Going Back To Liberal Roots, Recognizing The Limits of Relativism

Cultural Diversity?

I went to see Bernard-Henri Levy at the Union Square Barnes & Noble the other day after hearing about his new book Left in Dark Times; the talk was compelling enough to sell me the book, and Levy was pretty entertaining, too. He regaled us with stories about Sarkozy’s attempt to enlist his support; and said his criticism of the left was a “family” matter, and that he had nothing to say about the Republican candidate “Mrs. Pah-leen” (nothing is funnier than a French accent) and her running mate John McCain.

Left in Dark Times promises to be a sort of call to the left to take back liberalism. Levy addresses at least four specific problems that have been bugging me in recent years about the state of left-leaning liberal politics. I don’t yet know exactly how he tackles those issues (I just started reading the book), but it’s nice to see them taken on by someone from the left.

One: Knee-jerk anti-Americanism — please people, if you think this is an antidote for knee-jerk- “pro-Americanism” a la Bush-Cheney et. al, it’s not. Political thought isn’t a viral infection (although it is sometimes an inherited genetic disorder, but that’s another topic). For those who are confused, I put “Americanism” in quotes because there is something decidedly un-American in the idea of blind allegiance to leaders and government policies. Real Americanism has to do with American ideals, not unthinking nationalistic fervor.

Two: sympathy for (or at least refusal to criticize) unsavory autocratic regimes simply because they call themselves revolutionaries for some brand of “egalitarianism.” How can anyone be that blind? More importantly, what’s the real agenda here? If you are a liberal (rather than simply a leftist-central-planning-junkie) then, shouldn’t your preoccupation be the actual conditions of people’s lives (you know, open societies, freedom to make choices about your lives, privacy from surveillance, access/right to make a living, etc.)?

It’s delightfully ironic to see a French dude criticize people for sympathizing with leftist authoritarianism, since that particular ideological tick tends to be more common among Europeans, especially the French (although the usual intellectual dishonesty of right wing critics typically permit them to treat American liberalism as though it were no different).

Three: the misguided view that caring about the Palestinians requires condemning Israel as evil.

Four: treating certain classes of human rights as cultural rather than universal. I couldn’t agree more, although, I suspect, given his approval of the French government’s veil-ban, Levy probably goes further than I (or most Americans) can get comfortable with — because it allows government precisely the kind of authority over personal choice that we are trying to prevent governments (and religious leaders) from having.

(Side note: some will be uncomfortable with a veil ban because it shows inadequate respect for religious “tradition” in a way that might interfere with their own agenda of tradition, like “family values” or “traditional marriage” — I have NO such qualms; yes, many traditions are harmless and some have great value, but that value is not intrinsic to or derived from their status as “traditions” or “respect” for tradition for its own sake; I remind you that slavery and feudalism have been the “tradition” in most societies for vast stretches of human civilization. My only issue is the freedom of choice for a woman who wants to wear a veil.)

Speaking of cultural relativism, I remember a discussion in law school about the question of political asylum for victims of gender-based oppression from “traditional” societies. I was disheartened (but not entirely surprised) at the enormous ease with which “liberals” adopted a “non-interventionist” posture, loathe to “impose our world view” on “other cultures.” Apparently, it was somehow more acceptable for the priests and warlords of these countries to impose their world view on these women. Keep in mind, we were talking about asylum seekers rather than “intervention” initiated by the United States. By the way, conservatives, who like to feign great concern for women’s rights when trying to justify invading a country to secure fuel sources, are (and were in this case) predictably more concerned with “cultural sensitivity” to the sheiks and mullahs when it came to granting asylum to the same women. So, I’d be suspicious of any critique on this topic from that side of the political spectrum.

Back to liberals: their frequent acceptance of the absurd (and logically self-canceling) idea of “respect” and “tolerance” for systemic intolerance in “other cultures” assumes those cultures are monolithic (and buys into the conceit that dissent and diversity of opinion can only exist in western societies). Does that really sound “respectful”? It treats human rights and individual dignity differentially according to the ethnicity of the person whose rights/dignity have been proscribed. Does that sound respectful? While purporting to refrain from “judgment” this sort of thing is very much a judgment that the priests’ and emirs’ characterization of their “culture” is authentic and worthy of respect, while women asserting their human rights are somehow “influenced” in an illegitimate way, by the “western” notion that each of them should have control of her own life. That’s the most utterly disrespectful and illiberal attitude imaginable.

I have hopes for a robust analysis of all this in Levy’s book. I may even write a review for the Thought Oven, but no promises; my regular readers (do I even have any?) know that I’m not regular or dependable with the entries. But really, is that such a bad thing? Think of all the blogs that you could keep up with if they didn’t insist on posting something EVERY DAY 🙂 Yeah, I’m not above using emoticons in a blog entry.

Incidentally, the most entertaining portion of Levy’s talk was when this communist guy with a loud voice (I mean REALLY loud, like a large subwoofer) expressed his disapproval by yelling out all kinds of obscure “facts” about the former soviet union and Cuba, the relevance of which was never entirely clear to me, and chanting “down with anti-communism” and calling Levy “a French Rush Limbaugh!”

Levy seemed to enjoy it and wanted to engage him in a friendly conversation, but that was really going nowhere. Levy turned to the young man filming the event and asked if he had planted the “communist” in the audience to manufacture juicier footage. Ultimately, the communist had to be taken away — which led him to charge “you talk about liberty, but have them drag me away by force, what a fucking joke. . . . down with anti-communism!”