Monday, 1 March 2010

The cesspit of liberty

Yesterday's post brought to mind Nobel Laureate playwright and human rights campaigner Wole Soyinka's recent accusation that:
England is a cesspit. England is the breeding ground of fundamentalist Muslims. Its social logic is to allow all religions to preach openly. But this is illogic, because none of the other religions preach apocalyptic violence.
And yet England allows it. Remember, that country was the breeding ground for communism, too. Karl Marx did all his work in libraries there …

Of course, useful idiots such as myself would put it another way: England is a tolerant refuge for political exiles, some of whom would presumably be more welcome to Soyinka (Voltaire, Mazzini, Slovo) than others (Marx, Lenin, Abu Hamza). One obvious rejoinder: who is to decide?

The anti-apartheid Soyinka might have let in Joe Slovo; whereas, judging from his comment on Marx, the anti-communist Soyinka wouldn't have. Tolerance is indivisible. Indeed, the point of it is that you put up with what you vehemently oppose. As long as violence isn't incited, anyone who can justify a claim for political asylum status should be allowed to remain. (And it's here that the British government has fallen down in recent years: there should be no toleration of actions and views that are outside the law, including that relating to incitement.)

I infer that Soyinka believes we should have chucked out Marx. Surely a civilisation that rounds up misguided, beardy, German-Jewish, Hegelian philosophers is one that will struggle to save itself from their consequences?

Soyinka also has an eccentric idea of toleration's provenance. He sees our current accommodations as being...
...part of the character of Great Britain. Colonialism bred an innate arrogance, but when you undertake that sort of imperial adventure, that arrogance gives way to a feeling of accommodativeness. You take pride in your openness.

Tolerance a product of imperialism? A lot of cart-before-horse, unhistorical nonsense - or a non sequitur. And if tolerance is only fit for imperialists what hope is there for the rest of us, in particular the people of Africa? One is tempted to say of Soyinka that with defenders of human rights like that, the concept hardly needs enemies.

6 comments:

Vern said...

In Soyinka's defence: he's coming from a country where there is a massive Islamist movement in the north that aggressively (and often violently) pushes for Sharia and other mediaeval joys. It is therefore a much more pressing problem for him than us, and he was speaking after his countryman Abdulmutallab had been arrested and was thus feeling understandably exasperated with the British, who blithely tolerate the extremist rhetoric that translates into mega- violence elsewhere.

Perhaps that is key to our tolerance- the demagogues and nutbags and utopians we have permitted to froth at the mouth have done their damage elsewhere- for the most part. Our experience of Islamist violence pales into insignificance to what goes on Nigeria (where Christians also join in the bloodletting).

Thus I can see why Soyinka is mad as hell with us- even if he's spouting ahistorical nonsense.

Gaw said...

I can understand where he's coming from but what he says is so nonsensical that he does his cause a disservice. There's lots to criticise about the Abdulmutallab situation but calling for Islam to be banned (or sent underground!) and describing tolerance as a product of imperialism doesn't get us very far in putting things right.

There was a Despatches programme on Channel Four tonight about how the Labour Party in East London is being infiltrated by Islamists. The villains are the Respect followers manqué and the turn-a-blind-eye Livingstone lot. I sincerely hope Special Branch and MI5 are keeping tabs on them. The politicians overseeing it all also need to be exposed. Harry's Place does a good job.

Vern said...

I read the same piece, but what I enjoyed about it was the cognitive dissonance it must have engendered in Guardian readers where I read about it- obviously they hate imperialism and love Soyinka, but here he is having a go at Islamists who Seamus Milne, Inayat et al are rather fond of. They're just misunderstood etc.

Harry's Place is indeed great on this topic. The British govt and special forces are totally confused.

Hey Skipper said...

The problem is knowing who, pre-ex post facto, to throw out.

That said, current political leaders (I can't believe I used those two words next to each other) have let the side down by not forcefully espousing enlightenment values in the face of Islamist nonsense.

Not that Thatcher didn't let the side down when it was Rushdie's turn.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Hmm, he doesn't sound particularly Nobel-prize-winning on the basis of "England is the breeding ground of fundamentalist Muslims" (my italics), etc, but you and Vern have succintly summed things up for me and I can't help empathising with the guy's fear if not with his logic.

Gaw said...

Vern: I guess I'd restate my point that:

...a civilisation that rounds up misguided, beardy, German-Jewish, Hegelian philosophers is one that will struggle to save itself from their consequences

Without liberty there is no England and no US - and in this different world a different Hitler might have won.

And I think political asylum is an integral part of the larger idea of liberty. I jib against the idea of the state defining and imposing political orthodoxy in this particular and in general.

Funnily enough, I think Popper - an eminent asylum seeker (and potentially dodgy ex-Marxist) himself - provides a practical argument as to why the Open Society is not only right but effective.