Friday, November 12, 2004

The Communism of the 21st Century

Cardinal George Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney asks a question which is neither completely secular nor religious, one which Thomas Jefferson might have revolved in his mind but which no modern politician would dare discuss. Pell rhetorically asks whether democracy must of necessity be spiritually empty. Not whether it can occasionally be, but whether it must be. In an article published in the Australian, he says:

Lately there has been interest in the possibility of "Islamic democracy". These descriptors do not simply refer to how democracy might be constituted, but to the moral vision democracy is intended to serve. This is especially true in the case of secular democracy, which some insist is intended to serve no moral vision at all.  ... But think for a moment what it means to say that there can be no other form of democracy than secular democracy. Does democracy need a burgeoning billion-dollar pornography industry to be truly democratic? Does it need an abortion rate in the tens of millions? Does it need high levels of marriage breakdown, with the growing rates of family dysfunction that come with them? Does democracy (as in Holland's case) need legalised euthanasia, extending to children under the age of 12? Does democracy need assisted reproductive technology (such as IVF) and embryonic stem cell research? Does democracy really need these things? What would democracy look like if you took some of these things out of the picture? Would it cease to be democracy? Or would it actually become more democratic? ...

The alarm with which many treat people in public life who are opposed to these things often implies that they are a danger to democracy. This overreaction is, of course, a bluff, an attempt to silence opposition, almost suggesting that these practices are essential to democracy. ... From outside Western culture, of course, come other possibilities. It is still very early in the piece, of course, but the small but growing conversion of native Westerners within Western societies to Islam carries the suggestion that Islam may provide in the 21st century the attraction that communism provided in the 20th, both for those who are alienated or embittered on the one hand, and for those who seek order or justice on the other.

I am not sure that the Cardinal's proposed "democratic personalism" is a viable alternative, but he asks a logical question which cannot be evaded. When the Founding Fathers created the framework for procedural democracy it was unnecessary to spell out its ends because those were largely provided by the moral, ethical and religious consensus of the underlying society. When that underlying civilizational consensus has been destroyed or diluted, as is the case in Western Europe and to a lesser extent the United States, what intrinsic ends does a value-neutral democratic mechanism serve? The answer possibly, is whatever it can be put to, like a Turing Machine which adopts whichever persona the loaded instruction set demands. Then Dutch democracy becomes the Muslim right to chuck a hand grenade out the door at policemen come to arrest them for plotting to blow up a public landmark. Democracy becomes a vehicle waiting to be hijacked; a metaphor for the old saw that someone who believes in nothing will believe in anything.

But of course the process of secularization -- or 'value emptying' as Pell might put it -- has not been entirely uniform. In actuality, while whole chunks of the West have thrown out their traditional value systems, other chunks have been busy proseletyzing theirs. As Episcopalian churches have emptied the fundamentalist Islamic mosques have filled. That uneven development, if left unchecked, may eventually mean that the magnificent mechanism of secular democracy, which serves no value of itself, will be arbitrarily assigned a goal by the majority most willing to hijack it. Pell's observation that "the small but growing conversion of native Westerners within Western societies to Islam carries the suggestion that Islam may provide in the 21st century the attraction that communism provided in the 20th ..." will mark him in liberal Australian circles as a bigot. It should mark him as a wit, for he has managed to slander those they would least offend by comparing them to those they most admire.

Jean Paul-Sartre seized upon Dostoevsky's dictum that "if God did not exist, everything would be permitted" to justify existentialism. He forgot that Dostoevsky added that if God did not exist, we would be compelled to invent him. For if, as Sarte argued "in the present one is forsaken" why should the future when it arrives be less forlorn than today? For good or ill, man can as much live under a heaven swept of stars as endure a sky without stars to dream of. If Agustine of Hippo was right, that  "our soul is restless until it rests in Thee" then when all the lights of the Tabernacle are extinguished the Kaaba will beckon in the desert.