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Friday, May 18, 2007

It's the Enlightenment, stupid

We have on several occasions referred to the retreat of true liberal values in Britain and other western countries, and urged the necessity of resuscitating an authentic liberal consciousness.  Nevertheless, as the word "liberal" has been progressively divorced from its true meaning, to the extent that many people consider it to be shorthand for "left wing" or "socialist", it does no harm to reinforce precisely what we mean by liberal or Enlightenment values.  We are therefore delighted to read Melanie Phillips' excellent presentation on the crisis of modern liberalism in the context of its confrontation with radical Islamism.  Melanie Phillips defines liberalism thus:
By liberalism I mean the commitment to a free society, founded above all on the separation of secular government from religious worship — from which follow the concepts of equal respect for all people, freedom of conscience, tolerance and the rule of law.
Melanie points out that liberalism is essentially a creed of modernity,  from which freedom and democracy naturally derive.  It is therefore fundamentally at odds with the Islamist programme, which in its classical form defined by the ideological founders of the Muslim Brotherhood organisation, sees western Enlightenment values as a "virus" which must be destroyed before it can infect and ultimately destroy the Islamic world.  The extent to which this belief system is valid, or constitutes a threat to the West is beyond the scope of this article (but please read in full Melanie Phillips' treatment of the subject).  The point is that developments in western liberalism have rendered our so-called free societies incapable of defending itself against this or any other similar threat.  Melanie continues:
Why is a liberal society so reluctant to defend its own most cherished values of freedom and tolerance? The answer, I suggest, lies both in the intrinsic nature of liberalism — and also in what I would call our dominant culture of corrupted liberalism, in which true liberal values have actually been turned on their heads.

Our corrupted liberal culture has torn up the key precepts of liberalism so that it no longer knows what they are, let alone stands ready to defend them to the death. Authentic liberalism was a doctrine of social progress based on maximising the good in people’s behaviour and minimising the bad. It thus depended upon making moral distinctions between good and bad.

But these distinctions have been destroyed by a combination of hyper-individualism — which grew out of liberalism — and a form of cultural Marxism whose agenda is to destroy liberal values. Between them, these trends tore up the concepts of objectivity, authority and the Judeo-Christian moral codes underpinning western values and substituted emotion, subjectivity, and moral and cultural relativism.

All lifestyles were now deemed to have equal status. Social or moral norms were intolerable because by definition they excluded by those who lay outside them. So normative values were replaced by those of groups hitherto deemed to lie outside them. Such self-designated ‘victim’ groups became unchallengeable: they could now do no wrong, while the dominant culture could do no right. And ‘universal’ human rights law became the judicial weapon for minorities to overturn the values of the dominant culture.

Under the banner of liberal values, this actually destroyed the core precept of liberalism — the distinction between right and wrong, good and bad, truth and lies.
The fact of the matter is that when Islamist and other detractors of the west argue that western liberal democracy is decadent, they are essentially correct.  The bedrock liberal values on which our society is based has been progressively undermined over several decades thanks to the strange conjunction of cultural Marxism and hyper-individualism.

As Mark Steyn has pointed out, it is a mistake to identify Islamism (let alone Islam) as the real enemy. The worst enemy of western liberal societies is within:
Radical Islam is an opportunistic infection, like AIDS: It's not the HIV that kills you, it's the pneumonia you get when your body's too weak to fight it off. When the jihadists engage with the U.S. military, they lose--as they did in Afghanistan and Iraq. If this were like World War I with those fellows in one trench and us in ours facing them over some boggy piece of terrain, it would be over very quickly. Which the smarter Islamists have figured out. They know they can never win on the battlefield, but they figure there's an excellent chance they can drag things out until Western civilization collapses in on itself and Islam inherits by default.

That's what the war's about: our lack of civilizational confidence. As a famous Arnold Toynbee quote puts it: "Civilizations die from suicide, not murder"--as can be seen throughout much of "the Western world" right now. The progressive agenda--lavish social welfare, abortion, secularism, multiculturalism--is collectively the real suicide bomb.
Western civilisation has been undermined by a failure to recognise, uphold and promote the values that underpin that civilisation.  Our education system teaches a tendentious version of history that actively delegitimises the values and achievements that created this nation and others'; much of our media output does the same thing, under the spurious cover of "objectivity"; and the multiculturalist agenda decrees that since all cultures are equal, any attempt to assert or celebrate the majority culture must ipso facto be a racist and discriminatory exercise.  The inversion of liberal values has resulted in the progressive weakening of the social, moral and cultural infrastructure which makes up our national immune system.  We need to repair this immune system quickly if we are not to fall victim to civilisational AIDS.  The need for a return to Enlightenment values is urgent and compelling.