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Roger’s Rules

The limits of “openness”

October 30th, 2007 - 6:21 am

A few days ago, I returned from some missionary work in England. One object of my visit was to bring culture to the natives, specifically to bring news of The New Criterion to the culture-starved readers of London. To this end, I participated in a panel discussion at the Travellers Club in Pell Mell, where I was joined TNC regulars Anthony Daniels, Eric Ormbsy, Kenneth Minogue, and David Pryce Jones. It was a jolly and well attended event, and one that, I hope, will presage the advent of The New Criterion in more bookstores and on more coffee tables through the semi-United Kingdom.

Travel these days is full of irritations, large and small. Among the small irritants, I offer for general condemnation the series of politically correct advertisements with which HSBC bank has plastered the jetways at many major airports. It’s a catchy, if semantically troubling, campaign. Each ad consists of two pairs of identical pictures boldly labeled with opposite one-word descriptors. For example, an image of a serious-looking young businessman in suit and tie bears the label “Leader” while next to it is an image of legs in ratty jeans and scuffed boots bearing the legend “Follower.” The same images are then repeated with the words reversed: the leader becomes the follower and vice versa. Other image-pairs come labelled “Good/Bad,” “Trendy/Traditional,” “Pain/Pleasure,” “Perfect/Imperfect,” etc. And in case you are slow on the uptake, the Aesop behind the ad includes a helpful moral: “If everyone thought the same, nothing would ever change,” for example, or “An open mind is the best way to look at the world,” or “Isn’t it better to be open to other people’s points of view?”

Let’s pause over that last one. It is meant to be a rhetorical question, of course–what Latinists call a nonne question, i.e., one that expects the answer “Yes”–but I at least want to hesitate before responding with an unqualified affirmative. What HSBC proudly calls its “yourpointofview.com” campaign is doubtless a successful (I believe “creative” is the favored epithet) bit of huckstering. But it is also a wearisome bit of propaganda. Propaganda for what? There’s an irony here. The whole rhetorical machinery of the ads communicates the presumption that we are dealing with the spirit of bold openness and a healthy tolerance for diversity. The incidental beneficiary of that happy thought is HSBC. But the reality of the message is simply the biggest unexamined cliché of our time: that differences among people are simply so many “points of view” and therefore (note the logic) that discriminating among those points of view with an eye to favoring one over another is to be guilty of an intellectual incapacity that is at the same time a moral failing (narrowness, intolerance, elitism, ethnocentrism–the whole menu of politically incorrect vices).

This might seem like a prescription for moral relativism. But it isn’t quite that. What makes the ad campaign a significant emblem of the Zeitgeist is the way it insinuates a consistent prejudice into its brief against prejudice. The smartly attired young chap and the slob in jeans are not so much equals as competitors. The moral burden of the campaign (as distinct from its aim of benefiting its client) is not to encourage us to think more carefully about what it means to be a leader or follower, to be good or bad, to be trendy or traditional, but rather to blur the distinction between those contraries altogether. The aim is to short-circuit, not refine, our powers of discrimination. And the goal of that disruption is always at the expense of one side of the equation. (Another irony: were the transvaluation implicit in the “point-of-view” campaign really to succeed, one of the first casualties would be competitive enterprises like HSBC.)

There is much in England at the moment that reminded me of the HSBC ad campaign. I think, for example, of the marquee outside the National Portrait Gallery in London that features, on one side, the beaming visage of Mick Jagger with the words “Please allow me to introduce myself” and, on other side, an abstract portrait of T. S. Eliot with a famous line from Four Quartets: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” It would require a lengthy disquisition to enumerate everything that had to go wrong to produce that conjunction.

Such an explanation might begin with the implicit equivalence proposed between an antinomian rock anthem and a monument of high modernism, the fact that the peculiar alchemy of commercial success has given the world such spectacles as Sir Michael Phillip “Mick” Jagger, and the reality of what the National Portrait Gallery has become–no longer an institution animated by the stately imperatives of cultural confidence but, on the contrary, a demotic, postmodern enterprise wherein celebrity, even notoriety, happily substitutes for genuine achievement. Item: The “major international exhibition” on at the moment is devoted to “Pop Art Portraits.” What is more depressing: the exhibition itself, or the fact that such sinister puerilities should be underwritten by a corporate giant like Lehman Brothers? (Once upon a time, the values–all those old-fashioned bourgeois verities–that fired a commercial enterprise like Lehman Brothers were deeply antithetical to the smirking “anything goes” mentality of Pop Art. What would it mean if this were no longer the case?)

