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This Thanksgiving, We Are Grateful for the Enduring Vigor of Liberalism
And to all those around the world who refuse to give up on true freedom
Photo Credits, in order: RafaPress Images, Alexey Fedorenko, PhotoFriday (Shutterstock).
These are difficult times when the very foundation of the liberal order has been badly shaken by its enemies. But Thanksgiving is a day to count our blessings. So each member of our merry team at The UnPopulist lists one thing showing that liberalism may be down, but it is far from out. For all its (alleged) flaws it keeps ticking and delivering.
Aaron Ross Powell
I am thankful that the new owner of Twitter seems hell bent on destroying the platform. This surprises me because Twitter has been the hub of my online life for years, not just as a way to promote my work and get yelled at by the far right, but also as a source of genuine meaning and friendship. But the particular way Twitter is destroying itself, and the way its users have responded, speak —if you’ll allow me a little grandiosity—to the nature and value of liberalism.
The rough parallels between Elon Musk and Donlad Trump are obvious: In both cases a right-wing billionaire took over an important institution and proceeded to clumsily and maliciously break it. But Musk’s vandalism has triggered a mass migration of social media users, myself included, to Mastodon, an open-source and distributed social media site. Millions of people are moving to a new governance structure that better aligns with their personal needs and preferences.
This is a positive change for social media, but it also describes a fundamentally liberal way of thinking about a polity. Centralizing and concentrating power is a bad idea. Better to distribute power, flatten hierarchies, and lean into dynamic and open systems. This applies even when you're convinced, in this or that particular instance, that centralized and concentrated power can be wielded to serve what you consider to be laudable ends.
The core of liberalism is that individuals should be free to self-author, pursue their own ends, and define their own bliss. That communities should be voluntary, and the role of government and its institutions is to enable a pluralistic society to coordinate and thrive in safety and peace. This necessarily means distributing power, limiting government action to situations where there are no good alternatives, and allowing the individual choices of free people to drive dynamism and innovation.
Musk’s many and cascading failings are a high-profile and fast-moving illustration of why those fundamental liberal principles matter and what happens when you reject them in favor of centralized power wielded not to protect and maximize self-expression, but to ham-handedly extract resources while validating the cultural grievances and conspiratorial thinking of the reactionary right.
Watching Twitter’s rapid decline is sad. But the sudden interest in open, decentralized, and analogously liberal alternatives offers an encouraging way forward and a lesson we should apply not just online, but offline as well.
My expression of thanks takes place, like all gratitude, in an imperfect world. And as sometimes happens with gratitude, it begins with sorrow.
That sorrow starts in Ukraine. It is February 2014. A Russia-friendly Ukrainian president flees after being impeached by the country’s parliament. Shortly thereafter, armed soldiers in mysterious unmarked uniforms appear in the autonomous Ukrainian republic of Crimea and seize the regional parliament building. Over the next month, they and armed locals expand their reach across the Crimean Peninsula. A dubious Crimean referendum calls for the region’s annexation to Russia, and Russian President Vladimir Putin signs a treaty with Crimea to incorporate it into the Russian Federation. Putin later admits Russian soldiers were involved. In a matter of weeks, Crimea, a strategic foothold on the Black Sea, has fallen into Russian hands.
And in the months that follow, a similar force of armed soldiers in unmarked uniforms emerge in Russian-speaking regions of the Eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. The insurrectionists claim independence, and fighting breaks out between Ukraine, the Russian-supported separatists and, later, Russian troops. A U.N. commission concludes in December 2014 that the war has displaced more than half a million people within Ukraine.
Fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk subsides following a ceasefire agreement in February 2015, but doesn’t end. By 2021, Russia is massing its army along the Ukrainian border, and on February 24, 2022, Russia invades. The outcome of Putin’s eight years of cross-border subversion and contempt seems preordained.
Russia and its military dwarf Ukraine and its military; the onslaught comes from all sides. Russian forces press hard from the north toward the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, and they simultaneously attack from the northeast, the southeast from Donetsk and Luhansk, and the south from Crimea.
And yet … and yet … to the world’s astonishment, Russia’s thrust to Kyiv is repulsed by passionate Ukrainian resistance. In the following months, Russia’s advances grind to a halt.
And then, in August and September, Ukrainian forces, fortified by supplies from the United States and Europe, launch stunning counteroffensives in the northeast and south. Their success is astonishing. Russian forces are rapidly driven from previously held territories; Russian equipment and soldiers are captured along the way. The Russian retreat is so precipitous that Putin is forced to call up 300,000 Russian reservist-conscripts to continue the fight. Tens of thousands of these potential conscripts are reported to be escaping Russia.
