As I reflect on this further, I realize that a big part of why I opposed Brexit is because I largely discounted the democratic accountability argument… because a century of libertarian argument equating democracy with socialism had conditioned me to do so. Suppressing democratic politics in order to liberalize trade must be good, right? Isn’t democratic politics all about two people agreeing to steal from a third?
Interestingly, the most compelling arguments for Brexit (as I review them after the fact–I didn’t review them before the fact for the same reason that I haven’t read a biography of Donald Trump to evaluate his desirability as president because the prospect bordered on the unthinkable) are about democratic accountability, and, interestingly, these are the arguments that American Brexit supporters are fastening upon now… and over the past few years I myself have become friendlier to democratic institutions as a vehicle for peaceful conflict resolution (in essence all political institutions are vehicles for peaceful conflict resolution). Naturally I find this a bit ironic, but I will not rail against the hypocrisy, because I don’t believe that all legitimate political and moral goods can be realized without tradeoffs, even if everyone else seems to think so.
So: internal tariff union: good. External tariffs for the union: bad. Price transparency: good. Central banking yoked to social science judgments: bad. Helping spread democracy and capitalism to former totalitarian countries: good. Helping an unaccountable and arrogant technocratic bureaucracy impose a regulatory structure in the name of a false rationality but for the purpose of promoting rent-seeking by the privileged and well-connected few: bad. [bottom line] Preventing nations from doing stupid things: good. Preventing nations from doing seemingly stupid things when they aren’t actually stupid: bad. Of course, one of the virtues of democracy is that it allows a group of people to learn from its mistakes and correct them. Paternalism does not.
It’s all rather complicated, isn’t it? Interesting that others seem not to find it so, but just like me, the drive for coherence among our sacred symbols is powerful. Reality, however, is always far messier.
This blog is in part dedicated to something I’ve called “liberalism, classical and pragmatic.” The phrase “classical liberalism” is code in certain circles for “libertarian.” The question of what pragmatism requires shall engage us shortly. The more immediate question is, shouldn’t a libertarian rail against Brussels and cheer without restraint at the comeuppance its bureaucrats just received by the British referendum which demands that the United Kingdom leave the European Union altogether? As it happens, I’m quite opposed to “Brexit” which has given me some rather strange bedfellows today, and all this demands some explanation.
The easiest question to answer is, if the EU redistributive schemes and the Commission regulations are bad, but free trade is good, then why not see exiting and replacing membership with a free trade deal between the UK and the EU as an unalloyed good? And the short answer is, I don’t believe that will happen. Part of the problem here is because the EU serves a multiplicity of functions, and its members have lots of reasons for not wanting to see it unravelled. If it is perceived as easy to leave and just re-negotiate trade agreements, it will unravel. Since the other member states don’t want that, they have a pretty good incentive to punish the UK as much as possible for leaving to disincentivize others who might want to leave. The fact that there is a long long history of little love lost between the UK and the Germans and French will make this an easy step to take. You might think that the other 27 countries would be as concerned about losing the British market to export to as the British should be concerned to lose access to their markets… but they’ll be far more concerned about the prospect of losing access to the other 26 markets. Better to cut off the gangrenous limb than to let the infection spread.
The broader historical question is, how do you understand what the EU is fundamentally. Well, here’s a question for you. Suppose I gave you this choice: you could have the United States exactly as it is, with all its shortcomings, or you could have 50 independent nations run by populist demagogues: which would you prefer? A lot of conservative antistatist rhetoric resembles anti-abortion rhetoric: it’s safe because you’re pushing back against something so powerful (the federal judiciary) that you don’t have to worry about any possible downside to pushing back too hard and actually destroying it. But suppose you could? Suppose that the next time you turned on Fox News, the United States simply ceased to exist? Hurray! No more onerous regulations! No more abortion rights! No more same sex marriage! Yes, but at the same time, 50 foreign policies, 50 currencies, 50 borders with barriers to immigration, and (if Etel Solingen is to be believed, and I do believe her) eventually endless war. What, after all, characterized Europe for 1500 years before the EU? If you’re a Nietzschean a return to endless war would have its upside I suppose.
