Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Kingdom of Whatever

For some reason Alexis de Tocqueville keeps coming up in the post-election commentary in America. He is, as usual, relevant to all of us living in 21st century democracies. Here's James Kalb:
Tocqueville was concerned to secure the advantages of democracy and minimize its dangers, but his confidence in its approaching triumph was not matched by confidence it would endure... Tocqueville’s intelligence and insight did not bring him influence, and democracy and Western society have gone their way without reference to his warnings. The outcome has been a setting increasingly unfriendly to democracy. People have become more interested in comfort and security than self-rule, and a technological and globalized world seems too complicated—and problems such as terrorism, environmental degradation, and economic instability too pressing, far-reaching, and resistant to solution—for popular rule to appear workable. Under such conditions Russia and China can seem better symbols of things to come than the New England town meetings that so much struck Tocqueville when he visited.
The low turnout in the recent referendum in Ireland, and the lowest turnout ever in last week's UK police and crime commissioner elections are example of people becoming more interested in 'comfort and security than self-rule'. Though perhaps that's unfair to our fellow citizens. We are living through not so much a crisis of faith as a crisis of reason. Worse, we are now living in what Professor Brad Gregory calls the Kingdom of Whatever:
Modern Western political theory tries (or pretends) to steer clear of prescribing morality. Because our society divides so bitterly over matters of truth and ethics, modern lawmakers tend to enshrine individual privacy and autonomy. But in doing so, they diminish the life-giving social importance of religious faith. This legal “neutrality” isn’t so neutral. In feeding the sovereignty of the individual, our public leaders fuel consumer self-absorption, moral confusion, and—ultimately, as mediating institutions like the family and churches wither—the power of the state. The Reformation has led, by gradual, indirect, and never-intended steps, to what Gregory calls the “Kingdom of Whatever.” It’s a world of hyperpluralism, where meaning is self-invented by millions, and therefore society as a whole starves for meaning.
The people's romance with democracy is turning to dis-enchantment, as it did in the 1930s, and we know how dangerous that can be. We started with Tocqueville so let's end with a (quite remarkable) song in French, from Quebec:

ht The Thinking Housewife

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