It’s the Kultur, Stupid

Timothy Garton Ash makes a compelling case that Germany’s current flirtations with the far-right have more to do with a sense of cultural loss, as opposed to a loss of economic standing.

For the rank-and-file, it is yet more evidence that the liberal elites have so little time and respect for them that they “won’t look at us even with their asses.” Worse still: they won’t even let ordinary people say what they think. In a poll conducted in spring 2016 for the Freedom Index of the John Stuart Mill Institute in Heidelberg, only 57 percent of respondents said they felt that “one can freely express one’s political opinion in Germany today.”

It’s therefore encouraging to see a growing number of German intellectuals advocating John Stuart Mill’s own response. Take on these arguments in free and open debate. Subject them to vigorous and rigorous scrutiny. Separate the wheat from the chaff. For as Mill famously argued, even a false argument can contain a sliver of truth, and the good sword of truth can only be kept sharp if constantly tested in open combat with falsehood. Otherwise the received opinion, even if it is correct, will only be held “in the manner of a prejudice.”

I can’t pretend to really know what is going on at all, but it makes sense to me that there are many people in this world with grievances who feel simply unheard. It also does strike me as dangerous to allow insular thoughts to fester in their own insularity. If we can’t air out our grievances, how can we stay open to the possibility of changing our thinking?

This isn’t at all to say that I think the “non-elites”1 of economically advanced countries like Germany and the US are somehow more deserving of attention than the billions of people on the planet who are genuinely making do with too little. But they are part of the voting process for decision-makers who increasingly affect people around the world, despite being representative of only a select few. We have to be able to have a conversation with them, or I can only see the current state of affairs getting worse.

  1. I’m not sure what to call it, but I mean folks who feel left behind somehow.