When discussing domestic politics I almost invariably favor keeping things at the state level–for example I supported same sex marriage but believed that it should be created on a state-by-state basis. This emphasis of mine should not deceive you: I think our system of federalist dual sovereignty is awesome, even if the federal level has gotten too big for its britches. If you agree, it is worth noting that the burdens imposed by the EU are far less onerous than those imposed by the US federal government. If we had a constitutional convention tomorrow and replaced the US constitution with an “American Union” treaty, and 50 co-signatories, we’d have more local control, not less. The downside is that Congress would have less power. But you hate Congress anyway, right?
The EU emerged out of Europe’s encounter with totalitarianism. One of its crucial functions was to facilitate the transition of former communist countries in Eastern Europe to becoming “normal” European nations. If you look at the accession criteria, they are organized around a broad consensus of what it means not to be a totalitarian country: free markets, multi-party democratic elections, rule of law, civil liberties. It is not just about peace and immigration: it’s about everything that we are. And holding out the carrot of access to markets as an incentive to adopting these core Western political values actually spread these values more effectively than anything short of Allied troops physically occupying a former totalitarian country ever had. Some might say more so.
The people of the Ukraine had a revolution just for the privilege of being able to have a relationship with the EU. Vladimir Putin hated that. Today Vladimir Putin is a little happier than before.
But the deeper philosophical question is: why can’t you simply be 100% pro freedom and direct limitless hatred at the slightest deviation from it? The short answer is pragmatism, but why is that? Why can’t we just all agree to be 100% pro freedom? And what possible harm can come from being uncompromising? Simply this: it is a Hobbesian, or if you prefer, a Nietzschean world. The appetite for power is ineradicable. The tendency of states to concentrate power is ineradicable. The tendency of states to compete with each other for power is ineradicable. The only way you can carve out a space for individual freedom in the world is through institutions and the institutions themselves must possess a minimum requisite amount of power themselves, or else those who would be free become easy prey for those who care nothing for freedom.
In a way, Europe’s conundrum is analogous to our own. There was a time when the burden of federal power on the states was lighter, and that meant that people power could prevail on the state level. One of the things the people did with their people power was support slavery. Emancipation came not from the slaveholders being persuaded that slavery was wrong, or even that it was not in their very long term best interests–it came in the form of Union troops. It came from a MORE POWERFUL GOVERNMENT. Because if the Union government had been less powerful, it would not have come… oh perhaps someday, but cold comfort to those who would still die in chains in the meantime. Whether all this was a good thing or a bad thing is easy… if you think slavery was awesome, or if you think one legacy of Lincoln’s achievement, a government powerful enough to enact FDR’s and LBJ’s social policies and a federal judiciary powerful enough to impose its values against people’s will, is awesome. That is, if you don’t care about freedom much at all, but about other things. If you do care about freedom, the question becomes FAR MORE DIFFICULT, but on balance, I’m glad the Union won the Civil War, I’m glad that we won WW2, I’m glad that we won the Cold War… and that, as a result, the EU exists.
The solution to the problem that the EU represents is not its destruction, but its improvement, its all-too-slow movement towards greater democratic accountability: a stronger European Parliament to balance the Commission and the Council. And I think that will probably be one of the results of Brexit, because while the previously arrogant elites running it will be keen to punish the UK, or even help tear it into its component bits, it will also see the warning for what it is and move to accelerate democratic accountability out of fear. That’s all to the good.
American conservatives today are cheering Brexit for the same reason that they blithely talk as if the absolute abolition of the United States government would be a good thing, as if all the things that happen because it is there would continue to happen if it weren’t there… because there is no prospect that calling for such a thing will have any real consequences for them.
