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Friday, February 10, 2006

Liberals, Theocons and Cartoons

(I meant to have this up earlier, but Blogger has been down for a while.)

Some friends of mine and I have been talking about Danish cartoon controversy all week. The facts aren't much in dispute--the cartoons appeared last September; there were local protests from Muslims and grievances expressed in various Danish venues; as such complaints were rebuffed (whether legitimately or not) those angered by the cartoons organized, radicalized, spread the word. By February, Islamic governments were formally issuing protests, mobs were burning embassies and being shot at by police in fear for their lives and property, and European newspapers were defiantly--and self-congratulatingly--reprinting the cartoons (and adding some that were even more offensive) in shows of solidarity. And here we are, wondering what will come next.

One meme that has made its way around the blogosphere I think summed up the common-sense position pretty well: "Freedom of Speech: Good. Bigotry/Deliberate Disrespect: Bad. Wanton Rioting/Violence: Bad. The first doesn't excuse the second, and the second doesn't excuse the third." Pragmatically, that makes good sense. However, it isn't necessarily clear how you theoretically get to such a point; it gets you called out for being a lousy "moderate". You could, of course, be a determined rights-focused liberal, holding the cartoonists' rights to offend as central to human freedom. But if you do that, you lose the second step; you lose the ability to talk about civility, to make the point which Peter Levine does--namely that the decision to run the cartoons was a bad if legally defensible one, and that the decision of other newspapers throughout Europe to reprint them is even worse. That's not to say one should ignore the ugliness of much of what the protesters are demanding; only that to reduce this to a contest between rampaging, violent theocrats and beleaguered servants of free discourse risks partaking of what Ken Macleod called the "liberalism of fools" (discussed here at Crooked Timber): namely, the tendency shared by many libertarian-type liberals to see in the refusal of any community to be "profaned"--that is, to be reduced to one more disposable product in the elite-run marketplace of ideas--an absolute challenge to any kind of democratic freedom whatsoever. Such a perspective is blind to all the ways in which such particularized communities might feel the supposedly open public square around them to in fact be structured and restrictive (nicely recounted by Scott Martens here); it cannot see (here comes one of my favorite words in these never-ending liberal-communitarian discussions), the context. But how to acknowledge that context, to act civilly and with sympathy to particularized concerns in the midst of the culturally and religiously and socio-economically divided environments one finds around the world--and especially in many Western European nations--today? Strict Enlightenment liberals would suggest you can't--if communal or religious concerns cannot be privatized then they aren't concerns anymore, they're demands, and such comprehensive demands have no place in civil society. I don't think that's the proper way to account for things. But what's the alternative?

Well, one might consider Peter Beinart's, as he lays it out here (subscribers-only link, unfortunately):

Of course, the Danish newspaper had the right to publish [the cartoons]. But, in doing so, it revealed a particularly European prejudice, one that the United States must take care not to repeat. The prejudice is not simply against Islam. Rather, it stems from Europe's--or at least Western Europe's--inability to take religion seriously at all....In France, educational integration means public schools can expel Muslim girls for wearing headscarves. In Denmark, economic integration means employers can fire Muslim women for doing the same. Neither is conceivable in the United States, where the right to be openly religious is considered precious....[A] key U.S. advantage in the war on terrorism is America's capacity to be both religious and ecumenical. And few public figures encapsulate that better than George W. Bush, a man who has helped turn the Republican Party into a multi-denominational coalition of the devout. The intriguing question going forward is whether Bush's brand of conservative ecumenism--at least as it regards Muslims--will endure....

