Monday, May 11, 2015

Who Are the Real Liberals?

Imagine we have two groups of people. We have:

Group A, whose members: cheerfully support right-wing demagogues and people who make extended, friendly appearances on Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network; defend ethnic profiling policies; promote the idea that the United States is "enlightened" and morally superior while it engages in pointless, bloody wars and kills people without the benefit of a trial; defend the use of torture; and talk about how some areas of the world need to be ruled by dictators rather than democratic institutions.

Group B, whose members view all of this as disgusting and unconscionable, defend individual rights consistently, and support a society where people are entitled to a certain level of respect as long as they reciprocate that respect.

Which group is more liberal? Laid out like this, the question seems foolish to even ask, but we're told over and over by members of Group A—the New Atheists, that is—they're the real liberals because they oppose Islamofascism, or something along those lines. We've heard it from the usual suspects; from Bill Maher, from Richard Dawkins, and a similar line of rhetoric from Sam Harris, who considers himself a liberal pitted against those unconcerned with the "deeply illiberal" Islamist agenda.
Bill Maher (Image from Wikipedia)

Discussing liberalism is complicated by a few factors. For one thing, right-wing politicians and mouthpieces have taken to using it as a way to attack anything they don't like. For another thing, American "liberals" have often been willing to defend deeply illiberal acts for a long time; President Obama is considered a liberal, and has increased the NSA surveillance state and radically expanded the drone war.

While, for political labels, dictionaries are often of limited use, we might as well start there in determining what liberalism really is. Oxford English Dictionary offers, among other definitions, "Supporting or advocating individual rights, civil liberties, and political and social reform tending towards individual freedom or democracy with little state intervention." This seems to me a pretty good definition; the label does come from the Latin word meaning "free," after all. Understanding liberalism as the advocacy of individual rights, liberal support for the welfare state and a social safety net should be seen not as being on the basis of some desire for an authoritarian government that distributes wealth however it wants to (as right-wing ideologues theorize), but rather a reaction to the fact that poverty and slavery, as philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer noted, are only "two forms...of the same thing." 
Glenn Greenwald (Image from Salon)

By my definition, most of the people who call themselves liberals today would not be real liberals, given that they're often willing to rally behind people like Obama and ignore the troubling, illiberal actions he's taken (and, of course, their frequent fetishizing of government itself, as I previously wrote about). However, there are relatively high-profile liberals, like Glenn Greenwald or Chris Hayes, who I would consider to be good representations of what liberalism really is, or should be.

"But no," say the New Atheists, "these people are apologists for Islamic theocracy, terrorism, etc. We, the New Atheists, really represent liberalism, given our firm commitment to individual rights and our desire to protect them from infringement by Islam." An interesting claim. Certainly, no true liberal could find much to admire in an Islamic theocracy like Iran or Saudi Arabia. But who, exactly, is defending those theocracies? Where are the liberals who have actually defended Islamic terrorism, for that matter? Glenn Greenwald is, no doubt, a thorn in the side of the New Atheist movement, and exactly the type of person the New Atheists think of as a phony liberal for his stance on Islam. But is there anywhere in anything he's written where he's indicating that he's all right with theocracy, with female genital mutilation, with beheading, with terrorism, with honor killing, or whatever other thing the New Atheists use to try to show us how barbaric Islam is? For that matter, does anyone seriously think that he doesn't view these things as awful?

The New Atheists have created a strawman, the Islam-apologist liberal, who just sees these things and shrugs his shoulders, saying, "Ah, well, it's their culture, who am I to judge?" In reality, if there's anyone out there who thinks like this, they're well hidden. They're certainly not Glenn Greenwald or Chris Hayes or any of the other high-profile people the New Atheists consider phony liberals. The truth is, it's entirely possible, indeed quite easy, to abhor the ugly things done in the name of Islam without acting as if it's some predictable result of the religion itself.

Defenders of Maher, Harris, Dawkins, et al. will often cough up the hackneyed argument that liberals are okay with the Christian right being attacked for its actions, but that they have a double standard when people try to attack Muslim theocrats in the same way, but there's no truth to this. Few liberals who criticize the Christian right say that Christianity itself is the problem; indeed, it's often pointed out how the bigotry and callousness of the Christian right goes against the teachings of the man they profess to worship.