In postscript let me say a few words about alternative responses to everything I’ve said. If you are a real Marxist, then you will presumably agree with me that the EU is ultimately both an effect of and an instrument of capitalism and American power, and as a result anything that weakens it would be a good thing. I respect you, noble adversary! Not only are you honest, but you see certain things more clearly than your kumbaya-singing brothers and sisters who think that the EU is an effect of, and an instrument of niceness. Conversely, if you are a Christian pacifist, and you think that pragmatic compromise with power to enhance freedom is the the Devil’s way, and that the only right thing to do in the face of power is to surrender completely… and hope that at the end of history God will set it all to rights, I also respect you. But if you are a Brexit cheering conservative today, whether in England or the United States, and you aren’t a Christian pacifist, I fear you may be mistaken. We in the United States will not pay much of a cost: we’re going to enter into a trade pact with the EU, not the UK, and so like many conservative reactions, this will be a matter of expressive values, while the hated elites get on with the job of managing capitalism (I almost said “thankless” job but of course there are goodies to be doled out–it’s still “crony capitalism” we’re talking about, yes indeed). But for the people of Britain, I fear that their tantrum will prove to be the absurd conclusion of a century of decline: once, the sun never set on the British Empire. Soon, I fear, the sun will set on Great Britain itself. I pray that it will not set any time soon on the architecture of freedom that a century of struggle, American struggle notably but not exclusively, helped to create, and which still represents the best hope for a decent life for hundreds of millions.
I’m beginning to think that the fundamental difference between a progressive and a conservative (in America) is that the former says “that has absolutely nothing to do with me” about the suffering caused by communism, and the latter says “that has absolutely nothing to do with me” about the suffering caused by slavery. And each will insist that the sympathies which come easily to them are natural and appropriate, and the ones they resist are merely a ploy by their enemies to weaken them.
Thus are we all creatures of the specific form our defensiveness and lack of imagination takes.
I haven’t slept. I want try to write up some sort of account that can explain why some people are reacting this way to the people who are not reacting this way. I will say that there is this line that comes to mind, from Ossie Davis’ eulogy for Malcolm X (paraphrasing): “he was our shining prince.” It was not primarily about liking the music and the other things he did, though of course we were fanatics for them. He was one of the great personalities “fit to stand the gaze of millions” (as Stanley Cavell said of Cary Grant) but rather than being a man who “carries the holiday in his eye,” Bowie’s magnetism was born of a confidence that braved an inner brokenness, a confidence that anything, no matter how dreadful or undermining, could be transformed into something meaningful and pleasurable, because this particular center of consciousness in the world thought itself supremely worthy of existing regardless of what it was conscious of. That confidence underlay a tremendous artistic fertility and ambition, a tremendous restlessness, the achievement of which was to take Modernism in the arts and make it popular, expressive, and accessible, thus giving the lie to the thesis that Modernism has to be elitist or fraudulent. For many of us, Bowie’s restlessness was educational, and we learned about all sorts of developments in art and music and literature just because he had become enormously excited by them and mentioned them, whether it was ambient music, or German Expressionism, or William S. Burroughs, or something else. He is the only pop star to have two of his albums transformed into successful classical symphonies by one of our leading composers, and the only pop star who had a museum show retrospective, not about his paintings, but about his very existence. From the beginning he conveyed a sense of vulnerability and alienation that on some level we all possess just by virtue of being human, and transformed it into a sense of dignity and importance deriving from our awareness of that vulnerability. For someone who seldom acted, he had a handful of the most iconic moments in cinema of our time, whether it was as the stranded extraterrestrial who quietly explains that he misses his children, the army major who triumphs over the madness of war and its ethos with a kiss, or the weary Roman governor condemning “just another Jewish politician” to death on a cross. Though the press always characterized him as endlessly mutable, appropriative, and false, he always seemed to me to be essentially the same, always hiding in plain sight, always himself… and his existence seemed a kind of continual triumph over an underlying and imperishable sadness that is perhaps the only truly rational response to a world such as this. There will never be another like him.
David Bowie, 1947-2016
There is another problem with our tolerationist stance towards Islam. It is rooted in our intellectual strategy for dealing with Al Qaeda, who claimed authority on the basis of interpretation of scripture–it was a “rabbinical” authority. But one man’s fatwa is another man’s intemperate, misguided bullshit. Since many Muslims simply ignore the claims of religious accuracy offered by such groups (which can be either Shia or Sunni), our stance, which was that this is an interpretation of Islam, not Islam itself, was a powerful one.
But ISIS does change the equation in a way that Western liberals have not quite caught up with. ISIS does not claim to be interpreting scripture and tradition more accurately than other, more temperate interpreters; ISIS claims to be the Caliphate. That is, they claim their leadership has immediate religious authority, and that it is simply all Muslims’ duty to obey it directly, whatever it demands. There’s no room for interpretive controversy here. You either accept that they are the Caliphate or not.
