Trump and Syria: Some Brief Observations

I’ve been trying to keep pace with the ever-burgeoning mass of opinion surrounding Donald Trump’s decision to bomb a Syrian airfield in response to the Assad regime’s reported use of chemical weapons. Partly to help me organise my own thoughts, I thought I’d set down some rough observations regarding the decision, its (possible) implications, and its significance.

To begin, there is the question of aims. As far as I can see, there remains a great deal of confusion as to what this airstrike was meant to achieve — if by “achieve”, one is referring to intended results. Put another way, it’s difficult to determine the effectiveness of the strike, since there is no clear metric against which to judge success. Ostensibly, it was meant to degrade the Syrian government’s ability to launch further chemical attacks against its own people. But how? Sure, the bombing of one airfield might delay subsequent operations the regime may wish to conduct – but only for a time. It might deter Assad from using chemical weapons (again, for a time), but does little to arrest the wider carnage civilians are suffering. Unless the United States is willing to engage in a sustained campaign against the Syrian government, it isn’t possible, practically speaking, to permanently destroy that country’s ability to engage in chemical warfare.

Some commentators – even those who have praised the President’s decision – seem to be tacitly aware of this uncomfortable reality. In Melbourne’s Herald Sun, for example, Georgina Downer (daughter of former Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer), wrote approvingly that:

Trump ordered a military strike against a Syrian government air base that was decisive and strategic. It took out Assad’s ability to launch further chemical weapons attacks, at least from that site. Further strikes on Syrian air bases will be necessary.

Downer, like others, seems to recognize that one US strike in isolation fails to achieve anything all that significant. This explains the addition of the words, “…at least from that site”. She knows that the destruction of one airfield will not substantively change events on the ground (which, but the way, totally undermines her contention that it was “strategic”). Hence, Downer’s rather insouciant assertion that “further strikes” will be required, lest the current attack amount to little more than a mere symbolic display of strength.

But herein lies the dilemma. Pushing for a more substantial response threatens to draw the US into very murky waters, both politically and morally. It would be an intervention of dubious legality (having been built upon what appears to be an unlawful strike – more about that anon). Moreover, it creates a precedent for Trump and the country that might see them wade into a quagmire – one from which extrication is likely to be exceedingly difficult. Long-range strikes on airbases today; ground operations tomorrow. Indeed, we have seen how previous interventions have turned out: just look at Iraq and Afghanistan, fragile non-states that the US saw fit to try and re-make. One doesn’t even need to cite those particular examples; the more “modest” effort to influence the unfolding situation in Libya from 2011 has also proved disastrous. These should serve as warnings against escalating involvement in a foreign conflict that even the subtlest of minds has trouble understanding. Such action would likely leave the US exhausted by more long years trying to win an interminable conflict where allies and enemies are in a constant state of flux.

This might appear to be a leap on my part, and there would surely be several steps in between; a steadily advancing mission is often (though not always) an incremental process. But recent history has shown that apparently minor military action does have a habit of morphing into something much more grandiose. Indeed, it seems clear to me that Trump is in danger of painting himself into a corner, thereby inviting the spectre of mission creep. I mean, in order to be consistent and comprehensive in his sudden determination to punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons, a much-expanded operation is logically required. Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the UN, has publicly countenanced this very option – even going so far as to float the notion of regime change. In any case, it’s apparent that some kind of operational enlargement is simply the natural entailment of Trump’s position, and seems unavoidable if the administration is serious in wanting to rid Syria of whatever poisonous ordnance it may still possess. Otherwise, we’re back to meaningless, ineffectual symbolism.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not in favour of foreign intervention in the Syrian civil war. I’m not suggesting that the US go the whole hog and engage in direct action against Syria. In fact,  I wasn’t even in favour of this latest foray. I’m simply pointing out the policy predicament in which the American government finds itself. Even if I did support a strike (at least in the abstract), the fact remains that the Trump administration has failed to provide a coherent or persuasive explanation for the attack, not to mention the wider aims it purports to secure. If it was an isolated operation, what good does it achieve? On the other hand, if it’s the prelude to something more expansive, how can one possibly guarantee that deeper involvement won’t simply make things worse (and sacrifice an obscene amount of blood and treasure in the process)? Some in Trump’s camp, like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have tried to claim that this does not represent a change in policy, viz. Syria. But how can open intervention – an airstrike against a sovereign nation, no less – not constitute a change in policy? At the same time, we have Ambassador Haley’s already-noted remarks, which re-open the door to grand nation-building projects. These countervailing views – from within the same team – are certainly worrying, for they point to both a lack of planning and fundamental incongruities at the heart of the American government’s basic stance towards Syria.

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The contradictions above are of a piece with the apparent ambiguity resident in the President’s own views on Syria. Not so long ago, during the presidential campaign, he publicly chided those who argued for greater American involvement in the conflict. When Obama failed to enforce his infamous 2013 “Red Line” in the wake of Syria’s earlier use of chemical weapons, Trump seemed to support such a decision. So, what’s changed? On any of the main explanations that have been proffered, one can only be disturbed.

Trump’s own remarks strongly implied that he was so moved by images of gassed children that he felt compelled to act. Compassion and sorrow as responses to human suffering are fine and noble sentiments, to be sure. But should such pictures – and the emotional state they evoke in a person – form the basis of so important a decision as the one Trump has recently made? Policy must be built upon a calm and rational assessment of the facts at hand. It must weigh up various consequences with sobriety and (as far as possible) a certain objectivity. Moreover, foreign policy cannot do without a hard-headed evaluation of a country’s national interest: what it is; where it lies; and how a particular action might impact it, for good or for ill. Forming such potentially far-reaching decisions as the result of deep emotional stirrings – legitimate as they may be in themselves – is the very antithesis of the above approach. In the last few years, we’ve seen how single images can stir government officials to embark on disastrous policies: think of that heart-rending photo, picturing the body of a young boy washed up on a Turkish beach. That image helped encourage European governments to relax their borders further, allowing the number of asylum seekers on the continent to swell at an alarming rate. The results of such policies have been mixed disastrous, to say the least.

Some have glowingly cited this as a classic “Trumpian” move: unpredictable and abrupt, bold and decisive. They’ve praised him for so quickly re-assessing his views on Syria in light of what’s happened, and adjusting his course accordingly. I prefer a less sanguine perspective. His volte-face is not, in my opinion, the sign of a strong and decisive leader. Nor does it reflect a man whose grasp of the situation before him is sure and strong – someone who is clear-eyed about the complexities of the conflict, and is able to subtly reason through the implications of certain acts. His affectations notwithstanding, Trump’s rather mercurial ability to shift position so radically in a matter of hours suggests that he is not, in the final analysis, anchored to a coherent, consistent view of the world. The President’s decision signals, I think, his basic ideological emptiness.

Now, I realize that “ideology” is a dirty word in some circles, but I am simply using it to denote a coherent body of substantive, enduring (though not static) philosophical principles, by which a person interprets the world and makes decisions. This is precisely what Trump doesn’t possess. He is the ultimate transactional politician, focused more pragmatics than philosophy. It’s what has led to such policy incoherence recently – not just in the field of foreign policy, but elsewhere (Trump’s approach to economics, for instance, appears to be a melange of free-market principles and nativist protectionism).

Anyone observing events in the United States might have noticed that Trump seems to formulate policy based on what might be called an indefinable nous: some exemplary, preternatural capacity to immediately discern the nub of an event, and to do what is required. Trump’s new-found determination to strike Syria appears to be borne out of such an instinct, which eludes definition: an almost impulsive act, guided not by cool rationality, or considered axioms of thought, but by pent up outrage leavened with a belief in his own exceptional abilities.

Jonah Goldberg, writing in The National Review, compared the President to the ideal “charismatic” leader in Max Weber’s three-pronged typology of authority:

Donald Trump is a charismatic political figure. I mean it [i.e., charismatic] in the sociological and political-science sense. Max Weber delineated three kinds of authority – legal, traditional and charismatic. Charismatic authority “rests on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism, or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns of order revealed and ordained by him”.

I think this is exactly right. Trump presents himself as someone who does not need to engage in the long, arduous process of thinking through policy implications or balancing competing interests; nor does he need the safe harbour of an ideological programme to guide his thinking; he simply “knows” what needs to be done, and takes the necessary steps: clean, swift, decisive, and strong. Fixed principles are, for him, redundant, for he has in his possession an unmediated, instinctual grasp of the issues that confront him. But if this is so, how is it possible to predict what Trump might actually do in a given situation? If he cares nothing for consistency of thought – instead favouring the apparent randomness of instinct over the sobriety of prudential reflection – why should people trust his articulated views at any given moment? They appear to be chameleonic, shifting with the vagaries of Trump’s mood.

Note well: this isn’t merely hypothetical; the President’s well-publicised aversion to non-interventionism threatens to crumble as a consequence of his recent actions – actions which were based on his emotional response to a series of horrendous images. Of course, if the attack remains a “pinprick strike”, then this might be avoided. But again, Trump’s proven means of decision-making suggests that anything is possible – even actions which are diametrically opposed to earlier views – whilst the administration in general continues to sit between the two-horned dilemma of ineffective symbolism and potentially chaotic intervention.

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Some commentators have contended that even if Trump’s decision to strike Syria was of dubious legality, it was done for noble purposes: to punish a barbaric regime for using banned weapons; for upholding an international, rules-based order; or for defending the weak and innocent. Nicholas Kristof, writing in The New York Times, has made precisely this argument (Georgina Downer, whom I mentioned earlier, doesn’t even bother to admit that it might have been legally ambiguous). But a strike that lacks legal sanction does not preserve international order; as the historian Daniel Larison has ably shown in The American Conservative, it completely undermines it. Trump sought neither congressional approval, nor Security Council permission. It was instead a unilateral act, founded on some very fuzzy aims.

