The liberalism of fools

by Chris Bertram on February 8, 2006

Ken Macleod has “a sharp and interesting post”: on what he calls “the liberalism of fools”:

bq. If anti-semitism is, in an important aspect, a rage against the machine, against progress, is there an opposite rage: a rage against reaction, a fury at the recalcitrance of the concrete and the stubbornness of tradition? A rage against what is sacred and refuses to be profaned, against what is solid and doesn’t melt into air, against ways of life that resist commodification, against use-value that refuses to become exchange-value? And might that rage too need a fantasy object?

Ken discusses the way in which the Catholic church met that need in the 1930s.



Jim Harrison 02.08.06 at 2:50 am

Unlike antisemitism, the sort of anticatholic rage described in this article was a pretty marginal phenomenon, the hobbyhorse of a few intellectuals. In America, at least, popular anticatholicism was bound up with Protestant rhetoric and inherited English political attitudes–John Adams letters to Jefferson contain of plenty of such traditional denunciations of the Papists. Of course these days many of the Protestant fundamentalists have made their peace with Rome. Pity.


bad Jim 02.08.06 at 4:05 am

I hate to raise the hippie flag again, so mildewed and bedraggled, but I seem to recall from my youth both “a rage against the machine, against progress” as well as “a rage against reaction, a fury at the recalcitrance of the concrete and the stubbornness of tradition.”

A “rage against progress” is a little hard to specify, but it might well include organic food, heirloom crops and artisanal goods, original instrument performances and a lifestyle centered on arts and crafts.

Our rage against “the machine” was metaphorical; the term referred to society and was equivalent to “the system”. In practical terms, we may have been more familiar with the workings of our cars than the current generation (or than we are now with what’s under the hood these days).

As for “rage against what is sacred and refuses to be profaned”, a surfeit of electrons and photons have been spilled over the excesses of that era. Although nipples remain sacred in the United States, and elsewhere legs, arms, hair and faces must be covered, there is every reason to hope that the inherent profanity of humanity will before long allow anyone to bare arms, faces, tits or butts.


Harald Korneliussen 02.08.06 at 5:16 am

I don’t think it’s quite fair to compare anti-catolicism to anti-semitism, because while it was never true that every jew was a capitalist, in the 30-40s or anytime else, the catholic church was a lot more focused on behaviour. The catholic clergy opposed, almost to a man, a lot of policies that were regarded as progressive at that time. For example contraception, abortion, and eugenics. As an ideological organisation people can join or leave as they please, the catholic church can take a lot more of blame (and credit) for their actions than an ethnic group can.


soru 02.08.06 at 6:24 am

Nobody who likes with both Ken Macleod and Terry Pratchett can be entirely wrong about anything.

On the other hand, while Ken’s analogy is worth bearing in mind, it could be overplayed.

The reason that, as things turned out in the twentieth century, Communism killed millions and Catholicism didn’t, was not to make certain intellectuals look foolish, or to introduce a novelist’s sense of irony to the historical narrative.

It was because of historical circumstances, the nature of the economics, cultures, institutions, personalities, choices and chances involved.

There was a 1930’s Catholic authoritarian clericalist (catholicofascist?) regime in Romania, with a militia called the League of the Archangel Michael. They did their share of killing, I see no reason why given the opportunity they might not have been up there amongst the leaders of the massacare league.

If there is a lesson, it is this: whene the time comes to make political judgements, make them on the basis of the facts, not on simplistic principles such as ‘progressive, therefor good’, or ‘both sides are equally wrong’.



abb1 02.08.06 at 6:32 am

Didn’t it have something to do with the Spanish Civil War; wasn’t the Church leading the anti-socialist rebelion there? I’m not sure how it’s related to ‘liberalism’, though…


Steve 02.08.06 at 6:39 am

I have to agree with Bad Jim-when I read the post I immediately thought of hippies. Of Course, hippies were more no-shower/free-love/pot-binge slackers than ‘ragers’, so I’m not sure if ‘rage’ really applied. Perhaps ‘ennui against the machine?’
‘free love against the machine?’ ‘cheesy folk music against the machine?’

Maybe we should be thinking ’70’s punk rock rather than hippies.



Scott Martens 02.08.06 at 7:07 am

Perhaps it’s self-evident to everyone reading it, but in light of the comments here, I’ll assume not: It seems to me that what Macleod is getting at is the idea that perhaps Islamophobia is the liberalism of fools.


chris y 02.08.06 at 7:17 am

Hippies, a handful of disaffected individuals retreating to “a field in Wales to weave their own bread and grow their own stereos” (Terry Eagleton), had nothing in common with the people Macleod is talking about – whole communities, once an organic part of society, now facing economic extinction, desperately trying to find a comprehensible explanation for their predicament.

