Entry from February 15, 2011

As a lifelong adherent of what liberals (quoting John Stuart Mill on the 19th century British Tories) like to call “The Stupid Party,” I have a natural aversion to calling into question the intelligence of those I disagree with. But sometimes such forbearance is a sore trial to one’s patience. Take today’s Washington Post column by Eugene Robinson, who begins with the provocative question, “Why don’t conservatives love freedom?” He then proceeds to take to task a host of conservative speakers at the recent C-PAC conference who have warned of the possible illiberal results of greater democracy in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world. After first proposing that these conservatives are simply afraid that President Obama might get some credit for Egyptian democratization (as if!) or otherwise have to be acknowledged as having been right when they were wrong, he goes on to conclude: “These conservatives are arguing that the world”s 1.2 billion Muslims cannot be trusted to govern themselves. That’s not what I call loving freedom.”

Now if he really thinks that this is what his conservative antagonists are “arguing,” the man is a fool. As I prefer not to think him a fool, I must suppose that he has just seen a chance for some rhetorical point-scoring in what he would inevitably call conservative hypocrisy — that is the supposed hypocrisy of those who, while cherishing their own freedom are, for prudential reasons, more wary about certain freedoms being afforded those who they have reason to regard as potential enemies. No one that I know of thinks that 1.2 billion Muslims cannot be trusted to govern themselves. What conservatives — or, indeed, any sensible citizen of the U.S., Europe or Israel — think is that 1.2 billion self-governing Muslims are quite likely to govern themselves in ways that are inimical to our country’s interests.

Like so many others on the Left, Mr Robinson is the prisoner of Enlightenment assumptions which he seeks to apply to political, diplomatic and military matters where they are not only inappropriate but potentially suicidal. Gary Younge, writing in yesterday’s Guardian has a similar problem.

In the crude Manichean struggle between political Islam and democracy invented by a wrongheaded strand of western liberalism, it was the Muslim Brotherhood that marched for freedom while the self-appointed defenders of the Enlightenment prevaricated for tyranny. Last week Tony Blair said Mubarak was “immensely courageous and a force for good.” On Sunday he said Mubarak’s departure could be a “pivotal moment for democracy in the Middle East.” The man charged by the major world powers with bringing peace to the region can’t make up his mind whether he is for despotism or democracy from one week to the next. Such are just some of the contradictions, hypocrisies, tensions and inconsistencies of the west”s policies towards the region over the last month.

Does Mr Younge ever ask himself if there might be any reason for these “contradictions, hypocrisies” etc. or is he content simply to assume that they bespeak serious flaws of character in those he regards as his political opponents? Is it possible that he simply cannot see the problems in applying Enlightenment principles of universalism to politics, which is all about managing parties and factions and coalitions of interest? In such a context, universal rules are worse than useless. As Edmund Burke said of the French Revolution, “Kings will be tyrants from policy when subjects are rebels from principle.”

It takes an intellectual to put Enlightenment principles ahead of prudence and common sense in dealing with a world where lots of people would like to kill us — which may be why journalists, who are mostly would-be intellectuals so often think this way. Here, for example is Melissa Kite in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph: “You cannot say marriage is a good thing and then select those allowed to do it. If marriage automatically confers benefits that improve the state of an individual’s existence, it must be right to encourage everyone to do it.”

What she says I cannot do is of course precisely what the whole world for more centuries than anyone can count has been doing, unquestioned and uncomplained of by anyone. And why can’t I continue to do what my most distant ancestors did? Because now, apparently, it has been belatedly discovered that somebody forgot to apply the Kantian, universalist ethic of the Enlightenment to marriage. In the same way, during the two centuries since Kant died, people have forgotten to forgot to apply it to political and international strife, so bringing into existence perfect peace and harmony among nations. Not that there are not plenty of wishful Enlightenment thinkers, unaware of the absurdity of their enterprise, trying to make that application by insulting those of us who stand for human realities that existed for millennia before Kant ever wrote and are likely to continue to do so, barring a utopian transformation of human nature, for some time yet to come.

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