Liberals, Cannibals and Christians

22 September 2005

Liberals, Cannibals and Christians
Georgetown University

1. The unknown “telos” 

In this presentation I will discuss the crisis of Europe, not from the political, economic or social angle, but from the moral and spiritual point of view. Although much of what I have to say refers to the West as a whole, I will concentrate on my Old Continent. I leave open the question of whether the situation is different in the New Continent, as I hope it is, or whether it is more or less the same, as in my more pessimistic moments I am inclined to believe. Of course, I would be happy if, at the end of my presentation, you could cheer me up.

I know of no better way of examining the crisis I refer to than by moving from the Preamble of the European Constitutional Treaty.
In a constitution the preamble has a specific function. While the individual articles, as well as establishing the rules governing the institutions, also contain the principles and values from which the constitution draws its inspiration, that is, the ethos which unites citizens into a single people, the preamble adds the common spirit, that is to say the telos which gives people their self-image, self-awareness, and mission. By specifying the telos, a community is incorporated into a culture and a civilization. And by indicating a civilization one also indicates the distinguishing mark, the imprint, of a people.
From this standpoint, the European Constitution is no exception. It is no coincidence that it begins by stating that “Europe intends to continue along the path of civilization”. The exceptions lie elsewhere. And there are two of them.
The first is – a unique case in the world – that the European Constitution has not one, but two, preambles, the general one and a preface to the second part of the Constitution, the part that could be called the European Bill of Rights.
The second, and more telling exception is that, in both preambles, the definition of the European telos is, to say the least, ambiguous and, to say the truth, somewhat disrespectful of the history of the European peoples.
The preamble to part two states that “the peoples of Europe … [are] conscious of its spiritual and moral heritage”. This expression is clearly disconcerting in its aridity. What heritage exactly? Moreover, the expression is tautological. To say that we Europeans are the offspring of our spiritual and moral heritage is as enlightening as saying the we are each our parents’ children.
The general preamble, approved after lengthy and sometimes bitter discussions, takes a few steps forward. It refers to the “cultural, religious and humanist heritage of Europe”. But, as it is quite clear, not even this formula is particularly enlightening or committing. Of course, “religious heritage” is slightly more precise than “spiritual heritage”. But again, what religion or religions? Here too, no precise indication is given.
Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, wrote: “Europe, in the very hour of its greatest success, seems to have been emptied from within, as if paralyzed by a circulatory crisis that jeopardizes its life by entrusting it to transplants that erase its identity”. And again, “there is a growing impression that Europe’s value system, its culture and faith, on which its identity is based, has run its course and has indeed already left the arena”.
The Pope is right. And the case of the Constitutional Treaty preambles is proof. Not only does Europe appear no longer to believe in the validity of its ethos, but it also shows alarming signs of no longer finding agreement on its telos. As it continues to grow politically and economically, and becomes increasingly prosperous and enlarges to include countries that until yesterday were separated by the ‘iron curtain’, it grows morally weaker. Why? Where does this crisis come from?

