In the 1990s we exist in a unique time. It is a time when both tolerance and intolerance are in cultural ascendancy. Both freedom and oppression are at home in the world. The origin of today’s contentious cultural politics are tightly tied to two events: 1) the re-emergence of a nationalistic religious and political fundamentalism; and 2) the intellectual collapse of the Hegelian Marxist epic. The signature theme of the present, then, is the appearance of a contentious cultural politics in which tolerance and intolerance prowl around each other in an unsettling and puzzling dance.
The resurgence of a nationalistic intolerant and oppressive religious fundamentalism in the United States and the medieval politics of the Christian Right has been marked by the licensing of the Christian Broadcasting Network by Pat Robertson in 1972 and the success of tele-evangelists like Jimmy Swaggert, Jim and Tammy Baker, Robert Schuller, and the popularity of Pat Buchannan’s paternalistic, oppressive and exclusionary politics in the 1996 Republican primary elections. Its reactionary nationalism has been distinguished by the atavistic politics of the Montana Freemen and various survivalist militia groups. From an international perspective a similar phenomenon is evident in the presence of neo-Nazism in Europe, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and the ascent of culturally and politically aggressive Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East.
Conversely, liberalism and religious tolerance seem to be on the ascent at the same moment in history. The restoration of liberalism in contemporary philosophical discourse has been marked by the decline of Hegelian Marxist epic, the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the politics of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin and the Tiananmen Square insurrection. Its politics and thought is also witnessed by the popularity of post-totalitarian thinkers such as Václav Havel and Milan Kundera, and ‘out-of-the mainstream’ intellectuals, playwrights, poets, journalists who are committed to the fluorescence of countercultural feminism, multiculturalism, civil rights movements of all descriptions, gay rights, and free speech in the arts.