If you have too much time on your hands you eventually come across City Journal, the quarterly magazine of urban affairs, published by the Manhattan Institute – or you don’t. Tastes vary, and some end up watching American Idol or grooming the cat. But were you to browse this journal, in the latest issue you’d find something that would spin your head around. That would be, from Roger Scruton, the British writer and philosopher – an Edmund Burke conservative who likes Kant but thinks Kantian ethics too individualistic – the item Forgiveness and Irony.
There’s more that you’d ever want to know about this fellow here – including his support for the Czech dissidents of long ago and his two operas, and the wine columns and fox hunting – but the current item in question matters now. The issue he discusses is what makes us, the West, with our habits of mind, strong, and what makes those who oppose us, the jihadists if you wish, strong in their own way. Yes, the last president said it was very simple – they hate us for our freedoms, and since they want to kill us all we’d better kill them all and be done with it. Sure, you can reduce things to what fits on a bumper-sticker, but it’s never that simple.
Here’s something to chew on:
Wherever the Western vision of political order has gained a foothold, we find freedom of expression: not merely the freedom to disagree with others publicly about matters of faith and morality but also the freedom to satirize solemnity and to ridicule nonsense, including solemnity and nonsense of the sacred kind. This freedom of conscience requires secular government.
Okay, the other side got a bit touchy about those political cartoons back in 2005, in Demark – the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, with a lit fuse and the Islamic creed written on the bomb and all the rest (discussed previously here). There was a great deal of misunderstanding about what could be said, and what couldn’t be said – and there was the murder of the Dutch documentary filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. They didn’t get it – with secular government you get the freedom to say what you want, whatever it is, and not be assassinated. That’s sort of the whole idea.
Of course you could hold that secular government is not legitimate at all, that its laws derive from God and not man – the position in much of the Middle East and also favored by Justice Antonin Scalia – see God’s Justice And Ours where, in a rousing defense of frequent capital punishment without any silly appeals nonsense, he says “our people are more inclined to understand, as Saint Paul did, that government carries the sword as ‘the minister of God’ to ‘execute wrath’ upon the evildoer.” He argues against “that mistaken tendency to believe that a democratic government, being nothing more than the composite will of its individual citizens, has no more moral power or authority.” Not so, he says – the will of the people is often irrelevant, as God’s will matters, and it’s nice that here, when the people sometimes actually get it right, they do the will of God, as they should.
Well, Scalia may be every conservative’s favorite conservative, after Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin, but Roger Scruton is not prepared to go there with Scalia, and considers the question of just what makes secular government, the kind that leaves God out of things entirely, legitimate:
That question is the starting point of Western political philosophy, the consensus among modern thinkers being that sovereignty and law are made legitimate by the consent of those who must obey them. They show this consent in two ways: by a real or implied “social contract,” whereby each person agrees with every other to the principles of government; and by a political process through which each person participates in the making and enacting of the law. The right and duty of participation is what we mean, or ought to mean, by “citizenship,” and the distinction between political and religious communities can be summed up in the view that political communities are composed of citizens and religious communities of subjects – of those who have “submitted.” If we want a simple definition of the West as it is today, the concept of citizenship is a good starting point. That is what millions of migrants are roaming the world in search of: an order that confers security and freedom in exchange for consent.
So, one must not confuse political communities – with everyone agreeing to participate in deciding how things should be done – with religious communities – where everyone agrees to putting doubts aside and submitting to a higher authority than mere human consensus. Some prefer the former, and many are drawn to the latter – and Scruton thinks he knows why:
Something is missing from a life based purely on consent and polite accommodation with your neighbors – something of which Muslims retain a powerful image through the words of the Koran. This missing thing goes by many names: sense, meaning, purpose, faith, brotherhood, submission. People need freedom; but they also need the goal for which they can renounce it. That is the thought contained in the word “Islam” – the willing submission, from which there is no return.
Then he adds the complications, as submission is tricky:
It goes without saying that the word’s connotations are different for Arabic speakers and for speakers of Turkish, Malay, or Bengali. Turks, who live under a secular law derived from the legal systems of post-Napoleonic Europe, are seldom disposed to think that, as Muslims, they must live in a state of continual submission to a divine law that governs all of social and political life. The 20 percent of Muslims who are Arabs, however, feel the mesmerizing rhythms of the Koran as an unbrookable current of compulsion and are apt to take “Islam” literally. For them, this particular act of submission may mean renouncing not only freedom but also the very idea of citizenship. It may involve retreating from the open dialogue on which the secular order depends into the “shade of the Koran,” as Sayyid Qutb put it, in a disturbing book that has inspired the Muslim Brotherhood ever since.
