A friend of mine who lives on the West coast remembers a trip I made out there in early 2002. “All you could say was ‘Where’s the outrage?’” And, of course, I was talking about the suicide terror campaign against Israel and the eery silence, not only from the “left” — which, it turns out, was celebrating the terrorists — but the liberals, the people who should have been most indignant at the appalling sight of a culture that does blood sacrifices of its own youth in order to act on its hatreds. What I eventually learned was that the they had been taken in by the “yes it’s indefensible… but…” position.
All told, I became rapidly convinced over the course of the early years of the aughts (’00s) that the year 2000 — from Camp David’s failure in August to the outbreak of the Intifada in October, marks a major failure of the modern, liberal world. At that point, having urged Israel to make massive substantive concessions on the promise of peace — letting Arafat back in, giving him a free hand to arm his “police” force, to control his own media and educational systems — in exchange for promises of recognition and commitment to making peace. When Arafat turned down the offers of Camp David, and later when he revelled in the violence of the Intifada, that was a moment where the liberal left, if it believed in its values of positive-sum negotiation, mutuality and peace, should have turned to Israel and apologized for having urged such a dangerous, even suicidal “peace process” on them.
Instead, it turned against Israel and made Arafat and his suicide-bombing Palestinian Jihadis the heroes of resistance against the Israelis. If the Palestinians hated Israel so, it must be because the Israelis have deprived them of hope. How could it be their fault? How could we hold them responsible for their hatreds? Wouldn’t that be “blaming the victim?”
Now, from the Times of London, an essay by Oliver Kamm examines the role of a certain kind of identity politics associated with authoritarian (if not fascist) communities who are given more than a free ride.
From The Times
May 23, 2009
How the Left turned to the Right
Liberal over-sensitivity to the beliefs of others is undermining freedom of speech, so giving reactionaries an easy ride
I attended an academic conference in late 1989 on the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Martin Jacques, editor of the now-defunct journal Marxism Today, put a brave face on the rejection of the ideals he espoused. He argued that these revolutions would expand the variety of left-wing views in Western Europe.
I recall arguing with him from the floor that the opposite was true. Of the two principal left-wing traditions in Europe, insurrectionary socialism and pro-Western social democracy, only the second retained credibility.
It is obvious now that we were both wrong. The revolutionary Left has made fitfully fruitful tactical alliances, such as the bleakly comic amalgam of Leninists and Islamists who formed and then rent apart George Galloway’s Respect party. But in its own name it remains a minuscule if variegated sect.
Actually, in retrospect, the radical left, groups like International A.N.S.W.E.R., was saved by anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism.
What has happened to the other wing of nominally progressive politics is more surprising. Liberalism, in its broadest sense, has become suspicious of its own ideals.
Notions once considered reactionary, even extreme, have insinuated themselves into the mainstream of right-thinking (that is, left-thinking) social idealism.
When you encountered someone of professed left-of-centre opinions, you used to be able to draw broad but important, and generally reliable, inferences about what these entailed.
They included, at a minimum, commitments to secularism, freedom of expression, individual liberty against collective authority, women’s rights, homosexual equality and the combating of xenophobia. Times have changed. Now these stances are unusual, even heterodox.
The degeneration of progressive idealism has many roots. But among the most important is the instinct that the ideas of Western liberty are specific to time and place — that they are Eurocentric. Almost coincident with the revolutions of 1989, which testified to the power of the human instinct for liberty, was a far more atavistic political movement.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran, issued in February 1989 his fatwa calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie, a British citizen, for writing a novel that satirised Islam.
Western governments, religious leaders and political figures were more embarrassed than appalled. In effect, they acknowledged the offence and took issue only with the sentence. The chief rabbi in Great Britain, Dr Immanuel Jakobovits, remarked: “Both Mr Rushdie and the Ayatollah have abused freedom of speech.”
Such ignorant, boorish heedlessness of the principles of a free society and the value of the novelist’s imagination sits easily on the political Right and with religious authority. Yet even then it had its left-wing adherents too. In his invaluable — because so often unintentionally revealing — diaries, Tony Benn records a meeting of the left-wing Campaign Group of Labour MPs in February 1989.
He refers to the late Bernie Grant, who was among Britain’s first black MPs: “Bernie Grant kept interrupting, saying that the whites wanted to impose their values on the world. The House of Commons should not attack other cultures. He didn’t agree with the Muslims in Iran, but he supported their right to live their own lives. Burning books was not a big issue for blacks, he maintained.”
This was one day after the leader of a foreign theocratic state had sought to procure the murder of a British writer for his ideas. Few then or now would be as openly contemptuous of the life of the mind as Grant.
