There’s something terribly wrong with how we talk about liberalism. By liberalism, I mean both the political idea—that individual liberty and human rights are paramount—and the historical movement— that expanded the franchise, lifted billions out of poverty and emancipated entire empires. When we talk about liberalism, too often we’re restricted by the boundaries of partisan politics, geopolitical maneuvering and plain old cynicism.
This cynicism manifests itself most clearly in the deathly silence which surrounds many of the worst human rights violators and oppressors on Earth. We might skim the headlines, tutting quietly to ourselves perhaps, but we invariably return to our obsessions with the latest farcical machinations everywhere from the White House to Whitehall. But, sometimes, the rare story or photograph really gets through to us. For me, it was this one, by Megha Rajagopalan of BuzzFeed News. The article in question is an investigation into the state-driven ethnic cleansing of the minority Uighur population from the Xinjiang province in western China. An ethnic cleansing that has been quietly taking its course for years, about which I knew nothing. The story focuses on a man referred to as O. O is an Uighur, blackmailed into spying on other Uighurs in Turkey, in exchange for his son’s safety. No doubt there are countless others like O, but O’s son is my age. In 2016, while I was worrying about college applications, O’s son was detained by Chinese State Security Officials, while visiting relatives in Xinjiang. He has not seen his father or been allowed to continue his studies since. Reading about him, it struck me just how little separates my life from his, how small the distance between our two fates. It’s because of his story, and the stories of those like him, that I felt compelled to write this piece.
Most people forget stories like this quite quickly. They are unpleasant to remember, they make us aware of misfortune and suffering against which we feel powerless. But, on this occasion, I feel compelled to pay attention. I could have been O’s son, were it not for the global triumph of liberalism and Enlightenment ideals in the last century.
The Enlightenment and liberalism have taken a beating in the last few years. Many key figures in the Enlightenment are seen as having enabled and justified the oppression of countless peoples. These suspicions are not entirely unfounded. The Enlightenment philosopher David Hume infamously wrote, “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites.”
Unfortunately, many on the Western left have learned the wrong lessons from the historical critique of Enlightenment figures. In many elite circles, conversation about the Enlightenment and its effects is disdainful of the movement. The pervading critiques seem to be that the Enlightenment is so burdened by its legacy of imperialism and Western cultural supremacy (according to the left) and so dehumanizing in its destruction of faith and tradition (according to the right) that its virtues are far outweighed by its vices. This sort of kneejerk disdain for the Enlightenment is most visible in the reviews of Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now. In his book, Pinker reasserts his position (first formulated in The Better Angels of Our Nature) that, by most quantifiable measures, human wellbeing is on the rise. He makes this case largely via statistical data, and concludes with a call to defend the Enlightenment project from the forces of illiberalism and superstition. The book’s reception is deftly summarized in a review in Quillette by Saloni Dattani: in short, the book ruffled feathers of both the right- and left-wing variety, prompting reviews ranging from the resentful (Ross Douthat on the right) to the downright irritated (Jennifer Szalai on the left). To a broad spectrum of the commentariat, anything resembling optimism is a symptom of naïveté and/or privilege.
On the right, the opposition to Enlightenment ideas of empiricism, secularism and skepticism has remained depressingly consistent since the days of Mill and Jefferson. From Wahhabism to the modern Republican party, reactionary conservatism remains tied to Edmund Burke called the “latent wisdom” of tradition (an attitude which Burke rather presciently and ironically describes as a “prejudice”). But the most important right-wing attacks on liberalism have not come from domestic elected officials and their apparatchiks. Domestic injustices—from family separations to the dismantling of social safety nets—are the harbingers of a global, populist right wing that is hostile to immigration, free trade, scientific empiricism and due process. The emergence of this international authoritarianism is most obvious in Donald Trump’s ceding of American stewardship of the international liberal order. The American abdication of international leadership has allowed despots, dictators and thugs like Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdoğan and Xi Jinping to rush in to fill the vacuum. These geopolitical maneuverings may seem irrelevant to the concerns of the average person. But it is because of this vacuum that Russia has essentially invaded Ukraine—a country once promised American protection—and China is securing economic partnerships with much of Southeast Asia.
