40 years on, Life of Brian has made the world a darker place
Column arguing that the makers of Life of Brian, by contributing to the demise of Christianity, made the world less rational, not more. Published in the Spectator on 9th November 2019.
I went to the Battle of Ideas at the Barbican last weekend, a free speech festival organised by the Brexit party MEP Claire Fox, and listened to an interesting discussion about Life of Brian. The Monty Python film is exactly 40 years old, having been released in the UK on 8 November 1979.
The opinion of the panel, made up of comedians and intellectuals, was that its lampooning of rigid, orthodox thinking is more relevant today than ever, since we’re in the midst of a new wave of puritanism, albeit one inspired by left-wing identity politics rather than Christianity. After all, what is ‘hate speech’ if not a type of blasphemy?
When I got home I watched the famous TV debate between John Cleese, Michael Palin, Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, then the Bishop of Southwark, which is on YouTube. It’s worth viewing for the old-fashioned put-downs alone. ‘Now I wasn’t in the least bit horrified,’ says Stockwood, who’d been to a BBC screening just beforehand. ‘People said, “Oh now, Bishop, when you go there you’ll be absolutely horrified,” but I wasn’t at all. After all, I wasn’t vicar of the University Church for nothing. I’m familiar with undergraduate humour. And I’m also the governor of a mentally deficient school and once I was a prep-school master, so I felt frightfully at home.’\
The consensus is that the young Turks got the better of the two elderly Christians — and that was certainly my view when I watched the debate in 1979 aged 16. But seeing it again, I was struck by how callow the liberal pieties of Cleese and Palin sounded. They maintained that the satirical target of Life of Brian wasn’t just Christianity, but all forms of received wisdom. What they objected to was the idea that we should take anything on faith, particularly a belief system with a strong moral component — and Cleese cited Marxism as another example. Rather, we should resist the gravitational pull of all these doctrines — whether embodied in the Church of England or the Judean People’s Front — and work things out for ourselves.
I believed that 40 years ago, but it’s hard to get around the fact that the rapid decline of Christianity in Britain and America in the intervening period has not led to a new age of enlightenment. On the contrary, we appear to be in the grip of various secular belief systems that are far more dogmatic than modern Christianity. Turns out, the Pythons were naive in thinking that mankind’s yearning for religious faith was an aspect of our nature we could outgrow. The ebbing away of the Christian tide has left a God-shaped hole in the Anglosphere and it has been filled with something more sinister — a constantly mutating moral absolutism. Its latest manifestation is Extinction Rebellion, but no doubt it will be something even more fanatical and millenarian in a few years’ time. These quasi-religious movements resemble Christianity in its fundamentalist, pre-Reformation period when believers were less willing to forgive heretics and sinners.
The irony of Life of Brian is that by lampooning Christian beliefs for perfectly honourable reasons, the makers of the film contributed to the demise of the church’s authority and that, in turn, created a vacuum that has been filled by far more egregious examples of the closed mindset they objected to. The Pythons didn’t realise it 40 years ago, but the muscular Christianity that had been drummed into them at their private schools and which they hated with a kind of life-defining passion was acting as a bulwark against less organised forms of irrationality. They couldn’t imagine anything more suffocating or tedious than that ‘vast, moth-eaten musical brocade’; but they were wrong.
Cleese and Palin would probably say I’m overstating the influence of the film, and perhaps I am. But it made quite a splash at the time: 39 local authorities in the UK either banned it or insisted on an X rating, which amounted to the same thing, and it was banned outright in Ireland and Norway. Partly as a result, it became a touchstone of rationalist, anti–religious intellectuals such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. It was certainly not responsible for the accelerating decline of Christianity in Britain and America, but it gave it a little turbo boost and, in doing so, left the world a darker place. In five weeks’ time, God help us, the Anti-Judean People’s Front may even take up residence in Downing Street.
It will take more than an ‘inquiry’ to deal with the left’s anti-Semitism problem
Blog post that was published in the Spectator on 30th April 2016 about the Labour Party’s inadequate efforts to deal with anti-Semitism within its ranks.
Anyone concerned about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party should welcome the appointment of Shami Chakrabarti, the former head of Liberty, to lead an internal inquiry into the matter, but it’s little late in the day to be addressing this issue. And will the inquiry’s terms of reference allow her to investigate the leader of the party?
