Weak Liberals, Strong Believers?

There’s a discussion going on, at the moment, about a piece by Melanie Phillips which touches on a theme I’ve been thinking about for some time. Ever since reading Phillips’ Londonistan, in fact. I’ve had this discussion with Melanie, and I meant to post on it: but now pretty much everything I’ve wanted to say has already been said, rather better, by others: particularly Shuggy and Norm.

But not to worry. The blogosphere is an open conversation, and arguments have a tendency to run on and on.

Phillips argument is a familiar institutional conservative one:

The useful idiots who believe that only a secular society can hold off the forces of irrational belief at the heart of the Islamic jihad have got this diametrically the wrong way round. Secularisation produces cultural enfeeblement, because the pursuit of personal happiness trumps absolutely everything else. The here and now is all that matters. Dying for a cause, however noble, becomes an absolute no-no. It’s better to be dhimmi than dead – the view that has now effectively prevailed in Britain and Europe.

The argument doesn’t have to be one about resisting jihadism. It is an argument, essentially, about ‘decadence’. It is a traditional conservative theme.

The liberal response is that the pursuit of happiness is not the same thing as the pursuit of hedonism. Liberals aren’t wusses. They will stand and defend their values. In the last few months, I’ve noticed – particularly in relation to the conflict between religious and secular liberal values – a retreat from relativism, and an increased determination to defend basic rights: freedom of expression, equality before the law, and so on. I hope I’m correct.

Moreover, liberal values, we believe, are a crucial precondition to our ability to innovate, and find solutions to social, philosophical and technological problems. By contrast, highly conservative societies are stultified: the dead hand of tradition stifles all. That is our advantage. So, in the medium and long term, we win, and they lose.

Norm raises two concerns. The first is that liberals may buckle under pressure:

Anecdotal evidence from the Nazi death camps suggests that the prisoners most able to preserve some sort of moral direction in the hellish conditions of those places were people of fervent belief – Jehovah’s Witnesses, rabbis, communists, etc – and that others educated in the virtues of rationality and sceptical enquiry found this much more difficult.

The second is that liberal and secular culture does not appreciate that it is facing a challenge:

[T]here seem to be many citizens of liberal societies who can’t imagine any serious threat to them, or that these societies may need to be fought for – literally. And that is a mistake.

My sense, to the contrary, is that there is a clear realisation that we are facing a challenge. The debate is largely about how that challenge may best be met.

There is a third concern I have: which is this. The strength of an open society is that there are a plurality of responses to challenges: we adopt the ones which work and disgard the ones which don’t. The corresponding weakness is not that we cannot imagine a threat: but that we cannot decide what to do, and carry out that resolution, until it is too late.