Heart of this nation

Who’s with me?

We have to wake up. These forces of extremism based on a warped and wrong-headed misinterpretation of Islam aren’t fighting a conventional war but they are fighting one against us – and ‘us’ is not just the West, still less simply America and its allies. ‘Us’ is all those who believe in tolerance, respect for others and liberty

We must mobilise our alliance of moderation in this region and outside it to defeat the extremists.

And mobilisation begins at home:

Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and other faiths have a perfect right to their own identity and religion, to practice their faith and to conform to their culture. This is what multicultural, multi-faith Britain is about. That is what is legitimately distinctive. But when it comes to our essential values – belief in democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, equal treatment for all, respect for this country and its shared heritage – then that is where we come together, it is what we hold in common; it is what gives us the right to call ourselves British. At that point no distinctive culture or religion supersedes our duty to be part of an integrated United Kingdom.

Obedience to the rule of law, to democratic decision-making about who governs us, to freedom from violence and discrimination are not optional for British citizens. They are what being British is about. Being British carries rights. It also carries duties.

We are a nation comfortable with the open world of today … But we protect this attitude by defending it. Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain, Britain. So conform to it; or don’t come here.

One more?

The refusal to engage with opponents and the exaltation of intolerance are the ante-chamber to blind violence — and this must not be granted any space.

(OK, I cheated – that last one wasn’t Blair. I’ll come back to that.)

There’s a point to be made here about Blair’s record with regard to the rule of law and democratic decision-making, to say nothing of freedom from violence. But there’s something going on here that’s deeper – and stranger – than simple hypocrisy. Look at that odd formulation from earlier this month, we protect this attitude by defending it: to be open is to reject anyone who threatens openness; to be free is to reject anyone who refuses freedom; to be moderate is to reject anyone who isn’t. Or look at that list where democracy and non-violence are prefaced by ‘obedience to’ – as if democracy were not an achievement but a duty, not something we build but simply something we’re ruled by. For Blair, apparently, tolerance really is something to conform to.

You keep using this word. I do not think it means what you think it means. But this isn’t simply the eternal Anglo-American invocation of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ as brand names. The terms Blair leans on most heavily are adjectives like ‘moderate’ and ‘tolerant’, which have the odd property of being positive but not absolute. You could make a case for maximising freedom for all people at all times and in every situation. It would probably turn out to be a lot harder than it looks, but you could do it – and you could do something similar with democracy, justice, equality or love, sweet love, to name but a few. Talk to me about universalising moderation and I’ll ask for details of your moderate position on the death penalty or freedom of speech; talk about maximising tolerance and I’ll just ask, of whom and of what? Where moderation and tolerance are concerned, it makes a difference. Some beliefs shouldn’t be held moderately; some practices shouldn’t be tolerated.

As for deciding what those beliefs and practices are, that’s what we have politics for. But it’s precisely that debate which Blair is trying to foreclose, by rhetorically turning ‘moderation’ and ‘tolerance’ into absolute principles, counterposed to their eternal antagonists Extremism and Intolerance. What’s missing here is any real sense of what we’re supposed to be moderate about and tolerant of – and where that moderation and tolerance is supposed to end. Of course, Blair has his own ideas about this – even in multicultural, multi-faith Britain, freedom from violence and discrimination trumps the right to practice [your] faith and to conform to [your] culture. I don’t dissent from this statement; what I object to is the idea that these limits to tolerance and moderation can somehow be justified by the principles of tolerance and moderation themselves – and not, for instance, by a broader statement of liberal humanist principle.

But then, the beauty of relative virtues is precisely that they don’t lead out into broader statements – or broader debates. If I could make an appeal to everyone else in the world who believes in freedom, I’d get some replies from people with very different ideas about freedom for whom from what and for what purpose, but I think we’d recognise that we were all interested in starting the same kind of argument. If I could appeal to everyone who called themself ‘moderate’, the chances are I wouldn’t recognise half the people who reply as deserving the name. (You’re a moderate Creationist?) When I say ‘moderate’ I mean ‘moderate like me’; and when Blair says ‘moderate’ he means, more and more explicitly, ‘us’. Where ‘us’ means ‘not them’ – or, if the cap fits, ‘not you’.

Rochenko went over much of this ground some time ago. Excuse the long quote, but this stuff is hard to cut (and I know, I’ve tried).

The much-spoken of Manicheanism of the US and UK governments and their media supporters plays out now alongside the Israelis’ pursuit of the fantasy of the unbreakable iron wall of security. In both cases, the fantasy of incommunicability covers everything. The hatred of our values by all those who practice Terror, the existential threat posed by Hizballah.

