Finding Forster

Finding Forster

Mini Teaser: The antiliberal defenders of civilization—resisting the Ground Zero mosque—are wrong. Liberalism still offers the best hope for combating extremism.

by Author(s): Ian Buruma


ONE CAN go back much further, certainly, than Maistre’s counter-Enlightenment to find similar examples of loathing of the skeptic or the unbeliever. Disbelief has been associated with materialism since biblical times, and thus, quite logically, with merchants. Tolerance is an essential part of doing business. If there is money to be made, it does not pay to interfere in the beliefs or habits of others. One of the things Voltaire, as a fugitive from the Church and Monarchy of prerepublican France, admired about Britain was the relatively high status enjoyed in society by merchants. To him, businessmen and scientists were pillars of a society based on reason and enlightened self-interest. He took a positive view of the London Stock Exchange, where, as he put it, Jews, Christians and Muslims happily engaged in business together, and the only infidel was the bankrupt. Karl Marx had a different opinion of course; he described the stock exchange as the symbol of all that was rotten, and Jewish to boot: “What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.” A strong dose of anti-Semitism always infected both left and right varieties of antiliberalism, because Jews, as a minority—or worse, a minority which had supposedly infiltrated the elites—stood in the way of unity. To the fascists, Jews were Bolsheviks who would destroy the organisms of nation and race. To the Communists, they were capitalist parasites who forged Zionist plots against the Soviet Union, or the united workers of the world. In all cases, the humanist (or liberal), the bourgeois individualist (or the tolerant believer in pluralism), is the enemy.

Of course, taken to its logical extreme, the moral neutrality of business interests is not a good thing even to a devout liberal: we are rightly critical of businessmen, or indeed governments, who happily deal with mass murderers and dictators in search of a fast buck. But logical extremes are always noxious. There is no question, at any rate, that money loosens the bonds of tribe, race or faith, which is why those who seek to preserve, strengthen or revive those bonds are almost always opposed to commerce.

Contempt for commerce also played a key role in early-twentieth-century German nationalism. The most famous antiliberal text expounding this view is Werner Sombart’s Merchants and Heroes. Businessmen, Sombart explains, prize moderation, law, discretion and other things that “vouch for a peaceful co-existence of merchants.”3 This he finds despicable, typical of such degenerate countries as France, the United States and England, where, to quote a friend of Kaiser Wilhelm II, citizenship could be bought for two shillings and six pence by “every Basuto nigger.” The hero, by contrast, is a man of action, who is not crippled by doubt or reflection, and least of all by any effete leanings toward moderation. He is guided by instinct and faith. This type of hero, typically German in the eyes of Sombart and others of his persuasion, is the opposite of the free individual prized by liberals. There is no room in the heroic society for individual autonomy. The heroes, in this vision of the perfect order, are like the fascist sculptures of Arno Breker, or those outsize, socialist, realistic men of stone: all muscle and brawn, square jaws and piercing eyes, fanatical but without any real individual character, like soldiers marching relentlessly toward a distant but clear goal—the racially pure society, the Communist utopia.

The heroic vision can be intoxicating, to be sure. One of the things antiliberals like to harp on is the banality, the mediocrity, the dullness of liberalism. Liberalism lacks a common dream, a vision of grandeur. But there are several things to be said about this. First, heroism doesn’t necessarily require the submergence of the individual spirit into a martial mass, or the victory of instinct over thought. The individuals who put their lives on the line to fight for the civil rights of black Americans, or indeed for freedom under Communism, seldom fitted Sombart’s notion of the hero, yet they were anything but complacently bourgeois.

The liberal disposition, then, need be neither mediocre nor boring. And some of those who have defended it in the face of harsh oppression, such as Havel or other dissidents, from Poland to China, have actually been more heroic than the warriors extolled by the likes of Werner Sombart, not in the least because their fights are usually lonely ones, demanding far more conviction than the instinctive heroes of the political Romantics.


