Sunday, April 26, 2009

Eagleton's Pratfall

Terry Eagleton has issued a rather scattered accusation that the "new atheists" are verging on illiberalism, and Russell Blackford has replied:

[T]o oppose other views of the good simply by way of criticism or satire is not illiberal at all. There is no reason why liberals should refrain from criticising or satirising viewpoints that they consider benighted. Liberalism isn't an agreement that we all shut up and say nothing nasty about each other; it is not an agreement that we cease to regard our own respective worldviews as superior to others on offer; it is merely an agreement that we stop trying to get our hands on the levers of state power for the purpose of imposing our worldviews by coercion. It implies that the powers of the state should be somewhat limited, or at least exercised with a certain deference to the choices of individuals (I disagree, however, if Eagleton thinks, as he seems to, that it rules out any socialist economic program).

Eagleton is simply wrong to say that there's only a short step from superiority to supremacy. Anyone who could say such a thing does not understand liberalism at all and needs to go back to school. A liberal is not someone who takes the contorted view that her own viewpoint is no better than others on offer (that would be a vulgar and implausible sort of relativism). She is someone who takes the principled political stance that, although she considers her comprehensive worldview (perhaps a rationalist one, but perhaps even a religious one of some sort) to be superior, she will not attempt to impose it by means of fire and sword, as long as others do not attempt to use fire and sword to impose their views on her.
People who make an effort to understand liberalism as a theory of political economy simply don't make mistakes of the sort called out by Blackford here. On the other hand, people who deploy liberalism as a term for expressing dismissive opproprium -- self-styled conservatives who spit it out as though it's an obscenity, self-labeled leftists indulging in radical chic -- produce incoherent nonsense such as Eagleton's.

Further to that, how could Eagleton expect to be taken seriously after writing something deserving of this criticism made by Norm Geras?
Eagleton says that 'socialists as well as Islamists reject the liberal state'. Another simplification. It may be true of some socialists, but it isn't true of all of us; and one of the great divisions within the left is precisely over this - the valuation of the liberal state.
The notion that Islamists and socialists are coming from the same place, or close to the same place, in their respective critiques of liberalism isn't just plainly wrong, but positively unhinged in the context of an article decrying others' lack of nuance.

If Terry Eagleton wants to be considered a proponent of human liberation, he needs to do better than write a piece subject to this criticism by Ophelia Benson:
'[T]errorism' - by which he makes sure to let us know at the beginning he means only blowing legs off, he does not mean the terrorism of threatening girls with death if they keep going to school, of butchering girls who refuse a marriage or want to marry someone of their own choosing or get a job or wear jeans or refuse to wear a hijab, of yanking girls out of school and out of the country and marrying them off to a stranger. How dare he keep silent about all that? How dare he rant and rave at Hitchens and Grayling for not keeping silent about that?
Note to The Guardian and Terry Eagleton: this is really shabby stuff. You should aim to do better than this or back quietly away from the topics in question in favor of something for which you'll willingly make a serious effort -- celebrity gossip, unreadable literary theory, whatever.

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