If there is a “rage against reaction” to be identified, it’s probably to be found among those who are unable to face the evidence that the engine of material progress for the last 200 years, increasing use of natural resources, may no longer be a viable option. The fomenters of the rage would be the unholy alliance of sectional business interests, short termist politicians, and contrarian intellectuals. Its base would be isolationist labour and the working class right, its programme the reduction of the scientific project to just another competing ideology, and its victims the research community.

Not as glamorous as attackinng the Catholics or the Jews, but in the end just as dangerous.


Chris Bertram 02.08.06 at 7:19 am

Since Ken hadn’t made it explicit, I thought I shouldn’t too. But it was clearly too subtle for some of the first six commenters. (But if your are reading this and you are one of those commenters and you think I’m writing about you, then you’re clearly suffering from Carly Simon syndrome.)


Patrick Nielsen Hayden 02.08.06 at 7:22 am

Thank goodness for Scott Martens. I had begun to wonder if I read a Ken MacLeod post from an entirely alternate universe.


Andrew Brown 02.08.06 at 7:39 am

I was enchanted to discover that “Avro Manhattan” was a real person. I have his _Catholic Terror in Yugoslavia,_ picked up, I think, in a bookshop in Belfast, and it occupies a place of honour beside Baron ?Leon de Poncin’s _Freemasonry and the Vatican,_ which is an early work of Hutton Gibson-ism proving that the Catholic Church has in fact been run for years by Jewish Freemasons, rather as James Jesus Angleton believed that the CIA was entirely infiltrated by the KGB.

Does anyone know any more about this mysterious figure? (Avro)


chris y 02.08.06 at 7:42 am

Scott, there’s no question that that’s what Macleod is driving at, but I think he’s wrong. Islamophobia doesn’t originate among chattering classes impatient with Moslems “in need of a sound and salutary thrashing from the forces of progress”, it originates in the inability of large numbers of people to adjust to fundamental, and personally adverse, changes in their own society. The synchronous appearance in their midst of a number of brown people with ideas of their own can be used by unscrupulous journalists to incite violent racist reactions.

The fact that a large number of people who would at one time have known better have jumped on this unsavoury bandwagon is an epiphenomenon.


Doug M. 02.08.06 at 7:59 am

There was a 1930’s Catholic authoritarian clericalist (catholicofascist?) regime in Romania, with a militia called the League of the Archangel Michael. They did their share of killing, I see no reason why given the opportunity they might not have been up there amongst the leaders of the massacare league.

Um. The League of the Archangel Michael wasn’t Catholic. Romania is an Orthodox country. The League was Orthodox.

If you want an example of an authoritarian clericofascist regime in Europe, you want to check out Ante Pavelic’s Croatia, 1941-5. You can quibble (and believe me, people do) about the degree of the Church’s collusion in the regime’s genocidal activities, but not about the hyperclericalism of the regime generally. The Ustashe killed several hundred thousand people, far more than the Romanian League ever dreamed of.

(Of course, the League only held power for a few months. They were then overthrown by the more conventionally authoritarian General Antonescu. Who later became Marshal Antonescu and led Romania into war alongside Nazi Germany… but that’s another story, to be told another time.)

Anyway. As is often the case, I think Ken has an interesting, thought-provoking point that is, in the final analysis, dead wrong. Liberal dislike of Islam does not map well onto old-fashioned anti-Catholicism. No, not even after you do a Structuralist inversion of the actors.

The anti-Catholics Ken is talking about seem to have fallen into two categories: those who were personally affected by mouth-breathing clericalism (i.e., the Irish) and Americans drawing on that country’s ancient wells of Protestant contempt for the Whore of Rome. (Wells which have, in the last generation or two, finally run blessedly dry. But that two is another story.)

To make the analogy work, you’d need to have outrage from liberals who were living either under or right next to Islam. And that’s not what we’re seeing here.

Doug M.


asg 02.08.06 at 8:37 am

Right, Islam is all about resisting commodification. I’m sure the average Saudi woman would agree wholeheartedly.


Brendan 02.08.06 at 8:45 am

This article seems strangely relevant to Doug M’s and Soru’s points:

As does this one

(Note: I have absolutely no idea as to the veracity of the Afrol link, although I have heard rumours about Catholic complicity in the genocide).


Luc 02.08.06 at 9:04 am

“living [] right next to Islam”

But isn’t that the issue for many faux leftist?