The problem that this poses is that we can’t contest the claim by saying that they don’t represent the real ethos of Islam because whether they do or not is actually religiously irrelevant. You can only contest it by saying that (Sunni) Islam is false, and no one is ever the Caliph, or by saying that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not himself the Caliph, though perhaps someone else someday could be; in other words, by asserting a contrary religious claim. You see, subsuming a group under tolerationist separation of church and state is made awkward when the group itself does not accept the very idea of separation of church and state. As soon as ISIS goes away, we can return to the liberal narrative, because no Muslim owes any special loyalty to any particular group or individual, absent a Caliph, and can in the meantime give their political loyalty to secular Western states as needed. But ISIS has not yet gone away. (And to say that this whole topic is unimportant because so few people accept that al-Baghdadi is the Caliph is to misunderstand the nature of the problem; “33% of young British Muslims expressed a desire to see the resurrection of a world-wide caliphate.”)
Although a lot of Westerners are not aware of this, this problem does not arise with Shia Islam, which does not accept the idea of a Caliphate at all; as a result, all Shia religious authority is “rabbinical.” This would seem to suggest that if we are going to undertake the fool’s errand of playing the Great Game in the Middle East, we might want to rethink our attitude towards Iran, which is Shia, and thus in principle more open to reform via interpretation. Since in effect what is going on in the Middle East today is a grand Sunni versus Shia war, we might at least consider rethinking our strategy, which appears to be to be on everyone’s side, so that we are guaranteed to win… and lose, come what may.
Welcome to the clash of civilizations. The problem with trying to reconcile our own preferred liberal attitudes with framing Islamophobia as xenophobia is that it is conceptually dependent upon a religious dialogue with Islam itself which secular liberals are loathe to take seriously, being secular, and incompetent to pursue in any case. But the time has already come when saying “reasonable people can differ about what Islam requires” is inadequate. That claim itself presupposes that we are still in a world in which there is no Caliph. The claim to be the Caliphate is an ideological claim of an entirely different order, and Western liberals are forced into the awkward position of rejecting it in order to restore the status quo ante in which our tolerationist rhetoric still made sense. The ultimate source of our tolerationist ideals, John Locke, understood the problem well himself, when he said: “It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahometan only in his religion, but in everything else a faithful subject to a Christian magistrate, whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor and frames the feigned oracles of that religion according to his pleasure.”
For an alternate view, see my old friend Juan Cole on the same subject.
I am hesitant to write this, both because of what it says about me in the past and what it says about me now. But I think what I think, based on my prior experiences and choices, and perhaps this will shed some light for someone, if only by negative example.
The impulse to rally around our values is strong, and it’s not wrong. The impulse to reach out to moderate Muslims and include them in our sense of community, distinguishing between them and these self-appointed foot soldiers of their religion is also strong, and also not wrong. And it is important to remember that religion is this protean and ambiguous thing. If you want to look for horrible examples being set, horrible principles being promulgated, one need look no further than the Bible (though thanks to Job, the Old Testament seems to achieve a kind of self-awareness of its own problematic nature, and thanks to the New Testament, it tries to offer a mysterious kind of escape from it–I find neither form of reflexivity in the Quran, I’m sorry to report).
This horribleness is why many people I know are staunch atheists. But that’s oversimple too, because the Bible addresses cruder people in a language they can understand, and as the Biblical religions have matured and been subject to secular challenges, the modes of interpretation available to those who make the Bible their own have become both more sophisticated and more humane. The New Atheists may have the cleanest conscience today in a sense, but it comes at the price of an amazing lack of historical awareness, empathy or sophistication.
Notice I said “Biblical” not “Abrahamic” and yes, that’s because I’m going to “go there.” There are splendors in Islam, I know first hand, but there is something wrong with it too. This is not easily said, especially with a vocal chorus trying to exploit our anxieties about racism to insinuate that if you object to the beliefs and practices of Islamic societies, this is merely a form of bigotry. But I am not interested in generalizing about peoples, about ethnicities. I am only talking about beliefs and practices. A related danger comes with generalizing, but that’s a danger inherent in thinking itself.
