I would like to respond to the piece of unintended irony that is Daniel Jennings essay, “The Cultural Left: Making the World Safe for Fundamentalism.” I will argue that Jennings work is derived from a political ideology that not only prevents his analysis from being accurate or comprehensive, but which in fact brings about the very problem he believes he is attacking. He makes this quite apparent when he quite falsely identifies Marxism as being some sort of Faith, thus no doubt unconsciously employing a Theistic criticism of secularism. In order to do so, I will first make quite clear my own influences, inasmuch as I am overtly committed to the Left and as a Trotskyite.
In the first instance, I question the description provided by Jennings of the so-called “Cultural Left.” Jennings provides not evidential basis for his proposed description. He cites not manifestos or documentary evidence, he provides no examples to demonstrate the behaviour he claims to be able to observe, he merely repeats a political screed against the “Liberal Media”, a particular and peculiar American fantasy. I think that Jennings article is representative of a particular and well-established prejudice that permeates must of Western so-called civilisation; indeed, is indicative of the very reaction that Jennings claims to oppose: the rejection of rationalism over blind faith.
In fact Jennings article appears to draw on uninformed and partial knowledge of existing Leftist doctrine. Jennings appears to present only a caricature of Leftist positions rather than addressing the positions properly. He also falsely and unwisely projects these onto vast numbers of people who hold only some or none of these ideas, and once again does so without evidential basis.
The three tropes Jennings identifies are:
1) extreme relativism,
2) hostility to Western culture, and
3) “the view that academia … etc. are nothing but weapons for use in political and ideological warfare.”
I will address each in order.
Jennings provides the following capsule definition: “Extreme relativism is the belief that all values, beliefs, cultures, ideas and ideologies are of equal value.” Jennings fails, however, to provide a single citation for this ideology. How, then, are we to be confident that extreme relativism actually exists anywhere? Is it not entirely possible that Jennings is just projecting this onto his ideological opponents? I suspect that this is indeed the case. Now it is true that the Progressive movement does employ a great deal of Relativism, a lot of which I hazard Jennings could benefit from given the apparent fondness for absolute morality he demonstrates. Yes, it is certainly the case that I, as a Leftist and a Moral Relativist do not denounce “Islamic Fundamentalism” as inherently evil in a knee jerk manner–and I wonder what basis I would have for doing so given such liberal events that the West has brought the world, such as Nazi Germany. Now I am sure that Jennings will not self-identify the West and Nazi Germany and yet, to what else does it belong? As many Muslims have pointed out, the fact that some extremists do evil in the name of god does not demonise the entire faith. I would suggest that Jennings displays here some incipient Western racism, applying collective punishment, something of an irony due to his claim that the Cultural Leftist cannot denounce racism either.
Hostility to the West
In the first instance, I feel that this agenda gives us a good identification of Jennings’ ideological position. “Anti-Westernism” appears to me rather like the apocryphal “Anti-Americanism”; seldom heard from its alleged proponents, but often ascribed to them by their self-appointed critics. Again, Jennings bias is palpable in his reference to the also mythical “political correctness,” a stock right wing complaint against any Progressive agenda, and, like most everything Jennings has written, a baseless claim asserted without evidence. Jennings rounds on ‘Cultural Leftists’ for throwing out the Enlightenment only a paragraph or two after he castigates them for excessive relativism! I would suggest that Jennings does not know what he wants–he wants to glorify the western virtues of self-criticism, empiricism and opposition to discrimination, except where he feels that discrimination should be applied against Islam, that relativism should not acknowledge the manifold failures of the West, or that Empiricism should not be applied to the West’s claims to virtue. Thus we are to accept the West’s claims to virtue uncritically, and in so doing abandon one of the West’s alleged virtues. It should not be hard to see here why the West is having trouble winning consent for its agenda when it is so deeply corrupted by hypocrisy.
