Sunday 26 April 2009

Eagleton's evasions

Whenever I read anything by Terry Eagleton (see these posts), I understand what Bob and others mean by the roccoco left. Eagleton's column in yesterday's Guardian was positively baroque, byzantine even. I challenge anyone to summarise the article in a few simple sentences, or to identify a coherent, logical argument in its multiple twists and turns. This may be because it was a boiled-down version of a longer review piece in the latest London Review of Books. Or it may be because, like previous Eagleton articles, it uses many of the bewildering rhetorical sleights-of-hand that we've come to expect from partisans of the pseudo-left.

The piece starts off innocently enough, reflecting on the ways that 'the liberal state deals with its anti-liberal tendencies', and arguing that the war on terror has prompted a 'crisis of liberalism'. So far, so familiar, and Eagleton even hints at sympathy with anti-totalitarian liberals when he wonders how you can remain open to the 'Other', when 'the Other detests your openness as much as it does your lapdancing clubs'.

But then there's an odd bit about how 'socialists as well as Islamists reject the liberal state, so what is to be done about them?' Then Eagleton backtracks, remembering how the working-class movement fought to secure many of our basic liberties. Even so, he concludes that 'there is a fundamental conflict between liberals and leftists', though he never really explains the nature of this. It's a misleading generalisation, of course, and only really applies to the revolutionary 'hard left' with which Eagleton once identified. (Does he still? I think we should be told. One of the consequences of Eagleton's allusive, evasive style is that it's impossible to pin him down, or identify precisely where he stands.) A couple of paragraphs later, he clarifies a little, arguing that the left 'objects to the liberal case...because it rules out the kind of partisan state that socialism requires'. It depends what kind of socialism you mean, of course. Eagleton's argument seems to gloss over the experience of communist totalitarianism and to sit loose to notions of socialist democracy.

Then, in the strangest move in the article, Eagleton has a go at all his least favourite secular, liberal, and anti-totalitarian writers, in one tightly-packed paragraph. See if you can make any kind of sense of this:

If the test of liberalism is how it confronts its illiberal adversaries, some of the liberal intelligentsia seem to have fallen at the first hurdle. Writers such as Martin Amis and Hitchens do not just want to lock terrorists away. They also tout a brand of western cultural supremacism. Dawkins strongly opposed the invasion of Iraq, but preaches a self-satisfied, old-fashioned Whiggish rationalism that can be wielded against a benighted Islam. The philosopher AC Grayling has an equally starry-eyed view of the stately march of Western Progress. The novelist Ian McEwan is a freshly recruited champion of this militant rationalism. Both Hitchens and Salman Rushdie have defended Amis's slurs on Muslims. Whether they like it or not, Dawkins and his ilk have become weapons in the war on terror. Western supremacism has gravitated from the Bible to atheism.

Here, Eagleton seems like a drunk hitting out at any target that comes his way, hoping to land a punch on at least one of them. Do Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens really have a greater desire than anyone else to 'lock terrorists away'? And does that mean Eagleton thinks they shouldn't be locked up? And where's the evidence for their supposed 'western cultural supremacism'?  I don't agree with everything Dawkins has written, but calling his rationalism 'old-fashioned' merely avoids having to engage with his arguments. As for condemning his scepticism because it might be used against a 'benighted Islam': well, it can also be used against the right-wing Christianism which I would guess Eagleton opposes (does he?), and is 'benighted' an appropriate adjective in the context of (say) the Iranian revolution, or the Taliban victory in the Swat valley? As for Grayling and McEwan, they each get dismissed in a throwaway sentence. The former comes in for a longer condemnation in the original LRB piece, his offence apparently being that he dares to praises Enlightenment values without acknowledging that they have been responsible for western racism, imperialism, etc.  

Eagleton never really explains how he thinks such a diverse bunch of writers have become 'weapons in the war on terror' (assuming that's a bad thing). As in his suggestion that the agnosticism of Dawkins and Hitchens 'is part of late capitalism's everyday routine', Eagleton is a master of the classic pseudo-leftish 'guilt by association' move. If you can get your audience to see your opponents as part of a wider, sinister movement - the war on terror, neoconservatism, late capitalism, imperialism - this relieves you of the necessity of engaging with their arguments. (It's rather like the feature of po-mo leftism that I noticed in the previous post, where characteristing an idea as merely an expression of power becomes a substitute for debate.) Nowhere in this article does Eagleton argue that Dawkins is wrong about religion, or Hitchens mistaken about the reactionary character of Islamism, or present any evidence to counter their arguments.