Yet the notion that freedom of expression is a specifically Western obsession that needs to be balanced against the demands of social cohesion has become commonplace in today’s debates. It is part of the political mainstream; part of supposedly progressive thinking, assuming that the sensibilities of minority groups should be protected.
These impulses littered the controversy about the publication in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2006 of cartoons satirising the Prophet Muhammad. The offence caused to believers has become a catch-all explanation for religious violence and intimidation.
When, last year, suicide bombers attacked the Danish Embassy in Pakistan, killing six people and wounding more than 20, a Danish journalist writing for The Guardian commented that the attack was “of course, indefensible, but it raises questions about the wisdom of the much-debated cartoons and Danish reactions to Muslim wrath”.
The “of course, but” formulation is worse than a dreary cliché. It indicates a liberalism evacuated of content. Those who prize social unity and order will tend to believe that people’s deepest feelings and beliefs should be accorded respect.
The first time I really noticed the “of course, but…” formulation was an editorial by Jimmy Carter on Hamas in (where else?) the NYT: “Of course Hamas engages in terrorism which is indefensible, but…” While the denunciation took up a half line concessive clause, the “but” section filled the rest of the editorial.
But respect for ideas is never an entitlement. It depends on their intellectual resilience in public debate. No free society can treat people’s deepest beliefs as sacrosanct. They are fair game for hostile and derisive criticism. That is how knowledge advances.
How quaint of Mr. Kamm. He thinks that one of the main purposes of society is to advance knowledge.
The figure of Rushdie continues to disturb the liberal imagination. When he was awarded a knighthood in 2007, the Pakistani parliament passed a resolution condemning the insult to the feelings of Muslims.
Some British liberals thought they were right. Baroness Shirley Williams declared on the BBC Question Time programme that the award was not wise, for Rushdie had “deeply offended Muslims in a very powerful way”. It was, as her fellow panellist Christopher Hitchens remarked, a contemptible statement.
No one has a right to the protection of feelings. If politics concerns itself with mental states, there is no limit to how far legislation can intrude on people’s lives. The task of progressive politics is to protect liberty, not least by attacking the accumulation of bad ideas. Yet to many on the Left, the individual, inquiring mind is of far less importance than the representation of designated groups.
For example, Ken Livingstone commonly asserted that as Mayor of London he had “a responsibility to support the rights of all of London’s diverse communities”. No, he did not. Londoners belong to many different ethnic, national or religious groups. And for civic purposes those affiliations have no relevance at all.
The only characteristic that matters for politics is common citizenship with equality under the law. The notion that democratic politics acknowledges, even celebrates, group identities leads inexorably to the idea that the loudest figures in such groups have a claim on the attention of everyone else. Livingstone notoriously (and literally) embraced a visiting Islamic cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who defends suicide terrorism in Israel and advocates the “punishment” of homosexuals.
It ought to be obvious that liberalism should not stomach that type of thing. Yet there is a type of left-wing thinking that regards militant Islam almost as idiosyncratic liberation theology. Verso, the left-wing publishing house, has produced a volume of the thoughts of Osama bin Laden entitled Messages to the World. To read the editor’s annotations is to gain the impression of a revolutionary figure who daringly challenges Western oppression.
The mass murder of American and other civilians on 9/11 was the expression of a nihilistic, millenarian doctrine of religious absolutism. Yet for a certain type of critic the greatest war criminal of our age is Tony Blair. Blair in reality perceived earlier than most the nature of the international order after the Cold War.
Cartoon courtesy of the Guardian, December 2006
This was an anarchic international order in which supranational institutions were too weak and inchoate to stymie the ambitions of the worst of rulers. In a speech almost exactly ten years ago in Chicago, he expounded the responsibilities of Western nations in the protection of human rights against oppressive governments. And he named Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein.
Blair’s analysis has many critics. But the extraordinary fact of the supposedly left-wing objections to his interventionist policies is its identity with realist positions on the conservative wing of politics. Attempting to broker a disinterested division of territory in the Balkans in the mid-1990s merely encouraged Milosevic in further depredations, against Kosovo. The containment of Saddam was an inherently threadbare system that could be implemented only if the UN Security Council were resolute in implementing it.
Many civilian lives were lost in Iraq owing to a grotesquely underprepared military intervention. But the notion that this was aggression against a sovereign state with rights gets exactly wrong the balance of moral responsibility. It is hard to find many on the Left who will say this, or will argue the intrinsic connection between peace and human rights. It is not the trahison des clercs, only because there is nothing any longer that the Left still has to betray.
I don’t know. I feel mildly let down by this essay. Maybe it was the word limit. Something’s missing… I don’t know what. Suggestions?