Culture is always a feedback loop of deep-seated beliefs and ingrained practices. The philosophical side of this particular cultural coin begins in the Enlightenment, with a number of noble, lofty aims. Its proponents call for universal solidarity, but a very different kind of universal solidarity than the existential variety gestured towards above. Terrified by the specter of factionalism, prejudice, chauvinism, Enlightenment thinkers called for a turn away from nation, clan, sect and ethnos, towards a clean, simple cosmopolitan ethos that grounds human solidarity in the common possession of reason. Humans, they effuse, are marvelous utility-maximizing animals whose rationality unites them on a level far above the level of skin color, religion, sexuality, etc.; we are, on the basis of this incredible virtuosity, one great human family. We owe each other respect and care. Simple.
And not unappealing, at first glance. Any person of good will can share some common cause with these Enlightenment liberals. The great ethical difficulty of managing our tribal instincts is, indeed, finding a principle for solidarity that will bind those who share little in the way of obvious traits. But the reason-based approach is absolutely inadequate, and even counterproductive. Reason is, to be sure, a miracle – our ability to navigate the world mediated by concepts like honor, beauty, dignity, respect, etc. is bafflingly impressive, and the special richness of the human experience would be impossible without it. But to put things very, very mildly, the reason-based argument for cosmopolitanism hasn’t entirely succeeded.
The post-enlightenment era has, in fact, made an elevated artform of out-group denigration, producing a series of malignant tribalisms that would make a medieval crusader blanch—genocides, world wars and apartheids of previously unimaginable scale, cruelty and efficiency. The verdict is clear: people will not feel kinship towards you, treat you kindly or fairly, they will not refrain from bombing or deporting you because you are a rational animal who encounters the world via concepts, even if you do so with great virtuosity. No Nazi ever argued that the Jews were devoid of reason. The accusation in fact was hyper-rationality, in the service of rapacious self-interest.
In the process of working towards a cosmopolitan world, this species of liberalism has done a great deal to encourage the dissolution of local, natural forms of belonging, and to make isolated monads of its citizens. The ideal subject in this vision is strong, independent, rational, self-controlled, objective and unrestrained by loyalties or traditions. The softer parts of us, the ways in which we are limited and interdependent, are treated as moral immaturities, sources of shame. All of this leaves us in a human landscape that is arid, cold and dangerous—one where people will scamper towards whatever warmth presents itself. We are now in the midst of another widespread tribal resurgence, manifesting in renewed nationalism, xenophobia and identity politics, all around the enlightened, developed world.
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