LIBERAL TOLERANCE is not the same as indifference either. Compromise, though almost always desirable in politics, has its limits, even for liberals. The civil-rights movement in 1960s Alabama was a case in point. The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit, in his book On Compromise and Rotten Compromises, argues that slavery is so cruel and dehumanizing that the refusal of the American Founding Fathers to abolish it should count as a rotten compromise, thus utterly unacceptable. Margalit defines the border that cannot be crossed as institutionalized inhumanity.

He distinguishes two pictures of politics, the economic and the religious. The economic picture of politics, like all business transactions, is flexible, open to give-and-take. It is essentially about interests, often but not always material interests. There are rules and laws, but the business of this type of politics is negotiation. The religious picture is quite different. There, one is dealing in ideas of the sacred, literally in the case of religious practices, or metaphorically in the sense of absolute principles which cannot be compromised.

An example of politics of the sacred is the uncompromising conflict over holy places in Jerusalem. Neither a devout Muslim nor a pious Jew finds it possible to negotiate in good faith about the Noble Sanctuary (to Muslims), or the Temple Mount (to Jews), because to give an inch of ground is to compromise the sacred. And to do that is to dilute the purity of the faith. If secular liberals—or humanists—had no absolute principles, given their skepticism toward the sacred, it would follow that they would indeed compromise on anything to further their material or individual interests.

But of course liberals do have absolute principles, and thus a religious picture of politics, too. Rotten compromises were made before World War II (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) and afterward as well, but they were not usually forged by liberals. Hitler’s agenda—even before the Holocaust was set in motion—was already such an assault on civilized life, indeed a perfect example of institutionalized inhumanity, that by 1940 any negotiated settlement with him would have been a rotten compromise. Winston Churchill understood this, whereas otherwise perfectly decent British statesmen such as Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, who wanted to make a deal, did not.

About Britain, or the British “race,” Churchill was a Romantic, a man of action, a hero not a merchant. On matters to do with empire and colonial peoples, he was far from liberal. Nonetheless, Churchill’s use of religious politics, as it were, to defend the freedom of Britain and its allies was liberal. His idea of England, underneath all his bellicose growling and Romantic prose, was still one of a society based on tolerance, moderation and individual liberty. And it was his liberal supporters, not the Communists, let alone the radical Right, who first realized that compromising with the Nazis was not an option.

A notorious postwar example of an intellectual rotten compromise was Jean-Paul Sartre’s refusal, for ideological reasons, to criticize Stalin’s institutionalized inhumanity, even though he was perfectly well aware of it. He did not wish to give critics of Communism any satisfaction: “It was not our duty to write about the Soviet labor camps.” Again, as in 1940, it was often liberals, such as Raymond Aron and Albert Camus, who were the more principled voices when the horrors of Communist dictatorships became known. In the early 1970s, when Maoism still had a wide appeal among the left-wing Western intelligentsia, it was the liberal scholar, Simon Leys, who had to take it on the chin in Paris and elsewhere for drawing attention to Mao’s atrocities.


TODAY’S DEBATES on the dangers of Islam are becoming as intense as the debates in the 1930s about fascism or the 1950s about Communism. Parallels are also intentionally drawn. The term “Islamofascism” has gained currency among people who see 9/11 in terms of 1933, or 1938, or even Pearl Harbor, 1941. And liberals, who advocate moderation and tolerance, and argue that an effort must be made to accept Muslims as fellow citizens, are denounced as “appeasers” and “collaborators,” as though they are the Chamberlains and Halifaxes of our time, while the likes of Geert Wilders, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Newt Gingrich, Pamela Geller and Sarah Palin are imbued with the bulldog spirit of Winston Churchill. The plan, approved by the mayor of New York City, to build an Islamic cultural center several blocks away from ground zero, led by a moderate Sufi imam who denounced the 9/11 attacks, was compared by Newt Gingrich to Nazis setting up a sign next to a Holocaust museum.

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