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Rational Individualism Will Survive

Rational Individualism Will Survive

Robert James Bidinotto

6 Mins
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March 15, 2011

May 2008 -- One of my editorial pleasures is to be able to showcase fine thinkers who are willing and able to debate the implications of shared premises—and sometimes, even to challenge each other’s premises. I believe that competition in the intellectual marketplace, like competition in the general marketplace, results in the best products.

Because The New Individualist champions the principles of rational, secular individualism, long-time readers might be surprised to find in the May 2008 issue the perspectives of two noted conservatives, Bruce Thornton and Diana West. These fine thinkers concur in many ways with our outlook, especially in their views of the superiority of Western civilization and its values, the importance of individual life and liberty, and the decadence and devastation wrought by postmodernism, multiculturalism, and liberalism. Yet in some respects they depart from our editorial viewpoint, and the presence of those views in these pages requires a bit of clarification and, perhaps, friendly challenge.

I confess that I’ve not yet had the pleasure of exploring Diana West’s writings in depth. Jack Criss’s interview with her this month persuades me that I must, because it’s obvious that she offers important cultural insights. In most respects, I agreed with the points of view she expresses in the interview. However, I was somewhat uncomfortable about her endorsement of “the Boston censor” as a model of how to enforce community standards of public decency. Now, I don’t disagree about upholding standards of public decency; however, I found West’s implicit definition of “public” a bit too elastic, as it seems to encompass what appears in privately owned theaters and bookstores. Censoring according to “the general wishes and sensibility of the people of the locality” is a standard so subjective and shifting that important works would no doubt be subject to muzzling. For example, would we really want “the people of the locality”—say, the “Bible Belt”—to decide, by consensus or majority vote, whether the neighborhood bookstores should be allowed to carry Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great? Or whether the community theater should stage Inherit the Wind?

The New Individualist champions the principles of rational, secular individualism.

More fundamental are the issues raised by noted classics scholar Bruce Thornton, who has graced these pages several times with his eloquent essays vigorously defending Western civilization against postmoderns, multiculturalists, and jihadists. I’ve almost always agreed with his analyses, at least as far as they’ve gone. However, in his review of Lee Harris’s The Suicide of Reason in this issue, he moves into those areas where our philosophical disagreements arise. According to Thornton, Harris’s book

explores in more depth the peculiar weakness of the liberal West: its “exaggerated confidence in the power of reason . . . [and] profound underestimation of the forces of fanaticism”. . . . The utilitarian and materialist goods by which the West judges progress ––the 'carpe diem' principle of 'maximizing the happiness and pleasures of each individual' at the expense of one’s community, the world, or the future. . . .

Western cultural decadence weakens our defenses and gives traction to the jihadist hatred of the West. Living off the accumulated cultural capital of our more hardy, realistic, and brutal ancestors, we moderns are “intensely individualist, absorbed in the present moment, hostile to all forms of traditional religion and authority, champions of materialism, consumerism, and hedonism.” As such, we believe nothing is worth killing and dying for, leaving us weak in the face of a fanatic enemy, for “an intolerant ethical code will always end by trumping a carpe diem ethical code”. . . .

Harris is a tragic pessimist, and his analysis of the weaknesses of reason and individualism is trenchant. Yet he is no anti-rationalist or reactionary. He makes it clear that our traditions of reason and individualism are indeed superior, which is what makes them worth defending and fighting for. But he recognizes too that they are exceptional and hence fragile. His approach is almost Darwinian, in the sense that the main issue is sheer survival: for no matter how superior a culture is, if it can not defend itself, then its superiority is meaningless.  

This idea—that rational individualism is culturally fragile while fanaticism and brute force are efficacious and enduring—is simply wrong. The mistakes I believe are made by Harris, and echoed by Thornton, appear to arise from their implicit definitions of “reason” and “individualism.” The “reason” they criticize is in fact a platonic straw man: a cerebral path to infallible, automatic, and inevitable progress. Likewise, the “individualism” they challenge is a shotgun wedding of two incompatible archetypes: the relativistic, hedonistic, self-absorbed narcissist, and the principled, self-directed, independent-minded creator. To label both “individualists” drowns the Enlightenment baby in postmodern bath water.

