Thursday, January 25, 2007

Michael Gove's New Culture Forum speech in The Spectator

In The Spectator this week, an edited extract from Michael Gove’s talk ‘Are we seeing the emergence of a new anti-Islamist intelligentsia?’ given to the New Culture Forum last monday.

The new anti-Islamist intelligentsia
Michael Gove

The durability of Conservatism has depended, to a great extent, on it being a disposition rather than a philosophy. What marks Conservatives out, across the generations, and whatever the environment they operate in, is an attitude of mind rather than an adherence to dogma. And that disposition — sceptical, cautious, pragmatic, sensitive to the local and the particular — has been politically successful because it has been in tune with human nature.

But Conservatism, as a disposition, has its limitations. British Conservatism in particular, even though it has been one of the most electorally successful varieties ever, has its own particular flaws. British, particularly English, conservatives tend to
be especially suspicious of intellectuals. Only in the British Conservative party could the nickname ‘Two-Brains’ be construed, however affectionately, as a put-down. And British Conservatives have, with honourable exceptions, tended to a particularly pessimistic view of human nature and the potential for progress. From Lord Salisbury to Iain Gilmour and even Chris Patten, the sense that the barbarians were at the gate has imbued thoughtful Tories with a gloomy view of
the future.

Both those Conservative characteristics, distrust of intellectualism and spiritual pessimism, may have led many Conservatives to miss one of the most significant trends of the past five years — the emergence of a new intellectual movement which gives grounds for optimism in one of the most difficult battles of our times.

Scarcely noticed by most on the Right, a new coalition of thinkers has been emerging from within the Left deliberately to challenge the Left’s greatest contemporary failure. It is perhaps understandable why many on the left might wish to belittle, or
drive to the margins, this new movement. But for those of us who are not tribally tied to the Left, this new turn in intellectual thinking deserves to be welcomed.

A distinguished array of thinkers and writers who have grown up attached to left-wing principles of equality, secularism, respect for universal human rights, opposition to religious obscurantism and support for liberal democracy have been finding their
voices in the last five years. Since the atrocities of 9/11 have focused the world’s attention on the murderous tactics and mediaeval ideology of Islamist terrorists, a number of figures on the left have felt moved to denounce what they see as the, at best, equivocal and, at worst, morally complicit treatment of extremism by many of their former comrades.

This week sees the publication of one of the most powerful denunciations of the manner in which the Left has lost its way. Nick Cohen’s What’s Left? scrupulously anatomises the way in which anti-Americanism, and the doctrine that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, has driven people whose political inspiration was a belief in progress to make excuses for forces that are trying to use murder to propel us back into the Dark Ages. As he argues,

Why is it that apologies for a militant Islam which stands for everything the liberal Left is against come from the liberal Left? After the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington why were you as likely to read that a sinister conspiracy of Jews controlled American or British foreign policy in a superior literary journal as in a neo-Nazi hate sheet? And why after the 7/7 attacks on London did leftish rather than right-wing newspapers run pieces excusing suicide bombers who were inspired by a psychopathic theology from the ultra-Right?

Cohen’s is a brave voice, but not a lone one. In the upper reaches of the British press, Cohen’s outlook is shared, to a significant extent, by writers such as David Aaronovitch and John Lloyd as well as everyone’s favourite drink-soaked Trotskyist popinjay, Christopher Hitchens. Few writers have been as fiercely effective as Hitchens in skewering the moral frailty of those who marched to keep a torturer in power:

In the past decade or so had this ‘anti-war’ rabble had its way, we would have seen Kuwait stay part of Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo cleansed and annexed by ‘Greater’ Serbia and the Taleban retaining control of Afghanistan. You might think that such a record would lead its adherents to be dismissed as a silly and sinister fringe but instead it is they who pose as the principled radicals and their opponents who are treated with unconcealed disdain in the universities and on the BBC.

The positions taken by Hitchens, Cohen and others in the press have, more
recently, been reinforced by the bravery of other writers who have risked
placing themselves outside literary London’s comfort zone by being brave enough
to reject the moral relativism of so many on the left. Ian McEwan, Martin Amis
and, of course, Salman Rushdie have all argued, in different ways, that
Islamism is a totalitarian ideology, like fascism and communism before it,
which seeks to deny human freedom. McEwan has denounced the way in which the
Left is ‘morally selective’ in its outrage, denouncing America with greater
fervour than it can ever muster for criticising the record of Saddam or the
Taleban. Amis has been typically fearless in attacking those ‘people of
liberal sympathies, stupefied by relativism, who have become the apologists
for a creedal wave that is racist, misogynist, homophobic, imperialist and

What marks all these writers out, apart from their courage and their literary stature, is their heritage as authors of the broad Left. They are figures of intellectual weight
whom the Left cannot plausibly paint as blinkered reactionaries, and whose
critique, therefore, demands to be taken seriously.

But will it be? There are signs that the intellectual challenge to left-liberal appeasement of Islamism is gathering growing support. The range of voices who have signed up to the muscularly liberal Euston Manifesto is one indication that the
Pilger/Chomsky/Guardian comment pages consensus is much less representative of
progressive opinion than it pretends. And, more recently, both Gordon Brown and
Ed Balls have called for an intellectual response to the challenge of Islamism
which stands comparison with the cultural resistance to communism developed by
Western intellectuals during the Cold War.

But victory in the Cold War depended not just on the voices of Western intellectuals, crucially it depended on Western governments giving support to those dissident voices which were struggling to be heard in the Eastern bloc. Where are the political leaders now who will defend liberal and progressive voices in the Islamic world in
the way in which Reagan and Thatcher championed the Sharanskys and
Sakharovs? The real heroes of the anti-Islamist intelligentsia are Arab
thinkers like Shaker al-Nabulsi who are challenging totalitarianism within
the Islamic world. If the West is really serious about winning hearts and
minds in this generational struggle, then it needs to show its support for
those who, in the least propitious circumstances, still have the bravery to
cry freedom.

from The Spectator, January 25th 2007


Anonymous said...

All this conservative has to say is "About Bloody Time!" Finally, lefties I can respect.

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