Author: Brian Stewart

Fulton and the Case Against Normalcy

Whether they know it or not, Americans are in trouble. The world order from which they have drawn immense benefits—an order they once led the way in creating and for which they have borne the greatest burdens over three-quarters of a century—is at risk. Since Americans generally misunderstand their role in the world, the United States has developed an unfortunate habit of performing that role fitfully and poorly. A more mature understanding of their unique position and exceptional role in world affairs is required for Americans to better protect their interests and avert disaster in a dangerous world. A long-ago speech by a foreign dignitary may hold the key to recovering some lost wisdom about how America came into this role in the first place. Seventy-five years ago this month, Winston Churchill traveled to the American Midwest to deliver what he believed to be the most important speech of his career. At an obscure college in Fulton, Missouri, Churchill set himself two stark objectives: one general and the other specific. The general aim of “The …

Republicans’ Lyceum Moment—and America’s

The assault on the US Capitol, not by foreign invaders but a domestic mob, left the American public (outside the most hardened and credulous pro-Trump precincts) bewildered and alarmed. The ubiquitous refrain from reporters on the scene struck a note of incomprehension: “This is happening in the United States of America.” The unspoken subtext was clear: such an outbreak of fanaticism was the stuff of banana republics, and no part of the American tradition. But this attitude served only to remind viewers of Gore Vidal’s quip that U-S-A stands for the United States of Amnesia. For the Trump mob’s invasion of Congress was scarcely the first time Americans have surrendered to mass frenzy. Almost two centuries ago, a spirit of anarchy seized the people, and the country began degenerating into bedlam. The source of mob violence in that day lay not with any particular partisan social or political cause. There were mobs motivated by religious sectarianism, hostility to gambling, and naked xenophobia. The passions loosed by the “peculiar institution” of slavery, of course, helped propel …

A Misremembered Day of Infamy

Nothing illustrates better the extraordinary changes in America’s political culture than the almost furtive way in which the anniversary of Pearl Harbor has been marked. The surprise attack by the Japanese imperial navy on America’s Pacific Fleet 79 years ago—on December 7th, 1941—was barely commemorated this year in a nation convulsed by a deadly pandemic and the unprecedented effort by its president to steal an election. The exception to this general insouciance came in the tally of the honored dead compared with the gruesome numbers still being inflicted daily by the COVID-19 virus. (What’s more, as of this writing, the number of American COVID fatalities almost equals its Second World War combat toll.) In the public imagination, Pearl Harbor has become little more than an occasion to contextualize national grieving, a historical calamity that serves as a measure against our present difficulties. This shallow use of a hinge event in history has become typical of a nation that has begun to lose its sense of itself. This is evident in Americans’ diminished standards of conduct at home …

Enlightenment Literature as Foreign Aid

“If God were to humiliate a human being,” wrote Imam Ali bin abi Talib in the sixth century, “He would deny him knowledge.” If the woeful state of knowledge in lands beset by authoritarian regimes is any indication, a great number of human beings in our world have been lavishly humiliated, albeit by natural rather than supernatural forces. Nearly 20 years ago, a clique of Arab intellectuals sounded the alarm about this widespread denial of knowledge in their realm, and its many malign effects. The Arab Development Report of 2002, published by the United Nations Development Program, vividly illustrated the miserable condition to which Arab societies had been reduced at the dawn of the new millennium. It called attention to the “closed circle” that had long held sway across the region. In the past 1,000 years, the authors declared, Arabs collectively have translated as many books as Spain translates in one year. This is a breathtaking fact, notwithstanding a thriving black market for prohibited books that escaped the official tally as well as the habit of …

Making the World Safe for Autocracy

Hong Kong has long ceased to fit the description given it by an envoy of Queen Victoria as a “barren rock.” Since British gunboats secured its jagged shore in the Opium Wars, it has transformed into a vibrant commercial outpost and a premier international metropolis. After nearly two centuries, the city now has new claimants as colonial overlords, who will undoubtedly wreck the special achievements of the crown colony and set new standards of ruination and decline. Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” form of government autonomy received a lethal blow earlier this year when the annual session of China’s rubber-stamp legislature passed new national security laws that effectively prohibited dissent in the enclave. The draconian national security legislation allowed Beijing to bypass the territory’s own parliament and crack down on any activity it deems seditious. Hong Kong’s liberal culture and independent judiciary quickly began to suffocate under the weight of China’s rapacious interference. The Chinese Communist Party is now looking to crush the remnants of the old order. Beijing has announced that it will impose …