Either because they wail against their Islamic neighbours in the city, or because globalization and 9/11, everyone is living next door to Islam.

You should have listened to the late Fortuyn. Being gay, he was affected by the bigotry of his neighbours. And his rants against Islam were certainly comparable to standard Dutch Protestant/liberal rants against Catholicism.

An analogy is never the same. But isn’t here a case for learning from errors of the past?


soru 02.08.06 at 9:13 am

And that’s not what we’re seeing here.

Perhaps you need to clarify what you are seeing, because I can certainly think of examples of both essentially religiously-inspired judgements pronounced on Islam, and liberal exiles from islam-flavoured unpleasant regimes.

There are, of course, a bunch of other things out there, including:

cross-talk between the democratic conversations of different countries

Malkin-style ultra-partisanism

Dawkins-style ultra-secularism

anti-arab racism

generic xenophobia and resentment of immigrants

34 flavours of nationalism

reaction and counter-reaction to all of the above.

There are even some people talking sense.



Tom T. 02.08.06 at 9:24 am

The timing of Macleod’s post seems significant as well. Certainly, it gives the impression that he is suggesting that the Danes were fools not to respect religious taboo.


Barry 02.08.06 at 9:59 am

Doub M.:

“Americans drawing on that country’s ancient wells of Protestant contempt for the Whore of Rome. (Wells which have, in the last generation or two, finally run blessedly dry. ”

Or rather, wells whose output has been temporarily diverted against secularists.


Russell Arben Fox 02.08.06 at 10:02 am

The language Ken uses is interesting, but the solid leftist point he’s making isn’t a new one (which is not to say it isn’t valuable, for it clearly is). While obviously there is an important, even vital, principle at stake in refusing to countenance violence and mob action in the public square, certain liberals who insist that any showing of collective, self-censoring sympathy or sensitivity to the beliefs of Muslims or others who “refuse to be profaned” has therefore violated the very foundations of free society are making a fetish out of liberal principles, so as to better convince themselves that “liberalism” is nothing less than the Philosophy of Civilization Itself, under dreadful attack. (That’s not to say that there may not be a “civilizational” aspect to this struggle; just that I doubt that, if such is really taking place, the pre-occupation of many liberals with offensive speech is giving us a very good handle on what’s actually going on.)


Giovanni Ribisi 02.08.06 at 11:17 am

McLeod is not making a convincing point. The gist of his essay is that progressive hatred of the Catholic Church was such that it led them to embrace an even more repugnant ideology – Stalinism. Now how does he propose to map that analogy onto today? Progressive hatred of Islam has led leftists to embrace Bush? With the exception of Hitchens and a few others, I don’t see a lot of that happening, on the contrary one could argue that progressive hatred of Bush has led far too many leftists to excuse the reactionary politics of Islamic radicals.

Furthermore, their inexcusable embrace of Stalinism does not mean progressives in the 1930s were wrong about the Catholic Church. In much of the world it was a major force for anti-semitism, the repression of women and repression of any free thought or dissent. Go read Father Coughlin’s speeches, look at the theocratic rule in Quebec in the 1930s, the reactionaries in Mexico, Spain, France,Poland etc. etc. Almost anywhere a progressive in the 1930s looked there was the Catholic Church supporting large landowners, favoring the interests of the rich over the poor, helping crush autonomous worker movements, insisting that women be servants to their husbands, and diverting working class anger about economic conditions toward Jews and foreigners. The role of the Catholic Church in the 1930s was very similar to “Bushism” (reactionary Christianism plus crony capitalism)today. So is McLeod telling us that progressive anger towards Bush is blinding them towards the greater danger of a spreading Islamic National Socialism? That would be a more apt analogy, but I don’t think he’s making that point.


neil 02.08.06 at 12:07 pm

This post was brilliant because I read it, and then thinking about it half an hour later, realized he was talking about anti-Islam.

Or maybe I’m just thick…


tim 02.08.06 at 1:02 pm

The liberalism of fools is the notion that if one welcomes, encourages, and supports violently illiberal movements, one’s life and liberal ideals will be spared when they have won.


Steve 02.08.06 at 1:11 pm

Wow was I ever confused.

Apparently, the whole article is an argument that anti-Islamism is actually just an excuse for progressives to let our their rage against backwards people who reject the modern, secular future (and that this rage is comparable to the worst excesses of anti-semitism in the past).

To believe this, we have to believe that anti-Islamism is a ‘burning rage’ (ironic when the only things burning right now are embassies and Norwegian flags, both set by Islamists themselves, over disfavor with newspaper cartoons). Furthermore, we have to believe that what is fueling the West’s (or Bush’s, if you like) efforts against Islam is a collection of angry progressives (academics? journalists? politicians? Aging hippies? Community radio disk jockeys?)!