The Jewish Chronicle drew attention to Jeremy Corbyn’s links to a rogues gallery of “Holocaust deniers, terrorists and some outright anti-Semites” back in August of last year. Among other dubious acts, Corbyn donated money to an organisation run by Paul Eisen, a self-confessed Holocaust denier who boasts of links to the Labour leader dating back 15 years. Corbyn’s own brother has strayed dangerously close to anti-Semitism, such as the time he described Jewish Labour MP Louise Ellman as a “Zionist” who “can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine”. When questioned about this, Corbyn insisted his brother “was not wrong”.
The hard left has had a problem with Jews that dates back at least as far as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In 1945, George Orwell wrote an essay called ‘Anti-Semitism in Britain’ in which he pointed out it was as much of a problem on the left as it was on the right. Orwell thought it was a kind of “neurosis”, “an ability to believe stories that could not possibly be true”.
For those seeking to understand the phenomenon, I recommend this article in the Tower by Jamie Palmer, which documents changing attitudes towards Israel on the hard left, from broad sympathy to fanatical hatred. It was written before Ken Livingstone made his bizarre claims about the links between Hitler and Zionism, but traces this particular smear (as well as many others circulating among Corbyn’s supporters) back to a barrage of anti-Semitic misinformation disseminated by Stalin’s propagandists in the late 1940s and early 1950s to justify the Communist’s state’s systematic persecution of Jews, including purges, torture, show trials, imprisonment and execution.
Palmer tries to explain why so many on the left don’t consider anti-Semitism as on a par with other forms of racism, such as Islamophobia, and, in some cases, don’t regard it as racism at all:
This is partly because those in charge of arranging ethnicities into a hierarchy of oppression are still trying to decide whether or not Jews should to be considered “white” and therefore “privileged,” and, as such, undeserving of the social protections from racism afforded to other minority groups…
According to the precepts of critical race theory, racism only results from a combination of prejudice and power. Since anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory about the malign influence of a powerful and mendacious world Jewry, it essentially holds that the Jews are experiencing hatred on account of the power they hold. Anti-Semitism, therefore, is not racism at all, but something more akin to resistance
One of the reasons anti-Semitism has been allowed to take root and flourish on the hard left is because of the unholy alliance that has sprung up between various neo-Marxist groups and Islamists, something I wrote about in the Spectator back in January. I’d just read The Flight of the Intellectuals by Paul Berman, which, in large part, is about the failure of the European left to see Islamism for what it is, namely, a Middle Eastern form of fascism. That may sound like a recycling of Livingstone’s smear against Zionism, but the difference is that Hitler really was ideologically sympathetic to Islamism and did what he could to promote it, not least because he hoped Islamists could be enlisted as co-conspirators. Berman documents in painstaking detail how Islamism was transformed into a mass movement by the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s to foment anti-British insurrection in the Middle East and as an instrument for carrying out the extermination of the Jews in Palestine and elsewhere.
The evidence linking Hassan al-Banna, one of the intellectual architects of Islamism and the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, to Nazi-ism is substantial. (Berman draws on the work of the German historian Herbert Eiteneier, which you can read more about here.) For one thing, al-Banna singled out Hitler as a political role model in one of his seminal political tracts. For another, he was a close ally of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who helped set up a Muslim division of the Waffen SS in the Balkans. The Nazis provided the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies with a good deal of financial and ideological assistance, including a network of radio stations throughout the region that the Grand Mufti used to disseminate pro-German propaganda. In 1942, one of these stations broadcast a speech calling on Arabs to rise up against the Jews: “You must kill the Jews before they open fire on you. Kill the Jews who appropriated your wealth and who are plotting against your security. Arabs of Syria, Iraq and Palestine, what are you waiting for?”
Initially, the hard left had no difficulty in condemning Islamism. Tony Cliff, the founder of the Socialist Workers Party, wrote a pamphlet in 1946 drawing attention to the fascist nature of the Muslim Brotherhood. But various Trotskyist sects began to warm up to Islamism in the 1980s and 90s, culminating in a full-blown coalition in the run up to the Iraq War. In the mass protests organised by the Socialist Workers Party and its European counterparts in 2003, Islamists carrying the banners of Hamas and Hezbollah marched alongside veterans of the European internationalist left, including Jeremy Corbyn. For the most part the different groups got along well, although there were occasional flare-ups. For instance, during an anti-war demo in Paris a gang of Islamists broke off from the main body of protestors to beat up a group of skull cap-wearing Jews, even though the Jews had turned up to support the cause.