2. Multiculturalism, tolerance, terrorism

Before trying to answer this question, I would like to mention two other cases that I consider evidence of the cultural crisis of Europe: the way it is addressing the problem of immigration and the way it has reacted to Islamic terrorism.
Regarding immigration, Europe has given two responses.
The first is multiculturalism. Before being a policy, multiculturalism is a public philosophy doctrine. According to it, it is the communities that shape individuals and give them their identity. If individuals are removed from the community to which they belong, they lose their bearings, become rootless and anonymous. Individual communities must therefore be protected, and not incorporated into a broader society as this would mean subjecting their members to violence. What the multiculturalists have in mind is a sort of “rainbow societies”, in which each community coexists with all the others, without interference.
From the doctrinal point of view, multiculturalism is, to my mind, a mistake as it fails to take into account the fact that communities are not static and immutable entities. They change, some growing stronger, others weaker, others again disappear. Let us assume that the individuals of community A decide, after objective scrutiny of its advantages, to adopt the life-style of community B. If the right to the survival and protection of communities were to prevail over the right to the welfare of individuals, we should prevent them from doing so, thereby forcing them to lead a worse life. But if this is not what we want, then the right of communities should not supersede the independence of the individual; therefore, multiculturalism does not hold.
In my view, multiculturalism is also wrong from a political point of view. As the case of Europe cleraly shows, multiculturalist integration policies, at best, produce communities that ignore each other, and at worst, that clash. The unintended result of such policies is the creation of ghettos in our cities and the emergence of ethnic tensions among communities. After the assassinations of Fortuyn and van Gogh, and after the London bomb attacks, the Netherlands, and also the UK, are backtracking with respect to the multiculturalist model, and after the fires that broke out in Banlieue of Paris, it appears that France is no better off.
The second European response to immigration problems is that of tolerance. To assimilate those coming from other cultures or civilizations, it is said, it is necessary to tolerate them and allow them to enjoy our democratic advantages to the full. This is certainly a better response than the previous one, as it is based on the concept of the equality of all regardless of the community they belong to, as well as on the primacy of the individuals over the communities they may be part of. But this is still not a fully satisfactory response.
Tolerance is a great lesson learned by Europe at its own expense after long and bloody wars of religion. And tolerance is surely a virtue. However, as it is practiced today, tolerance is a passive virtue, that is hard to distinguish from indifference or condescension. “To tolerate” is often understood to mean “to put up with”, which does not necessarily lead to equality. You put up with someone you do not love, you put up with someone you consider different, and you also put up with someone you consider inferior. A policy based on this kind of tolerance is doomed to produce individuals that do not communicate among themselves, who do not perceive themselves as full citizens, and therefore do not feel part of the same society.
What, in my view, is needed in addition is respect, which, unlike tolerance, is an active virtue. Those who respect others consider them to be on the same level. This implies that they are willing to acknowledge the others and to learn from them. Moreover, respect is a symmetrical virtue, it entails reciprocity. If I respect the other, I expect him to show the same respect for me. Lastly, respect is a reflexive virtue: if I respect the other, I must respect myself. We cannot demand respect, nor will anyone respect us, unless we start by respecting ourselves. Respect begins at home. Therefore a policy of integration based on respect, unlike the one based on mere tolerance, does not require us to conceal our values. Quite the contrary. It requires us to believe in their validity without being dogmatic, of preaching them without being arrogant, of practicing them without being exclusivist. From this point of view, integrating individuals from a minority means turning them into citizens of our society through the means made available by our education, our language, a knowledge of our history, the sharing of our principles and values. This kind of policy does not mean doing violence to the others, as many of our intellectuals maintain: quite the contrary, it means preparing a common ground – that is, an ethos as well as a telos – in which both we and the others can live together and interact.
This brings me back to the point. Europe today seems to have trouble finding its common ground. Some times it conceals it. Some other times it is afraid of it. The example of terrorism is emblematic.Islamic terrorists have declared a “holy war” – jihad -on America and the West as a whole. Their aim is, on the one hand, to overthrow those Islamic and Arab regimes that want to keep good relations with the West and, on the other, after completing this operation, to strike directly at the heart of the West, surrounding it and choking it, that is, to fight “Jews and crusaders”, as they call us. Notice this language: from their point of view, we are guilty not because we do something, but because we are somebody.
Are they delirious? Europe should be the first to know that delirium is a category that does not pay: Hitler, too, in his Mein Kampf, was delirious and in spite of this, Europe in 1938 at Munich tried to appease him in the name of peace. But this led to the Nazi occupation of Europe and World War II. Bin Laden is certainly very different from Hitler, but there is no reason to believe he is less consequential than Hitler. Especially after the deaths in New York, Madrid, London and many other places, his frenzy ought to be taken seriously. Although there are different opinions on the matter, I personally consider it a mistake for Europe to see itself as a “counterweight” or “counter-power” to America and not be engaged in Iraq. I consider it a more serious mistake to have continued to avoid any engagement when, after the war ended, the United Nations Security Council itself – which for Europe has become a kind of judgment of God – decided to back the international military presence. But I consider the response of European intellectual elites to Islamic terrorism an even more serious mistake.
The typical reaction of a large section of European culture has been justificatory. Terrorism is depicted as a phenomenon not of aggression but of reaction. In particular, as a violent response provoked by a historical resentment of the Islamic masses to the injustice caused by the West. Many intellectuals argue as follows: if there is smoke, there is fire. Therefore, if there is terrorism it must have an external cause. And the external cause of Islamic terrorism cannot but lie precisely in our civilization, in our telos, which, albeit sounding majestic, splendid, prestigious to our ears, actually boils down to mere globalisation and aggression carried forward in the name of our economic interests and our willingness to impose them. As a consequence, tolerance, equality, democracy, human rights, coexistence, free market, and our whole language of values is merely hypocritical jargon used to cover up Coca Cola, Big Mac, rock music and Hollywood movies.
That is why, sometimes, in Europe, Islamic terrorists are termed “resistance fighters” – they are supposed to be resisting the imperialism innate in our civilization. And that is why two distinguished European intellectuals – J. Habermas and J. Derrida – declared the 15th of February 2003, when the streets of Europe were packed with pacifists, the day on which European public opinion was born. What a strange destiny, indeed: that very public opinion that was supposed to celebrate its telos with the European Constitution was instead burying Europe by striking the banner of European telos and raising the rainbow flag. It is no wonder that, called upon to its own responsibilities of a geopolitical power, Europe split over the war on Iraq and was late in perceiving the risks of Islamic fanaticism.
Let me point out that my claim here is not that the war on Iraq was the only proper thing to do. Nor do I believe that Europe prefers to play Venus while America inhabits Mars, or that Europe must always side with America or that European interests always coincide with those of America. This is obviously not true, although I believe it is a mistake to consider Europe and America as entities that belong to different cultures. The issue I raise runs much deeper than any difference or divergence over international policy or the use of force or the role of the United Nations. This issue concerns our identity and our will to defend it with all peaceful means, while this is possible, and with force if necessary, but first and foremost in full awareness that it is a great civilization and that its progress, in spite of the many faults and mistakes, is based on its own intellectual, cultural, political, moral principles, and not just on massacres, violence, aggression, as is claimed by those who fall into the propaganda trap set by Islamic fundamentalists.
This brings me back to the question of what has caused this weakening of European identity?