Sorry, he’s nuts.



Bruce Baugh 02.08.06 at 1:23 pm

Part of the liberalism of fools is pretending that the target has and can have no legitimate grievances. In this case, we are to believe, apparently, that it doesn’t matter that Islam generally is under attack by immoral, incompetent, and capricious enemies, or that the drumbeat is even now sounding for an attack on yet another Muslim nation with the misfortune not to be led by buddies of our junta. The hundreds of thousands dead in a war fought deliberately without restraint, law, or principle, the nation ruined and the nation now targeted, none of this should affect how they respond to calculated provocation, nor has any relevance to understanding how it is that a lot of them might fall for deliberate lies intended to stir them up more.

Because, you see, they’re the enemy, so the truth can never be with them, or even basic human impulses we excuse in ourselves all the time. I am sensible, you are comprehensible or at least pitiable, they are monstrous. Another irregular verb.


abb1 02.08.06 at 1:31 pm

No, Steve, he’s talking about Hitchens and a bunch of his comrades, fearless fighters against Islamofascism, their sword being the US war machine. Here’s the money quote.

…But still, there it was: a religion identified with reaction, and progressives with a blind spot about a powerful state that they saw as that religion’s most formidable foe.


Jeff R. 02.08.06 at 2:39 pm

I suspect that MacLeod’s third forumlation of the phrase was actually the best-at least the most fitting to his actual argument. ‘The libertarianism of fools’.

Which provides some explanation to how persons claiming to have been or still be libertarians can support a seemingly endless stream of expansions of state power in the name of the War on Terror [or …on Militant Islam, etc]


Giovanni Ribisi 02.08.06 at 2:40 pm

But if he really means to talk about Hitchens and cronies it is a dumb analogy:

1. Almost every progressive was offended by the Catholic Church in the 1930s, Hitchens and his pals are clearly in a tiny minority on the left today.

2. Catholic repression in the 1930s was a local problem with visible consequences, Stalinism was distant with invisible consequences. Today Bush is the local problem for Americans and “Islamo-fascism” is the distant problem. So Hitchens would probably tell you he’s learned the lesson from the 1930s – not to be distracted by local issues when facing a grave foreign menace. So bad analogy again.

3. As I pointed out above, progressives were not wrong about the Catholic Church in the 1930s. So if this essay is supposed to be about the dangers of anti-Islamism MacLeod is either arguing that progressives in the 1930s WERE wrong, or he believes that Islamic fundamentalism really is a threat that needs to be fought, just not along Bush’s lines. If he means the second position than I concede he has a point, but it’s not clear.

4. Finally in Macleod’s analogy apparently support for Bush today equals support for Stalin in the 1930s. That’s a bit much. A better analogy – supporting Bush today is like supporting Mussolini in the 1930s and believing he was bringing “civilization” to Africa. Bush is a dangerous man, but he’s also an incompetent clown. Stalin was far, far worse by any progressive measure.


abb1 02.08.06 at 2:49 pm

Giovanni, on you point 3 he says:

Granted all the good reasons there were, in that age of the dictators, for identifying the RC Church with militant reaction, the fury seems oddly disproportionate.

Otherwise, I agree that this is probably more of a smartass witticism than serious analysis.


bob mcmanus 02.08.06 at 2:58 pm

What Bruce Baugh said


Gene O'Grady 02.08.06 at 4:46 pm

One hesitates to bring it up, but the harping on the quite marginal Fr. Coughlin, as opposed to (say) Msgr. Ryan, gets a little boring.

Stronger language might be required for equation of 30’s Catholicism with Bushism.


Walt Pohl 02.08.06 at 5:27 pm

I don’t understand who Ken Macleod’s critique is supposed to apply to (maybe that means it applies to me).

Bruce: There is an opposite temptation, which is to assume that people have the grievances that you would have if you were them. Muslims may be aggreived about the Iraq war, but they’re not protesting over the war. They’re protesting because some Danes made fun of their religion.


soru 02.08.06 at 6:44 pm

‘Islam generally is under attack’

Do you acknowledge, in principle, a difference, between something that someone might think, and something that is true?



