Dropping the F-bomb

By Eugène E.

The most surprising thing about the recent Facebook debacle, involving Cambridge Analytica, is that people are genuinely surprised by it. Allegations that Facebook user data may have ended up in the hands of a third party that may have used the data for political purposes have raised the ire of legislators, not to speak of Facebook users, who seem to be appalled by the realization that exhibitionism comes at a price – not unlike a woman who displays herself at an uncurtained window in a state of undress and is then astonished to learn that she’s been seen naked by those in the street.

This kind of user data misuse is unavoidable in a society that seems determined to do away with limits. I have previously written about the parallel growth of the ultraliberal movement and corporatocracy. While one represents sociopolitical interests and the other industry, they have at least one common aim: the destruction of limits. Neither group can accept them; limits are anathema to both bien-pensants and big business alike. For ultraliberals, limits imply curbs on moral laissez-faire, which is highly unattractive for a group that is eager to embrace non-traditional marriage unions, promote nonexistent genders and gender subsets, impose a gender-neutral language, and to otherwise conflate the pathological with the normal by undoing existing moral constraints.

For the transnational corporate world, which wants to turn the planet into one gigantic market, limits typically mean borders, regulations, tariffs, taxes, possible capital controls, etc. – bureaucratic impediments that prevent companies from unlimited profitability and are consequently to be resisted at all costs. What’s more, the conservative burgher is as much an enemy to the ultraliberal movement as he is to World Inc.: fiscally responsible citizens aren’t usually given to licentiousness or hedonism. Big Business doesn’t need prudent savers. Big Business needs, first and foremost, consumers – consumers who can be saddled with debt, preferably starting at a young age, when they’re at their most gullible; consumers who will feel compelled to buy new products, regardless of whether or not these products are needed; consumers who will mow each other down as they storm stores on Black Fridays; consumers who will pay exorbitant interest rates on credit cards they should have never been issued. The “shop ’til you drop” mantra, the lack of any purchasing restraint, dovetails wells with ultraliberal hedonism, according to which moral barriers are relics of the past or signs of a repressed inner self, and anything – or just about – goes. In other words, what’s good for ultraliberalism can be equally good for Big Business, and vice versa. When the two take on limits, they are fighting much the same battle.

We live at a time of unprecedented human reengineering. Here, too, we can see signs of the link between ultraliberalism and corporatocracy. Ultraliberals are trying to bring about a world in which the traditional structure as intended by nature (or a higher sentient being, for those who are deistically inclined) is challenged, where such things as gender, sexual orientation, and family are nothing but loose, flexible constructs; the fact that modern ultraliberal society allows individuals to overcome anatomy and opt out of the binary-gender model shows that ultraliberals have succeeded, if only artificially, in creating a new type of human being, however inauthentic such a creation might be.

At the same time, the corporate world, through its aggressive promotion of fusion between man and machine, is also trying to shape man into something else. While Ray Kurzweil’s “human” of the future is still confined to the future, we’re increasingly exposed to a deluge of gadgets that enjoy ever more intimacy with their users – just think of “smart glasses”, which lend those who sport them a decidedly cyborg-like look, or the phone app that allows users to confirm consent before having sexual congress. The sight of a couple glued to their smartphones, instead of to each other, while supposedly enjoying each other’s company, demonstrates the ascendancy of technology over human interaction.

Privacy is at the core of the human experience. It is also a concept that doesn’t sit very well with Big Business, which is rightly suspicious of it. Privacy is the ability of individuals to exercise control over that part of their lives that is supposed to be unmonitored. By definition, then, it is time that is – or should be – off-limits to marketing departments and sales teams. It is harder to study a consumer’s habits and preferences if you don’t know what exactly he’s up to. Privacy is problematic for World Inc. for another reason: it can promote the concept of solitude and, God forbid, reflection, for this is a time when people might be inclined to think. For Big Business, this is highly undesirable: when people think, they neither spend nor consume. One of the major accomplishments of the reigning corporatocracy is to have inculcated in consumers a fear of solitude – a rapidly growing number of people in our society are no longer capable of being alone with their thoughts. They need their gadgets as they need oxygen. This comes at the expense of their privacy.

Equally, it seems, privacy is a problem for ultraliberals: given the chance to think, people might question those values that have been foisted on society by the high priests of ultraliberalism and, as they spread the enlightenment as interpreted by the bien-pensants, are therefore supposed to go unquestioned. Mark Zuckerberg, the face of Facebook (and its soul, one would add if Facebook only had one), knew what he was doing when he questioned the notion of privacy as a social norm. If it were up to Facebook, privacy would be branded abnormal. Facebook’s profit model is based on indulging people’s need to see and to be seen by as many people as possible – the very antithesis of privacy.

Neither does Facebook intend to stop there. To use the dating app Tinder, for example, users need to have a Facebook account. One wonders about the extent of the arrangements made by Facebook and Tinder, and the strength of the walls between the two companies – if there are any. What and how much does Facebook know about the private life and sexual preferences of Tinder users? And where does it all end? Probably nowhere. In an environment that neither places nor recognizes limits, there is no end. The sky is no longer the limit – precisely because there’re no limits; and indeed, at a time when tycoons send privately owned rockets into space, the whole idea of the sky being the limit is rather quaint. As one financier says in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, in response to a question about how much money would be enough for him to walk away from it all: “more”. “More” might well sum up the appetite of companies like Facebook. It is no coincidence that Zuckerberg seems to be LGBT- and BLM-friendly — if any political doctrine can seduce a Zuckerberg, it is bound to be ultraliberalism.

In fact, Facebook has been busy developing an entirely new type of product: the consumer. As the Cambridge Analytica scandal has shown (and as many observers have known all along), Facebook users are not just consumers; they’re also products, to be packaged and resold like any other merchandise. In this paradigm, people are not simply offered “stuff”; they are “stuff” themselves, to be offered to other market participants. This consumer-product is the new man representing the brave new age of no limits: a sexless, inchoate creature unencumbered by any kind of identity except the one that determines his “user habits”; a product to be marketed and sold; an entity whose individuality is asserted by his virtual existence.

This new man has been stripped of his privacy: his relationships, friends, tastes, and career history are available for display to all and sundry. Since privacy is inextricably linked to the human experience, its dismantlement constitutes an attack on what it is to be human. One Russian film director said some time ago that the problem with the people designing video games and such is that they’re, for the most part, ignorant when it comes to aesthetics. That is to say, they might be brilliant mathematicians or computer scientists, but they have no foundation in the field of the humanities, which is that branch of human knowledge that deals with all those sticky things known as ethics and morality. Computer science, for all its indispensability, has nothing to say on the subject of what it is to be human, or on the difference between right and wrong. The point here is that the architects of cutting-edge technology may not have a moral compass that will give a moral texture to their inventions. The creators of technology that is supposed to change our world may not know whether these changes will be good or bad; what’s worse, they might not care.

Make of this argument what you will, but the Facebook controversy, along with some other events, lends credence to the director’s argument. Recently, an interview with the founder of Ethernet (incidentally, also a Russian) appeared in the press. Reading this article, it is hard not to feel that, while the very young bitcoin wizard is extremely bright and highly intelligent, something crucial is missing – the sense that there is a belief system in place and, if that’s the case, what that belief system might be. There are some vague intimations of wanting to do what’s good, but that’s neither here nor there – Facebook doubtless also wants to make the world a better place, while Google’s avowed mission to do no evil verges on parody. It is possible that age is a factor, particularly as the journalist who took the interview is also in her mid-twenties; but the thought that it can’t be reduced to that alone is not a comforting one.

There was a time, about which I do not intend to wax nostalgic, when people had photo albums. The sum total of their memories was stored in the safety of their homes, away from prying eyes and lurking voyeurs. While these memories were always at the risk of being destroyed by a fire or some other such calamity, there was one thing that people enjoyed then and that they don’t have today: privacy. Social media have empowered people to share their lives, no matter how vapid, with an unlimited number of people – theoretically, with the entire planet. That is extraordinary empowerment. It is also an extraordinary opportunity for abuse – as much for those users who can now find an audience for all sorts of views, including the most violent ones, as for the social networks themselves, which now have access to vast pools of user data and which know how to keep one step ahead of the regulators. However strong the assurances provided by a social media platform in its terms of service, when you willingly submit your private life to another party, you’re relinquishing some of your rights to privacy – and, consequently, a part of your humanness.

Should Facebook users have known better, or should the regulators have shown more initiative? The question of whether, and to what extent, lawmakers need to protect citizens from their worst instincts is an eternal one. Recent controversies, however, only confirm that, while some companies might be too big to fail, no company is too big to be unregulated. There will be calls for greater regulatory oversight, and it is likely that these calls will be at least somewhat heeded by the authorities. One can’t help but wonder, though, whether it is possible to rein in industry juggernauts the likes of Facebook without renouncing some of the ultraliberal values that have accompanied the rise of the corporatocracy – a scenario that will be completely unacceptable to the torchbearers of ultraliberalism.

Virtù-less

By Eugène E.

In the 25th chapter of The Prince, Machiavelli outlines his view of the way human affairs are governed. Aside from acknowledging the role of fortune (read: fate) in the lives of men, Machiavelli introduces the concept of “virtù”, which represents a certain force – a certain vitality – that rules over that half of human destiny that is beyond the purview of fortune. Fortune, which is female in Machiavelli’s conception of world order, cannot be tamed, but virtù – a term that evades a precise translation – lends itself to the human touch; to resist the caprices of fortune, it is necessary to be able to harvest and manage the power of virtù. Such was the weltanschauung of a great thinker living in medieval Florence. What would he think about the state of the world today? This kind of speculation is mischievous but, if Machiavelli were alive, he might be inclined to say that Europe lost its virtù, leaving itself entirely at the mercy of fortune; and yours truly would be inclined to agree.

After a brief hiatus, two horrific events that took place in France last month served as reminders that Islamism and its derivatives had been merely hibernating in the West – as if there had been any doubt, that is. Officially, only one of the two incidents – the supermarket attack in Trèbes, in the south of France – qualifies as a terrorist attack, but the nature of the second incident cannot be divorced from the first, since it’s one and the same disease. Both tragedies received sufficient but brief coverage before being tossed into Lethe to be sent further downstream and, eventually, empty out into the lake of oblivion.

In the first attack, a gunman acting alone highjacked a car in Carcassonne, drove to nearby Trèbes, and burst into a supermarket to take hostages. Aside from the gunman himself, the attack claimed a total of four victims, including a police officer who had voluntarily swapped places with one of the hostages in the supermarket.

The other incident involved the violent murder of an octogenarian woman who had successfully evaded a certain death at the hands of Nazi butchers decades before, only to be bludgeoned in the safety of her home in Paris in what was supposedly a burglary. On the face of it, the murder had nothing to do with the Trèbes attack. However, you know there’s more to the story than meets the eye when the authorities refuse to disclose the identities of the men charged with the crime while diffidently conceding that anti-Semitism might have been a factor. The media have been less timid; according to a number of newspapers, one of the suspects is Muslim and knew his victim since childhood. He believed that the elderly lady, by dint of being a Jew, must have been rich and was consequently an attractive target.

