Thursday, May 28, 2009

How the left turned to the right

Freedom of expression cannot be sought invidiously in one territory, and ignored in another. For with authorities who claim the secular right to defend divine decree there can be no debate no matter where they are, whereas for the intellectual, tough searching debate is the core of activity, the very stage and setting of what intellectuals without revelation really do... the [campaign against the fatwa] is not really about offence to Islam, but a spur to go on struggling for democracy that has been denied us, and the courage not to stop. Rushdie is the intifada of the imagination." Edward Said
Oliver Kamm had a short essay in the Times at the weekend, attacking, in his usual sharp and well-evidenced way, the propensity of the liberal left to let reactionary attitudes off the hook because of the false notion that the ideals of freedom of speech are eurocentric and because of a false notion that ethnic and religious groups should be protected from offence.

The example of Bernie Grant's response to the Rushdie fatwa, as related in Tony Benn's diaries, is quite shocking:
“Bernie Grant kept interrupting, saying that the whites wanted to impose their values on the world. The House of Commons should not attack other cultures. He didn’t agree with the Muslims in Iran, but he supported their right to live their own lives. Burning books was not a big issue for blacks, he maintained.”
The emphasis is mine, on a statement that is one of the most disgusting I've read recently.

However, as is often the case, I think Kamm over-states his case in conjuring up a monolithic "left". He gives just five examples: Grant, a Danish journalist writing in the Guardian, Baroness Shirley Williams, Ken Livingstone, and Verso Books. Do these examples really sum up "the left"? Livingstone is (or at least has been) a significant figure, but does anyone listen to Shirley Williams these days, let alone Jacob Illborg? And in what sense is the centre-right politician Williams to the left of Christopher Hitchens, who Kamm positions as the voice of reason in debate with her? And how many actually existing left-wingers outside universities really talk about eurocentrism?

On the Rushdie affair, at the heart of his argument, it is of course true that there were left-wing appeasers of the fatwa-ists, informed by a reactionary version of multiculturalist dogma. On the whole, however, the right utterly failed to defend Salman Rushdie - conservatives like Roald Dahl and Immanuel Jakobovits (mentioned by Kamm) were among his attackers, while the Thatcher government made little effort on his behalf.

Who was it that did defend him? Well, sections of the left. On the one hand, there were writers and intellectuals organised by International PEN, including people like, yes, Tariq Ali, Harold Pinter, Edward Said. On the other hand was what we can loosely call the black left: the broad, grassroots, secular and feminist organisations in the postcolonial communities of Britain, groups like Southall Black Sisters and Women Against Fundamentalism.

Ruthless criticism of cultural relatavism is important and necessary, as is ruthless criticism of the liberal multiculuralist dogma about "causing offence". But such a broad brush dismissal of the whole left on this basis is premature.

9 comments:

Entdinglichung said...

the left needs a strong injection of Luxemburgism!

ross said...

the 'left' needs a reality check

Graeme said...

But Kamm is a Tory--what does he know about the left.

TNC said...

"And how many actually existing left-wingers outside universities really talk about eurocentrism?"

Here in the U.S., most lefties refer to this as racism. The more academic types talk about Eurocentrism while the activists call it "white priviledge" but it all amounts to more or less the same thing.

Graeme, some of the most astute analysis of political ideology (left, right, etc.) comes from people who do not adhere to that particular ideology. Think of all the leftist writers who have writen about fascism. I don't think you would say, "such and such is a leftist--what does he know about fascism" but I could be wrong...

bob said...

Eurocentrism as racism? Maybe, but how many people actually believe that the idea of freedom of speech for someone like Rushdie is actually racist? Very few surely? If someone calls it racist rather than eurocentric, the absurdity of their position is even more clear.

Yes, the left needs a dose of Luxemburgism, a big reality check and a large injection of simple common sense. Yes, most of the left is out of touch with most ordinary people. I do not want to whitewash the left and its many character flaws.

Kamm, in my opinion, for all his irritating features, is good at diagnosing these character flaws, and whether he is of the left or not, and even when he wrong, the left should take heed of what he says.

TNC said...

How many? I don't have any hard numbers to refer to. But from my time spent with hard left organizations and individuals, many consider free speech, human rights, etc. as "Western constructs" that are forced upon the "global South". For them, this is evidence of the West's racism.

I realize this is incredibly simplistic (and just plain wrong) but the hard left in the U.S. tends to adopt a very manichean and simple view of reality.

bob said...

Thanks TNC. My conclusion: the American left is in an even worse state than the British left...

Graeme said...

I retract my earlier comment. Olly Kamm isn't so much unreliable because he's a Tory--though that figures into it--Olly Kamm is unreliable because he's Olly Kamm. It's a bit much, given the current economic context, to hear a hedge fund trader banging on about MediaLens.

TNC said...

Bob, your conclusion is correct. The American left is in a worse state than the UK (and Euro) left. How much worse? Based on my reading--books, periodicals, blogs, etc.--not much. If I felt there was anything left (please pardon the pun) worth fighting for I never would have left the left...