Left-wing commentator Jamelle Bouie writes, in Slate, “Race as we understand it—a biological taxonomy that turns physical difference into relations of domination—is a product of the Enlightenment.” While this specific assertion may be true, at least in part: what the Enlightenment did not create was prejudice. That the first movement towards something resembling egalitarianism was colored by basic human failings should not surprise us. Nor should Bouie’s assertion that ostensibly scientific thinking was leveraged to make bigotry and prejudice worse be viewed as an attack on those of us who consider ourselves Enlightenment liberals. As Bouie rightly points out, for “Thomas Jefferson, and the Framers of the Constitution … racial slavery and native expropriation were compatible with natural rights and representative government.”
While we may find ourselves unable to reproduce the cynicism of many Western liberal intellectuals, we must not treat legitimate critiques of the Enlightenment and its leaders as existential threats to the Enlightenment project itself. I find myself uncomfortable with the branch of commentary that defends the Enlightenment at full volume. Too often, I find that such Enlightenment champions conflate the movement’s best principles with an ahistorical collection of Western values. Most popular among the latter breed of defenders of the West is probably Jordan Peterson, author of the wildly successful self-help book, 12 Rules for Life. The book, along with Peterson’s other work, offers a narrow, resentful and often reactionary picture of modern society, re-jigged for the era of listicles and inspirational speakers. The problems with Peterson’s thinking are expertly dissected in this piece by Nathan J. Robinson, in Current Affairs.
Reading about O and his son, I was struck by the immensity of my good fortune. Born to liberal and supportive parents, in a relatively liberal country, it can be easy to forget the rarity of your situation. There are about 1.4 billion people in China. Ten million of those are Uighurs. The freedoms we enjoy are an impossibility for the majority of the world’s population. When we dismiss liberalism at home, we condemn dissidents and reformists abroad, who are struggling to obtain even a fraction of the liberty that we take for granted. O was coerced into spying on other Uighur expatriates in return for his son’s release. He has not yet spoken to him.
Mill, Jefferson and their cohorts may be laughable icons of a hypocritical era in the western academy, but around the world, in the shadows and living rooms in which masses huddle, yearning to be free, I think their words and ideas still matter.
A great number of disagreements in this realm boil down to our seemingly infinite inability to differentiate. We can separate the imperialism from the invention of human rights. We can acknowledge the foul and foolish prejudices of historical figures without removing them from history.
The fruits of the Enlightenment are the birthright of all humanity. To deny their universal value is to deny O and his son the justice they are owed. It is to claim that I deserve more than them because of where and to whom I was born.
The flaws of the Enlightenment are legion, and although I owe the life I lead and the freedoms I enjoy to the crusty writings of dusty and dead old white men I owe them just as much to the Indians who fought to make those writings apply to me. I go to college halfway around the world from the city I grew up in. I am not concerned about writing this essay or announcing myself, without reservation, as a liberal, a leftie; perhaps even a pinko on a particularly proud day. These things are all products of a political, social and philosophical revolution that we may, for lack of time or a better word call the Enlightenment. It was not a perfect revolution, or for that matter a single one, but a collection of liberties seized, orthodoxies overthrown, and truths spoken. Not all at once, never altogether correct, but nonetheless each important. The Enlightenment must not be allowed to end in the 18th century. Immanuel Kant in his essay What is Enlightenment wrote that “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance.” It is clear that we have not yet emerged from that historical infancy.
The world that I or any other modern Enlightenment liberal wants would be unconscionable to Locke, Hume, Jefferson or Kant. Ideas of equal rights for racial minorities, for homosexuals, and for women were beyond the pale for those men. They were products of their times and in some cases not even the best products. But those men are no longer directing the Enlightenment. We are. The writer Ralph Leonard tweeted some time ago that “We should not simply defend the legacy of the Enlightenment. We should seek to complete it.”
Mr. Leonard and I were born years and countries apart and have never spoken to each other. And yet we share this frayed hope: battered by authoritarian illiberalism on the right and drained of vigor by the relativism of the left. If I can convince you of nothing else, let it be known that every person, no matter our color, creed or any accident of birth, has a fundamental sense of the natural liberty that tyrants would deny us. This is not a western or eastern value. It does not belong to the ivory tower any more than it can be denied to the thatched hut. It is what we are owed, and what we owe to each other.