Sunday, 26 April 2009

The test of liberalism

Via butterfliesandwheels and the comments at aaronovitch watch - Terry Eagleton on CiF tells us:
"There is no quarrel about how to treat those whose scorn for liberal values takes the form of blowing the legs off small children. They need to be locked up. But socialists as well as Islamists reject the liberal state, so what is to be done about them? Are they to be indulged only until they successfully challenge the state...?

"Liberalism holds that the state should tolerate any opinion that does not seek to undermine that very tolerance. It is an ironic kind of politics.

"If the test of liberalism is how it confronts its illiberal adversaries, some of the liberal intelligentsia seem to have fallen at the first hurdle. Writers such as Martin Amis and Hitchens do not just want to lock terrorists away. They also tout a brand of western cultural supremacism. Dawkins strongly opposed the invasion of Iraq, but preaches a self-satisfied, old-fashioned Whiggish rationalism that can be wielded against a benighted Islam. The philosopher AC Grayling has an equally starry-eyed view of the stately march of Western Progress. The novelist Ian McEwan is a freshly recruited champion of this militant rationalism. Both Hitchens and Salman Rushdie have defended Amis's slurs on Muslims. Whether they like it or not, Dawkins and his ilk have become weapons in the war on terror. Western supremacism has gravitated from the Bible to atheism.

"There is also an honorable legacy of qualifying too-absolute judgments with an awareness of context: the genuine liberal is appalled by Islamist terrorism, but conscious of the national injury and humiliation that underlie it. None of the writers I have mentioned is remarkable for such balance.

"For the liberal state to accommodate a diversity of beliefs while having few positive convictions is one of the more admirable achievements of civilization. But such neutrality, once under pressure, can easily slide into superiority, as sitting loose to other people's faith comes to look like rising disdainfully above it. It is then only a short step from superiority to supremacism."
I think this is a rather confused piece. I don't buy the claim that liberals are necessarily obliged to not tolerate opinions that seek to undermine the liberal state - but if that is, in fact the case, then how is intolerance of Islam to fail 'the test of liberalism'?

Note that Eagleton rather sneakily slides from the dodgy views of Amis to claiming that Dawkins's rationalism can be wielded against Islam and that he is a 'weapon' in the 'war on terror' - I mean, so what? I'm sure the findings of academic psychology can be wielded in the 'war on terror' - should we abandon the practice of psychology?

But what intrigues me is how the socialist is supposed to fit in. After all, as Eagleton points out:
The left objects to the liberal case not because it believes in crushing those who differ, or dislikes the idea of a partisan state, but because this case rules out the kind of partisan state that ­socialism requires. It rules out, for example, a state that would not be neutral on whether cooperation or individualism should reign supreme in social and economic life.
Socialism is no friend to Islam, sure it seeks to defend the oppressed, and Eagleton is right that Muslims have been the target of some unpleasant demonisation, but fundamentally socialists reject most religious belief. In fact, I'm not entirely clear how the SWP and Richard Dawkins differ in this regard.

Martin In The Margins
notes that:
Eagleton is a master of the classic pseudo-leftish 'guilt by association' move. If you can get your audience to see your opponents as part of a wider, sinister movement - the war on terror, neoconservatism, late capitalism, imperialism - this relieves you of the necessity of engaging with their arguments.


LemmusLemmus said...

Agree. I'll add that being "conscious of the national injury and humiliation that underlie" Islamistic terrorism (which is itself a debatable empirical claim which would seem to need some backing up) has precious little to do with whether or not you're a liberal.

Political Scientist said...

“Socialism is no friend to Islam, sure it seeks to defend the oppressed, and Eagleton is right that Muslims have been the target of some unpleasant demonisation, but fundamentally socialists reject most religious belief. In fact, I'm not entirely clear how the SWP and Richard Dawkins differ in this regard.”

