Intolerance is at the Heart of Liberalism

The incoherence of liberalism is going to need a better defense than the one offered by Douglas Murray. 

Liberalism, as Douglas Murray rightly points out in his Spectator piece, is in the dock and subject to a new “cultural revolution.” Murray’s piece reflects an ever-growing pessimism across western societies that the edifice upon which liberalism was built is giving way to a “woke” progressivism concerned with curtailing free speech and toppling statues. In this new world, young people exhibit an illiberalism that would, in Murray’s mind, not be out of place in a “Talibanised” society. 

For Murray, Britain and the West face an existential crisis. Saving liberalism requires the idea to be defended and reasserted. Liberalism today is facing challenges from within and without, most notably because of the rise of nationalism. This well-trodden and rather pessimistic forecast is captured in Edward Luce’s gloomily titled book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism. Yet Murray and his fellow crusaders recall a mythical liberalism that has never actually existed. In reality, liberalism has all too often been co-opted by eurocentrists, imperialists, racists, and white nativists (like Murray) that place European civilization above all other cultures. 

The Black Lives Matter movement has revealed a gaping wound at the heart of liberal society, that of its inherent racial intolerances. George Floyd’s inhumane asphyxiation over eight long minutes was meant to be another statistic, but today stands as a metaphor for something bigger. Floyd’s horrific murder and the resulting worldwide protests underscore the intolerances at the heart of political liberalism. An intolerance that undergirds liberalism and its very foundations. 

For all the talk of equality and rights, liberalism suffers from what Bikhu Parekh calls a deep narcissism; If you do not conform to the dominant consensus, you do not deserve equal recognition. This consensus is both intellectual and cultural. Those that refuse to embrace the values of liberal universalism and who do not represent the cultural attitudes of the dominant group have all too often been marginalised by liberal idealists, pushed to the fringes of societies. Both theory and practice, as well as an informed reading of history, attest to the chauvinism that has all too often been associated with liberal ideology. 

Liberal toleration developed in the throes of European religious conflict in the seventeenth century. John Locke initially sought to devise a philosophy to remove conflict from the society that came from competing versions of the ‘good life’. To do so, what was needed was a neutral state that would act as a mediator, rise above the fray and not take sides. In theory, at least, citizens would be free to pursue their own version of what made them happy. This approach was reaffirmed by John Stuart Mill, whose ‘harm principle’ set out a criterion for individuality to flourish. The state could not intervene in the personal realm or indeed the public realm unless real harm resulted from an activity. Both Locke and Mill and others built the contours of a society that would preserve and widen a free and liberal polity. In this political environment, all people would flourish. 

In theory, this all sounds agreeable and it is this version of liberal philosophy to which Douglas Murray would like to return. A so-called woke progressivism looks to curtail freedoms in favor of what Bari Weiss of the New York Times calls ‘safteyism.’  Nostalgia, however, can often obscure unsettling truths. An England where you could be whatever you wanted to be and preserve your individuality whilst reaching your full human potential has never existed. This is an ahistoric reading of an idea. Strikingly illustrated by John Gray in his book, Two Faces of Liberalism, liberalism has always been torn between two contradictory ideals; one where it acts as a benign mediator and another where it advances a project of universalism. All too often, it is the proselytising mission of liberalism that has dominated the liberal state. 

This crusading spirit of liberalism is unsurprising. The ideology was closely associated with a Darwinian belief that both Europeans and their culture had a duty to civilize and tame the savagery of other world civilisations. This is why the “white man’s burden” was embraced by liberals at home like William Gladstone and later David Lloyd George, and why John Winthrop’s ‘city on the hill’ stood tall as an example for supposedly lesser cultures to imitate. Besides, liberalism from its very first days was less a neutral arbiter and more a neo-religious executioner. It demanded something in return for its toleration. Even when you were ready to give everything up to be embraced by the polity, your colour, cultural mores, and creeds meant that acceptance was always going to be contingent on your gratefulness and recognition of your inferiority and status. 

