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Within 48 hours of a recent trip to London, I found myself arguing with a middle-aged ex-revolutionary communist, who believes that Israel’s “right to defend itself” extends to everything short of dropping nukes on Gaza, including killing as many Palestinian babies as necessary to “destroy Hamas”.

Fast-forward 24 hours, I was confronted by a 20-something queer Palestinian, who asked me whether I was Jewish or Israeli, and in response to my suggestion that this was not an appropriate thing to ask, said that all Jews and Israelis are responsible, by blood, for the bloodshed in Gaza.

When trying to make sense of such self-evidently monstrous views held by ordinary people, where does one start?


It is a commonplace to observe that the spirit of our times is distinctively self-referential,[1] in the sense that what people take to be important is not something objectively good that stands beyond them, but rather that which expresses or fulfils their existing, typically unique, desires or goals.

This modern phenomenon goes by different names, and is conceptualised in different ways, depending on its concrete form, and on the sympathies of those doing the describing.  The historically minded call it “presentism”.  Social critics label it “survivalism”.[2]  Psychoanalysts diagnose it as “narcissism”.[3]  And the perennially online refer to it as “current thing-ism”.

For some critics, still brave enough to engage in “grand theory”,[4] the phenomenon has its roots in “social acceleration”.[5]  Our time is distinctively self-referential, they say, because the rapidity and the intensity of changes in how we live—social relations, cultural norms, economic roles, technologies available—makes it difficult to fix our horizons on any object, more-or-less permanent and so stable, according to which we can orient our lives.  With this loss of stable horizons, we turn “within”, to the self, identifying its existing but fleeting desires, feelings or preferences as the source of value, and thus their satisfaction or realisation as being what ultimately matters.[6]  From this, these grand theorists conclude, presentism, survivalism, narcissism, current thing-ism, etc., naturally follows.

There is much to be said for these kinds of systematic explanations.  One benefit is comprehensiveness: they explain many different things (woke-ism, lockdowns, support for Ukraine, marches for Palestine, etc.) by one particular thing (presentism, narcissism, etc.), and thereby make coherent and explicable a complex reality that is in perpetual, disorienting flux.

But we must not let pass us by unnoticed the fact that grand theorists are motivated by the phenomenon they want to explain: instability.  If presentism can emerge from unstable horizons, grand systems seem plausible because they offer solutions to this instability.  Sure, not all grand theorists promise a way out of this difficulty, many do not provide any answer to what Marx called “the riddle of history”.[7]  But as Hegel explained, to grasp the necessity of instability can be its own kind of stability.[8]

Presentists and grand theorists, therefore, belong to the same tradition, as old as philosophy itself,[9] each motivated by a desire to flee from change, uncertainty, unpredictability, impermanence, insecurity, etc.  Both flee from this reality: one into the present and sensuous self; the other into an enduring explanatory thought-system.


Our complex fluctuating reality, though, always eventually breaks free Man’s simplifying, procrustean comforts.

Because flights from reality are eventually always brought back down to earth, the political dominance of either presentists or their critics never lasts.  This is one root of the sense that we perpetually swing between incompatible forms of life: say, progressivism and conservatism.  Internal to the logic of flights from instability, in other words, is the production of a form of instability—the rapid and intense swings between forms—and therefore also the reproduction of the desire for stability.

We must notice here a difference between these forms of instabilities.  The instability that motivates the original twin flights from reality, arises from the impermanence of the forms that constitute human life: for example, slavery to feudalism to capitalism.  The instability accompanying these flights, contrarily, emerges from within the flight itself—that is, from the fact that both presentist and systematic thoughts and practices, because they obscure and suppress reality’s fluctuating complexity, are unsustainable and therefore unstable.

This difference is a clue to the rise in respectable society of self-evidently monstrous views—to finding in present-day London people content with child sacrifice and blood libel.  Instability generates conflict, but conflict can be violent or political.  The conflict that arises from the impermanence of forms of life makes possible politics—our efforts to deal with each other fairly, respectfully and peaceably when we disagree—but the conflict that accompanies flights from reality always degenerates into violence.