One reason for the hard left’s change of heart about Islamism was straightforward political expediency. Here was an anti-Western political movement boasting huge support among disadvantaged groups of young Muslims in Europe’s major cities. If Trotskyist front organisations like Stop The War Coalition could be used to harness these disaffected youths to their cause, it might lead to a much-needed injection of energy and resources. And to a limited extent, that tactic succeeded, with new hybrid political groups springing up, such as Respect.
But as Paul Berman points out, it was also an expression of a wilful political blindness. The hard left had so much in common with the Islamists – a history of fighting colonialism, a hatred of Britain and America, a contempt for liberal democracy, a romantic attachment to revolution and a willingness to countenance violence as a tool of political change – that they were prepared to overlook some of their less savoury views, such as their virulent anti-Semitism, not to mention the belief that adulterous women should be stoned to death and homosexuals pushed off walls. They were also prepared to make excuses for the activities of their more radical elements, such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda, who were embraced as fellow freedom fighters in the struggle against colonial oppression.
Back in the 1940s, few would have predicted that this bastard child of Nazi-ism would find an ally in the leader of the Labour Party or that the Party would be plunged into an existential crisis after a string of scandals linking senior figures, including one of the leader’s closest allies, to anti-Semitism. But it looks increasingly as though that has happened and I doubt Shami Chakrabarti’s inquiry will be enough to restore Labour’s reputation or save it from well-deserved oblivion.
Now isn’t the time to renounce our Christian heritage
Comment piece I wrote for the Sun about a new report recommending the United Kingdom abandon Christianity as the country’s official religion. It was published on 8th December 2015.
According to a new report, the time has come for us to abandon Christianity as the official religion of the United Kingdom.
The authors of the report – High Court judges, professors of theology, a retired BBC executive and the general secretary of the Muslim Council of Great Britain – argue that Britain has become such a pluralist, multi-faith society in the last 30 years it no longer makes sense for us to define ourselves as Christian nation.
Their recommendations include inviting humanists to present ‘Thought For the Day’ on Radio 4, downgrading the official role of the Archbishop of Canterbury at future coronation ceremonies and allowing representatives of all faiths to automatically become members of the House of Lords.
“It’s an anomaly to have 26 Anglican bishops in the House of Lords,” says Dr Ed Kessler, one of the authors of the report. “There needs to be better representation of the different religions and beliefs in Britain today.”
These recommendations might sound reasonable, but they are profoundly wrongheaded.
The fact that Britain contains fewer practicing Christians than it did 30 years ago – thanks in part to Labour’s open-door immigration policy – is not a good a reason to abandon our Christian heritage.
If you compare the 2011 Census to the 2001 Census, it’s true that the number of English and Welsh citizens describing themselves as Muslims has increased and the number of Christians has declined.
But Muslims only comprise five per cent of the population and Christians make up 59% per cent – still the majority. And many Britons who aren’t regular churchgoers are happy to describe themselves as “cultural Christians”.
Even if non-Christians outnumbered Christians, as they may well before long, that wouldn’t be a good reason for the state to sever all links with the church. After all, it’s the job of our taxpayer-funded institutions to lead as well as follow – to promote what they believe is best about Britain, not just reflect the views of the ever-changing population.
If official Britain changed to accommodate each new influx of immigrants, our nation would soon lose its distinctive character.
It’s particularly important that we should stand up for Christian values at a time when they’re under constant attack, both at home and abroad.
In countries like Syria, Iraq, Tunisia, Turkey, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya and the Philippines, Christians are being slaughtered every day by Islamist extremists. If Britain was to abandon its Christian heritage, it would be chalked up as a victory by these fanatics and beleaguered Christian communities would feel even more isolated.
The same goes for the home front. The authors of the report want to stamp out Christianity in Britain’s schools, outlawing faith-based admissions policies, reforming the RE syllabus and turning assemblies into “mindfulness” sessions.
But it’s in our schools that the battle for the hearts and minds of future generations is taking place. If teachers are prohibited from promoting Christian values, that will make it even easier for agents of the Islamic State to recruit vulnerable, disaffected youths.