In short, they just don’t do citizenship. We do, even if it’s not that particularly satisfying:
Citizenship is precisely not a form of brotherhood, of the kind that follows from a shared act of heartfelt submission: it is a relation among strangers, a collective apartness, in which fulfillment and meaning are confined to the private sphere. To have created this form of renewable loneliness is the great achievement of Western civilization, and my way of describing it raises the question of whether it is worth defending and, if so, how.
Of course his answer is yes, but holds that citizenship needs a bit if goosing up, as citizenship is not enough. You do need to add some meaning and purpose and that sort of thing. Except – sorry, Tony – Christianity just won’t cut it, nor will culture:
There is no doubt that the secular order and the search for meaning coexisted quite happily when Christianity provided its benign support to both. But (especially in Europe) Christianity has retreated from public life and is now being driven from private life as well. For people of my generation, it seemed, for a while, as though we could rediscover meaning through culture. The artistic, musical, literary, and philosophical traditions of our civilization bore so many traces of a world-transforming significance that it would be enough – we thought – to pass those things on. Each new generation could then inherit by means of them the spiritual resources that it needed. But we reckoned without two all-important facts: first, the second law of thermodynamics, which tells us that without an injection of energy, all order decays; and second, the rise of what I call the “culture of repudiation,” as those appointed to inject that energy have become increasingly fatigued with the task and have eventually jettisoned the cultural baggage under whose weight they staggered.
So there’s a dead end here, and in an unintentional nod to the tune “Me and Bobbie McGee,” he says finding meaning in freedom itself is another dead end:
This culture of repudiation has transmitted itself, through the media and the schools, across the spiritual terrain of Western civilization, leaving behind it a sense of emptiness and defeat, a sense that nothing is left to believe in or endorse, save only the freedom to believe. And a belief in the freedom to believe is neither a belief nor a freedom. It encourages hesitation in the place of conviction and timidity in the place of choice. It is hardly surprising that so many Muslims in our cities today regard the civilization surrounding them as doomed, even if it is a civilization that has granted them something that they may be unable to find where their own religion triumphs, which is a free, tolerant, and secular rule of law. For they were brought up in a world of certainties; around them, they encounter only doubts.
There’s no hope and consolation there. Citizenship in an open society does not provide that, even if it is the foundation of our social order and the source of our wealth and power, such as they are. Scruton says the loneliness and isolation of western freedom needs a heart, if you will – and with no God available, as submission to God is not what we were ever about, he has two ideas about things we can work on, to define our purpose and values.
Now Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter might not like it much – and Antonin Scalia not like it at all – Scruton argues we should define ourselves as unique in this world because we practice forgiveness:
By living in a spirit of forgiveness, we not only uphold the core value of citizenship but also find the path to social membership that we need. Happiness does not come from the pursuit of pleasure, nor is it guaranteed by freedom. It comes from sacrifice: that is the great message that all the memorable works of our culture convey. The message has been lost in the noise of repudiation, but we can hear it once again if we devote our energies to retrieving it. And in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the primary act of sacrifice is forgiveness. The one who forgives sacrifices resentment and thereby renounces something that had been dear to his heart.
He asks you to look at the contrast:
The Koran invokes at every point the mercy, compassion, and justice of God. But the God of the Koran is not a lenient God. In His Koranic manifestation, God forgives sparingly and with obvious reluctance. He is manifestly not amused by human folly and weakness – nor, indeed, is He amused by anything. The Koran, unlike the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, is a joke-free zone.
