I have encountered few minds I would readily call “brilliant.” I must confess a prejudice on my part to restrict the term to those who lived and wrote long ago; contemporary writers seem to be satisfied to skim the surface for the most part. One exception is Christopher Lasch, whom I have referred to repeatedly in these blogs. I find myself drawn back to his books when I feel the need for insights into our current cultural malaise. I have read no one who seems to have his finger on the pulse of today’s difficulties more than this social historian who seems to have read, and understood, everything. He has a great deal to say about what bothers us most these days and in his book The Revolt of The Elites he talks about intolerance in the context of the question whether our democracy is worth saving — an interesting question in itself. Lasch is convinced that our democratic system is in serious trouble and while democracy is in principle certainly worth saving, it is not clear that today’s version of democracy in this country is. He is especially critical of the shallow relativism that is widespread today together with the growing tendency to refuse to critique other cultures; he worried about the tendency of intellectuals to avoid the really important questions, such as the place of religion and belief in today’s world. On the subject of tolerance, which we like to think is the major virtue of our democracy, he has much to say and I can do no better than to record him at some length.
“In the absence of common standards . . . tolerance becomes indifference, and cultural pluralism degenerates into an aesthetic spectacle in which the curious folkways of our neighbors are savored with the relish of the connoisseur. However, our neighbors themselves, as individuals, are never held up to any kind of judgment. The suspension of ethical judgment, in the conception or misconception of pluralism now current, makes it inappropriate to speak of “ethical commitments” at all. Aesthetic appreciation is all that can be achieved under current definitions of cultural diversity. . . The deeper question [we should address] is the question How should I live? [which today] also becomes a matter of taste, of idiosyncratic personal preference, at best of religious or ethnic identification. But this deeper and more difficult question, rightly understood,requires us to speak of impersonal virtues like fortitude, workmanship, moral courage, honesty, and respect for our adversaries. If we believe in these things, moreover, we must be prepared to recommend them to everyone, as the moral preconditions of a good life. To refer everything to a ‘plurality of ethical commitments’ means that we make no demands on anyone and acknowledge no one’s right to make any demands on ourselves. The suspension of judgment logically condemns us to solitude. Unless we are prepared to make demands on one another, we can enjoy only the most rudimentary kind of common life.
“Democracy requires a more invigorating ethic than tolerance. Tolerance is a fine thing, but it is only the beginning of democracy, not its destination. In our time democracy is more seriously threatened by indifference than by intolerance or superstition. We have become too proficient in making excuses for ourselves — worse, in making excuses for the ‘disadvantaged.’ We are so busy defending our rights (rights conferred, for the most part, by judicial decree) that we have given little thought to our responsibilities. We seldom say what we think for fear of giving offense. We are determined to respect everyone, but we have forgotten that respect has to be earned. Respect is not another word for tolerance or the appreciation of ‘alternative life-styles and communities.’ This is the tourist’s approach to morality. Respect is what we experience in the presence of admirable achievements, admirably formed character, natural gifts put to good use. It entails the exercise of discriminating judgment, not indiscriminate acceptance.
“There are far more important issues confronting friends of democracy [than the issue of cultural pluralism]: the crisis of competence; the spread of apathy and a suffocating cynicism; the moral paralysis of those who value “openness” above all. In the 1870s Walt Whitman wrote: ‘Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us.’ Those words are as timely as ever.
“. . .it is our reluctance to make demands on each other, much more than our reluctance to help those in need, that is sapping the strength of democracy today. We have become far too accommodating and tolerant for our own good. . . Democracy in our time is more likely to die of indifference than intolerance. Tolerance and understanding are important virtues, but they must not become an excuse for apathy.”
Lasch owes much to his reading of Hanna Arendt. Indeed, she insisted that our failure to exercise judgment is one of the most serious shortcomings of an age in which “being judgmental” has become a thing to avoid at all costs. As Arendt pointed out in her writings, if the Germans in the early years of the last century had been more judgmental, (and therefore less tolerant) then perhaps Hitler would never have risen to power. Like Arendt, who is another brilliant mind, Lach gives us all a great deal to think about. And that is what great writers do.
At year’s end, then, it might be a good thing for us all to resolve to be tolerant only of those things that do not warrant condemnation in ourselves and in others as well. We must beware that our tolerance not degenerate into indifference and apathy, lacking any sense of real concern about the world in which we live. Lasch reminds us that we must have convictions, and have the strength to speak out about those convictions. Otherwise we are simply taking up space in an increasingly crowded world.