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Cultural Suicide – not always painless July 18, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Books, The Left.
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There are few pleasures in life as cruelly enjoyable as reading a truly vicious book review. Not the kind of formulaic contrarianism of someone like Dale Peck, or the semi-regular Eileen Battersby attack on Salman Rushdie (or whoever this year’s ‘New Salman Rushdie’ happens to be). No, the best ones are those where you genuinely get the impression that the critic was actually angered by what he had to read, and went to the typewriter as much for revenge as for whatever the rate-per-word is.

Fans of this kind of bloodsport should look up Terry Eagleton’s review of Suicide of the West, by Richard Koch and former New Labour Arts Minister Chris Smith. Eagleton seems to have disliked this book, rather a lot, and it makes for a pretty entertaining read.

Unfortunately, I haven’t read Suicide of the West and so cannot judge whether it is, in Eagleton’s words an ‘odiously superior little book’, whether passages in it are ‘morally grubby’ and if Koch and Smith are, in fact, ‘men with a penchant for cracker-barrel philosophizing and hastily packaged two-paragraph caricatures of complex history’.

It’s all good fun, of course, but if Eagleton’s review and others like it are anything to go by, this book seems to be presenting an increasingly common but somewhat disturbing (not to say actually dishonest) argument – that the values of ‘the West’ are being undermined by the insidious forces of ‘multiculturalism’ (an ideology far more denounced than defined), cultural relativism and a kind of moral nihilism which argues that there are no absolute values and that, therefore, we can’t make moral judgements about anyone else. Oh, and let’s not forget the old bugbear of ‘Political Correctness’ (most frequently found in its ‘GONE MAD’ form).

And that this is, very much, a BAD THING.

The approach isn’t new; it’s been around for thirty-odd years or ever since people in some university departments started considering the possibility that perhaps not everything of value was the product of the efforts of rich, white men and, indeed, that maybe the legacy of the infamously titled Dead White European Males, isn’t an unreservedly positive one. The conservative response to this broadening the field of academic enquiry to encompass the concerns and experiences of some minority groups and to question the framework of academic debate was predictably hysterical, decrying the changes as decadent nihilism and the end of civilization as we (or, at least, they) know it. From the tone of the attack one might be forgiven for thinking that looking at the issue of imperialism in ‘The Tempest’ or taking Toni Morrison as seriously as Henry James was the first step on the inevitable road to a society which endorses eating babies and having sex with dogs (or vice versa).

What is new, however, is the way we can see arguments of this type increasingly being made from a leftist perspective and particularly by those who assert the need to preserve ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘Western values’ as this was self-evident, without looking critically at their initial premises.

This kind of argument (or non-argument) has become fairly common currency among a certain breed of self-proclaimed ‘muscular liberal’ of the Harry’s Place/Christopher Hitchens-fan school (and don’t get me wrong – I pop in to it on occasion) – the kind of person who shakes their head sadly at how ‘the Left’ has been taken over by cultural relativism with all the bitterness of a jilted ex-lover.

There are a number of problems with this approach. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it sets up a completely false premise. It simply isn’t the case that ‘Sceptics about science and truth, anti-realists, postmodernists, gender and identity epistemologists and enemies of the Enlightenment project’ (to quote Benson and Stangoom’s interesting but ultimately rather confused Why Truth Matters) represent a threat to anyone or anything or have any real influence outside academia.

Apart from poor, old Madeline Bunting, I’ve never come across anyone that you can’t condemn any action if it’s part of the cultural practice of another group of people. I’ve certainly never seen anyone try to condone female genital mutilation or honour killings from a multiculturalist/left-wing perspective, although some would have you believe that the ‘PC elite’ consider any criticism of these practices to be inherently racist. I must say, for an elite they don’t seem to be particularly influential.

In fact, the only people who do seem to condone these actions are those who actually carry them out, and they don’t tend to come from a postmodernist philosophical background.

[An interesting little aside about the Benson/Stangoom book is that at one point, towards the end, they criticise writer Judith Butler for suggesting that, at the time of his death, Jacques Derrida may have been ‘the most internationally renowned European intellectual’ and claiming that this is ‘a slightly pathetic reflection of the parochialism of Theory’. Butler’s claim doesn’t seem all that outlandish to me, although I wouldn’t like to have to stand over it. Benson/Stangoom, however, fail to answer the blindingly obvious question they raise which is ‘If not Derrida, then who’, reminding me of the episode of ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ where Alan Partridge, having scoffed at the claim that Derrida was the most famous living philosopher, suggested an alternative – Peter Ustinov.]

