Newshounds my age recall the 20th Century, when democratic ideology stood up to, and ultimately outlasted, a string of autocratic political ideas: imperialism during WWI, fascism during WWII, Communism during the Cold War. But since 1991, when the USSR collapsed, Western democracy has wheeled through multiple enemies, latterly settling on international terrorism, though struggling to identify what “terrorism” means. Though radicalists still stage salutary challenges, we lack serious threats, which evidently bothers some powerful people.
Franco-Bulgarian critic Tzvetan Todorov, who grew up under Communism, knows something about institutional enemies. From Warsaw-pact governments that maintained order by squelching dissent, to rah-rah democracy that catered to citizens’ appetites, he’s experienced a range of modern social orders. While he agrees that democracy trumps its autocratic challengers, he contends the last generation or so has seen a radical shift in Western democracy’s self-figuration. In a world without global enemies, democracies simply invent their own.
American readers will primarily recognize Todorov from his literary criticism. But he’s actually written more social criticism, including revisionist takes on the American frontier myth, and the role of conflicting humanisms in European thought. His work has a strange duality: though packed with dense implications, in that French école normale style, yet written in unaffected language committed laypeople can understand. His writing isn’t easy by any stretch. Yet he unfolds splendidly for curious, resourceful readers.
Todorov’s own religious inclinations remain unclear in this text; he keeps spiritual themes cagily impersonal. But despite citing religious analogies, he presents a wholly humanist examination of human social structure. He asserts, like Durkheim, that in a secular age, government assumes roles once belonging to God. And as Augustinian determinism or Pelagian liberty condition believers’ relationship to divine authority, today’s modern philosophic debates center on whether ordinary citizens must challenge or submit to human power.
This takes multiple forms. Todorov dedicates his longest discourse for what he terms “political messianism.” If the state is God, and democracies outlast other ideologies (for Todorov, “democracy” and “capitalism” are interchangeable), it follows that democracy offers the proven route to secular salvation. Todorov deplores when the powerful use “free speech” to excuse beating down already-oppressed populations. He also notes the correlation between populism and xenophobia; French paranoia about headscarves looms large in Todorov’s examinations.
Unsurprisingly, in an originally Francophonic book, Todorov addresses French democracy, and EU governance more broadly, in ways Americans aren’t accustomed to hearing from our media. (First published in French in 2012, it debuted in English in 2014. I commend translator Andrew Brown for negotiating concepts with no one-to-one equivalents.) Though he addresses America’s War on Terror, this Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkey saves his greatest disdain for that corporatist toad-eater, Nicolas Sarkozy. His language is frankly bracing.
Readers may recognize one theme Todorov repeatedly addresses without directly naming it: the Western will to martyrdom. When he quotes a Danish editor comparing himself to medieval reformists for mocking Muslims, a systematically marginalized minority, I had an insight. American conservative evangelicals tout their supposed oppression, despite Christianity’s outright majority. Powerful majorities yearn for oppressed status; Todorov writes, “It has to be said that, these days, the figure of the victim exerts an irresistible attraction.”
Reading this directly after the Charlie Hebdo massacre gave Todorov’s message an urgency he couldn’t have anticipated. French law protects certain minorities; shortly after the Charlie Hebdo killings, French authorities arrested a comedian for an anti-Semitic Facebook post. Charlie mocked a powerless, ostracized minority, then cried foul when that minority, defenseless in either government or media, hit back. The subsequent crocodile tears weren’t about free speech; they basically manufactured, or recycled, a new global enemy.
This book carries the shock of recognition. Todorov repeatedly hits informed readers with insights we’ve not suspected, but have lingered unspoken behind public discourse in our time. Spokespeople for democracy’s competing visions offer powerful, but incompatible, narratives of various enemies whose overwhelming, malignant might altogether jeopardizes modern freedom, because fear of totalitarian foes energizes free citizens. But in a world where global enemies offer only symbolic challenges, democracy’s real enemies dwell within our own borders.