It seems like liberal democracy has got a bad name at the minute.  Some of this is very likely the fault of its most avid practitioners, who all got a bit bewitched by Hayekian / Miltonian laissez faire economics, served us up the 2008 crash and have since, dazed and confused, retreated to a safe distance avoiding any meaningful attempts at regulation that might prevent future crises.

And yes, it’s healthy to be angry at the casino capitalism and the technocratic political class who endorsed its hegemony.  I’ve been there.  The anger has been cathartic. However, of late, one can’t help but worry that there’s a serious chance of throwing the baby out with the bathwater in how we respond to this.

The edifice of classical liberalism is built on John Stuart Mill’s (and others) model of individualism.  The right to privacy, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and general civil liberty should be guaranteed provided Mill’s ‘harm principle’ is not invoked.  When paired with a government with limited power, the individual is free in his / her Jeffersonian ‘pursuit of happiness’.  Now, we can all surely agree this is a good thing for the individual citizen?  If we don’t, perhaps we need to look at the middle ages when unaccountable monarchical and clerical power held sway, or alternatively to any of the theocracies currently extant in our world.  Do these places look like societies you’d want to live in?

It took the events of the 30 years war and the treaty of Westphalia in 1648 for Europeans to initially realise a level of tolerance in religion was likely a good thing. Since then we’ve seen the embrace of  Enlightenment values pertaining to gender, race and sexual orientation.  The expanding circle of the moral zeitgeist has reduced much discrimination and suffering in our society.  Go see Steven Pinker’s ‘Better Angels of Our Nature’ for a much more thorough history.  These advances in moral and ethical thought and action are all gains of social liberalism. And for left of centre persons such as myself, I feel we have to admit that the economic underpinning of this moral progress was capitalism.  At Bretton Woods, a mere few miles from where I write this, the post second world war political and economic consensus was drawn up, and the general realisation was that keeping a lid on violence was likely to be aided and abetted by the creation of a prosperous middle class with social mobility.  Voila, the second half of the twentieth century.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s / early 1990s, socialism and ‘the left’ in general, including social democracy, took a considerable ideological hit.  The philosophical underpinnings of state planned and run economies were tossed on the fire overnight and capitalism declared the outright victor.  The abuses of totalitarian socialism only helped to bolster the canard that any state interference in the economy was evidently a bad thing.  Capitalism, intoxicated on the fumes of ideological supremacy, took some anti regulatory steroids, swelled in size and then ultimately drunk the Kool Aid that caused the crash of 2008.  Backing up the crony capitalistic system was the use of the philosophical tenets of social liberalism in an economic setting.  Limited state power, rugged individualism and reduced regulatory oversight.

And so, we’re left with the conundrum. Liberalism is Janusian, its social aspect has benefitted us greatly, its neoliberal economic aspect, not so much.  Into this fray we see a void that liberal democrats everywhere have retreated from.  Their gods have failed and human nature abhors a vacuum.  The extreme elements of the left and right have seen fit to colonise this territory and present us with equally simplistic, and subsequently seductive, solutions to our problems.  On the right, the charge of cultural decadence coupled with prurient anger at social liberalism tells us we’ve reaped the whirlwind like some modern Rome with the Barbarians at the gates. If only we could make ourselves ‘great again’, harking back to an era that never existed, when women, gays and minorities knew their place.  On the left, the equally vociferous argument for completely tearing up capitalism and instituting some Trotskyist proletarian utopia whilst blaming all the worlds ills on ourselves is in the air.  The irony of such views being peddled by keyboard warriors on social media using modern consumerist goods is too delicious to not point out.  In tough times however, against this pincer movement, modern liberalism has little chance.  ‘The centre cannot hold…..the best lack all conviction,  while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’  Yeats’ words neatly sum up the worst of the demagogues now lining up to take advantage of the crisis in liberalism. Trump, le Pen, Galloway et al.

So why care? Anyone who grew up in the 20th century and benefitted from the social stability and advantages of western democracy should be suspicious of views to consign liberalism to the dustbin.  Yes, it is imperfect as recent experience shows, but compared to other political systems, it is infinitely preferable.  The political experiments of absolute monarchies, theocracies, totalitarian fascism and communism should disavow us of any inclination to embrace any aspect of their ideologies.  Liberal democracy is worth defending.