This is really the negation of international order, suggesting that some rules can be ignored, so long as the offending party has the capacity to do it. In the case of the US, it is partly borne out of a long tradition of American exceptionalism: whereas other, more “ordinary” nations are bound by multilateral conventions and a rules-based system, the United States (so the argument goes) is not. One can’t even contend that the Assad regime’s savage attack on Syrian citizens represented a clear and present danger to the national security of the US; that at least could provide the grounds for justifying such a move. It is ironic that Donald Trump should embark on this course of action: the conceit that the US has been uniquely commissioned to act when and where it deems necessary buttresses the same projects of regime change and nation-building that he so consistently repudiated as a candidate. In any case, the recent strike simply perpetuates this belief – all the while making it easier for other states, who do not subscribe to the doctrine of American uniqueness, to act militarily without legal or international approval to secure goals they deem legitimate. As Larison has also pointed out, it is usually smaller states – those that are relatively weak and vulnerable – that are thrown to the wall first when such practices are tacitly accepted.

But maybe it’s all to the good, so long as US motives were right, and the strike results in an ultimate improvement in the course of the Syrian war. However, there is some reason to think that the operation could well have a deleterious effect on what is already a deeply fractious situation, especially if it presages an escalated campaign. This brings me back to what I was saying earlier. If the Trump administration does decide it needs to involve itself further in the conflict, it might succeed only in sowing greater chaos. No one is denying that Assad and his cronies are despicable, and strict justice would require they be dealt with mercilessly. This, of course, goes without saying. They have prosecuted the war with appalling savagery, indiscriminately levelling whole city blocks, and targeting innocent Syrian civilians with impunity. Time and again, the regime has wilfully failed to distinguish between rebel forces and non-combatants, whose only “crime” was to get caught in the crossfire.

Unfortunately, though, the morally decrepit character of the Syrian government is not the only consideration here (would that it was!). In so complex a situation, there are several others one must contend with. To take just one example: the delicate (though changing) balance between government forces and jihadist groups. It should be remembered that the Syrian war is not a Manichean conflict between the armies of darkness and the forces of light. Those fighting against Assad do not represent the summit of human virtue. In many instances, such groups are themselves possessed of a surfeit of wickedness (ISIS being only the most well-known amongst them). Members of the secular opposition may be left, but they appear to be greatly diminished; the most potent rebel forces are expressly jihadist, advertising their cruel antipathy towards anything even remotely resembling freedom or tolerance. Any action that has the potential to bolster their position – even inadvertently or indirectly – should be considered only with the greatest of reluctance.

As such, weakening the Assad regime’s military standing may be what justice demands – but it also threatens to degrade the only force in Syria capable of checking the growing dominance of violent Islamic supremacism. Sure, one strike may not tip the balance decisively (though given Trump’s famed unpredictability, not to mention the fillip the strike has given to American interventionists, this cannot be guaranteed). But is it wise to attack the primary bulwark against jihadism in Syria? Is it prudent to then openly discuss its removal in another act of regime change? Would the United States be prepared to try and manage the consequences of such an act – consequences that would doubtless see the creation of a power vacuum, to be filled with equally unsavoury actors? It should be noted that for all its nauseating barbarity, the Syrian government isn’t committed to exporting bloodshed and oppression elsewhere. The same cannot be said of groups like ISIS, whose international success depends partly on its ability to maintain territory in Syria (and Iraq). Not only is it guilty of gross abuses of human rights in the Greater Middle East; it also seeks to create beachheads for its own brand of Islamic jihadism in other countries around the world. Targeting Assad, then, provides space for a brutal ideology with global designs. Noble intentions notwithstanding, it is not what I would call a “strategic” decision.

Free Speech: In Search of True Defenders

Note: the bulk of this article below was written before the outcome of the recent parliamentary inquiry into proposed changes to Section 18C. I have left the article largely intact, with just a few nods to events of the past month.

Free speech advocates have every reason to feel aggrieved with the current government. Why, just a few weeks ago – after a parliamentary inquiry into proposed changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act – Coalition politicians somehow managed to combine pusillanimity with pugnacity. Scott Morrison brusquely claimed to “know” that “this issue doesn’t create one extra job”, failing to “see any intersection between the issue and those [i.e., economic] priorities” (Michael Koizol, “Scott Morrison Warns Against Internal Fight Over Free Speech Laws: ‘It Doesn’t Create One Job’”, The Sydney Morning Herald, March 1st, 2017). Other ministers made the same attempt at compensating for their lack of ideological fortitude by publicly scorning the expansion of free speech.

This is not a new claim, by any means. Morrison’s argument reminds me of some rather tremulous comments the Prime Minister uttered last August in response to the same issue:

“With all due respect to the very worthy arguments surrounding it, it is not going to create an extra job or…build an extra road” (Paul Karp, “Labor Accuses Coalition of Changing Stance on Racial Discrimination Law,” The Guardian, August 19th, 2016).

Around the same time, one of Turnbull’s ministers, Mitch Fifield, said much the same thing on ABC’s Q and A program (even repeating the phrase “worthy arguments” to ensure everybody knew he was on message):

“While I appreciate many of the worthy arguments that some of my colleagues put forward in relation to 18C, it’s not something that we have an intention to change” (Q and A, August 22nd, 2016).

Fifield went on to offer a rather insipid rationale for inaction, which sounded uncannily like his leader’s. And last December, John Alexander (the Liberal member for the federal Sydney seat of Bennelong) urged the government to concentrate on “productive things rather than political things [i.e., debates over amending 18C]” (Rosie Lewis, “Malcolm Turnbull Faces Section 18C Test Amid Ethnic Opposition,” The Australian, December 29th, 2016). It seems that this kind of febrility is endemic within the Liberal Party.

To be sure, Turnbull has softened his opposition to changing 18C, and his government is now proposing certain amendments to the offending act. He’s offered a welcome rationale for the public modification of his assessment, saying “there is a view” that “the bar has been set too low” with regards to the law in question, thereby constituting an unwarranted “restriction [upon] free speech”. This is quite reasonable: as recent controversies have indicated, views that appear to fall outside the definition of racially offensive speech have nonetheless proven vulnerable to legal censure. To what extent Turnbull’s change of heart has been the result of a genuine shift in perspective – as opposed to a restive backbench – is uncertain. But even some of his more recent reflections on the subject are relatively muted: witness the way he talked about freedom of speech in the abstract (“there is a view…”), as if he himself were too afraid to own the opinion to which he was referring. A full-throated shout of defence it was not.

The lack of conviction is still a worry, particularly from someone who supposedly holds to the tenets of classical liberalism. That other segments of the Liberal Party – you know, that party of small government and personal liberty – should also be shy on this issue is equally troubling. Even if the Coalition is successful in securing changes to 18C, the fact remains that a number of senior ministers have staked a lot on the argument that amending the law is a mere distraction from the task of financial and economic management. Moreover, they seem to suggest that trying to change the parameters of 18C – even if successful – would do nothing to improve the budget’s parlous state, ease the country’s financial woes, or expand employment opportunities for people. These two concerns are, it seems, mutually exclusive.

However, the basic assumptions resident in the above comments raise crucial and abiding questions about the kind of culture we want to see prevail in this country; the fundamental values that undergird Australia’s liberal democracy; and even the relationship (if indeed there is one) between basic politico-philosophical values and economic prosperity. Their Quisling character aside, the arguments proffered by Turnbull, et. al., revealed a surprising degree of ignorance regarding the relationship between free speech and a healthy body politic. I’ll say more as I proceed.

A Hollow Vision

In making their argument against pursing changes to 18C, Coalition ministers repeatedly offered what could be called the “technocratic defence”. Theirs were the words of dry administrative experts – of elite technocrats, committed only to solving the impersonal problems of a modern industrial economy. They seemingly lacked sufficient interest in more substantive, indeed existential,[1] issues such as freedom of thought and expression; instead, they preferred to hide behind a supposedly exhaustive obligation to the nation’s technical-economic challenges. In other words, their justification represents the evacuation of philosophical and cultural substance from the project of governance, reducing it to a hollowed-out form of managerialism. Worryingly, their views implicitly devalue the constitutive importance of the basic liberties this country possesses, and upon which our politics – and indeed our society – are built.

As one of those basic liberties, freedom of speech has made an essential contribution to the enviable character of contemporary Australia. Similarly, it is integral to the tolerant and intellectually rich societies that have developed over the centuries in the West. Freedom of speech has been astonishingly successful in enabling Western states to resolve a complex array of problems across virtually every field of inquiry. Without liberality of speech, one loses many of the other important freedoms we cherish: freedom of religion as a crucial subset of free speech; freedom to assemble peacefully for the purposes of, say, political expression; or the freedom to vote for the party of one’s choice (and to later criticise it), as a further instance of the citizen’s articulation of his or her views. Moreover, freedom of speech cannot be separated from freedom of thought: curtail the one, and you inevitably restrict a person’s right to pursue the other. Liberal democracies, which have come to represent the fruits of Western culture in political form, cannot properly survive without these elements. They are intrinsically, indissolubly, connected. Almost by definition, Western culture prizes freedom of speech as the public manifestation of rational, free-thinking individuals. Restrict it, and one ends up desiccating the culture to which it gives life.

Advocating for the liberal expression of one’s views – in this case, by urging amendment of an illiberal law – is therefore no mere symbolic act. Conversely, to leave it alone as too controversial is far from inconsequential, such is the deep relationship between this feature of the West’s cultural legacy and the kind of convivial, open society modern Australians enjoy. By contrast, the vision of the putative technocrat, with his narrow dedication to achieving a balance between economic inputs and outputs, is largely empty. It appears satisfied with a rather barren political culture – bereft of the vibrancy that stems from a vision of what makes for a mature, responsible, truly flourishing citizenry. As John Roskam, head of the free-market think-tank Institute for Public Affairs, recently quipped, if things like road-building are the final measure of good governance, there really is nothing to separate Australia from North Korea.

To be sure, I am not arguing for an activist administration; states should never be the final guarantors of free speech and ideational exchange (as if all depended on their paternalistic largesse). Nevertheless, there is much they can do to limit themselves so that individual liberty is preserved, even expanded – including divestment of any powers they might have to improperly police individual expression. Anything less is an abnegation of responsibility on the part of liberal democratic politicians and lawmakers. It is therefore surprising in the extreme that elected officials – particularly those in the liberal mould – should have thought that road-building and budget repair, as important as those activities are, rank higher than one of the supporting pillars of Western culture.

