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Jonathan Sacks wants to prevent the failure of liberal democracy
Britain’s preeminent Jewish thinker releases a new book on restoring common values in an increasingly fragmented society
Philosopher, writer, spiritual leader… soothsayer? Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has filled many roles, but even he could not predict the timeliness of his latest book Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.
“A free society is a moral achievement,” Sacks, formerly the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain, opens. “Over the past fifty years in the West this truth has been forgotten, ignored, or denied. That is why today liberal democracy is at risk.”
The last portion requires little further elaboration. Any casual glance at the current state of the Western world reveals the fragmentation of a society in an era of rising tensions. But rather than dwell only on describing the existence of these problems — as many recent authors have done — Sacks follows their historical and philosophical origins to understand how what he calls the “moral achievement” of creating a liberal society could become forgotten.
The book, which is released today for American audiences by Basic Book, examines what Sacks terms the “I” of self-interest and the “we” of shared values and responsibility, ultimately providing a pathway for moving from the former to the latter.
In doing so, Sacks provides as good an argument as any for moving forward productively and conscientiously.
Sacks — who studied philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge, including under the late Roger Scruton — mixes sociology, history, philosophy and theology, all the while writing with a perceptive clarity and underlying warmth that explains his status as one of the foremost Jewish thinkers of today.
Building his argument from the ground up, Sacks starts with the roots of free society in examining the political philosophies that not only informed the creation of modern democracy, but also developed the idea of individuality and personal liberties.
In his chapter “Democracy in Danger,” Sacks contrasts the two most influential definitions of the social contract that defines liberal democracy: Rousseau’s definition of rights as rendered by individuals against the state versus Locke and Hobbes’ definition of rights as a mutual protection from the state. He warns that a growing Anglo-American preference for the former belies the importance of shared responsibility in a democracy, writing that if communities “stop believing in the existence of a significant arena of individual responsibility, we will lose the sense of common morality that finds its natural home in families and communities.”
Sacks further connects this thread to Anglo-American society’s growing sense of separation and loneliness, joining a long list of thinkers — including Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker — in citing the twin processes of social media use and identity politics as driving factors in an epidemic of isolation and fragmentation that has increasingly transformed Western politics.
In an interview with Jewish Insider, Sacks cited the multiculturalism that began in the 1970s and more recent identity politics each as a wave that “fragments and destroys the idea of an overarching culture that turns disconnected individuals and communities into a cohesive society.”
While he reserves no criticism, Sacks treats these movements and their disciples with evident care, describing them as unfortunate products of postmodernism rather than simply the work of ill-intentioned radicals seeking disruption.
“The first country to introduce multiculturalism, and the first to regret it, was the Netherlands.” Sacks writes in his chapter on identity politics. “When asked why they were against it, the Dutch people interviewed said: because they were in favor of tolerance. When asked for their explanation of the difference between the two, they tended to reply that tolerance means ignoring differences; multiculturalism means making an issue of them at every stage.”
In most Western countries, that heightened focus on identity has coalesced into nationalism, the return of which has become especially apparent across Europe. As history shows, the products of such movements ultimately target the foundations of liberal democracy, while including a rise in antisemitism and other forms of hatred.
The way forward, Sacks argues, requires an acceptance of difference alongside a shared cause, more commonly and aptly called patriotism.
In conversation with JI, Sacks cited George Orwell’s differentiation of the two in his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism,” during which the English novelist wrote, “The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”
Patriotism, Sacks argues, is the best means to turn from “I’ to “we.” Inserting a shared commitment and shared values without erasing individuality or identity. Throughout his book, Sacks also refers to this commitment as a “covenant,” a permanent and powerful collaboration that turns individual “I”s seeking personal good into “we”s seeking common good.
Yet many of the examples of success that Sacks cites from the 19th and 20th centuries were precipitated by violence, including the Civil War and World War II.
Sacks readily acknowledged this pitfall. “Violence is always a sign of political failure,” he said.”I would hope that wise political leadership will lean in to people suffering early enough to avoid the need for violence”
In his epilogue, Sacks touches on this subject, contrasting the different responses to World War I — which saw few changes and ultimately led to more chaos — and World War II — which saw a reformation of institutions and a commitment to shared values.
The latter saw a development of national narratives that inculcated a common morality and sense of commitment.
Now, 75 year later, these narratives are depleted. “Britain, like America, has recently become sort of ashamed of its national narrative,” Sacks remarked, noting that he has spent time working alongside numerous prime ministers in an effort to resurrect a respectable replacement. He cited the popular Broadway musical “Hamilton” as an important example of renewing old values by “[retelling] the national narrative in a thrilling way.”
But broader than hit musicals, Sacks argued that the most effective and immediate move towards reinstating a shared commitment lies in requiring mandatory national military service.
Citing Israel — which he called one of the best examples of a current Western-style democracy with a “we” culture — described national service as “the most sensible socially and financially way of engaging that generation and getting them to feel that this was something other than a black period in their lives.”
But Sacks wisely advised that no quick fix exists.
“You don’t expect quick victories. When it comes to changing the mood, we expect to win a few cycles,” he said. “And then they generate disciples and before you know it, the world has changed. But it changes in very small steps at the beginning.”