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‘Tyranny of the most selfish’: Sohrab Ahmari on what liberalism gets wrong

Commentary

On Friday, November 3rd, The Munk Debates held its 29th main stage debate, presenting the following motion: “Be it Resolved, liberalism gets the big questions right.”

Free trade, capitalism, and individual rights have remained foundational to liberalism, but more recent criticisms blame liberalism for problems such as growing inequality and political polarization. Has liberalism become a roadblock in the path of progress? Is a new guiding ideology needed to replace it?

Sohrab Ahmari, founder and editor of Compact and a contributing writer for The New Statesman, argued for the Con side. Here is his opening statement from the Munk Debates.

Thank you for having me. This is my first time in Toronto, or as we Iranians in the Diaspora call it, “Tehronto.”

“Resolved: liberalism gets the big questions right.” Before you make up your minds, you have to untangle what the big questions are. When you hear liberalism, you might think of tolerance, due process, impartial administration, self-government. But wait a second. The pre-liberal ancients were aware of what a fair trial should look like. Just look at the Bible. Self-government is as old as Greece. Impartial administration is as old as Rome and China. There, I just got in my mention of the Roman Empire for the day.

So if these values weren’t invented by a handful of Englishmen in the 17th and 18th centuries, then we have to ask: “What made liberal ideology new?” It was the answers that liberalism gave to the questions, “What are human beings? And what makes them come together to form political community?” And those answers were terribly wrong. They’ve yielded societies defined by eye-watering inequality, profound alienation, and the tyranny of the most selfish among us.

What are human beings? What makes us form political communities? Let’s turn to a living philosopher, I’ll tell you his name in a minute, to help us summarize the two starkly different sets of answers to these questions, the ancient answer and the relatively recent liberal one.

For a very long time, the core consensus of the Western tradition, as our thinker put it, was that human beings are naturally social. Political community comes naturally to the human animal, who yearns for the common good—which is also his or her own good as an individual who is part of the whole.

In this older telling, our philosopher said:

Freedom is not only the absence of external restraints. It’s about freeing ourselves from selfish passions, with politics and law helping guide us and helping us to fulfill our social natures, and thus to become more fully human. Liberal ideology trashed this core consensus. Human beings, for liberalism, are little more than self-interested brutes thrown into a brutish world and naturally at war with their fellows. We form political community because we fear each other. So the best we can achieve is to let everyone maximize his self-interest and hope the public good emerges spontaneously out of the ceaseless clash of human atoms.

Our thinker, the one we’ve summoned to present these two rival views, wasn’t very fond of the liberal answer. He doubted that people motivated solely by anxiety about their physical safety and the security of their property could build humane, decent societies. “The common good,” he worried, “disappears in societies founded upon individual self-interestedness.”

So who was he? I won’t keep you guessing any longer. It was none other than George Will, writing four decades ago. Today, he’s frequently a proponent of liberalism in its most extreme form: U.S.-style libertarianism. I don’t mention this to give George a hard time about his intellectual evolution. People are allowed to change their minds. I only turn to his earlier, wiser self because he did such a wonderful job framing our debate. “What are human beings? And why do we form community? Are we naturally social animals capable of discerning and building the common good? Or are we self-interested brutes who form a social contract out of bare necessity to protect ourselves from our rapacious neighbours?”

You’re welcome to choose that first set of answers, my friends. But before you do, keep three things in mind. First, as we said, liberalism is not a harmonious outgrowth of the Western tradition. It came as a shock to the value system the West had cherished for millennia. It was a rupture. The George Will of 1983 got the intellectual history right.

Second, remember that liberalism is not natural. The brutal state of nature is a philosopher’s myth, as is the atomized liberal individual. It took coercion on a monumental scale to bring about this liberal subject, to make reality out of the myth. We see this especially in economic history. To goad workers to compete individually in modern labour markets, the first liberal society, England, had to enclose and destroy the common grounds that had been used by peasants for grazing, blocking peasants from shared lands that permitted generations to sustain themselves in communities of leisure and mutual help.

The insecurity you feel in today’s labour market, that’s not natural either. Hedge funds and private equity firms destroying the real economy, privatizing the gains while socializing the costs. None of that is natural or fundamental to who we are. The minute that working people have the chance to resist any of this, they do something unliberal. They mount collective action. They form labour unions. They demand social solidarity and welfare. They defend society.

