Comfortably Numb: Human Rights and South America, Part II

[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer.  This is the second installment.]

II.  The Age of Neo-Illiberalism

Preparing to leave for a day of museums and tours recounting the atrocities of Chile’s military dictatorship under Pinochet, a headline from that morning’s New York Times caught my eye: “To Trump, Human Rights Concerns are Often a Barrier to Trade.”

Nowadays, it is hard not to hear the phrase “human rights” as hollow. Abroad and at home, the specter of illiberalism has descended. According to political scientist Larry Diamond, the world has been in a “democratic recession” since 2006. From Turkey to Russia, from the Philippines to the Netherlands, from France to the UK and, of course, the United States, the forces of populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism are, for the first time in seven decades, challenging the liberal international order. As Robin Niblett writes in a recent article in Foreign Affairs,

the architects of the [liberal international order] sought to promote not just economic development and individual fulfillment but also world peace. The best hope for that, they contended, lay in free markets, individual rights, rule of law, and elected governments, which would be checked by independent judiciaries, free presses, and vibrant societies.

We are playing at trading the “West”—the post-World War II liberal system erected by the Allies to foster economic interdependence in order to prevent civilizational war, protect human rights, and foster prosperity–for “Westeros”—the fictional world of Game of Thrones, a Hobbesian state of nature riven by warring families and fiefdoms, tribes and warlords, where force and fraud are the cardinal virtues.


According to this worldview, human rights are a luxury we cannot afford to care about. We must look out for #1. America first, humanity second.

Call it the age of “neo-illiberalism.”

Whether this phenomenon is a trend or a tectonic shift, only time will tell. But as Niblett warns, “liberal democracies cannot postpone difficult political decisions any longer. They need to fix themselves first if they are to sustain the liberal international order.” Conservative writer and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush David Frum, in what is perhaps one of the most important reflections on the Trump phenomenon that every American should read–is even darker: “We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered.”


It is difficult to convey to students, who by this point are too young to have any memory of the day, just how different the country was before 9/11. I was a sophomore at BC that year, getting ready for class that day (a philosophy course called Romanticism and Idealism, of all things). Before I left for class that day—before the towers fell—it’s safe to say that the dominant historical narrative was Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history.” At that time, the country was still flying high off of the “holiday from history” that characterized the 1990s. Between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, there just wasn’t much of world-historical consequence going on. Fukuyama’s thesis, put forth in a 1992 book, was that the end of the Cold War signaled the end of history: not in the literal sense that time would stop, of course, but that History understood as a contest between competing ideologies was effectively over. The combination of liberal democracy and capitalism had proved to be the most desirable and sustainable way to organize human life, and the remainder of history would be a gradual process of its global spread.

Short of nuclear war, it is difficult to imagine a more deadly blow to this thesis than 9/11. Indeed, after the twin towers fell and al Qaeda had been identified as responsible, the “return of history” was promptly proclaimed. Samuel Huntington’s alternative narrative, the “clash of civilizations,” was resurrected. According to Huntington, geopolitics can be understood through the analogy of plate tectonics: there are certain cultural plates forged through millennia that, over long stretches of time, will inevitably collide. The West was not Civilization, a star destined to draw all lesser satellites into its orbit, but just one civilization among many.

The events of the last two years have thrust us back into Huntington’s world. Or so conventional wisdom has it. But we would do well to remember the other half of Fukuyama’s story. As Paul Sagar suggests in a recent article in Aeon,

Rarely read but often denigrated, [The End of History] might be the most maligned, unfairly dismissed and misunderstood book of the post-war era. Which is unfortunate for at least one reason: Fukuyama might have done a better job of predicting the political turmoil that engulfed Western democracies in 2016 – from Brexit, to Trump, to the Italian Referendum – than anybody else.

Attention is typically focused on the title of Fukuyama’s book—“The End of History”–which he cribbed from Hegel. Little is devoted to the subtitle—“the Last Man”—which he took from Nietzsche. “The most universal sign of the modern age,” Nietzsche wrote, is that “man has lost dignity in his own eyes to an incredible extent.” Fukuyama elaborates the notion of the last man and the risks it poses:

The life of the last man is one of physical security and material plenty, precisely what Western politicians are fond of promising their electorates. Is this really what the human story has been ‘all about’ these past few millennia? Should we fear that we will be both happy and satisfied with our situation, no longer human beings but animals of the genus homo sapiens?