But the hollowness of vision to which I am referring runs deeper than that. In many ways, political questions can ultimately be reduced to questions regarding the nature of the human person, and the proper ordering of human relationships. That is, one of the fundamental issues lying behind political debates is what it means to be truly human – and, hence, what kind of community or social order is likely to be most conducive to human flourishing. Listening to Turnbull, Fifield, Alexander and Morrison trying to play economics off against philosophical concerns, one would get the impression that for them, a human being can be reduced to a determinable economic unit, who will respond appropriately to positive material stimuli. It’s a view that casts individuals as pure consumptive actors, without reference to the kinds of core principles or qualities that animate a person. This is, of course, incredibly shallow. Humans are not simply objects that can be deterministically manipulated by mere material considerations. They are conscious beings, possessed of rationality and free will, capable of exercising these powers as they receive and analyse the world around them. Humans are, as it were, agents, acting and engaging and negotiating with reality on the basis of a fundamental orientation – sometimes misaligned, but nonetheless present – towards the attainment of truth.

Freedom of speech respects these insights into the human condition. It rests on the presumption that humans are rational beings, capable of using logic and evidence to explore and determine their views on a particular issue. It places faith in the capacity of human beings to combine intellectual concepts in a coherent and ordered way, such that they may arrive at (rough) approximations of various aspects of reality. To that end, advocates for freedom of speech – correctly, in my view – argue that the best way for grasping the truth, or of deciding on a matter of public importance, is to allow all views to be heard; that way, the individual can, with relative liberty, reason through different lines of argument. This isn’t perfect by any means, since nothing that humans devise ever is. But comparatively speaking, liberality in speech provides a surer means of developing adequate knowledge about the world, and securing correspondence between one’s beliefs and that which is true. To paraphrase the late Michael Novak, free speech gives “play…to [the] unlimited drive to ask questions, and to [the] unrestricted desire to know” as humans seek out truth.

Such accounts also implicitly assume the human person is more than the sum of her biological or socio-cultural parts. They tend to conceive of the individual as a positive entity (rather than the mere intersection of broader forces), possessing a self-regarding, self-critical ability to interpret the world around her, and to make decisions accordingly. It respects the fact that whilst a person is obviously shaped by various external factors, she is no mere passive receptacle or programmed automaton. Favourable treatments of free speech assume that the person still bears the freedom of will to select some truth-claims over others, and to decide for herself (based, one hopes, on rational thought) where the truth might lie. Of course, presuppositions, unacknowledged self-interest, or the effects of social conditioning will invariably insinuate themselves into the structures of an individual’s thinking. However, free speech advocacy takes seriously humans’ capacity for reasoned choice. On this view, an unrestricted exchange of views promotes intellectual virtue, and provides the most expansive context within which human rationality may flourish.

Unwarranted restrictions on speech, on the other hand, undermine crucial aspects of human uniqueness. Beliefs that have been coerced (or manipulated via the proscription of unpalatable views) are neither rational nor free: they aren’t rational, because coercion as a means of guaranteeing “correct” belief breaks the logical link between adherence to a certain truth-claim and its rational or evidential merits; and they aren’t free, for the self-evident reason that force or arbitrary restriction is the very antithesis of political – even volitional – liberty. Indeed, to accept veridical claims on the basis of active compulsion or government censorship represents the very negation of rational discourse between responsible, thinking beings. To suggest that the concerns of the modern, technocratic state are more important than amending an affront to freedom of speech doesn’t just mute a key aspect of the West’s cultural heritage; it also invites a diminished view of the individual, and inhibits a crucial mechanism for the intellectual thriving of human beings.

A False Choice

If what I have written were the only reasons for criticising Turnbull and his ministers, then I’d say it was enough. But in addition to implicitly deprecating the substantive value of free speech, their comments represent a false choice between economic concerns and philosophical principles. The idea that they are separate and separable fails as a general argument, precisely because of the intrinsic connection between the free exchange of ideas and the generation of wealth and economic prosperity. Whilst Coalition ministers sought to play the “productive” off against the (so-called) “political”, they were seemingly unaware that the former is, in many ways, reliant on the latter. That is, communication that is largely unrestricted forms a necessary pre-condition for the sort of mesmerising prosperity Western countries have historically enjoyed. More prosaically, the ability to freely debate important issues offers a society the best chance of developing credible – and, for our purposes here, economical – solutions to complex problems. The economist and economic historian, Deidre McCloskey, has argued the Great Enrichment experienced by the Western world since the middle of the nineteenth century can be explained in large part by the success of certain ideas. As McCloskey suggests:

“What mattered [in relation to the enrichment of the West] were two levels of ideas: the ideas for betterment themselves (the electric motor, the airplane, the stock market), dreamed up in the heads of the new entrepreneurs drawn from the ranks of ordinary people; and the ideas in society at large about such people and their betterments – in a word, liberalism” (Deidre McClosky, “The Great Enrichment,” NRO.com, November 7th, 2015).

According to McCloskey, the West’s unprecedented levels of economic development (unprecedented in historical, and even current global, terms) cannot be understood unless one takes note of their intellectual basis. At one level, that meant the ideas of betterment themselves: technical innovation that led, either directly or indirectly, to expanding prosperity. It hardly needs saying that advances such as these are offered a boon when ideas can be freely exchanged, without restriction. And indeed, at another level, McCloskey seems to be saying exactly that: the “massive ideological shift towards market-tested betterment”, generating not merely technical innovation, but a fundamental change in the way (Western) societies were composed, as well as the manner in which individuals – now seen as beings possessed of freedom and equality – related to each other. McCloskey is clear: “our riches [came] from piling idea on idea…”

This should hardly come as a shock. After all, there exists a connection – one that can be intuitively grasped – between freedom of speech and economic prosperity. It may not always be direct, but it is there. Considered as an economic doctrine, freedom of speech promotes the open transmission of ideas conducive to social and material betterment – ideas that, when co-mingling, have the potential to generate profound advances in technological sophistication and material wealth. The zoologist and science writer, Matt Ridley, has cheekily called this process “ideas having sex”. By that, he means that the complex marriage of diverse concepts – sometimes from very different fields of enquiry – generates new knowledge, driving significant economic progress. Freedom of intellectual exchange stimulates creativity, leads to an intellectually fertile citizenry, and ultimately spurs on all manner of innovations. As the academic Brett Christensen has written, “free flowing ideas and debates contribute to creativity…education, and cultural evolution”. The thinking that some of our elected officials have recently showcased relies on a spurious division between two phenomena that are intimately intertwined.

There is, of course, one obvious rejoinder to what I have just said – namely, what any of this has to do with proposed amendments to a law which putatively concerns racially offensive speech. Indeed, whilst some may well concede the above points as theoretically valid, they might still argue that issues relating to free speech and racial vilification (on the one hand), and economic progress (on the other) are simply unconnected. To put the point in the form of a question: just how would amending or abolishing 18C of the RDA help politicians improve productivity or tackle the country’s budgetary woes?

But if the rejoinder is obvious, so too is a surrejoinder: it is simply impossible to predict what ideas may flow, interact or “copulate” as a result of the removal of restrictions to speech and the exchange of ideas. This may not happen immediately or directly. But if the history of economic and technical progress is anything to go by, the germination of some ideas by others (including those that may, at first blush, appear entirely unrelated) can occur in the most surprising of ways.

Please bear in mind, I am not making the rather outlandish argument that giving space to racially insulting speech might somehow lead to economic enrichment, or usefully contribute to policy discussion. What I am saying is that winding back 18C might provide clear air for views that have been illegitimately captured by the law – views that might, if given an honest hearing, open up discussions around important issues that touch on both society and economics (however obliquely). Indeed, as UQ professor of law James Allan has remarked, the remit of 18C has expanded to the point where it is now invoked to try and silence serious views regarding culture and public policy, on the spurious grounds that they are racist. This is in large part because of problems with the law itself. Amend it, and politicians and policy-makers wrestling with complex, multifaceted problems might find themselves aided by propositions that now fall under the shadow of legal sanction.

I think this response can be sharpened up a bit by focusing on one particular manifestation of the wider controversy. Recall the original context in which Turnbull made his comments. They were partly sparked by a complaint (using 18C) against the late cartoonist, Bill Leak, and a cartoon he’d drawn in The Australian of an Aboriginal man who didn’t know the name of his wayward son. Leak sought to go behind the events of the day, which were related to a contemporaneous report on Four Corners, alleging despicable treatment of young indigenous men at a youth detention facility in the Northern Territory. Leak wanted to ask why these young men were locked up in such facilities in the first place. His point, pungently made, was that the real scandal lay in the neglectful environments in which the boys had grown up, where parents had commonly failed in their duty to model responsibility, moderation and self-control. Certain individuals began legal proceedings in response to the cartoon (since abandoned), which led to several fraught weeks for Leak and his employer.

What has all this to do with economic issues? At first glance, very little. But think about it for a moment. The ongoing ill-health of many indigenous communities – particularly those in remote areas – is very costly. It is costly in human terms, of course, as lives are sometimes irrevocably damaged. But it is also costly economically. All those young indigenous men who languish in prisons and detention facilities around the country obviously aren’t contributing to the economy: they’re consuming public resources and they’re not in the workforce. Their previous crimes have cost individuals and the state both resources and money. Looking at the issue through a purely economic lens, it’s clear that those young men are adding to the overall financial burden of both the states and the Commonwealth.

Leak’s visual commentary sought to provide one explanation for why dysfunction prevails in certain Aboriginal communities – dysfunction that, whilst devastating on a purely human level, also has an important economic dimension. It is an urgent issue that warrants open debate. If the reasons for the existence of such deleterious environments – environments that seem to produce an inordinate number of young men with a propensity for delinquency and criminality – can be found, so much the better. However, if certain views are deemed illegitimate, and attempts are made to silence them via the threat of litigation, then an important public conversation is curtailed. Such restrictions ideas and opinions simply chills free debate, deprives people of possible solutions, and risks perpetuating tragic and costly problems.