The ultraliberal establishment would have us believe that both cases are isolated episodes committed by fringe lunatics. At no point should society conclude that both attacks are part of the same pattern or that there is a pattern in the first place. To admit that there is would be tantamount to admitting that there is a problem in dire need of resolution, something ultraliberals are loathe to do – out of ideological fealty, political helplessness, or both. In all fairness, the scale of the problem is so daunting that any such admissions are problematic, but they are no less pressing for it.

In the case of the Trèbes attack, the terrorist has been described as having had minor brushes with the law in the past, which is somehow supposed to make the citizenry feel better. Neither Islam nor Islamist terrorism is the problem: the author of the carnage was simply a wastrel, a ne’er-do-well, a lowlife with a troubled past, who had decided to pen the last chapters of his sad biography by taking up the Islamic banner. The root of the problem, we’re made to understand, is nothing more than a troubled individual. In other words, roulez, il n’y a rien à voir, as the French expression goes.

Two things should be pointed out. One is that contemporary Islam seems to be soaking up those who want to inflict maximum damage to the lives and well-being of others; and when one dares to ask why it is Islam (and not, say, Buddhism) that, like a solitary lamp drawing moths on a sultry night, attracts the violent and the marginalized, answers are not forthcoming. The other is that, if the Carcassonne terrorist was an aberration, we still need to explain away the local youths who attacked journalists reporting on the story in the Carcassonne neighbourhood where the terrorist had lived, and who greeted the police by saluting the terrorist. Photos of the neighbourhood in the aftermath of the terrorist attack, showing heavily armed police in riot gear, suggest a city preparing for a second revolution. That is the truly frightening thing about the Trèbes attack: the Carcassonne terrorist has far more sympathizers living in France’s bosom than the media would care to admit or the French would be willing to imagine, sympathizers who demonstrate their visceral hatred of France and everything it stands for by attacking members of one of its most important institutions – the security apparatus (recall the disturbing episode on New Year’s Eve, when two police officers responding to an emergency call were savagely attacked by a crowd in a Paris suburb full of non-European immigrants). Many of these youths were born in France and are French citizens, but they do not identify with France, nor will they ever do so, which means that France’s immigration policy is nothing but a fiasco, and the “Frenchness” of some of those who are French by birth and citizenship is highly suspect, however unsanitary such a statement might be in political terms. It is no exaggeration to say that France, along with the major European countries, has a fifth column in its midst. If one were to reach for platitudes, it would be appropriate to speak of a ticking bomb – only the bombs are already going off.

In the case of the second attack, there’s more to the murder of 85-year-old Mireille Knoll than a case of a burglary gone wrong, even when the anti-Semitism said to have been a factor in the crime has been fully accounted for. Anti-Semitism has a long history in France, as it does in other European countries; and the history is a complex one. But modern French anti-Semitism is very different from its traditional variant. The traditional strain of anti-Semitism was mostly (though certainly not entirely) the preserve of the far right, inspired by ethnic, religious, and class prejudice. The contemporary strain has all of that, but it also contains a geopolitical dimension, since the growing Muslim polity in France has been issued by countries where anti-Semitic sentiment is a function of politics in the Middle East – namely, that of the existence of a Jewish state and the animosity that it inspires among its Arab-Muslim neighbours. Arguably this makes the French anti-Semitism of today far more virulent and violent than it has ever been throughout French history – when someone like Bernard-Henri Lévy claims that Jews have never felt as unsafe in France as they do now, alarm bells should go off. If Lévy’s observation is accurate, it is probably not due to the Le Pen dynasty, the National Front, Action Française, or the atavistic stirrings of the Dreyfus Affair; it is a result of France’s surging Muslim population and the politics it has brought to France. There is nothing more impervious to borders and customs than ideological baggage. The most important source of anti-Semitism today is the Muslim community – the same community whose members routinely attack French police and soldiers, drive trucks into crowds, gun down concertgoers, decapitate priests, and plant bombs. In this sense, there is a link between the Carcassonne atrocities and the killing of Mireille Knoll, however tenuous. Incidentally, the purported comment made by one of Knoll’s alleged killers, to the effect that she must have had money since she was Jewish, echoes the reasoning, if it can be called that, of those who kidnapped, tortured and murdered Ilan Halimi, another Frenchman of Jewish origin, in 2007.

There was a time, not that long ago, when Europe knew how to make use of virtù, which made it possible for European powers to dominate much of the world and project its will far beyond the European continent. As one journalist has written, when European states were the colonizers, the colonized did not blow up people in European capitals. However simplistic this might sound, the general idea behind the statement is solid. For Machiavelli, virtù is associated with impetuousness, daring, and audacity, qualities that are favoured by fortune. Europe was certainly all those things before it turned to navel-gazing, self-loathing, and auto-flagellation. It doesn’t follow that colonialism should be restored, but it does mean that, by abandoning the colonial experience and other such nastiness, Europe also relinquished its virtù, losing the vital force that underwrote its identity and Europe’s ability to assert it. The most powerful civilization on the planet proceeded to dismantle itself, gradually eradicating its very Europeanness. Ultraliberalism was adopted as the guiding dogma, spawning a remarkable asymmetry in relations between the West and “the rest”. Ultraliberals have imputed to their doctrine a kind of universalism born of arrogance and complacency. The arrogance made it a truism that ultraliberalism was the best doctrine available to humanity, while the complacency held that the adoption of the ultraliberalism of the West by “the rest” was a foregone conclusion.

As we have learned, these assumptions were misplaced. Recognizing this, however, does not make the asymmetry go away. Muslims are not just free to roam about Europe; they demand – and are accorded – the right to build mosques and bring their customs to the streets of European cities. On the other hand, foreigners cannot enter Saudi Arabia without a visa, which is not easily obtainable, and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are strictly off-limits to non-Muslims. In Canada, Sikhs asked that they be allowed to wear turbans as part of their Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) uniform instead of the traditional flat-brimmed hat; and the request was approved. It is hard to imagine that a similar request filed by a westerner aspiring to join India’s law enforcement agencies will be looked upon with the same indulgence. Where’s the reciprocity in that? Europe (and, more generally, the West) is obligated to accommodate non-Europeans at the expense of its Europeanness, while non-European societies suffer from no such compunction.

During a television talk show a few years ago, Nadine Morano, a French politician and former cabinet minister, called France a country of “the white race” and Judeo-Christian roots, and expressed her desire that it remain so, a remark for which she was naturally taken to task. It was the reaction of her interlocutor, a French journalist, that was curious. Debating with Morano, he asserted that France could well become a Muslim country one day and that there was nothing wrong with the idea anyhow. When an individual thinks that the disappearance of his own society and its replacement by another is not a big deal, that individual cannot lay claim to having virtù; or else, it’s a very peculiar kind of virtù. While one can only guess at how many people share these feelings in Europe today, the current situation suggests that legion is their name.

When Europe had virtù, its destiny was cosseted by fortune (fortune favours the brave); when it lost its virtù, it exposed itself to the ravages of fate and chance. Fortune moved on to rain its privileges down on those who wield virtù more deftly – perhaps on those who are sufficiently impetuous to cross a sea, disembark on strange but affluent shores, and displace the host peoples. While fortune-favoured Muslim migrants pour in, virtù-less Europeans organize gay parades, make gender-neutral arrangements, and pass legislation that is inimical to family life and population growth. The contemporary West is thus short on both virtue and virtù. No doubt there will be another Trèbes that will claim more innocent lives – in France or in some other (West) European country. No doubt the French president (or his European colleague) will talk about meting out justice to those who have committed the heinous crime, and remind the world that we will not cave in and that ultraliberal values will continue to be upheld, complete with more gay parades, more gender-neutral arrangements, and more multicivilizationalism. No doubt, then, the root causes will remain unaddressed, and yet another terrorist attack will follow. Such is the price of losing virtù and leaving yourself open to the blows of fortune – the price of being virtù-less.

One might well ask whether the loss of virtù preceded the advent of ultraliberalism, or whether it was ultraliberalism that gave rise to the loss of virtù. What came first, the chicken or the egg? This question must remain unanswered. Perhaps the loss of virtù and the rise of ultraliberalism took place concurrently; there might well have been a reflexive relationship between the two. The exact answer is not that important. A more urgent question is whether Europe can recover virtù and use it to build a stronger, healthier and richer Europe, a Europe that is proud of its Europeanness and whose very existence continues to be predicated on the quality of being European. The answer to that question can’t come soon enough.

“Part of the problem”

By Eugène E.

As the plane glided across a vast cerulean expanse somewhere above the Atlantic Ocean, I was presented with a truth less savory than the hot dinner served by the cabin crew, if that was possible: I realized I was “part of the problem”. It had all begun innocently enough – with my decision to take advantage of the in-flight entertainment program and watch a movie. Something digestible, unimposing, jet-lag-friendly – I’ve never been much of a movie aficionado, and mainstream cinema works rather well with interminable transatlantic journeys. There is something about the air in an aircraft cabin that makes one susceptible to the kind of entertainment that makes few demands on one’s aesthetic sensibilities and that would be eschewed in closer proximity to terra firma – or so it had seemed to me as the opening credits of Snatched unfolded on the screen.

If there is one good thing about your typical media pabulum, it’s that it shows you the watermark of our times. There is a reflexive relationship between the media and the society it informs and entertains. On the one hand, the big studios of Hollywood want to cater to the tastes of their audiences (give the people what they want); on the other hand, the products that they deliver shape the perceptions, wants, and needs of those who are supposed to inspire them. The public propels the media; the media conditions the public.

Snatched, a comedy that runs on the twin engines of slapstick humour and slapdash vulgarity, came out in 2017 – and it shows. It was released before Weinstein and the #MeToo movement became household names for all the wrong reasons, but that’s irrelevant. The (white) man had already been consigned to the outposts of purgatory; women were getting primed to become the torchbearers of an Olympian heroism born of nothing greater than their gender. The only thing lacking was a good scapegoat; and Weinstein was perfect. The conditions that made it so easy for society to grind any overly sexed male into dust were already in place, and the media had been co-opted (or had co-opted itself) long ago. For years, movies, among other conduits, had been preparing society for both Weinstein and #MeToo; and Snatched, which shows how even Hollywood’s fluff can carry considerable ideological ammunition, is an example of that ultraliberal indoctrination.

The movie hardly merits any commentary about its quality, but the implicit ideological messages are interesting. The heroines of this cinematographic masterpiece – an in-your-face, slightly awkward damsel and her neurotic mother – take off to South America for some girls’ fun, where they run into serious trouble with a couple of bad hombres. The tone is jaunty and mischievous, even when people get clobbered with shovels or fall into precipices, but the hidden ideas contain far less levity. The women are the film’s over-sung heroes, constantly in danger of falling prey to priapic cads and other such hunters of female flesh, whom they defeat with sheer “girl power”. The men who do have some redeeming value are inconsequential: one (the damsel’s brother) suffers from psychological issues that prevent him from leaving home; the other, a gringo marooned in the South American jungle, is no homebody and is even endowed with some rugged virility, for which he is made to pay with terminal cancer and, eventually, a one-way plunge from a cliff. For a man to make it to the ending credits and retain the viewer’s sympathy, he needs to be sexually disarming and unthreatening – a eunuch, in a word, if only metaphorically. The films ends with the two hapless Amazons in Kuala Lumpur; the ladies are having a blast, and the damsel – still a damsel – blows off a potential seducer. The implicit message is clear throughout: when (white) men are not dangerous, they are utterly superfluous. In either case, women are better off on their own.