It is the cultural supremacism that undergirds liberalism that allowed John Locke, the father of liberalism, when penning his piece ‘On Toleration’ to see little contradiction with owning stocks in the Royal African Company, which ran the African slave trade for England. Nor did he feel discomfort with authoring The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina (1669) which states, “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves …”. Equality and rights were reserved for the deserving. This is also why Thomas Jefferson in 1776 when scribing the American Declaration of Independence, found little misgivings in enslaving over six hundred people over the course of his life. Although paying lip-service to their emancipation, he argued that blacks were racially inferior and “as incapable as children,” and that any future emancipation could only happen with a plan of repatriating slaves to Africa, for cultural dilution would be untenable. “A white woman”, he wrote in 1778 when updating the statutes of Virginia, “having a child by a Negro would be required to leave the state within a year” or she would be “out of the protection of the laws.” In other words, the law could no longer protect her from the mob. In today’s language, we would call this ‘white supremacy’. 

These were not just a few rotten apples or a result of attitudes of the age. Rather, this racial and cultural superiority undergirded early liberalism. Immanuel Kant, Voltaire, and Jean Jacques Rousseau all suffered from the hubristic ailments of liberal superiority. Kant, responsible for developing the early notions of democratic peace, suggested in his writings on the Destiny of Races that, “The race of the whites contains all talents and motives in itself.” And that, “The race of Negroes … can be educated, but only to the education of servants.” And that Native Americans, “are uneducable… care for nothing and are lazy.” Voltaire of the “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” fame, was also a deep hater of Islam. He wrote a play, deliberately aimed to denigrate Islam’s Prophet at a time when liberalism was pitted against the Ottoman faith, to incite European jingoism. Voltaire described the play as “written in opposition to the founder of a false and barbarous sect.” This hatred for the other mirrored a deeper chauvinism that cannot be detached from the liberal mindset. The ‘noble savage’ trope is commonly associated with Rousseau and was used to justify European mastery over native Americans and imperialism. In modern times, the hegemonic order theory often used in international relations to describe America’s role in the world after 1945 is deeply imbued in this Eurocentric chauvinism.  

The post-cold-war era may have hailed, on paper at least, a period of cosmopolitanism and free trade, but it also gave space to a more muscular assertion of international liberalism, what became known as liberal interventionism. When President Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeline Albright declared, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America: we are the indispensable nation,” she echoed the same hubris woven into the liberal fabric. The resulting wars in Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003) and Libya (2011) were all fought to free beleaguered people from tyranny, only to devour the Muslim world into a fire pit of sectarianism and terror. The language of human rights and exporting democracy were the new instruments of this liberal crusade. When it went wrong, it was because the natives were not ready to run their own affairs and embrace liberal democracy. Niall Ferguson opines in his book Colossus, if only America had the stomach to stay the course like all empires, possibly fifty to a hundred years, then it could turn around a country like Iraq. This would allow the spread of “American values to Iraq’s mostly undemocratic neighbors.” The liberal world order created after 1945 was never a genuine attempt to create a free and equal world, but a means to consolidate American power. Even liberal institutions, such as the World Bank and IMF, readily played their role to undermine the sovereignty of developing nations and to forcibly open up their markets to the rabid appetites of the modern multinational corporation. 

At home, liberalism claims to create a neutral space to host divergent views, yet liberal neutrality remains illusory. Instead, liberals require the embrace of a thick layer of values before acceptance into the public square. These include individualism, liberties, liberal democratic norms, secularism, and toleration of all moral positions. Most liberals see this as common sense because most liberals believe these are “self-evident” truths. Yet those communities that are hesitant to, say, accept the denigration of their religious prophets or believe parental rights supersedes the autonomous rights of a child are marginalised until they submit to these universal truths. France takes a radical view, where religious groups must be chastened by the state and their values removed from the public square, while Britain and America have opted for subtler forms of coercion to change the values of dissenters, a sort of ideological re-education, that within time would force these universal truths upon the immigrant citizenry. 