Effective public policy cannot long survive without the existence of facts. I’m not referring to dominant narratives, nor comforting ideologies, but to stark, uncomfortable, messy facts. That is the only way a country’s socio-economic problems can be properly tackled. If policy is founded upon a bed of truth, then politicians can better target their efforts. But it becomes exceedingly difficult to achieve such a goal when communication and inquiry is diminished – haunted – by the spectre of state-sponsored censorship. Ultimately, this is not a question of whether, say, Bill Leak’s views are correct (although for what it’s worth, I think his cartoon was spot on). The point is that the susceptibility of certain views to legal censure, before they have even been discussed or debated, represents an irrational, arbitrary approach to public discourse and the resolution of such desperate issues.

Indeed, if it can be shown why some Aboriginal communities are seedbeds for the kinds of young offending we have seen, then policy (to the extent that government policy should be wielded in this area) can be effectively applied. That, of course, can have economic and budgetary flow-on effects, as communities are stabilized, children are properly educated, young men are kept out of jail, people are placed in employment, costs are reined in, and the financial burden shouldered by the state is reduced. In point of fact, then, changes to certain race-based laws have the potential to (indirectly) contribute to the very goals our fearless leaders claim to be concerned about. As such, the argument that economic issues and possible amendments to 18C are incompatible or unrelated is false, and anyone making it is either being obtuse or disingenuous.

***

Again, the government’s recently-proposed changes to 18C is a welcome development. But one gets the feeling that its heart is still not in this fight. And it is just one of several debates around principles and philosophy from which the Coalition has tried to run, or on which it has remained frustratingly silent. By dragging this particular debate out over several months (and more), the government has needlessly wasted time and political capital. More importantly, by grounding so much of its resistance in spurious arguments, it has undermined its own political and philosophical outlook. Despite the current shift, the vehemence and consistency with which the above views have been articulated by members of the Coalition makes it difficult to believe that they have simply withered away. This is either a sign of political cravenness or a basic loss of liberal values. Is it any wonder, then, that voters have begun to look elsewhere?

[1] ‘Existential’ in the sense of the deeper character and quality of existence, not its mere presence.

Free Speech and its Discontents: Part One

Introduction

Freedom of speech is to liberal democracies what air is to a person: if either one is cut off, the body begins to asphyxiate. The largely unfettered right to speak freely is a necessary and fundamental feature of modern Western political culture, without which it could not exist. Indeed, it’s not too much to say that the West’s relative prosperity, technological sophistication and civic stability owe much to the long-standing traditions of open enquiry and the liberal exchange of ideas.

Despite the importance of free speech, however, recent times have witnessed various attempts to circumscribe it. Under the guise, say, of creating a more harmonious society, encouraging “responsible” discourse, or redressing past wrongs, a select few seek to outlaw or extirpate dissenting ideas — dissenting, that is, from the dominant cultural narratives they themselves have propagated. Sadly, it’s often the self-styled paragons of tolerance and compassion who support such restrictions most ardently: progressive elites, who see themselves as members of a kind of moral vanguard, moulding the amorphous mass of society in their own image.

Few Western countries have been immune. Sometimes, activists have harnessed the legislative powers of the state to silence that which they deem offensive or scandalous. Others have sought to create cultural environments on university campuses (so-called “safe spaces”) in an effort to shield students from countervailing ideas and opinions. In a sad twist of irony, they often employ hostile, even violent, methods to achieve their goal of censoring or expelling unpalatable views. Vignettes aside, the ebbing of free speech has been reflected statistically: not so long ago, for example, the Pew Research Forum found that 40% of millennials (those born after 1982, and reaching young adulthood some time in the mid-2000s) thought that insulting speech should be liable to legal sanction.

Australia, too, has been an ideological battleground for conflict over the open trafficking of ideas. Case-in-point: the ongoing debate over Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, and the pernicious effects it has had on a person’s ability to speak freely. Recent cases involving university students and a political cartoonist have exposed the absurd implications of that law. Similarly, 2015 saw the Catholic archbishop of Tasmania hauled before that state’s anti-discrimination tribunal, simply for disseminating literature which upheld the church’s view of marriage to parochial schools in the archdiocese  (a view which happens to conform to current Australian law). These instances are quite telling, but they are only the tip of a great iceberg — one whose ideological mass remains largely invisible, submerged beneath the welter of everyday events. They are, in fact, products of a long intellectual and cultural gestation,  representing the latest outworking of trends that now significantly shape the character of Western societies. Having been nurtured in progressive and left-wing circles, their effects are being felt beyond the confines of the academy. More to the point, they have succeeded (at least to some extent) in eroding the robust commitments liberal democracies have traditionally had to freedom of speech and opinion.

It’s important, then, to try and understand just how we reached this point, and to uncover the sources of the current ideological ambivalence — even hostility — towards freedom of speech. The above examples will serve as reference points, since their respective features so clearly distill the main currents of thought I have in mind. I suggest we ought to consider at least four main intellectual strands, all of which have gradually, yet inexorably, insinuated themselves into key areas of modern society: scepticism regarding the so-called Western project (of which freedom of speech is a key feature); the popularization of post-modernity; multiculturalism and the rise of identity politics; and a philosophical penchant, endemic within progressive politics, for trying to remake society from above.

None of these trends has operated in isolation. More often than not, they have worked in tandem, mutually reinforcing the distinctive contributions each has had to make in the burgeoning restrictions upon free speech in Western polities. It is easy to see, for instance, how a demoralized perspective regarding the West (given a fillip by Marxian-critical and post-colonial accounts of Western culture) might dovetail with the ideological assumptions that have given rise to certain strains of multiculturalism and identity politics.

On the other hand, I think post-modern thought has had an enervating effect upon freedom of speech through popular dissemination of several of its features. To be sure, it may not have independently led to the restriction of the boundaries of free speech (for one thing, post-modernism resists all meta-narratives and claims to truth, regarding them as ill-fated attempts at intellectual authoritarianism). However, the implications of its basic assumptions have succeeded, I think, in undermining the cogency of the principle, providing the ground for other perspectives — far less conducive to the maintenance of free speech — to substantively challenge this singular Western achievement.

Another little caveat before we move on. It’s sometimes tempting to think that if one has uncovered the origins of an idea, development or phenomenon with which one take issue, the object of criticism has thereby been falsified. Not so. That is what philosophers call a genetic fallacy: the belief that by pointing to the genesis of an opinion, a conclusion regarding its veracity can be drawn. But exposure of origins and exposure of fallacy are not necessarily the same thing. Where the logical and philosophical roots of a particular trend are weak or febrile, I might endeavour to point this out, hoping then that doubt may be cast on the justifications used by current advocates of censorship. I shall, however, reserve more substantive criticisms of those who support such restrictions, or who see little wrong with current laws in this field, for later posts. At any rate, it is crucial that we understand the deeper forces at work within contemporary culture, and how they have helped subvert a key precondition for many of the other freedoms people in the West enjoy.

Doubting the Value of Western Culture: The Voices of Scepticism

In this opening post, I’ve adopted a fairly broad-brush approach towards the issue by surveying the diffuse manifestations of scepticism towards the Western “project” — that is, doubts over the preservation, promotion and consolidation of the fundamental freedoms characteristic of the West. It is an increasingly fashionable mode of engagement with the Western tradition, and for many people, constitutes a basic orientation towards their intellectual heritage. This is true, not only for those dwelling in the rarefied environs of academia, but for ordinary folk, who have bought into a populist version of wariness about one’s own culture. They do not simply express doubts over the spread of the West’s values beyond its traditional geographic boundaries (something that ought to be approached with due caution, of course). Rather, sceptical attitudes regarding the superiority or desirability of key  Western values within the West are on the rise.

Though now a common attitude, the source of such widespread disenchantment lies in certain sections of the Western intellectual and cultural elite. It has long adopted a doubtful, even hostile, attitude towards the values that undergird the Western enterprise — including as they do a commitment to free enquiry, pluralism and the unfettered exchange of ideas. One might call it a kind of internalised cultural antipathy. It’s not a new idea, either. Orwell was alive to this reality, and observed it regularly among the left-wing intelligentsia of his day. His essay, “Notes on Nationalism”, provides a window into his thinking. Reflecting on varieties of pacifism during the Second World War, Orwell argued that the younger breed of intellectual directed his or her opposition in a decidedly partial way, which invariably meant criticism of Western countries for their use of defensive force. According to Orwell (as I read him), the intellectual form of pacifism he identified functioned as a veneer for what was, in reality, anti-Western sentiment.

That sentiment is, even today, linked to a wider — indeed, jaundiced — view of the West as little more than a cesspool of entrenched privilege, structural oppression, economic rapacity, environmental vandalism, and pervasive neo-colonial attitudes. The academic and social theorist, John Carroll, puts it well:

“[The Left’s] carping negativity continues to thrive. [They use] neo-Marxist categories of exploitation and oppression to find ‘victims’ of their own country’s mendacity, as a device to whip it – so Australia becomes racist, cruel to refugees, misogynist, homophobic and increasingly riven by inequality.” 

What so distinguishes these critiques is a suspicion, often pervasive and deep-seated, towards Western values. In some cases, it reaches a point of comprehensive repudiation. Some critiques aren’t as bold as Carroll’s rendition, to be sure. Gentler approaches may simply evince a certain ambivalence, or lack of confidence, in the Western project. But underlying many of them is the tacit assumption that, far from being something worth preserving and advocating for, Western culture is morally questionable (at best) or entirely bankrupt (at worst). Having wended its way through the academy, this view has now trickled down to the masses — such that even those who happily swim in the West’s cultural waters may implicitly view it as responsible for little else besides the creation of misery suffered by the benighted recipients of its “civilizing” mission. It’s not that this view is entirely bereft of truth (goodness knows Western actions, past and present, have been responsible for suffering). The problem lies in the fact that it is mischievously, perniciously, one-dimensional.

