Leon Wieseltier: There are these two basic fun­da­men­tal fears, these ur-fears that are rip­pling through our soci­eties. The first is the fear of com­plex­i­ty, and the sec­ond is the fear of change. I think that if you start with the ques­tion of the fear of change, the first thing of course you have to note is that a hun­dred years ago…it was a lit­tle more than a hun­dred years ago, Henry Adams the American writer wrote about what he called the accel­er­a­tion of his­to­ry. But his­to­ry has nev­er been accel­er­at­ing as quick­ly, as speed­i­ly, as it is now. It is an absolute­ly dizzying…it leads to a kind of expe­ri­ence of mass vertigo. 

And I think this fear of com­plex­i­ty and this fear of change has led many peo­ple in the West to seek com­fort and refuge and asy­lum in a vari­ety of fake or dan­ger­ous solu­tions. The first one I think of I would call the over­so­cial­iza­tion of our idea of the per­son. That is to say the indi­vid­ual is now com­mon­ly reduced to his or her mem­ber­ship in a group. So that an indi­vid­ual is regard­ed main­ly pri­mar­i­ly and most glo­ri­ous­ly as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a group. And the dig­ni­ty of the indi­vid­ual now is increas­ing­ly owed to his or her belong­ing, as if belong­ing is the very high­est to which human beings can aspire.

Instead what one has to do is get beyond one’s bub­ble, one’s trap, one’s ori­gins, and rec­og­nize that not only do we need to speak across the dif­fer­ences but in fact we speak across the dif­fer­ences all the time. It’s a com­plete ide­o­log­i­cal hoax that peo­ple real­ly are trapped in their bub­ble, in the par­tial­i­ty of their perspectives. 

And so for these two larg­er rea­sons I would say that the sin­gle most promi­nent and alarm­ing devel­op­ment of our time is a kind of glob­al renais­sance of illiberalism.

Pamela Paul: I would say build­ing on what Leon said about the groups and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of groups that con­sid­er them­selves based on iden­ti­ty even more­so than shared beliefs, that that’s cou­pled with anoth­er very dan­ger­ous com­po­nent of moder­ni­ty, which is tech­nol­o­gy and the splin­ter­ing of media. So that when you had Thomas Mann who came to America and you had tens of thou­sands of peo­ple who would come out to see him, the promise of tech­nol­o­gy and of mass com­mu­ni­ca­tions was this idea that if some­one came at that lev­el to speak, that they would be able to reach this mass audi­ence. Whereas the oppo­site is true today because instead what’s hap­pened is that the media, and with the Internet in par­tic­u­lar, every­thing has become siloed so dra­mat­i­cal­ly that each group is speak­ing only to itself. And so there is no exchange of ideas. 

And then to go back to what Leon said about fear and anger, there is now a fear of ever speak­ing out­side of your iden­ti­ty group and across those var­i­ous siloed inter­ests. And then incred­i­ble anger at any­one who dares to do that, to trans­gress in that way. 

Nadine Labaki: Yeah. I mean, I would maybe add… I don’t know if it’s the right word but, one of the sick­ness­es also occa­sioned by this fear is the dis­con­nec­tion. Disconnection with oth­ers, because we have… Even though you know, with tech­nol­o­gy and with the Internet we have the feel­ing that we are more and more con­nect­ed to each oth­er. I think it’s the com­plete oppo­site that is hap­pen­ing. We are dis­con­nect­ed from oth­er peo­ple exact­ly for that same rea­son that you talked about, which is we have divid­ed our­selves in groups. We have divid­ed us in groups, in par­ties, in reli­gions, in coun­tries. We have built walls, we have built gates, we have pass­ports that iden­ti­fy us from each oth­er. So there’s this fear of this dif­fer­ence, of this other. 

Sari Nusseibeh: I think you know, we have many oth­er prob­lems to con­tend with that wor­ry us. Primarily prob­lems to do with jus­tice. Problems to do with the eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion, dis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth. Problems to do with pover­ty through­out the world. And I think these are basic prob­lems and these are prob­lems that are devel­op­ing. And one has to ask the ques­tion about Europe in this con­text in those terms, in the terms of you know…well Europe sounds in the self or for itself like a won­der­ful place and maybe peo­ple inside of it are hap­py or not hap­py. But the ques­tion is…and the United States as well, maybe. But then what about the rest of the world? And I think the main, from my point of view, prob­lem that Europe has is that prob­a­bly it does not see and inter­act with the rest of the world, even on the basis of the val­ues that it pro­fess­es itself to have. Liberal val­ues, for instance. Equality, and so on and so forth. And I think that is a very impor­tant prob­lem for Europe, as I see it from the Middle East.

Further Reference

Nexus Institute Symposium 2019, The Magic Mountain Revisited: Cultivating the Human Spirit in Dispirited Times event page

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