Sunday, 28 June 2015

In our past is the surest defence for our future

‘People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors’ (Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790, link).

The tragic events of the past few days, in Europe, North Africa and the Near East, remind us that our civilisation is under siege. The extremists who hate our way of life will not stop attacking us. What motivates them is hatred, not of what we do but of what we are. To our extremist enemies the West, with its emphasis on freedom of speech, belief, expression and enterprise, is a threat. The liberties enjoyed in London give hope to those who are repressed in Raqqa. As long as we live, those slaving under the dominion of Daesh will hope for freedom. Accordingly, Daesh and its sympathisers will do everything they can to undermine our society. In the face of this pressure Britain, and the rest of the West, must not back down. Instead, we must take the fight to Daesh, intellectually as well as militarily. Our society must regain its self-confidence, and its ability to assert its values, in the face of such an uncompromising enemy. Conservatism, by reviving the memory of the best principles upon which British society was built long ago, can provide the spark for that.

To stand up to extremism the West must reject relativism, and remember our society is built upon a belief in truth. Too often we appear afraid to assert that our civilisation is better the extremist alternative. I believe that is because somewhere along the line we allowed our liberalism to be corrupted into relativism. We allowed the unalienable right of freedom to believe to mutate, and something very noble became the ignoble view that all beliefs should be seen as being equally true. Many who feel instinctively that extremism is wrong find themselves unable to condemn it as a result. They are tied in knots by the mistaken idea that what might be wrong to us, may not be objectively wrong to someone else. Yet, that idea itself undermines our liberty. If liberty is not objectively good, true and beautiful, then how can we actually defend it? If our freedoms are not ours by right, on what basis are we fighting those who wish to strip them from us?

Western society was built upon the truth that all men are created equal. This truth is the root from which all other aspects of our liberal democracy have grown. The minds responsible for our society observed that when we come into this world we are the same. Or to paraphrase the Bible, we all come into the world naked, leave it the same way and we can’t take anything with us when we die.[1] From this those thinkers came to see that, as we are all equal, nobody has a fundamental right to rule over others or infringe on another’s freedom. People should be free to think, do, or say what they want, provided that thinking does not compromise someone else’s freedom. To the giants of the Western intellectual tradition it would have been a self-evident truth that extremists are free to hold their views. Not because all opinions should be viewed as equally true, but because our right to freedom of expression gives us the right to be freely wrong:

‘If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind…the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error’ (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859, pp 30-31, link). 

Belief in the truth of the basic equality of all is the basis for our society, it is the basis for being able to say our civilisation is better than the extremist alternative, and it also has the merit that it can stand on religious grounds too. Extremists see our society as divided and decadent. They believe that our lack of uniformity shows us to be disunited and ripe for attack. Again they are wrong. Our freedoms arise from the fact that, as a society, we believe that all people come into the world equal. In Western society people of all faiths and none can co-exist because, regardless of what side of the divide you sit on, there is widely held unspoken agreement on ideals best expressed by America’s founding fathers:

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed’ (U.S. Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776, link).

What Daesh sees as decadence and disorder, as a belief in nothing, we should never forget are expressions as a belief in something very beautiful: A belief shared by all, whether they believe men are made equal by God or by blind chance, that we are all equal. That belief we Westerners hold, just as proudly and resolutely as the extremists hold theirs. It is the foundation of our opposition to slavery, to our insistence on people being able to live as they like, to think and act as they like, to worship and pray as they like… Extremists sneer that we cannot defeat them because they love death more than we love life. Our response should be that as we love life so much, and we share a common conception of its beauty, and the equal value of all life, none of us will be easily parted from it.

May all those who have been victims of Islamist terror rest in peace...




[1] Cf. Ecclesiaties 5:15, link

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