The foregoing narrative comes in many forms. Critical theory, in both its Marxist and post-colonial guises, has provided much of the intellectual scaffolding for those ready to rehearse their monochromatic story. Post-modernism, about which I will say more, also informs critics’ views. Often,  these intellectual strands can be found co-mingling, making their presence felt across a diverse array of issues. Opposition to the activities of Western conglomerates is one such manifestation. Multinationals are often condemned for the apparent economic ruin they wreak on non-Western peoples (with sweatshops serving as the primary bête noire). Closer to home, Australian government policy towards Indigenous affairs is cast in a similar light, with certain strains of criticism seeking to draw a genetic link between them and historical instances of avowedly racist, colonial practice. Or what of the progressive’s ongoing love affair with dictatorial leaders, especially where they are seen to be heroically defying the alleged predations of the West? This was made clear recently upon the death of long-time Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. The tributes that flowed from some sections of the ideological Left (British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn comes to mind) revealed a curious incongruity: admiration for an authoritarian ruler who ruthlessly suppressed free expression, juxtaposed with wariness — even deep and unrelenting criticism — of their own intellectual and cultural milieux.

So, what does all this have to do with free speech? At first blush, any relationship might seem rather distant. However, when a basic scepticism or suspicion becomes the overriding context for one’s thinking about the West and everything that distinguishes it, it is easy to understand why freedom of speech — one of the key markers of the Western tradition — may be treated with a certain degree of reserve.  Why expend energy upholding something (other than in a heavily qualified manner) that is intimately bound up with what is perceived to be a tainted — even morally spent — cultural system? More than that, if free and open enquiry is viewed as part of a system of moral and political hypocrisy, the progressive critic may well feel justified in trying to actively limit it in some way. Censorship, then, becomes a mark of ideological virtue. Even when the posture of doubt is characterized merely by an oscillating uncertainty towards the propriety of Western culture, that could well be enough to stifle a full-throated shout of support for free speech. And if ideas or issues happen to overlap with the experiences of minority groups (be they ethnic, sexual, or whatever), then misplaced guilt over the West’s chequered history or a fear of cultural chauvinism can easily weaken one’s commitment to it.

In contemporary Australia, themes of racial and neo-colonial dominance seem to inform suspicion of the Western tradition, and drive some of the stronger critics of unfettered speech. Nowhere is this more apparent than in current debates over the balance between liberality in the exchange of ideas, and racial or cultural harmony. It is in the midst of those debates that fundamental ideological and philosophical fault-lines have been exposed. Where conflicts over freedom of speech have touched on matters of ethnic identity, defenders have often been crudely drawn in essentialist terms, portrayed as standard-bearers for the reactive forces of cultural and racial (i.e., White) privilege.

As noted, the debate over S.18c of the RDA provides one particular window into this phenomenon. Take the academic and columnist, Waleed Aly, for example. He recently asserted that those who want to see S.18c repealed (or, at the very least, significantly amended) aren’t really concerned about the legislation. Nor are they defending a principle they believe to be right and good. According to Aly, for those (White) individuals:

“It’s [about] the message that amending it [S.18c] will send to the minorities who take heart from the thought they’re protected. And it’s the message it will send to those of the majority keen to reassert the cultural dominance they feel they have lost.”

For those wary about principles that are part of the Western tradition — connected, perhaps, to a belief in the West’s intrinsic hypocrisy, or to the shameful misdeeds of the past — a purist’s conception of freedom of speech is likely to be construed as a coded attempt to re-assert Western and/or White hegemony. A malaise about the intellectual fundaments of the Western outlook has seen critics like Aly tacitly employ a “hermeneutics of suspicion” in responding to advocates of repeal or amendment of S.18c. They cast such advocacy as a disingenuous attempt to aggressively silence minority rights, in a réprise of colonial suppression. In other words, a particular defence of free speech is interpreted, not as a principled stand, but as little more than a proxy for an atavistic agenda with quite different goals in mind. Aly is just one instance of this attitude (and a fairly genteel and erudite one at that). He is certainly not alone.

If the key values of the West are viewed as the instruments of oppression, and if the overarching project of which they are a part is seen as lacking legitimacy, is it any wonder that those cultural markers would be met with a basic scepticism? That distrust, whatever its source, translates well into support for restrictions on free speech. Even a demoralised attitude towards Western values — one that does not bear the hallmarks of explicit hostility, but is nonetheless equivocal — can successfully erode one’s ability to defend the principle. Whatever their differences, however, they lie along a spectrum of views. Ultimately, those views gain credence from an ideological perspective that is, at best, ambivalent to a crucial token of the West’s cultural and intellectual heritage.

Challenging the Secularist Narrative

In former times, secularism denoted the state’s neutrality in the face of competing worldviews and comprehensive claims about reality. Ideas could be freely trafficked in a pluralistic environment, whilst no one religion or creedal system could claim official establishment. Although people adhered to a minimum set of shared values – the better to preserve social and political harmony – all were permitted to enter the public square according to their own lights and their own convictions.

More recently, however, a new conception of secularism has arisen. Unlike its intellectual forebear, the contemporary model is neither neutral nor passive in regards to contrasting worldviews. Quite the contrary. In fact, it is largely built upon a fundamental antipathy towards what it sees as the unwarranted encroachments of mere “belief”. Much of this ire has been directed, of course, at religion. Scientists like Richard Dawkins and Neil de Grasse exemplify this view, whilst Australia is also home to its own tribe of new secularists. Via various means, proponents of this view devote themselves to a vision of the public square expunged of the apparently baleful effects of anything allegedly lacking scientific objectivity.

The new secular project rests on two, complementary claims: that certain value-systems – particularly those codified in religious traditions – are hobbled by a corrosive irrationality; and that secularists enjoy the benefit of an objective, unmediated view of reality. For the new secularists, there exists an irreconcilable division between these two realms; between a grounded, life-giving realism, and an enervating superstition. However, despite their increasingly widespread popularity, these assertions are, I think, quite unfounded.

Let’s examine the first claim – namely, that religion is irrational. Dawkins encapsulates this view well when he condemns (religious) faith as “blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence”. For him and those of his ilk, religion is bereft of rational justification and evidentiary grounding. This isn’t merely the claim that this religious adherent is irrational or that doctrinal formulation is without foundation; it is, rather, the much stronger assertion that religion as such is rationally deficient – the product of delusion, wishful thinking or a stultified intellect. Unfortunately, it illegitimately flattens out the diversity of religious belief and religious experience, in both nature and origin. An impossibly broad claim, it ignores the rich intellectual traditions of some of the world’s major religions, and the sophisticated arguments that have been developed to substantiate such beliefs.

For instance, I myself am rather partial to Thomas Aquinas’ arguments for that most fundamental of religious questions, God’s existence. In his First Way, a type of cosmological argument, Thomas argues that the everyday objects our experience, and their causal interactions with each other, furnish a base from which a person might reason, via metaphysical principles, to a sustaining cause of the structures of reality. He saw that finite things are possessed of latent properties that can only be “actualised” (that is, brought from the realm of the potential to the realm of the actual) by external forces; change within an object is the result of those forces acting upon it, whatever they may be. To take a simple example, a red rubber ball left in the sun will eventually turn a lighter shade of pink; place it near a hot flame, and it will, over time, change into a puddle of viscous goo.

According to Aquinas, these apparently trivial changes are part of larger, and more complex, chains of causation. Each member within that chain has only secondary causal power, simultaneously depending on earlier members for whatever potency it exercises. Delving down into ever deeper layers of reality, the First Way takes one to its basic structures. Simultaneously, it also argues against an infinite regress – that is, an infinite ribbon of casual activity, stretching downwards ad infinitum. According to Thomas, it would be metaphysically “groundless”, having nothing upon which to become extant. And if so, then it must terminate in a fundamental cause, sustaining all else and actualising all secondary causes. Sitting at the foundational strata of reality means that it could not, in principle, be a part of it – as if it were merely some finite feature of our world. Rather, it would have to be the very ground of all being, the metaphysical basis upon which the world exists in the first place. And for Aquinas, it would have to correspond to what people traditionally know as God.

Of course, new secularists might retort that most religious folk don’t think this way, but rather construct their beliefs in a more unreflective manner. However, this fails to realize that many arguments for, say, God’s existence – no matter how intellectually demanding – actually build upon the quotidian experiences and intuitive impulses of ordinary people. Aquinas’ own explorations depend on empirical observation in order get off the ground. Other arguments of this kind are partly based on a person’s ordinary (yet reasonable) reflections concerning causal principles, a sense of the transcendent, a belief in the world’s rational intelligibility, and even its apparent contingency. As the theologian Keith Ward notes, belief in the kind of God Aquinas sought to substantiate plausibly fulfils many of these longings – “for God”, he writes, “is ultimate reason…[and] the only belief which gives reason a fundamental place in reality”. Such arguments may distil, challenge or stretch certain aspects of a layperson’s unfocused understanding of theism. Nonetheless, they are not fundamentally at odds, and imply that the basic drives people possess towards the divine may be quite consistent with rational theistic accounts.

New secularists might still contend that such arguments simply fail to supply evidence for God’s existence – and therefore, lack any rational warrant for religious belief. For them, a reasonable belief is largely synonymous with what is empirically demonstrable. But as the philosopher Edward Feser has perceptively argued, this criticism founders for the very reason that it adopts an a priori (i.e., non-empirical) assumption about what counts as “rational”, “evidence”, or “warranted belief”. The scientific enterprise is merely one avenue towards knowledge and truth; other methods of rational inquiry exist, including mathematics and philosophy, which do not rely fundamentally on empirical observation. Moreover, the very assumptions scientific study takes for granted – the existence of the external world, its rational intelligibility, the reality of causation, or the general reliability of one’s senses – suggest that such a project cannot even get off the ground without implicitly appealing beyond itself.

What, then, of the new secularists’ other assertion: that they alone, as people free from the encumbrances of bias (both religious and otherwise), enjoy an unadulterated understanding of reality? How should one respond, say, when a Neil de Grasse Tyson argues we need a new “country” – Rationalia – whose constitution stipulates that public policy should be stripped of all value-statements, and formed on the basis of pure (scientific) facticity?

