I was invited to lecture on ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness in the Age of Global Terrorism’ at Missouri State University. Missouri is Trump country — he had a 70 per cent majority there. Some essential points are excerpted below.
The first seven words of the title belong to the 1776 Declaration of Independence from Britain: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
America’s founding fathers derived these ideas of equalitarianism from Europe’s then-bubbling cauldron of the European Enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson’s phrase “all men are created equal” is perhaps one of the best-known and profound sentences in the English language.
But truths once self-evident to Americans are no more evident to very many today. They elected a president who sees differences between men as more important than their equality. Had America’s judiciary not struck down his executive order banning Muslims from setting foot on America’s soil, I could not have delivered the lecture. Europe — from where the Enlightenment sprang — is witnessing the emergence of exclusionists like Marie Le Pen and Geert Wilders. This phenomenon begs an understanding.
Some blame this on terrorist acts perpetrated by certain Muslims. Indeed one must not dismiss the importance of fear. Terrorism terrifies. Crazed fanatics piloting airliners into skyscrapers or driving trucks into holiday crowds scare everyone out of their wits. But how seriously should one take this threat, and where did these monsters come from?
Truthfully, we all stand guilty. All scriptures contain a radical strain but whether or not that tendency gets developed and amplified depends on political circumstances. A significant part of today’s organised terrorist groups — though by no means all — originate from the actions of the US and its allies. There would be no Taliban or Al Qaeda but for Ronald Reagan’s obsession with the ‘Evil Empire’, and no IS but for George W. Bush’s criminal invasion of Iraq.
Terrorism alone does not explain why the US is drifting away from its wonderful enlightenment ideals.
Even so, terrorists — unless they somehow seize nuclear weapons — are not an existential threat to humanity. The number of victims of terrorism is small compared to wars, traffic accidents, killings by deranged individuals, etc. Terrorism alone does not explain why the US is drifting away from its wonderful Enlightenment ideals.
Among the real reasons is growing economic inequality. To profess equality of humans is one thing, to enforce and protect this principle is yet another. When differences of wealth and power become astronomically large, grand assertions lose meaning.
Example: A popular — but absurd — Urdu couplet tells of Mahmood (sultan) and Ayyaz (slave) magically becoming equals as they pray side by side. But could King Salman al-Saud — just back after traveling to Indonesia with 505 tons of expensive luggage — and a Javanese Muslim peasant become equals even if that poor chap somehow got within praying distance alongside the monarch?
The US is faced with an equally absurd situation. Extreme income inequality is imperiling its future, and a decent life for citizens is ever harder to achieve. American CEOs draw seven-digit salaries, workers just five-digit ones. University education is increasingly restricted to richer sections of society. Forty-eight years ago in Boston I could do a weekly average of 20 hours of menial labour and cover nearly half of my university education. Today the same number of hours would not pay for even an eighth.
The upsurge of angry populism is actually fuelled not by terrorism but by America’s losing out in the global race. This is the conclusion reached by a global investment firm (GMO) which recently carried out an extensive data-driven study of this phenomenon. The report details how neoliberal economic policies are leading the US towards disaster.
Arising in the 1970s, neoliberalism has four key economic signatures: the abandonment of full employment as a desirable policy goal and its replacement with inflation targeting; an increase in the globalisation of the flows of people, capital, and trade; a focus at a firm level on shareholder value maximisation rather than reinvestment and growth; and the pursuit of flexible labour markets and the disruption of trade unions and workers organisations.
The upshot: the US has increasingly become a winner-take-all society. According to Forbes, the combined net worth of the 2016 class of the 400 richest Americans is $2.4 trillion, up from $2tr in 2013. The New York Times reported that the richest 1pc in the United States now own more wealth than the bottom 90pc. An angry populace is vulnerable to hate-spouting demagogues who blame everyone — Chinese, Mexicans, and Muslims.
This is only going to get worse because the days of American hegemony are gone, as is its absolute dominance of the world’s economy. When crises threaten, people everywhere tend to retreat into their comfort zones. Resurgent tribalism, aggressive nationalism, and religious fundamentalism become more attractive. But these can only provide solace, not solutions.
It would be tragic if the US were to fail its own constitution. Many countries are not even formally committed to accepting the equality of their citizens, and many more sharply discriminate between them even while professing not to. Pakistan’s constitution explicitly distinguishes between Muslim and non-Muslim, Iran officially espouses vilayat-i-faqih (guardianship of Islamic jurists), Saudi Arabia prohibits all places of worship on its soil except mosques. Although Israel lacks a constitution because of a conflict between its religious and secular forces, legally, as well as in practice, it privileges Jews over non-Jews. And India, which was once committed to secularism, is now turning into a state for Hindus run by Hindus.
How can the future of humanity be protected against this return to primitivism? No magical force drives history; there is only human agency. We must therefore educate ourselves into rising above accidents of birth, think critically, examine facts before forming opinions, keep widening the scope of our knowledge and, above all, act compassionately. To fight for universal humanism, world citizenship, and for the Enlightenment spirit is the only option for a world where boundaries are increasingly irrelevant.