Nov 132009

Delivered at the Students for Liberty conference last weekend in Philadelphia by Dr Alan Kors, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. My brother was there, and he and a friend of his provided the link.

This paper brought me to tears.

Some highlights:

The intellectual manifestation of this pathology was and is a collective delusion that ignores both history and ethology. It is a belief that goodness, stable order, justice, peace, freedom, legal equality, mutual forbearance, and kindness are the default state of things in human affairs, and that malice, disorder, violence, coercion, legal inequality, intolerance, and cruelty are the aberrations that stand in need of historical explanation. Getting the defaults precisely and systematically wrong, Western intellectuals fail to understand and appreciate the form of society that has given us the ability to alter them. The pathology is also the demented belief that evolved successful societies may be redrawn at will by intellectuals with political power and that the most productive human cultures are almost wholly dysfunctional.

Rousseau and all the Marxisizing intellectuals who have cast their darkness over the past one hundred years and more have had it all backward in this domain. It is not aversion to difference that requires historical explanation —aversion to difference is the human condition. Rather, it is liberal society’s partial but breathtaking ability to overcome tribalism and exclusion that demands elucidation, above all in the singular American accomplishment. Tyranny and abuse of power have also been the human condition. It is, in contrast, the limitation of power and the recognition of individual rights that demand historical explanation. It is not slavery that startles, because slavery is one of the most universal of all human institutions. Rather, it is the view of self-ownership, liberty, and voluntary labor that requires historical explanation, the values and agencies by which the West identified slavery as an evil, and, to what should be our wonder, abolished it. Western intellectuals write, dramatically, as if it were relative pockets of Western poverty that should occasion our astonishment, when in fact the term until recently for almost infinitely worse absolute levels of poverty was simply “life.” What generally remains unaddressed by our secular intellectuals is the question of what values, institutions, knowledge, behaviors, risks, and liberties allowed the West to create such prosperity that we even notice such relative poverty at all, let alone believe that it is eradicable. Tragically, the very effort to overturn the evolved systems and values of the West has produced the most extreme examples in history of, precisely, malice, disorder, violence, coercion, legal inequality, intolerance, and cruelty.

There is no revivification of the principles that separated us from the socialists in power. “You put private property ahead of people” remains a potent malediction, as if we had not learned sufficiently and amply that the former is essential to the well-being, dignity, liberty, and lives of the latter. “You put profits ahead of people” remains of equal force, as if we had not learned sufficiently that profits are the measure of other people’s satisfactions of want and desire. Indeed, it is precisely to avoid the revivification of classical liberal principles that our teachers, professors, information media, and filmmakers ignore the comparative inquiry that the time so urgently demands.

Indeed, it is precisely because of the lessons that would be taught by knowledge and truth that no revision of the curriculum occurs. For at least a generation, intellectual contempt for liberal society —as a civilization, a set of institutions, and a constellation of ideals —has been at the core of the humanities and soft social sciences. This has accelerated, not changed, despite the fact that now there is no intellectual excuse for ignoring certain verities. We know that voluntary exchange among individuals held morally responsible under the rule of law creates both prosperity and an unparalleled diversity of human choices. Such a model also has been a precondition of individuation and freedom. By contrast, regimes of central planning create poverty and occasion ineluctable developments toward totalitarianism and the worst abuses of power. Dynamic free-market societies, grounded in rights-based individualism, have altered the entire human conception of liberty and of dignity for formerly marginalized groups. The entire “socialist experiment,” by contrast, ended in stasis, ethnic hatreds, the absence of even the minimal preconditions of economic, social, and political renewal, and categorical contempt for both individuation and minority rights. Our children do not know this true comparison.


As for the mea culpas, we await them in vain from those who claim not to have known or who still choose not to learn. When Eisenhower heard that the German residents of a nearby large town “didn’t know” about a death camp whose stench should have reached their nostrils, he marched them, well dressed, through the rotting corpses, and made them help dispose of the dead. We lack his authority. Milan Kundera, the dissident Czech novelist during the Communist period, stated the moral reality with reference to its only appropriate genre, tragedy. Take the extreme case, he suggested. What about those with good intentions? he asked in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. What about those who didn’t know, and who acted in good faith? Kundera wrote of Oedipus:

Little did he know that the man he had killed in the mountains was his father and the woman with whom he slept his mother. In the meantime, fate visited a plague on his subjects and tortured them with great pestilences. When Oedipus realized that he himself was the cause of their suffering, he put out his own eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes. . . . Unable to stand the sight of the misfortunes he had wrought by “not knowing,” he put out his eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes.

How not to be tempted by this? For me, I would offer one indulgence. Let the socialists, fellow travelers, apologists, and revisionists acknowledge the dead, bury the dead, teach what they have learned, and atone for the dead. Otherwise, given the enormity of what has occurred, let them indeed be forgiven only when they have put out their eyes and wandered blind away from Moscow, Beijing, or Thebes. Let Western intellectuals repeat the phrase of “Requiem,” a work written during the Stalinist terror by Anna Akhmatova, the greatest Russian poet of the twentieth century: “I will remember them always and everywhere, I will never forget them no matter what comes.”