Without a flexible view of human nature, no claim can be made to universality. Is the very notion of universal human values a Western construct and conceit? Is human nature universal, or is it contingent on culture?
Purportedly universal political systems inexorably degrade into the hubris of empires. As the old order collapses, the atavistic need for myths and heroes is giving way, without any discernible light of insight to illuminate the way ahead.
With all due respect to Western civilization, the demise of the United States is being desperately denied, and its founding ideals futilely upheld, not just by conservative reactionaries, by but progressive idealists.
America and France were founded on the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man respectively. Many progressives cling to the hope for their “continuous adjustment, improvement…and progress toward their ideals.”
“The founding articles and myths of both republics” are, according to some, under siege by the “fashion” of viewing “their roots in the white patriarchal societies of the late 18th century.”
That is simply untrue. The Black Lives Matter Movement, like all movements, has an element of trendiness about it, especially among ‘woke’ white people. But the criticism of the founders of the
American Project, including the most venerated of its founders, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, goes much deeper than mere fashion.
Therefore equating a radical reassessment of their central falsehood—the brutal idea and even more brutal practice that other human beings could be bought and sold as property—-to throwing the perennial baby of the founding ideals out with the bathwater of the hypocrisy they were bathed in— insults the righteous perceptions and passions of Blacks at the core of the Black Lives Matter Movement.
It isn’t that “the pretensions of embodying ennobling ideals for humankind were false, reflecting no more than the narrow worldview of 18th-century white males whose talk of equal rights was shot through with exploitative hypocrisy.”
It is that the founders knew, as we know, that slavery was unspeakably wrong, yet they carried on with it anyway, just as the dominant white ruling class of the United States has carried on with the institutionalized racism inherited from our white founders. When America erects monuments of equal stature to Fredrick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, then perhaps we will finally have eradicated the roots of racism.
Denigrating the “Great Awokening” by saying that it is riven with “self righteous intolerance” therefore deeply misses the point. Which is, as it should not be necessary to point out, that we can and must see the false as the false, without declaring and demolishing the entire project of the founders as false.
However even that not-so-subtle distinction has become moot, since not simply the universalist projects of the founders in the United States and France founders, threatening to be replaced by Sino-Siberian communist throwbacks, but the human prospect itself is in peril.
So we, fledgling, floundering human beings, return once again, for the umpteenth time, to our opening questions. Human nature is not contingent on culture, or even the ages of man. But what is it, and is it really immutable?
Is human nature merely the banal cliché that “the most conspicuous feature of humankind is its fallibility?” Which, set against the straw man that along with our tendency toward contradictoriness, “becomes unpardonable in an age of absolutist moral certainty?”
Let us not mistake non-relativist moral clarity for “absolutist moral certainty.” Rationalizing if not whitewashing the existential error of slavery by calling it “human fallibility and our contradictory natures” sustains both the sin and the contradiction.
With respect to the human prospect, as the world churns during a global pandemic, it is still being viewed through the tribal lens of national identification. But even a blatant racist and nationalist like Donald Trump acknowledges, between his MAGA rants and deflections of his egregious irresponsibility and mismanagement, “this is a global pandemic.”
I submit that two things have happened, both of which are still largely denied across the political spectrum. The first is that the core Enlightenment premise that reason can and will prevail been irreparably eroded away. No one seriously believes that human reason will carry the day anymore. No serious human being has believed it since Auschwitz and Hiroshima.
The second collapse, besides the Enlightenment ideal and the American project, is the very idea of the perfectibility of ideals. The liberal democratic experiment is not under attack by monument crashers; the monument crashers are merely acting out (in some case in both senses of the phrase) the collapse of ideals, myths and heroes that has already occurred.
In actuality, there is no such thing as the perfectibility of an ideal.
The old order is gone. The question is: how far back does the old order go? To my mind all the way back to what we so thoughtlessly call human nature, which is not just fallible and contradictory, but in crisis and question as never before in human history.