[D]espite Bush's universalism, clash-of-civilizations thinking is deeply ingrained on the American right. In the first decades of the cold war, conservatives frequently described the fight against communism as a struggle not merely for freedom, but for Western civilization. That's why so many conservatives opposed the rapid decolonization of the Third World. They saw it not as a triumph for democracy--which they considered unlikely to take root in non-Western soil--but as evidence of civilizational retreat....It was only several years into the 1980s--as pro-American democracies took shape in East Asia and Latin America--that Reagan and large numbers of conservatives embraced the culturally (and religiously) universalist rhetoric that Bush has made his own. Now, in the wake of the cartoon saga, the election of Hamas and the ongoing trauma in Iraq, that universalism is being challenged, and the older, more pessimistic conservatism is resurfacing. And that's a very bad thing. No matter what you think of the religious right's domestic agenda, the United States is much better off with a religious right than with a Christian right or a Judeo-Christian right. When conservative American Christians lose their ability to identify with conservative Muslims--to imagine their faith as in some basic way the same and deserving of the same basic respect--the United States will find itself less able to speak to the Muslim world, and less able to listen to it. It will find itself, in other words, in the place Europe is now. And that's a place no American should want to be.

A good friend of mine, one intimately familiar with First Things and the theocon crowd, was highly disturbed by Beinart's take; he saw it as a move away from a robust and neutral liberalism, and towards something disturbingly comprehensive and particular, an attempt to use aspects of Americanreligiosityy to incorporate certain proper liberal virtues into a "sentimental civic-religious-providential amalgam of America, Christianity, and Democracy." Danish cartoonists and free speech can be defended, and should be defended, without the involvement of any of that. My take, predictably, was somewhat different.

The way I see it, Beinart is trying here is marrying the religious right's hostility to secularism to TNR's vaguely Wilsonian/Gladstonian brand of moralistic liberal universalism. Religion, as he presents it, is a way of managing difference; by embracing people of all faiths as equal partners in the struggle to make the public square meaningful and respectful, one can bring various kinds of religious particularism together with a "culturally (and religiously) universalist rhetoric." Everyone can be democratic, and everyone should democratize, because in an ecumenical--as opposed to secular--democracy, no one of faith has any reason to fear. It's an intriguing argument. I think that if you're talking about a "deep" ecumenicalism--say in a Hegelian or Herderian sense--in which one honestly believes that all (or at least most) religions are invariably working or pointing towards some sort of common end, then presumably the various fruits which disparate religions develop along the way will be able to be supported without undermining the zeal which sustains the religious enterprise itself. If, on the other hand, ecumenicalism results not from actual religious universalism, but because one just happens to think that all religions ought to conform to various obvious liberal pieties, then I think in the long run Beinart will find that the ecumenicalism he's praising and hoping to attach his democratization project to won't have much staying power. Religion is about binding, about particularity; if in America particularity has been uniquely compatible with universalism, I doubt that has much to do with bone-deep liberal pluralism and a lot more to do with the democratizing and empowering legacy of Protestant Christianity in America itself. (Think of William Jennings Bryan, again.) This suggests that the two "Rights" Beinart describes--the "religious" one, and the Christian one--have a rather ambiguous relationship, at least in the U.S.: a complete embrace the latter would simply be incompatible with the sort of decentralized, pluralistic society which the basic structures and guarantees of our politics makes possible, and yet the former will have little force and energy without at least some people continuing to embrace the latter nonetheless. If you want to be able to protect civil liberties and civil society at the same time, then you need to see that society as more than just the sum of the freedom it provides; you need to accept some sort of model of the world which privileges certain goods and certain ends, and teaches you to be responsible and to act in a civil manner as you pursue them.

Now, how well any of this speculation about America's particular Christian legacy of ecumenical democracy and empowerment actually translates into the democratic universalism of liberal hawks like Beinart is, to say the least, a contested question. (Bryan himself broke with President Wilson over this very issue.) But in regards to the particular matter of the cartoon issue, I think Beinart is onto something. Clearly, one of the reasons that Bush and many other Americans--including many on the left--have not gone out of their way to defend the rights of the cartoonists is because they are disturbed by the targeting of people of faith simply to prove a point....which suggests that we do, in fact, still have at least some ghostly attachment in this country to a comprehensive vision of the relationship between religion and civil society, as opposed to a rigorously neutral conception that respects the rights of individuals above all else. We're not alone in possessing such a remnant of communal concern--and in fact, considering what a very, very bad job we do at actually putting money behind our notions of the common good, one suspects that the frequent failures of secular European notions of civility aren't compensated for by social strengths that our more ecumenical collective notions lack. Still, as far as the matters Beinart raises go, I think he describes a potentially important American advantage: most Americans take religion seriously, and it yet take it seriously in a universalist, "liberal" way.

