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September 19, 2006

Liberal Cannibalism

Apparently there are two kinds of liberals: the bad kind who keep their heads in the sand about the dangers of radical Islam and its threat to Western security—and the other bad kind who enthusiastically join the saber-rattling Right and otherwise rail against the “so-called” Islamic Fascists.

Tony Judt describes the political mission of one kind of bad liberal, or what he calls “Bush’s Unsful Idiots,” He writes that “America’s liberal intellectuals found at last a new cause.”

Or, rather, an old cause in a new guise. For what distinguishes the worldview of Bush’s liberal supporters from that of his neo-conservative allies is that they don’t look on the ‘War on Terror’, or the war in Iraq, or the war in Lebanon and eventually Iran, as mere serial exercises in the re-establishment of American martial dominance. They see them as skirmishes in a new global confrontation: a Good Fight, reassuringly comparable to their grandparents’ war against Fascism and their Cold War liberal parents’ stance against international Communism. Once again, they assert, things are clear. The world is ideologically divided; and – as before – we must take our stand on the issue of the age. Long nostalgic for the comforting verities of a simpler time, today’s liberal intellectuals have at last discovered a sense of purpose: they are at war with ‘Islamo-fascism’.

In Judt’s view, it’s a development that bodes ill for the republic:

Liberal intellectuals used to be distinguished precisely by their efforts to think for themselves, rather than in the service of others. Intellectuals should not be smugly theorising endless war, much less confidently promoting and excusing it. They should be engaged in disturbing the peace – their own above all.

There are, of course, those other critics of liberalism. Sam Harris, a self-described Liberal, says he is “now as wary of my fellow liberals as I am of the religious demagogues on the Christian right.”

Given the degree to which religious ideas are still sheltered from criticism in every society, it is actually possible for a person to have the economic and intellectual resources to build a nuclear bomb —and to believe that he will get 72 virgins in paradise. And yet, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, liberals continue to imagine that Muslim terrorism springs from economic despair, lack of education and American militarism.

In their analyses of U.S. and Israeli foreign policy, liberals can be relied on to overlook the most basic moral distinctions. For instance, they ignore the fact that Muslims intentionally murder noncombatants, while we and the Israelis (as a rule) seek to avoid doing so. Muslims routinely use human shields, and this accounts for much of the collateral damage we and the Israelis cause; the political discourse throughout much of the Muslim world, especially with respect to Jews, is explicitly and unabashedly genocidal.

On Islam and western foriegn policy, there's a grain of truth to both positions—and a whole lot of foolishness. But in their critique of liberalism, both are equally and utterly ridiculous.

Both writers traffic in the same dishonest assumptions that mark the insidious critique of liberalism pioneered by neo-conservatives: Both assume that liberalism is, or should be, a unified political/cultural movement with a coherent political philosophy. Where Harris finds the disease inherent in the nature of liberalism, Judt faults particular liberals who are unfaithful to that creed. Either way, something called “liberalism” is treated as official ideology—a party line—and invested with the either the power (Harris) or the authority (Judt) to normalize the thinking of individual liberals.

Both of these boggy-man narratives are clap-trap. If liberalism means anything, it is surely a mandate to think freely—“liberated,” that is, from thoughtless prejudice and the tyranny of received ideas. It is not an orthodoxy from which heretics depart or pathologies emanate. That actual liberals (as opposed to the cartoon variety Harris and Judt give us) really do see the world differently is illustrated by the more serious foreign policy debate between these two. And indeed liberals should disagree about such questions; if they can't engage in unfettered debate about the obligations of liberty what the hell good are they?

After all, isn't "a foolish consistancy" (in Emerson's phrase) the very meaning conservatism?

Posted by stevemack at 12:54 PM | Comments (5295) | TrackBack

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"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

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