This is a guest post by Hugo Schmidt
Everyone remembers the scene in Life of Brian where the Campaign for a free Gallilee and the People’s front of Judea are locked in a fistfight. One speaker stands up and appeals “We mustn’t fight each other. Sureley we should be united against the common enemy!” and everyone replies “The Judean People’s Front!”. In what might be called the islamocritical or islamorealist scene, I have been noticing something similar. I have lost count of the number of conversations I have had that go like this: Rightist: “Oh the Left are just a bunch of cowardly milquetoast nihilists. They don’t really believe in women’s rights/freedom of expression, they just use these as a way of attacking civilization and they’ll drop them at the first sign of a real struggle”. Leftist: “Oh the Right are just a bunch of racist, knuckledragging Neanderthalers. They don’t really believe in women’s rights/freedom of expression, they just use these as a way to attack the left, and they’ll drop them the instant they’ve got what they want.” There’s a certain element of truth in both stereotypes, as there is in all stereotypes, but there is also a great deal of falsity. And I am getting well and truly sick of it.
I could have written the following for a right-wing audience – reminding them, for example, when they discuss Islamic immigration, they have to make it clear that they put a great deal more distance between themselves and those who are simply anti-immigrant than they usually do. However, I think that the readers of this site are more likely to be left-of-center. Furthermore, my experiences at the One Law For All rally are the fuel for this.
To state the moral case first, the principle of solidarity demands that one take the side of those that are defending your values or principles, even if you disagree with them on a great deal else. It is said of Voltaire that, after a few hours tirade about the mental inadequacy and wickedness of a given person, he was informed that the man in question had been driven from his homeland by religious persecution and wished to appeal to Voltaire for protection. Voltaire responded “I will take him in, take him upstairs, say ‘Here is my room, the best room in the house, it’s yours, stay as long as you need’” – and then returned to tearing the man’s reputation asunder.
For myself, I can say that I do not particularly like or care for Maryam Namazie, and I could list many reasons why I dislike her. However, on matters of freedom of expression and the emancipation of women, I will always take her side, and should anyone try to silence her, I will defend her to the utmost. I would be disgraced should I take any other stance.
You don’t need to agree with everything a person says, nor do you need to even particularly like them in order to extend them your solidarity. Yet at the OLFA, I heard one speaker stand up and proudly say that she was obviously not there to defend the freedom of expression of the Daily Mail or of anyone else of whom she disapproved. Sorry, wrong. You either defend freedom of speech for everyone, including those you despise, or you do not defend it at all.
So much for the moral case. I am not such a damn fool, however, to think that the moral case is sufficient to convince people. Let’s turn then to the darker and more practical case. The Daily Mail outsells the Guardian, the Times, and the Telegraph combined. Whether the gentle reader likes it or not, that means that the Mail readers will have serious clout, and they will need to be engaged if one wishes to seriously fight this cause.
The accusation of ‘hypocrisy’ is one that should have less sting than it does. The word is derived from the Greek hypokrisis, meaning to play a part, or act. Even if certain members of the political right have suddenly discovered a defense of gay rights for entirely opportunistic reasons, so what? The cause needs to be fought, and we’re not in a position to be particularly picky about who fights on our side. Moreover, there is a tendency for the masque to become the face.
It’s also worth remembering that the jihad has held up against some incredibly tough opponents. A movement that has held out against the Russian and Israeli militaries is not going to be particularly worried by, casting my mind back to the first OLFA rally, the reciting of junk poetry at speaker’s corner on a rainy afternoon. The serious defense of liberal civilization will need to draw on and engage with the conservative communitarian spirit that defines so much of working class life, both here and throughout Europe. This isn’t a new observation; considering the state of Britain in 1941, Orwell asked “What has kept England on its feet during the past year? In part, no doubt, some vague idea about a better future, but chiefly the atavistic emotion of patriotism, the ingrained feeling of the English-speaking peoples that they are superior to foreigners. For the last twenty years the main object of English left-wing intellectuals has been to break this feeling down, and if they had succeeded we might be watching the S.S. men patrolling the London streets at this moment.” He concluded mordantly “The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions – racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war – which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action”.