One might point out that such an epistemological position is intrinsically impossible, for no one makes enquiries about the world in a vacuum. As Lesslie Newbigin has pointed out, human beings are inescapably bound by their finite vantage-points, and are invariably conditioned by prior plausibility structures that legitimise, reinforce or screen out certain patterns of thinking. Similarly, the sociologist and political theorist, Barrington Moore, Jr., wrote that,

…Human beings…do not react to an “objective” situation…There is always an intervening variable, a filter…between people and an “objective” [event], made up of all sorts of wants, expectations, and other ideas…”.

I’ve already noted that even those who prize empirical observation above all else must still begin with a received picture of the world. Moreover, secularists who tout the predominance of “facts,” and who ground their view of the world in an exclusive kind of empiricism, have unwittingly committed themselves to their own set of plausibility structures – in this case, presupposing that reality can only be captured by the methods and processes of modern science. The new secularist, just as much as the religious devotee, is inherently incapable of adopting a completely value-free position.

Additionally, facts by themselves can’t do all that much; they need to be strung together coherently, according to an overarching narrative or interpretive framework, if they are to mean anything beyond their own referents. The debate over abortion is a good example of this dilemma. Modern science might be able to determine in great detail when a foetus begins to develop vital organs, when it is able to feel pain, and so forth. But how can it tell us whether or not abortion is, under any circumstances, morally right? How can it determine when, if ever, a baby with developmental disabilities should be terminated? Even framing the questions in such terms is a category mistake: thanks to Hume’s observation that one cannot derive an ought from an is, it’s clear that simplistically trying to read prescriptive truths off descriptive data cannot be done.

Some, like Dawkins, think that one of the crucial questions regarding the morality of abortion is that of foetal suffering. Though important, such consequentialism is simply not the logical product of scientific enquiry. He proceeds to argue that the moment of birth forms a “natural Rubicon” between permissible and impermissible acts of killing. But again, how does the scientific enterprise lead to such a distinction? What essential difference is there between a child who has been in its mother’s womb for eight months, and a child just born? Dawkins’ line-drawing is arbitrary, having little to do with a pure, empirical appraisal of the situation. One might equally argue that conception marks the basic ontological transition from non-being to being, and is therefore the “natural Rubicon” one ought to use; indeed, everything subsequent to that epochal moment simply represents its unfolding. The point, however, is that these issues – the nature of personhood and the value one should ascribe to it – are fundamentally philosophical and metaphysical. Scientific enquiry alone cannot provide complete answers. Consequently, the secularist’s much-vaunted neutrality dissipates, and she once again finds herself in the same boat as the religious adherent – compelled, that is, to rely on a basic array of presuppositions to guide her ethical analyses and prescriptions.

***

As much as the new generation of secularists would have us believe their claims regarding religion, truth and reality, it is clear that those arguments are deeply unsound. It is therefore difficult to avoid the conclusion that attempts to squeeze religious and other value-laden convictions out of the public sphere do not proceed from innocent scientific or rational enquiry. Rather, those methods have been pressed into service to help prosecute an agenda possessing quite different origins. If this essay has succeeded in anything, then it has at least shown that the self-styled opponents of myth and superstition have been shrewdly peddling a few myths of their own.

Technologizing the Good News

Not so long ago, I was enjoying a rather restful weekend on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Reading the daily newspaper one morning, I happened upon an advertisement for an upcoming business forum in Australia (I forget where exactly, but that isn’t important). One of the keynote speakers was Guy Kawasaki, an ex-Apple executive, who was dubbed a (former) “Chief Evangelist” for the tech-giant. The turn of phrase caught my eye, since I’d never come across it before. But it wasn’t simply the fact of the title’s unfamiliarity; what struck me in particular was the evocative use of a distinctly religious term: evangelist. It is, I think, quite instructive, and offers a window – unwittingly, perhaps – into the significance technology bears within modern (Western) societies. What I want to do here is reflect on what the title itself says about the kind of society we inhabit, and the values, priorities and constructs that dominate it.

Before moving on, however, it’s necessary to provide a brief summary of the concept of “Chief Evangelist” (hereafter, CE). The development of CEs marked an evolutionary shift in the way companies – particularly technology companies – market their products. Salesmen of previous generations would ply their trade during allotted hours, in order to sell discrete consumer items to potential buyers. By contrast, modern CEs style themselves, not as salespeople per se, but as heralds of personal and social transformation through the application and adoption of their favoured technology. This isn’t as a “snake-oil salesman” approach to marketing, where every kind of sales technique, no matter how crude or artificial, is used by the marketer to boost profits. Pioneers like Kawasaki urge CEs to live out the change they encourage consumers to pursue, to ensure their proselytization is genuine. Time-limited working hours are meaningless for a person who considers the product he commends to be a way of life. CEs seek more than just a burgeoning list of mindless consumers; their aim is the conversion of people to life-changing technology through the use of winsomeness, honesty and story-telling.

Why is this at all significant? Calling oneself an evangelist could simply be a rhetorical trick – an attempt to elevate the mundane activity of generating profits to a more rarefied, spiritual plane. But something more substantive than clever re-badging seems to be at work. Briefly, the word “evangelist” comes from the Greek evangelion, which simply means “gospel” or “good news”. The Christian evangel is the good news that in the person and work of Jesus Christ, God himself has come to inaugurate his kingdom, to bring about a new order of justice and peace, and to accomplish the comprehensive renewal of creation. An evangelist, then, is someone who spreads this message. For the chief salesperson at a technology company to adopt this as a title implies, at the very least, a belief in the fundamentally transformative power of technology. Drawing on a term with deep Christian roots is certainly suggestive; after all, CEs seek to win people, not merely to a new consumer item, but a new way of life. Customers are converted to a gospel-like narrative, which its proponents claim is guaranteed to bring about a dramatic change in the quality of one’s existence – a source of unmitigated good, in other words. The religious overtones are difficult to ignore.

***

I’ll return to what a specifically Christian theological perspective might have to say about all this in a later post. At any rate, the phenomenon of technology firms draping their activities in religious language – to which CE is testimony – provides a particularly clear manifestation of the enveloping devotion the modern world has to technology, and the faith it places in such advancements to generate further progress. It simply makes explicit latent attitudes towards technology in societies saturated by it. Technology evangelism seems to represent a wider reality common to high- and post-industrial societies, the development of which certainly owes much to such advancements. Sociologists call it the fetishization of technology. “Fetishize” is an ugly word, but it aptly captures the enrapturing commitment the modern world has to technology. In its original context, a fetish was an object of extreme devotion. Often bearing religious significance, a fetish would be used in cultic and spiritual practices. But fetishes were also held to contain within them mystical or supernatural powers that could bring blessing and riches to devotees.

The concept of CE taps into both these streams: the constant allure of technology as something that gives substance to modern existence; and an almost mystical belief that the fashioning of technology can somehow bring about, not merely a more convenient or comfortable life, but a kind of salvation. It is, as I said, simply an overt example of a pervasive (if implicit) phenomenon, making itself felt in a variety of ways. At the same time, the message of technology evangelists fuels such fetishization by upholding and driving a narrative that casts technology in the role of saviour.

Fetishizing technology reflects the proclivity to accord great worth and value to the fruits of technical knowhow. Ours is truly a technocratic age, where technological accomplishments determine so much of modern life. We are soaked in technology, particularly those consumer products that have reached a point of complete ubiquity. Our lives, even our identities, are wrapped up with them. If this strikes some as an overstatement, just consider the extent to which we rely upon technology, even for the most mundane moments of our lives: the way we head home after work and fire up our gadgets has a faintly ritualistic quality, and reflects the deep value we unthinkingly place upon them. Certainly, it’s easy to ignore one’s own dependence on the luminous artifacts of our sophisticated age. However,  the centrality of technology in modern life, not to mention its pervasive – and invasive – presence in our lives, is palpable. This is true, not only in the case of technological expertise used for vital ends (e.g., medical technology), but for those instances where technology – and here, the role of CEs is especially germane – fills what may be called an existential “gap” with electronic amusements.

Even a cursory glace at contemporary data seems to bear out the claim that modern society is awash with, and drawn to, consumer technology. The Pew Research Centre, for example, has found that American teens, aged 13-17, are obsessive users of personal devices: 92% go online daily, with 24% reporting that they are “constant” users and 56% admitting they access the internet “several” times a day. Meanwhile, about three-quarters of adolescents have access to mobile technology, which means that are permanently “connected”. It certainly makes one wonder whether modern consumers of personal technology aren’t themselves consumed – filled with a need (unacknowledged, perhaps) to constantly curate their online selves, to view the world through a technological lens, and to allow their experience of reality to be constituted – shaped – by the complex electronic instruments they use.

Second, such fetishization also implies a near-religious veneration of technology and the allegedly transcendent power it possesses to secure dramatic, revolutionary – even redemptivechange for the human race. Again, we could point to a number of examples. Some contemporary advocates of development assume that simply imposing technical expertise upon an impoverished nation will ensure its entry into a new stage of  economic and social prosperity. Or what about neo-conservative advocates of military intervention and foreign nation-building? As political scientists Jonathan Clark and Stefan Halper have suggested in their book, America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order, belief in America’s ability to reshape other parts of the world is driven partly by an overweening faith in the power of weaponized technology to not only win wars, but to secure a stable platform for the radical transformation of countries according to the model of Western liberal democracy. Despite their obvious differences,  both examples encapsulate the central  belief that the mere application of technology to problems will invariably and inexorably solve them.

* * *

The fetishization of technology – of which the evolution of CEs is but one manifestation – is problematic, failing to account for the ambiguities and imperfections inherent within every human endeavour. The issue is not so much to do with technology per se. Rather, it is a question of framing: how modern societies frame and construct technological progress, what it is and what it does. How we invest technology with certain meanings, and the uses to which we put it are, therefore, fundamental. Specifically, the issue concerns the inflated sense of confidence that flows from the presence and application of technology to modern life. Talking about the “good news” of technology’s unremitting blessings to people simply elevates its significance to a point that it cannot hope to reach in practice. Unfortunately, advocates subscribing to this kind of underlying philosophy may not be able to see this, so committed are they to the narrative of technological salvation.