His concern was that, on the one hand, we might become a nation consumed by consumerism, cocooned in comfort, withdrawn from the realm of politics and detached from reality, unconcerned with any greater purpose for our lives or countries or species. Maximize pleasure, minimize pain, and whatever you do, don’t talk or think about religion and politics. Having abandoned God, Nietzsche wrote that the modern world subscribed to the “religion of comfortableness.” The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was filled with hamburgers, Candy Crush, and porn. This is the end of history as secular eschaton of escapism and entertainment. Think Wall-E.


Writing this before the personal computer–before widespread internet access; before the smartphone; before Facebook; before the descent of digital disruption onto everyday life in the last decade—Fukuyama’s warning is prescient. And, when we look at what he has to say about another potential pathway, eerie: “Or is the danger that we will be happy on one level, but still dissatisfied with ourselves on another, and hence ready to drag the world back into history with all its wars, injustice, and revolution?”

This regression, Fukuyama thought, might transpire due to the return of an element modernity represses—of megalothymia, “a desire not just for respect and proportionate recognition, but a need to disproportionately dominate over others in ostentatious and spectacular ways.” His example of an individual possessed by megalothymia is eerier still. Sagar:

In describing the shallow celebrity culture, the essential emptiness, of the habitat of the last man, Fukuyama had a particular example in mind. He went to the same individual for illustration when looking for an archetype of megalothymia – who else but ‘a developer like Donald Trump’.

Sagar lays out the alternatives as Fukuyama saw them:

It was possible that the last men at the end of History might sink down into a brutish contentment with material comforts, rather like dogs lying around in the afternoon sun…. But they might well go the other way. There was every chance that the last men (and women) would be deeply discontented with their historically unprecedented ease and luxury, because it failed to feed megalothymia. If the last men went this way, they would become bored by what Fukuyama called ‘masterless slavery – the life of rational consumption’. The spread of egalitarian values that went along with secular democratic politics would open up spaces of severe resentment – especially, we might now postulate, among those who had lost their traditional places at the top of social hierarchies, and felt cheated of the recognition that they believed they were owed.

An unattributed quote has been circulating around the internet over the past year or so: “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” The expansion of egalitarianism poses a perceived threat to the previously empowered—politically, economically, and culturally.

The collapse of confidence in international institutions and the sacredness of human rights flows from the collapse of confidence in national institutions, the decline of democratic norms, the cessation of civility, the deficit of decency, and the recession of the respect that all take root in one place: the primal experience of recognition. Recognition that pierces through all distinctions of race and religion, culture and class, ability and age, distinctions that express but do not exhaust our identity.

The identity politics and “intersectionality” of today’s far Left, and the ethno-nativism of Trumpism (I hesitate to call it today’s far Right out of a conviction that it is an ideologically inchoate beast that lurks about the fringes of our political spectrum) both miss this essential element. Trumpism is fueled by a megalothymic mélange of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia, not to mention a misguided economic protectionism. But the flip side of the quote above is this: “When you are accustomed to oppression, revenge feels like justice.” The rage that fuels the ascendant identity politics of the left is resentful and reactionary in its own way; hence the prevalence of online lynch mobs quick to tar and feather anyone who departs from intersectional orthodoxy. Helen Pluckrose nails it:

It is regrettable that intersectionality in practice so often manifests in restrictive ideological conformity, exclusionary tactics, hostility, tribalism and even racist abuse. It’s regrettable because liberalism could be benefitted by specialist attention to the ways in which specific groups within society are advantaged or disadvantaged. However, focus on group identity and experience should not come at the cost of respect for the whole world of human ideas and experience and every individual’s right to access and subscribe to any part of it. Until intersectionality respects diversity of ideas as well as of identity and supports every individual’s right to hold any of them regardless of their group identity, it cannot be said to represent anything except its own ideology.

Both the far Left and Trumpism traffic, in various ways, in what Martin Luther King, Jr. termed false senses of superiority and inferiority. Both are irrational; they seize upon arbitrary identity markers—race, class, nationality—to construct moral hierarchies. Both, in different ways, are illiberal. And both miss the universalist element, the standpoint from which human rights flow: the ground-root experience of recognition.