As the Christian poet GK Chesterton said, when people cease to believe in the God of the New Testament, they don’t believe in nothing. They believe in everything.
The authors of the report have an answer to this. They want to replace Christianity with a secular, interfaith belief system and they’ve called for a “national conversation” in which people of every faith and none come together and agree on a set of values around which all the people of Britain can unite around.
But it’s inevitable that some of the values we already think of as British – such as Parliamentary democracy, religious tolerance and equality before the law – will be rejected by some religious groups. Let’s not forget that 27 per cent of British Muslims said they had some sympathy for the terrorists who murdered the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and 80 per cent said they found it deeply offensive when images depicting the Prophet are published.
How can we defend principles like freedom of expression if all minorities, however out of step with the mainstream, are given a right of veto when it comes to defining British values?
To my mind, these judges, boffins and mandarins have got it the wrong way round. If the religious beliefs of some of our minority populations are incompatible with traditional British values, including our Christian heritage, it’s they who should change, not us. If they reject our history and traditions, they should go and live in a country where their values are already flourishing and not try and transform our society into one that reflects their culture.
The Islamic Game of Thrones
Blog post that was published in the Spectator on 18th November 2015 about the terrorist attack on the Bataclan in Paris.
As a graduate student in the Harvard Government Department in the late 1980s, I became slightly jaded about the number of visiting professors who warned about the imminent demise of the West. The thrust of their arguments was nearly always the same. The secular liberal values we cherish, such as freedom of speech and the separation of church and state, won’t survive in the face of growing, religious disenchantment with modernity unless they’re rooted in something more meaningful than rational individualism. They were talking about Islamic Fundamentalism, obviously, although sometimes they threw in Christian Fundamentalism as well in order not seem “Orientalist” or “ethnocentric”.
These political scientists were, without exception, left-of-centre and their critique of garden-variety liberalism was usually accompanied by a call for some version of utopian socialism or – its diffusion brand – “communitarianism”. I was a member of a small band of conservatives in the Department and, after the visitors’ words had been warmly received by almost everyone else, one of us would pipe up and ask how long they thought we had left. Ten years? 15? 50? If they were foolish enough to name a date, the follow-up was instantaneous: “Care to make a wager?”
There have been many occasions since then when I’ve regretted that callow reaction, with the terrorist attack in Paris being the latest example. The West has rarely seemed weaker or more exhausted than in the past week, with President Obama reduced to mouthing Thought For The Day-style platitudes, Jeremy Corbyn re-iterating his opposition to an armed response – he even has difficulty with the police being allowed to kill terrorists *in the act of murdering people* – and the usual arguments about whether the Islamic State is genuinely Islamic. (I will return to that question below, but for a comprehensive demolition of the notion that it isn’t, see this film by the historian Tom Holland on This Week.)
What’s so demoralising is the lack of any firm leadership – the inability of the liberal democracies to speak with one voice. Britain and America can no longer serve as the nucleus of an allied response, as they did in 2001, thanks in part to the political fall out from the War on Terror. I won’t rehearse that argument here, and it may be that David Cameron will yet manage to secure the Parliamentary backing for airstrikes against Syria that eluded him in 2013, but the public on both sides of the Atlantic have little appetite for another full-blown Middle Eastern adventure. The daily slaughter by the Islamic State of anyone it deems a “Crusader” or an “apostate” – Christians, Yizadis, Kurds – will continue.
But it isn’t just the inadequacy of the West’s response to this latest outrage that suggests the horse is “weak”, to use Osama Bin Laden’s metaphor. It’s the fact that the terrorists were, for the most part, French and Belgian nationals. The values enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man have proved to be pretty thin gruel next to the heady cocktail of anti-Western ideology and a brutally literal interpretation of the Quran.
