May 16, 2013 § 2 Comments
I have been in Brussels to attend a conference on the Radical Enlightenment, and to interview Jonathan Israel, the keynote speaker, for an essay I am writing about his work and argument. Israel has transformed our understanding of the Enlightenment with his superlative trilogy published over the past decade: Radical Enlightenment, Enlightenment Contested, and Democratic Enlightenment. At the heart of his argument is his insistence that there were two Enlightenments. The mainstream Enlightenment of Kant, Locke, Voltaire and Hume is the one of which we know and which provides the public face of the Enlightenment. But it was the Radical Enlightenment, shaped by lesser-known figures such as d’Holbach, Diderot, Condorcet and, in particular, Spinoza that provided the Enlightenment’s heart and soul.
The two Enlightenments, Israel suggests, divided on the question of whether reason reigned supreme in human affairs, as the radicals insisted, or whether reason had to be limited by faith and tradition – the view of the mainstream. The mainstream, Israel writes, ‘aspired to conquer ignorance and superstition, establish ideas and revolutionise ideas, education and attitudes by means of philosophy but in such a way as to preserve and safeguard what were judged as essential elements of the older structures, offering a viable synthesis of old and new, of reason and faith.’ By contrast, the Radical Enlightenment ‘rejected all compromise with the past and sought to sweep away existing structures entirely’.
The argument, as can be imagined, has created considerable controversy. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 9, 2013 § 3 Comments
A week on from the local elections, and there seems to be no end to the debate about UKIP’s success. Explanations fall into two broad categories. Some insist that UKIP garnered merely a temporary midterm protest vote. Others see Nigel Farage’s outfit as a lasting threat to which the main parties must respond by adopting more hardline policies, especially on Europe, immigration and welfare.
Both views are right. And both are wrong. UKIP does draw the protest vote. But the very character of the protest vote is changing.
The traditional party of protest in Britain was, of course, the Liberal Democrats (or the Liberals as they were before they got hitched to the SDP). Once a party of government, the failure of the Liberals to win power for most of the twentieth century made it an ideal vehicle for the protest vote – a safe, mainstream party to which to turn at relatively irrelevant elections as a means of temporarily expressing dissatisfaction with one of the main parties before returning to the fold; a way sending a message but not of upsetting the system.
Once the Liberal Democrats became part of the Coalition government after the 2010 election, they could no longer play this role. But something more fundamental has also changed. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 7, 2013 § 1 Comment
I am away for a week, so I thought I would unearth some more old material from the vaults, this time debates in which I have been involved. This first is an exchange of letters with the human rights activist Tanuka Loha, currently the Human Right to Housing Program Director at America’s National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, on questions of race, identity and political representation. It is a debate that touches on many of the themes in the contemporary discussion of multiculturalism, as well as obliquely addressing some of the issues raised in the current debate about immigration. It was first published in Catalyst magazine in November-December 2006.
Liberation movements throughout the world have long argued that without the meaningful participation of those who are facing systematic discrimination, society cannot become more equal. Whether we look at suffrage movements or anti-colonial struggles, the right to have one’s own voice, and that of one’s community, heard and represented is an emotive and complex issue but also a necessary precursor to the eradication of inequality. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 3, 2013 § 10 Comments
My big book – on the history of moral thought – will be published by Atlantic next spring. Before that comes a little book. Multiculturalism and its Discontents is an extended essay that pulls together much of my thinking and writing over the years on the subject. It will be published by Seagull this summer (Amazon says June, though it is more likely to be August). And here is the introduction.
On 22 July 2011 Anders Behring Breivik planted a car bomb outside government buildings in the Regjeringskvartalet area of Oslo. The explosion killed eight people and injured more than 200. Two hours later Breivik, dressed in an all-black paramilitary uniform, launched an attack on a summer camp organized by the youth division of the Norwegian Labour Party on the nearby island of Utoya. For an hour and a half, he walked around the campsite, firing indiscriminately with machine guns, unzipping tents and gunning down people cowering inside. Sixty-nine people were killed in the homicidal rampage. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 7, 2013 Comments Off
As I continue my life in purdah, trying to complete my book, here is the second book review drawn from the vaults. The review is of CLR James’ The Black Jacobins; it was originally published in August 2010 on Norman Geras’ normblog, as part of his Writer’s Choice series.
The poet and statesman Aimé Césaire once wrote of Haiti that it was here that the colonial knot was first tied. It was also in Haiti, Césaire added, that the knot of colonialism began to unravel when ‘black men stood up in order to affirm, for the first time, their determination to create a new world, a free world.’ In 1791, almost exactly three hundred years after Columbus landed there, a mass insurrection broke out among Haiti’s slaves, upon whose labour France had transformed its colony into the richest island in the world. It was an insurrection that became a revolution, a revolution that today is almost forgotten, and yet was to shape history almost as deeply as the two eighteenth century revolutions with which we are far more familiar – those of 1776 and 1789.
That we do remember the Haitian Revolution at all is largely due to the work of Césaire’s Caribbean contemporary CLR James. Césaire was perhaps the greatest poet of the anti-colonial movement. It was James, however, who most eloquently captured the poetry of the Haitian revolution in his magnificent The Black Jacobins. « Read the rest of this entry »
January 18, 2013 § 36 Comments
The European Court of Human Rights ruling this week on four cases of conflict over religious rights, and the continuing controversy in Britain, France and elsewhere on proposals to legalize gay marriage, shows the ongoing battle over how we should define religious freedom. I wrote a long post on this question last year, trying to establish some fundamental ground rules from first principles. Here I want to address one issue that has become prominent in recent weeks: the claim by a growing number of believers, especially Catholics, that the legalization of gay marriage amounts in itself to an attack on religious freedom, even to the persecution of Christians. More than 1000 Catholics priests, bishops and abbots – almost a quarter of Catholic clerics in England and Wales – signed a letter to the Daily Telegraph suggesting that while ‘After centuries of persecution Catholics have, in recent times, been able to be members of the professions and participate fully in the life of this country’, legalizing same sex unions would return Britain to the days of persecution, ‘severely restricting the ability of Catholics to teach the truth about marriage in their schools, charitable institutions or places of worship’. The journalist Cristina Odone, former editor of the Catholic Herald, agreed that ‘David Cameron’s persecution of Catholics makes him Henry VIII, mark II’. ‘Once gay marriage is a law’, she claimed, ‘Catholics will be barred from many professions — just as they were from the Reformation until the 19th Century’. There are, she adds, ‘many Christians willing to play Thomas More to David Cameron’s Henry VIII’.
Such claims, it seems to me, not only fundamentally misunderstand religious freedom, but, in their wild hysteria, serve also to undermine those very freedoms. « Read the rest of this entry »