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The Religion of Liberalism

John on February 13, 2006 at 9:59 am

Postmodern literary critic Stanley Fish has a piece in today’s NY Times on the Toon War. Fish writes in a somewhat cryptic style. It’s never possible to tell whether he’s sincere or just pulling your leg rhetorically. Of course such vagueness fits perfectly with his theories about literary interpretation, but let’s leave that aside for now. For the purposes of this post, I’m assuming Fish is in earnest.

The piece is called “Our Faith in Letting it All Hang Out” and its an analysis of the “other” side of the current conflict, the side many identify simply as “us”. What exactly is it that motivates Western newspaper editors to publish these cartoons in the first place? As Fish sees it, the editors are part of a religious faith, one he calls “Liberalism.” Speaking of the Culture Editor of Jyllands-Posten as an example, Fish says:

Mr. Rose may think of himself, as most journalists do, as being neutral with respect to religion — he is not speaking as a Jew or a Christian or an atheist — but in fact he is an adherent of the religion of letting it all hang out, the religion we call liberalism.

The first tenet of the liberal religion is that everything (at least in the realm of expression and ideas) is to be permitted, but nothing is to be taken seriously…You can still have them and express them — that’s what separates us from theocracies and tyrannies — but they should be worn lightly. Not only must there be no effort to make them into the laws of the land, but they should not be urged on others in ways that make them uncomfortable. What religious beliefs are owed — and this is a word that appears again and again in the recent debate — is “respect”; nothing less, nothing more.

If that sounds like a set up, it is. Fish quickly cuts to the core hypocrisy of the “respect” crowd:

The thing about respect is that it doesn’t cost you anything; its generosity is barely skin-deep and is in fact a form of condescension: I respect you; now don’t bother me. This was certainly the message conveyed by Rich Oppel, editor of The Austin (Tex.) American-Statesman, who explained his decision to reprint one of the cartoons thusly: “It is one thing to respect other people’s faith and religion, but it goes beyond where I would go to accept their taboos.”

Clearly, Mr. Oppel would think himself pressured to “accept” the taboos of the Muslim religion were he asked to alter his behavior in any way, say by refraining from publishing cartoons depicting the Prophet. Were he to do that, he would be in danger of crossing the line between “respecting” a taboo and taking it seriously, and he is not about to do that.

Respect, in other words has been redefined to mean “to politely ignore.” As such, it falters badly the moment it is most needed. When, for instance, we can no longer ignore a controversy, we find that what we take for respect must be jettisoned. As Fish put it:

Strongly held faiths are exhibits in liberalism’s museum; we appreciate them, and we congratulate ourselves for affording them a space, but should one of them ask of us more than we are prepared to give — ask for deference rather than mere respect — it will be met with the barrage of platitudinous arguments that for the last week have filled the pages of every newspaper in the country.

Though he is critical of the “platitudinous arguments” of the press, I do not think he intends to convey support for the Jihadists. His point is to critique our arguments against them. We are playing word games with regard to the Jihadists, trying to draw lines using words like respect which have been emptied of any real meaning.

But I would bet that the editors who have run the cartoons do not believe that Muslims are evil infidels who must either be converted or vanquished. They do not publish the offending cartoons in an effort to further some religious or political vision; they do it gratuitously, almost accidentally…This is itself a morality — the morality of a withdrawal from morality in any strong, insistent form. It is certainly different from the morality of those for whom the Danish cartoons are blasphemy and monstrously evil. And the difference, I think, is to the credit of the Muslim protesters and to the discredit of the liberal editors.

In choosing to accept everything we lose the ability to accept a particular thing. This is the problem with the religion of liberalism. It’s core principle is this: hold nothing dear. No wonder then that the press itself seems to be so uncertain about publishing the cartoons. Conservative commenters like Michelle Malkin appear shocked that so many organs of the MSM seem unable to stand up for themselves. But using Fish’s article as a guide, we see that the MSM is hampered by its own first principle. When you hold nothing dear by habit, you eventually lack the fortitude to defend any principles, even liberalism itself.

[Thanks to Scott at Magic Statistics who sent me the link to this article this morning, knowing I would find it intriguing;-]

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Category: Politics, Religion & Faith |

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