Economic neoliberalism has certainly let us down.  It has presided over gross economic inequality, reduced social mobility and stands poised to poison the planet.  And yet, any serious appraisal of it demonstrates that it isn’t true liberalism – it has caused the very societal and individual ‘harms’ that Mill invoked as reasons in support of state intervention.  Hayek himself even recognised that harmful externalities to markets should be regulated by government intervention, in particular environment damage.  The laissez faire economic doctrine, like any religion, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in light of 200.  If socialism means anything nowadays, perhaps it should be to save capitalism from its worst excesses.  There has to be a sensible role for government in our lives, our experiences to date should move all of us to build a better liberalism, not to consign it to history.  There is room for conservatism here, in keeping the hard won social gains and tolerance the old system has given us and also space for radicalism in reshaping how our states oversee our financial systems.

Antonio Gramsci said ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’.  This feels prescient.  We have a duty to oppose the political extremes and defend liberalism.  If we don’t, we should know all too well, like Goya, that ‘the sleep of reason produces monsters’.

 

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Around February this year, I found out I’d been lucky enough to earn a 3 month Fulbright Scholar’s Award to visit the University of New Hampshire. My proposal, written the previous November was to do some biological research on the veterinary disease brucellosis. Brucellosis is a fairly nasty disease that can affect humans as well as other animals (a zoonosis), resulting in economic losses for industry and spontaneous abortion and infertility.  Aside from these horrors, truly, every cloud has its silver lining and there are some equine gifts whose teeth you should always refuse to inspect. The expansive and well curated sample set we assembled from the epidemic are something of a golden egg as regards bacterial genetics research. Our plan for the use of this unique resource was to perform genome sequencing of carefully selected bacterial strains to see if we could learn something about our epidemic’s history and spread across the landscape. Modern genomics is radically changing our perspective of bacterial evolution, but also giving us insights that are of immense practical benefit in tackling disease. As the final days of my stay count down, I’ll hopefully be wrapping up the genetic analysis I’m doing and getting an idea of what we can publish in the coming months. Alongside the aforementioned focus of my research work, I’ve been able to contribute to two potential future publications in the area of veterinary pathogen genetics. It’s been a productive time. Being free from work concerns back home (a big thank-you to my employer the Agri Food and Biosciences Institute) and able to focus exclusively on this project has been rewarding.

You will be pleased to hear however that this is as far as I will go in detailing the minutiae of my work here. Like a boring guest at a dinner party who’s had a little too much Malbec, and just noticed, mid pontification, his wife’s eyes narrowing across the table at him, deploying her almost imperceptible tilt of head and pursing of lip that signal ‘enough already’, we’ll agree to leave it there.

So aside from my work, and not to be existential about it, why am I here? I’d be lying if I said the idea of visiting New England in the Fall wasn’t an attraction. That autumnal equinox quality of light casting longer shadows, blending with the near luminous red of maples, has been every bit as beautiful as I’d imagined. There is however more to it than that. I’ve always been something of an Americaphile. To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens regarding his transatlantic translocation and change of citizenship, there has always been an irresistible draw for me to the US. The draw comes of course from the sense that this place feels like the globe’s centre of gravity, sucking you inexorably in. The ‘modern Rome’ that Elbow’s Guy Garvey so effortlessly name checks may well be New York in his reckoning, but his insight, I think, applies more broadly to the United States as a whole. This place is indeed an Empire. A stroll along Washington’s National Mall confirms it. An Empire of ideas and culture. The capital of the republic of letters for my money.   Hence the desire to come and participate however fleetingly.

The 20th Century I grew up in is commonly referred to as the ‘American century’, and you’d be hard pushed to disagree with that sentiment. Global culture has pivoted around the fulcrum of US film, television, writing, music, science and politics for as long as I can remember. Along the way there have been the milestones that take the breath away – Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Alexander cut the Gordian knot on the way to conquering Asia and the United States landed people on the moon. The latter is to my mind potentially the greatest single achievement of the descendants of a primate that 3.5 million years earlier was leaving its footprints in volcanic ash in what became Tanzania, never dreaming that one day, similar footprints would be left on another world that hung in the night sky, seemingly out of reach. My wife’s grandfather often spoke of seeing the world go from the horse and cart to Apollo in his lifetime. A leap of extraordinary proportions underpinned by the accretion of millennia of hard won knowledge. And behind it stood the economic muscle, academic literacy and scientific know how of a country hitting its stride with a swagger. Much to admire. Small wonder then that Michael Collins, the man in charge of the Apollo 11 Command Module whilst Aldrin and Armstrong took their ‘small step’, has noted with amusement that people all over the world referred to how ‘we’ as a species had went to the moon. ‘We’ all wanted a part of this. The gravitational draw was in motion again. All roads led to Rome, and it felt good to walk those roads.

