Our illiberal age

In 1988, Salman Rushdie published a novel, Satanic Verses, satirizing the life of Muhammad, and became the target of protests, threats, and denunciations from Muslim groups in Britain.  Without exception, British government and intellectual elites swung to Rushdie’s defense.

To a petition by the Bradford Council of Mosques to ban the book under the UK’s blasphemy law, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher replied uncompromisingly:  there were “no grounds in which the Government would consider banning.”  Her Home Secretary, John Patten, went farther:  “The same freedom which has enabled Muslims to meet, march, and protest against the book,” he wrote, “also preserves the author’s right to freedom of expression for so long as no law is broken.”  In a classic statement of liberal democratic principles, Patten added:  “That is why we have no power to intervene with publishers or to have The Satanic Verses removed from bookshop shelves.  Nor would we seek or want such power. . .”

The British media was, if anything, more ferocious in its condemnation of Muslim demands.  One liberal commentator, for example, characterized the protest burning of the book in Bradford as a “barbaric act of intolerance.”

Fast forward to early 2006.  The question then was whether the British media should republish Danish cartoons satirizing Muhammad, as many European media outlets had done.  This time, the government and intellectual elites returned a very different answer.

Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spokeman at first sounded an evasive note:  “It is for people to reach their own judgments about what is within the law, it’s not for us to say.”  But on the very next day, Foreign Minister Jack Straw came down, in unqualified terms, against republication.

“There is freedom of speech, we all respect that, but there is not any obligation to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory,” he said.  “I believe that the republication of these cartoons has been unnecessary, has been insensitive, it has been disrespectful, and it has been wrong.”  Straw concluded, “There are taboos in every religion.  We have to be careful about showing the proper respect in this situation.”

Neither the intellectuals nor the media challenged this retreat from the liberalism of the 1980’s.  Both accepted without question Straw’s idea that free speech was an option, not an obligation, and both wallowed in sensitivity and respect for Muslim taboos.  The Danish cartoons, republished in many European countries, were handled in Britain like the plague bacillus.

A Welsh university newspaper mischievously republished the cartoons.  Every copy was called back, the student editor suspended, and an apology issued for “any upset caused or disrespect shown.”  The BBC – mother ship of British media and supposedly the most prestigious news organization in the world – briefly broadcast an image of the cartoons on the pages of a French newspaper.  It too was forced into an abject apology, which began:  “Obviously the BBC does not want to give offense to anyone. . .”

Multiculturalism – to paraphrase Mark Steyn – had trumped liberalism.  In less than 20 years, freedom of speech became negotiable, while offending certain groups became an unbreakable taboo.  The implications are vast for a liberal democracy like the the US.  They reach far beyond the struggle against Islamist terror – but for the moment I want to stay on that theme, because there have been terrible implications for individuals who chose to disregard the new taboos.

Salman Rushdie, who was condemned to death and a lifetime of concealment by the Iranian mullahs, has – Paul Berman’s term – “metastasized.”  There are many Rushdies in Europe and the US today, writers and intellectuals in hiding, able to travel only in the company of bodyguards.  Their great transgression has been to treat Islam and Islamists without – Jack Straw’s phrase – the “proper respect.”

Theo van Gogh, director of “Submission,” a short film criticizing Islam’s treatment of women, was murdered by an Islamist in the streets of Amsterdam.  The killer also threatened the life of van Gogh’s collaborator, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has been on the run ever since.  Bassam Tibi, critic of Islamism, has spent two years under police protection in Germany.  The Egyptian-Italian journalist Magdi Allam, who writes against Islamism and became a Catholic, travels with five bodyguards.  The Italian Fiamma Niernstein and the French Caroline Fourrest – one a defender of Israel, the other a critic of Tariq Ramadan – have required police protection.  French philosophy professor Robert Redeker has gone into hiding.  The same is true of the cartoonists, like Kurt Westergaard, who satirized Muhammad in the Danish press.

There are many more Rushdies than this roster, culled from Berman’s Flight of the Intellectuals, shows:  many more thinkers whose lives have been shattered for daring to offend.  The democracies in which they live sometimes provide protection, but their fellow intellectuals have demonstrated little interest in their persecution.

And democratic governments, with increasing frequency, are turning the law against the taboo-breakers, in a sort of preemptive terror attack.

The Dutch government wearied of protecting Hirsi Ali, and sought to have her deported from the country.  She eventually left for the US.  Oriana Fallaci was prosecuted in Italy for “vilification” – a crime which included publishing a book with the offensive title The Force of Reason, critical of Islamist extremism.  Mark Steyn was charged with “flagrant Islamophobia” by the British Columbia Human Rights Commission.

Back in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, head of one of the largest political parties in the country, is on trial because of his platform:  that Muslim immigrants have made the tolerant Dutch way of life increasingly difficult to maintain.  Wilders has been banned from entering the UK, a country that welcomes Tariq Ramadan as a professor at Cambridge.

Other examples can be found at will.  The flag of multiculturalism has been raised over a newborn illiberal age, in which advocacy groups, often by the threat of force, leverage  the immense power of the government to silence undesirable opinions.

I am not aware of an accepted definition of multiculturalism – and would welcome finding one – but the outlines of the system are clear.  On principle, multiculturalism holds that all cultures are equally worthy.  In practice, its adherents believe that some cultures have, historically, behaved as imperial oppressors, while other cultures have been exploited and victimized.

The governing principle of multiculturalism, then, is that certain groups, descendants of the oppressors, must be punished, just as other groups, descendants of the victims, must be protected.  The role of government is to enforce this moral calculus, under the guidance of the intellectual class.

Thus the sovereignty of the people counts for nothing, if it violates the calculus.  Democracy is an impediment to progress, because it turns for guidance to the citizen rather than the intellectual.  The new illiberalism, like the old, rests on the theory of the vanguard, promoted by elitist thinkers from Plato to Lenin.  In its most extreme form, it bends a knee to the fuehrer principle, the worship of leaders who can never be wrong.

Once an illiberal vanguard has taken control of the public agenda, it can use its own principles to criminalize the opposition.  It can then reward pet victims – a much-desired status – and persecute the most hated oppressor groups.

Prominent among the pampered victims are Muslims – particularly hard-line Arab Muslims, and most particularly the Palestinians.  Also included are gays – a Christian pastor in Sweden faced criminal charges for stating, from the pulpit, that homosexuality was a sin.  Nature also belongs in the victim class – a choice that might seem odd only to those who haven’t watched Avatar, and don’t think apes deserve human rights.

The relationship of the vanguard to the protected groups is one of superior indifference to alien ways, and a profound condescension.

But it is in the choice of the most hated oppressor that the illiberalism of the present most resembles its precursors.  One group stands out as supernaturally powerful and demonically loathsome – the root cause of most of the exploitation and human misery in the world – deserving, because of its staying power, not just punishment but elimination.

Our illiberal age, like the last one, will be a dangerous time in which to be a Jew.


4 Responses to Our illiberal age

  1. That’s an amazing post. Thanks a lot

  2. […] those choices.  Today, in Europe and the US alike, both classes have been infected by powerful illiberal tendencies:  many politicians and thinkers have come to despise the electorate in the manner so effectively […]

  3. Alan Miller says:

    You are a very self-important person, aren’t you?

  4. […] Vulgar Morality – Our illiberal age […]

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