I’ve started thinking about the problem with progressive/left politics. As I’ve said before I come from the left and I remain committed to many ‘progressive’ causes, but I am becoming increasingly frustrated with what I regard as an increasingly incoherent ‘left’ and even a ‘left’ that has betrayed the very idea of progress. So I’ll be attempting to collect my thoughts on this blog and maybe translate it all into a more formal article.
Most of the problem began when Marxism collapsed. The ‘left’ was socialism/ communism/ anarchism. There was a ‘relatively’ clear ideology and a program of change with specific targets. The defeat of socialism means that the left is now devoid of a clear ideology and a clear program. What we have is an incoherent smorgasbord of causes. In contrast the right has been ‘generally’ unified under the ideology of neo-liberalism (although there are important differences on the right).
With the abscence of a unifying ideology and political program the left no longer engages in serious debate and analysis and this has allowed a number of incoherent, self-contradictory and therefore irrational ‘beliefs’ to arise. It is these beliefs I want to address.
The first is a irrational set of beliefs around the idea of racism and human rights. Progressive politics quite rightly condemns racism, but I now find that the term racism is completely misused. Racism is the idea that people act in certain ways based entirely on their race. In crude terms Negros are inferior to Caucasians. They can’t help it, they are ‘born’ inferior by virtue of their race. We now know through modern genetics that racism is completely discredited. The problem is that ethnocentrism and sociocentrism still exist and uncritical people label ethnic and cultural discrimination as racism. I believe I may have already cited this example but I’ll use it again because it is a perfect example of how the term racism is misused. The controversial Grand Mufti (now ex-Mufti) Sheikh al-Hilali condemned his critics as being racist. Why? Because they had condemned his conservative religious views. Attacking religion is not racist and besides, Islam embraces every race. Of course he used the term racist because he knew it would have a certain resonance and emotional impact. It was a polemical device.
The problem however, is that significant numbers of people who align themselves on the ‘left’ fail to make the distinction and react automatically in support of any charge of racism. It is this uncritical acceptance of any charge of racism that plagues what I call the ‘oppositionists’, those members of the left who are ‘reactionary’ and who feel they need to react in opposition to ‘perceived’ injustice. The word ‘perceived’ is very important because this is another failing of the oppositionists - they do not seem to bother to analyse whether or not the injustice is imagined or real. It is enough for someone to ‘believe’ they have been unjustly treated. This is often the case with Muslims like al-Hilali, who interpret criticism of what is clearly a problematic position as an attack on their rights.
Another part of this complex is the uncritical application of ’special victim’ (SV) status to groups of people. The process whereby a group or person becomes an SV is extremely vague and seems to occur by word of mouth and the uncritical acceptance of the views of certain key figures. It is a bit like Chinese whispers and it is difficult to investigate where the attribution of SV comes from and therefore difficult to challenge the unspoken and often irrational assumptions behind the decision. The attribution builds momentum and then it becomes a doctrine that you dare not question.
The attribution of SV status then makes another fatal error, it generalises. The specific instance where the group was actually a victim becomes generalised into a belief that this group is always a victim and that their behaviour can be explained as the ‘fault’ of an oppressor. The victim then becomes a permanent victim and is defined by their victimhood. This process denies the complexity of most issues and the reality that in some instances the SV is also an oppressor and that their oppression is not caused by their victimhood, but by their indigenous beliefs.
The next error of the complex is the assumption that cultures and groups of SVs have rights. This is where we enter the debate about social holons. I do not accept that social holons exist. Societies, cultures and sub-cultures are heaps, collections of memes/tropes, signs, symbols and beliefs. They are ideologies of varying coherancy and ideologies do not have rights. Ideologies are simply a heap of ‘ideas’ and ideas are either rational or irrational, right or wrong.
I need to loop back to the error of placing the idea of race into the same category as ethnicity and culture. Ethnicity is not based on race, it is based on culture. Ethnicity is simply another word for tribe or group, or even nationality. For example, Serbians and Croatians are two distinct ethnic groups, but they are genetically and physically indistiguishable. The distinction of Serb or Croat is an idea based simply on place of birth and cultural beliefs. The Serbs generally belong the Eastern Orthodox religion and the Croats are generally Catholic. Another example of an ideological distinction is that between an Irish Catholic and an Irish Protestant. The difference is not genetic or racial, it’s purely ideological.
