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Martin Amis and the agonies of ‘wet’ liberalism

By Don Arthur - posted Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Martin Amis arrived back in Britain to find white, middle-class demonstrators marching with "We are all Hizbullah" placards. "Well, make the most of being Hizbollah while you can," Amis writes, "As its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, famously advised the West: ‘We don’t want anything from you. We just want to eliminate you.’"

In answer to a reader’s question about the most depressing thing about returning to Britain Amis says:

People of liberal sympathies, stupefied by relativism, have become the apologists for a creedal wave that is racist, misogynist, homophobic, imperialist, and genocidal. To put it another way, they are up the arse of those that want them dead.


Of course we’ve been here before. Stalin’s orifice was a favourite gathering place for Fabian socialists like George Bernard Shaw and the Webbs. George Orwell was one of the few well-known socialists who didn’t mistake lies and delusion for loyalty and solidarity. Naturally, many of today’s writers are eager to be tomorrow’s Orwell.

Martin Amis’ father, Kingsley, had been a member of the communist party in his youth. So a few years ago his son wrote a non-fiction book about Stalin titled Koba the Dread. This prompted James Heartfield to take a swipe at Amis in Spiked, "Poor old Martin," he said, "still arguing with his dad".

So what about Amis’s take on the stupefied placard wavers - is relativism really to blame?

Liberalism is constantly under attack for being a hypocritical ideology. When people defend liberal institutions against attacks by religious fundamentalists they are accused of being ethnocentric and intolerant - in other words not liberal. After all, say the critics, if members of all faiths and traditions have an equal right to practice their beliefs why aren’t Catholic MPs allowed to speak out against abortion and gay marriage? Why aren’t they allowed to ban them? Liberalism, according to this argument, is a repressive ideology. Worse still, it’s a repressive ideology that’s in denial about being a repressive ideology - it’s like a sleepwalker with a loaded gun.

If liberals fall for this argument they’ll find themselves actively campaigning for illiberal government. After all, if circumcising girls or hating Jews is a part of your culture or belief system then it would be intolerant and ethnocentric for liberals to tell you to stop. So, rather than be guilty of intolerance and ethnocentrism, these liberals invite their new illiberal friends to write their beliefs into law - they call this “democracy”. And in a democracy, MPs should feel free to legislate for morality. As long as democracy is doing the repressing then it’s not really repression at all.

Liberal philosopher Richard Rorty doesn’t have much patience for the idea that liberalism demands tolerance of intolerance. If we start thinking this way:


We then find ourselves wondering whether our own bourgeois liberalism is not just one more example of cultural bias.

This bemusement makes us susceptible to the suggestion that the culture of Western liberal democracy is somehow "on a par" with that of the Vandals and the Ik. So we begin to wonder whether our attempts to get other parts of the world to adopt our culture are different in kind from the efforts of fundamentalist missionaries. If we continue this line of thought too long we become what are sometimes called "wet" liberals. We begin to lose any capacity for moral indignation, any capacity to feel contempt. Our sense of selfhood dissolves. We can no longer feel pride in being bourgeois liberals, in being part of a great tradition, a citizen of no mean culture. We have become so open-minded that our brains have fallen out (p 203).

Rorty has no doubt that liberalism is a creation of Western culture. And he doesn’t deny that liberal institutions are sometimes imposed on unwilling citizens. But at the same time he doesn’t feel at all conflicted about this. The reason he doesn’t feel conflicted or hypocritical is because he’s a relativist.

Relativism is not the belief that all beliefs are equally valid. It is not the idea that we are never allowed to reject any idea as false. That isn’t relativism, it’s incoherence. Relativism is the idea that the truth or falsity of a statement is created in a similar way to the way a location is created by the grid lines on a map. A mountain that sits at E3 on one map might sit at H7 on another. What E3 or H7 mean depends on the system of grid lines. Or to put it another way - my claim that the mountain is at E3 is relative to grid system of the map I’m using. (And, just as an aside, it’s possible to have perfectly good “maps” that don’t adhere to the usual conventions about representing space and distance.)

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First published in Club Troppo on January 19, 2007.

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About the Author

Don Arthur lives Canberra where he is employed as a researcher with a non-profit social services agency. He has written for Policy magazine and the Evatt Foundation. He currently writes for the group blog Club Troppo. The views expressed here are his own and are not necessarily shared by his employers - past or present.

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