Thursday, January 05, 2017

The Shipwrecked Mind

These days, one may be forgiven for thinking that the transformative energy of the Enlightenment has run out. Even as much of the Left has come to reject the dream of an integrated world of shared prosperity and freedom, its enemies have spared no ammunition in attacking what still remains of its cosmopolitan sensibilities. Rather than standing up against this barrage of nationalism and bigotry, it has become common to suggest that democracy can only handle so much diversity and that we need to restore "control" over our borders.

As I sit down to write my first blog entry of 2017, it is frustrating to realize that nostalgia once again seems more powerful than hope and that more people want to build walls than tearing them down. At a time when we should focus much of our energy on expanding our civilization outwards toward the stars and thereby securing our long-term survival as a mature technological species, we are instead playing dangerous games with omnicidal weapons and pretending that we can somehow run away from our global responsibilities.

With all these questions I turn to Mark Lilla’s new book "The Shipwrecked Mind. On Political Reaction". Already on the first pages I find myself humming in agreement: “Reactionaries are not conservatives […] they are, in their way, just as radical as revolutionaries and just as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings […] where others see the river of time flowing as it always has, the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes”. And then the book turns to the “political theology” of Carl Schmitt and how it has convinced many intelligent people, some close to me, that the essence of politics is not compromise, deliberation and liberal tolerance but a conflict of absolutes founded on the friend-enemy distinction.

Soon after I finish my caffè latte. I do not agree with everything that Lilla says or believes but it is clear that we should do all that is in our power to ensure that 2017 will be a year when the open future, rather than a closed and romanticized past, is allowed to define our world.


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