THE BLOG
01/28/2014 06:26 am ET Updated Mar 30, 2014

The End of Our Way of Life?

We saw last week that our pleasant way of life in the West rests upon assumption of liberalism - freedom with purpose and progress. In the last century this philosophy was nearly wiped out. Today, superficially, liberalism looks in good shape - but look under the surface and it is a different story. Life in the next few years and decades could become a lot less agreeable.

In 1900 liberalism in Europe and America had been in the triumph - moves towards democracy, representative government, and confidence in the unique destiny of personal freedom had never been stronger.

Then came the deluge.

Three competing ideologies knocked the stuffing out of liberalism.

First there was nationalism. In every major European country in the 1900s decade, newspapers and irresponsible politicians fanned the flames of rivalry, especially between the four most powerful nations - Britain, Germany, France, and Russia. Nationalism was accompanied by racism, especially through the insane expansion of Europe into Africa, the race to grab territory and subjects before the other nations did. An increasingly frantic European arms race followed, culminating in the Great War of 1914-18. The war led to unanticipated and unprecedented carnage, and crushed the West's confident common culture.

Worse was to follow. In 1917 Lenin seized power in Russia through a coup, and set about liquidating all competing sources of power. In 1933 Hitler was elected in Germany, and promptly imitated what Lenin and Stalin had done. Communism and Nazism had a common policy on liberalism and liberal institutions - they strangled them. Tens of millions of people were liquidated. In 1941, liberalism had been crushed in Continental Europe. The only remnants of Western civilization were North America, Australasia, and for what appeared to be a short time only, Great Britain.

By sheer good fortune - above all because of two great leaders working together, Roosevelt and Churchill - this proved to be the low point in liberal fortunes. After 1945, fascism as a mass political force disappeared. Communism was imposed on Eastern Europe, but communists never won national elections in any Western country. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, communism has posed no threat at all to Western liberalism.

And yet - look around, and you can see two horrible dangers lurking, both own goals by the West.

Terrorism is not one of those two dangers. Even including the work of al-Qa'ida and other Islamic revolutionaries, the number of international terrorist attacks and their casualties has declined significantly since the mid-1980s.

But the first threat is the reaction to terrorism in the West, especially in America. Not only have civil liberties been curtailed, but the use of rendition, torture, and prolonged imprisonment without civilian trials, and unprecedented snooping on ordinary citizens, have made it clear that America and its allies - even under a Democratic administration - have put liberal values on ice. And enormous harm has been done abroad, especially in the image of America in the world, by American-led invasions into Iraq and Afghanistan. War cannot ever be waged in a liberal way, and the decision to make the quagmire of the Middle East the target of even more bloodshed and bombs is the worst decision ever made by American foreign policy. America has entered wars it cannot win and which have done untold and perhaps terminal damage to the idea that America is the world's best hope for freedom. That European politicians of the democratic left - led by the ineffable Tony Blair, a persuasive man of good intentions and unbelievably bad judgment - have backed America just makes it worse.

For someone who believes in America and its historic importance as a force for good - for freedom and liberal values - in the world, this is far worse than a blunder. It is a tragedy for which we will all pay in the decades ahead. The bill has not yet been submitted, but it will be massive. That Russia and China are able to look less than evil - when they both have neither the rule of law nor any liberal values, when it fact they are tyrannies - in comparison is a tragedy. Anyone who prefers Russia or China to America is nuts. But Americans only have themselves to blame: hundreds of millions around the world cannot see the moral difference between the three countries.

But there is an even more insidious threat to liberalism. It lies in the fragmentation and devaluation of the political process. Opinion polls show it everywhere - our leaders are not respected. It matters not the country. Consistently those in power, and the main opposition leaders, are rated more negatively than positively. Political parties used to have millions of active members; now they have very few, and many of those are illiberal. The political underpinnings of liberalism are being nibbled away. Liberal democracy requires an important political stage; and a large and appreciative audience, one that participates enthusiastically in politics. But the trend is to reposition the stage, to move the spotlight from elected chamber to television studio, and from serious issues of policy and government to the trivia of personalities and sexual or financial scandal. Political excitement belongs to mavericks and "personalities", new stars whom the media delights in catapulting to brief fame, and then snuffing out. Even worse is that many of the new stars espouse illiberal populism, the elevation of fear and ignorance above reasoned discourse. For example, Greece, the home of democracy, now has a neo-Nazi party, New Dawn, which is taken seriously as a political party and won 7% of the vote in the last elections. In France, a liberal and civilized country if ever there was one, the liberal-socialist president, recently elected with great fanfare, is now the most unpopular French leader ever, and polls show that the far-right National Front may come first or second in the next elections. In Britain, the Liberal Democrats are poised for destruction in the 2015 General Election, and a recent poll showed that the most popular party is now UKIP - not an extreme party at all in my view, but one whose leader has made immigration its main cause.

Finally, there is liberalism's internal compulsion towards self-destruction. Taken to the extreme, liberalism denies its own superiority. The quest for equality of outcome can destroy equality of opportunity. Individuality - the glory of the West - has become a dirty word. A mistaken belief in political correctness tends to ignore and want to suppress uncomfortable results of scientific research, especially in psychology and biology.

Most of all, the denial of intellectual authority can engender subjective sterility, where any point of view appears as good as any other. Truth becomes privatized, a matter of personal opinion whatever the facts. Some deny that there is even such a thing as truth. This dubious philosophy is used to justify ignorance and elevate emption and opinion above reason and science.

Relativism corrodes the sense of responsibility without which liberal society cannot work. Whole swathes of society are being encouraged to view themselves as victims who are therefore not liable for the consequences of their actions. Movies and novels increasingly depict criminals as harmless eccentrics who are heroes more than real villains. But liberal civilization rests on overcoming problems and bad behavior, not multiplying them; on taking responsibility, not denying it.

An attempt to see all points of view, filtered through the liberal mind, can lead to a belief that is suicide bombers, for example, hate us, then we must done something terrible to generate this hatred. That way lies our own suicide - if fascist enemies cannot be recognized, then the barbarians will win.

Unless enthusiastic liberals - of all political parties and persuasions, from the left to the right - stand up for collaborative freedom and the values of liberal society, and rekindle enthusiasm for them, the West is likely to move to to a less pleasant civilization, where liberty and community fade because there is no inspiring cause to lift citizens above the relentless pursuit of self-interest.