The danger to maintaining this position is at least two-fold. There is the tendency to believe that liberal commitments alone are by definition both secular and weak: that Europe, lacking in religious faith as it does, will become "Eurabia" and fall under the sword of jihadists because, after all, only one religion can take out another. This is, in my view, the true theocon position (see Richard Neuhaus here), and argument that, whether or not they realize it, I think actually banishes any interest in civil society and assumes that we're in a civilizational wresting match, pure and simple. But then there is also the tendency to believe that there need be no tension between particularity and liberal society whatsoever: that all religions have to do is properly privatize their expressions and conform to liberal forms, and all will be well. This, I think, fetishizes the wrong aspect of liberalism: it leads one to believe that condemning the Danish cartoonists from any given particularist religious perspective is somehow imposing a vicious theocratic particularity upon the whole. But if you're keeping your eye on an ever-contested-yet-enduring commitment to an ecumenical (that is, both religious and liberal) public good, as opposed to simply everyone's rights to disregard such according to their own interests--in other words, if you insist that on some level the proper response to multicultural controversies like these must incorporate elements of liberalism and a certain kind of "conreligiosityeligiousity--then that conclusion doesn't follow.

My friend tells me that it doesn't work that way, that a strong insistence upon liberal goods is our best and only reliable truly defense against fascism in all its varieties. He may be right; I may be terminally naive. But if the opposite of naivete means not blinking when confronted with some of the anti-Muslim cartoons that have circulated in Europe lately....well, I'd rather focus my gaze on some other set collective hopes, for at least as long as I am able.


Lee said...

FYI - a bunch of the links in this post appear to point to the Blogger homepage. 

Posted by Lee

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks Lee; they've been fixed. (And this comment should have gone up yesterday--Blogger has been giving me all sorts of hell lately.)

Anonymous said...

A story from the Frankfurter Allgemeine on Sunday, from two or three weeks ago: A Latin teacher in Germany occasionally posts very good student projects to the school's web site. A few years back, one of these projects had, in its historic context, an engraving of Mohammed made in the 16th century or so. Nothing happened with this project for some time, but it's easy to see what is coming. Sure enough, one e-mail query turned into a trickle, which turned into a flood that included threats. The teacher got the Verfassungsschutz involved; at first, they advised him to keep the project and the image up. As the threats to the teacher, the school and the students became more common and more credible, the Verfassungsschutz advised the teacher to take the project off the web. Which he did.

There is a significant element out there whose demand is no pictures of Mohammed of any sort, in any publication, anywhere, ever. Jyllands-Posten at least has the resources to fight back. How many people like the Latin teacher are going to be intimidated into accepting Sharia law?

Second, I think that Beinart -- and any number of US commentators -- are missing the anti-clericalism that is so important to France's republican traditions. Secular education was established against the opposition of a Catholic hierarchy and establishment that fought it every step of the way. It made secularism pretty militant.

Third, it's easy to ignore the intimidation that goes along with increasing insistence on the headscarf. Not every woman is intimidated into wearing the scarf, but some undoubtedly are. What does a rule-of-law society do about that fact?

Finally, the post seems to presume religious communities that accept other religious communities as equally valid in their existence. What does a rule-of-law society do if that is not true? What if one community insists that all others are infidels, condemned by their very nature? 

Posted by Doug

Russell Arben Fox said...


"How many people like the Latin teacher are going to be intimidated into accepting Sharia law?"

Good question, and a sad story too. But I'm not sure how we're supposed to more strongly defend an appropriately constructed public schooling curriculum--one that teaches liberal discourse while also respecting the different ways that discourse will evolve in different communities--by drawing a line in the sand (presumably around where the Danish cartoonists' drew it) and refusing to grant any respect for those who do  accept Sharia law in critiquing it. Maybe that's not what you're getting at, but my impression is that you're telling us, by way of this story, that if you give Islam an inch, it'll take a mile, and so if we know what's good for us we'll decide to stand firm on the demand that Islam conform to the whole liberal package. I just don't agree that you that only context within which one can defend the Latin teacher is one that keeps religious demands out of the public sphere entirely.

