The most recent terrorist attack at Champs-Elysees, the cultural heart of Paris, France cannot have come at a more interesting time. Elections there come at a time when tensions are already high following a spate of similar deadly attacks over the last two years. This latest one — which ISIS was quick to claim responsibility for — may just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and propel far-right leader Marine Le Pen into power. Le Pen’s campaign rhetoric virtually mirrors that of US President Donald Trump who won on a strong anti-immigration platform that surfs atop a growing popular backlash against many liberal ideals.
Perhaps it is an opportune time to pause and reflect on what drives people to gravitate towards the seductive populism of people like Le Pen, Trump, and even Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte who, though not fitting the same right-wing mold of the earlier two nonetheless commands a vast following even as he thumbs his nose at the old liberal guard that ruled the nation for decades. Much of what attracts people to these leaders and a return to the “traditional ways” that they promise lies in a disillusionment over left-of-centre values that had practically hardened into borderline-religious dogma over the last half-century.
The pillars of these liberal values, multiculturalism, gender equality, the welfare state, gay rights, and globalisation have once again become hot topics of debate. It is not as if these values were ever non-controversial, but with a media and entertainment industry controlled by a liberal-leaning oligarchy in the West (a situation mirrored in West-crazy but, still, southeast Asian Philippines), the “debate” around these had largely been crushed within the mainstream and in “polite” company for several decades.
Still, it is likely that the allure of conservatism remained alive and kicking in private company — openly discussed among close trusted friends and family behind closed doors. Certainly, the open-plan offices in hipster havens like Silicon Valley did not lend well to such “impolite” sorts of talk. Credit then goes to politicians like Le Pen and Trump who pulled all this out back into open chatter.
Conservatism remains successful because it draws from human beings’ natural inclinations — even instincts — to band together in like-minded (and like-skinned) cliques, suss out social hierarchy and find their place within it, look to a highly-structured and highly-prescriptive belief system (a.k.a. religion) to seek comfort within, and march to the tune of symbolism and groupthink. These inclinations, after all, are what savvy chieftains, politicians, religious leaders, warlords, and thought leaders used to organise large numbers of human individuals into the vast collectives that had, over the ages, come to be known as tribes, kingdoms, cities, states, nations, and armies.
Liberal ideals challenged this and from it came good things — social justice, the emancipation of women, scientific inquiry, and secularism. Unfortunately the pendulum, as it usually does, swung too far beyond these good things and out to the areas of thought that now fuel the anger that catapults populist politicians like Le Pen, Trump, and Duterte to power today.
Perhaps it is time to challenge the notion that certain liberal values are as “natural” to human society as liberals would like people to believe. Perhaps the belief that these are “natural” to society is just an outcome of decades of the subtle indoctrination Hollywood had effected during their long heyday when they monopolised information dissemination. It seems that it is no coincidence that, in an era where this monopoly had been broken and the power to communicate to a mass audience has become a accessible to all, the challenge to perverted liberalism has come back to the fore in full force.
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