For a while we thought that the threats to the freedom of our western, democratic societies came only from outside. And with COVID-19 we are taking a kind of trip back in time: in the lockdown, borders were again sealed, public spaces were emptied, social life was brought to a standstill, and the free exchange of persons, as well as the freedom of assembly, movement, and travel, was suspended and is still restricted. The economy is in ruins. This is how it was before 1989 in the closed society behind the Iron Curtain. Many people are experiencing such draconian restrictions on their lifestyle and individual freedom for the first time in their lives—and yet they would have liked to continue enjoying freedom.
Ulrike Ackermann has recently published her new book “Das Schweigen der Mitte: Wege aus der Polarisierungsfalle” (The Silence of the Middle: Ways out of the Polarization Trap). She has dealt with current social debates and the intellectuals’ monopoly on interpretation that has come under fire. More information on this can be found below.
The strict measures issued by state administrators to combat the global epidemic are supporting a crisis the likes of which western democracies have not experienced since the end of World War II. And the consequences of this crisis are completely uncertain: economically, politically, socially, and as concerns the future of the E.U. In addition, the Coronavirus crisis and the attempts to overcome it are leading to an immense paternalistic push. The state is swinging the scepter, and the return to personal responsibility and civic spirit has come to a standstill.
It is the biggest stress test that liberal societies have had to face since the end of the Second World War. In view of the severity of the pandemic, the recent experiences of crisis and the debates about it are obviously fading: meanwhile, the financial crisis, the euro debt crisis, the radical Islamist terrorist attacks, the devastating consequences of the Syrian war, the old and newly flared migration crisis, Brexit, the crisis of the people’s parties, and the success of right-wing and left-wing populists throughout Europe and the USA are putting liberal democracies and their institutions to the test. These factions like to play with disaster and doom scenarios, and to promote radical solutions. Even the pandemic has not changed this.
Notable cross-alliances between Left and Right: The Uprising against Globalized Modernity
If one looks at the composition of the demonstrations against state protection measures and the restrictions on freedom, one finds notable cross-alliances between left and right there as well. These political fringes are united by a pronounced anti-western resentment: skepticism about globalization, interspersed with anti-capitalism, euro-skepticism, Putin worship, the desire for strong leadership and a firm hand, a distrust of parliamentary representative democracy—and instead—the desire for direct popular rule and a lust for revolt. They criticize individualism and celebrate the collective.
It is also a revolt against globalized modernity and the boundless, conflict-ridden complexity of the world that it brings. The revolt is directed against the cosmopolitan-urban, globally networked so-called establishment. Conversely, one can observe in the European capitals and American metropolises how the functional elites and the political class have lost their influence on the people. Therefore, it is populist resentment, skepticism about immigration, and xenophobia that are shaking European societies and their established social orders.
Today, the major social debates are not being conducted by the political center, but instead are ignited by the margins.
These are entirely new and real problems, not just random fears of the population; they are new upheavals, and social divisions that affect our hitherto liberal and open societies, including their democratic institutions and the political fabric at its core. The old political class has not yet found convincing answers to these new challenges. The gulf between the old, state-based popular parties and the general population has widened in recent years.
Today, the major social debates are not being conducted by the political center, but instead are ignited by the margins and almost immediately lead to polarization. Although it seemed like the ideological right-left schema had been overcome, it is actually still holding strong.
Polarizations and the Growing Pressure of Moralization
At the center of the renewed right-left conflict is now, above all, the dispute over the nation’s self-image, its borders, its cohesion, and social minorities and how to deal with them. The polarizations in these debates are reenforced by a growing pressure of moralization. Bans on thinking and ideological signaling make it increasingly difficult to engage in argumentative and rational debate about the current crises and challenges.
The self-doubts about our civilization’s success story, even to the point of western self-hatred, become ever louder.
The self-doubts about our civilization’s success story, even to the point of western self-hatred, become ever louder. They are not only specific to the political right and left, but are increasingly at home in universities, editorial offices, and cultural institutions, as shown by the dispute over racism and colonialism. And this in a situation in which western freedoms and ways of life that have been hard-won over the centuries have come under increasing pressure worldwide.
This cultural struggle has been raging for several years now, and it is taking on increasingly bizarre characteristics. History books are being rewritten because the word “Negerkönig” is offensive. The speech police are active in universities. Old films are taken out of circulation because they are racist by today’s standards. Statues are torn down, as are famous paintings for being sexist. These are interventions in favor of a supposedly just, politically correct regime that wants to please every ethnic group, every gender, and every religion. The desire for uniformity and the removal of ambiguity, for purity and cleansing, has spread into different social fields. Hurt feelings of a group suddenly weigh more heavily than the principles and exercise of freedom of art, science, and opinion. Even though these were the very motivation and result of centuries of struggle, and even if as high goods they characterize our way of life.
Counter-Enlightenment: From the Self-Determined Individual to the New Tribal Thinking
In the meantime, the enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant is also pilloried for racism, because in his early writings, like some of his contemporaries, he considered the white “race” to be the most perfect of humankind. A “critique of white reason” is therefore in order. But it is precisely to the later Kant that we owe the groundbreaking definition of maturity and the elucidation of what constitutes the dignity of the individual human being.
The departure from “self-inflicted immaturity” was the self-empowerment of the individual, with the goal of his emancipation from collective constraints, flanked by solidarity and public spirit. The result of this civilizing achievement over the centuries was the equality of each individual before the law—regardless of skin color, ethnic origin, gender, or religion. These ideals from the American and French revolutions have not yet been fully actualized, but they are still the driving force behind the expansion of equality of opportunity.