I’m not sure that I agree with this - Christian Socialism appeared in the 19th century, and plenty of evangelicals self-identified as Christian socialists. In the present day, there are plenty of evangelical socialists: in the blogosphere Andrew Rilstone [1] and Tim F [2], amongst others, come to mind.
The SWP has allied with some Muslims resulting in the “RESPECT” party.
Moving to a more mainstream definition of socialism, Keir Hardie himself was a lay preacher at an Evangelical church.

Although I’m not familiar with a parallel Islamic Socialism, it would certainly seem possible to construct such a thing.
(anecdote) A mate of mine who is a muslim was also Labour party member, pre-2003. (/anecdote)

Regarding Eagleton: I think part of the problem of his LRB “God Delusion” review was that he speaks in terms of a form of Christianity that does not represent what the vast majority of Christians (including myself) believe: his gospel he esposes is naturalistic, deistic and Materialistic (in the d’Holbachian sense); he rejects the doctrine of the Atonement ("Dawkins sees Christianity in terms of a narrowly legalistic notion of atonement – of a brutally vindictive God sacrificing his own child in recompense for being offended – and describes the belief as vicious and obnoxious. It’s a safe bet that the Archbishop of Canterbury couldn’t agree more"); and he writes “to claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is not to suggest that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine, the pope should get himself down to the dole queue as fast as possible. ” This last is particularly bizarre: the Resurection is the entire point of the Christian faith. As Paul puts it, if Christ is not raised, Christians’ faith is in vain and we are of all men to be pitied.

Now, I agree it’s a bit unfair to lump Dawkins in with Amis and Hitchens. But only a bit. A lot of people believe that Dawkins gets a bum deal from religious people. I think in the light of the whole “child abuse” schtick and this remarkable comment[3], I think this belief should be re-examined.




pj said...

Funnily enough, as I wrote it, I was thinking about Christian socialists (and also Jewish socialists, although they tended to be more secular) - so I'm not sure why it came out that way. Maybe (I think it is probably the case) I was intending more to highlight that socialists are opposed to political religion - that is the rejection of secularism and promotion of religious values qua religious values - I may be wrong but my experience of Christian socialists is that they politically emphasise the socialism, rather than the Christianity - that is they agitate for socialism, not for Christianity in the political sphere (even though their socialism is, generally, informed by their Christianity) - this is what allows them to have common cause with other socialists.

The SWP has indeed allied itself with some Muslims - but the tensions inherent in that alliance probably highlight what a marriage of convenience it is.

I'm sure Islamic socialism is possible but I believe that historically that socialist movements in Muslim countries have tended towards a nationalist secularist agenda.

I think that apologists like Eagleton are every bit as insulting towards religious believers as Dawkins and co - because Dawkins takes seriously what religious believers profess to believe, Eagleton and friends treat believers like children to be coddled and patronised.

I think Dawkins had a very powerful and serious point to make couched in hyperbolic terms when it came to the child abuse thing.

When you compare Dawkins and Amis I think there's quite a stark contrast - one of them is raising the question as to whether atheists should be a bit cutting and sarcastic when arguing with religious believers - the other whether the government ought to seek to oppress and discriminate against a particular ethnic/religious segment of the population.

I think it is far from fair to (a) hold everything Dawkins says and does as emblematic of what we seem, for want of a better term, to be calling the 'new' atheists (people who aren't just atheist but who make at least some effort to tell others about their lack of belief - and this is a group I'd count myself a member of, even if a little older and more jaded than I once was); (b) to pretend that opposition to Dawkins and the new atheists hasn't commonly, perhaps even largely, consisted of just the sort of contempt and sarcasm he's talking about, whether that be from the deluded preachers of the US to the smug parlour atheists of the UK; (c) to imply that being a bit rude to people whose beliefs you dismiss, and indeed may hold in some disdain, is quite the same as seeking to systematically oppress said people, particularly if the limits of your activism tend to be in agitating for secularism.