Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Defending Tradition

“This is a Christian country. If you don’t like it, go live somewhere else.”

Americans say things like that. So do Europeans. So do Australians.

Something wretched about that. It’s both a false assertion – we are most assuredly not a Christian nation (I’m speaking as an American now) – and a demonstration of how self-proclaimed patriots are often simply jingoistic bullies.

With the waning of the religious right (one thing to write a thank-you note to W about), this view is being properly challenged, at long last. Most people know we are a secular state, and even most religious Americans understand that separation of church and state does religion more good than harm.

But there is something else going on behind the kind of claim that “we are an x nation” that is troubling. All nations have a cultural identity, and many even have institutions established to maintain that identity. France has the Academie Française, Japan has the solidly culturally nationalist Foreign Ministry, and Germany speaks of a Leitkultur (dominant traditional German culture) in contrast to the cultures of the large numbers of immigrants who first entered as guest workers and have decided to stay. In Holland, since even before the murder of Theo van Gogh by a radical Muslim, the world’s arguably most progressive nation has been seriously considering what to do about the perceived threat to its social stability. The Dutch are asking themselves, “Have we gone too far? Are we too free?”

This is a complex issue because it involves taking on the question of the connection between nation and perceived national culture and who speaks for either one. To put it another way, how do we continue to advocate pluralism and give everybody a chance to act out their own values, and not fall apart when somebody asserts “traditional values”? What do we do about absolutes? Best example of this, I think, is the case of Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten’s claim that the publication of the Mohammed cartoons is free speech. What’s the right thing to do? Insist on the absolute right to free speech? Or suggest that incursion on religious sensibilities approaches hate speech (i.e., not free speech)?

Bruce Bawer, an American progressive who left the States to live in Norway with his Norwegian partner only to become disillusioned with a social system progressive Americans tend to idealize, has come out in his latest book with an indictment of European liberalism for its inability both to do right by immigrants in human terms and to meet the challenge of some of their dogmatic claims that ultimately threaten European progressive values. I’ll wager this is only the start of many more moves by progressives -- I hope this is the case -- to move onto turf, however cautiously, once thought to belong exclusively to conservatives. (Bawer, incidentally, made a similar case in his previous book, Stealing Jesus, arguing that moderate Christians ought to steal him back from the conservatives. And ditto, I'd say, for the American flag.)

The problem, it seems to me, is that many pluralists are naïve when it comes to understanding how liberalism is constrained, as all freedom is constrained, by a threat to its own existence. They miss a very important point.

Freedom of speech is not freedom to say anything and everything. Along with freedom of speech goes the requirement that one freedom must never be allowed – and that is the freedom to shut down freedom of speech. The same goes for all other freedoms as well. We should spend more time sharpening our understanding of the concept of freedom. Freedom contrasts with licence (an unthinking excess of freedom) as education contrasts with indoctrination. The latter in both pairs are routinely mistaken for the former, and ultimately subvert it.

Barry Goldwater got there first. “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Because he said it, and because the Reagan conservatives now own it, no progressive I know wants any part of such a slogan. Fine. Avoid the association with Goldwater and Reagan if you must, but don’t miss the wisdom Goldwater hit you with.

Anyone who has ever seriously tried to foster a no-holds-barred approach to something soon discovers that it leads to chaos and ultimately the defeat of the freedom one is advocating. Nothing worth anything can be borderless.

Back in the 60s, when I first came to California, I was struck by how often I heard people say, “Oh, we’re very informal here. We don’t have the social rules that restrict you like they do Back East.” (Everybody seemed to be from Back East in those days.) But God help you if you tried to act on your tight-assed ways from Back East. You were clearly breaking the rules. It wasn’t that there were no rules; it was only that the people telling you there were no rules were unaware of their own rules.

My point here, incidently, is not to support, excuse, or criticize Californian libertarianism; it's that we make fools of ourselves when we don't take the time to examine exactly what we think we are advocating. In the case of the near absolutism of 60s Californian informality, the eventual discovery of the hidden absolutism behind the informality rule shocked people and made them cynical. And, foolishly, advocates of even greater anarchism.