Yeah, it’s like a day at the 700 Club. Although it shouldn’t be, as Scruton also argues we should define ourselves as unique in this world because we’re the folks who goof around, the people who can actually practice irony:
There is already a developing streak of irony in the Hebrew Bible, one that the Talmud amplifies. But a new kind of irony dominates Christ’s judgments and parables, which look on the spectacle of human folly and wryly show us how to live with it. A telling example is Christ’s verdict in the case of the woman taken in adultery: “Let he who is without fault cast the first stone.” In other words: “Come off it; haven’t you wanted to do what she did, and already done it in your hearts?” Some have suggested that this story is a later insertion – one of many that the early Christians culled from the store of inherited wisdom attributed to the Redeemer after his death. Even if that is true, however, it merely confirms the view that the Christian religion has made irony central to its message. It was a troubled, post-Enlightenment Christian, Søren Kierkegaard, who pointed to irony as the virtue that united Socrates and Christ.
And it’s an advanced view too:
The late Richard Rorty saw irony as a state of mind intimately connected with the postmodern worldview – a withdrawal from judgment that nevertheless aims at a kind of consensus, a shared agreement not to judge. The ironic temperament, however, is better understood as a virtue – a disposition aimed at a kind of practical fulfillment and moral success. Venturing a definition of this virtue, I would describe it as a habit of acknowledging the otherness of everything, including oneself. However convinced you are of the rightness of your actions and the truth of your views, look on them as the actions and the views of someone else and rephrase them accordingly. So defined, irony is quite distinct from sarcasm: it is a mode of acceptance rather than a mode of rejection. It also points both ways: through irony, I learn to accept both the other on whom I turn my gaze, and also myself, the one who is gazing. Pace Rorty, irony is not free from judgment: it simply recognizes that the one who judges is also judged, and judged by himself.
Well, both forgiveness and irony are in short supply these days, and what he argues for here will take some rearranging of folks’ minds. And some will call him a damned liberal, not a true conservative.
He would say he’s just big on democracy:
To forgive the other is to grant him, in your heart, the freedom to be. It is therefore to acknowledge the individual as sovereign over his life and free to do both right and wrong. A society that makes permanent room for forgiveness therefore tends automatically in a democratic direction, since it is a society in which the voice of the other is heard in all decisions that affect him. Irony – the recognition and acceptance of otherness – amplifies this democratic tendency and also helps thwart the mediocrity and conformity that are the downsides of a democratic culture.
Don’t tell Karl Rove or Bill O’Reilly, and don’t tell them forgiveness and irony lie at the heart of our civilization:
They are what we have to be most proud of, and our principal means to disarm our enemies. They underlie our conception of citizenship as founded in consent. And they are expressed in our conception of law as a means to resolve conflicts by discovering the just solution to them. It is not often realized that this conception of law has little in common with Muslim sharia, which is regarded as a system of commands issued by God and not capable of, or in need of, further justification.
Well, the idea that law is a means to resolve conflicts may be unpopular these days – it’s more like retribution now, with Scalia slapping on a layer of God’s will.
Be that as it may, we still have a problem figuring out the motives of those who oppose us:
What draws people to the use of terror? Is it chosen, as its apologists suggest, as a tactical device? Or is it chosen as an end in itself? From a certain perspective, it seems plausible to trace modern terrorism to the Enlightenment, to the idea of human equality, and to the attitude of resentment that Nietzsche rightly discerned in the heart of modern communities – the desire to destroy what one longs for when seeing it in others’ hands. But such a diagnosis ignores the fact that terrorism, as typified by the Russian nihilists and recorded in their name, is radically disconnected from any goal. Sometimes, it is true, terrorists – the Bolsheviks, the IRA, ETA – have furnished themselves with a cause, making believe that with the achievement of a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” a united Ireland, or a Basque national state, their purposes will be achieved and they can lay down their arms. But the cause is usually vague and utopian to the point of unreality, and its nonachievement seems part of its point – a way to justify the constant renewal of violence.
Terrorists might equally be entirely causeless, or dedicated to a cause so vaguely and metaphysically characterized that nobody (least of all themselves) could believe it to be achievable. Such were the Russian nihilists, as Dostoyevsky and Turgenev described them. Such, too, were the Italian Brigate Rosse and the German Baader-Meinhof gang of my youth. As Michael Burleigh shows in his magisterial Blood and Rage, modern terrorism has been far more interested in violence than in anything that might be achieved by it. It is typified by Joseph Conrad’s Professor, in The Secret Agent, who raises his glass “to the destruction of all that is.”