Still intent on getting my fill of the movie menu, my next choice was The Family Stone. For those who haven’t seen it, this is the kind of movie that is supposed to make you feel good, with all the guffaw-inducing and lachrymose moments strategically placed at all the right junctures. An uptight, pretentious urbanite (Sarah Jessica Parker) is forced to spend Christmas with her fiancee’s unconventional, idiosyncratic family (the Stones), whose matriarch is played by Diane Keaton. If memory serves, the synopsis of the film as presented by the in-flight entertainment program describes the family as “bohemian”, which is just as well. The family certainly has all the right ingredients to qualify as one. One of the family members, for example, happens to be deaf. This is a physical impairment, and the subject can be treated with the thoughtfulness that it merits. Thoughtfulness, however, falls by the wayside when ultraliberal boxes need to be checked off, so the deaf character also happens to be gay. To introduce the right degree of diversity into the very WASPish Stone clan, the deaf homosexual is given a black man for a partner, at which point this turns into an ultraliberal caricature. Throughout history, art was preoccupied with beauty and the heightening of aesthetic sensibilities; the sculptures of Michelangelo and Bernini convey to us this lofty obsession with capturing perfection. These days, art, which in many cases is a paid agent of certain ideological currents, revels in placing all forms of pathology on a pedestal. Who needs Bernini when you have RuPaul’s Drag Race?

But there’s more to this than a predilection for deformity: however bohemian the Stone family happens to be, in the final analysis, it is made to look quite conventional. They might be quirky, the movie says, but they’re just as normal as you; and the movie is constructed in such a way as to evoke feelings of affinity in the audience. This is by design: ultraliberalism needs to swaddle the abnormal in the warm linen of normality and pad it with the bubble wrap of acceptability. The movie, it should be noted, was made in 2005 – more than a decade ago – and, by that point, it had many precedents dealing in this sort of merchandise. In other words, an entire generation was brought up to believe that what had once been unacceptable was now palatable, acceptable, and even desirable.

After the movie was over, I decided to try the papers. I had on me the most recent weekend editions of the FT – my default choice in the realm of quality journalism – and I spread them out to confirm that even the most respectable newspapers are not immune to ideological viruses. The front page of one of the supplements of the oldest edition I had was monopolized by an article whose author, a woman, took issue with the fact that women are inducted into the hall of equality on the basis of distinct, gender-based qualities that allow them to perform as well as their male counterparts, if not better. This line of thinking is a problem, in the author’s opinion, since it still advances the argument that there are intrinsic differences between the two sexes; and the admission of there being any differences between men and women cannot be countenanced by feminists, who believe that differences, no matter how natural or inevitable, lead to inequalities and must therefore be eradicated. Nothing short of absolute equality – the kind of equality that rules out all possible differences – will be accepted by the ideological school of which the author of this article is clearly an honours student, whatever human anatomy has to say about the matter.

Other parts of the newspaper were equally contaminated. A now familiar sight, there were (white) male columnists saying their mea culpas for being – yes – “part of the problem”. One atoned for having committed the high crime of defaulting to the masculine pronoun in his book on economics; as he wrote with unmistakeable pride, he had been fully rehabilitated by the time he set out to write his next book. Another columnist indulged in auto-flagellation because he’d once happened to hear another man propose a jaunt to a nearby strip club during an all-male business outing. The fact that the columnist had not gone along does not, in his own estimate, reduce his complicity in being “part of the problem”. A John Updike article in the book-reviews section began with the late writer’s putative misogyny and then proceeded to exculpate him; but the fact that it worked off a feminist premise and seen through that prism speaks volumes.

It might not be surprising, then, that by the time the plane had landed and I’d stepped into the airy halls of Toronto’s international airport, it was obvious to me that I was “part of the problem” myself – not because of some infraction committed against the fairer sex, but simply by virtue of having been born without a vagina. There it is, then: I, too, am guilty. I, too, am “part of the problem”. #MeToo.

Modern feminists, like their brothers-in-arms in the LGBT movement, are like unruly, spoiled children who take it for granted that the whole world must constantly acknowledge their existence. They need to announce themselves to all and sundry relentlessly and with much noise. The higher its pitch and the louder its choir, the better. A French minister – a woman and, naturally enough, one in change of the gender equality portfolio – takes part in a play in which she informs the world that her vagina is angry (?): achieving full gender parity one play at a time. An actress goes on stage at the Academy Awards ceremony and proposes an “inclusion rider”, which sounds a lot like just another tool designed to promote fairness for some at the expense of others – a tax on those who are deemed to be overly privileged, whether this privileged state is real or just an ultraliberal fata morgana. And on and on it goes.

In Toronto, a bastion of ultraliberalism, “fem noise” is heard with the consistency of muezzins’ prayer calls in a Muslim city. Men are reminded everywhere that they are “part of the problem”. Offices are agog over safe spaces for women and various diversity initiatives; companies are obsessing over getting to the top of gender equality survey rankings. Feminist shirts and badges are spotted; there are advertisements for novels written “from a woman’s point of view”. Looking at some of the messages on Toronto’s public transit, it’s easy to believe that every woman in Canada’s largest city is in immediate danger of being sexually assaulted as soon as she enters a public transit vehicle, and that the entire city shivers in a culture of unending rape. More like South Africa in the immediate post-apartheid years, when it was estimated that a woman was raped every three seconds, than one of the safest cities in North America. Buses and subway trains have labels posted in prominent areas that inform passengers that “#ThisIsWhere Em and Lisa were attacked for their sexuality” (one might well wonder what Em and Lisa were doing that would have given away their sexuality) or “#ThisIsWhere Ashley saw a stranger leering at her” (as if a leer is an instance of sexual assault – a leer can make one uncomfortable, but it is a facial expression; and these can be easily misinterpreted). Are we sure we’re still within the bounds of reason?

Inappropriate behaviour cannot be excused. Every woman should always feel safe in the streets (and anywhere else, for that matter). But it’s worth asking whether this sort of “awareness program” (which seems to have coincided with the rise of the #MeToo movement) is the best way to tackle the safety of women, and whether things may not have gone too far and in the wrong direction. If things are as bad as the ads and warnings suggest, this is a security issue and may be best dealt with by better policing.

It’s also worth asking whether this kind of culture will not lead to a McCarthyist climate of fear and denunciations, with sexually lobotomized men who are cowed and apprehensive, and trigger-happy women ready to torpedo reputations. Those who take this hypothesis to be hyperbolic should not overlook the recent history of false claims that left towering names in ruins (the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose stellar career was cut short by accusations of sexual violence at a New York hotel that were later dropped by the prosecution on account of the victim’s credibility, comes to mind – while Strauss-Kahn was eventually exonerated by the US authorities, his presidential aspirations in France were effectively quashed).

The ultraliberal revolution (and it’s certainly a revolution) has been made possible by an unprecedented fusion between political life and entertainment, serious and non-serious, lofty and mainstream; by the invasion of every branch of society by mass thinking and mass behaviour. The role that the media has played in all this cannot be overstated.

As the media conditioned the public, the latter adapted itself to the new ideology. Some of the greatest changes wrought by the ultraliberal revolution are those that have taken place in women – in their bodies, their appearance, their comportment. As these changes have been brewing for many years, they have been all but unnoticeable; they’re all the greater for it. Generalizations can be dangerous, but one thing is undeniable: in many parts of the Western world – certainly in Canada and the US – women no longer cultivate their femininity. They may choose a masculine look, opting for tattoos or letting themselves be overtaken by heft. They might neglect their looks entirely, making no effort to appeal to the eye. Or they might make considerable investments in their bodies: the sight of garish sneakers, yoga mats, and liberally exposed skin has become ubiquitous in urban settings; but these women are now trimming themselves for a different reason. In the past, a woman took care of herself to make herself more attractive, which would then enhance her appeal to men; today she is taking care of herself for the sake of herself. Many will call it emancipation; others might say it’s just rank narcissism. Take your pick. The upshot is that women, on the whole, have become less feminine.

What will that do to our way of life? Coupling implies the laws and rules of attraction; if women renounce the imperative to look attractive, what effect will that have on coupling? The reality is that we’re witnessing nothing less than the death of romanticism as a form of life. Elegance has been replaced with convenience; femininity with independence; feelings and idealism with bureaucratization and compartmentalization. This has impacted language: women now have “partners” – an odd way to describe someone you consider the love of your life, but perhaps not so odd after all, for that is what a man happens to be for the modern independent woman: at best, a partner, a stakeholder, a joint equity owner with a 50% share in the enterprise; at worst, a tool, an instrument. This has also impacted the world of online dating: view the emergence of Bumble, which claims to have removed for men the burden of approaching women and which aspires to level “the playing field” by making it only possible for women to initiate the first approach. This ultraliberally positive corporate message belies the truth that women on Bumble get to choose and men don’t. The app takes it as an article of faith that “relationships should begin with respect and equality”. Given that men are turned into passive cattle on that site, we can see exactly what sort of equality Bumble has in mind.

The big question is whether, given all these jet streams, the affected societies can continue to reproduce at a level that will ensure their survival – whether children can be begotten in an environment powered by formulaic relationships and illuminated with lab-like lighting. The chief prerequisite for any society is continuity: a civilization needs people to keep on going. A civilization without people will end up being relevant to historians only. It’s a big question that predictably receives no treatment from feminists, bien-pensants, #MeToo crusaders, and other ultraliberals who are busy trying to free themselves from the shackles of an odiously oppressive (white) patriarchy. Their propaganda, a cauldron of ultraliberal reflexes and sentiment, is bereft of thought and analysis; their ideology is vicious, aggressive, and is no more tolerant than the hidebound ideologies it purports to challenge – just witness the experience of the Google employee who dared to challenge the sacred notion that there are differences between men and women, and who ended up paying for it with his job.

The recent feminist hysteria has reconfirmed what was already known about ultraliberalism. The ultraliberal movement, of which feminism is one of the main components, aspires to be a new Christianity without its God and its thou-shall-nots, but it only succeeds in turning into an amorphous ideology as bland as a vegan diet. It tries to promote egalitarianism, with mass appeal to every ethnic group that exists and every sub-gender that doesn’t, but only creates a shapeless morass, anarchical and uncultured. It strives to be modern, and ends up disseminating sexlessness and lifestyles that, if left unchecked, will leave any society barren. It makes promises of happiness, yet spawns mood and personality disorders. It preaches tolerance while suppressing all forms of dissent. It accuses political opponents of base populism and has yet mastered the genre. It excoriates ideological adversaries for their propaganda efforts and, starting with the cradle, brainwashes the public on a truly Orwellian scale.