We see this in the hypocrisy and war-like, existential idiom shared by presentists and their critics.  Anti-woke folk critique “safetyism”, but then catastrophise about “crusades against Western civilisation”.  Biological lesbians mock transactivists demanding to be recognised lest they cease “to exist”, but cry out about by their own “extinction”.  Those who diminished “cancel culture” yesterday, write opinion pieces today pointing out its “nightmar[ish]” effects. Their critics point out this hypocrisy, yet they, and other free speech “heretics”, then call on the police to “enforce the law” when their political opponents do not use “correct language”.

When elites in a “culture war”, presentists and their grand critics, both already in flight from reality and its complexity, conceive of politics in war-like terms, does it surprise that their foot-soldiers, when push comes to shove, sanction child sacrifice and advocate blood libel?

Not just their tendency towards violence, but also their hypocrisy, is rooted in their failure to just “stop and think” about the complexity of reality.[10]  Protestors chanting “by any means necessary”, and talking heads who recite that Israel has the right “to defend itself”, are indistinguishable.  But neither can notice this banal truth, so hypocrisy reigns: by any means for me, but not for thee.  So inured are they by their final certainties—about what matters, what has meaning, what is good—from the capacity to think, that they enable and provide cover for the horrors that unfolded in Israel on 7 October and has unfolded in Gaza ever since.


Martin Buber, most famous for his beautiful little book, I and Thou,[11] wrote elsewhere about “the final insecurity”, the fact that being human is bound up with the recognition that meaning, and so goodness, constitutes and envelops us yet forever eludes our final grasp:

The prophets of Israel have never announced a God upon whom their hearers’ striving for security reckoned.  They have always aimed to shatter all security and to proclaim in the opened abyss of the final insecurity the unwished-for God who demands that His human creatures become real, they become human, and confounds all who imagine that they can take refuge in the certainty that the temple of God is in their midst.[12]

For Buber, the recognition of our final insecurity—the uncertainty, impermanence, etc. of our access to what is meaningful—is a precondition for responsible agency.  Without it, we fail in our duties to others, and to ourselves.  For the flight from final insecurity is a flight from reality, from the inexhaustible duty to think, reason, and judge what is good.

The title of the collection of essays from which Buber’s quote is taken is “Eclipse of God”, which refers to Man’s turning-away from primordial reality.  This act of turning-away can be articulated in a secular idiom, and thereby brought down to earth, as Max Horkheimer did, when he wrote about the “Eclipse of Reason”,[13] namely, the abandonment of a thinking that is structured by what is good: love, friendship, recognition, respect, faith, play, and so on.

If talk of child sacrifice or blood libel is to be made explicable, it requires us to recognise our collective flight from reality.  If public life is to become human again, we must not only have the courage to stop and think.  We must also affect a turning point in our thinking, so that we come face-to-face with reality, each other, and therefore with what is meaningful and good in this life.

Sure, conflict will persist, but it would at least be political in nature—and so would be characterised by respect, fairness and peace, rather than violence and unimaginable moral horror.

[1] Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (1991) 81-91.

[2] Christopher Lasch, The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times (1985).

[3] Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979) and Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (2001).

[4] Quentin Skinner (ed), The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences (2008).

[5] Hartmut Rosa, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity (tr. Jonathan Trejo-Mathys, 2013).

[6] Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (2006), Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (1989), and David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (1990).

[7] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (2011) 72.

[8] For GWF Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right (tr. HB Nisbet, 1991) 22, “recognising reason as the rose in the cross of present” can be painful but it can also be beautiful, in the sense that it can reconcile us to what exists.

[9] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958) 220-230 and Between Past and Future (2006) 104-115.

[10] Hannah Arendt, ‘Thinking and Moral Considerations’ (1971) 38 Social Research 417, 434.

[11] Martin Buber, I and Thou  (tr. RG Smith, 2ed, 1958).

[12] Martin Buber, Eclipse of God: Studies in the Relation between Religion and Philosophy (2016) 61.

[13] Max Horkheimer, The Eclipse of Reason (2004).