However, our society now seems to be regressing to an earlier stage of its development, away from the ideal of the autonomous, self-determined, enlightened individual and vigilant citizen, on one hand, toward tribalism and the formation of clans with celebrity leaders, on the other. In the self-affirming communities, reinforced by the new media, a worrying relapse into tribalism can be observed. Society is splintering into ever new collectives fighting for their respective group interests. The xenophobic identity policy of the right favors a collectivism that sees its salvation in the ethnic homogeneity of the national community, and it rejects the universalist principles of the Enlightenment and the idea of an open society.
Left-wing Identity Politics—Anti-Western and Anti-Liberal
Anti-western and anti-liberal, however, also characterizes the identity politics of the left, which has taken hold in universities and the cultural sector. Actually, it started out as quite emancipatory, in the New Social Movements that began in the 1970s. Women and social minorities courageously joined forces to stand up for their rights. They drew attention to historical and present disadvantages and took a stand against sexism and racism. But then, with the praise of cultural diversity and difference, an ideological multiculturalism spread that increasingly downplayed the liberal achievements of Western European civilization.
A new and increasing number of social groups, who saw themselves as victims of social discrimination, developed their own various victim narratives and demanded special rights for themselves. A veritable competition of victims arose. Their respective reference point is a collective identity derived from real or supposed discrimination, the experience of oppression or persecution, some of which go back centuries: Women, sexual minorities, the LGBT community, migrants, and ethnic and religious minorities.
The former emancipatory efforts have given way to identity communities who have ideologized their concerns and who conduct a vociferous moralizing campaign against the so-called majority society.
It is about making amends for experienced suffering and the desire for social and cultural appreciation. Over the decades, this has given rise to a pronounced identity politics that explicitly focuses on collective religious, cultural, sexual, and ethnic affiliations. Rights are not demanded for individuals, but for the respective victim collectives, who claim special rights to compensate for previous social and historical disadvantages. The former emancipatory efforts have given way to identity communities who have ideologized their concerns and who conduct a vociferous moralizing campaign against the so-called majority society. If thinking and agitating is constantly carried out in categories of perpetrators and victims, social cohesion dwindles more and more, which promotes further polarization. Public enemy number one is the old, heterosexual, white man, who is to be disempowered.
The New Racism of the Left and the Totalitarian Destruction of the Past
Paradoxically, cheap anti-colonialism and anti-racism itself becomes racist when it makes ethnic origin and skin color the essential, identity-creating criterion of belonging to the victim collectives allegedly discriminated against by the majority society. What is also frightening is the rigidity and anger that accompany the desire for cleansing: Language, history, books, places, memory are to be cleansed of all evil. The original intention has become totalitarian and would ultimately be a disposal of the past. And the “guilt complex” (Pascal Bruckner), in the face of the horrors of colonialism and slavery, tempts the majority society to paternalistically overcompensate for the “victims” born after such events—driven by the desire to cancel out the debt.
What we need… is an anti-totalitarian self-enlightenment that comes from the political center, and which reflects on our traditions of freedom.
Supposed perpetrators and supposed victims thus remain trapped in a reciprocal, complicit dynamic that stands in the way of a factual reappraisal of history. Over the centuries, the success story of western civilization has given us the best standard of living we have ever had, as well as increased participation and freedom. Admittedly this has been accompanied by horrible struggles, catastrophes, dictatorships, colonial crimes, and many mistakes and inconsistencies. We cannot iron out or retouch this contradictory history. We must live with it, because: “From such crooked wood, of which man is made, it is not possible to make straight wood” (Immanuel Kant).
Self-Education from the Center is Necessary!
What we need to counter and discourage the furor of this identity-based fundamentalism, coming from the right, left, and radical Islamists alike, is an anti-totalitarian self-enlightenment that comes from the political center, and which reflects on our traditions of freedom.
The very least we can learn from the Coronavirus crisis is to value our freedoms and to distinguish the important from the unimportant. Western self-hatred and the assault on globalization lead to a dead end. Our liberal, open societies are characterized by the resolution of conflicts, the plurality of opinions and interests, and the balancing of public spirit and individual freedom. That is why we must not wait until after the crisis but must now argue about mistaken ideas, present new ideas, and courageously engage in free expression so that we may arrive at the best solutions.
Translated from German by Thomas and Kira Howes
The new book by Ulrike Ackermann “Das Schweigen der Mitte” (The Silence of the Center):
When democracy is in crisis and social cohesion is crumbling, it is time for intellectuals to focus on the essentials. But the heated debates lead to fatal polarizations. Capitalism or anti-capitalism, migration or isolation, fascism or antifascism—nuance has become rare. In her new non-fiction book, Ulrike Ackermann pleads for a return to anti-totalitarian and liberal traditions to recover the political center intellectually.
Society is splintering into ever new collectives that fight for their respective group interests. Important controversies over the political crisis of confidence, the failure of the elites, and freedom of opinion are not being conducted from the political center but are being sparked from the margins. German intellectuals such as Joachim Gauck, Uwe Tellkamp, Harald Welzer, and Thea Dorn are fighting for intellectual leadership. Will they succeed in breaking down the ideological and moral polarization? Ackermann calls for an anti-totalitarian self-enlightenment in order to counter the furor of fundamentalism that comes from the right, left, and radical Islamists alike.
Ulrike Ackermann: Das Schweigen der Mitte: Wege aus der Polarisierungsfalle. WBG/Theiss, Darmstadt 2020. 206 Pages. ISBN: 978-3806240573