The personal reflection is this: when I was a teenager, filled with inchoate and confused aspirations as teenagers generally are, I converted to the Baha’i Faith. For much of my life since then, all of my favorable and unfavorable impressions of Islam were routed through that experience. I am not a Baha’i now, but it was an experience that made a deep impression on me. And though Baha’is are quick to insist that they are not adherents of a form of Islam, they spring from Islam in much the same intimate way that Christianity springs from Judaism. The Baha’is are profoundly peaceful, benign people, completely unpolitical–they would never endorse the use of violence as a means to religious ends. They are earnest, have extremely high ethical standards, and uphold a whole raft of what we would think of as “Western values” because their religion tells them to. Their sacred writings are, at their best, ravishingly, strangely beautiful, like Sufi poetry; their worldly aspirations are profoundly liberal and progressive in the best sense of the word. All of that came out of Islam somehow.
But Islam is also how they have been treated by their non-Baha’i fellows, and the story here is both despicable, and sadly understandable in terms of Western experience. In Iran, Baha’is are treated like some sort of mysterious hybrid of CIA agents as seen by Marxists, Jewish financiers as seen by Nazis, and blacks as seen by American racists from before the civil rights era. I will not bore you with the brutality with which they have been treated because in a way, the brutality is not the worst of it (brutality is everywhere). It’s the combination of contempt, paranoia, purity-revulsion and sheer unmitigated hatred which underlies the brutality. Baha’is are considered unclean. I have been grateful for my experience with the Baha’is because it has helped me not only understand better the cultural glories of Islam from the inside; it has also helped me get a sense of what white supremacists were about, what the Nazis were about. It is seldom discussed anymore in the West, but the Iranian regime is not only an effectively totalitarian one, but like other totalitarian regimes, it has its scapegoat class too, because anti-Baha’i bigotry resonates for so many people in the Islamic world. If I told you that there is a group of people with many good points but which have certain things in common with antisemites and racists, I think you would treat them with kid gloves. I think your sympathy would be strained.
The Bahai’s shed light on Islam in another way. I mentioned many of their attractive qualities, and attributed them to Islam indirectly, in part. But this also illustrates a part of the problem with Islam. In order to begin to take seriously notions like women’s rights, universal education, religious tolerance, etc. etc. it wasn’t possible to creatively re-interpret Islam, as religious liberals have done for centuries in the West, or to break with Islam in a spirit of secular Enlightenment. It was necessary for someone to declare that God, who demands absolute submission, had changed his mind, and was now demanding absolute submission to values congenial to a humane, more liberal West. This is because there is no individualistic tradition in Islam; respect for individuality must spring, then, from some sort of absolute command from above. Islam not only has no “Enlightenment” forces tussling with it from within, it doesn’t even have the Joban voice, one of the most distinctive things about Judaism, a questioning of God rooted in humane standards and moral perplexity. Islam has not yet noticed the problem of evil.
Now I have a kind of hypothesis about all of this, and it puts me out on all sorts of limbs simultaneously, but I’ve gone this far…
Nietzsche talks about the revaluation of values involved in ancient Judaism. The polytheistic warrior ethos that informed Rome is challenged by a voice on behalf of the weak, the suffering, the powerless, and the idea that there is a moral obligation towards such and not just a virtue rooted in grand gestures of magnanimity. This moral obligation comes, ultimately from One God, the Only God, and thus the demand is an absolute one. This notion has its good points and its bad points! On the one hand, it is not exactly an idea that would predispose one to tolerance the way that polytheism does (you have your god, I have mine). My moral demands have authority over you. Thank goodness, then, that the moral demands are demands on behalf of the weak and suffering.
Nietzsche hated that kind of thing; I confess to a certain ambivalence! But Nietzsche loved Islam, which is funny in a way. What he loved about it was that it was a warrior ethos. All the martial values are at its core, and in that respect it reminded him of his beloved Greeks and Romans. (Notice how frequently apologists for Islam explain that “jihad” means a spiritual struggle, which is wrong–physical struggle is by no means excluded–but this is because poor benighted Westerners keep taking the pervasively martial metaphors so literally. If I may out-sophisticate such sophisticates: why are all your metaphors so martial?)