But perhaps the lady doth protest too much. A better use of my time, from an ultraliberal’s standpoint, would be to declare that I am “part of the problem”, apologize for being a (white) male, and do my penance – or, better yet, as was suggested recently by a UK minister, albeit in a very different context, I should just shut up and go away.

RUSSIA GOES TO VOTE (and why you should care)

By Eugène E.

As the results of the presidential election due to take place in Russia on March 18 are something of a foregone conclusion, some might bristle at the title of this blog post. Why write about an election that many consider little more than a sham process? There are several reasons. First, Vladimir Putin, the man expected to continue governing Russia as he’s been doing since the dawn of this century, is reputed to be a stickler for rules and procedures – an election should take place, if only to satisfy all the formalities. It might be interesting to see how this one’s orchestrated. Second, despite the authoritarian, statist nature of his regime, even Putin’s opponents have never contested Putin’s victory in the last presidential election of 2012, which, however imperfect the process that begot his victory, was definitive – the illegitimacy of the presidential election should perhaps not be overemphasized. Third, history’s taste for surprises and even miracles has been well documented, although an election outcome that is not favorable to Putin will require a miracle of truly biblical dimensions.

Finally, Russia counts – perhaps less than Putin’s most ardent supporters claim that it does, but more than his critics would have us believe. As I’ve always maintained, Russia is a country riven by an identity crisis. This is not the place to expound the etiology of that crisis; at this juncture, it will suffice to say that ever since Peter the Great modernized Russia, which had hitherto been an Asiatic land, Russia has been a battleground between two competing identities: one a European and the other one Asian. In tsarist Russia, the European part ruled the country: the country’s elites were either drawn from Europe or were heavily Europeanized; the base, however, remained Asian. This rift between Russia’s haves and have-nots was reflected in the debate between Westernizers and Slavophiles, which, in a mutated form, still lives on.

The unresolved identity crisis is at the heart of some of Russia’s biggest problems today and might at least in part explain some of Russian’s historic events (the Russian Revolution, for example, can certainly be viewed as a revolt against the European elites). The resolution of this crisis – or the lack of one – will therefore have considerable ramifications for the European continent. Who governs Russia is a question that goes beyond mere academic interest; and a quick look at those who want to govern the world’s largest country by territory in the near term is consequently in order.

Dramatis personae:

Vladimir Putin – the eternal president

The only candidate truly in no need of any introduction – to anyone. To his supporters, he’s a unifier of Russian lands, the avenger of Russia’s honour, the architect of its reawakening. To his detractors, he’s the leader of a mafia state, the author of a renewed Russian imperialism, and perhaps a war criminal. The truth, as they say, is probably somewhere in between, though “in between” is not necessarily a neatly demarcated middle ground. There is no question that, by the end of Putin’s second presidential term, a kind of stability had been restored in Russia, which was a welcome change from the chaotic Yeltsin years. But the annexation of Crimea in 2014 changed everything; and the Russia of today, even if it has once again become a player to contend with in the international arena, is a country characterized by breathtaking corruption levels, a state-run ideology inflamed by hidebound conservatism and jingoism, and an exceedingly uncertain future.

Every observer of contemporary Russia knows that the Putin of today is not the Putin of, say, 2005. His reign before 2014 was characterized by a return to stability, dirigisme, and the emergence of the kind of system that is usually referred to as a “managed democracy”. Something of an unwritten pact had been adopted between the Kremlin and society: society did not meddle in the business of governing, while the Kremlin, for the most, allowed people to go about their business as they saw fit. A middle class seemed to be emerging, at least in the country’s larger cities. Buffeted by rising oil prices, Russia appeared to be moving towards normalcy.

Then something happened. Few know what. The thing about Russian politics is that it’s so opaque that few ever know the whole truth, perhaps no one at all – not even Putin. What we do know, factually speaking, is that a wave of protests broke out in the Russian capital in late 2011, one of the largest of their kind in the history of post-Soviet Russia. A presidential election was looming. As is the case with the election due to take place next month, Putin was the main contender; unlike the upcoming election, at the time Putin was prime minister, having demoted himself to comply with a law that forbids a president to serve more than two consecutive presidential terms (those formalities again). Putin was gearing up to cruise back to the presidency, which, for the past four years, had been looked after by Dmitry Medvedev, who had proved himself to be a trustworthy custodian and was now in turn gearing up to be downgraded to premiership. The protests were a reaction to the cynicism that many protesters saw in the swap of power due to take place. The opposition – real opposition, as opposed to the “loyal opposition” that had provided a symbolic alternative to Putin in the years before – showed signs of life; and it demanded change.

In political terms, the protests were not a threat to Putin. The protesters were too few in number; the protests seemed to be a large-city phenomenon. Yet Putin, who is said to be an avid student of history, is likely well acquainted with the influence that “active minorities” sometimes have on historic events. It must also have been rather disconcerting to see some of the elites participating in the protests. And we have seen how quickly a seasoned authoritarian regime can fold in the age of social media and instant communication. It is quite possible that, bluntly speaking, Putin might have been spooked.

Additionally, there was the question of ideology. Putin had been in power for more than a decade. Whatever the accomplishments of his administration, there was a feeling that the ideological component of his regime was, in financial parlance, underfunded. There was little that could be used to underwrite a Putin legacy or write history textbooks. An idea was needed, an idea that could reinvigorate the Putin era, stifle the nascent opposition, and ensure the durability of his regime, which, in the final analysis, is the primary objective of any ruler.

A new ideology was needed, but its mere articulation to the public would have been unlikely to succeed. The new ideology had to be brokered by a historic event. The annexation of Crimea was that historic event. As far as political and historical symbols go, Crimea is quite up there; and, in the short term, its takeover provided a massive political windfall for Putin.

Putin’s approval ratings went through the stratosphere (said to have been hovering between 80% and 90%, they are a wet dream for many a political leader in the West), the opposition was disoriented (opposition to the annexation – which was billed by Putin as a rescue operation to save ethnic Russians from the excesses, exaggerated or otherwise, of Ukraine’s nationalism – was perceived by many in Russia as treason, Russophobia, or both), and Putin’s Russia could now claim to have a national idea – a strong Russia pursuing its own sovereign path, guided along by road signs erected by the Russian Orthodox Church, moving towards a glorious future that was to be a healthy alternative to the decay and decadence of the West.

Having endured years of humiliation on the outskirts of global political decision-making, Russia had regained its status and was now a force to be reckoned with – a significant accomplishment in a country where domestically inspired intimations of millenarianism have existed for a long time. It is perhaps only a mild exaggeration to say that, had Putin proposed a referendum on restoring the monarchy in Russia – with Putin on the throne – he might have had a decent chance.

In the long run, there is far less room for optimism. Relations with the West have been tense, to say the least, and Russia has faced (or has been forced to face, depending on your point of view) international isolation. In a world that is becoming increasingly globalized, the benefits of remaining a geopolitical island are questionable. The Russian economy is largely reliant on its natural resources, and its future prospects are highly uncertain. Corruption is endemic at all levels of society, and the politicization of the economy makes doing business in Russia a risky prospect – hardly a healthy environment for an economy to thrive.

More disturbing is the internal situation. Many point to a climate of extreme intolerance and aggression. While Putin’s regime certainly lends itself to all sorts of exaggerations and misconceptions that can be easily fed to naive audiences in the West, there’s no question that those with dissenting views have not had it easy in Russia. The pressure on public figures to endorse the Kremlin’s agenda has been palpable. Prominent opponents of the annexation have been labeled “Russophobes”, traitors, and a “fifth column” – terminology that is reminiscent of some of the darker chapters in European history. Performers who have taken a stand against the annexation of Crimea have run into problems finding venues where to please their fans. Journalists and writers with opinions that are not Kremlin-friendly have been attacked in the streets with an antiseptic known as “brilliant green” or worse (a journalist from Echo Moscow was doused with feces). In some cases they were murdered outright – Boris Nemtsov, a former politician and an implacable critic of the annexation of Crimea, was shot dead within sight of the Kremlin three years ago.

Naturally, one cannot blame Putin directly for these incidents; but he is the man who has spawned the society in which this sort of thing can – and does – happen. In a way, he has unleashed some of the darker forces and reawakened some of the darker demons slumbering in the lairs of Russian history.

His policies can be said to have contributed to the development of other phenomena – it was on his watch that the Russian Orthodox Church has acquired its momentum. The church has experienced a major revival since the collapse of the former Soviet Union – perhaps an inevitability in a country whose dominant ideology is in ruins.

In recent years, however, the revival has taken on hues and overtones that are bound to raise red flags for advocates of secularism. There seems to have been fusion between church and state (in Russia, this has traditionally redounded to the state’s benefit). The church has weighed in on many issues of the day, sometimes adopting positions that bordered on obscurantism and occasionally adding a medieval touch to public discourse. A few years ago, a man was tried in the city of Stavropol. He was accused of having offended the feelings of the religious by posting online messages that denied the existence of God. The case was dismissed last year, but the fact that the case had made it to court in the first place shows the drift of Russian society.

The resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church is a curious development in a country where atheism had been a state ideology for nearly three generations in the 20th century. But in Putin’s Russia contradictions abound. Nicholas II, arguably one of Russia’s weakest Romanov tsars, was elevated to sainthood by the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin himself is rumoured to have his own confessor; in any case, he has not been shy about assuring his own religious fervour. One can only guess at the sort of moral accounting that it makes it possible to reconcile a KGB past with a Russian Orthodox present. Yet Bolshevik symbols or figures antithetical to the very idea of religion – persecutors of the church par excellence – remain hugely popular in Russia. Stalin, for example, is routinely rated as one of greatest men in world history by Russians – greatness, in this context, has a positive connotation.

Tragically, the annexation of Crimea has also sown internal discord between two closely related ethnic groups. As a result of the many instances of intermarriage between Russians and Ukrainians, the conflict has created fault lines in individual families. Permanent scars, never-ending conflicts, internecine battles – a low point for humanity. A decade ago, the suggestion that Russians could go to war against Ukrainians would have been laughable. Today it’s the reality.

Putin and his acolytes maintain that the annexation of the Crimea and everything that has followed since have been defensive measures. The enemy is Ukrainian nationalism, financed by an anti-Russian West. However paranoid or incoherent some of the claims might be, though, it certainly takes two to tango, as they say. The demonization of Vladimir Putin has been a fetish in the West; and the view that many in the West have of Putin and Putin’s Russia is often one-sided – and, one might well add, lop-sided. One might admire Vladimir Putin; equally, one might resent him. Some of the grievances expressed by the Russian president are no less legitimate for it.

Putin is as right to complain about continuous NATO expansion – perceived by Russians as encroachment on Russian interests, not an unjustified sentiment, if one recalls that the original aim of NATO was to contain Russia – as he is right to complain about the double standards that make it acceptable for, say, the US to circumscribe Russia’s interests within its sphere of influence, while showing little openness to Russia (and other powers) flexing its muscles in America’s own backyard.

Putin is also right to assert Russia’s prerogative to have its own system of values (e.g., family values) that should not be scrutinized and judged by a politically correct, ultraliberal West; and he is just as right to deride what he sees as the West’s hypocrisy. Russia had more reasons to annex Crimea, where most of the population is Russian, than the US to invade Iraq in 2003, where it was to look for weapons of mass destruction that were not there to begin with; and if one evil does not justify another, the US administration responsible for the war in Iraq has not been taken to task, and the US has not been subjected to penalties or economic sanctions.

