. The Afghans, the Somalis or the Iraqis, will, of course, be the first to benefit from the new order, we tell ourselves. The problem lies with our metaphysics. We truly believe that we exemplify the best and most advanced form of «good life.» Every man has two houses, two cars but, of course, no more than one wife. We prosper, most of us anyway. We think other peoples or states can only catch up if they adopt our own political, economic and cultural values. To be modern is to be Western. For the West, the only fully legitimate political regimes are liberal ones. The rest are mere approximations, or else considered evil. Liberalism is tolerant toward other systems to the extent that these reflect its values. When Western Europe welcomed the former captive nations of the Eastern bloc, it did so provided that they would shed any aspirations to alternative paths of development. Ironically, the free-market model was the only good available to them. Liberalism is the only remaining political expression of the Enlightenment. As the West’s colonial past has shown, the faith that we have in the superiority of our liberal values joined with our science and technology (and the drive for new markets) to result in imperialism and exploitation. Virtues are inseparably bound up with vices. Acknowledging this fact does not necessarily serve a fatal blow to liberal theory. Like all political doctrines, liberalism has weaknesses as well as strengths. As Madeleine Bunting argued in The Guardian a few weeks after the attacks: «In all systems of human thought, there are contradictions that advocates prefer to gloss over. One of the most acute in liberalism is between its claim to tolerance and its hubristic claim to universality.» But as the philosopher Nietzsche taught us, thinking can only continue if it holds together contradictory imperatives and ideas, if it accepts paradox rather than trying to resolve it in some sort of new ideal. At least, as Umberto Eco has argued (The Guardian, October 13), «Western culture has developed the capacity to freely lay its own contradictions. Maybe they remain unresolved, but they are well known and admitted.» We may own two houses and two cars but the air we breathe is filthy. So what then? If our illusions have been shattered and fundamentalism is on our doorstep, what remains to be done in this radically new context? One thing that we should not do is reduce the «other,» our «enemy,» to evil. If we do that we may come up with a demon beyond our comprehension, hence beyond the scope of any counterstrategy. Descriptions, «reality» itself in a way, are relative. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. No one ever claimed to be fighting a war in the name of «injustice.» We need to come to terms with the fact that values are culture-relative and culture-specific. The diversity of human nature cannot be reduced to any single moral ideal. Deep conflicts over values mean that different cultures will deal with them in different ways. They will give importance to different values and negotiate different trade-offs between them. Liberalism, in its most honest moments, itself acknowledges the fact that there is no perfect trade-off. Our values, Isaiah Berlin demonstrated, are not always compatible and do not necessarily entail each other. Freedom and equality, wealth and the environment are in constant tension with each other. Our convictions are by definition preferred; that’s what makes them our convictions. But it is the same with the others. As the philosopher Richard Rorty has said, we cannot justify our values by driving the others against an argumentative wall, forcing them to accept that liberal freedom has a «moral privilege» that their values lack. Instead, we should seek to promote genuine human solidarity by invoking the only particular lived value that unites us: the ability to feel pain. Anything else would resemble the thinking of the fundamentalists, liberalism’s enemies – belief in our own superiority and no tolerance for anything different. We know this well after September 11.

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