Back in 2011, the Prime Minister called for a more aggressive approach to promoting Western values – what he called “muscular liberalism” – and that attitude has found its way into various policies, such as the “Prevent strategy” and the new requirement, enforced by Ofsted, that English schools teach “British values”. But it’s doubtful that young Muslims in the Parisian Banlieue, the breeding ground of Islamic radicalism, have been exposed to even a weak defence of values like religious tolerance, let along a muscular one. According to a recent ICM poll, 16 per cent of French citizens have a positive view of Islamic State, with the figure rising to 27 per cent among 18-24-year-olds. That’s more than a quarter of all French 18-24-year-olds who think it’s just fine to behead aid workers, throw homosexuals off buildings and sexually enslave 12-year-old girls. If French professeurs are teaching children about human rights they aren’t doing a very good job
That is certainly the view of a growing band of right-wing French intellectuals called les nouveaux reactionnaires that Patrick Marnham wrote about in the Spectator last month. They blame multi-culturalism, moral relativism and post-colonial guilt for the reluctance of French schoolteachers (and media panjandrums) to promote the values that have defined France since the 1792 revolution, such as anti-clericalism, a sense of universal brotherhood and egalité. Their solution, apart from replacing François Hollande with Marine Le Pen in 2017, is to call a halt to Muslim immigration and do whatever it takes to get France’s existing Muslim population to “integrate” properly, starting with the vigorous enforcement of the niqab ban introduced by Sarkozy five years ago.
I’m all for the “muscular” promotion of liberal values in schools (although I’m not sure about egalité, but how effective is that likely to be? A crash course in the virtues of limited government and the rule of law, drawing on the writings of John Locke, Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson, may not win over the hearts of minds of the disaffected Muslim youths of Molenbeek, the wretched Belgian suburb where several of the Parisian terrorists hailed from. Hard to imagine them sitting down and working their way through Winston Churchill’s four-volume History of the English Speaking People.
What’s required, according to Maajid Nawaz, the Jihadist-turned-liberal-commentator, is not just an adjustment to the curriculum taught in Europe’s schools, but an alternative narrative that’s as compelling as the propaganda churned out by the Islamic State on social media.
We shouldn’t make the mistake of under-estimating just how alluring the other side’s narrative is. One of the reasons it’s unhelpful to describe the Islamic State as “un-Islamic”, well-intentioned though that may be, is because its propagandists are so skilful at winning over mainstream Muslims. They sell their particular brand of Islam on the grounds that it’s the only interpretation that’s faithful to the sayings and actions or Muhammad and they draw on a considerable body of Islamic scholarship to substantiate that claim. Even Muslims well-versed in the Quran find it had to come up with good arguments as to why this painstakingly literal reading of it is “un-Islamic”. (So what hope does President Obama have?) For chapter and verse on this, I recommend this article in the Atlantic by Graeme Wood, which is one of the best things I’ve read on the group.
Wood compares this defiantly pre-modern version of Islam to a medieval fantasy novel, except with real blood. The Islamic State’s narrative, rooted in this religious framework, has some of the same broad-based, popular appeal as the Lord of the Rings saga, pitting a plucky band of righteous warriors against the massed ranks of evildoers, bent on world domination. The story ends, as prophesised by Muhammad, with a battle-to-end-all-battles in which the sinners are vanquished and the righteous ascend to heaven, led by Jesus, whom the ultra-conservative Muslims of the Islamic State regard as second only to Muhammad in the prophet pecking order.
Be in no doubt that the Islamic State’s propagandists know how to sell this package to their Muslim target audience. Using the type of storytelling techniques that you’d expect to find in video games or Hollywood blockbusters, they convince them that it is their religious duty, particularly now a bona fide Caliphate has been established, to make their way to the new Holy Land and take up arms against the non-believers. For a young, unemployed Muslim man in the Midlands, faced with a choice between watching Birmingham FC slide down the Championship table, or taking part in an epic adventure in a far-flung part of the world in which he gets to participate in a real-life battle of good against evil, it’s a no brainer. It’s a life stripped bare of all meaning, versus a starring role in the Islamic version of Game of Thrones.
So what the West needs is a competing narrative, using the same story-telling techniques as the Jihadis, that promotes the universal values of the Enlightenment. But what might this look like? Should David Cameron create a propaganda arm of the Extremism Taskforce that’s staffed by TV producers, advertising copyrighters, screenwriters and video game developers and give them the job of coming up with ways of selling the sacred texts of secular liberalism to an 18-year-old Grand Theft Auto addict with ADD? Not muscular liberalism, so much as PlayStation liberalism.
Can it be done? Maybe. One obvious difficulty is that Western values don’t have the same sub-cultural glamour as a 7th Century religious cult – we can’t really claim to be the underdogs, however “mad” the culture of political correctness has gone. The Jihadis pouring into the Levant think of themselves as joining a rebel alliance surrounded by powerful enemies on all sides. The liberal democracies, with their fighter jets, surveillance technology and nuclear arsenals, seem more like the evil Galactic Empire.