By way of contrast, consider this critical review of Harris’s book in the January 6, 2008 New York Times, written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Infidel. Ali challenges the standard conservative indictment of the Enlightenment, and his review is worth quoting at length:

I disagree . . . that the way to rescue Western civilization from a path of suicide is to challenge its tradition of reason. Indeed, for all his understanding of the rise of fanaticism in general and its Islamic manifestation in particular, Harris’s use of the term “reason” is faulty.

Enlightenment thinkers, preoccupied with both individual freedom and secular and limited government, argued that human reason is fallible. They understood that reason is more than just rational thought; it is also a process of trial and error, the ability to learn from past mistakes. . . .

Harris is pessimistic in a way that the Enlightenment thinkers were not. He takes a Darwinian view of the struggle between clashing cultures, criticizing the West for an ethos of selfishness, and he follows Hegel in asserting that where the interest of the individual collides with that of the state, it is the state that should prevail. This is why he attributes such strength to Islamic fanaticism. The collectivity of the umma elevates the communal interest above that of the individual believer. Each Muslim is a slave, first of God, then of the caliphate. Although Harris does not condone this extreme subversion of the self, still a note of admiration seems to creep into his descriptions of Islam’s fierce solidarity, its adherence to tradition and the willingness of individual Muslims to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the greater good. . . .

But what makes America unique, especially in contrast to Europe, is its resistance to the philosophy of Hegel with its concept of a unifying world spirit. It is the individual that matters most in the United States. And more generally, it is individuals who make cultures and who break them . . . At the same time, it is crucial that we not fall into the trap of assuming that the survival tactics of individuals living in tribal societies—like lying, hypocrisy, secrecy, violence, intimidation, and so forth—are in the interest of the modern individual or his culture.

I was not born in the West. I was raised with the code of Islam, and from birth I was indoctrinated into a tribal mind-set. Yet I have changed, I have adopted the values of the Enlightenment, and as a result I have to live with the rejection of my native clan as well as the Islamic tribe . . . And I am not alone. Muslims have been migrating to the West in droves for decades now. They are in search of a better life. . . .

The problem . . . is not too much reason but too little. Harris also fails to address the enemies of reason within the West: religion and the Romantic movement. It is out of rejection of religion that the Enlightenment emerged; Romanticism was a revolt against reason.

Both the Romantic movement and organized religion have contributed a great deal to the arts and to the spirituality of the Western mind, but they share a hostility to modernity. Moral and cultural relativism (and their popular manifestation, multiculturalism) are the hallmarks of the Romantics. To argue that reason is the mother of the current mess the West is in is to miss the major impact this movement has had. . . .

To argue, as Harris seems to do, that children born and bred in superstitious cultures that value fanaticism and create phalanxes of alpha males are doomed—and will doom others—to an existence governed by the law of the jungle is to ignore the lessons of the West’s own past. . . . In short, while this conflict is undeniably a deadly struggle between cultures, it is individuals who will determine the outcome.

This is a potent critique of the conservative viewpoint—an outlook steeped in religion, tradition, and convention—an outlook that, at root, harbors some of the same suspicion of reason and individualism that, to an even greater degree, animates the West’s ideological enemies. Their underlying, if tacit, intellectual concurrence may be one reason that many conservatives fear the supposed power of America’s irrationalist, fanatical, thuggish adversaries: Perhaps it is a force that they feel tugging at them from within. After all, it is hard to mount an uncompromising defense of our modern capitalist society if one is ambivalent about reason and individualism.

The New Individualist does not share that ambivalence. However, as editor, I believe that the most effective way of advancing our philosophy is to provide a civilized forum where such differences are not only aired but compete openly in the intellectual marketplace. And those debates are only elevated when the participants include thinkers of the caliber of Diana West and Bruce Thornton. I hope you agree.