Along the way of course, there were some sights you didn’t want to see. No country is perfect, because no human being, the fallible building block of all nations, can claim to be perfect. Thomas Jefferson can write about the ‘self evident’ truths that all men are ‘equal’ with Lockean ‘inalienable rights’, and still get blind sided by slavery. Lincoln can hark back to the Declaration ‘four score and seven’ years later in a quest for emancipation and still not deliver on an enlightened attitude to his fellow human beings who just happened to have a different skin colour. The price of great rhetoric is that sooner or later someone holds your feet to the fire to deliver on it. Whilst US history has its obvious and substantial blemishes, it hardly feels fair for a denizen of Northern Ireland to finger wag however. Despite the original sins that lie in our countries’ pasts, perhaps the thing we can learn from the US is the capacity to continually re-invent ourselves, and the force for progress and change that can bring. Dr King’s prophetic words about the moral arc of the universe eventually bending ‘towards justice’ ring true in this context. This is perhaps where human exceptionalism, never mind American, resides. Nostalgia for times that sometimes never were can be comforting to some, but moving ever onwards to better pastures is more in keeping with our pioneer nature. Reconciling the need to preserve the good in our pasts and yet moving forward to address the bad remains our defining conflict in probably all societies. Conservatism and Progressivism continue their dance, and it’s not a rumba. There’s more than a shade of Argentine tango in there. Just as there are two Northern Irelands, there are two Americas and progress depends on all parties within each country completing their routine in partnership.

To some at home the US can appear monolithic and homogeneous, a place that is unfairly generalized in a straw man manner by the worst examples of a minority of its citizenry.  We have a similar phenomenon in Belfast. Senator Fulbright himself voiced his embarrassment about this in ‘The Arrogance of Power’, channeling Mark Twain’s ‘The Innocents Abroad’. In this regard, baseball is instructive. Honestly. The philosophical life of many humans has been influenced by baseball metaphors for a long time – the unexpected ‘coming out of left field’, a particularly good performance being ‘a home run’ etc. Despite this sport’s metaphorical presence in my own culture, I have often heard the US national pastime disparaged at home as no more than corporately sponsored ‘rounders’, hopelessly missing the point, the skill and the passions involved. This is a game of tremendous nuance, where advantage swings back and forth between pitcher and hitter like a metronome with arrythmia.   It’s compelling and rewarding stuff when you actually get up close and make an effort to understand it. The US is to my mind the same in macrocosm. Complex, diverse and rewarding.  One of my hosts here has beautifully described US politics as the unpleasant locking of horns and head butting so often seen in the animal kingdom. Once in a while, as a result of the spectacle, something falls out that has great utility, through intention or serendipity. Such events are currently in rare supply in Washington and Belfast it seems. However, hope springs eternal that on our good days we can find Lincoln’s ‘better angels of our nature’. Against the backdrop of what has happened recently in Paris , we need to. Senator Fulbright’s desire for a future shaped by a liberal education and greater understanding remains a worthy and necessary goal.

And so, with only four weeks left, I’ll soon have to painfully extricate myself from the heightened gravity here and make my way back home, where no doubt it’ll feel a little odd for a while. Although perhaps like Aldrin and Armstrong I’ll find I’m able to jump a little higher and a little farther. The entire process has been wonderful. I’ve met some really great, wise and generous people and I’ve found myself challenged on a number of prior assumptions. Thank-you to Senator Fulbright and the US-UK Fulbright Commission, you’ve given me a second home, one I will be proud to visit again. Thanks also to the University of New Hampshire at Durham and specifically to my colleagues at the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture.  And finally, very big thanks to my hosts in Durham at Madbury Road.