February 25, 2022
Humanist philosophy centers on humans, and our well-being. One human characteristic is tribalism. I see my tribe as humanity, a tribe I love. I love what we’ve achieved, never taking for granted how we’ve overcome nature’s limitations. People who berate us as planetary despoilers wouldn’t want to live as cavemen.
I love people as individuals, as far more good than bad. That too is our evolutionary heritage. Primordial humans who behaved well toward each other gained reproductive success, so genes for good behavior proliferated.
But that only applied within a tribe. Wariness toward other tribes is also human. Yet our ideas of tribal boundaries have been broadening, with people increasingly (like me) viewing their tribe as all humanity. And our makeup also entails a big component of human sympathy; so while people may shun other tribes in the aggregate and notionally, most behave well even toward strangers. Thus hostility toward immigrants, for example, tends to give way when people encounter actual individuals.
Humanism leads to a civic philosophy of classical (John Stuart Mill type) liberalism. Centered on the dignity and worth of every individual, thus a democratic ethos of allowing everyone to pursue the good in their own ways. Which is not only moral but also conducive to societal progress through encouraging and testing different ways of thinking.
This was the philosophy of the Enlightenment, commencing three centuries ago. It underlay the American Revolution. And in the past three-quarters of a century — with America in the vanguard — it became something of a global system — especially following the fall of Communism three decades ago. Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End of History, thus heralded liberal democracy and free markets as finally triumphant ideas.
A David Brooks columnrecaps the wave of good news. Freedom, democracy, peace and prosperity ascendant. I recall saluting 1989 as “golden” at the year-end fireworks; then my 1990s trips to a free Russia, the exhilarating apotheosis of my ideals.
And then . . .
“What the hell happened?” Brooks writes, seeing so much gone sour, in a 21st Century “so dark, regressive and dangerous.”
He looks back to America’s founders, who “had a profound respect for individual virtue, but also individual frailty.” Thus they did establish a liberal democracy, but with carefully constructed “guardrails to check popular passion and prejudice.” Brooks says they recognized that democracy is not a natural state, and we’d have to not only plant its seeds but do the work of cultivation so those seeds could flourish. And he draws a parallel in the global arena — where after WWII, America took the lead in building an order with guardrails against a natural state with the strong preying upon the weak.
Both sets of guardrails are under attack, with the better angels of our nature battling our worst. The assault within America is epitomized by January 6 and all it represents; in the global sphere, by Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine.
“Will the liberals of the world be able to hold off the wolves?” asks Brooks. “Strengthen democracy and preserve the rules based world order?” Writing shortly before the actual invasion, he was encouraged how President Biden has succeeded in rallying the collective resolve of other world leaders to push back against Russia’s depredation.
But it’s not enough. As Brooks also notes, today’s Americans are not up for such conflict if it costs us anything. We’ve announced what Putin must regard as piddling sanctions; there’s so much more we could readily do (like cutting Russia from the SWIFT international bank transfer system). And if we were really serious, how about an embargo on all trade with Russia? Was there trade with Nazi Germany during WWII? Yes, doing more would mean pain for us and our allies; our sanctions are tailored to avoiding that. But this is war. The world is burning, and all Americans seem to really care about is gas prices.
Biden has failed to draw in stark terms what’s really at stake. Many don’t see why Ukraine is our concern. The old “not the world’s policeman” chestnut is trotted out. But you wouldn’t want to live in a neighborhood with no police to protect law and order. The world is our neighborhood, and America has acted responsibly as part of its police force. Keeping its wolves at bay. Now a wolf is on a rampage. No concern of ours?
“First they came for . . . .”
Today, we are all Ukrainians.
Back at home, Brooks thinks we must restore the seedbeds of our democracy which is “not natural, it is an artificial accomplishment that takes enormous work.” To “fortify the institutions that are supposed to teach the democratic skills; how to weigh evidence and commit to truth;” recognize one’s partisan blinders; respect people you disagree with; avoid conspiracy thinking and supporting demagogues.
But we’re so far off the rails it’s hard to see getting back. Yeah, we do need more civics education. But too many Americans are blind to outright evil staring them in the face. With brains so scrambled by misdirected political passion that hundreds of thousands have let themselves die from refusing vaccination. Crikey.
I started off talking about the human achievement. I’ve long felt it’s all thanks to the very smartest among us. Our big brains are a fluke of evolution, an adaptation to unique circumstances. Yet ours are really not far better than chimpanzee brains. For each species, intelligence falls along a bell curve, and the two curves greatly overlap. But ours is shifted slightly to the right, so at the thin edge, no chimpanzees equal the smartest humans. And it’s those smartest humans, building upon each other’s contributions, generation after generation, who are responsible for all progress. Otherwise we’d still be cavemen.
Tragically though, for all our smarts, we’re not quite smart enough. If that bell curve were shifted just a little more, Putin’s murderousness would not be possible; Americans would have no time for a creep like Trump.