To say that we – and by we I mean all those that believe in the principles of classical liberalism and the legacy of the Enlightenment – need to engage with this and to understand it, does not mean approving. It simply means understanding the nature of the board on which we have to play.
It means accepting that there are very many people, say, who are fundamentally opposed to abortion, but will fight like tigers against genital mutilation and honor killing. It means accepting that there are people who may be opposed to gay marriage and who do not approve of homosexuality, but who are not on board with seeing gays killed. And, above all, it means understanding that such people are fully aware of the excellent hand the liberal default has dealt them (for example, the American conservative Dennis Prager has said to gays “Only those of us who are against you marrying are against you being killed”)
At OLFA, Richard Dawkins made a very principled point that he would only ever use words and reason and not violence. That is a fine point of principle, but it has to be practiced for real. Simply dismissing huge swathes of people as incorrigible racists or – gasp – “right wing extremists” is neither reason nor dialogue. The truth is that there is a good case to engage even with genuine racists. In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela writes that the Apartheid government ensured that Robben Island was staffed only be fanatics and died-in-the-wool types. Yet, because the ANC maintained a policy of being courteous and always talking reasonably to anyone and everyone, they were even able to convince some of the guards that their vision for a new South Africa made a great deal more sense than that of the National Party.
Of course, there are intransigent types whom reason cannot reach. That makes engaging with those that reason can reach so much more important. In the same way that it is Muslim apostates and especially former Jihadists who form the best defense against the Islamic far-right, it is those that have found their way out of other fascist milieus that will be able to offer the best defense against those.
The case of Breivik’s philosophical mentor, Fjordman, is instructive in this case. He writes that he did not, initially, think much either of immigration or Islam. Yet following 9/11, 7/7, and the cartoon riots, looking for answers and finding nothing from the defenders of liberal civilization, he turned to paleoconservatism, then to blood-and-soil conservatism, and finally to outright fascism. It is of the highest importance that that process be understood and aborted wherever it is found, and that means offering a serious alternative.
I have stated the case at its most extreme to make the point. Most cases require much less; there are very many respectable conservatives who may become, say, more sympathetic to the classical arguments of feminism if they are treated with reason and respect, and see feminists who do not conform to the mold of certain arch-humbugs. Similarly, there are many who may have a vague antipathy towards homosexuality who may loose it after fighting alongside gay comrades in this struggle. I think that would be a rather splendid thing to see.
Which brings me to the point of what such ‘engagement’ means. Condescension is not engagement. Grudging ‘tolerance, of the sort that says ‘We’re okay with rightists taking part as long as they keep their mouth shut’ is not engagement either. Engagement like this means making some effort to understand where someone else is coming from, the arguments that have brought him to his position. Those whose politics lie on the political left have to accept that for many people the “left” is synonymous with chronic betrayal and failure. They will not put up with condescension or abuse.
I write the foregoing with some bitterness. After the rally, having causally mentioned that I’m an Objectivist, I was promptly subjected to a Niagara of abuse about the worthlessness of my stance and person. Well, it was the publication I used to write for, The New Individualist that had the guts to put the Muhammad cartoon on the cover during the riots, and it was the Ayn Rand institute that went from campus to campus in the US holding events to show the pictures in solidarity with the cartoonists, and in general we’ve had a good record on the subject, good enough not to be subjected to this sort of thing.
I have a thick skin and a broad back, and can just shrug this off. But if my denouncer seriously thinks he will make any sort of alliances with this attitude, I respectfully submit that he’s mistaken. And alliances are what we need. That doesn’t mean compromising on principle or embracing despicable causes, but it does mean treating human beings as human beings – as beings of reason.