The Ignoble Paradox of Modernity

As mentioned before, European and Western modernity itself can peak in either one of two ways. For one, it can peak into a kind of neoliberal cruelty, the predecessor of which was the colonial hegemony of the past five centuries. Or modernity can peak into a form of social democracy which would be inclusive and mutually beneficial for the overwhelming majority of people. As for the essence of colonial and neoliberal cruelty and hegemony, Cornel West wrote the following:

“The great paradox of Western modernity is that democracy flourished for Europeans, especially men of property, alongside the flowering of the transatlantic slave trade and New World slavery. Global capitalism and nascent nationalisms were predicated initially on terrors and horrors visited on enslaved Africans on the way to, or in, the New World.”

West added:

“This tragic springboard of modernity, in which good and evil are inextricably interlocked, still plagues us. The repercussions and ramifications of this paradox still confine and circumscribe us – in our fantasies and dreams, our perceptions and practices – in these catastrophic times.”

In turn, to a certain degree and extent, contemporary and present-day public discourse amounts to a denial and evasion of the sad and painful realities and truths behind what got us here as an industrial, modern, and technological society. 

Also, and as Cornel West noted, the modern experience in America and the shifting of its course and direction would be incomplete without an assessment and taking stock of one’s relationship with American Jews, given that American Jews are a visible and active force in the American public sphere. In an essay titled “Tensions With Jewish Friends and Foes,” West wrote about the complexity of his relationship with American Jews. Moreover, the complexity of the relationship with American Jews which West describes as having personally experienced is familiar to virtually all minority groups and individuals in America, including myself. 

Plus, an understanding of the “ignoble paradox of modernity” would be incomplete and worthless without an immersion into modern Jewish intellectualism. Marx, Freud, Wittgenstein, and Arendt, for instance, are crucial and essential for an understanding of modern realities and truths. And as West noted, a huge challenge for a modern American intellectual is balancing a critique of Zionism while respecting Jewish history and survival without appearing anti-Semitic. Thus, in order to carve out an enduring place in the American public sphere, one has to drive home the fact that a critique of Zionism and respect for Jewish culture, history, and survival are essentially two watermelons that can be held in one hand over the long run. 

There is also another important paradox at the heart of American public discourse aside from the paradox of modernity and the paradox of one’s complex relationship with American Jews, namely, the paradox of America as an empire and hegemonic global power on one hand, and America as a democracy and republic on the other hand. By what is seemingly an act of God, America managed to maintain to a certain degree and extent its democratic character over the course of the last three decades without becoming a kind of autocratic and totalitarian empire that students of history have read about. This one paradox of American public discourse can perhaps shape the other two major paradoxes of American public discourse which were mentioned before, given that there is a certain level of political and social action that is sustained through the course of time. 

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