What I have seen, and broadly agree with, is the argument that you shouldn’t condemn or make judgments about entire cultures as a ‘culture’ is something far too broad and nebulous to make it even possible to have a narrow good/bad view of. In particular, it’s very tempting when comparing cultures to be rather selective about which bits you choose to be representative. While someone could argue that ‘Western culture’ equals ‘Freedom of Speech’ and ‘Islamic culture’ equals ‘repression of women’, one might equally replace the terms used with ‘atomisation of society’ and ‘altruism and enthusiasm for charitable giving’. And they’d still both be wrong.

Secondly, the ‘pro-Enlightenment’ argument is far too free and easy with the use of the term ‘relativism’. Relativism is not the same thing as drawing a moral equivalence or moral comparison between two or more actions, as some would suggest. To raise the issue of US foreign policy after 9/11 isn’t relativism; neither is talking about the invasion of Iraq as a contributing factor to the London bombings last year. Indeed, most critics of the invasion would base their opposition on fundamental moral grounds – they don’t believe the invasion was right, they don’t think you should bomb civilians, you shouldn’t support anything the United States does full stop. Now these arguments may be valid or not. In the case of some, like George Galloway, they may be utterly hypocritical, but they’re based on a belief that you can make moral judgements, rather than being Lyotardian expressions of the death of the Grand Narrative.

Finally, it’s far too lazy to simply assert that we must defend ‘Enlightenment values’ without looking at what those values are. Freedom of speech and protection human rights are valuable, from a leftist perspective, because they’re fundamentally important tools in allowing everyone to reach their full potential and live enjoyable, satisfied lives, not because they were dreamed up by some French or Scottish thinkers in the Eighteenth Century, or because they’re part of the cultural legacy of ‘the West’.

Eagleton puts it very well in his review:

Koch and Smith are bigoted and obtuse to believe that other civilisations have not produced values quite as precious as ours; but they are right that western culture has bred ideals of immense richness. The left, on the whole, has not denied the fact. It has not challenged the ideals of freedom, self-determination, justice, equality and the like with some fancy set of values of its own. Instead, it has posed one one resounding, persistent, faux-naive question: how come these ideals so rarely work in practice? By what systematic mechanisms does freedom for some come to mean oppression for others? Why does formal equality tend to end up as actual inequality? Is this because in human affairs the shadow always falls between idea and execution, or for rather more tangible reasons peculiar to the system under which we live?

It is not, then, the political left that has subverted these visionary notions. The devastating irony is that it is the very system the authors celebrate that does so. It was capitalist secularisation that helped to see off religious faith, just as it was imperialist world war that dealt a death blow to optimism. The finest values of liberalism and individualism are constantly under threat from the faceless, corporate, exploitative form of life to which they give birth. Koch and Smith, who praise individualism on one page but mourn the decline of community on another, simply fail to grasp this logic.

This is something those who believe that the most important part of Liberty is ‘the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear’, rather than the ability to listen to something you mightn’t have heard before, would do well to remember.

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1. joemomma - July 18, 2006

Francis Wheen did a similar hatchet job on Derrida and “Theory” in How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, an otherwise excellent book. There is a valid debate to be had on whether postmodern theories of knowledge can be reconciled with political and moral positions, but Wheen’s critique amounts to clamping his hands over his ears and saying “SHUT UP SHUT UP I DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT”. He spends most of the book in a plea for discourse to be based on reason and knowledge, and yet when Derrida et al attempt to reason out knowledge itself they’re damned for going too far.

I don’t know to what extent postmodernism and poststructuralism are tackled in the Koch and Smith book, but I recognise the theme of “going too far”. Everybody likes liberty, multiculturalism etc. but we must be frightfully careful that we don’t push them too far.

There seem to be an increasing cohort out there who want to convince us that the west is weak-minded and thus doomed to fail. The theory seems to be that the west won’t defend its liberalism from the intolerance and religious mania if its enemies, so we should adopt a bit of intolerance and religious mania ourselves and defend that instead.

