The following piece appears in the current issue of New Humanist available on subscription here.
When I published What’s Left? in February I didn’t expect to be universally loved. I’ve lived among London’s liberal intelligentsia long enough to know that while it is very hard on others it is always easy on itself, and would not take kindly to a history of how leftish people had ended up apologising for the movements of the ultra-Right.
What surprised me was the denial. Broadcasters and leftish magazines such as Prospect and the New Statesman grudgingly conceded that, yes, all right, a part of the far Left has flipped over to the far Right and was fellow travelling with Islamism and Ba’athism. George Galloway had saluted Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi “resistance”. The supposedly multicultural Ken Livingstone had welcomed the Muslim Brotherhood’s favourite theologian, Yusuf al-Qaradarwi, to London even though he supported the murder of apostate Arab liberals, homosexuals and Israeli children, and endorsed female circumcision and wife beating (as long as the husband does it “lightly with his hands, avoiding her face and other sensitive areas.”)
But, they implied, it didn’t matter because these people weren’t worth bothering with. There was no connection between the ideological contortions of the extremes and a liberal mainstream which remained wedded to the highest principles. All I had done was use the odious but fringe figures, who took control of the protests against the second Iraq war, to smear decent and moderate men and women, such as themselves.
As an account of my argument, this was partial in the extreme. Although you’d never guess from their characterisation, What’s Left? actually looks at how a European Union that daily preached its attachment to the highest standards of human rights stood by and allowed Slobodan Milosevic to ethnically cleanse the Balkans; the reasons for the disillusion of the liberal middle class with democracy and free speech; the instant willingness of respectable writers to excuse Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks; the inability of the British Liberal Democrats and European Social Democrats to oppose George W Bush while simultaneously supporting those in Iraq who wanted something better than Saddam Hussein; and the growth of polite anti-semitism. These are mainstream phenomena. My critics didn’t examine them and then explain why I was mistaken, however. They just ignored them and hoped that if they vehemently insisted that no blame could attach to them, others would believe it – and maybe they would believe it themselves.
For denial about the miserable state of intellectual life goes far beyond the reaction of a handful of reviewers to one political book. Such denial is necessary to keep the current creaking consensus in Britain from falling apart. Like every consensus, it has habits of mind and ways of arguing that appear so obvious to those inside the fold they seem as natural as the weather. Only outsiders realise how true believers are failing to confront pertinent questions. New Humanist readers may not worry by the dangers of conventional wisdom so long as the fixed ideas of our time remain liberal ones. Unfortunately, we have a deformed and treacherous version of liberalism, which works against the interests of beleaguered liberals in the poor world and among Britain’s ethnic minorities, as well as all of us who hope for a secular society.
A way out can be found by accepting, even as a possibility, that white western liberals are turning their eyes from religious ultras – and in the process turning their backs on liberals, feminists and socialists in the poor world and in Britain who are the first victims of radical Islam and all other religious radicalisms. Make that concession and you find examples of blinkered vision and duplicity everywhere.
Take a random sample of the stories that are in the news at the time of going to press. Throughout the crisis with Iran, the leaders of the Iranian opposition have been absent from the BBC, which in my view represents English liberalism at its worst as well as its best. Their opinions are never sought. It is as if the Corporation believes that the mullahs have no reputable opponents whose call for democratic freedoms deserves, at minimum, a fair hearing.
In an interview on the Today programme which should become notorious, John Humprhys made the implied indifference explicit. Tony Blair was talking to him about the need to base British foreign policy on the “spread of democracy, freedom and justice”, when an irritated Humphrys blurted out, “Our idea of democracy.” “I don’t know that there is another idea of democracy,” Blair countered. “If I may say so,” Humphrys went on, “that’s naive … in the view of many people.” “The one basic fact about democracy, surely,” insisted the Prime Minister, “is that you can get rid of your government if you don’t like them.” “But the Iranians elected their own government,” Humphrys barked back, “and we’re now telling them what to do.” “Hold on John,” came the steely response, “something like 60 per cent of the candidates were excluded.”
In its treatment of its staff and coverage of Britain, the BBC is consistently anti-racist, but its presenters find it acceptable to imply that free elections are fine for white-skinned broadcasters in London but not brown-skinned democrats in Tehran, and that it is somehow culturally imperialist to think otherwise.
At about the same time as Humphrys was shouting at the PM, the opponents of former Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s vindication of feminism and freedom of speech were savaging her memoir, Infidel. Nothing unusual in that you might think. The supporters of women’s rights and Enlightenment values always have a hard time. Except that this time the attack wasn’t led by the reactionary last ditchers of the Daily Mail or Trotskyists in alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, but by Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Buruma, two liberal intellectuals who opine in the New York Review of Books and the Guardian. They saw no difference between those who would stop the emancipation of women and murder Ali and those who would not. Each side was equally “fundamentalist”. Liberals had no moral obligation to make a choice between them, and could indeed devote their energies to attacking feminists rather than misogynists.
In case I’m accused of being too soft on the Blair administration, I should finish by saying that Minister for Communities and Local Government Ruth Kelly has just published the interim results of a government inquiry into faith schools. The tone was almost identical to that of the BBC. Kelly’s quangocrats described critics of religious schools as “obsessives” who sought to restrict the legitimate educational aspirations of the ethnic minorities. Their implication that secularists were close to racists or cultural imperialists missed the unarguable fact that faith schools must create an educational apartheid that segregates children by colour as well as creed. For how many black children will go to Jewish schools and how many white children will go to Muslim schools?
The best way to understand how otherwise reasonable liberals in government and out can adopt the tenet that freedom and equality are not for lesser breeds is to throw out old political labels that have become worse than useless.
To begin with, there is no left because supporters of the ‘far left’ and ‘Labour left’ no longer have a coherent sense of purpose. Socialism which defined what it meant to be left wing from the 1880s to the 1980s is dead; killed by the atrocities of the communists and the success of market economics. It may come back in some new form, a part of me hopes it does, but for the moment its passing has freed those who affect to be left wing to break the taboos against associating with the far rightists and religious sectrarians. Not in all cases. Give them a white far right party, such as the BNP, or Western religious fundamentalists, such as America’s Christian conservatives, and they will behave in an admirable manner that the 20th century left would recognise. But present them with a theocratic or fascistic movement that is anti-western or, more specifically, anti-American, and all the old restraints will vanish.
The alleged far left’s difference with the liberal mainstream is one of degree rather than kind. Supposed socialists in the mould of Livingstone and Galloway embrace radical Islamists whose first act whenever they seize power is to persecute Muslim socialists, feminists and democrats. The liberal mainstream doesn’t so much applaud the persecution as ignore its victims, because by blotting them out of their minds they can spare themselves the onerous duty of supporting them.
The motives for liberal duplicity don’t rest only with the political laziness of consumer societies. The most creditable reason is that betrayals are an inevitable reaction against the disasters of the Bush administration, but Bush and Blair will be gone soon, leaving other more ignoble trends to be confronted. Our postmodern, multicultural ideology is the most disastrous of them all. It twists the fine liberal principle of tolerating difference into an almost racist belief that other cultures are somehow genetically programmed to reject the freedoms we take for granted.
Nick Cohen is a columnist for The Observer and the Evening Standard. His latest book is What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way (Fourth Estate)