“Isn’t it better to be open to other people’s points of view?” Well, doesn’t it all depend on the point of view in question? I thought about this again at a conference I attended at All Souls at Oxford in honor of the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski. The ostensible subject of the colloquy was “Enlightenment, Modernity, and Atheism,” but many of the contributions revolved around the issue of tolerance–more particularly, tolerance in an age of militant Islam. It tells us quite a lot that one of the participants could blithely assert, in the course of her reflections on this subject, “I know, of course, that there is no truth.” Of course?

What really brought me up short, however, was the praise lavished by one speaker on Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born Muslim activist and impresario. “He is,” quoth my fellow conference-goer, “precisely the kind of Muslim we should be engaging with.” The Department of Homeland Security may have revoked Ramadan’s visa, preventing him from taking up a teaching post in the United States. But Oxford was proud to have him teaching there. “Isn’t it better to be open to other people’s points of view?”

Let’s consider the “point of view” of Tariq Ramadan, a grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Their credo: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.” Is this what Ramadan, too, believes? That is not an easy question to answer. It is significant, I think, that he should deny that there is “any certain proof” that Osama bin Laden was involved in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. (But if “there is no truth,” who can object?) He is said to have met early and often with various members of al Qaeda and other Islamist groups. Ever sensitive to the nuances of language, he refers to such atrocities as the bombings in Bali and Madrid as “interventions.” In truth, Ramadan is a consummately slippery customer–ferociously articulate, adept in deploying the rhetoric of compromise, tolerance, “dialogue,” and accommodation. He is, as the French writer Caroline Fourest notes in her forthcoming book Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan, a “master of the art of euphemism.”

His approach, seemingly moderate, succeeds in attracting the more or less modern Muslims that he will gradually initiate into radicalism, and then fundamentalism, the environment that produces future terrorists. How? By pretending to advocate a form of fraternity and tolerance that has the effect, above all, of making any moderate Muslim feel guilty in comparison to the extremists. Once their vigilance has been dismantled, he has only to put those he has thus outfitted in touch with the Brothers’ network.

In a 2005 article in Le Monde, for example, Ramadan called for a “moratorium” on the application of some aspects of Muslim law–e.g., stoning adulteresses to death, executing anyone who apostasizes from Islam, cutting off the hands of thieves, and other benevolent prescriptions brought to you by the “religion of peace.” True, Ramadan then went on to criticize the West’s “unilateral condemnations” of such practices, arguing that “Western governments and individuals have a major responsibility to allow the Muslim world to engage in this debate serenely within Islam’s interior.”

All that is preposterous, but let’s go back to Ramadam’s original offer of a “moratorium.” Now a “moratorium” is a temporary suspension of some activity or state of affairs. Should we be pleased that Ramadan wants his fellow Muslims to leave off stoning errant women until–when? Next Tuesday? After the New Year? Until Europe finally “goes Muslim” altogether and silly Western scruples like the prohibition against maiming criminals or protecting religious freedom can be dispensed with for good?

Ah, the dreaming spires of Oxford! “Tolerance” for folks like Tariq Ramadan is not enough, because one tolerates only that of which one disapproves. What Ramadan wants is “respect” and approbation, not tolerance. He wants us to embrace him and his beliefs–until they triumph to such an extent that he can reject us categorically in the name, not of tolerance or diversity, but of divine truth. “Everyone looks at the world from a different point of view. What’s your point of view?” Lee Smith, in an article in The American Prospect a couple of years ago, accurately summed up Tariq Ramadan’s “point of view”:

Ramadan is a cold-blooded Islamist who believes that Islam is the cure for the malaise wrought by liberal values. His revision of the jihadist paradigm–peaceful but total–is brilliant in its way, and he may well turn out to be a major Islamist intellectual, far surpassing even his grandfather’s influence. His cry of death to the West is a quieter and gentler jihad, but it’s still jihad. There’s no reason for Western liberals to try to understand that point of view.

That gets to the nub of the issue–both with respect to the reality of Tariq Ramadan’s agenda and what we in the West should think of it. It was not a popular “point of view” at Oxford. But then political realities have always had a difficult time surviving in that rarefied air. On the High Street I saw a church placard announcing that they were “praying” to be a more “inclusive” congregation. And remember the Oxford Union in 1933: “Resolved, that we will in no circumstances fight for king and country.” To have resolved otherwise would have been to exhibit what one confrence-goer stigmatized as “cultural essentialism” and a lamentable tendency to demonize “the Other.” How comical Tariq Ramadan and his friends must find these effete moral gymnastics. “An open mind is the best way to look at the world.” It’s such emollient advice, especially if you are bent on making sure that you alone will decide what counts as openness.

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