This is the exact opposite of the attitude the New Atheists hold toward Islamic theocracy and terrorism; rather than pointing out how it contradicts parts of the Qur'an or goes against the actual life of Muhammad (which would both be valid points in a number of instances), they say it's because of the Qur'an and Muhammad that we see this sort of violence and theocracy. It's that assertion, and the insinuation that Muslims as a group should be viewed warily, that gets the New Atheists so much criticism, not their opposition to theocracy and violence, which is a completely uncontroversial position to have.

Nor are the "illiberal liberals" the New Atheists love to rant about uncomfortable with actually criticizing theocracy and violence; Greenwald has written that:
Of course one can legitimately criticize Islam without being bigoted or racist. That's self-evident, and nobody is contesting it. And of course there are some Muslim individuals who do heinous things in the name of their religion...Yes, "honor killings" and the suppression of women by some Muslims are heinous...That some Muslims commit atrocities in the name of their also too self-evident to merit debate
Greenwald has also harshly criticized the government of Saudi Arabia, which is, of course, an Islamic theocracy. So, no, the liberal critics of New Atheism are not uncomfortable with indicting Islamic theocracy and terrorism. They dissent from the New Atheist viewpoint on how this reflects on Islam and Muslims as a group. Thus, the insinuation that they are not "real liberals" because they don't like the New Atheists is nothing but another self-serving lie on the part of the latter.

On the other hand, though, we do have some serious questions to ask about the supposed liberalism of people like Maher, Dawkins, and Harris. Maher and Harris have endorsed the use of ethnic profiling against anyone who "looks Muslim," in obvious violation to the longstanding liberal idea that everyone should be treated equally before the law, regardless of race, religion, etc. All three of them are big fans of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a so-called human rights activist and former politician in the Netherlands. Hirsi Ali worked closely with Geert Wilders, an anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, right-wing fanatic who wants to ban the Qur'an and immigration from all Islamic countries to the Netherlands.

Of course, I guess that's not much of a disconcerting fact for the New Atheists; after all, Dawkins has called Wilders "a man of courage, who has the balls to stand up to a monstrous enemy." Hirsi Ali, meanwhile, has made an extended appearance on Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network to talk about the dangers of Islam, has referred to it as a "destructive, nihilistic cult of death" and "the new fascism," and has promoted amending the US Bill of Rights to allow anti-Islam legislation.

Then, of course, we have Maher and Harris's eager support of Israel. As usual, they're all too ready to overlook the forty-year-long military occupation the Palestinians have endured and Israel's aggression in the Middle East to claim that somehow the US and Israel have the moral high ground over groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. By doing so, they help give cover for yet another blatantly illiberal policy, this one far worse than their proposed ethnic profiling.

Harris is exceptionally bad; he's defended torture openly, and promoted the installation of "benign dictatorship[s]" in Islamic countries, acknowledging that it would require "crude" means such as "economic isolation, military intervention (whether open or covert), or some combination of both." In fairness, these are Sam Harris's views alone, not Dawkins's or Maher's. But neither of them seems to be dissociating himself from Harris over said views.

So, ultimately, the New Atheist claim to represent real liberalism is yet another complete and utter lie. There is nothing about liberalism that demands you have some particular animosity toward Islam, and it's entirely possible to abhor Islamic theocracy and terrorism without blaming it on Islam, just as it's possible to do with Christian or Jewish theocracy or terrorism (both which do, in fact, exist, contrary to the prevailing narrative that only Muslims still do that sort of thing) without blaming it on Christianity or Judaism. And, in terms of the actual views that separate them from Greenwalds and the Chris Hayeses, Maher, Harris, et al. are anything but liberal. If the New Atheists want to say that liberalism doesn't work in fighting global jihadism (or whatever other catchphrase they want to use), so be it. But they don't have a shred of credibility in claiming to represent "true liberalism" and lecturing others about what that term means.