The economic sanctions imposed against Russia in the wake of the annexation of Crimea also raise a number of questions. What is the point of these economic sanctions? As the examples of Myanmar, Cuba and Iraq have shown, economic sanctions are usually hard on ordinary people and toothless when it comes to the regimes they’re meant to discipline. Presumably, the goal of economic sanctions is to exert pressure on the people to get rid of a troublesome regime. However, there is a contradiction here. For years Putin has been branded as an authoritarian regime (or worse). If that is true, vox populi should be voiceless in Russia, which renders the economic sanctions all but useless. If, on the other hand, the Russian people can get rid of Putin, then the public has a voice and a say in the way the country is run, in which case Russia is not quite the authoritarian state that we’ve been led to believe it is. If, lastly, the goal of the sanctions is to get Russians to topple Putin at any cost (even that of bloodshed), then they are just cruel.

Putin is right on a number of points, and the kind of systematic maligning of Putin that goes on in the West can be unfair. Yet however valid some of Putin’s assertions happen to be, the way Putin and his regime have gone about convincing the unconvinced has done much to discredit their truth. Those who truly speak the truth, as Putin claims to be doing, rarely feel the need to punish those who are in disagreement. Truth speaks for itself. It is promoted by constructive suasion, not imposed by force or censorship. This point seems to be lost on many of Putin’s supporters. I wonder if the point hasn’t been lost on Putin himself.

This, then, is the man who looks set to preside over Russia for a fourth time. Barring a deus ex machina, his opponents virtually don’t stand a chance. Some supporters of Putin argue that there’s no one in the opposition who can measure up to Putin when it comes to administrative experience and political acumen. That is at best a half-truth; and half-truths are dangerous. Deification of political leaders is rarely a good idea; and if Russia’s opposition lacks a serious and viable alternative to Putin (a big if), it is in no small measure due to the continued efforts of the Putin regime to turn the opposition into a barren land. The opposition does exist in Russia, and its voice deserves to be heard.

Alexei Navalny – the candidate who isn’t

Arguably the most prominent figure of the opposition, Alexei Navalny has one considerable problem: he’s been barred from running in the elections, ostensibly due to a prior conviction that, he and his allies maintain, was politically motivated. Photogenic and a lawyer by training, Navalny has made a name for himself with, among other things, his tussles with Russia’s legal system and with the Anti-Corruption Foundation, an NGO that investigates corruption at the highest levels of the government. The NGO has already broken a number of big stories; the latest one to hit the international news involves an oligarch who has allegedly entertained a high-ranking civil servant in the company of prostitutes on a yacht off the coast of Noway. It is impossible for an outsider to verify the veracity of the information that Navalny and his team consistently supply for the public’s benefit (one can only marvel at how they manage to obtain this sort of data), but even if only part of it is true, it is still powerful stuff and is a searing indictment of Putin’s regime.

Navalny has been portrayed in the Western media as Russia’s beacon of democracy. As it is, for many in the West, any serious opponent of Putin is automatically perceived to be a paragon of democracy. In other words, the exact political coordinates of the individual are unimportant; what’s important is that he’s against Putin, as if being against Putin is synonymous with being a certified Western-style democrat – a ridiculous, if not dangerous, illusion. This is a point made by those critics of Navalny who point to his past flirtations with Russia’s far right (one UK-based Russian writer, a quondam supporter, turned away from Navalny due the latter’s sympathy for a nationalist march). The extent of these flirtations and the depth of Navalny’s nationalism, however, are unclear.

The criticism that Navalny does not have “relevant experience” is strange: by that logic, only a former president can run for president, which will disqualify anyone who has never been president, a logical cul-de-sac. Sometimes people ought to be given a chance. A bigger problem with Navalny is not the question of experience, but that of stature. Though Navalny is certainly not unintelligent, charisma – the kind of charisma one expects in a politician – seems to be in short supply. He has also proven to be rather ineffectual during various debates. Finally, while impressions are highly subjective and often superficial, there is an element of smallness about the man. Watching and listening to Navalny, it is hard to get rid of the feeling that one is dealing with an ordinary mortgage specialist or an insurance agent. There’s certainly nothing wrong with mortgage specialists and insurance agents, ordinary or otherwise, but this is not the sort of thing one wants to see in a man aspiring to run a country as complex as Russia.

Unlike Putin, who is a product of the Soviet system, the USSR had ceased to exist by the time Navalny attained the age of majority. This is an asset; and he certainly does inject a breath of fresh air into Russian politics. His desire to eradicate corruption, mend fences with the West, and modernize Russia are commendable. Is he the man to do it, though? No one knows for sure. But it’s hard to take seriously those who claim that his candidature isn’t serious. To determine who presents a real risk to Putin and his regime, one only needs to know which candidate was declared ineligible to participate in the elections. To that end, Navalny’s exclusion speaks volumes.

Ksenia Sobchak – a candidate against all

The only female candidate in the election, Ksenia Sobchak’s path to a presidential candidate is a remarkable one. The daughter of the first mayor of post-Soviet Saint Petersburg, her early life as a prominent (and rather scandal-prone) member of Russia’s jeunesse dorée did not augur well for a career in politics. Nevertheless, Sobchak managed to graduate from Russia’s “It Girl” to journalism and, later, to political activism, which culminated in the announcement late last year that she’d be participating in the presidential election as a “candidate against all”.

The thing about political programs, particularly with candidates in countries where things are fluid and quick to change, is that they are often not worth the paper they’re written on. However, if a political platform provides few indications of what the candidate will do once (and if) he’s in power, it is usually a good guide to the candidate’s political orientation. The first point in Sobchak’s 123-step program, then, is telling. Right from the get-go, Sobchak declares her desire to build a new Russia based on a European-style secular democracy, with human rights as the main pillar of Russian society. In case anyone missed the point, she adds that Russia is geographically, historically, and culturally a European nation; and its fate is therefore a necessarily European one.

Given the cool relations between Russia and Europe, and the distaste that many Russians feel for the ultraliberalism of the West, this is a strong declaration. It is also an encouraging one – certainly for this ardent believer in a European Russia and in the primacy of Russia’s European identity. But its strength is also its weakness. It is easy enough for Sobchak and her allies to identify themselves as Europeans, but Russia is a multicivilizational country. Will the Chechens and Tatars – both groups are Muslim – embrace a European identity? For Russia’s non-Europeans it is bound to be a tough sell. This is before we get to the question of implementation. Sobchak’s entire platform is quaint, herbivorous even; but it’s hard to see how it will all come together in the Russia of today. It is even harder to see how Ksenia Sobchak might be the best person to try and make it all come together. Not to mention that modern ultraliberal Europe, which serves as the inspiration for Sobchak’s platform, may not be the best model to copy at the moment.

Some claim that her candidacy was orchestrated by the Kremlin in order to siphon votes from Navalny’s electorate, which is paralyzed by his exclusion, and further split the Navalny camp, as well as to prop up the illusion that the presidential election is a legitimate exercise in democracy. It’s impossible to say whether there’s any truth to that – we might never find out. But there are other questions pertaining to her candidacy that are no less pertinent. It is worthwhile asking whether, culturally and socially, Russia is ready for a female leader – while Russia did have women at the helm, Sobchak is no Catherine the Great. It is also unclear whether Russians voters will be able to divorce the Ksenia Sobchak of today from the glamorous (and often vulgar) Ksenia Sobchak of her not-too-distant youth.

Finally, it is worth remembering that Ksenia Sobchak, for all her anti-Kremlin activism, is firmly entrenched in the establishment. Putin was the right hand of Sobchak’s father when the latter was mayor of Saint Petersburg. Rumours have even circulated that Putin is Sobchak’s godfather – this might well be untrue, but the existence of such rumours points to the links that Ksenia Sobchak had with the president she’s opposing today. Running on the slogan of a “candidate against all”, Sobchak has tried to position herself as an anti-establishment figure; it is unclear how many voters will find the stance convincing. If the polls are to be believed, not that many: Ksenia Sobchak is unlikely to take more than 1%-3% of the vote.

Pavel Grudinin – Lenin in the age of iPhones

Pavel Grudinin is a new face – the upcoming presidential election is his first. He became the leader of the Communist Party last year, replacing Gennady Zyuganov, who, like Vladimir Zhirinovsky (see below), had been in politics long enough to be considered as Putin’s loyal opposition, but who, unlike Zhirinovsky, had finally decided that it was time to cede his place to someone else. As with Ksenia Sobchak, there has been talk in some quarters that Grudinin is a creature produced by the Kremlin workshop. Whether true or not, Grudinin tries his best to sell vintage communism to the public. In one interview, he had no qualms about whitewashing Stalin’s reign; what most historians view as oppression and crimes against humanity is, in Grudinin’s analysis, “firmness”. Such paeans to the Soviet dictator from the lushly moustached Grudinin will make many uneasy, but there is hardly any need to lay too much stress on this. Reviewing the party’s program is a journey back in time; there’s something ineffably anachronistic about the party’s supreme plan for Russia. Perhaps Grudinin does not quite believe it himself: a well-off individual, he has been forced to respond to questions concerning, among other things, a villa in Spain, which apparently belongs not to him, but to his son. There’s nothing wrong with sons owning villas in Spain, of course, but it’s probably not what Lenin and Trotsky had in mind.

According to polls, Grudinin may come in second.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky – the show must go on

The leader of the misnamed Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) for as long as the party’s existed, Vladimir Zhirinovsky is the bombastic, crafty and often vulgar face of Russia’s far right. He is well known for his outlandish proposals (he has, for example, expressed his support for legalizing polygamy) as well as for his crude humour. Occasionally, the humour can be rather rich. Russia’s extreme right has traditionally been hostile to Jews; yet asked about his ethnic origin years ago, Zhirinovsky said his mother was Russian, while his father was a lawyer, leaving little doubt as to his father’s real origins and not a little material for psychologists to study.

Zhirinovsky and his party appeared to be a political force back in the 1990s, when Zhirinovsky was considered a serious contender for the Kremlin. In recent years, however, the party has been part of Putin’s loyal opposition, where being the opposition is not a political crusade but a lucrative career. Zhirinovsky (and, until he stepped down, the communist leader Zyuganov) is a sign of Russia’s torpid political ecosystem, in which a man who’s been a party leader and a presidential candidate for a quarter of a century is still both of those things.

Zhirinovsky would be called an archetypal populist in the West, but he’s more a showman and an entertainer than a politician. The worldview and ideology of his party enjoy support among segments of Russian society (as in the West, the level of that support waxes and wanes with Russia’s fortunes), but today it is hard to see Zhirinovsky as anything other than a spent political force. To the extent that it is a one-man show, the same can be said about his party.

