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Fareed Zakaria Interviews Berggruen Prize Laureate Charles Taylor

The Berggruen Prize Gala on December 1st celebrated the life and work of philosopher Charles Taylor. As part of the celebration, CNN's Fareed Zakaria interviewed Dr. Taylor on his ideas and impact.

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On ideological confrontation in the world today
 
Zakaria: What I thought we’d do, since you’ve written in a way that is both comprehensible to the lay person and relevant to the real world that I thought we would talk a little bit about how your ideas impact the world we live in today.

In 1989, when the Soviet Union was collapsing and Francis Fukuyama famously said: “This is the end of History” and lots of people mistakenly thought he meant the end of history small “h”. But he meant it in a Hegelian sense, the great contest of ideas that had shaped the 20th Century had ended and there was no longer an ideological rival to liberal democratic capitalism on the horizon. I think that was broadly accurate. But it feels to me that we are now in a different moment and there do seem to be ideas popping up that sit in opposition to the ideas of liberal democracy, capitalism, and they are rooted in people’s sense of identity or their sense of loss of identity. I was wondering whether you thought this mix of populism, nationalism and anti-liberalism that seems to be spreading around the Western World is some kind of a new ideology that we should be paying attention to. 

Taylor: It’s a very old phenomenon, particularly, when you get great mobility in the world. When people in a given society that have always been of a certain ethnic group or religion, such mobility always creates, at first, cultural fear. Something that I don’t think you should moralize about, it’s just a feeling. Now, we had a fantastic run in certain Western democracies. We managed to somehow overcome the fear with future-oriented ideas, “these people can contribute something”,” we can get to know each other”. Places like Toronto have been tremendously successful in that. So the question is, why did that success end? Not that this something new, but what was new was our ability to overcome that degree of cultural fear. It was a really fantastic achievement in certain societies. 
 
“What does the promise of the great liberal democracy really amount to?”

Zakaria: The success was anomalous; we are, in a sense, returning to the norm.
 
Taylor: We are returning to the norm because of certain conditions. That succeeding rising prosperity, the whole hope that every generation would be better off than its parents, when that came into question in a lot of countries people began to wonder: “What does the promise of the great liberal democracy really amount to?” Trump is a very good example of that, right?
 
On why Trump won the U.S. election
 
Zakaria: That places some stress on the economic conditions and the sense of slow growth and stagnation, but I wonder if there’s another piece to it as well. My dissertation advisor was Sam Huntington, at Harvard, and the last book he wrote was called Who Are We?. The basic argument was America has fooled itself into thinking that it is a nation constructed simply on a political idea, a creed. It is actually a country that is based on a different idea, which is dissident Protestantism, a particular religious view, and a deep ethnic identity that comes from that. Now people can assimilate to that ethnic identity and there have been Jews and Germans and Italians and Irish who’ve been able to assimilate to it, but that is the core identity. What he predicted in that book, which was widely regarded as racist and politically incorrect, he said: “What you are beginning to see is a cosmopolitan elite in America that believe that the only thing you need for nationalism is these ideas and these ideologies and they are getting disconnected from the ordinary American and there will be a backlash.” I’m wondering whether, because you’ve written so much about this idea, is cosmopolitan and liberalism not enough of an identity to stir men’s souls?

Is cosmopolitan and liberalism not enough of an identity to stir men’s souls?
 
Taylor: Certainly not, because cosmopolitanism means, you’re not attached to any land, any particular place. Democracies can’t work unless all the members of the society are very strongly attached to our identity, our particular project. Otherwise we don’t agree to any kind of solidarity, any kind of redistribution, and people don’t have a motivation to participate. So the great trick of keeping this going forward is not cosmopolitanism. It’s constantly recreating the national identity to include other people. Now America has tremendous historic success. I mean Huntington is right, it all started with Protestants back in 1830 when the Irish were looked down on as Papists that don’t belong here. A lot of those divisions, by some kind of assimilation, not to Protestantism but to something, over generations has succeeded in keeping America going. Now, at a certain point, you could argue that some of the differences get too big to be overcome and in a short space of time, and that may be part of what is going on. But if you look at the long, long period of history, you discover that if in a generation you avoid doing something totally irreparable, to breach the society, over time, if the country keeps moving economically; the kids of these different groups go to school together and everyone overcomes that. But it’s that short term when there’s a temptation to do something irreparable. A lot of our Western societies, like France for instance, that’s what they’re now doing.
 
 
On  the American identity
 
Zakaria: When you look at America over the last two or three weeks, we’ve all puzzled over what happened. One of the things people talk about is that working class, non-college educated and rural whites voted with a sharper sense of identity. I’m wondering what you make of it, was it class identity that they were asserting? Is it their white identity? When you look at this picture what is it that struck you?

There was no viable alternative to the particular toxic mix of identities that Trump put together
 
Taylor: What struck me was that of course they were very different. There were certain Evangelicals who voted because Trump was maybe going to name justices in the Supreme Court. There were people out of work that thought he was the one to fix globalization. There was a whole mix of these things. This particular mix, this toxic mix, was only some of the possible ways these people could have been mobilized. If you’d had another kind of program that could reach their actual needs, things could have been moved in another direction. There was just no kind of alternative solidarity on offer for these people because they didn’t think the system could help them. The system seemed incapable of producing stimulus packages that could reach their needs. There was no viable alternative to the particular toxic mix of identities that Trump put together.
 