Bruce Baugh 02.08.06 at 6:44 pm

Walt: I don’t know how many Muslims protesting see the Dutch thing as a propaganda move either directed or condoned from the nations making war on Muslim countries. I don’t know of anyone asking them the question, or one like it, right now. My imagination leads me to believe that if someone had made war on Canada or Britain the way we’ve made war on Iraq, and were threatening war on the US the way we’re threatening war on Iran, I would most likely regard something equally nasty (toilet paper printed with passages from the Declaration of Independence for easy shitting on, perhaps?) as quite a bit less than entirely independent. Particularly in light of actual physical attacks on inconvenient independent media and hamhanded efforts to plant convenient stories, but a whole network of bought correspondents.

Like I say, I don’t know if anyone’s asking whether concerns like that motivate any protests. I wish someone would, though, as I’d like to know.


Franco 02.08.06 at 7:25 pm

Islam generally is under attack

Yup. In Bosnia. In Kosovo. In… oh, wait, I’ve got it, in Iraq. By the Kurds. No, by the Sunnis. No, no, by the Shiites. Hold on, by cartoons in a (conservative) Danish newspaper! Yes, that’s the ticket: cherchez les libéraux!


Tom T. 02.08.06 at 8:40 pm

An Egyptian blogger has written that the cartoons were published in a large Egyptian newspaper in October 2005, without incident. His site reprints what appear to be the cartoons in an Arabic-language newspaper of that date.


Seth Edenbaum 02.08.06 at 9:44 pm

Nice one from Giovanni.
Hitchens and his ilk are minor players. The ex-Trotskyite Neo-cons however…
And the there’s this.

As a general comment:
Freedom of speech is the result of a very specific sort of social contract. Does the European contract include the muslim population?
Tell me how easy it is to become a Danish citizen.


PT 02.09.06 at 1:04 am

Ken Mcleod, meet George Galloway:

Islam is the last unconquered territory. The Soviet Union is defeated. Socialism is defeated. Nationalism is depressed. But, Islam is unconquered. And because Islam commands the believer to reject injustice and tyranny, this makes Islam automatically in a collision course with these tyrants, Bush and Blair. And, Islam has millions of soldiers. Millions of soldiers to resist this globalisation.


abb1 02.09.06 at 3:33 am

Islam is the last unconquered territory.

Not any more – look at Latin America. That’s the problem with having an empire: you go pacify bastards to the East – they start misbehaving in the West. Dammit.


Harald Korneliussen 02.09.06 at 3:51 am

Something that seems to support Ken’s theory (If we assume he means Muslims are to libertarians what Jews were to socialists – I didn’t get that at first, sorry), is that there is so much anti-muslim sentiments in Europe, despite the also widespread anti-americanism, and despite the high levels of secularism compared to the US.

It seems to me like many US commentators (and blogs) underestimate anti-islamism in Europe. Prominent muslims do recieve death threats, and laws are enacted to harass them, like anti-scarf laws, laws to hinder marriage with foreigners etc. Both Denmark and Norway have privileged state religions, as well as large anti-immigrant parties and small groups of neo-nazis and the like.

I’m just glad those danish clerics went on tour with cartoons and hate mail, and not with images from the Srebrenica massacre or something.


bad Jim 02.09.06 at 5:39 am

I’m sorry that I launched my misguided missive at such a large angle to the linked article and the point of the post, but I simply couldn’t locate myself along the axis running between anti-semitism and (possibly stalinist) anti-catholicism, and none of the ensuing commentary has led me to think that this is a useful avenue of investigation (which is not to say that it hasn’t been informative and entertaining).

My problem is that a question like

Is there some religion or people that has come to represent all that is backward in the world, and in need of a sound and salutary thrashing from the forces of progress?

sounds exactly backwards from the point of view of a liberal American, whose own government and much of whose society seems determined to deliver a thrashing to the sort of decadence which many enjoy and some of us used to deem progressive.


Jimmy Doyle 02.09.06 at 1:17 pm

No analogy is perfect, but there may be something in what Mr Macleod says – in any case, he proffers it rather tentatively. The cartoon protests – in Europe and the Muslim world – may herald a new regrouping of portions of progressive western opinion, of a similar sort to that after 9/11, when an admittedly small number of high-profile leftists noisily seceded from the anti-US mainstream. The evidence is admittedly circumstantial and wobbly: (i) the curious silence of virtually all heavy-traffic US leftist blogs on the subject, as noted on the blog Tigerhawk :