The Black Lives Matter movement has brought to the open what was already understood, that despite centuries of rhetoric about rights and equality, race and culture remain a fissure within liberal societies. And why wouldn’t they be? Early liberalism adopted Darwinist notions of racial and cultural superiority to limit the application of these very rights that professed to the equality of all men. Despite the promises of integration, talk of the American melting-pot and illusions of fairness, race, and culture remain at the heart of this worldview. A black American is more likely to be incarcerated, be a victim of crime, live in impoverished communities due to ‘redlining’ and despite his or her efforts, is less likely to access the type of employment of their white counterparts, except of course for a few that are ready to be co-opted into the system and happy to pull up the ladder behind them. This is nothing short of systemic racism that places Europeans and their culture at the top of the hierarchy of civilisations, reinforced by the crusading zeal of liberal universalism. The archetypal English Liberal David Goodhart recently admitted, there is nothing wrong with “white self-interest” – or preferring one’s own ethnic grouping, which he claims is definitely not the same as racism. 

This intolerance at the heart of liberalism is of less a concern to Douglas Murray. When he rails against Islam, it is his freedom of speech. When the Black Lives Matter protestors question a society that tolerates the statue of a slave trader, they are curtailing freedoms. In reality, he is unconcerned about his own intolerances because these reinforce his Eurocentric cultural hubris. For Murray, Europe is losing its cultural identity as a result of migration. He once suggested that if Muslim immigrants really wanted to be British they would go out and “drink lukewarm beer like everybody else.” In his book, The Strange Death of Europe, he decries the imminent collapse of Western civilization, which he blames on mass migration and the loss of confidence of Europeans in their culture, faith, and legitimacy.  

This fear for white European culture, thinly masked by a concern for universal values, is echoed across the political spectrum. David Goodhart in past years would have been described as a ‘bleating heart liberal,’ but the former editor of Prospect today nostalgically wants a return to an old England only found in Bilbo Baggins’ Shire. The British historian and imperialist Niall Ferguson when commenting on what George Weigel calls a “demographic suicide,”  likened mass migration to the plague; “the greatest sustained reduction in European population since the Black Death in the fourteenth century.” A review of Douglas Murray’s book in The Economist claimed it “hit on some unfortunate truths.” 

This language may seem far removed from the violent diatribe of white nativism as expressed in the manifesto of the New Zealand Mosque terrorist, but it comes from the same place. After the horrific New Zealand attacks I wrote, “when Brenton Tarrant walked into the first Mosque in Christchurch, he was not acting as a lone-wolf, but rather echoed a doctrine about the world shared by a growing number of white nationalists in the West.” Douglas Murray is merely one part of this conveyer belt. The type of liberalism Murray talks of saving is a muscular liberalism variety that gave us slavery, imperialism, racial segregation, racial marginalisation, war, and international institutions that crippled the developing world, all rooted in an assertion of white European nativism. 

Photo Credit: Chromfell


About the Author: Muhammad Jalal is a lecturer in politics and international relations and the host of The Thinking Muslim Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter here.

4 thoughts on “Intolerance is at the Heart of Liberalism

  1. Excellent critique of liberalism, which shows the weakness of the idea but ant critique that points out the weakness of an idea should posite an alternative.

    Like

  2. that’s an excellent critique of liberalism and the hypocrisy therein. “that despite centuries of rhetoric about rights and equality, race and culture remain a fissure within liberal societies”
    Reading this article also made me nostalgic about my jurisprudence classes in law school.

    Like

  3. Brilliant article – amazing point: “In modern times, the hegemonic order theory often used in international relations to describe America’s role in the world after 1945 is deeply imbued in this Eurocentric chauvinism.”

    Liked by 1 person

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