I’ve been reading a lot lately about the construction of the atomic bomb during World War II and in particular about the scientific community’s attitude toward the making and dropping of the bomb. And it’s interesting—and sad—to contrast that attitude with the attitude of many secular liberal intellectuals* in today’s war against Islamic fascism.
In the 1930s, it became clear to the world of western scientists—including, of course, many who fled Germany—that fascism was a threat, not only to the politically free nations of the world, but to science itself. The feeling that everything we know as civilization was under attack by an ideology steeped in ignorance, dogma, chauvinism, nostalgia, and of course racism, began with the Spanish Civil War; many on the left in Europe and America urged their governments to take that war seriously as the first step in a worldwide confrontation between civilization and barbarism, and many of them even volunteered to make war against the Nationalists in the name of secular values against fascism’s backward-looking, volkisch dogmas. (Many of them later felt deeply betrayed by the way the Soviet Union exploited their enthusiasm in the name of Stalin’s own tyranny, and then signed a pact with Hitler.)
As Germany fell deeper and deeper into the black hole, scientists like Leo Szilard felt themselves obligated to defend the human values of civilization: free inquiry, personal security, freedom of speech and belief and scholarship. And in August, 1939, knowing how close German scientists were to constructing a uranium bomb, Szilard drafted a letter to Franklin Roosevelt urging him to start an American bomb project; a letter he persuaded Albert Einstein to sign. In the years that followed, virtually every great name in physics took some part in creating the atomic bomb, a weapon of unimaginably devastating power. The roster of scientists involved in the Manhattan Project reads like a list of the world’s greatest scientists. Oppenheimer. Bohr. Fermi. Szilard. Rabi. Feynman. Teller. Why did these deeply peaceful men do this?
They felt it their obligation to defend the values of individualism and freedom of the mind against an aggressive ideology of ignorance, dogma, compulsion, uniformity, and authoritarianism. If the representatives of that ideology obtained the bomb first, they would win the war, and science itself might literally be wiped from the face of the earth, to be replaced with something they were unafraid to call by the names of “savagery” and “barbarism.” These men felt that the values of the open society were central to science, central to their work, central to human society and individual happiness, and they were willing to put themselves on the line for those values. (Of course, when the bomb was dropped on Japan, many of them, Szilard in particular, felt the west had made a horrific mistake—precisely because they did not believe that Japan presented the same kind of threat to human values.) They did not hesitate to see fascism as evil, to call it such, and to treat it as such.
Today, the west is confronted by an ideology of dogma, chauvinism, nationalism, and brutality—an ideology whose practitioners brutalize women and children, commit unimaginable acts of savage brutality, and who, if they had the power, would wipe away all free scientific inquiry, all freedom of speech, all dissent. This ideology is the aggressive Islam-inspired ideology loosely termed Islamofascism. Headquartered in Iran and Saudi Arabia, practitioners of this ideology are working aggressively toward obtaining a nuclear weapon with which to blackmail the free, secular nations of the world—and, not incidentally, to exterminate the Jewish nation of Israel.
What is the reaction of the secular liberal community? While there are a good many of them who have spoken out eloquently and powerfully in defense of the same human values their fathers defended—people like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens—a many others refuse to do so. They point their accusatory fingers instead at the west. They condemn American society as fundamentally racist and exploitative, and a pro-democracy foreign policy as "imperialistic" because it is “forcing” “our way of life” (i.e., freedom) upon other nations. Many of them even hesitate to use words like “terrorist” when describing terrorists. One rarely hears expressed the view that scientists and other secular intellectuals have any obligation to oppose the forces of barbarism—a word many of them would indignantly refuse to employ.
Why this difference? I see several reasons. The first, and most shocking, is moral relativism. While the scientific community in the 1930s did not hesitate to brand Nazism as evil, many if not most of today’s secularists consider “evil” to be an outmoded concept. They see morality as a matter of social convention; at bottom a purely subjective matter of personal taste. If the Islamic world practices brutal self-flagellation, subjects young girls to clitoridectomy, et cetera, et cetera, well, that’s just their way, and who are we to criticize? The idea that science is a practice rooted in propositions that themselves have moral significance—the very idea of universal moral significance—is simply not taken seriously. The idea of universal human values is regarded as, well, it often is not regarded at all. Our ideas of equality and individual rights are declared to be no more or less intellectually respectable than Sharia law.
In short, many secularists, terrified of being labeled an -ist, -ite, or -phobe, are unwilling to draw moral lines except within the boundaries of the United States (and even then, not against anyone of a different ethnicity). This is, of course, an utterly suicidal attitude.
Another, slightly more benign reason, may be the fact that the acceleration of the campaign against Islamic fascism has taken place under the Bush Administration. Scientists, who in my experience are usually astonishingly ignorant about politics, so thoroughly associate the Bush Administration with the religious right that they simply cannot accept the idea that the Administration is waging a war in defense of secular values against theocratic despotism. This reason may actually give grounds for hope that the Obama Administration (widely, if dubiously, assumed to represent secularism) will be more effective in rallying vital intellectual support for the campaign against the forces of what our grandfathers called anti-civilization.
There are, of course, other reasons. Many secular liberals simply think the war has been badly managed; they think invading Iraq was a mistake or a distraction, but they would be most willing to confront Iran over its nuclear weapons program, or perhaps they are outraged that America continues to make nice with Saudi Arabia. These are respectable positions, but these aren’t the folks I’m talking about.
What I wonder is: how can it be that secular liberals, who so strongly and rightly oppose the threat of religious tyranny in the west, who are participants in a tradition that defeated the forces of barbarism a half a century ago, are now so willing to make excuses for Islamic theocracy and to employ euphemisms for terrorism? If there are other reasons, I’d be curious to hear them.
What cannot happen, what must not happen, is a wholesale abandonment of the secular human values that the scientific community of the 1930s so proudly and laudably defended with their work and their reputations. If the secular liberal community continues to abide by moral relativism, and thus takes no action against the development of nuclear weapons by Iran, I believe the consequences will be catastrophic. Not only catastrophic internationally, but domestically, also. Without a solidly grounded, enthusiastic defense of universal human values against moral relativism, I believe the result within my lifetime will be the rise of a significant fascist movement within the United States.
As long as theocracy and the revolt against secular human values can find a safe shelter in the moral relativism of serious intellectual leaders, it will fester until at last it reaches the strength where it can no longer be dismissed as a nuisance.
The bottom line is that I believe we will soon face, if we do not already face, a choice not unlike that faced by Szilard and his contemporaries: a choice to put ourselves on the line in defense of universal human values. That defense may take many forms; for now, I believe simply articulating and intellectually defending them would be enough. But if we fail in that, we will find ourselves faced with that same choice in a far more terrible form.
*–I do not use the term “secular liberal intellectuals” as a pejorative, but as the best term I can think of for those who share a naturalistic, science-based worldview and a broadly liberal commitment to at freedoms of speech, press, &c. I’d use the term “Progressive,” but it comes with certain anti-freedom connotations that would be confusing. In the sense I’m using the term, I of course consider myself a secular liberal intellectual.
Update: Welcome LGF readers, and thank you for making this Freespace's biggest day ever (over 5200 hits so far today!). I have some responses to reader mail here.