The one that really drives me crazy is treating Muslims as if they are a race and an ethnicity. I cite a small example to indicate how pervasive this error is. There is an exhibition of Islamic art on in Sydney from a private collection belonging to, of all things, an ex-Iranian Jew. The collection is maginificent and I hope it comes to Melbourne, but the interview with the owner of the collection unfortunately revealed him to be an apologist, and an obsequious apologist at that. The ’small’ problem I had was that he called it ‘Islamic’ art, yet most of it seemed to have nothing to do with Islam. Most of it seemed to be Persian or Arab art. My point is this, we may use the term Christian or Buddhist art to describe art that deals with Christian or Buddhist themes, but mostly we refer to art by nationality or school. If we refer to something as Islamic art or Islamic science we have a right to ask what was the specific contribution made by the doctrine of Islam, why is the art Islamic and not Persian, why is the science Islamic and not just science? I said this was a small point, but it’s actually a significant one because in many cases we find that Islam actually contributed nothing of much consequence. As Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens both point out, religion has not created art, it has only provided narrative themes for art.
Why I find this so annoying is that uncritical members of the left buy into this category error and treat certain ideologies as races and therefore as SVs. I reckon I will scream the next time I hear someone talk about the magnificence of Islamic culture (what of Catholic, Protestant or Mormon culture?). It was not the religious doctrine of Islam that created the golden age, it was the openess of specific rulers to pre-existing cultures. As it did under Christianity, art and science struggled under the shear stupidity of Islamic religious doctrine. Under Islam there were severe restrictions on representational art, particularly of the human form, because of the purely religious belief that any representation of God’s creation was blasphemy. Similarly science was beholden to religious doctrine. What can we say about the alleged greatness of Islamic science when so many clerics are ignorant of even the basics? Up until the early 90’s some Wahhabi clerics in Arabia were still teaching that the earth was flat.
The fear of being called a racist, even though that claim is clearly misapplied and ridiculous, leads many on the ‘oppositional’ and ‘reactionary’ left to be uncritical of other cultures, particularly if they have been given SV status. This is most hypocritically and outrageously applied to Islam, which is often given a ‘get out of jail free’ card simply on the basis of it being appointed a SV (I flatly deny that Islam is a victim of anything, it is a perpetrator and oppressor). There is appaling abuse of human rights and fundamental freedoms under Islam yet so many on the left betray progressivism by refusing to be critical because they believe Islam is a SV that has a ‘right’ to be respected, and perversely, that to be critical of Islam is somehow being racist.
The same perverse logic is applied to Aboriginal Australia. The abuse of women and children in Aboriginal communities has been going on for many decades. I’ve seen it first hand when I worked with an Aboriginal community centre in the late 70’s. There was always a reason why such abuse was excused. Aborigines had been given SV status and therefore could not be held responsible for their own actions. The violence against women and children was never due to indigenous cultural beliefs and practices but due to anger over white colonisation. As the logic goes, when Aborigines are given land rights and self-determination the cycle of abuse will stop.
And so, by a long route we come to the reason why the left is partly to blame for the current crisis - because they excused and denied the abuse out of a misplaced cultural sensitivity to a group that had been given SV status. They shut off their critical faculties and indulged in fantasies. They supported the idea of self-determination even when there was clear and ugly evidence that in some communities self-determination was used by violent and abusive men as an excuse to get away with it and that some communities were dysfunctional and couldn’t self-determine themselves out of wet paper bag. There has been a code of silence, but current events have broken that code. Over the next few months we will hear stories of how white doctors and police said nothing for fear of breaking the code, of how Aboriginal women and children were intimidated and how it was the men in charge of the community that perpetrated the crimes, and how Aboriginal activists and intellectuals in the cities placed their political agenda above the rights of remote women and children.
The silence of the left because of a mistaken belief in cultural sensitivity is a complete betrayal of all progressive principles. I think it was the Cape York indigenous leader Noel Pearson who said that the current crisis has created a new generation, we had the ’stolen’ generation, now we have the ‘lost’ generation, children who have been psychologically damaged and have missed out on valuable education and who are effectively illiterate and dependent.
We face a similar betrayal of progressive principles in the cause of appeasing and excusing Islam.
Cultures do not have rights, they are collections of ideas that should be examined with a critical eye. Nor do cultures deserve respect as of right, they must earn respect on the basis of their effectiveness and accuracy. Many cultural memes are irrational, absurd and based on mistaken beliefs, many are lies portrayed as truths. Real progressivism is the systematic removal of irrationality and lies. If that means change then so be it. Who said that cultures must be conserved? Isn’t that the task of conservatives, to conserve tradition? When did progressives become conservatives?