This blogger’s diagnosis itself tends to confirm McLeod’s thesis, but so does the silence it purports to explain: the Muslim anger (ignoring for now the degree to which it has been manipulated for various regimes’ political ends) is so clearly impossible to understand in anything other than theological terms, and seems so radically opposed to ideals of free speech central to US progressives’ self-conception, that they cannot easily find a vocabulary in which to voice any sympathy with those expressing the anger – in many cases people they would instinctively regard with feelings of solidarity in other contexts – eg as opponents of US foreign policy. The Poor Man’s post on the subject is uncharacteristically feeble and token-ish – the exception that proves the rule. (ii) Many on the (‘indecent’ as well as ‘decent’) left in the UK seem tempted by a non-sequitur whose natural home is surely the, ah, ‘robust’ right (eg Laban Tall): that if a media outlet refuses to reprint the cartoons, this can only be down to a craven and decadent fear of a violent response from outraged Muslims – as opposed to, say, a perfectly ordinary and laudable desire to avoid giving gratuitous offence, which in a less heated atmosphere (oddly enough, since there would be less to be gained by it) would look positively praiseworthy to anyone of a non-loony political persuasion. (iii) Most worryingly, certain of my broadly progressive academic colleagues, all extremely intelligent, and including some with no time at all for the hysterical opposition to religion as such of the ‘Dawkins/Grayling’ left, have since the cartoons affair started talking about Muslims in general, quite casually, in a way that has frankly shocked me (“these people,” “disgusting superstition,” etc).

Needless to say, I hope Mr Macleod is mistaken.


Robin Green 02.09.06 at 1:58 pm

My first reaction to the was frustration. They get shat on for decades and now what gets them finally to rise up is… a fucking cartoon. A cartoon, for Christ’s sake!

Of course, your average Arab dictatorship is probably more “open” to the idea of protests about blasphemous cartoons than the idea of protests against their own tyranny and human rights abuses – and we’ve only heard about these particular protests because they are threatening “us” – there are plenty of protests that don’t get the same level of Western media coverage – so it’s not a terribly rational reaction.

But still, I think there is something to it. The protestors have a screwed up sense of priorities from my perspective, yes, but that’s hardly unique to Islam. My frustration is against basically the labour aristocracy of the West, the people who are living comfortably in relatively free societies – they don’t raise enough of a stink about the injustices of the world. The protests about something as silly and trivial as a cartoon about a prophet, just bring this into stark relief.


Doctor Slack 02.09.06 at 2:47 pm

jimmy doyle: high-profile leftists noisily seceded from the anti-US mainstream.

“The anti-US mainstream.” Mmmm-hmmmm.

You know, you — and Tigerhawk, for that matter — would be a lot more persuasive to progressive ears if you didn’t insist on pitting yourselves against caricatures and strawmen.


PT 02.09.06 at 2:53 pm

Jimmy, thanks for the Tigerhawk link. My feeling entirely; why has the Right been allowed to hijack this issue (and all we get is some weak satire)?

As a member of the “near” Left, I smiled, particularly, at this comment (from “Cakreiz”):

I’m sure the far Left is torn, recognizing the heavy-handed thuggery of intolerant religious radicals but unable to say anything nice about the US or Western Civilization. And worst of all, they face the ultimate quandry – how to make a moral judgment in our favor and against our enemies? Yikes.


Jimmy Doyle 02.09.06 at 3:40 pm

Dr Slack,

Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. I only meant to imply that mainstream leftist opinion in the Europe and the UK at the time of 9/11 was antipathetic to the general culture of the Bush US. Far from being a caricature or a strawman, I don’t see how this can be denied. What’s more, for a substantial portion of leftists this amounted to straightforward bigotry, and still does. Decca Aitkenhead in the Guardian mentioned recently, in an entirely matter-of-fact way, that if she spent a holiday in New York City, everyone in her London circle would disapprove to the extent of demanding an explanation. Rick Moody, a couple of weeks ago, in a Guardian article on Brokeback Mountain, casually referred to the US as “arguably the most homophobic nation on earth.” This can only mean that, for him, and the many who read such sentiments without demur, any slur will do. The examples are somewhat scattered, but there are quite a few more, and they mean something.


Jaybird 02.09.06 at 3:53 pm

It seems to me that the best way to deal with this quantry is through moral equivalence. “It’s not like both sides don’t have some good points… and a lot of bomb throwing fanatics!”

I’d also try to change the subject from “The Muslims are protesting the cartoons” to “The Muslims have a huge list of grievances (which, co-incidentally, is similar to a list of my own) and this cartoon issue is merely the straw that broke the camel’s back. Wait, I shouldn’t use that simile, I need to find one more inclusive…”


Jimmy Doyle 02.09.06 at 4:07 pm


The only true exceptionless generalisations beginning “The Muslims…” are those detailing Islamic religious practices.


abb1 02.09.06 at 4:19 pm

…how to make a moral judgment in our favor and against our enemies.