Like most of Jennings’ article, this section constitutes a mixture of prejudice and ignorance. Jennings has his finger on a partial truth and manipulates it to feed his particular (and frankly un-Western, on his terms) bigotry. In the next-to-last century, and later informed by the horrific events of WW2, the West did indeed develop a modicum of humility and the ability to rationally criticise its own behaviour. The Imperial project that had previously existed under the banner of the “white man’s burden” suffered serious and manifold attacks, and eventually a consensus emerged that the West had little or no claim to moral superiority over other cultures, and indeed arguably less considering its many genocides, invasions, occupations and denigrations of other cultures and societies. This awareness even has a well articulated expression in the theory of Class War: the claim that the group who dominate the societal order necessarily seek to manipulate that order for their own benefit. Jennings could easily avail himself of the Marxist theory and advance a critique–I fear he does not do so because he has already decided that can be no validity in this criticism of the West. Jennings, thus, exhibits all the uncritical self-righteous hypocrisy of the Imperial gents who brought the gibbet and the concentration camp to all the world in the name of Decency.
I suspect, from Jennings unabashed political bias, that he leans toward a right-wing analysis. He appears to accept a whole set of right-wing mythologies–that Marxism is a form of faith, that there is such a thing as “anti-westernism” as opposed to quite western empirical self-criticism–thus suggesting to me that he is merely parroting a dogma rather than applying any critical faculty. The irony in this scenario is that it is, in fact, the Political Right who have opened the door to Fundamentalism–and not just opened it, but welcomed it and its campaign contributions with open arms. The alliance between Fundamentalist Christianity and the extremely powerful right wing in American politics is, in my opinion, serious cause for concern for the world. Indeed, the Western virtues which Jennings claims to hold dear are in significant retreat, not due to the actions of the Left, but of the Right–Imperialism is Born Again in the contemporary White House, with the Right and Jennings both asserting their divine mandate to stamp their culture on anyone, anywhere, by force of arms. And not just to do so but also to deny any culpability or responsibility in the doing; it is striking that the USA, the self-proclaimed “global policeman,” wishes to claim special protection from war crimes. This appears to be partly born out of blind patriotic belief that “Americans would not do that sort of thing,” and the frankly insulting assertion that the only people who might level charges of war criminality would do so mischievously–because of course, “Americans wouldn’t do that sort of thing.” It is frankly difficult to accept this sort of hypocrisy from the only state with a proven record for the use of nuclear weapons to burn whole cities and their populations to ash.
Back At Ya
It seems to me, then, that Jennings should do some inspecting of his own eye for the proverbial speck. In my opinion, Jennings advocates blind faith in the goodness of the West and all its works, and that any normal and decent expression of sovereignty or democracy which clashes with American Imperial pretensions is inherently “anti-Western” and illegitimate. His criticism of the “cultural left” is little more than old-fashioned apologetics for the racism and sexism which were firmly discredited in the 60s. The ultimate irony is that he criticises the ostentatiously secular Left for pandering to theism, while the Right conflates patriotism and theism on a daily basis in America and is institutionally committed to a tradition which tries to observe “one nation under god.” Jennings does not know whether he is Arthur or Martha; he would appear to defend theism in the state on the basis that it cannot be bad if it is a western state, and alleges that an attack on it is “anti-Western.”
I am proud to be a member of the left and to stand opposed to Jennings’ petty bigotry and ostentatious Imperialism. What those of us who were paying attention in the West learned over its recent history is that Jennings’ brand of Manifest Destiny is morally repugnant, counterproductive in that it discredits those virtues the west does have under the weight of hypocrisy, and panders to religious fundamentalism out of political opportunism and the historical conservative alliance between church and state. Jennings thesis is fundamentally anti-intellectual; he denounces the corruption of Academia because it does not, in essence, share his prejudices. Thus he finds the campus debates as sterile shouting matches, starting as he does from an outright prima facie rejection of all perspectives other than those that support Western self-aggrandisement. I feel that he might discover more of value in wondering why the West does not have the reputation that his mythology expects, and in dealing with the reality rather than falling back on blind adherence to “heritage.” Mr Jennings undermines the very rationality and empiricism he claims to defend.