Another problem is that liberal values are too nice. They’ve evolved as a means of resolving conflicts in democratic societies, not provoking them; they’re inclusive rather than exclusive. Indeed, one of the reasons liberals are so mealy-mouthed and equivocal about promoting their beliefs is that their values are supposed to be compatible with a huge range of different ideas about what a good life consists of, including philosophies that sit outside their tradition. There’s something essentially pacific about liberalism, which makes it a poor competitor for the allegiance of angry young men next to the super-charged bellicosity of medieval Islam.
Liberalism offers its adherents peace and prosperity – it appeals to man’s desire for comfortable self-preservation, as Nietzsche pointed out. That’s fairly tepid and uninspiring compared to the intoxicating wine of Islamic radicalism, which promises life-and-death struggle, followed by eternal bliss. To emphasise this point, Graeme Wood quotes George Orwell on the appeal of Nazi-ism:
Fascism is psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life… Whereas socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them, ‘I offer you struggle, danger, and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet … We ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty, though, is the absence of any authority Western liberals can appeal to that can match the divine authority claimed by the Islamists. The Enlightenment project of basing liberal values on reason and empiricism has long been discredited and we’ve probably left it too late to reverse the decline of Christianity. Even if that was possible, it’s hard to see how it would sit with the anti-clericalism that animates so much of the liberal tradition. Could some mishmash of pre-Christian religions, yoked to secular humanism, serve in its place? Marvel Studios seems to be making a pretty good fist of it, but the difference is that no one in the cinema audience thinks the Avengers are real, whereas every Holy Warrior in the Caliphate believes in God and the prophet.
There’s no obvious liberal solution to the challenge posed by Islamic Fundamentalism and in the absence of one emerging the future described by the French novelist Michel Houellebecq seems ever-more likely. In his latest novel, the aptly named Submission, France becomes an Islamic republic in 2022, with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Socialist Party uniting behind a French-Tunisian President to keep out the Front National. Judging from the British left’s accommodations with Islamism, that doesn’t seem too far-fetched. If this particular Cassandra offered me a wager, I’m not sure I’d take it.
Salmon Rushdie’s best defence is muscular liberalism
Comment piece I wrote for the Sunday Telegraph in July 1991, urging Salman Rushdie to mount a more robust defence of liberal values.
Salman Rushdie no longer listens to the intellectual left. His latest move – a letter to President Mubarak of Egypt urging him to take up his cause – is prompted by the same group of Muslim moderates who persuaded him to convert to Islam last Christmas. So far this has failed to impress the Iranians. Last March the bounty on his head was increased to $2 million and 27 days ago the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was stabbed to death. If Rushdie wants to provide himself with a really robust defence he has little option but to turn to the intellectual right.
In his latest collection of essays, Giants and Dwarves, the conservative philosopher Allan Bloom argues that the best way for the West to defend itself against its critics is to appeal to the perennial ideas embodied in the great books of the Western tradition. Rather than try and defend free speech by appealing to value-pluralism, as the left has done, he argues that the best case for free speech is that it is a fundamental moral right. Contrary to widespread belief, postulating the existence of an objective moral realm does not automatically lead to fascism. The principles it contains may well be those embodied in the institutions of liberal democracy.
Of course, Rushdie will take some persuading before be comes round to this position. Prior to his conversion to Islam, he prided himself on his rejection of all such absolutist ways of thinking. Since the fatwa was issued 29 months ago, Rushdie has criticised all attempts to found our beliefs in some unchanging, cosmic realm, not just Muslim Fundamentalism. He summed up his position in an essay published last year, In Good Faith: “I am a modern, and modernist, urban man, accepting uncertainty as the only constant, change as the only sure thing.”
In short, Rushdie has tried to make a case for freedom of expression by appealing to La Condition Postmoderne. It is because there are no objective truths, only a huge mosaic of different fictions, that we should allow novelists to be as playful and shocking as they like, to treat nothing as sacred. In an age when we can no longer believe in vast teleological structures, literature has replaced religion as the main source of meaning in our lives. He writes: “The acceptance that all that is solid has melted into air, that reality and morality are not givens but imperfect human constructs, is the point from which fiction begins.”
