The Retreat from Freedom and Democracy

Twenty years ago Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) laid out a story of the rise of European wealth and power as geographically determined. Temperate climates, suitable soil, and availability of domesticable animals created the initial conditions that freed a little time for technological development and the rise of population centers where close proximity of humans to each other and their domesticated animals led to diseases and eventual immunities not found among other humans. The technological development (steel, guns) and the immunity (germs) were the key means by which Europeans came to dominate the globe.

I don't know whether Diamond got all the details of the story right -- probably he ignored or underemphasized some important factors while overemphasizing others. But if we are unwilling to say either that white people are superior or that they are uniquely congenitally evil, then we need some other way to account for the hegemony of Western civilization. Something like Diamond's geographical determinism then becomes attractive, and perhaps inevitable. The Europeans aren't smarter or more virtuous by nature, they are just the beneficiaries of geographic good luck. This explanation also dodges the possibility that Europeans might be inferior: more violent, vicious, and dominating by nature than other peoples. Humans and chimps have a deep history of conquering each other when they can, so any people that stumbled upon the means for vast conquest was liable to use it.

Western civilization has, until quite recently, tended to be proud of itself. Before stories like Diamond's there were stories like Will and Ariel Durant's Story of Civilization. The Durants
"basically told human history (mostly Western history) as an accumulation of great ideas and innovations, from the Egyptians, through Athens, Magna Carta, the Age of Faith, the Renaissance and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The series was phenomenally successful, selling over two million copies." (David Brooks)
While the Durants never said, "white people are genetically superior," or "are God's favorite," they also provided no other explanation for why these "great ideas and innovations" did not appear in the pre-Colombian Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, or East Asia. Readers were given an impression, neither explicit nor explained, that there must be something special about white people.

Western civilization is problematic. The wealth of Europe and America was built on the oppression of, theft from, or genocide of other peoples. The West's standard of living continues to depend to a distressing degree on exploitation of people in less developed countries. Moreover, those of us "enjoying the benefits" of Western standards of living are often more stressed, isolated, alienated, and unhappy than people in nonwestern societies.

At the same time, I really like some of those "great Western ideas." Liberal democracy (elected leaders subject to periodic re-election, an independent judiciary, and protected freedoms of expression) and the modern scientific method, both of which began taking shape among Europeans in the mid-seventeenth-century, are particular favorites of mine. I also happen to think that a number of really good ideas emerged in the Americas, Africa, and East Asia, and various "traditional societies" all over the world. (Diamond's newest book, The World Until Yesterday, discusses a number of those ideas from which Western society could benefit.)

Can we be glad of liberal democracy and science while acknowledging that these appeared where they did because of luck, much of it geographic and perhaps some of it also merely random, rather than because of the beneficent smile of divine providence upon people with paler skin? Can we hope to address Western civilization's problems and reduce oppression and exploitation by advancing, rather than retreating from, norms of truth and justice?

Instead, we are seeing retreat from democratic norms and scientific standards of assessing truth. We are seeing, writes David Brooks in this morning's column, echoing what many are noticing:
"the rise of the illiberals, authoritarians who not only don’t believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative, but don’t even pretend to believe in them, as former dictators did. Over the past few years especially, we have entered the age of strong men. We are leaving the age of Obama, Cameron and Merkel and entering the age of Putin, Erdogan, el-Sisi, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. The events last week in Turkey were just another part of the trend. Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismantles democratic institutions and replaces them with majoritarian dictatorship. Turkey seems to have lost its desire to join the European idea, which no longer has magnetism and allure. Turkey seems to have lost its aspiration to join the community of democracies because that’s no longer the inevitable future. More and more governments, including the Trump administration, begin to look like premodern mafia states, run by family-based commercial clans. Meanwhile, institutionalized, party-based authoritarian regimes, like in China or Russia, are turning into premodern cults of personality/Maximum Leader regimes, which are far more unstable and dangerous."
It seems as though the displacement of a Durant-type story by a Diamond-type story has made democracy and freedom less compelling. If liberal democracy appeared by geographic luck rather than by the superiority of the people who created its foundation, then free and democratic ideals are less inspiring.

I grew up inspired by a Durantish story of my place in history. I came eventually to understand that the silences in that story -- silences about why the West's ideas and innovations occurred where and how they did -- created spaces within which racist assumptions could flourish. My transition to a Diamondish story leaves me no less inspired by and committed to the ideals of free speech and press, an independent judiciary, fair and frequent elections, and respect for the results of science. There are a lot of us who continue devotion to those ideals -- but fewer than there used to be. For a number of folks, race -- or some form of in-group identity -- trumps freedom, democracy, and processes of determining what to believe that attempt to recognize and temper our own confirmation biases. If they can't have racist reasons for devotion to democracy, they won't be devoted to it at all.

History appears to be at a pivot point. The human world will either continue the current retreat from freedom and democracy -- or it will turn around. Which will happen, I don't know. Turning around will require finding a way to be inspired by those ideals that is also informed by nonwestern ideals, that rejects the domination that has been so much a part of Western history, and that can accept that all our ideals are contingent accidents of history.

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