There’s a reason the late Heath Ledger may win an Oscar for playing the Joker – “Because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
That fits the times Scruton describes:
The vague or utopian character of the cause is therefore an important part of terrorism’s appeal, for it means that the cause does not define or limit the action. It is waiting to be filled with meaning by the terrorist, who is searching to change not the world but himself. To kill someone who has neither offended you nor given just cause for punishment, you have to believe yourself wrapped in some kind of angelic cloak of justification. You then come to see the killing as showing that you are indeed an angel. Your existence receives its final ontological proof.
Terrorists pursue a moral exultation, a sense of being beyond the reach of ordinary human judgment, radiated by a self-assumed permission of the kind enjoyed by God. Terrorism of this kind, in other words, is a search for meaning—the very meaning that citizenship, conceived in abstract terms, cannot provide. Even in its most secularized form, terrorism involves a kind of religious hunger.
It is very difficult to kill the innocent Mrs. Smith and her children as they go about their family shopping. Hence this strategy for ego-building cannot begin simply from the desire to kill. Mrs. Smith must become something else – a symbol of some abstract condition, a kind of incarnation of a universal enemy. Terrorists of the modern kind therefore tend to lean on doctrines that remove the humanity from the people they target. Marx’s theories served this purpose well, since they created the idea of the bourgeoisie, the “class enemy,” who had the same function in Bolshevik ideology as the Jews did in the ideology of the Nazis. Mrs. Smith and her children stand behind the target, which is the abstract bourgeois family. It just so happens that, when the bomb hits this target made of fictions, the shrapnel passes easily through it into the real body of Mrs. Smith. Sad for the Smiths, and often you will find terrorists making a kind of abstract apology, saying that it wasn’t their fault that Mrs. Smith got blown up and that really people ought not to stand behind targets in quite that way.
And all you have to do is add God into the mix:
Ideas of liberty, equality, or historical right have no influence on their thinking, and they are not interested in possessing the powers and privileges that their targets enjoy. The things of this world have no real value for them, and if they sometimes seem to aim at power, it is only because power would enable them to establish the kingdom of God – an aim that they, like the rest of us, know to be impossible and therefore endlessly renewable in the wake of failure. Their carelessness about others’ lives is matched by their carelessness about their own. Life has no particular value for them; death beckons constantly from the near horizon of their vision. And in death, they perceive the only meaning that matters: the final transcendence of this world and of the accountability to others that this world demands of us.
It’s hard to fight such stuff. And it doesn’t help that we don’t think about the reality here:
Al-Qaida may be weak; the whole conspiracy to destroy the West may be little more than a fiction in the brains of the neoconservatives, who themselves may be a fiction in the brains of liberals. But the threat does not come from a conspiracy or from an organization. It comes from individuals undergoing a traumatic experience that we do not fully understand – the experience of a déraciné Muslim confronting the modern world, and without the benefit of the two gifts of forgiveness and irony. Such a person is an unpredictable by-product of unforeseen and uncomprehended circumstances, and our best efforts to understand his motives have so far suggested no policy that would deter attacks.
Scruton says the best we can do is be ourselves:
I think we should emphasize the very great virtues and achievements that we have built on our legacy of tolerance and show a willingness to criticize and amend all the vices to which it has also given undue space. We should resurrect Locke’s distinction between liberty and license and make it absolutely clear to our children that liberty is a form of order, not a license for anarchy and self-indulgence. We should cease to mock the things that mattered to our parents and grandparents, and we should be proud of what they achieved. This is not arrogance but a just recognition of our privileges.
We should also drop all the multicultural waffling that has so confused public life in the West and reaffirm the core idea of social membership in the Western tradition, which is the idea of citizenship. By sending out the message that we believe in what we have, are prepared to share it, but are not prepared to see it destroyed, we do the only thing that we can do to defuse the current conflict. Because forgiveness is at the heart of our culture, this message ought surely to be enough, even if we proclaim it in a spirit of irony.
Well, good luck with that.
And those last two paragraphs are pure Obama – it’s public record – “We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.” And he does that irony thing quite well, and is forever forgiving Republicans.
So, the massively intelligent and ridiculously well-educated British big-gun philosopher lands solidly with Obama, although he may have not intended that at all, as he never mentions Obama at all. That makes the whole thing seem oddly like a coded message to conservatives everywhere – if you want a conservative hero, forget Rush and Ann and Sarah, and stop reading Bill Kristol, and laugh at Antonin Scalia. You already have your conservative hero. Deal with it.