Against Multicultural Illiberalism

While I’m not really fond of “Muslims on the march” in Europe stories, Christopher Caldwell’s reporting on the subject has always been among the best. His latest article in the Financial Times (h/t Ross Douthat) looks at the ongoing clash between tolerance and liberty in the Netherlands.

Caldwell in brief: Geert Wilders, the right-wing Dutch political gadfly, has proposed making a short film condemning the Koran. The Dutch political establishment, mindful of the violent potential of Islamic extremists, has gone into full panic mode in response to Wilders, bracing for terrorist attacks and even going so far as to encourage Wilders to leave the country. Even as they prepare for the Islamic reaction to Wilders’ hypothetical film, they call on him not to make the film in the first place, revealing the ever-widening gap between liberal ideals and multicultural realities.

As Caldwell observes,

Was Mr Wilders asserting a right to free speech? Or was he dressing up a gratuitous religious insult in constitutional language? He was doing both, of course. In their eagerness to keep Mr Wilders from airing his argument, the Dutch authorities helped make it for him. They were unable to admit that widespread worries about violence stem from a problem (extremism in the Muslim world) and not just from an approach to a problem (Mr Wilders’s brusqueness). At a speech in Madrid, Maxime Verhagen, the foreign minister, said: “It is difficult to anticipate the content of the film, but freedom of expression doesn’t mean the right to offend.” It doesn’t? Well, if it doesn’t, then freedom of expression is not much of a right.

Indeed.

Of course, Europe is not unique in its shrinking away from its liberal roots. America has, for the better part of two decades, experienced the same trend, and rather than upholding a single conservative or liberal standard for discourse, in which we should all be equally respected or equally offended, we have instead established one set of rules for the groups we deem majorities (whites, Europeans, Christians, men), and a different set of rules for groups we deem minorities (blacks, Asians, Muslims, women). Accordingly, a black political activist who rails against whites and preaches anti-Semitism and even encourages his followers to perform acts of violence can be nonetheless embraced by the mainstream political establishment, whereas a white politician who issues an apologetic for a segregationist politician will quickly find himself ostracized by party and country. Similarly, an artist may take a symbol of Christianity and desecrate it in the name of “art” and find support among the cosmopolitan set, but if another artist dares to do the same to a symbol of Islam, he or she will be denied outlets for their free expression.

While this is traditionally called political correctness or identity politics, it has deeper roots in postmodern, Marxist-flavored cant that sees a constant struggle throughout society between the oppressor (the majority) and the oppressed (one or more minorities). For someone who adheres to this philosophy, there is a moral duty to protect minorities from criticism while criticizing the majority. (On a now-defunct blog I called this the left’s obsession with always defending David against Goliath, even in cases where David is the more insidious party.) Though it comes from the left, this multicultural illiberalism, to coin a phrase, is obviously a break from the classical liberalism of a Voltaire or Berlin, which does not discriminate between but rather defends all different kinds of speech, and it is even at odds with the deontological liberalism of Rawls, which would compel us to a single standard of discourse rather than subscribing to the “cafeteria politics” of postmodernism.

What’s more, multicultural illiberalism is a strange mirror of continental conservatism, which after all defended privileged classes (royalists, Germans, Catholics) while condemning out groups (liberals, Jews, Protestants). For instance, take the positions of someone like Joseph de Maistre, reverse where his sympathies lie and you might wind up with a person who sounds a lot like one of Wilders’ critics. But multicultural illiberals have a flaw that authoritarian conservatives do not: whereas a man of the far right will see a natural unity between all groups he supports, the multicultural illiberal is forced into inherently contradictory positions that arise when when one of his “historically oppressed groups” oppresses another “historically oppressed group.” Who, pray tell, should he support?

Islam, naturally, brings many of these contradictions to the forefront. For instance, for decades on, the far left* has been mostly silent about the treatment of gays and women in the Muslim world, either ignoring the problem or choosing to defend Islam at the expense of the other minorities. An anecdote from my college years here: when a woman from a fundamentalist religious party in Turkey came to speak at Florida State, the campus left championed her, condemning Turkey for denying her “rights as a woman and a Muslim” by not allowing her to wear her headscarf in parliament. They did so while ignoring her party’s platform, which encouraged the imposition of sharia law in Turkey, which would, in turn, deny the rights of other women by forcing them to wear headscarves in public. And so it seems that while the multicultural illiberal feels all minorities should be defended, they also believe some minorities should be more defended than others.

Returning to the case of Mr. Wilders, I must confess that I find mocking Islam for mocking’s sake distasteful, much as I find racist jokes or promoting cultural stereotypes distasteful. Yet I was brought up believing in the right to offend and agreeing with the reasonable limits we impose upon offended parties in a free and pluralistic society. A racial or cultural demagogue has the right to spew hatred and we may respond in kind, but we cannot be excused if we resort to violence, nor should the racist be told that his speech should be limited because some groups may have a violent reaction to it, especially since this, as Caldwell notes, tends to underscore the provocateur’s main points. That being said, the politics of Geert Wilders and other self-styled enemies of Islam have an ugly and xenophobic edge, and though the defenders of liberal ideals may be tempted to join hands with Wilders and his fellows against radical Islam and its multicultural apologists, they should not be surprised if their hands become dirty in the process.

* Note that I exclude left-libertarians and mainstream liberals and all those to the left-of-center who do not dampen their enthusiasm for liberty with cultural relativism.

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2 thoughts on “Against Multicultural Illiberalism

  1. Well said. My own politics are left-leaning, and yet more often than not I find myself disgusted with the inane ramblings of parties and groups I should be able to support. In the Wilders case: Ideally the Dutch government should’ve done a Voltaire and expressed its disgust for Wilders’ views, but defended his right to air them, and reached out to moderate Muslims to help spread a message of peace and tolerance, but no, we get the stupid response instead.

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