But unlike Nietzsche’s beloved Greeks and Romans, this warrior-ethos has been yoked to the absolutism of monotheism, a monotheism, as I suggested, curiously devoid of moral perplexity.
There is, of course, another way of interpreting our troubles with Islam. Islamic fundamentalism can be seen as a very recent development rooted in colonialism and revolt, a kind of Marxism-Leninism-With-Prayers. If you put it that way, many will respond with greater sympathy; the underdog always gets cut some slack, and progressives’ anti-authoritarianism may find itself weirdly aligned with what is, in my opinion, the most authoritarian belief system ever created. Still, we may assume some responsibility for all of this: had the French never colonized Algeria, it’s unlikely that Franco-Algerians would be gunning down cartoonists in Paris.
And yet, and yet… The Islamic world has not yet experienced anything remotely resembling a secular Enlightenment. It is barely beginning to experience anything like a Protestant Reformation (from which we get some of our tolerationist values). It has experienced something like the Jesus Movement that became Christianity and the deep source of some of our values. I know, because I was a part of it–and I know that Muslims treated it like dirt.
There is no prospect of “imposing our values” on the Islamic world. It’s too big, even if it weren’t for the Yeats-ian problem of our best lacking all conviction. The people of the Islamic world are caught up in a transformation larger than them, larger than us: the emergence of a planetary civilization informed by (or aspiring toward) democratic values, connected by light speed communication networks and global markets. This will not be a world in which there is much place for a crude ethos of blood and honor; it will not be a world in which there is much place for people who insist that their peculiar culture is an absolute to which all human beings must ultimately abase themselves five times daily. If Islam is to be a part of that world, it will have to draw on the parts of itself that are beautiful and moral, and transcend itself; whether the result of that self-transcendence calls itself “Islam” (probably it will) is not so important. But as long as it does not do so, it remains an ethos of blood and honor peculiar among such for its dogmatism and absolutism. Such an ethos, should it not refine itself, will have no place in the world that is emerging except as a badge by which criminals and tyrants, the New Possessed, recognize each other.
To Muslims I would say:
In the meantime, I will try to live up to my culture’s aspirations by welcoming The Different as best as I can. I do understand the attractions of completely submerging yourself into a larger totality; I do understand the allure of absolute moral certainty. I understand historical grievance. But you cannot ride on horseback with scimitars, or their machined successors, in the 21st century. We in the West face many challenges and we regard you as one of them. But you face a challenge too. There is no place for blood and honor and absolutism in the world that is emerging, and Islam will have to adapt, or die.
This either represents great progress… or it doesn’t. One thing that the Left and the Right seem to agree on is that the rule of law, the political community and its institutions, are basically nothing, and that all that matters is the individual and how other individuals treat them morally. (I could cite countless pieces of evidence in favor of this, but one of them is the blitheness with which Republicans are dismissive about the constitutional right to citizenship through birth, and the blitheness with which Democrats are dismissive of lack of citizenship through naturalization… but today I’m thinking of course about Kim Davis). Of course no one can agree on what morality requires, which is a slight inconvenience… but for the time being it seems sufficient to seize control of the State and impose one’s moral beliefs on those around one. Show me which major political party is not committed to that in principle and in fact, while at the same time being utterly dismissive of the very idea of the rule of law.
The idea of the rule of law obviously means nothing to people; the idea of citizenship obviously means nothing to people. Well, no worries. All we have to do is make sure all of humanity (yes, all: since citizenship means nothing, there’s no reason why either rights or duties stop at the border–“we” [whoever has the power to do so] must “care” for all of humanity, and at the same time demand that all of humanity behaves properly by “our” lights, and obeys the correct morality, as discovered by… well, we’re working on that.
The fundamental truth on which our style of political community is based on is not that there is no objectively correct morality, but that there is no prospect of everyone in a community agreeing on what its content is… and that in the name of peaceful relationship, we impose on ourselves peaceful means of conflict resolution which do not require this agreement. Unfortunately, not only do we not agree on even that, but most people seem to be unaware of the very idea–it’s something our ancestors came up with from which we benefit but which we have forgotten about. Another way of putting this is, we are eating our political capital, our political seed grain, and will someday reap an awful harvest as a result. In the meantime, enjoy your dinner.