What will happen next is unclear, and nothing is entirely black-and-white. Ukraine is admittedly a flawed democracy. One can debate the risks of U.S. and Western European support to Ukraine given that it is battling a nuclear-armed Russia. Some Western analysts also suggest that Russia has genuine national-security concerns that Ukraine might join—or essentially join—NATO.
But Putin has repeatedly refused to respect Ukrainian boundaries that Russia’s own parliament recognized in 1991. Whatever his country’s apprehensions, Putin’s contempt for Ukraine’s sovereignty and his brutal invasion were emphatically the wrong answers to those concerns— though in keeping with his country’s long history of mistreating its smaller neighbor. The human casualties of his machtpolitik, estimated at a quarter-million, are horrific.
So I can only be grateful that Ukrainian courage and cunning have left Putin, a dark-hearted secret-policeman and totalitarian bully, with his military humbled and his oppressive regime riddled with protests and desertions by his citizenry—and that the Western politicians who have openly admired Putin’s supposedly strong leadership are forced to explain why they praise a thug.
Sometimes, evil men are exposed and humiliated, just as they should be—and for that, and for the lesson it sends the world, I’m grateful.
I am grateful this Thanksgiving for the bravery and grace of the Iranian people. As the brutality of the mullahs against the three-month-long protests demanding an end to compulsory hijab has grown, so has the Iranian people’s resolve to wrest back their freedoms from the theocrats who have ruled their country with an iron fist for 33 long years. The latest—and perhaps most moving—expression of this determination is the Iranian soccer team’s refusal last week to sing the Iranian national anthem at the World Cup. The current anthem, adopted in 1990 after the death of Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, the dark-browed cleric best known for his death fatwa against Salman Rushdie, evidently celebrates the Great Islamic Mullahcracy of Iran.
The tidy, horizontal line of players, arms locked around each other’s shoulders, lips pursed, represented a silent “f…you” to the theocrats—and a quiet answer to their critics upset that they had not done more to support the protests until then.
At a time when Catholic Integralists—and other neo-right factions in the West—slam liberal societies for allegedly creating a Gomorrah on earth by allowing pronouns to proliferate and drag queen story hours to be hosted (in public libraries, no less!) and long to inject a little dose of Christian sharia of their own as a corrective, the Iranian struggle is a stark reminder that freedom, once surrendered, is hard to win back.
The protests were triggered three months ago by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iran’s moral police that had arrested her for the crime of allowing a few locks to escape her hijab. Since then, the mullahs have systematically ramped up their reign of terror in order to break the back of the resistance. According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency, at least 348 protesters have already been killed and 15,900 others arrested. Reports suggest that the Iranian police have taken to indiscriminately firing at protesters. Even more chillingly, five protesters have been executed without any trial or due process, their names not released. About 20 others may yet meet the same fate.
Still, there is no sign that the protesters are backing off. In fact, what started as a movement to end compulsory hijab, seems to be morphing into a full-blown revolution for secular rule. In other words, just when the Integralists and their illiberal brothers in the West are ready to scrap the separation of religion and state and curtail toleration for different lifestyles, Iranians are laying down their lives to jolt their government into respecting these basic liberal principles.
The mullahs’ terror tactics crushed the last mass protest in 2019 triggered by rising fuel prices—and the one before in 2018 against their economic policies. So they may well succeed again. But even their success will underscore the nobility of the Iranian struggle, not to mention the lesson to the newly minted band of illiberals in the West.
What is that lesson, exactly? Yes, the liberal commitment to political individualism can generate fads and excesses. Things can go wrong when imperfect individuals grope their way to better social alternatives. The pursuit of happiness does not mean the guarantee of happiness. But for all these downsides, what liberalism doesn’t do is leave streets bloody and littered with bodies. Only departures from it do that.
The great 13th century Sufi Persian poet Rumi wrote:
“You were born with potential. You were born with goodness and trust. You were born with ideals and dreams. You were born with greatness. You were born with wings. You are not meant for crawling, so don’t. You have wings. Learn to use them and fly.”
I am grateful that Iranians are finding their wings and mounting such a mighty struggle to clip those of their godless rulers.
Postscript: We are grateful for you, dear readers, who understand what we are trying to accomplish at The UnPopulist and send us messages like the one below. They are the fuel we need to keep going, so do please keep them coming.
Let me say how much I enjoy the newsletter. You are truly doing important work. I have become increasingly frustrated with the way the "right", of which I suppose I was a former member, has completely given up on things we used to take for granted: the rule of law, fair elections—just to name a few—and instead endorsed grievance politics, pro-Russia hagiography, the list goes on. The UnPopulist is a useful antidote.