In our favor? I’m not one of those who insult Muslims gratuitously and why would I want to make moral judgment in their favor? Our enemies? I don’t have any enemies, especially not in this situation.


Jaybird 02.09.06 at 4:34 pm

Pardon me, Jimmy. I’ll rewrite.

I’d also try to change the subject from “The Muslims involved with the violent protests are protesting the cartoons” to “The Muslims involved with the violent protests have a huge list of grievances (which, co-incidentally, is similar to a list of my own) and this cartoon issue is merely the straw that broke the camel’s back.”


Seth Edenbaum 02.09.06 at 5:29 pm

And still almost no one here says a damn thing about the position of muslims in Europe: generalizations on top of generalizations in response to an allegory.
Why aren’t muslims bahaving rationally?
Because most people don’t behave rationally under the best circumstances, and muslims in Europe are treated like shit.
The question is not: why aren’t they playing the game at our level? No one plays the game at that level.

Jimmy Doyle: “I only meant to imply that mainstream leftist opinion in the Europe and the UK at the time of 9/11 was antipathetic to the general culture of the Bush US.”

Oh, and why should any ‘mainstream leftist’ anywhere feel anything other than antipathy for the “Bush” US?
Is that similar to the “Thatcherite” UK?

And if you weren’t already aware, ‘mainstream leftist’ is entirely oxymoronic only in one country on this planet. I’d love to be a mainstream leftist, but we have no one but green-haired teenagers wearing T shirts that say “Noam Chomsky is God”
and then some people who call themselves ‘liberals.’ And they’re guilty enough about that.


Jimmy Doyle 02.09.06 at 5:32 pm

Er, right. OK.


john c. halasz 02.09.06 at 6:29 pm

What Macleod’s sly innuendo slips up on, it seems to me, is that back then the RC church was still a powerful influence tightly allied to dominant power centers in many countries, whereas Islam, in the West, at least, is not. (“Over there”, the situations are more ambiguous in that regard, but still, the terrorist component is both a small minority outside the mainstream and specifically directed against established dominant powers.) Now, I’ll admit I haven’t followed this whole extended “cartoon” incident/controversy with utter absorbtion, since I’m not hooked up with the electronic mass media, to keep up with the latest state-of-play, and the whole thing strikes me as a bit Yogi Berra-ish. But it’s baldly obvious that it has popped up in the overall context of a massively violent Western aggression against a predominantly Muslim nation, with threats of more to come, together with a more diffuse, but broader cultural/political aggressive pressure on the Arab and Islamic world, claiming that the West can and should “force them to be free”, that is, be more like us, in our absurdly idealized image of ourselves,- (and while we steal their oil)- without any regard for the heritages, internal balances or normative recognitions of their own societies, (however inadequate we or they might feel them to be). (That there is internecine conflict and violence amongst themselves only points to the direness and precariousness of the overall situation.) To deal with the situation in self-regarding fashion as a matter of “values” without regard for real conditions and, further, to deploy it as a self-confirming opportunities to affirm the superiority of one’s own “values” in the conflict is merely a denegation and reiteration of the whole FUBAR situation. Still more absurd is to assert that there is or ought to be a “unity” of “values” with respect to the “progressive” position of the West, since there are any number of cleavages and conflicts of “values” here: viz. freedom of speech/expression vs. tolerance vs. equal claim to respect and dignity vs. standards of justification vs. majority rule vs. minority rights vs. norms of civic participation vs. social exclusions vs. differentially distributed power-relations vs. solidarity with human sufferings, etc. There is no point to talking about “values” without first considering the real conditions and specific situations that would make for their possible application, and, I think, facing up to those real conditions and confronting the various ideological value claims that are ostensibly made on their behalf with interpretations and analyses that take into account the real bases and many-sidedness of the issues would be the only real and reasonable hope of advancing any mutual understanding amidst all the noise and violence. The reactive violence of the Muslims resembles nothing so much as a projective identification directed against the West that refuses to grant them any hearing or legitimate voice, amidst its own agressive self-preoccupation. One peculiarity I’ve noticed among the variously pained or triumphant attempts of Westerners to work out the “values” position on this issue, is the readiness with which they dismiss the Muslims’ complaint about blasphemy/idolatry,- (the two terms can not wholely be distingushed or separated),- as if that were completely unrecognizable, and an obscurely and repressively theological issue, which should not be allowed to be of any account. The oddity is that foundational Western traditions are build on some of the same or similar understandings and not just in religious guises. Even if the rioters’ might hold to narrowly theocratic strictures on the issue, what is fundamentally at stake, in their as well as our own traditions, in the prohibition against blasphemy/idolatry is the fundamental status and recognition of the “properly” human, as the “foundation” for any ethical compact.