In the final section of the article, Eagleton goes on the attack, accusing the writers he's mentioned of 'the slanderous reduction of Islam to a barbarous blood cult.' To which one might respond: first, show me an example of this reductionism in any of these writers; second, you can't 'slander' a religion; and third, isn't it the likes of al Qaida and the Taliban, rather than western liberals, who have been responsible for any 'blood cult' associations?  Eagleton then suggests that the 'genuine liberal' is 'appalled by Islamist terrorism, but conscious of the national injury and humiliation that underlie it.' This sounds like the politics of excuse. Try using this argument with any other kind of unsavoury politics and see if it works. Can you imagine Eagleton arguing that the 'genuine liberal' is appalled by the BNP, but conscious of the injury and humiliation that have inspired their views?

He then claims that none of the writers he's mentioned 'is remarkable for such balance' and concludes that 'they are more preoccupied with freedom of expression than freedom from imperial rule'. Are they, really? Again, Eagleton's piece is free from any quotations in support of his claims, so it's impossible to verify such sweeping statements. One might as easily reverse the sentence and say that Eagleton and his ilk are so caught up in their anti-imperialism that they neglect the importance of freedom of expression. Either way, the effect of such lazy rhetorical devices is to suggest that it's impossible to support both kinds of freedom.

After attempting to make sense of Eagleton's peculiar logic, one is tempted to play the same kind of rhetorical game as he does. If he can airily dismiss all the writers he disagrees with by tarring them by association with the war on terror, western supremacism, etc  - then what's to prevent me from characterising Eagleton's own pro-faith, anti-secular, anti-western leftism as 'merely' a manifestation of a left in terminal decline, or to argue that his attempts to 'understand' Islamist terror are dangerous because they provide a boost to reactionary fundamentalism?


I recommend the debate in the comments below - and also Russell Blackford's excellent post on Eagleton's piece, which includes this:

It sounds [...] as if Eagleton is getting very close to telling Dawkins and the others to shut up. The choice of the word "slanderous", which denotes a form of illegal speech, is very troubling. Is Eagleton seriously suggesting that the speech of Dawkins, etc., should be regarded as slander - as a form of defamation - and so prohibited? Perhaps not, but it would be a relief if he clarified this. If he doesn't actually want to use force to shut up his rationalist opponents, he's chosen his words poorly. Talk of slander may be colourful hyperbole, I suppose, but it's not very amusing at a time when the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, supported by other influential players such as the Vatican, is continuing its campaign to ban "defamation of religion".

Further update

And the comments just keep coming - probably more than for anything else I've written. Meanwhile Max provides some helpful links to other posts on the evasive Eagleton.


Eve Garrard said...

I haven't read the LRB piece, but critics of Enlightenment values who claim that they're responsible for racism and imperialism might like to note that racism and imperialism are doing very nicely in parts of the world relatively unaffected by those values; and furthermore those countries which have done most to overcome gender and race discrimination, including the slavery which has been and in some places remains one of its most terrible manifestations, have been those which are most influenced by the values of the Enlightenment.

Martin Meenagh said...

Surely it depends which Enlightenment one looks at, Eve? It was not all one thing. Take three fairly representative characters, for instance, Rousseau, Prudhomme, and Jefferson. Rousseau thought equality a given in a state of nature, and that the world and its repressions made people worse; so the 'enlightened' thought that destroying the cages and distinctions that made people the way they were was the way to go, and once can trace real liberation from that. Prudhomme and Jefferson, though, were enlightened but attracted by the apparent practicality and realism of rationalism, and its way of mediating and balancing differences just like the market did. Without an active God, they had to ground arguments in natural rights; without apparent natural equality and with apparent 'natural' roles, which were actually the products of their society, they rationalised difference in terms of inherent and systematisable distinctions based in race or sex. That's why racism, in Jefferson's case, and the sort of naturalistic domestic cage into which Prudhomme wanted to put women most of the time, were also embraced by the enlightenment.

What Eagleton probably has is a sense of the religious undecurrents and subtleties that some liberals (though not the author of this blog) sometimes forget. Protestantism did shape english-speaking culture and emphasised reading and the book and discussion; it's no surprise that interpretations of what is 'free thinking' or 'liberal' here have a lot in common with a protestant and calvinistic scaffolding.

