Western Liberal Collectivism Anyone?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Jan 25 12:43:47 UTC 2007

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Western Liberal Collectivism Anyone?

Interesting stuff from Francis Fukuyama in Prospect magazine. He is right,
as I have said before, to insist that "Liberalism cannot ultimately be
based on group rights, because not all groups uphold liberal values" (it's
not just the lack of liberal values, in fact, but the requirement that
liberalism begins and ends with the individual that's important). A crude
reading (mine) sees him arguing for an assertion of collective identity
politics for liberal Westerners - that we have, in a sense, been hoisted
by our own petard thanks to a vacuum in liberal philosophy. If that's not
reading too much into it, then it's quite a twist. A clever one? Not sure,
but I appreciate his motivations. Here's my choppy C&P:

Multiculturalism under-stood not just as tolerance of cultural diversity
but as the demand for legal recognition of the rights of racial, religious
or cultural groups has now become established in virtually all modern
liberal democracies. US politics over the past generation has been
consumed with controversies over affirmative action for African-Americans,
bilingualism and gay marriage, driven by formerly marginalised groups that
demand recognition not just of their rights as individuals but of their
rights as members of groups. And the US's Lockean tradition of individual
rights has meant that these efforts to assert group rights have been
tremendously controversialmore so than in modern Europe.

The radical Islamist ideology that has motivated terror attacks over the
past decade must be seen in large measure as a manifestation of modern
identity politics rather than of traditional Muslim culture. As such, it
is familiar to us from earlier political movements. The fact that it is
modern does not make it less dangerous, but it helps to clarify the
problem and its possible solutions. ... Modern liberal societies in Europe
and North America tend to have weak identities; many celebrate their own
pluralism and multiculturalism, arguing in effect that their identity is
to have no identity. Yet the fact is that national identity still exists
in all contemporary liberal democracies. The nature of national identity,
however, is somewhat different in North America than it is in Europe,
which helps to explain why the integration of Muslims is so difficult in
countries like the Netherlands, France and Germany. ... Multiculturalism,
as it was originally conceived in Canada, the US and Europe, was in some
sense a "game at the end of history." That is, cultural diversity was seen
as a kind of ornament to liberal pluralism that would provide ethnic food,
colourful dress and traces of distinctive historical traditions to
societies often seen as numbingly conformist and homogeneous. Cultural
diversity was something to be practised largely in the private sphere,
where it would not lead to any serious violations of individual rights or
otherwise challenge the essentially liberal social order. Where it did
intrude into the public sphere, as in the case of language policy in
Quebec, the deviation from liberal principle was seen by the dominant
community more as an irritant than as a fundamental threat to liberal
democracy itself.

By contrast, some contemporary Muslim communities are making demands for
group rights that simply cannot be squared with liberal principles of
individual equality. These demands include special exemptions from the
family law that applies to everyone else in the society, the right to
exclude non-Muslims from certain types of public events, or the right to
challenge free speech in the name of religious offence (as with the Danish
cartoons incident). In some more extreme cases, Muslim communities have
even expressed ambitions to challenge the secular character of the
political order as a whole. These types of group rights clearly intrude on
the rights of other individuals in the society and push cultural autonomy
well beyond the private sphere. ... Despite its very different starting
point, America may have something to teach Europeans here as they attempt
to construct post-ethnic forms of national citizenship and belonging.
American life is full of quasi-religious ceremonies and rituals meant to
celebrate the country's democratic political institutions: flag-raising
ceremonies, the naturalisation oath, Thanksgiving and the 4th of July.
Europeans, by contrast, have largely deritualised their political lives.
Europeans tend to be cynical or dismissive of American displays of
patriotism. But such ceremonies are important in the assimilation of new
immigrants. ... The dilemma of immigration and identity ultimately
converges with the larger problem of the valuelessness of postmodernity.
The rise of relativism has made it harder for postmodern people to assert
positive values and therefore the kinds of shared beliefs that they demand
of migrants as a condition for citizenship. Postmodern elites,
particularly those in Europe, feel that they have evolved beyond
identities defined by religion and nation and have arrived at a superior
place. But aside from their celebration of endless diversity and
tolerance, postmodern people find it difficult to agree on the substance
of the good life to which they aspire in common.

Immigration forces upon us in a particularly acute way discussion of the
question "Who are we?", posed by Samuel Huntington. If postmodern
societies are to move towards a more serious discussion of identity, they
will need to uncover those positive virtues that define what it means to
be a member of the wider society. If they do not, they may be overwhelmed
by people who are more sure about who they are.
posted by Dominic Hilton at 7:30 AM


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