Technology, for all its undoubted benefits (and let’s be clear: technological change has enriched our lives in manifold ways), cannot hope to do what some of its advocates think it can do. Or, to put it more precisely, technology cannot be the basic subject of an evangelist’s message for two, related reasons. First, it is but an instrument in human hands; it cannot function as the ultimate basis for change (redemptive or otherwise), since it is only a contingent tool used by the individuals who create it. Second, technology needs to be framed morally if it is to be of any use to humanity. That is, if technology is to create the kind of change its advocates promise, then it must first be embedded in a particular moral structure. Recall the earlier example of development advocates tacitly relying on technology’s power to transform impoverished and under-developed nations. As the economist William Easterly has pointed out, technical knowledge must be integrated with a particular set of moral values if it to be of use. He himself argues that it needs to be wedded to a philosophical-economic commitment to strong property rights and open markets if it is to succeed (something with which I happen to agree). At any rate, Easterly’s wider point is clear.

Technology, then, can never function as the bedrock of positive, enriching, life-giving change without being married to a particular ethical and philosophical view which allows it to assume that role. By itself, it is morally inert, static – neutral. Humans are the ones who decide to develop and employ their technical expertise to harness the forces of nature so that suffering may be alleviated. Alternatively, it may be used to add to the sum total of human misery.  After all, nuclear energy can either power a city or destroy it; the technology itself remains the same. Nazi Germany produced a technological monster, pressing it into service as the instrument of a racist, genocidal ideology. As such, arguing for the inherently beneficent power of technological progress is simply reductionistic.

But aside from deeper moral structures, and the manner in which they influence the way we use technology, there is also the question of technology’s limits. This is not always readily acknowledged by advocates and evangelists for technological veneration. On the contrary, it can breed a certain kind of arrogance, which unjustifiably inflates the power of technology to produce desired results. Underlying such an attitude, it seems, is the human tendency to believe that the imposition of complete rational control over events is a possibility.

American neo-conservatives, who have been extreme in their zeal for war and regime change in the Middle East, are a case-in-point (Clark and Halper detail this in America Alone). Their faith in a relatively straightforward application of American power to achieve desired ends was buttressed by a deep belief in the power of sophisticated military technology to effect change – to bend reality, in other words, to the will of those who wielded it. It was the conviction of some, prior to the second Iraq War (2003-), that such power would allow the United States to accomplish a swift and comprehensive victory in that country, with very little cost. But that faith turned out to be tragically misplaced: the United States, for all its might, could not successfully fashion a functioning democratic state out of Iraq. Fourth-generation warplanes could identify and destroy enemy targets with impunity, but they could not seed an open, pluralistic culture – or even prevent the country from sliding precipitously into a sectarian bloodbath. The technology employed in that war could secure narrowly-defined aims, perhaps, but it was impotent in the face of a situation marked by diabolical complexity. Even if one couldn’t say that technological arrogance was the main reason for the disastrous forays the US has made in the Middle East in the last 15 years, it has certainly been a contributing factor. And, as if to underline the point, it is but one example of how technology – itself morally neutral, as we have seen – is viewed as the means by which man gives life to the delusion that he can exert mastery over the vagaries of objective reality.

* * *

The inability of mere technological advance to realize the utopian goals of technology evangelists is seen, too, in more mundane (though no less tragic) ways. The author and prison psychiatrist, Theodore Dalrymple, has written extensively about the plight of what he terms the “underclass”, or the lower reaches of Western societies. Having worked closely with many of those who languish in that environment – characterised, he says, by chronic relational instability, feeble family structures, domestic violence, resentment, enraged jealousy, child neglect, and so on – he argues that the problem faced by the benighted is not material indigence, “but poverty of soul”. In Life at the Bottom, Dalrymple  admits that he was forced to accept the “terrible conclusion” that what besets the denizens of the British underclass is “spiritual and emotional vacuity”, lives “emptied of meaning”. Its members are privy to the latest in personal forms of technological wizardry – smartphones, plasma TV screens (Dalrymple says that the modern Briton watches 27 hours of TV a week), tablets, games consoles, and the like – but seem to live lives that are bereft of anything that ennobles or enriches. Technology has not been able to prevent families from fraying, or arrested the moral enfeebling of wide swathes of society. Contrary to the beguiling message of the CE, the accumulated results of technological progress do not constitute a sufficient condition for human elevation.

Moreover, it seems that in the case of the lower classes of British society (and there’s no reason to think that the same hasn’t happened elsewhere) technology has actually contributed to the moral, spiritual and existential decline of certain sections of contemporary society. Again, I am not blaming technology as such; as I have said, its influence upon the state of human beings depends on the moral frameworks we have created for ourselves. It can be used to create networks and connections across vast tracts of land and sea where none existed previously. Equally, however, it can be used to wall people off, until their worlds have shrunk to the size of a glowing Android screen. Certainly, this is a phenomenon affecting all sections of modern society, even if the results amongst the lower classes are especially bleak. Such is the magnetic allure of digital TV (or the internet, or a smartphone app) that those whose lives lack the animating force of transcendent meaning may well be given over to that which only succeeds in further blunting one’s imagination and domesticating one’s ambition. If Dalrymple’s observations are anything to go by, products of this kind can, by themselves, only ever offer a superficial, yet ultimately empty, form of spiritual and psychological fulfilment. This is a far cry from the promise of technological salvation.

* * *

I have intimated already that the message technology evangelists seek to convey is simply a product of the world in which we live. It only has currency because of the present saturation we experience as members of the technological age. The original evangel was something entering the present world from outside, to change it, to heal it, and to renew it. By contrast, the gospel of technological salvation is a message that simply reflects the cultural and economic norms of contemporary Western society. Despite what its advocates may think, it is not a radically new word from above, for it simply articulates what is already a widespread (if mistaken) assumption. And, if what I have said is in any way true, then technology can never function as the basis for some kind of salvific “good news”. Rather, it seems to represent one more example of the tendency to try and realize one’s vision of utopia within the limits and chaos of the present world, simply through the application of human ingenuity. Ultimately, however, it is a Quixotic project that will dash the hopes of its adherents.

(Christian) Religion and Secularism: A Response to Brian Morris

Note: this article first appeared in the online newsletter Engage.mail, published by the Evangelical Alliance’s ethics think-tank, Ethos.

I am usually fairly sanguine about the place of Christianity within modern society. Claims that an aggressive secularism is systematically attempting to extirpate religion in general, and Christian faith in particular, from the public square can often seem exaggerated. Every so often, however, I find my insouciance disturbed by some honest pundit or commentator, who with unusual clarity reveals the intentions of a certain strand of secular thought. Aside from providing (some) warrant for those anxious about anti-Christian hostility, such candour does have the advantage of giving one a fairly clear target at which to aim.

The opinions of Brian Morris, which appeared in both print and online media outlets last year (see, for example “It’s Time: Make Politicians Wear Religion on their Sleeve,” New Matilda, 17th August, 2015), constitute one such example. Morris, a former journalist, has turned his hand to advocating for his particular conception of secularism. As part of this project, he called on MPs to openly declare their religious commitments, in much the same way that elected officials reveal any pecuniary interests that may conflict with their parliamentary duties. Morris contextualised his view by saying that ‘politicized religion’ has surreptitiously retarded progress on a number of fronts, including efforts to legalise same-sex marriage and voluntary euthanasia. For him, parliamentary debate around SSM ‘subverts any notion of a secular Australia’.

Targeting Christianity especially, Morris argued that in a multicultural and multi-religious country such as Australia, it made sense for Christian MPs to be more transparent about their views. He suggested that one way of ensuring greater openness was to have politicians’ beliefs – and their influence on whatever views they may happen to hold – placed on public record. Others, like Fiona Patten (head of the Australian Sex Party) appear to have gone even further, suggesting for example that some kind of register of religious affiliation might be appropriate.

But let’s stick with Morris for a moment. One might be tempted to agree with him, at least to some extent. Say an MP is both a staunch member of the Catholic Church and has parliamentary oversight for various social welfare organisations (many of which have roots in, and are connected with, institutional Catholicism). It’s fair and reasonable to think that such an individual would be completely transparent in revealing his or her religious links. If that’s what is meant by politicians’ religious commitments being registered or placed on public record, then one will hear no argument from me.

The trouble is that Morris means more than this. Indeed, the suggestion that the airing of religiously-grounded views in parliament (say, in relation to the SSM debate) is itself evidence of the subversion of secularism indicates as much. So, too, does his interpretation of the Australian Constitution, which he argues was intended to ‘keep religion out of politics’. At base, it seems that Brian Morris wants to excise religion and opinions rooted in religious devotion from the public square. This is not merely advocacy for the institutional separation of church and state – something with which we can all agree – but for the rather radical idea, common among a more aggressive species of secularist, that religion’s presence in public-political life should be completely uprooted.

There are, however, several glaring problems with that kind of position. To begin, one must ask how it would even be possible, logistically-speaking, to achieve such an aim. How does Morris and others of his ilk propose to interrogate politicians on their religious commitments or to ensure those beliefs are publicly registered? Lying behind this is the very basic question of how one actually defines religion, which – notoriously – eludes all efforts at delimitation. What counts as a ‘religious’ commitment in the first place? Mere church membership? General theistic belief? A relatively doctrinal construction of religious convictions? What about the certainty that the cosmos is unified by a ‘higher’ meaning? In an age of spiritual pluralism, where all kinds of beliefs may fall under the umbrella of ‘religion’ (including those of politicians), arguing for some kind of public record comprising such beliefs is to engage in a project that defies precision by its very nature.

Similarly, how would Morris propose MPs corral their religious convictions in order to approach contentious issues in a manner that pleases him? He dismisses, for instance, Eric Abetz’s complaint that only the ‘intellectually bankrupt’ could expect a religious individual to ‘leave their religion at the doors of parliament’. But what’s to object to here? In my view, it reflects the common-sense view that religion – like any kind worldview (even atheistic ones) – is often embedded in the deepest strata of a person’s thinking and behaviour. Asking, say, a Christian to view policy issues without framing them through the lens of his or her worldview is akin to asking someone who wears glasses to remove them in order to ‘properly’ appreciate the lines and contours of a landscape painting.