In any case, if the following extract from the review fairly characterises the authors’ views, I don’t expect they will be taken terribly seriously:

But the ideal of science, too, has been undermined – not by Nazi eugenicists or Los Alamos physicists, as it happens, but by “fashionable fancies” such as the theories of relativity and indeterminacy. For all their wide-eyed zest for postmodernity, Koch and Smith turn out to be nostalgic Newtonians.

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2. smiffy - July 18, 2006

Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about the Francis Wheen book. The ‘critical theory’ bit was pretty disappointing, but mostly because, just like in the ‘Why Truth Matters’, it seemed that he was getting all his information second-hand, and not from particularly reliable sources.

What’s very telling about the Benson/Stangoom book is the way Derrida comes up in the first place. Most of the book is taken up with a defence of realism, particularly in relation to ‘Science’ (they do love the old Science, so they do) against actual philosophical scepticism, followed by a fairly predictable digging up of the argument of the Sokal book ‘Intellectual Impostures’ – the one that makes the argument that when postmodernists talk about scientific theories, they usually don’t understand what they’re on about and have gotten the concepts completely confused.

Fair enough, as far as it goes (although it’s not very convincing in places – Simon Blackburn’s ‘Truth’ is much better, although quite a bit harder). Then, however, towards the end they start getting into the issue of ‘Theory’, particularly in relation to Literary Theory. Now, given that they’ve been banging on about objective truth (and how it totally does exist) for the last 150 or so pages, it seems odd that they’d get into an area when you can’t sustain that argument. Their little jibes about Derrida (which don’t, as it happens, show any familiarity at all with his actual writing) in this context serve only to show that, just like the postmodernists they complain about all along, they should really avoid areas outside their expertise, as they don’t seem to know what they’re talking about.

It is, at it happens, quite possible to look critically at the political implications of post-structuralism from left-wing perspective and in a substantial way. But it tends to be a lot better coming from someone who’s actually familiar with the arguments – like Christopher Norris’ attack on Baudrilliard in ‘Uncritical Theory’ or even the stuff Eagleton himself has been coming out with for 25 years, give or take – rather than the kind of second hand, Wikipedia versions of them.

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3. The Cedar Lounge Revolution » Blog Archive » ESR still at it - July 19, 2006

[...] smiffy’s latest post reminded me of a classic “Suicide of the West” rant by Eric S. Raymond, who is best known for inspiring the open source software movement with his essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar. In “Suicidalism“, Raymond argues that not only is there a decadent strand of defeatism running through western society, but that this strand was in fact deliberately put there by the KGB during the Cold War. I don’t have much to add to my previous discussion of that post on politics.ie, but I did revisit ESR’s site today to see where he’s at at present. [...]

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4. WorldbyStorm - July 21, 2006

I kind of enjoyed the Sokal book. But, having been exposed to and used critical theory myself for various purposes of teaching and research I tend to think that the external critiques of it are far too simplistic, and indeed much of the chatter about ‘relativism’ as smiffy notes is simply wrong headed or worse still special pleading.

I see critical theory as a tool, just as I see Marxism as a tool, indeed to be honest the former is in some respects (but not absolutely) an outgrowth of the latter. That doesn’t mean the tool is applicable in all contexts and at all times. But it’s handy nonetheless.

On the other hand, I think it’s useful for leftists/progressives to have core values which lie at the heart of a progressive project. In that instance critical theory may, or may not, be useful. Let’s thrash it out a bit more…

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5. The Cedar Lounge Revolution » Blog Archive » No greater joy in heaven than when a sinner repenteth… - July 21, 2006

[...] What’s interesting, perhaps even important, about Shermer changing his mind, is not so much the way the evidence has convincingly stacked up over the past fifteen or twenty years in favour of human exacerbated global warming, but that he, a skeptical rationalist has come so late to the party, and the reasons for his change of heart. Indeed it dovetails nicely with the points smiffy raises about relativism in Cultural Suicide – not always painless. He notes that in 2001 he organised a debate with Bjorn Lomborg, of the Skeptical Environmentalist fame, and talking to environmentalist organisations was told none wished to participate. He went ahead with the debate and clearly remained within the Lomberg camp. [...]

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6. 5 Years ago this month on the CLR: Cultural Suicide – not always painless « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - July 14, 2011

[...] Place recently? I know I hadn’t for quite some time. But here’s a piece by smiffy from July 2006 which made me think about it [...]

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