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 30, 2013 § 39 Comments
At the heart of the current debate about immigration are two issues: the first is about the facts of immigration, the second about public perception of immigration.
The facts are relatively straightforward. Immigration is a good and the idea that immigrants come to Britain to live off benefits laughable. Immigrants put more money into the economy than they take out and have negligible impact on jobs or wages. An independent report on the impact of immigration commissioned by the Home Office in 2003, looked at numerous international surveys and conducted its own study in Britain. ‘The perception that immigrants take away jobs from the existing population, or that immigrants depress the wages of existing workers’, it concluded, ‘do not find confirmation in the analysis of the data laid out in this report.’ More recent studies have suggested that immigration helps raise wages except at the bottom of the jobs ladder where it has a slight negative impact. That impact on low paid workers matters hugely, of course, but is arguably more an issue of labour organization than of immigration. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 27, 2013 § 3 Comments
This is the last extract from my book in progress on the history of moral thought. The book is now, in fact, no longer in progress, as I have completed it. This might be the final extract, but it is not from the final chapter, but the penultimate one, Chapter 19 (I have already run an extract from chapter 20). Chapter 19 explores moral debate in modern China, particularly after the fall of the dynastic system, and the creation, first of a republic in 1911, and subsequently, after four decades of conflict and chaos, of Mao Zedong’s communist regime in 1949. This extract is about the problems of moral thinking in post-1949 China, and the fraught relationship between communism and Confucianism.
For more than two millennia, the identity of China, and the character of its social order, was defined primarily in ethical terms, and given philosophical shape largely by Confucianism. When that tradition, and the social order and dynastic structure it sustained, broke in the twentieth century, inevitably there was chaos, a chaos made more turbulent by the distinctive role of ethics in Chinese society.
In Western Europe, Christianity had provided, for more than a millennium, a shared identity for peoples otherwise divided by language, nation or tribe, and a crucible within which all philosophical, political and moral discussion took place. The Church was the continent’s common voice and its moral guardian. Religion, certainly as it was understood in Europe, barely developed in China. The state, in the form of imperial bureaucracy, performed many of the roles and duties historically taken by the European Church, providing moral instruction, constructing a collective identity, and creating a sense of shared values. Not only was the social role of the state different in China, so was its relationship to the ruling class. In Europe, different sections of the elite – nobles, clerics, merchants, the landed aristocracy, the urban bourgeoisie – had vied with each other for the reins of power, and had fought to control and constrain the authority of the state. Through these struggles the space was cleared for what we now know as civil society, a space that became central to the development of moral debate. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 24, 2013 § 1 Comment
‘Imaginative literature’, Chinua Achebe wrote at the end of his essay The Truth of Fiction, ’does not enslave; it liberates the mind of man. Its truth is not like the canons of orthodoxy or the irrationality of prejudice and superstition. It begins as an adventure in self-discovery and ends in wisdom and humane conscience.’ Achebe, who died on Friday, has often been called the greatest African novelist. He was, of course, a great novelist, full stop; one of the towering figures of modern imaginative literature. But Achebe himself would have disdained such an epitaph. To be called simply a writer, rather than an African writer, he more than once observed, was a ‘statement of defeat’. Colonialism, he insisted, created ‘universal man’ by erasing the identities of the peoples whose freedom it denied. As Obierika, one of the characters in Things Fall Apart, puts it, ‘The white man has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart’.
Achebe had little patience for the romanticisation of the African past, and of African cultures, of the kind often found in the Negritude movement. But he dismissed also notions of cosmopolitanism and of values rooted in the rejection of specific identities. Yet, his very use of literature and of the novel revealed his desire to reach out to more universal forms. There was always in Achebe’s writings the same kind of tension we can find in Frantz Fanon’s work, between the local and the global, the particular and the universal, between an admiration of European cultures and a detestation of the impact of such cultures. I have as ambivalent a relationship with Achebe’s ideas as I have with Fanon’s. But there is no ambivalence about his fiction. In imaginative literature, far more than in political thinking, that tension provided for creative development. ‘Storytellers’, as he put it in Anthills of the Savannah, a novel that engages with his own writing, ‘are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit — in state, in church or mosque, in party congress, in the university or wherever.’ ’My weapon’, Achebe once observed, ‘is literature’. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 21, 2013 § 4 Comments
I have just taken part in an exchange of letters with Nada Shabout, director of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies at the University of North Texas, which focused on the question: ‘Should religious or cultural sensibilities ever limit free speech?’ These first four letters are published in the latest edition of Index on Censorship magazine. There was no room to take the debate further in print, but we are continuing the discussion. The new exchanges will be published on the Index website, and also here.