Similarly, one of the reasons liberalism never really got on in the continent was catholicism, or rather catholic culture--the baroque, alternative global, and sensual style punctuated by violent revolution that the likes of Eagleton value, at least judging by his works. I remember his version of James Connolly, which was almost romantically intimate, and I suspect intolerable to quite a few people of liberal persuasion but recognisable to catholics and socialists (and, for that matter, fascists).

Sorry for the long comment, but the post and Eve's comment were very thought-provoking.

Eve Garrard said...

Martin M:

Thankyou for these very illuminating comments, and of course you're right: the Enlightenment wasn't a single homogeneous phenomenon, and its major players often held different though overlapping sets of values. However what I mainly wanted to argue was that commitment to any substantial subset of these values is nothing like a necessary condition for being racist or imperialist, nor is it a sufficient condition, especially since the most successful movements against racism and sexism are currently to be found in those polities most influenced by Enlightenment values. So if the Enlightenment had never occurred the world would probably still have plenty of racism and imperialism, but it would quite likely not have abolished slavery (insofar as it has done so), and the present freedoms of ethnic minorities and women in countries like the UK would probably be considerably more curtailed. But all that is, I think, entirely compatible with the complexities which you rightly point out.

I don't know enough to judge the extent to which liberalism has been shaped by Protestantism and Calvinism, and hence is less acceptable to a Catholic culture, and I'm ready to accept what you say on this (although I would just like to mention that an emphasis on reading and the book and discussion isn't an exclusively Protestant phenomenon!) But if Eagleton is objecting to the Enlightenment on the grounds of its putative support for racism and imperialism then he needs to take into account not only the objections which I'm trying to raise, but also the complexities which you draw our attention to here. I do have some sympathy for parts of his criticism of the cruder forms of atheism, but the rest of that article seems to me to be very vulnerable to the kind of objections which Martin (itM) has raised.

KB Player said...

Excellent post. You must have some patience to go through a heap of random assertions and try and find anything resembling an argument there.

If this is from a longer piece published in the LRB, I'm glad I cancelled by subscription.

Russell Blackford said...

Well said. I blogged about this at some length yesterday. Eagleton's article makes no coherent sense, misunderstands liberalism - and, now I think about it, seems pretty bloody spiteful.

Martin said...

Thanks, everyone, for your comments. Eagleton may be incoherent himself, but he's certainly sparked some thoughtful discussion.

Eve and Martin M: the debate about the relative merits of particular aspects of the Enlightenment will go on, but what I really dislike about Eagleton and his ilk (Madeleine Bunting being cut from a similar cloth) is the way they use the shortcomings of western societies as an excuse to trash core Enlightenment values. It's a way of avoiding having to say where you yourself stand and making it easier to surrender to cultural relativism.

Rosie - as you may know from other posts on my blog, I frequently share your distaste for the LRB, but I still subscribe - there are occasional glimmers of gold amongst the anti-US, anti-Israel, pseudo-leftish dross - but I too have come pretty close to cancelling the direct debit.

Russell - thanks for dropping by - congratulations on a great blog - and I shall be linking to your post on Eagleton - it's a much more articulate attempt to say some of the things I was trying (badly) to say.

Martin Meenagh said...

Eve--I agree that the enlightenment did for slavery. As I suggested, I think that it was in part about systematising the world. I think it had to. There are times when I wonder if it was an 'it' at all though. One interesting thing is that, when the American colonies were debating what freedom was in the 1680s, slavery doesn't seem to have been a major sticking point for them; by the 1780s, it had become necessary to justify it because the consensus of the thinking world, around the north atlantic at least, was wrong.

We shouldn't retro-identify things as racism and sexism before the two thought systems emerged, as a general rule, unless we acknowledge that our commitment to using them as tools to understand is achronological or quasi-religious.

I do think the Eagleton article is a little confused. However, what do you expect of the LRB? I would never touch it after its sponsorship of nonsense about Israel and given what I think of its pseudish appeal, but I appreciate that others might think differntly. You're better off with the NYRB, though, Martin.

By the way, that 'vatican support' of defamation of religion is a new one on me and doesn't necessarily convey what most catholics think at all. I will look it up, because I think it may be a diplomatic shuffle or a curia thing; it certainly isn't much to do with the faith as such.

