Regressive Liberalism: the Snake that Eats Itself

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It has been quite a month for political discourse; new alliances formed, old ones broken, demons exposed. We have, for some time on this site, focused a good deal of attention on a bizarre strand of political commentary that purports to be progressive and liberal. Not only is it anything but liberal, in fact, it also makes rather large claims for itself, including that it is the only acceptable form of liberalism.

It is this mutation of leftwing thought that Nick Cohen identified in his 2007 book, What’s Left which, in what seems like a perfect storm of political exposition, has just been republished around the time Nick Cohen has formerly resigned from the British Left, finally pushed over the edge by its tacit condonation of totalitarianism, anti-Semitism, religious fanaticism, and double-distilled by its election of a candidate who embodies all these traits.

But my attention has been most captured by the long-awaited collaboration between Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris, two figures who I regard as some of the most important and clear-headed (actual) liberal voices on the subjects of religion and democracy in the world today. Having followed them a great deal individually, I anticipated that their dialogue would cut through the rhetorical clutter of knee-jerk offence-taking, identity politics, political correctness and ignorance that always clouds discussions of this kind. What I did not anticipate, was the extent to which the vicious reaction to their collaboration would vindicate everything they have been saying for years, and give a name to this perversion of liberalism, which has been growing so terrifyingly acceptable.

One commenter noted that, having watched their conversation at Harvard University, he could understand why people were so angry; because they were discussing the problem of Islamic fundamentalism rationally and without pandering to identity politics or euphemism. Ironically, a movement which has become notorious for conflating any form of cultural and religious critique (especially where Islam is concerned) with racism, responded with a maelstrom of the most vile ad hominem and, even, debased racial insults. While Sam Harris merely had to endure rhetoric to which he has become so accustomed from the likes of Reza Aslan, Glenn Greenwald and the usual Sunday Demagogue Club (they really ought to print T-shirts or something), Nawaz was singled out for particularly egregious treatment. Here is a man who was formerly an extremist himself, who remains a practicing Muslim (though non-devout by his own admission) and who dedicates his time to fighting extremism, exposing politically correct obfuscation and trying to address dangerous trends within his own community – could anything be more offensive to the apologists for religious fanaticism?

Not only was the empty junk-term “Islamaphobe” flung at him by privileged white non-Muslims such as Nathan Lean and Max Blumenthal (who also took the opportunity to throw a jibe at Ayaan Hirsi Ali just for sitting in the front row of the talk) but Murtaza Hussain, himself a non-white Muslim referred to Nawaz as a “porch monkey”, a racial slur of such cartoonish vulgarity it sounds as if it were lifted straight from the script of Django Unchained. Fortunately, this disgraceful conduct has been well-repudiated by Nawaz’s dignified response and, ultimately, has most likely only strengthened his case.

“Regressive” liberalism, as it has been called, has been a dominant form of public discourse for far too long and, like the Jedi mind-tricks of old, has great power to influence the weak-minded. A further danger is that some of the weak-minded have a large and unwarranted platform, for example Ben Affleck (a man with the incisive analytical skills of a second-hand dishwasher) who hijacked an entire interview on Bill Maher’s Real-Time to silence Sam Harris as a racist. But even its most credulous adherents should be taking some time to take a long hard look at what they are really advocating.

This way of thinking is ultimately contradictory and self-destructive. By focusing so obsessively on identity, it creates divisions rather than breaking them down; universalism gives way to fragmentation and tribalism. It is, as I have said before, predicated on self-hatred and shame and, therefore, by definition cannot work towards improving relations between fellow humans. By making all forms of cultural and religious criticism about race, it facilitates a mentality whereby a figure like Nawaz, who loves his religion and his religious community but worries about certain trends within it, is condemned as an Uncle Tom in a grotesque revival of pre-Civil War plantation-rhetoric. Policing ‘offensive’ language (except of course when it is being doled out by the self-appointed language-police) on pain of public vilification creates an obsession with hidden meanings and subtexts until social media becomes a kind of electronic retelling of the Salem Witch Trials. The amicable and productive dialogue between Harris and Nawaz, two men of very different convictions but who both reject regressive politically correct thinking, is testament to how effective dialogue can really take place.

The sooner we can dispense with this fatuous and sinister nonsense and expose those who peddle it, the better life will be for all of us.

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