"I think that Beinart--and any number of US commentators--are missing the anti-clericalism that is so important to France's republican traditions."

Yes, France is an interesting case--it has a truly comprehensive and secular "republican" conception of itself, in contrast to the secularism which comes to most Western European states by liberal default. I ought to write more about the French situation one of these days; it challenges some of what I said above in an interesting way.

"Not every woman is intimidated into wearing the scarf, but some undoubtedly are. What does a rule-of-law society do about that fact?"

But by the same token, some girls who come to French schools wearing headscarves are grateful for the excuse to remove them, but others are embarrassed and angered by having to do so. Why should we assume that the rule of law so obviously favors one inconvenience over the other? I suppose one could say that parental intimindation is worse than religious humiliation--assuming those are the two options we're talking about; of course in reality there are many more than just those--but I would respond 1) that has to be argued, not assumed, and 2) even we agree (as I probably would, in this hypothetical two-options-only situation) that parental intimidation is worse, is getting in the way of dress codes really the most appropriate way of going after the problem? 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks, Jeremiah.

"Racism is no better (probably worse in my mind), but the point is somewhat important: the likes of Krauthammer and the NRO are claiming inconsistency on the part of those calling for religious sensitivity because 'they' never before made a public stand against anti-semetic cartoons."

That's a great point, and an important one. There is a sense in which the anti-Semitism which characterizes so much of Islamic life simply doesn't map onto arguments about the liberal public sphere, because many radical Muslims aren't even thinking in an "intolerant" way about the public sphere; they're thinking of a race and civilization which they put entirely outside the public sphere. That calls for a different kind of response, one very different from a situation that involves wondering how best to move an already divided yet inclusive civil society in a liberal, accepting direction.

"Perhaps if Neuhaus didn't have the irrestistible urge to take a shot at Europe every chance he got he's realize the logical contortions he's going through to ignore this fact."

So true. The bash-Europe crowd amongst America's neocons and theocons have got to the point where their condemnations (some of which have been featured prominently by Andrew Sullivan lately!) are completely rote, so much so that a lot of them probably can't even recognize the one good point they have going for their position anyway. 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Anonymous said...

I asked about scarves because I am genuinely perplexed about the right approach. I'm troubled by the French approach in part for some of the reasons that you mentioned. Some of the proposals in Germany have been worse; the headscarf would be prohibited for teachers, but Catholic nuns teaching in public schools would be permitted to wear their habits. That's just discrimination, and I don't think it would survive a test in German courts, but it's bad enough as a legislative proposal.

Where I'd like to see Germany (and, by extension, other European countries) head is a situation where some Muslim women do wear the scarf, as an expression of their particular view of piety, and some do not, and everyone is fine with both. People I know who live (or lived) in Berlin neighborhoods with a high level of Turkish immigrants say that this was the situation up through the early or mid-1990s, and then it wasn't. Pressure increased all around for Muslim women to cover their heads, and not just pressure from within a family, but from strangers, from the community at large. Still not all women wear a headscarf, but the proportion has changed significantly. An article I read offline recently (and no longer have access to, annoyingly enough) reported on a number of cases in Britain where male relatives forced women to wear burqas to hide evidence of the beatings they were receiving from their husbands or other male relatives. The question of clothing is not merely a question of personal piety.

I'm an ornery Southerner, inclined to be suspicious of state power (Germany makes me nuts about this sometimes), but I do think there has to be some countervailing force in situations like the ones I describe above. I don't know that state involvement is the way to go, but I suspect that it is part of the solution. Particularly because the problem is not the people who choose to wear a scarf or not to wear a scarf, but the people who are not fine with what other people choose to do. And at the moment, by far the greater threat of harm comes from people who insist that all Muslim women wear a scarf. Likewise, the people who insist that it is ok to make pictures of Mohammed are not the ones who are rioting.

And speaking of riots, how do we defend our Latin teacher? Would you only defend him against threats, or would you also defend his right to publish a picture labelled "Mohammed"? 

Posted by Doug