The Retreat of Western Liberalism

41dqZWxy60L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Like many of you, I’m sure, I’m trying to better understand the various problems and agitations facing America and Western societies in general at this time. Of course there are always struggles to overcome, but I think it’s fair to say we face some unique challenges at this time in our history. The better we can get our heart and mind around them the better chance we have of overcoming them.

With that in mind, I recently completed Edward Luce’s new book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism. A very interesting read. It’s not a book meant to make you feel good. Titles like that shouldn’t. But it will cause you to do something we all need to do in moments (as a nation and as individual) like these and that’s pause to reflect on what truly matters. For those who don’t know, the word Liberalism in this context (the book’s title) is referring to a set of fundamental principles that constitute the basis of all Western democratic societies. We’re talking about things like a free press, religious freedom, equality, free speech, etc, etc. Western governments are in-fact liberal democracies.

Edward Luce thinks the Western liberal democratic model of governance, while not dead, is in serious trouble:

Western liberal democracy is not yet dead, but it is far closer than we may wish to believe. It is facing its gravest challenge since the Second World War. This time, however, we have conjured up the enemy from within. At home and abroad, America’s best liberal traditions are under assault from its own president. We have put arsonists in charge of the fire brigade.

Donald Trump, Luce argues, is a symptom not the cause of the disease in America. So naturally the question becomes: What brought on this disease? Well what holds liberal democracies together, Luce says, isn’t culture but economic growth. And when that economic growth stalls, leading to massive inequality and a loss of social mobility (U.S has the largest gap of both in the West), we begin to see this threat to the political order and ultimately the survival of liberal democracy.

By any numerical measure, humanity is becoming rapidly less poor. But between half and two-thirds of the people in the West have been treading water — at best — for a generation. Tens of millions of Westerners will struggle to keep their heads above the surface over the coming decades. The spread of automation, including artificial intelligence and remote intelligence, which some call the fourth industrial revolution, is still in its early states. So too is what the American journalist Fareed Zakaria has labelled the rise of the rest. The emergence of China is the most dramatic event in economic history. We are living in an age of convergence no less dramatic than the age of divergence brought about by European colonialism and the Industrial Revolution. The downward pressure on the incomes of the West’s middle classes in the coming years will be relentless.

So the lack of economic growth and social mobility has fueled this threat and the future doesn’t look good unless we return to policies that help build a prosperous middle class while avoiding policies that build a strong oligarchy—which is what we’re currently doing. That’s right, as one writer put, “No bourgeoisie, no democracy.” Being able to aspire upwards, the dream of upward social and economic mobility, is at the heart of the American (Western) dream. When economic growth sags, when wage growth stagnates (as it has for decades now in America), when large segments of the population are either unemployed or underemployed, or working multiple jobs just to stay above water, then personal investment in the current political system starts to weaken and you have a rich soil for rebellion and the rise of demagogues (i.e. the Donald Trumps of the world). Some Americans, as we witnessed in our last election, are fully willing to risk disaster, and we need to be mindful that we’ve reached the point where a Donald Trump could carry 60 million votes in the U.S. A Trump victory would have been impossible, say, 10 years ago. The idea that Americans posses some quality that exempts us from the forces of chaos can be dismissed now as nursery story. (It was never the case anyway.)

The economy has been improving steadily since 2009, but the massive inequality and lack of social mobility will not improve with current government policies and hence the problem will only continue to grow until we have yet another large economic shock or downturn (which will come eventually) and those millions of Americans, still treading water (for so long), will simply sink below the surface. We don’t have to imagine what they will try to drag with them under the waves.

The Education Nudge

Yesterday I had the distinct honor of being my youngest son’s guest for VIP Day at his elementary school. Okay…so Mom had to work and I filled in. Anyway, my son’s elementary school reminds me a lot of the one I attended. I have some fond memories of my elementary school years: the field days, the book fairs, the Halloween parties at school, the lunch room gatherings, the learning experiences (of course!), and the teachers who made a difference. I still remember Mrs. Gillett teaching my 1st grade class the alphabet. I still remember Mrs. Chalmers, a 3rd grade teacher, teaching us math, and Mrs. Wilson, a 4th grade teacher, teaching us science. There’s no doubt those early years had an influence on me and my classmates, as our minds were nudged in certain directions. How far and to what extent we can never know for sure. But the clay was soft and impressions made easily.