The fantasy is fed by the belief in the incommensurability of values. I cannot communicate with you because your fundamental beliefs are absolutely at odds with mine. There is undoubtedly slippage, in politicians’ and media talk about the current ‘global situation’ between this hard Manicheanism and the kind of disagreements better represented as cases when ‘you’ don’t agree with ‘me’ about lots of things that I consider to be important. When someone mentions, usually in a racially or ethnically inflected context, ‘alien values’, they often slide very easily – and often hysterically – from a case of the latter to a case of the former.

The only thing that can overcome this situation, generally referred to as something like the ‘failure of multiculturalism’ or whatever, is held to be a reaffirmation of ‘common values’, be they ‘core British’ or whatever. Supplementing the fantasy of incommunicability with one of unproblematic communication is I suppose the natural thing to do. But it’s a highly damaging manoeuvre. Obviously we cannot locate any ‘British’ values, except either at the level of popular culture, or at the most generalist and therefore inclusive level, where their supposed Britishness and purported minimal exclusiveness immediately evaporates. But the whole gesture of trying to solve the problem of communication by commanding those you have defined as alien to subscribe to a set of values is again an affirmation of your separation from them, which simply reproduces it. We rule you, and we shall demonstrate it by defining your world for you.

But the problem with this whole fantasised solution to the problem of incommunicability is that communication doesn’t require ‘common values’ in the first place – not, at least, at the concrete level where disagreements take place. The fantasy of incommunicability mirrors the relativist concept of the untranslatability of languages … this states that in recognising someone as a speaker of language, we already have understood that they operate with criteria of consistency and truth, and that we therefore already have the capacity to understand them. Without a commitment to consistency and truth, there is no possibility of a ‘perspective’ in the first place. What matters in such situation is not ‘common values’, but the capacity to make a creative gesture of translation … The shift here is in possibility: from a standpoint where the only possibility seems to be separation, sealed-in individuality, the clash of civilisations, to the emergence of another space in which two or more agents are located, not yet as interlocutors perhaps, but now no longer as implacable contraries either. Such movements are always possible.

trying to solve the problem of communication by commanding those you have defined as alien to subscribe to a set of values is again an affirmation of your separation from them, which simply reproduces it. To demand a response you will understand is to demand a response you already understand, and to dismiss any other response as incomprehensible. To demand tolerance and moderation is to demand tolerance and moderation in precisely those areas where you display them, and no others.

Ultimately, as that third quote demonstrates, to demand tolerance is to offer intolerance. The refusal to engage with opponents and the exaltation of intolerance … must not be granted any space. This wasn’t written this year or in this country; the source is a front-page opinion piece in the Italian Communist Party’s daily paper l’Unità, the year is 1977 and the subject is the radical youth movement of that year. Which, as I’ve noted before, didn’t end terrifically well. Rather than granting the movement any kind of legitimacy – or even stealing their ideological clothes – the Communists repeatedly denounced ‘violence’ and ‘intolerance’ and demanded that the moderate students dissociate themselves from the violent minority. No ‘moderate’ student movement ever did make itself known, not least because every time a group of students did dissociate themselves from violence the Communist Party raised its demands (if they’re really opposed to violence, why don’t they co-operate with the police?). In the mean time, the party backed the police clampdown on the movement to the hilt. By the end of 1978 the movement had been policed into submission – but the number of actions by left-wing ‘armed struggle’ groups had risen dramatically, from 169 in 1976 to 1,110 during 1978.

The refusal to engage with opponents and the exaltation of intolerance are the ante-chamber to blind violence. Well, maybe so, but the thing with ante-chambers is that they have a door on each side – and if you can’t get your opponent out of one door you might push them through the other.



  1. Rochenko
    Posted 21 December 2006 at 17:17 | Permalink | Reply

    “Smokewriting: Proudly Avoiding Pithiness since 2005”.

  2. Simon
    Posted 21 December 2006 at 23:48 | Permalink | Reply

    We have to wake up.

    I don’t know if Tony has personally read Terror and Liberalism (probably one of his advisers has) but this is exactly the kind of rhetoric one hears from the Bermanistas – an utter conviction to the point of obsession that their and only their interpretation of the Islamist threat is the correct, and that anyone dissenting even slightly from it is a braindead sheep. It’s remarkably cocky talk from the crowd who brought us the Iraq invasion.

  3. Martin Wisse
    Posted 29 December 2006 at 07:58 | Permalink | Reply

    Of course, for those who think like Blair, it’s a win-win situation: if they push the “islamoterrorists” into increasing terrorism it just means that their demands for ever increasing security are more easily met.

  4. Andrew Bartlett
    Posted 4 January 2007 at 16:26 | Permalink | Reply

    “You keep using this word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    Is that not a quote from ‘The Princess Bride’?

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