Grigory Yavlinsky – an apple a day won’t keep Putin away

The leader of Yabloko (Russian for “apple”), Yavlinsky brings to the elections a vision that, with its strong pacifist bent, should appear to most members of the traditional Russian intelligentsia. In many ways it overlaps with Sobchak’s platform. However, for any observer of Russian politics who was old enough to observe it in the 1990s, it will be hard to regard Yavlinsky, who was very active at the time, as something more than a has-been or an also-ran.

Dreams of European Russia

Aside from the personalities mentioned above, there are a few more individuals running for president; omitting their names, however, should not leave the reader unduly shortchanged. Presidential elections in Russia are based on a two-round system whereby the top two candidates face off in a second round of elections if no single candidate secures an absolute majority. At this point, the first round should be sufficient to ratify Putin’s fourth presidential term.

Russia, though, is much more than Putin – or any other man who’s ever governed it. Russia has outlived all of its tsars and dictators; barring some apocalyptic disaster, it will outlive Putin, too. The big question is not the destiny of Putin, but that of Russia – specifically, for this author, the destiny of European Russia. Russia’s contributions to Western civilization since the 18th century are immense and, for anyone familiar with European history, require no further commentary. None of the masterpieces and great works produced by Russia during that time would have been possible without European Russia. Even those who attacked European Russia – the Slavophiles, for example – typically did so with European tools. The double-headed eagle serving as Russia’s coat of arms might find it expedient to turn both heads towards the West.

But who can inspire the eagle do so? Putin once spoke of his vision of a eurozone stretching from Lisbon all the way to Vladivostok. Should his next term resemble the ones that have preceded it, this will remain but a dream. To be fair, advancing the Europeanness of Russia has always been an uphill battle in that country. Pro-European Russians have traditionally been associated with liberalism; and, as Chaadaev wrote, a Russian liberal is like gnat beating about senselessly in a sunbeam, of which the sun is the sun of the West. Chaadaev came to a sorry end: reprimanded and chastised by the tsarist regime, he was officially declared a madman, his Western sun remaining nothing but a hazy hyperborean smudge. Things might be no more sunny today. Yet if Russia had a Peter the Great to create a “window on the West”, is it naive to hope for another Peter the Great to enlarge that window? No one knows. One thing is clear, though: if such a Peter the Great exists, for any European Russian he can’t come soon enough.

The idiocy must go on

By Eugène E.

The immediate aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein debacle made it clear that changes were on the way, even before the #MeToo movement began to gather steam. I am not enamoured with facile historicity that aims to explain away momentous events with the use of lone, isolated episodes that only serve as catalysts or tipping points. The #MeToo phenomenon does not owe its existence to Harvey Weinstein – as I wrote back in October (“The Weinstein Scandal”, October 26th), if the world didn’t have Weinstein, he would have had to be invented. Yet Weinsteingate was certainly something of a watershed moment and, though I am no aficionado of conspiracy theories, the speed at which a deeply Hollywood problem became a global problem is remarkable. Along with other ultraliberal issues of the hour, feminism had been leading its assault for years. The time was ripe for the process to be accelerated, and Weinstein was the perfect agent of change.

It was obvious that an avalanche of ministrations – some symbolic, others perhaps less so, all supervised by the high priests and priestesses of the feminist movement – would cascade down the slopes of Western civilization; and so it has. I have arbitrarily selected three different news items that highlight the new post-Weinstein order. All three cover events that have taken place this year, and all three are remarkable for the hypocrisy and absurdity so often on display in the progressive world of ultraliberalism. Viewed apart, they might appear to be minor and insignificant in and of themselves, but the devil is not only in the details, but also in the small things; and any pattern is necessarily composed of small things. It’s the multiplicity of small things that betokens big changes and conflagrations.

I’d like to briefly outline each news item along with some personal commentary.

1. The Dorchester Incident. The Financial Times broke the story. A number of young women were reportedly hired as hostesses for a men-only charity dinner at the Dorchester Hotel, during which some appear to have been on the receiving end of lewd comments and, apparently, groping. In the attendance was an MP, who later claimed he’d left early. More significantly, he vowed to never attend a men-only event again. There will be more of these vows. Calls against all-male networking events have surged – a sign of things to come. Such events, we are told, are no longer acceptable in 2017.

Why not? There is always a possibility of lewd comments and perhaps even groping at men-only events; equally, there may not be anything of the kind. The notion that an all-male event necessarily leads to comportment that is demeaning to women is an example of stereotypical thinking – precisely the sort of thing that feminists and other ultraliberal ideologues view as a cardinal sin. At a time when men-free spaces for women – exclusionary by definition, these are referred to as “safe spaces”, which suggests that the presence of men introduces an element of danger to the women – are proliferating, where’s the fairness in clamping down on the ability of men to get together for a boys-only confab? This is before we even get to the question of how all-male networking events are to be stamped out. How is this to be accomplished and through what means? Moral suasion and appeals to ethics? Social ostracism? Shaming? Legislation? Castration?

Of course, there will be no shortage of men taking a leaf from the book of the MP who promised to give a wide berth to jamborees where testicles are a requirement if one is to attend. Much like the white males at the Golden Globes ceremony, who vigorously applauded as Oprah Winfrey informed them that their time was up, they will play the role of useful idiots.

And the Dorchester incident itself? As at the end of last month, there had been no complaints, according to the police. The person who seems to have fulminated the most appears to be the FT journalist who went undercover to break the story. However, a number of MPs have written to the police regardless, asking for an investigation to be undertaken anyway. Perhaps this isn’t a bad thing. At least some brash, indiscreet billionaire won’t have to wait three decades before being accused of planting his sweaty hand on the knee of a hostess, traumatizing her for life.

2. Formula 1 “Grid Girls” – Formula 1 has announced that it has decided to nix the use of models called “Grid Girls”, who have been part of the scenery of Formula 1 grand prix for decades. Think Vienna without its pastries or cafés. Those in charge have said that the decision is not “political”. Then what? This is a quintessentially male sport, and males enjoy looking at attractive women. According to a BBC Sport poll, 60% of respondents said they were in favor of the girls’ being there. One part-time Grid Girl interviewed by the BBC called the decision “disgusting”. The viewers don’t seem to have a problem. Presumably the girls don’t have a problem, either. So what is the problem?

Like it or not, beauty has been a metric used to value women since times immemorial. Those who deem this to be unfair can take it up with Mother Nature; in any case, they would do well to remind themselves that, throughout history, many women have successfully used their good looks – when the looks were good enough to be used – to advance their goals, usually without excessive moral angst. Feminists, who have taken up arms against the tyranny of human anatomy, believe that using beauty as a metric is objectification. A woman’s femininity should blossom independently of the way she looks; her looks are irrelevant. In other words, beauty might as well be ruled out of existence. And what better way to achieve this than to make women unattractive and bar attractive women from the spotlight?

Formula 1 has said that the use of women in this fashion (as models) is at odds with today’s “societal norms”. Beautiful women should not be paraded, we are told, even when they would very much like to parade themselves. In the interests of keeping up with today’s societal norms, should we perhaps outlaw the modelling industry as such? In fact, given the peculiarities of human nature, I have just the perfect solution that will put an end to objectification of women: make all women wear a burqa. This will allow every woman in our society to be judged on the merit of everything but her looks. Take heart: there are some signs that we may be moving in this direction. Perhaps it is no coincidence that contemporary feminists typically support a multicivilizational model of living – the kind of model that has been propitious to a surging Muslim population in many European countries.

Far-fetched? You be the judge. In the meantime, though, forget about gawking at Grid Girls.

3. “O Canada” – Canada’s anthem has changed its (sexist) tune, or at least its words have, pushing the title of the anthem closer to a lamentation than an exaltation. Just when you think that the liberal inclinations of Canada’s federal government cannot take a more absurd turn, the authorities find a way to surprise you. Earlier this year, the Senate (Canada’s upper legislative chamber, a body of unelected but exceedingly well-compensated people who are appointed to the Senate to serve until they turn 75) ratified a law that changed some of the wording of “O Canada” to make it a more “gender-neutral” (read: feminist-friendly) anthem. Where Canadians used to sing “true patriot love in all thy sons command”, they now have to remember to change the bit about “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command”.

As with all other such ultraliberal measures, the change does nothing other than smash an established tradition – but smashing traditions is a most ultraliberal hobby. The original version was not intended to exclude anyone, certainly not women, given that women are normally required to beget the very sons who are called upon by the anthem to nurse true patriot love. As the anti-hero in Julian Barnes’s England, England memorably observes, in connection with his habit of saying “gentlemen” even when there are ladies in the audience, “in my grammar the masculine embraces the feminine”. Supposedly the same kind of logic prevailed in Canada’s anthem, but the point may have been lost on the legislators.

It was certainly lost on Canada’s PM. Justin Trudeau is naturally very happy about the change and has said so on Twitter. No surprises there. Another step towards “inclusiveness” is an orgasmic experience for those who are keen on burnishing their ultraliberal credentials – and Trudeau is very keen. This is the prime minister who recently – yet again – distinguished himself in the annals of ultraliberal follies by chiding a young (female!) student who had dared to say “mankind” instead of “peoplekind”, a word that had been hitherto unknown in the English language but has since been added to the ultraliberal lexicon. “Peoplekind” – this new linguistic contribution might well be the extent of Justin Trudeau’s legacy when it’s time to speak of a Justin Trudeau legacy.

For those who think the change in the anthem’s lyrics is a quiddity – it’s not. The anthem is a symbol; symbols are expressions of our beliefs and identity. Tampering with the anthem is tampering with our beliefs and identity. This change is part of the continued process of the dismantling of European culture, the destruction of its icons, and the desecration of the great civilization that has served as the foundation of one of the most liveable countries in the world.

Without wishing to don the prophet’s mantle, which is not to be worn lightly, one can predict with some degree of confidence that things will only get worse before they get better – if they get better. What is one to do? Carry on, I say, remembering to fall back on your sense of decency and grasp of common sense. Groping is unacceptable, but there’s no harm in all-male networking events if one is accept the existence of all-female networking events. Neither is there any shame in valuing beauty in women and recognizing beauty when it’s there to be seen. And there is not a single dunce in the Senate who can force a Canadian citizen to break the habit of singing “all thy sons command” when the Canadian anthem is played.

REACTIVE LIBERALISM: A doctrine for our times

By Eugène E.

Nowadays it is something of a truism to talk about the crisis of liberalism. Liberalism has become so discredited in the eyes of many that the term itself elicits, at best, feelings of ennui, and at worst, a vague sense of something malodorous. In some quarters, it has acquired a downright pejorative meaning. Given the kind of nonsense that has been allowed to sprout in the name of liberalism, this is understandable. But is it fair?

Liberalism was hijacked by a group of ideologues who have been successfully employing it to advance their quasi-anarchical, politically correct, and certainly anti-Western agenda, distorting the concept of liberalism beyond recognition. So complete was the ideologues’ takeover that contemporary liberalism in the West has about as much in common with the original doctrine of liberalism as the hippie movement has with the teachings of Christ. Blaming liberalism for the present state of affairs is akin to blaming love poetry for a bout of venereal disease. It is consequently inappropriate to talk about a crisis of liberalism – much better to call it the crisis of a perverse mutation of liberalism.