It shouldn’t have. It should have made everybody aware that it’s not rules and restrictions that are the problem; it's not having solid reasons for the rules we do have. Liberals need to be unafraid to advocate social rules the same way they advocate the rule of law. With the rule of law we still recognize that, while some bad laws get made and must be rejected, you don't throw out the principle of the rule of law in the process.

Today, the hippies that have grown up to run the show in places like Scandinavia, Holland, Germany and Bi-coastal or Blue State America are bending over backward to allow Muslims to be Muslims – whatever they think that means. The New York public schools made a space for Muslim students to pray in the public schools after 9/11 – a kind of accommodation parallel to censuring the Jyllands-Posten for having engaged in hate speech. Bad mistake, I think. They should not have been granted freedoms not granted to Christians and Jews (and others). And they should have learned then and there that they were going to have to get secular, at least while in school. Like it or lump it.

We are so afraid of looking like hard-liners that we make a serious tactical error in not standing up to hard-liners.

We spend too much time with people who think like us; we would all do better (I’m preaching to myself here) to spend more time with those we disagree with, working out our differences through clarification of the issues, perspective switching and moving to higher levels of abstraction in order to seek common ground. But the time comes when you are faced with a closed mind. When the person sitting across from you says something like, “I have this information direct from God and I cannot compromise.” When that happens, there can be no other response than, “In that case I will have to fight you. I will try not to hurt you, but I must do everything in my power to limit the damage you do when you act on that attitude.”

Fundamentalist Christians do harm to vulnerable gay people who have not yet learned not to take religious people seriously, and to all gay people when their bigotry leads to gay bashing. Fundamentalist Muslims who insist that God wants them to use violence to help the world on its way to universal Islamic dominion are not advocating values on a par with Enlightenment humanistic values, and we need to be unafraid that we might come across as dogmatic, ethnocentric or culturally imperialistic when we say so. In our public spaces, we all need to be secular humanists – religious people too. Without an unbending defence of civil liberties through the recognition that freedom cannot be shut down, we’re done for.

It bears repeating that this is only the first step. There’s an important second step that I haven’t addressed – and that is managing this challenge in such a way that you don't defeat your own purposes. An in-your-face rigidity often backfires. In the absolute insistence on civil rights, there has to be an accommodation to those who voluntarily want to surrender those rights for themselves, for example. We’re going to disagree on what constitutes accommodation and how far to go. But what I’m concerned with for the moment is the fact that I seem to keep running into the idea over and over again lately, in conversations with progressive pluralists, and in reading reports of progressive public policy, that we have to “allow them the same right we ask for ourselves.”

Yes, if they want to wear rings in their nose. Yes if they want to be religious. But no if they’re asking for the right to shut down the painfully slowly evolved system of rule of law on the basis of Enlightenment values. There is where progressives have to be conservatives. There is where tradition has to be seen as something to support, and tradition a word not to shy away from. God help us from ourselves if we think once an issue is labeled as “conservative” or “traditional” or even “absolute” that we must line up to knock it down.

And, by the way, this goes both ways. I want no Muslim to tell me I have to respect their right to keep girls from getting an education. If you’re a Muslim father who tells me that, I am going to look for all the world like a right-wing bastard cultural nationalist when I tell you, “If that’s the way you feel, you’d do better to take your daughter elsewhere.” If a Muslim girl is living in my country, she goes to school. Period. And when the pope tells me Turkey should not join the EU because the EU has to be kept a Christian civilization, he can eat my grits. Europe was Christian. It ain’t any more. Thank God.

Europe, America, Australia, Japan – the entire modern world is now a place dedicated to fostering the values of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights – les droits de l'homme. At least in principle. We’re not there, but we’re getting there. Some places faster than others. Turks should be welcome in Europe. Muslims should be welcome everywhere. As individuals, not as ethnic or religious identities. Not when they buy into the belief their traditions require them to take us back to pre-modern times.

It has taken us a long time to get these rules in place. Let’s not be cavalier about defending them.

Bawer, Bruce, While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within

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