This appears to be joined to Morris’ (unworkable) suggestion that religion in Australia should be ‘re-positioned’ as a wholly privatized phenomenon. However, short of barring religious individuals from entering public life, it would seem impossible to guarantee that religiously-inspired beliefs – which constitute a ‘framework of reality’ that enables many people to make sense of their world – seep into public discourse and parliamentary debate. Indeed, as social entities, religious individuals are themselves evidence that religion cannot be a purely private matter; their very presence suggests that the public and private dimensions of life can never be truly walled off from each other. Moreover, it seems that Morris has ‘solved’ the question of how one is to define religion only by conveniently opting for a narrow conception – driven, one thinks, by Enlightenment dualisms. Unfortunately, he has ignored the phenomenological diversity of religious expression, substituting for it a reductive characterisation that simply assumes (wrongly, I might say) its inherently privatized nature. Morris adopts a very ‘thin’ understanding of spirituality, which, apart from anything else, fails to reckon with both its ubiquity and its formative role in driving many individuals to work for the common good by way of public and political service.

In promoting his views, Morris evinces a fundamental misunderstanding of religion. But he also fails to understand the nature of Australian secularism, and does so in two main ways. First, Morris’ view that the Australian Constitution was meant to banish religion from political discourse is quite misleading. It was not intended to purify the political process of the apparently baleful effects of religious thought. Rather, the Constitution’s provisions regarding religion prohibit the passage of laws that establish an official creed, hamper religious freedom or disqualify anyone from public office on the basis of their religious (or non-religious) convictions. Here is the relevant statement, from S.116:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

The text says nothing about individual politicians forming and articulating their opinions on a range of issues according to a religiously-grounded worldview, and to say that it does suggests adherence to a peculiarly aggressive form of secular absolutism. If anything, the Constitution ensures a kind of ideational pluralism, where a host of ideas, creeds, norms and principles – both religious and non-religious – can compete with each other on an equal footing. The infrastructure of the state may be free from formal religious control, certainly; but this in no way means what Morris thinks it means – namely, the public invisibility of religious or spiritual worldviews, or the people who embody them.

Second, in advocating a shift of religion’s place in contemporary Australian life, Morris seems to ignore the very deep roots it has sunk into the country’s political, legal and social landscape. As such, he has de-historicized the country’s institutions, divesting them of their religious-ethical content. I regard it as uncontroversial that Australia’s political culture, its laws and many of its normative principles (whether codified or not) owe a great debt to what might broadly be called its Judeo-Christian heritage. Of course, we are the beneficiaries of a number of intellectual streams, including that constellation of ideas known as the Enlightenment. But it is more than a little churlish to suggest that religion – in this case, Christianity – has no place in the very institutions it helps underpin. No one is suggesting, say, that Christian individuals should be given carte blanche simply because of the spiritual tradition they carry. But again, it would seem intrinsically impossible, given the origins of many of our political and ethical values, to completely leach the public square of religious influence. Calling for politicians to reveal their religious commitments (as they might their financial interests) frames the debate in terms of a basic conflict between one’s spirituality and a fully-orbed devotion to democratic processes. But if what I have said about the foundations of Australia’s political culture is correct, then there is no necessary conflict; quite the opposite, in fact.

* * *

Those like Brian Morris seem to be espousing a revolutionary kind of secularism, which seeks to effect a tectonic change in the conduct of Western politics, and religion’s place in modern society. Unfortunately, Morris badly misconceives both religiosity and secularism, even as he casts himself as the latter’s defender. Calling for elected officials to publicly declare their so-called religious interests – part of a wider attempt to ‘re-position’ religion as a purely private matter – is logistically impractical and intolerably intrusive. It fails to reckon with the ubiquitous reality of a dimension of life that can never be wholly privatized, whilst hollowing out a favoured concept in the interests of zealously prosecuting a particular agenda. Of course, this is not an implicit call for spiritual revanchism; I don’t think we should seek a return to the pre-secular past. That said, Christians ought to be confident as they step out into the public sphere, knowing that the cultural framework is not only not inimical to their values, but owes a great deal to them. The efforts of radical secularists notwithstanding, one’s attempt to influence public discourse or enter the political arena as (say) an avowed Christian is a legitimate enterprise.

The Promise and Presence of the Future

Note: this article first appeared in Merri Creek Anglican’s online magazine Headlight.

Richard Pipes, the venerable historian of modern Russia, once wrote that “the emotional appeal” of Marxism “is not much different from the religious faith in the will of God, inspiring [its adherents] with an unshakeable conviction that no matter how many setbacks their cause may suffer, ultimate victory is assured”.

Marxist ideology can ultimately be traced to Karl Marx, a nineteenth century philosopher and social theorist. He envisioned a future where private property had been abolished, and complete equality had been won for all. Marx thought that the economics of his time were teetering on the brink of failure. In his mind, they were corrupt and irredeemable; those exploited by the system would rise up and tear it all down, thereby preparing the way for a new society where inequity was a thing of the past. Marx not only saw such a future as desirable, but inevitable. For him, history was moving inexorably towards what he saw as its final goal.

Marx set about trying to construct a theory to show why all this was the case. Bundled up together, his ideas became an all-encompassing system of thought. Those inspired by Marx’s writings sought to transform their own nations, styling themselves as agents of the future. Self-cast as specially-elect groups, these individuals (sometimes calling themselves Communists) believed they could successfully mould entire societies according to the promises contained in Marx’s ideas.

Looking back on the events of the twentieth century, however, it seems Pipes’ observation was pretty close to the mark: despite widespread disaster, Communist leaders retained their faith in an ideology that seemed to have led down them down a blind alley – and their countries down the path of economic and social ruin. Some people continue to tout the virtues of Communist theories, even though most states operating under its enervating tutelage collapsed long ago.

But what do we make of Pipes’ characterization of religious faith as unswerving belief in a better world, even in the teeth of evidence? If Communism can be faulted for invincible confidence in the arrival of utopia, surely Christianity is susceptible to the same criticism? After all, the Christian faith also proclaims the eventual defeat of evil, and the final advent of a new world that will erase everything marring the present one. Christians everywhere continue to hold fast to this belief – 2000 years after the ministry of Jesus, and in the face of a litany of evils that seemingly undercut the claim that “ultimate victory is assured”. It’s tempting to lump Christianity in with Communism as yet another failed attempt to tell a “master story” about the world and its destiny (if indeed it has one). What evidence is there to suggest that, in the case of the Christian faith, the victory of God is certain, and the triumph of justice and peace in a world of chaos is guaranteed?

Here, a word about eschatology can shed some light on these questions. Now, when many people hear the word “eschatology”, images of odd cults predicting the end of the world, or of wild visions of the future, are bound to arise. But it’s not all that hard to grasp, really. In fact, eschatology is basically a way of saying that history has a goal to which it is drawn; that the world is moving towards something greater than the sum of its parts, such that the apparent randomness of so much of life is actually meaningful. One could even say it’s really just the conviction that there’s a point to it all!

Many big systems of thought seeking to interpret the world have their own brands of eschatology, of ultimate conclusions towards which the world is headed. Communism itself promises the erasure of private property and economic differences in a classless utopia. The specific concerns of the Nazi Party led it to try and claim the role of Germany’s martial elite, vowing to lead the nation into an idyllic realm of racial purity. Even the Enlightenment contains an implicit eschatology, proclaiming the eventual advent of a thoroughly secular world, where all instances of religious superstition have long since withered away.

In one sense, Christianity is no different from these other grand narratives, since it also operates with a “big picture” understanding of the world and it course. And yet, an authentically Christian eschatology depends, not on people, nor on the laws of history. Instead, it is founded upon the final purposes of God, as he sets about accomplishing creation’s renewal. Theologian Michael Bird writes that “God’s [eschatological] promise to put the world to right[s]” is the basis for all Christian theology.

Although their fulfilment lies in the future, these purposes have present consequences. As Angus McCleay has written in these pages before, eschatology is, in part, about “making sense of the present in light of the future”. But it is even more than that. According to Christian theology, the future that has been set by God has also burst into the current world of sin, death, injustice and evil, in and through the person of Jesus. This is what so clearly sets Christianity apart from its rivals. The goal of a world freed from those malevolent forces has already been previewed in Jesus’ life, ministry and death. Crucially, however, it is in Jesus’ resurrection that one catches a present glimpse of what God will do for creation in its entirety.

It’s difficult to overstate the significance of the resurrection. Despite the apparent victory of evil, and the failure of every effort to bring about a better world, the raising of Jesus from the dead provides a concrete sign that such a world will be born – a window, if you like, into a newly fashioned creation, freed from the bondage of everything that defaces and ruins what now exists. More than just another miracle amongst others, it not only signals the presence of the future, ordained by a God of love and justice; it represents, in some sense, the beginning of that future – the radical in-breaking of the Creator’s just and wise plans for the world that he had made.

The writers of the New Testament saw this clearly. For them, the resurrection was not an isolated act of divine power, but represented a fundamental change of course in the fate and direction of the world. Or, to put it another way, it was the advance realization of new creation. The apostle Paul could say that a Christian’s present “labor is not in vain”, precisely because of the sure sign, seen in Jesus being raised, of God’s determination to consummate history (1 Corinthians 15:58). To Paul, even the deepest travails, the most unendurable hardships, made sense in light of that world-shattering event.

As such, the Christian’s conviction of the assuredness of victory is no forlorn hope, bereft of foundation, since it has already been anticipated in a foretaste of what’s to come. The “unshakeable conviction” of the followers of Communism is quite different from that expectation. Jesus’ followers are not simply sustained by a sheer will to believe (even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary); rather, their belief is based on the fact of Christ’s resurrection, and the redemption of the world it both looked forward to and ushered in. It is the guarantee that this master story will reach its end, and the promise of eventual peace – both personal and cosmic – will come to pass.