I refer to this mutation, this bastard child of liberalism, as “ultraliberalism” to distinguish it from its parent, but that may not be sufficient to rehabilitate liberalism as such: the term “ultraliberalism” is highly derivative and suggests that liberalism lends itself to distortions. This naturally raises the question of whether an ideological current that is vulnerable to distortions can be fully exonerated from abuses perpetrated in its name. A sensible question. Ideology, as much else in life, is ultimately what you make of it as well as what you do with it; and there are no guarantees against extremism, ideological malfeasance, and abject stupidity. Yet now that classical liberalism has been compromised, the term “liberalism”, having been shorn of its political innocence, can no longer be used. A new political identity has to be forged for those who want to challenge ultraliberalism without being sucked into the vortex of political anachronism, ideological narrow-mindedness, or, worse still, outright barbarism.

To that end – despite my personal disdain for political labels of all kinds, which are simply ideological straitjackets – I find it opportune to introduce the concept of reactive liberalism, a term I freely use to describe my personal system of beliefs and the use of which I encourage for those of the same – or similar – persuasion.

Before I get into the concept of reactive liberalism, it is necessary to define liberalism as such, given that the meaning imputed to it now has so little to do with its original version. What is liberalism in the classical sense of the term? Definitions might vary, depending on whom you ask. However, there should be general agreement that classical liberalism centers on the following tenets:

1. Freedom of thought and expression

2. The separation of church and state

3. The inviolability of private property

4. Equality before the law

The first tenet is easy to understand and something most in the West have learned to take for granted – the ability to think and express oneself as one wishes.

The second tenet is also easy to grasp, though perhaps somewhat less easy to interpret – it is the desire to live in a state that is not organized along theocratic lines. It should be noted that secularism does not preclude the use of a religious doctrine to underpin the legal code and serve as a point of reference and inspiration. Society needs a moral compass.

The third tenet underscores the sanctity of private property and guarantees the right of individuals to own it. However strongly Marxists might object to it, this tenet makes it clear that ownership of private property is an indispensable component of a free society.

Respect of the fourth tenet is necessary for any society that seeks to establish a rule of law. Every citizen should, if circumstances demand it, be able to have recourse to a justice system that is impartial and equitable.

Those are the major tenets that, put together, serve as the foundation of liberal thought. They form the essence of true liberalism. A classical liberal might consider inserting a full stop there. However, I hasten to add a fifth tenet:

5. Maximum security and safety for both the public and for each individual citizen

This tenet will be a tough one to swallow for many a liberal, who have learned to take to heart that vastly quoted line about the folly of sacrificing liberty for security – supposedly those who do it end up with neither. This need not be so: there is no reason to view security and liberty as a dichotomy. Classical liberalism is all about individualism – that is, giving each individual in society the opportunity to take advantage of one’s full potential. It should be evident that it is difficult to attain maximum self-realization in a society in which one’s safety is in question. Consequently, the primary duty of a government is to assure the security of its citizens; a government that does not attain this objective is a government that has forfeited its right to exist. The importance of this tenet cannot be overstated, since the degree to which all the other tenets are observed is dependent on a strict application of the fifth one.

However, even without the fifth tenet, liberalism, as it was originally conceived, does not entail strutting about with rainbow flags, blessing marriages between members of the same sex, dismantling borders to allow unlimited immigration, and assailing the rights and prerogatives of European civilization in the name of an abstract dogma. Western history has evolved in a way that has made it possible for ultraliberals to crash the gates of the liberal sanctuary and replace the original values with their own pet causes. Anybody who disagrees faces vicious denunciations, vitriolic accusations, and rank ostracism.

The result is that something of a no-man’s land has emerged – the chasm between ultraliberalism and reactionaryism. It is a vacuum that must be filled. Supposedly, it should be filled by (classical) liberals. Yet such liberals find themselves in a difficult situation. When liberalism first developed, its goal was to shape a society that would be more enlightened, just, and virtuous. Incidentally, that coincided with the idea of progress. Liberalism and progress, therefore, became, if not twins, then certainly blood brothers. Now that we’ve discovered that progress is not always enlightened, just, and virtuous, and that it can be used to justify every inanity under the sun, a divorce between liberalism and progress is necessary. A true liberal cannot – and should not – be progressive today, however paradoxical it may sound; instead, a true liberal needs to oppose progressive causes that are absurd and fight against them if such causes harm society. As most progressive causes today are either absurd or noxious, a true liberal finds himself in a position where he needs to react – react to the onslaught of ultraliberalism.

At the same time, a true liberal cannot embrace political reaction if it represents ultraconservative politics, particularly if it’s the kind of ultraconservative politics that espouses blind – or open-eyed – hatred of those who either choose to oppose it or who are “enemies by default”. In other words, he should be able to call into question mass immigration and same-sex marriage without being called a fascist. For that reason, we cannot speak of a true liberal as a reactionary liberal, even though he reacts. Such a liberal might be more aptly called a reactive liberal.

Reactive liberalism is indifferent to the traditional political spectrum and to where it might be placed by political scientists on that spectrum. It aspires to preserve the spirit of classical liberalism, customize its attributes to ensure that they meet the exigencies of the present day, oppose ultraliberalism and any similar doctrines that make a mockery of liberalism, and avoid flirtations with the extreme right and other revenants from yesteryear.

It ought not be too difficult to understand what a reactive liberal is. Yet it is not so easy to be one. Why?

For one, there’s the intolerance of the tolerant. Ultraliberals have “purified” political discourse, making it difficult to ask questions that might be hard or uncomfortable, but that are nevertheless no less legitimate for it. They’ve made it difficult to question things – something that is the sine qua non of any liberal system. It is obligatory to support same-sex marriage; if you speak out against it, you’re a homophobe. It is obligatory to support mass immigration from societies that pose a clear risk to national security; if you question it, you’re a xenophobe. It is obligatory to proclaim that there are no differences between men and women; and if you venture to inquire whether this might not necessarily be so, you must be a misogynist. Shaming is a popular tactic of ultraliberals. If you consider yourself to be a reactive liberal, you must be prepared to face accusations of all sorts of ideological ungodliness from bien-pensants who will seek to deprive you of the right to speak out by shunting you to the political margins. The political margins are a place where you find your views discredited, your reputation tarnished, and your persona swallowed up by a cloud of unchastity. Such attacks, however aggressive, must be resisted and fought.

Ideological shackles also present a problem. Political identity can be dangerous as it often forces its adherents to be doctrinaire and inflexible, to toe the party line. A reactive liberal must strive to be as intellectually honest as possible. While core values must be respected and upheld at all times, issues that do not go against core values need to be examined on a case-by-case basis. This is an arduous task for someone who lives in a society that seeks to simplify, pigeonhole, and tag, a society that operates strictly in terms of facile diagnoses.

Finally, a major source of difficulty for reactive liberals is balance. Being a reactive liberal requires the ability to successfully navigate between the Scylla of ultraliberalism and Charybdis of reactionaryism. A reactive liberal has to resist ultraliberalism at all costs and yet avoid disappearing in the morass of extreme conservatism. This is bound to be taxing. Paradoxes and contradictions will abound. Take the example of Muslims in Europe. Tolerance of others, whatever their religion, is part and parcel of classical liberalism. Yet what if tolerance might lead to the destruction of the very system that makes this sort of tolerance possible? Reactive liberals need to be capable of making firm decisions that might (and probably will) offend the sensibilities of some; yet those decisions cannot affront human dignity or make concessions to barbarism.

In the face of the civilizational threat that the Muslim minority in Europe poses to European civilization, for example, a government of reactive liberal inclinations might decide to stop all immigration from Muslim countries immediately. It might decree that migrants without proper status be deported and that boats with refugees on board be provided with victuals and medical assistance, and then sent back to their ports of origin; the government might further attempt to prevail upon the EU to loosen its purse strings and provide the necessary wherewithal to countries such as Greece and Italy to help facilitate this process. Racial profiling, where it makes sense from a security standpoint, could become the order of the day. A program of rigorous assimilation of all non-Europeans in the country might be undertaken, with all notions of multiculturalism and multicivilizationalism duly stamped out; those who refuse to adapt will be asked to leave. At the same time, the government might take all conceivable measures to address low fertility rates among its native population.

A classical liberal will likely condemn such measures, arguing that such measures are, ipso facto, intolerant, and that intolerance should never be used – even if the goal is the preservation of tolerance. To that, a reactive liberal might offer the following analogy. Imagine that a man owns a house. One day a stranger comes along and asks the man who owns the house for shelter. The house owner takes pity on the homeless individual and offers him a room. It then turns out the stranger is acquainted with other strangers, who are also in need of shelter. The number of strangers in the house grows. Soon the strangers begin to rearrange things in the house so as to better accommodate their needs. Gradually, the house owner begins to feel like an outsider in his own home. His wife is at the end of her tether. His son feels intimidated. His daughter complains of unwanted advances. The tenants who were so imprudently welcomed are presenting a growing list of demands. The house owner realizes his family is in danger of being turfed out.

What should the head of the household do in this situation? If he were a classical liberal, he might do nothing. But he is a reactive liberal, he will move to rein in his presumptuous guests, quickly restoring order. Classical liberals will accuse him of intolerance. Intolerance? Perhaps. But if it is indeed intolerance, common sense advises us that it is madness to recoil from it – either for the man who owns the house or a government that has been entrusted with a nation. Tolerance should not fly in the face of logic or the public good. Violence and bloodshed should be abhorred – always. On the other hand, if we want to preserve our way of life, it will not do to embrace any kind of tolerance that leads to the destruction of our way of life for the sake of tolerance as such. A reactive liberal, if he is sufficiently intelligent, will know how to find the right equilibrium. At any rate, he will attempt to do so; and there’s no reason to prevent him from trying.

We live in difficult times that are driven by change. Additionally, change is happening at breakneck speed. Some might say that an era defined by Twitter, cryptocurrencies, and artificial intelligence is an era that has made ideology irrelevant. Not so. Machines have no need for ideology, but humans need a code of values and beliefs if they are to stay human – and if the machines that they create are to serve the interests of humanity. Ideology is not irrelevant. Now more than ever, perhaps, Western civilization needs an ideology that will steer it through these trying times and help it keep its place among other civilizations, securing its survival and regaining its ability to flourish. Reactive liberalism could be that ideology. If applied judiciously, reactive liberalism can repair the damage caused by ultraliberalism while, at the same time, helping society avoid the pitfalls of reactionaryism. What’s more, it can invigorate European civilization and give it the stimulus it so badly needs.

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WHO ARE WE? THE CRISIS OF NATIONAL IDENTITY IN THE WEST

By Eugène E.

If you search for a book to explain the present state of affairs in the United States, Samuel Huntington’s Who Are We? will be unlikely to make it to the top of your search results. That is most unjust. An eminent political scientist in his day, Huntington is better known for The Clash of Civilizations, of course, but many consider Who Are We? to be his seminal work – and with good reason. One can hardly ask for a better study of how America got to where it is now, not least because the book came out at a time when Donald Trump was a colourful real estate mogul just getting ready to gain further notoriety for firing people on a television show, and when no one – including Trump himself – could have imagined that he would one day be the principal occupant of the White House. Anyone who has read the book will find today’s top stories, as far as US politics is concerned, perfectly comprehensible and perhaps even logical.

