As a believer in liberalism, I maintain the melioristic belief that our global society would (and can) be improved if only people would embrace rationality and shun fanaticism. Is it, however, really possible that fanaticism will disappear (at least as long as humans still exist)? I recently finished reading The Suicide of Reason [which is a book to read], by Lee Harris, and it forced me to examine a deep paradox that pertains to liberalism. This paradox (and different versions of it) have been explained in many ways, but I’m going to attempt to put my own spin on it.
Here it goes: we have been fortunate to create a culture of reason in the modern liberal West and we value tolerance as a virtue, which seems prudent. Absolute tolerance, however, is inherently problematic, particularly the tolerance of fanatics who want to destroy our very culture of tolerance. In his book, Harris writes directly about the threat of radical Islam to the modern liberal West. Should we tolerate a religion that wants to destroy our tolerant culture? There inlies a paradox for those with a belief in absolute tolerance.
A culture of reason only works if the people playing the game agree to follow certain rules. The problem with tolerating fanaticism, like radical Islam, is that fanatics don’t play by our rules. Imagine trying to play a baseball game with people who don’t accept the rules of baseball. Many citizens who live in modern liberal Western societies have a hard time understanding what that would mean when used as a metaphor for the world political game, but it’s important to realize that the game would quickly turn into something else.
The most primitive game we know of is the game of survival, so if someone refuses to play by the rules of any other game, then the game quickly reverts to the rules that govern the game of survival, i.e., “the law of the jungle“. It seems to me that the only way to protect the enlightened and supposedly “ethical” values we have created in Western societies is to defend them with violence (when necessary), which paradoxically violates many of the very ethical tenets we claim to be defending.
Most people who are interested in political philosophy are familiar with Francis Fukuyama’s book titled the The End of History; however, they seem to forget that the full title of the book was The End of History and the Last Man [which presents a dubious conclusion, but is still worth reading]. It’s that aft forgotten second half of the title that I find particularly interesting.
Jon Krakauer took up some of the ideas that Harris laid out in The Suicide of Reason in his book Where Men Win Glory [which is a book to read]. Krakauer wrote the following about Fukuyama’s book:
In his 1992 best seller, The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama predicted that the inexorable spread of capitalist democracy “would mean the end of wars and bloody revolutions. Agreeing on ends, men would have no large causes for which to fight. They would satisfy their needs through economic activity, but they would no longer have to risk their lives in battle.” Fukuyama acknowledged that this rosy future would come with a slight downside, however: the emasculation of humankind. World peace would spawn “the creature who reportedly emerges at the end of history, the last man.”
What Fukuyama meant by “the Last Man” is that at the end of history there will be no more “real men”, i.e., dominant, aggressive, alpha male types. At the end of history, and when “the Last Man” comes into existence, all alpha males would have been eliminated and males would no longer have “the irrational desire to be recognized as greater than others.”, as Fukuyama put it.
Novels (and movies) like Fight Club have focused on the emasculation and deep discontent that many modern males feel living in a society with no greater struggle than that of accumulating more stuff. Harris puts it this way: “By urging ambitious males to focus on trying to accumulate better and neater toys, a society can turn would-be rebels into hard workers. Crass materialism can become the outlet for those discontented with their status.” Along with various drugs, medications, and alcohol, we in the West have been drugging our males with the type of consumerism that is portrayed in novels like Fight Club as well.
A society without alpha males, however, makes itself extremely vulnerable because alpha males are needed if a game devolves to one in which the rules are simply the law of the jungle. To put it bluntly, Harris urges to consider what might happen to our society if Western men lost the very pride, arrogance, passion, and work ethic that allowed them to achieve this life of decadence in the first place. In other words, who will come to the rescue of the modern liberal West if it falls back into the universal struggle for existence with radical Islam?
Many political pundits rightly believe that Fukuyama was wrong. They use countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China as counter examples to disprove the idea that liberal democracy trumps all other forms of government and is inevitably the best form of government. Harris, however, reminds us that Fukuyama wasn’t entirely wrong — he suggests the following: “The problem is not that Fukuyama is dead wrong; the problem is that he is half right. Unfortunately for us, the wrong half.”
He goes on with what I think is one of the most chilling and frightening passages in the book (and one that Krakauer also felt compelled to share in Where Men Win Glory):
In the West, we are perilously getting down to our last man. Liberal democracy, among us, is achieving the goal that Fukuyama predicted for it: It is eliminating the alpha males from our midst, and at a dizzyingly accelerating rate. But in Muslim societies, the alpha male is still alive and well. While we in America are drugging our alpha boys with Ritalin, the Muslims are doing everything in their power to encourage their alpha boys to be tough, aggressive, and ruthless… We are proud if our sons get into a good college; they are proud if their sons die as martyrs.
To rid your society of high-testosterone alpha males may bring peace and quiet; but if you have an enemy that is building up an army of alpha boys to hate you fanatically and who have vowed to destroy you, you will be committing suicide…
The end of testosterone in the West alone will not culminate in the end of history, but it may well culminate in the end of the West.
If this is true (Krakauer disagrees with Harris here), then as the modern liberal West is getting dangerously close to its “last man”, those who oppose our culture of reason are becoming dangerously close to the opposite of “the last man”, i.e., they are becoming more like Nietzche’s Ubermensch.
Krakauer describes the Ubermensch as follows:
The Ubermensch is virtuous, loyal, ambitious and outspoken, intensely engaged in the hurly-burly of the real world. Above all he is passionate—a connoisseur of both “the highest joys” and “the deepest sorrows.” He believes in the moral imperative to defend (with his life, if necessary) ideals such as truth, beauty, honor, and justice. He is self-assured. He is a risk taker. He regards suffering as salutary, and scorns the path of least resistance.
Although Krakauer seems sympathetic to Harris’s disturbing assertion, he thinks that Harris is at least as far off the mark as Fukuyama was. He asserts that “Anone who has spent time with American troops in Afghanistan or Iraq is bound to take issue with Harris’s contention that the current generation of young men raised in the West suffers from a deficit of testosterone.” Unfortunately, I think Krakauer was blinded by the dreaded confirmation bias while writing his brilliant narrative about Pat Tillman’s life — most young men in the West are actually nothing like Pat Tillman.
I think the word “hero” is thrown around too liberally today and has lost much of its actual meaning. Pat Tillman isn’t a hero simply because he fought in a war and was tragically killed. Rather, he is a hero because he felt compelled to protect his culture of reason out of what could be called by some an irrational sense of duty.
If Harris is ultimately right, as I think he is, this ought to cause alarm for rational individuals living in Western societies. The emergence of the modern liberal West seems like one of the greatest flukes in all of human history, albeit a fantastic one from my subjective point of view. Instead of wondering why the world isn’t less violent we should be thankful it isn’t more violent. Things could be worse, much worse.
The global struggle for survival, and for recognition, are here to stay. History isn’t going to end — there isn’t a peaceful Utopia awaiting us. Unpalatable as it may be, we should reject the myth of world peace as absolute nonsense. Those of us who believe in liberalism shouldn’t forget that it may actually take a little bit of fanaticism to defend a culture that is largely free of fanaticism. It seems to me that Nietzsche understood something very important about human evolution: those who completely shun the concept of the Ubermensch won’t be around for very long.