Of course elementary schools teach the basics in reading, writing, math, etc, etc. But what’s forgotten, or not noticed until you walk around an elementary school like I did yesterday, is that elementary schools also impart or encourage other forms of education that aim to develop character. There are no classes that aim specifically at character education, at least not that I’m aware of, but character education is instilled many other ways. For example, inside my son’s school lunch room, above the entrance, is the following banner:

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The Dictionary Project is an educational charity that hands out free dictionaries to elementary school students. My son got his dictionary last February. Now you might be thinking there are little signs and banners all around the lunch room, but that’s not the case. This particular banner stood out. I don’t recall any others actually. While the teachers may not be asking the two questions on this banner, the environment, combined with repeated exposure, combined with curiosity, do their work. The students sit in this large room for lunch and various other gatherings and events all the time. The students read this banner every day and to some degree absorb its questions about truth and fairness in everything they Think, Say, or Do. (Of course the Dictionary Project also enforced bad grammar by forgetting the needed comas in the first line! But hey, that’s why we have teachers…to correct bad grammar!)

After getting home yesterday, I asked my son about the banner and he repeated the words on the banner verbatim. Whether he pursues the answers to those two questions is a different story, but at least the questions are imprinted in his little mind. And that’s a good start.

John F. Kennedy on the Highest Duty of the Writer

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“It may be different elsewhere. But in a democratic society the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.” — John F. Kennedy

Great Falls

Yesterday we hiked at Great Falls National Park. It was a lovely autumn day to walk the trails along the rocky heights of the upper Potomac river. I think the Falls and its environs burst the seams of the word beautiful and flood the mind with a visage of something bordering on sublime. It is one of nature’s great works of art.

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A Stop Over in Charlottesville, Va

My wife and I traveled to Charlottesville, Va, this past weekend to do some sighting-seeing, wine tasting, a little bookshop browsing, some restauranting, and other general touristy things that probably annoy some of the locals. We’ve been here before but only to visit Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello. We hadn’t really taken in the town itself.

From the Washington D.C. area we headed south down route 29 through the beautiful undulating hills of the early autumn Virginia countryside. It’s a nice ride. It’s only about 2 hours from the Washington D.C. area. We didn’t have time to stop but I can say from the number of signs, there were a number of wineries along the route. An area with apparently so many wineries there are companies that specialize in busing people around on tasting tours of various wineries in the area. We actually passed a wine tour bus along the route.

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200 South Street Inn

Charlottesville is labeled a city but it feels more like a big town. Its claim to notoriety is that it’s the home of our 3rd president, Thomas Jefferson, and the college he founded: The University of Virginia. My wife and I were headed south to stay at a resort for our 25th wedding anniversary and planned this one night stay over in Charlottesville. We chose to stay at the 200 South Street Inn, which is located in the downtown area within 2 blocks of Charlottesville’s renown outdoor pedestrian mall. It was the perfect spot.

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The Inn’s Library

The main Inn is a large 4 story building (guessing early 20th century construction) with a large wrap around porch. The inside is absolutely charming, with a mostly mid 19th century decor. The library, where they serve wine and finger foods (cheese, crackers, grapes, nuts, etc) in the late afternoon for all guests, is the dream of any book collector. For tourism it happened to be the slow season—what luck!—so the Inn wasn’t near full. The Inn has 24 rooms and I’m guessing maybe 5 or 6 rooms were taken the (Thursday) night we stayed. So we had just about all the wine to ourselves! Another reason you want to stay at this Inn is because you can walk just about everywhere—because you need too. Okay, so we actually had only one glass of wine and headed out.

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Pedestrian Mall

Charlottesville’s famous pedestrian mall is 2 short blocks away. We emerged into it from a side alley street. The mall is 8 blocks of paved brick walking area, nice and wide, with a number of boutiques, a lot of nice restaurants and pubs, a lot of outdoor seating (“community living room”), a number of art galleries, a fair number of bookstores, and in general I’d describe the whole feel, people and environs, as being “artsy.” I love the smell of civilization in the morning.

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Bookshops on the Mall

So I browsed through 3 bookshops. A proper vetting of these shops would take a weekend dedicated to it, but with other sights to see and dinner reservations, I quickly browsed—giving each shop maybe 10 minutes—and moved on. My catch, for various reasons, was small. I ended up with a special edition of Mark Twain’s Roughing it, so I upped my Twain collection again. And I found a nice paperback edition of Tom Wolf’s Pump House Gang which I’ve been wanting to read. Believe me there was a lot more there waiting to be found, but hardcore book browsing takes some time which was limited this particular evening. That was it for this trip. I’m thinking a trip next autumn for a weekend of just booking and wining in Charlottesville! What a great town!

The next morning we checked out and headed south toward our weekend destination…after a stop at Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyard for wine of course.

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Our Lunchtime View