Zakaria: Professor at Columbia, Mark Lilla argues that this was the logical consequence of a democratic party and liberal movement that had focused too much on identity politics. That the entire project of the last two or three decades has been to celebrate racial, ethnic and gender identities and if you play that game don’t be surprised if whites also celebrate, think about and vote on the basis of their identity.  Is there a danger that if you celebrate difference you reap what you sow?
 
Taylor: I don’t see any logic in that. But everyone is into identity politics. If you include in identity politics: “We believe in this republic because it has done something new in history, it’s created opportunities” if that is identity politics just as much as “I’m white and you’re black” and vice-versa, then everybody is voting identity politics. 
 
That democracy is run on this very powerful sense of patriotism, on some grounds. What we’re really dealing with is a desertion of identity politics of a kind founded on these very profound principles, not just because we read Immanuel Kant, but because we’re proud of being Americans. Americans are always saying “We invented this, we’re the first really free society” and we’re very glad that’s what people are rallying around. In that broad sense of identity politics there has never been anything else, any democracy. If you have a dictatorship, it’s another matter. But you have to mobilize people. What kind of identity is winning out? There is a complex story in any society but if you put all of these people in the same category then what do you have elections around? 
 
On what keeps an identity going 
 
Zakaria: What is that common identity that we will eventually get that is not just ideology? In other words, without religion at the core, what is it that will keep people feeling bonded. You say, for example, that your core identity when you were growing up was actually Catholic. 
 
Taylor: That’s not entirely true, I had a very mixed family, you know: Protestant father, Voltairian grandfather. 
 
Zakaria: I like Voltairian as a religion. 
 
Taylor: (Laughing) Yeah!

 Zakaria: I think I will adopt that. 
 
Taylor: As my grandfather did. Our family ideology was “Look we can get on together because we represent something”. So what is it that keeps an identity going? It’s not just the principles it’s our particular historical project of realizing the principles. I listen to Americans talk, they don’t say “It’s just liberalism or equality.” They say: “We invented liberalism and equality!” Right? I listen to my French friends and say they say: “We invented  Liberté, égalité, fraternité!” It’s the pride in that project that keeps people going, not just subscribing to it in general. When Quebec proposed this terrible charter of Laïcité which would have stigmatized and excluded lots of people and Muslims who come there. What I felt very powerfully, was ashamed. If these people win, I am going to feel terrible living in my society that I love. That’s what patriotism is, it’s something that goes beyond simply living the principles. You believe in a project that you’re carrying out with other people. 
 
It’s the pride in that project that keeps people going
 
On Islamic integration into the West
 
Zakaria: In Europe, an argument often made is that Islam is unusually difficult to integrate into a Western liberal democracy. You know the arguments: Islam has politics at the heart of its religion, it is both a political and a religious system, Muslims come from often very backward societies etc. Does any of that resonate for you?
 
 Taylor: No, it’s based on tremendous ignorance. I mean, in the one thousand years of Islam from Indonesia to Senegal to Sufism, it’s a tremendously varied society. Now it’s true that we’ve had the growth of Wahhabism, a very narrow, sectarian Islam enflamed by Petrol-dollars from Saudi Arabia, and that has done a great deal of harm in a sense of moving the perception of Islam into a narrow path. But, a tremendous number of Muslims are ready to integrate into Western society. In France, for example, you had these people who came from Algeria who were never given citizenship but their children were born in France so they were citizens. They started to vote in the 2000s and were rejected in 2007, when Sarkozy came to power on an anti-Muslim party program. In 2012, all these young people voted massively for Hollande in the hope he would give them a chance to integrate. Now in 2017, Muslim kids have been told: “You aren’t really French, why are you trying to be French? You’re Muslim.” You can see this counter identity being fabricated before our eyes. Between 2005 and today you can see it happening. Then people blame Islam.  That’s crazy, that’s nonsense. 
 
On Fighting for democracy
 
The Russian opposition is wondering where to go as Putinism is conquering the world

Zakaria:  Have the last ten years been good for a certain kind of authoritarianism?
 
Taylor: Absolutely. Xi in China is clear that this democracy stuff doesn’t work. Putin is jubilating. This makes those in societies that want to make changes correspondingly depressed. The Russian opposition is wondering where to go as Putinism is conquering the world. These developments are linked and they have to be reversed together. 
 
Zakaria: You said that you don’t want to sound too pessimistic so I’m going to remind people that you have seen the worst as a French-Canadian. Do you remember the surrender of France in 1940? 
 
Taylor: My Voltairian grandfather, thanks to him, had a tremendous identification with France. I still remember the day very clearly, I was about eight or nine, when we opened the papers and France had surrendered. The world, metaphysically, collapsed. I was just a kid but I felt “Wow! Something terrible has happened”. Then de Gaulle came around and we had to believe in de Gaulle. My childhood memories are very profound. 
 
Zakaria: So we’re in another 1940 moment and we are looking for de Gaulle. 
 
Taylor: (Laughing) He’s not the worst the kind of person because we’re looking for a leader who can bring a sense of pride in a country which is worth having pride in.