The trouble with this is that it fails to secure any privileged status for the values Rushdie wishes to defend. If all beliefs are equally fictitious, if any attempt to ground our principles in anything outside ourselves is futile, what can be said for intellectual freedom? He can hardly appeal to the subjectivity of all political principles in order to defend one in particular. If liberal democracy isn’t ultimately any superior to theocracy –if our values are no more objective than their’s – what reply can we offer to the Muslim Fundamentalist?
The real reason Rushdie’s argument fails isn’t because he doesn’t think our way of life is superior—of course he does—but because he doesn’t want to find himself in the awkward position of having to say so. Post-modernists seek to escape responsibility for defending their beliefs by basing their stance on a refusal to privilege any one set of values over another. Yet the aspects of Western society they celebrate – in Rushdie’s words “hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs” – are precisely those they wish to affirm.
What Rushdie fails to appreciate is the extent to which everything he likes about Western society is crucially dependent upon the institutions of liberal democracy. Post-modernists seem to think that by championing variety and diversity they aren’t committed to endorsing any one political system, any one set of values. But you can’t have a free flow of ideas without laws guaranteeing freedom of speech, you can’t have pluralism without a market economy. Post-modernists may bend over backwards not to appear dogmatic or ethnocentric, but ultimately their celebration of heterogeneity and eclecticism commits them to defending the democratic institutions which have made them possible.
The difficulty Rushdie is in is that he can’t come clean about his preference for Western society without seeming to betray what he likes about it–the fact that it contains a whole variety of cultures, both European and non-European. To affirm one form of life seems to threaten the pluralism he wishes to preserve. Yet once he accepts that such diversity can only exist in the tolerant, capitalist societies of the West, he has no choice but to defend our system.
It is symptomatic of the wrong-turning liberalism has taken that Rushdie should present his critique of Muslim Fundamentalism as an attack on absolutism per serather than a particularly pernicious form of it. Post-modernists’ seek to strengthen the liberal’s commitment to pluralism by rooting it in an all-encompasing skepticism about the value of grand philosophical projects. But the net effect of this is to leave democracy defenceless, unable to respond to the Fundamentalist challenge. On the post-modernist’s account, the only difference between Rushdie’s values and his opponent’s is that Rushdie’s are more half-hearted, less strongly-held. It seems an odd argument in favour of something to point out that we aren’t wholeheartedly committed to it.
What is required is the kind of aggressive, unapologetic defence of the West offered by Allan Bloom. Liberal democracy isn’t superior to Muslim Fundamentalism because our belief in it is any less passionate but because it is so much more humane, more civilized. It’s decency doesn’t consist in the fact that its defenders are less doctrinaire than their opponents but in the fact that it regards individual rights as sacrosanct. What Rushdie has failed to grasp is that on this point our commitment should be every bit as zealous as the Fundamentalist’s.
‘Western Civilisation “Not Welcome Here”‘ by Bella d’Abrera, Quillette, 27th September 2018
‘The Rise Of Identity Politics: History In Australian Universities‘ by Bella d’Abrera, Institute of Public Affairs, 17th October 2018
‘The case for colonialism‘ by Bruce Gilley, Third World Quarterly, 8th September 2017
For the last 100 years, Western colonialism has had a bad name. It is high time to question this orthodoxy. Western colonialism was, as a general rule, both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found, using realistic measures of those concepts. The countries that embraced their colonial inheritance, by and large, did better than those that spurned it. Anti-colonial ideology imposed grave harms on subject peoples and continues to thwart sustained development and a fruitful encounter with modernity in many places. Colonialism can be recovered by weak and fragile states today in three ways: by reclaiming colonial modes of governance; by recolonising some areas; and by creating new Western colonies from scratch.
Paying the price for breakdown of country’s bourgeois culture by Amy Wax and Larry Alexander, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 9th August 2017
Letter of resignation from the Editorial Board of Third World Quarterly following the publication of ‘The case for colonialism’ by Bruce Gilley, 19th September 2017
A Dangerous Withdrawal by Colleen Flaherty, Insider Higher Ed, 9th October 2017
Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history by Nigel Biggar, The Times, 30th November 2017
Open letter from group of Oxford scholars condemning Nigel Biggar’s Times article defending Bruce Gilley, 19th December 2017