Third and finally, remember that liberalism has not overcome coercion in human affairs. Liberal societies are shot through with coercion, only it’s often meted out by private actors, which makes it harder in some ways to combat. Consider censorship—does it make any meaningful difference that today’s censorship is meted out by large privately owned corporations? Do a Silicon Valley dweebs’ Birkenstocks taste any better than a commandant’s boots? Here, liberalism’s faith in private self-interest has betrayed even its own aspirations toward open debate.

In 1983, George Will lamented that “A trait that used to be considered a defect, self-interestedness, had become the pillar of Western society.” He was right. Liberalism gets the big questions wrong, and so I urge you to oppose tonight’s motion. Thank you very much.

Opinion: Holocaust education in schools is a good start—and shows why facts matter

Commentary

Holocaust education will soon be mandatory for all high school students in British Columbia and Ontario. In B.C., Premier David Eby recently announced that Holocaust education will be added to the Grade 10 social studies curriculum by the 2025/26 school year. In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford is expanding Holocaust education in Grade 10, following a similar mandate last year. 

As long as the provincial government is going to establish the curriculum rather than simply outlining learning outcomes, the governments in B.C. and Ontario should be commended for this. But it raises the question as to why this wasn’t already the case—and what other historical knowledge are students missing? 

These initiatives come not a moment too soon. A survey conducted several years ago by the Azrieli Foundation, a Canadian-Israeli philanthropic group, found a stunning lack of knowledge about the Holocaust amongst Canadian youth. More than one-in-five young people weren’t sure what happened during the Holocaust. More than two-thirds didn’t know that six million Jews were killed.

Recent events make it clear that antisemitism remains a problem in Canada. Huge rallies across Canada actively praise the slaughter of 1,400 Jews in Israel by Hamas, a designated terrorist organization.

Irwin Cotler, former federal justice minister and Canada’s special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combatting antisemitism, says that today, Canada is experiencing the most significant rise in antisemitism since organizations began tracking it in the 1970s and that these views are becoming less fringe and more mainstream.   

Clearly, ensuring that all high school graduates have at least a basic familiarity with the horrors of the Holocaust is a good starting point.

But why was this topic not already in the B.C. curriculum? Any history curriculum worth its salt would obviously contain detailed information about one of the worst genocides in human history. Unfortunately, B.C.’s curriculum doesn’t place much emphasis on factual knowledge.

In a major overhaul that began under the previous government and has continued today, B.C. adopted a new curriculum emphasizing generic skills rather than specific content knowledge. As one promotional brochure from the government put it, the redesigned curriculum places “more emphasis on the deeper understanding of concepts and the application of processes than on the memorization of isolated facts and information.”

This statement promotes a false dichotomy. Memorizing facts does not hinder deeper understanding—it makes deeper understanding possible. You cannot think critically about something you know nothing about. Only when you possess background knowledge about a topic can you think critically about it.

For example, someone who knows nothing about the Holocaust won’t have anything useful to contribute if they are asked whether it makes sense to criminalize Holocaust denial, nor will they have an informed opinion about the proposed deportation of suspected Nazi war criminals. Content knowledge about the topic is essential for critical thinking to take place.

Interestingly, B.C. currently has a Grade 12 elective called “Genocide Studies.” At first glance, it might sound simpler to just make this course mandatory for all students and assume that students will learn about the Holocaust that way. However, the curriculum guide for that course is vague. While the guide says that students should learn what genocide is and provides some suggested topics, including the Holocaust, nowhere does it mandate any specific content. 

Simply put, Grade 12 students who take Genocide Studies might never learn about the Holocaust. Some teachers would no doubt cover this topic, but others may not. 

As long as provinces are in the business of determining curricula rather than simply mandating learning outcomes, the only way to ensure that the Holocaust is adequately taught in B.C. schools is to make it a part of the curriculum. But this alone is not enough. One cannot fully understand the Holocaust without understanding the events that led to it. Adolf Hitler did not arise out of a vacuum but was a product of his time. The First World War, the Treaty of Versailles, and the events that led to the Second World War are just some of the topics students must learn about.

In short, while B.C. and Ontario should move ahead with their plans to make Holocaust education mandatory, they should not stop there. Students in all grades deserve a knowledge-rich curriculum. Providing students with content knowledge is the key to breaking the cycle of ignorance.