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The year bleeding hearts went out of fashion

As we enter 2017, the world has become more insular and less open to the free exchange of ideas, people and policies among countries

“No way am I a liberal,” my graduate professor at an American University had informed me some years ago in an emphatic fashion. This had seemed odd even then as he checked all the boxes that define the modern liberal in the United States.

Here was a highly-educated academic of Jewish origin from an East Coast state – communities disproportionately favouring what are popularly known as progressive ideas and policies. Add to the mix his graduate years at Harvard University, and post-graduate training at that incubator of social justice warriors — the University of California at Berkeley — and his assertion came close to blasphemy.

“When I entered Berkeley, I was a true blue liberal,” he had revealed. “Dissent was my default mode of interaction. However, the anything-goes atmosphere I encountered there cured me of that particular disorder.”

I remembered that conversation while scrolling through opinion pieces lamenting how 2016 became the year liberalism went out of fashion. Actually, it had been losing its appeal with a large swathe of humanity long before this year — case in point: countries such as Turkey, Hungary and India. However, it needed the exit of the U.K. from the European Union and Donald Trump’s rambunctious entry onto the global stage for the talking heads in the world media to announce that the philosophy had reached the “Houston, we have a problem” stage.

As we enter 2017, the world has become more insular and less open to the free exchange of ideas, people and policies among countries. The appeal of globalisation is waning, as is clear from a series of electoral verdicts indicating that voters are quite content with the existing boundaries of nation states, thank you very much.

Decoding the rebellion against the liberal world order, or at least its self-appointed custodians in the U.S., is not difficult. A couple of incidents I recall help demonstrate how free thinking has morphed into a world view where one is free to think – provided your thoughts align with mine. Should you step off the delineated path, you will be mocked, browbeaten or otherwise intimidated into conforming to the non-conformists.

The first incident occurred some years back at a panel discussion held in Cleveland to debate a proposal by the Ohio State Board of Education to allow Intelligent Design to be taught alongside the theory of evolution in biology class. Intelligent design, which postulates that life on the planet did not arise by chance but due to the manoeuvres of an Intelligent Designer a.k.a. the Almighty, is nothing more than Creationism in a hi-tech garb. While this alternative formulation may find a home in faith-based studies, it remains out of place in science curriculum.

Yet public officials were seriously considering affording this pseudo-science the same validity as the theory of evolution. To thwart these efforts, Cleveland’s premier University convened a town hall whereby scientists could outline to parents why equating scholarship with high-falutin’ mumbo-jumbo was a bad, bad idea.

Speaking on the occasion, an academic made clear that the contention that the Story of Life may have a mysterious and intelligent director is ill-suited for a science class. Such a claim is impossible to test and falsify and hence cannot be called science.

The facts were irrefutable. The tone, however, could have been more accommodative.

The audience reaction offered a pointer to the Trump landslide to follow years later. No sooner had the professor proclaimed that he was an atheist than shoulders began stiffening across the hall. As his contempt for organised religion, the basis of Intelligent Design, came through, the roomful of god-fearing parents stared straight ahead in stony-faced disapproval. Regardless of the merit of the argument, they had already slotted the speaker as one whose views did not merit an unbiased appraisal.

If he is so casually dismissive of our beliefs, their hostile demeanours said, why should we give credence to what he is saying?

In 2016, Donald Trump successfully tapped into this resentment of Main Street USA to the one-sided communication of those tasked with moulding public opinion. Even though his thinking in all probability aligned better with the speaker, Mr. Trump’s political genius lay in convincing the audience that he had their backs in this argument.

I subsequently attended another talk on a similar theme but this time organised by a non-profit in that bastion of liberalism, New York City. As speakers rallied against the insidious normalisation of Intelligent Design by cloth-headed politicos, the audience tut-tutted in sympathy, occasionally pausing to titter at the more outlandish assertions of the doctrine. At the question and answer session that followed, members of the audience bemoaned the fact that the Millennials were still caught up in evolution wars.

The preaching to the choir was pitch-perfect with not a discordant note to be heard. Still the nagging question remained – was the recital being heard in the right chambers?

Mr. Trump’s election is a reminder of what happens when such a chorus hardly ever makes it out of the echo chambers.

A second illustration of the cluelessness of the intelligentsia came at a seminar on international relations at Columbia University. This was some time after the Iraq invasion. By then the U.S. had realised that enforcing regime change does not necessarily lead to a democratic utopia. As Iraq plunged into a civil war taking its toll on the U.S. forces there, intellectuals congregated in New York City to deliberate on the way ahead.

While the panel came down harshly on George Bush’s military adventurism, the solutions offered were no less interventionist. Someone suggested that the time had come to partition Iraq to end the conflict. Others spoke of selectively arming home-grown militias. Still others elaborated on the most cost-effective (for the U.S.) method to implement the same.

Sitting in the audience, I listened, stunned. Hello! That’s a sovereign nation we are talking about. Maybe the Iraqi people should have a say in these plans as well.

Iraq, by then, had probably had its fill of gratuitous meddling by Western powers. What the commentariat missed out on was that this feeling is increasingly shared by its own citizenry. Perhaps it is time, the voters felt, that the elected government cast aside the robes of a global messiah and focus on problems back home.

Donald Trump merely channelled these feelings into an electoral victory.

shami71@yahoo.com

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 12:01:14 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/article16979270.ece

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