Secular Modernity under Theocratic Assault

Professor Leszek Kołakowski, one of the great Polish intellectual dissidents from the Stalinist period, liked to say that when he debated with apologists for the system, he often found himself almost on the losing side. Kołakowski hastened to add that this fact did not owe to the superior arguments of his opponents. To the contrary. The arguments of his opponents were so foolish and antiquated that he’d simply forgotten what the original refutations were. A similar phenomenon can be registered in the West today with respect to heady accusations of blasphemy. With homicidal religious maniacs avenging the hurt feelings of the faithful, many liberal-minded people have taken to questioning fundamental republican norms and the basis of secular democracy. The recent events in France, which has again become the target of Islamist menace, provide a useful occasion to review the newly contested principles of the Enlightenment. This autumn has brought news of three separate Islamist attacks on French soil. It began with a knife attack last month in Paris outside the former office of the Charlie Hebdo magazine. A few weeks …

The Importance of Blasphemy

Anyone who thought the age of plague might have banished the specter of religious fanaticism was disabused last week when a middle school teacher in a Paris suburb was beheaded by an Islamist fanatic for displaying caricatures of the prophet Mohammad during a class discussion about free speech. The assailant, a teenager of Chechen origin, murdered and then decapitated his victim before being killed by French police. Less than a fortnight before, there was a stabbing outside the Parisian offices formerly occupied by the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, which France’s interior minister also described as an “act of Islamist terrorism.” The stubborn persistence of Islamist terror speaks to the durability of ferocious faith-based dogmas, one of which seeks to reintroduce secular Western democracies to the long-forgotten notion of “blasphemy.” This will only come as a surprise to those with short memories. Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa suborning the murder of Salman Rushdie for merely writing a novel reignited the old debate about the place of tolerance in an age of religious hatred. More than 30 years …

A Europe Divided and Unfree

Since the end of the Cold War, Europe has believed it is more resilient than it is, and less vulnerable. It has indulged the conceit that it will never again find itself at daggers drawn with its Russian neighbor. In the European imagination, post-communist Russia posed no threat, a convenient interpretation that remained intact even after the rise of the KGB’s mafia state and the projection of Moscow’s imperial designs on its “near abroad.” At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Vladimir Putin spoke of a “unipolar world”—meaning one dominated by the United States—that would prove “pernicious not only for all those within this system but also for the sovereign itself.” America’s “hyper use of force,” declared the Russian president, was “plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts.” At the time, with an unpopular Republican president at the helm in Washington—unpopular, that is, in Europe, though also in America—Europeans extended a generous reception to Putin’s remarks. Many Europeans retained their traditional skepticism of American power and remained committed to the idea of a “different” …

Lebanon’s Malignant State

Some 30 years after the end of its dirty civil war, Lebanon has cultivated a well-developed preference for discretion. One can only imagine the collective gasp of its political class last week when a spark in a ramshackle warehouse set off 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in Beirut’s port since 2014. Scores were killed and thousands injured in Lebanon’s capital city. The sound of the blast was heard across the Mediterranean as far away as Cyprus, where some thought they had suffered an earthquake. The figurative shock waves, laying bare the ineptitude and indifference of a malignant state, will reach much further. After the chemical explosion showered Beirut in broken glass, it wasn’t long before public demonstrations flared up, in a reprise of last autumn’s protests against Lebanon’s endemic dysfunction. So overpowering was the popular revulsion against the political culture of criminality and neglect of the country’s needs in 2019 that it required both semi-official violence and a cosmetic change in the government to quell. The same ingredients of another prolonged protest movement are once again …

The Defenestration of Bari Weiss

In London’s Hyde Park, the famous Speakers’ Corner stands as a tribute to the victory of John Stuart Mill, the most prominent thinker in the liberal tradition. In the occasionally stultifying intellectual climate of Victorian England, Mill led a successful campaign for the right to protest in London’s public parks. His main concern was not government censorship but the chilling effect of social conformity. In his famous essay On Liberty, Mill advocated for a culture that offered a rich diversity of viewpoints that would enable the pursuit of truth. “Society can and does execute its own mandates,” he wrote, “and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.” Mill recognized that the tyranny of groupthink posed lethal dangers to individual …