I do think that globalisation and the american republic are obviously liberal things, and maybe the point that Eagleton was trying to get across was that liberalism, which is preeminently about an individual within a reasoned law, is now being used by some as a framework for all sorts of illiberal things. I do think someone who proclaims himself a Marxist should be careful about making it clear where he comes from.

Martin said...

Martin - I wasn't aware either of any Vatican support for the defamation of religion thing - I thought it was purely an Islamic conference thing. And I agree with you about the relative merits of the LRB and NYRB. I buy the former, my wife the latter. The former often gets left unread, or thrown aside in disgust, whereas the latter is usually read cover to cover and kept for future reference. The NYRB is a fine example of a genuinely liberal and civilised journal, whereas the LRB is increasingly the house journal of the anti-Israel anti-American 'old New Left' , if you know what I mean (Tariq Ali et al)

Anonymous said...

"Can you imagine Eagleton arguing that the 'genuine liberal' is appalled by the BNP, but conscious of the injury and humiliation that have inspired their views?"

For what it's worth, and this may just be the circles I run in, but this sounds like a commonplace to me: we hate the BNP, but we're conscious of the sense of alienation and disillusion that lead people to vote for them, the failure of centre-left parties to repay people's faith, the way that legitimate anger about, e.g., shortages of housing is displaced onto hostility to immigrants, who also need that housing, etc.

That's not to comment on the overall point of the post, just to point out that 'understanding' BNP voters is not a crazy idea.

Martin said...

Yes, perhaps I could have expressed this point better. It's not that attempting to 'understand' BNP politics is unthinkable - one of the great things about the liberal-left has always been this capacity to imaginatively project oneself into the position of the other, even if the other is objectionable, and to see ideas in their social context. However, what I dislike in the apologist left is that, when it comes to Islamist terrorism, they leap to 'understand' before condemning, and as a way of avoiding condemning - whereas with homegrown (white) fascism and racism, the immediate response is (rightly) condemnation, with the 'understanding' a secondary follow-up.

John Meredith said...

"what I really dislike about Eagleton and his ilk ... is the way they use the shortcomings of western societies as an excuse to trash core Enlightenment values"

And yet they never perform the same manoeuvre in other social contexts. Madeleine Bunting, for example, is appalled by any suggestion that the evils of the Taliban (say) should be offered as evidence of any intrinsic deformity in Islamic values. She is right, but it is time that she acknowledged that this way of thinking applies across the board.

It is also annoying that Eagleton, who rejects liberalism, and denies that he is a liberal, considers himself qualified to define what a 'true liberal' should think and do.

Martin Meenagh said...

Hi Martin

I hope that you don't mind me clarifying a point--'the Vatican' as such seems to formally oppose the religious defamation ruling, at least according to the ambassador to the UN

Eve Garrard said...

Martin M: you say that 'We shouldn't retro-identify things as racism and sexism before the two thought systems emerged, as a general rule'. But doesn't this depend on whether we're using a 'thick' account of racism etc rather than a thin one? Yes, we shouldn't assume that the indignities (and worse) which were heaped on women and on members of disfavoured racial minorities in the past stemmed from the same nexus of beliefs and attitudes which drives present-day racism; nonetheless there's a core meaning of unjust disadvantageous treatment which allows us to say (thinly) that in the West racism and sexism were more prevalent during the past than they are now, for example. And if there's a diachronic problem here, then isn't there going to be a synchronic problem as well? Surely we want to be able to claim that racism takes different forms in different times *and places*? But for this we need to be able to deploy quite a thin conception of racism, which was all I was appealing to.

However, I'm in complete agreement with you with respect to the LRB, and the superiority of the NYRB!

Martin itM: yes, it's the trashing of core Enlightenment values I'm particularly narked about, especially when carried out by people who benefit so greatly from general allegiance to them.

Martin Meenagh said...

Eve--yes, I see your point and accept it. Sorry for any confusion.

Anton Deque said...

What does the world – one might say Brave New World – that Eagleton inhabits look like? What are its defining characterisitics, what outlines of society can we see within it? How would it function?

This does not seem to me to be a dialogue much about the Enlightenment, more its precursor in Anglo Saxon thought, Puritanism. Or, perhaps a successor, Stalinism.