3. Relativism 

In my view, this cause has a well-known name: cultural relativism.
Relativism is the idea that traditions, cultures and civilizations are closed autonomous systems, each with its own criteria of value and its own validation procedures. It is the related idea that these closed systems may be incompatible and are not comparable, that is, no common scale exists on which to rank them all in terms of their greater or lesser validity, correctness, desirability, and so on. Ultimately, it is the idea that these systems all have the same ethical dignity and are therefore all equal. All of them: the fundamentalists and the democrats, the fanatics and the liberals, the violent and the humane.
Look at our “politically correct language”. At first, it sounds polite and respectful, but it is actually the language of relativism, a symptom of the disease. And it is a paradoxical language.
We in Europe and the West are able to express many different opinions and establish many hierarchies. For example, we can say that Chianti is better than Coca Cola, that an ossobuco is better than a hamburger, that a dinner jacket is better than a T-shirt. But if we go on to express judgments concerning cultures, institutions and life styles, things change. Judgments of taste are free, value-judgments are doubtful, suspect, and in the end forbidden.
Can it be said today in Europe that, for instance, liberal democracy is “better” than Islamic theocracy, that the autonomy of civil society is “better” than the Sharia, that the decision made by an independent tribunal is “better” than a fatwa? No, it cannot, it is not polite, it has no conceptual foundation, it has no cross-cultural validity. And thus all those fine words of ours – written into our constitutions and international charters – on the universal rights of freedom, equality, democracy, etc., become timid and awkward, and may even stick in our throat. Pronouncing them in public is looked upon as cultural ethnocentrism and political imperialism. This is what many European intellectuals think, and not only European (Richard Rorty, in America, for instance, is of the same opinion).
If this is mainstream thinking in Europe there is no wonder that the telos of the Europeans failed to be born despite the Cesarean delivery that produced the Constitutional Treaty, which, by the way, is now in intensive care. 

4. Liberals, cannibals, Christians

As I near my conclusion, the time has finally come for me to explain the strange title I have given to my address.
The late Martin Hollis, the sociologist, one day coined the aphorism “liberalism is for the liberals, cannibalism is for the cannibals”, from which S. Lukes took the title for his successful book. This aphorism is the wittiest summary of relativism that I know of. And it aptly expresses what I am opposed to. I do not believe at all, as a European philosopher claims, that “liberal regimes are only one kind of legitimate polity, and liberal practice has no special or universal authority” (J. Gray). Nor do I believe, as Samuel Huntington wrote, that “Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous”. Indeed I believe that our freedoms may be promoted even outside our own home and – to pursue Hollis’ metaphor further – that it would be desirable to also convert any remaining cannibals to our principles.
But where do the Christians of my title come into it? Personally, I am not a believer, at least not in the technical – I do not know how authentic – sense of “believer”. Even though I admire the great liberal thinkers like Locke, Hume, Kant, Mill, Popper, and many others, I am equally appreciative of the tradition of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, who assigned to politics the task of constructing a society that is not only free but also good.
I acknowledge, for example, that the classic liberal separation of religion from politics is an irreversible conquest of our civilization. However I think I have lived long enough to know that the dividing line between the two is not established once and for all but must be constantly redefined. Likewise, I believe that the traditional and invaluable distinction between “public sphere” and “private sphere” cannot and must not be considered an impenetrable barrier.
Just take the case of religious values. If they were restricted to the private sphere alone, to what Cardinal Ratzinger called the “ghetto of subjectivity”, it would be a loss also for politics. How could a democratic law-maker act in the case of delicate bioethics issues, for instance, except by introducing into his “public sphere” convictions, opinions, beliefs, also of a religious nature, that the majority of citizens cultivate in their “private sphere”? In other words, how could he make shared decisions unless they were referred to the ethos and telos of his own people?
When we are talking about Europe it seems quite clear to me what this ethos and this telos are. This is where Christianity comes into the picture. We, whether believers or not, belong to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Our baptismal acts were imprinted on three hills – the Sinai, Golgotha, the Acropolis. Our civilization is founded on three capitals – Athens, Jerusalem, Rome. There we learned the values of the dignity of the person, fraternity, equality, compassion, respect and many others.
It is true that today, as yesterday and tomorrow, we are a mixture, a mingling of many cultures. History drives peoples along, it does not freeze them. But when we want to know our identity, understand our ethos and telos, gain insight into why we are what we are, we always have to go back to those hills and those capitals. Europe today finds it difficult to follow this path. My view is that we must do so if we are to avoid splitting up into the tribes of the Liberals and the Christians, while the cannibals get rid of both.

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