Who Are We? is unsettlingly prophetic. As an astute analyst, Huntington took the temperature of his times and anticipated the future. As a great mind, he diagnosed the problem when few realized that a problem existed. As a man who considered himself to be a patriot, he took the trouble to share his findings with the public. What makes this most American of books so strikingly relevant – and the reason many consider this work as Huntington’s most significant – is its applicability not just to America, but to the entire Western world. Although the problems outlined in Who Are We? are germane to the US and to its recent history, he was writing as much about the West as a whole as he was about his own country. The story line is the same; only the actors driving it are somewhat different.

The tone is gentlemanly, but the thesis is trenchantly clear: America is suffering from the erosion of its national identity, which, rooted in the Anglo-Protestant-European ethos, has been brought about by a host of forces inimical to the traditional concept of American national identity and even of national identity, insofar as America may need one, as such. With a somewhat aloof meticulousness, Huntington charts the enfeeblement of America’s “salience”, the term Huntington uses to denote the importance that an individual attaches to his sense of national identity relative to his other identities. In the process, Huntington debunks one very important myth: the notion that all Americans (with the exception of Amerindians, that is) are descendants of immigrants.

This is, Huntington, stresses, a partially valid truth. Partially valid truths are half-truths; and those are problematic. As the historian John Lukacs has written, a half-truth is worse than a lie because, rather than being something that contains a 50 percent truth, it is in fact a 100 percent truth and a 100 percent untruth; and this admixture produces something else altogether. While the US can rightly be called a country of immigrants, it was founded not by immigrants but by settlers. Immigrants are people who leave one society for another. Settlers are those who leave one society to found another. The USA was founded by settlers who mostly came from Anglo-Protestant society; the society they created enticed others to leave their societies for the society founded by the settlers. This glaring fact is often lost on those who claim that, with the exception of Amerindian tribes, everyone else in the US and Canada is an immigrant or a descendant of one.

Why did immigration work in the US, and why did it stop working at one point? Huntington elucidates the immigration process in the US that made it possible for immigrants to be assimilated into US society. This process was characterized by diversity and dispersion, discontinuity, and wars.

With diversity and dispersion, immigrants were accepted from diverse societies so that not a single group would predominate and become an “active minority”. There was also geographic dispersion at work, which means that different groups were encouraged to settle all over the place and not form ethnic enclaves.

With discontinuity, the fluctuations in America’s immigration policy allowed the country to absorb its immigrants. The country’s immigration laws were not always immigrant-friendly, and legislation such as the Immigration Act of 1924 was used to limit the number of people entering the country. This turned out to be a useful tool – even if it wasn’t consciously used as such – to allow the most recent wave of arrivals to get integrated into society; by the time the next wave hit the US shores, the previous wave had become part of US society, and so the next wave had to follow suit.

Finally, Huntington mentions the wars in which the US engaged in the 20th century (certainly in the first half of the 20th century) and which involved the participation of immigrants who now found their salience strengthened.

This traditional immigration process was interrupted with the arrival of what can be called ultraliberal thinking (Huntington does not use this term, but this does not alter the gist of things in any way). The bien-pensants hijacked the agenda, and everything changed. Huntington emphasizes the massive influx of Hispanic migrants as the primary cause of weakening national salience. Although the US continued to take in immigrants from all parts of the world, Hispanics began to constitute a growing – and vocal – minority group. An active minority group, in a word. Furthermore, due to border contiguity, dispersion patterns had changed as well, as many migrants settled in the states adjacent to the border the US shares with Mexico (and which had once belonged to Mexico before the US seized the territory in the middle of the 19th century).

The kind of discontinuity that had characterized America’s approach to immigration had also come to an end. Immigration into the US became constant; in the case of migrants from Mexico, it was further facilitated by geographic proximity and fuelled by millions of migrants crossing the border illegally. Lastly, due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, there was no more enemy, no external “other” that, however uncomfortable this may sound, every nation needs in order to tauten its national identity. There were no major wars to spur patriotic fervour or boost the sense of belonging to a national project. America’s national identity had come to face an existential threat.

One of the problems with American national identity is that of substance, which is, in simple terms, that fluid, inexplicable notion of what makes an American an American. The diversity of the American people makes it impossible to frame American identity among ethnic or racial lines. American identity, therefore, needs to be buttressed by something else. In the America of yesteryear, national identity was built on Anglo-Protestant culture with a distinctly European orientation. Since the dawn of ultraliberal thought, this has no longer been the case. Huntington correctly identifies the culprits.

First, there’s multiculturalism. Huntington sees multiculturalism for what it is: not as some kind of all-encompassing, all-embracing tolerance of those who are different, but as an ideology that is inherently hostile towards European civilization, which in the eyes of ultraliberal proselytizers has been responsible for all sorts of oppression throughout history and has, for that reason and scores of others, outlived its right to set the national agenda. Making no bones about it, Huntington writes: “Multiculturalism is in its essence anti-European civilization . . . It is basically an anti-Western ideology.” Just so.

Then there is America Inc. Although Huntington makes no explicit mention of the incestuous relationship between movements championing ultraliberal causes and the corporate world, the responsibility of the private sector in the effacement of national identity is spelled out. In pre-multicultural America, businesses made a concerted effort to absorb and Americanize immigrants. This was not out of mere altruism or patriotic duty: Huntington explains that American companies feared that unassimilated European immigrants might start forming labor unions. The Americanization of immigrants brought that risk down. By the end of the 20th century, however, the interests of the corporate world were at odds with a strong national identity. Businesses had embraced multiculturalism. No company wants to be seen as or perceived to be hidebound when it comes to diversity, not least due to fear of boycotts. Also, there’s the compartmentalized nature of the US economy, which makes servicing different markets (including ethnic ones) more profitable than having one standardized market. National identity does not have a listing on the stock market – no ways to pad the income statement there.

Then there’s the question of the elites. The yawning gap between the worldview of the governed and those who govern gets enough press nowadays, but Huntington wrote about it more than a decade before the developed world realized that populism, as a political force, had not yet been fully spent. In Who Are We? Huntington describes the denationalization of the elites, who feel greater kinship with elites from other countries and civilizations than with their own countrymen, and the falling salience of the said elites that is fading at a time when the salience of many among the masses is blossoming. The aspirations of the public are overlooked to accommodate the private interests of the privileged few who, despite their small numbers, drive public discourse, shape legislation, and influence, to the extent that they are able to, the direction of broader society.

A serious scholar, Huntington does not talk in the language of predictions, but in one of scenarios and plausibilities. He enumerates the possible outcomes of the erosion of American national identity in a manner that is never alarmist and is at times nearly detached, yet the urgency of his arguments and conclusions is never compromised. Huntington’s discussion of “white nativism” as a possible reaction on the part of white Americans to the continuous incursions of multiculturalism is delightfully vatic, given that white nativism is considered to have been a factor in the presidential victory of Donald Trump in 2016. Viewed from that angle, Trump’s success appears nothing short of inevitable.

The key thing is that Who Are We? – despite its Americentric bent, from the US flag on the cover page of my edition to its laser focus on the US and its history – is a book for any reader who lives in the West and cares about the future of European civilization. It is as relevant to, say, France or the Netherlands as it is to the US. While America was founded by European settlers, Europe is the land whose peculiar circumstances made these very settlers – and hence, the founding of the US – possible. And, unlike the US, Europe is still largely populated by people autochthonous to the European continent. While the US is facing the rising influence of its Hispanic minority, European countries must contend with a growing Muslim polity – a most active minority. Low fertility rates are as much a problem for indigenous Europeans as they are for Americans of European ancestry. Where America has a border problem with Mexico, Europe has a border problem along its Mediterranean littoral. Huntington writes: “One index foretells the future: in 1998 José replaced Michael as the most popular name for newborn boys in both California and Texas.” Replace the name “José” with “Mohammed”, and California and Texas with European metropolises, and you might as well be reading about Europe. And it is hardly necessary to adumbrate the triumph of ultraliberalism in Europe, which has been wreaking havoc with European societies for decades (multiculturalism, the breakdown of the traditional family, the growing power of the LGBT movement, etc.).

The recrudescence of populism in response to the dissatisfaction of the European public with the elites has been a major theme in recent years and mirrors a similar trend in the US. More disquietingly still, unlike the Hispanic minority in the US, which is Catholic, Europe’s Muslims represent a religion that is at civilizational loggerheads with the West. The situation in Europe, therefore, is gloomier – the prospects of conflict are greater. Huntington discusses America’s identity crisis, which relates to the difficulty of Americans to frame their identity along national lines. While Europeans, whose native inhabitants are white and Christian, should have no problem in that respect, European identity has been besieged by multiculturalism, a falling population, decreasing political capital on the international stage, and the inability of the EU to offer a viable pan-European identity to appeal to the nations united under the aegis of a great European union.

Huntington seems to believe that the traditional form of American national identity might be preserved if only every immigrant were to be Americanized to the hilt. In other words, as long as the core Anglo-Protestant values (with a European accent) are adopted by all, traditional America will live on even if white America becomes a minority in demographic terms. The obvious question is whether an Anglo-Protestant America can exist if WASPs are a minority, and whether the Europeanness of Europe can continue to exist if native Europeans cease to be the majority in Europe. Huntington scarcely answers that question; in the entire book only one passage points to the possibility that the preservation of values might, after all, be contingent on the demographic dominance of the group that espouses the values in question. Perhaps Huntington found the answer too uncomfortable to be dwelled upon.

The spectre of war haunts the pages. Who Are We? refers to warfare as an instrument to bolster national identity. Quoting the German historian von Treitschke, Huntington reminds the reader that it is war that turns a people into a nation. As far as inconvenient truths go, this one is quite up there. “Sociological theory and historical evidence,” writes Huntington, “suggest that the absence of an external enemy or other encourages internal disunity”. My last blog post was dedicated to the present risk of a major war. It is a sobering thought that a leader somewhere might reach conclusions similar to those of Treitschke and seek to reinforce his country’s national identity by resorting to one of the oldest activities known to man.

It’s not all doomsday talk. There is room for optimism. Huntington admits that, however laudable the ideological values of American society (e.g., the Creed) may be, ideology is not a glue that can hold a nation together. This is valid. Huntington, for his part, attempts to make a bet on the surge of evangelical Christianity in the US, which can underwrite the interests of American national identity. America’s Protestants can rally around it; non-Protestants, gravitate towards it. Since the US was founded by Protestants, Protestantism might just be that adhesive agent that will keep the salience of the American people in place.

This is certainly a possibility. Rather, it is only a possibility. Things can go in any direction, a reality freely acknowledged by Huntington. And if evangelical Christianity can prop up salience in the US, what hope is there for Europe? Given the entrenched secular nature of most of the European continent, a return to Judeo-Christian values might not be in the cards. As Huntington writes, “In the long run, however, numbers are power, particularly in a multicultural society, a political democracy, and a consumer economy.” Given that Muslim immigrants in Europe are more adept at playing the numbers game than the host societies, this fails to inspire much confidence in a European future for Europe.