I regard free speech as a fundamental good, the fullest extension of which is necessary for democratic life and for the development of other liberties. Others view speech as a luxury rather than as a necessity, or at least as merely one right among others, and not a particularly important one. Speech from this perspective needs to be restrained not as an exception but as the norm.
The answer to whether religious and cultural sensibilities should ever limit free expression depends in large part upon which of these ways we think of free speech. For those, like me, who look upon free speech as a fundamental good, no degree of cultural or religious discomfort can be reason for censorship. There is no free speech without the ability to offend religious and cultural sensibilities. For those for whom free speech is more a luxury than a necessity, censorship is a vital tool in maintaining social peace and order. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 18, 2013 § 10 Comments
I am hacked off by politicians who think that a last-minute backroom deal is the proper way to resolve a critical political issue. Who think that a shabby compromise between two bad proposals makes a good proposal. Who imagine that imposing exemplary damages on those who refuse to sign up to a regulatory quango creates a freer press.
I’m hacked off by campaigners who have so little respect for free speech that they are happy to use legislation to reform libel laws as a bargaining ploy merely to get their own way on their pet project. Who cannot tell the difference between achieving justice for victims and insisting that victims must dictate legislation. Who are so dismissive of public debate that they think ‘no serious person’ disagrees with them.
I’m hacked off by liberals who who seem think that ‘it won’t turn Britain into Zimbabwe’ is sufficient reason to accept press regulation. Who seem unable to distinguish between a good press and an unfree press, or understand why it’s better to have a ‘bad’ free press than a ‘good’ unfree press. Whose pusillanimity has allowed the Murdochs, the Dacres and the Kavanaghs of this world to present themselves as warriors for free speech
Most of all, I am hacked off by liberals who cannot see what is illiberal about illiberal policies.
March 13, 2013 § 2 Comments
My book on the history of moral thought is all but complete (yay!). Hopefully, blogging will be back to normal next week. In the meantime, here is another old book review plucked from the vaults, this one of Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on a Revolution in Europe. It was first published in New Humanist in July 2009. For more discussion of the myths about immigration, multiculturalism and Islam, see my Milton K Wong lecture, which is in two parts.
In his classic 1920 book The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy, the American historian, political theorist and anti-immigration activist Theodore Lothrop Stoddard warned of the coming collapse of white civilization under a ‘swarm’ of ‘colored’ people. Whites had already been driven out of their ancestral homeland in the Caucasus. The land ‘which in the dawn of history was predominantly white man’s country, is today racially brown man’s land in which white blood survives only as vestigial traces of vanishing significance’. And ‘If this portion of Asia, the former seat of mighty white empires and possibly the very homeland of the white race itself, should have so entirely changed its ethnic character’, Stoddard asked, ‘what assurance can the most impressive political panorama give us that the present world order may not swiftly and utterly pass away?’
Stoddard was worried, too, by the prospect of a resurgent Islam. ‘In so far as he is Christianized, the negro’s savage instincts will be restrained and he will be predisposed to acquiesce in white tutelage’, he wrote. ‘In so far as he is Islamized, the negro’s warlike propensities will be inflamed, and he will be used as the tool of Arab Pan-Islamism seeking to drive the white man from Africa and make the continent its very own.’ To protect Europe and America from a similar fate, Western nations had to ensure that ‘the rising tide of color finds itself walled in by white dikes debarring it from many a promised land which it would fain deluge with its dusky waves.’ « Read the rest of this entry »