The Left’s Problem of Ethical Insecurity

by Tony Judt, excerpted from his book, Thinking the Twentieth Century (The Penguin Press, 2012)

Michelle Armas: The Truth About Lies

Today it takes a very considerable degree of ethical self-confidence to say, as people used to as recently as the Watergate era, that such-and-such a person is a bad politician because he lies. Not because he lies as a spokesman for the arms lobby, or the Israel lobby, or the gun lobby, or whatever it might be—but because he lies. And if you make that case for honesty today, you’re likely to get a raised eyebrow. We all lie, they all lie, goes the reasoning. The question is: is he your liar or my liar?

The historical background to this disturbing loss of moral confidence seems to me in large amount the collapse of the old Left, with all its faults, and the attendant ascendency of the soft cultural Left. Thus American liberals feel vaguely uncertain about what exactly the ground is that they stand on when they say that they disapprove of something. We’re easier with the problem of good and evil if it is unambiguously located in another time (or place); we’re more comfortable saying we don’t like witch dunking, or we don’t like the Gestapo. But we are not always quite clear how we should state our opposition to, e.g., female clitorectomies in East Africa—for fear of giving cultural offense. And that hands huge hostages to those (normally but not always on the right) who, in a much cruder way, think they know exactly what’s right and wrong, false and real, and so on. The problem of ethical insecurity has kneecapped two generations of liberals.



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