At the beginning of the 1920s the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism.
No one was more distressed than Einstein by this public misapprehension. He was bewildered by the relentless publicity and error which his work seemed to promote. He wrote to his colleague Max Born on 9 September 1920: ‘Like the man in the fairy-tale who turned everything he touched into gold, so with me everything turns into a fuss in the newspapers.’ Einstein was not a practicing Jew, but he acknowledged a God. He believed passionately in absolute standards of right and wrong.
He lived to see moral relativism, to him a disease, become a social pandemic, just as he lived to see his fatal equation bring into existence nuclear warfare. There were times, he said at the end of his life, when he wished he had been a simple watchmaker.
The public response to relativity was one of the principal formative influences on the course of twentieth-century history. It formed a knife, inadvertently wielded by its author, to help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture.
And in a 2005 essay on the dangers of multiculturalism, “The Slipperiest -Ism,” reprinted at the newly spiffed-up Steyn Online.com, Mark Steyn writes that the age of moral relativism lingers on, with ominous results for the west:
There’s always been a market for self-loathing in free societies: after all, the most effectively anti-western idea of all was itself an invention of the West, cooked up by Karl Marx while sitting in the Reading Room of the British Library. The obvious defect in Communism is that it’s decrepit and joyless and therefore of limited appeal. Fascism, likewise, had many takers in those parts of the cultural West that were politically deficient – i.e., continental Europe – but it had minimal support in the heart of the political West – i.e., the English-speaking world. So the counter-tribalists came up with something subtler and suppler than Communism and Fascism – the slipperiest -ism of all. The great strength of “multiculturalism” is not that it’s an argument against the West but that it short-circuits the possibility of argument. If there’s no difference between English Common Law and native healing circles and Tamil Tiger fundraisers and gay marriage and sharia, then what’s to discuss? Even to want to debate the merits is to find oneself on the wrong side – for, if the core belief of multiculturalism is that there’s nothing to discuss and everything’s equally nice and fluffy, then to favour honest argument puts you, by definition, on the extremist side.
I’m sure most of my colleagues at the Western Standard have found themselves in this situation on call-in shows or at public meetings. You point out, say, that there are very few “free” Muslim societies. And your questioner retorts: “Well, that’s just your opinion.” And so you pull up a few facts about GDP per capita, freedom of religion, life expectancy, women’s rights, etc. And she says: “Well, you’re just imposing your values on them.” And you realize that the great advantage of cultural relativism is that it renders argument impossible. There is no longer enough agreed reality. It’s like playing tennis with an opponent who thinks your ace is a social construct.
Or riding on the “intercontinental railroad” that is the “Atchison, Topeka and the St. Tropez,” to borrow from Steyn’s latest post at the Corner, a hilarious punning headline making sport of a president who doesn’t realize how much of America is increasingly in on the joke.