Robin Green 02.09.06 at 8:02 pm

Well, that may be so John, but I’m damned glad that the Danish government said (effectively) that it was not their business to enforce Muslim taboos on their own population.


john c. halasz 02.09.06 at 8:23 pm

The Danish government is a rightwing government that is de facto aligned with the originating newspaper and has been pursuing populist polemics against “multiculturalism” as part of its electoral agenda. Just so you get the particular Danish context for this hydra-headed monster. I wouldn’t advocate press censorship in Denmark, over here, or over there, but, not only is it absurd to claim that we have a disinterestedly “free” press over here, removed from the operations and influences of established power and its agendas, but claiming that freedom of the press, which is not endangered over here by foreign influences in any case, is the main consideration at issue is just the height of ideological hypocrisy.


Jimmy Doyle 02.10.06 at 4:43 am

Update: I was referring, in 42, to the Poor Man’s first post on the cartoons. He now has another, longer one, to which updates II and III strongly conform to Macleod’s conjecture. This is starting to worry me.


Anthony 02.10.06 at 2:51 pm

Does he have to be talking about a particular religion here?

It could be American progressives railing against Christian conservatives and, liberals opposing political Zionism, or Europeans fearing Muslim minorities.

Look to American religious conservatives who criticize the boogeyman of “secular humanism” or communists who speak of “capitalist pigs.”

There is an unsettling human instinct to define an enemy and hate with an unreasoning, righteous rage. Progressive intellectuals are no more immune than anyone else, no matter how rational they think they are.


Russell Arben Fox 02.10.06 at 3:04 pm

A bit late, but this post got me thinking about the cartoon controversy and the limits of our various liberal and conservative reactions to such, here.


Charlie Stross 02.11.06 at 7:53 am

I’m startled at the number of readers who just don’t Get what Ken was saying. They read the words but missed the meaning, which is a not-terribly-obscure metaphor. Some folks thought “the liberalism of fools” was an attack on liberal values, or an assertion that liberal values are only held by fools, or lead inevitably to foolishness. Others thought he was literally talking about anti-clericalism or anti-catholicism. And others think … well.

Let’s put it in words of one syllable, shall we?

If your petit-bourgeois lifestyle is precarious and seems to be under attack, the temptation is to look for an external attacker rather than to consider the reasons why it is precarious. It’s a lot easier to swallow the idea that you’re being put out of business because of some conspiracy of evil international bankers than it is to swallow the possibility that you might just be screwed because the economic system is buggy — because the conspiracy theory holds out the promise of a quick fix (if you shoot the conspirators). When the economic or social pressure heats up, fools turn to conspiracy theories and prejudice instead of looking for underlying causes of the malaise.

Today we live in a globalized world. It costs about one month’s average earnings for a citizen of a developed country, and takes about 48 hours, to reach the antipodes. Back in 1806, that’s about what it would have cost (and taken) to travel halfway across England, or across one of the New England states, by stage coach. We are living cheek by jowl with people who we don’t know and don’t much care for, and in many cases they don’t care much for us, either. Meanwhile, actions taken at home reverberate around this shrunken world in much the same way that events happening in a town ten miles down the road would have reverberated back in regency England.

So we’re harvesting a bumper crop of conspiracies and racism, the liberalism of fools, as Ken put it. It’s easier to blame the strangers than to grapple with the possibility that the current world situation — for which we are partially responsible — puts their concerns square in our lap, or that big corporations working out of our capitals can upset them by tripling the price of drinking water or publishing offensive cartoons.

Finally, There’s the classic mistaken assumption that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. It’s an error that Hitchens and others, liberals who should have known better, fell into. Having decided that radical Islam was a direct threat (rather than the system that resulted in the production of a violent, radical Islamicist movement on our doorstep) they lent their support to the Strong Man who promised to hold the threat at bay — ignoring the evidence that his faction are largely responsible for the existence of the threat in the first place. It’s the same error as the 1930s liberals who backed Stalin unconditionally because he was opposed to fascism; or the 1930s conservatives who wanted to back off on that nice Mr Hitler because he was tough on communism.

“But still, there it was: a religion identified with reaction, and progressives with a blind spot about a powerful state that they saw as that religion’s most formidable foe.”

And there you have it. Nasty xenophobia being harnessed to support a strongly nationalistic, not to say racist, regime. Couldn’t happen here, could it?


soru 02.12.06 at 1:41 pm

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that science fiction authors seem to be the only ones able to come close to understanding the world of 2006.


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