Norm and Shuggy have already had their say about tworecent Guardian pieces (one in the paper and one on the new "Comment is Free" site) by Martin "Asian values" Jacques. The following passage nicely sums up Jacques' pessismism about the prospects for democracy in the non-Western world:
The idea that western-style democracy is universally applicable in the world today is mistaken: it is a product of a desire to impose our system on cultures which are quite different and which require an indigenous form of democratic process that will often be very protracted and certainly very distinct from our own.
Amartya Sen, in a splendid piece in the Wall Street Journal, dismantles this sort of thinking. He makes three main points. First, that talk of the undesirability of "imposing" democracy on non-Western cultures "implies a proprietary belief that democracy 'belongs' to the West, taking it to be a quintessentially 'Western' idea which has originated and flourished exclusively in the West."
There are two further points, one conceptual, the other historical. The conceptual point is that there's more to democracy than democratic elections. Sen resurrects Mill's definition of democracy as "government by discussion", which he takes to entail not just voting, but also the "the development of broad public reasoning and an independent civil society". (Incidentally, Sen registers some justified concerns about the concentration on polling at the expense of the development of civil society in the post-war reconstruction of Iraq.)
The historical point follows from this and it's that traditions of "public reasoning" can be found nearly everywhere in the world and that consequently "modern democracy can build on the dialogic part of the common human inheritance."
A view like Jacques' denies that "common human inheritance".
Jonathan Rée writes about Daniel Dennett in the current issue of New Humanist:
[T]hose of us who do not believe in any religion would do well to avoid taking our atheism to puritanical extremes: we need to remind ourselves that most of what we prize in human culture has been handed down to us by religious believers, and that we may never succeed in filleting out all the bits that are not to our naturalistic taste.
Our problem is not just about the continuing validity of religious works of art, music and literature, or the vast tracts of the natural sciences that were built on theistic assumptions about the regularity and uniformity of God’s creation and the absolute universality of its laws. There are also everyday practical issues where the only guidance we are likely to find comes from notions that have more than a whiff of religiosity about them – issues not so much of accuracy as of grace, or of what you might call moral poetry as opposed to moral accountancy.
For example we may find ourselves pondering the ethics of mourning – how long should we dwell on the death of someone we loved, and how much ought we to want to be unhappy? Or the ethics of reverence: ought we to curb an impulse to piss on gravestones, or shout in churches, or violate a corpse, even if we can sure that no one will be harmed in any way?
[S]ince I'm irritated, I'll point out that in fact some of the things I've been talking about have still been left unaddressed and unmentioned by Norm's definitive posts, and that I've mentioned them again, and that this last most definitive post still didn't mention them. So I'm not so sure things have been settled pretty definitively. Not the things I was talking about anyway...crooning and mumbling away to myself while I went wandering blamelessly and innocently around all these tiresome houses. The main thing that still hasn't been addressed, that seems to be an elephant in the living room, is the fact that Irving lied and falsified the evidence.
I hesitate to speak on Norm's behalf, but as far as I can tell he did acknowledge the point about "falsifying the evidence" - and he certainly does here in his very latest post on the subject:
Ophelia also stands by her view that Holocaust denial shouldn't be a criminal offence - from which the inference is surely unavoidable that this is a liberty right that she not merely notes as a legal fact but also endorses. Yet she resists the conclusion that Holocaust denial, falsifying the evidence [my emphasis, JD] and so on, is then covered - as she appeared originally to deny, or at least to question - as protected free speech (this, of course, provided it does not breach laws against incitement).
Perhaps Ophelia might explain what the salient difference is between denying that the Holocaust took place, which is what Norm has been talking about in all his posts, and "falsifying the evidence" about it?
No publisher has an obligation to publish Irving or anyone else; they have no duty to propagate Holocaust denial. So Irving has no claim rights against any publisher. All the same, where Holocaust denial is not illegal, he has a liberty right to put his work about if he has a publisher that will publish it. ... But to disapprove of something, think it wrong, decline actively to protect it is perfectly compatible with still holding it to be a right.
The best sense I can make of Ophelia's position, which she has reiterated in a further reply to Norm, is that she thinks that Irving deserves all the moral opprobrium, short of legal sanction (which she says she disapproves of), that comes his way (I happen to agree with that). But that doesn't touch Norm's point, as he makes clear here. Which is why it seems odd to me that Ophelia should have chosen to go round the houses again - especially as the clearest bit of the new post just restates Norm's view for him (when she says "there are lots of things that are morally bad that nevertheless should not be agin the law").
Ophelia says she agrees with Norm on the "substance" - by which I assume she means something like the following, vividly expressed by Thomas Nagel:
Willingness to permit the expression of bigotry and stupidity, and to denounce or ignore it without censoring it, is the only appropriate expression of the enlightened conviction that the proper ground of belief is reason and evidence rather than dogmatic acceptance.
Dissent magazine has overhauled its website, and it's well worth a visit. And in case you didn't know:
In the early 1950s, a small group of independent-minded radicals launched a quarterly magazine called Dissent. They were dissenting from the McCarthyite mood in America. They were dissenting from the conformism of American intellectuals. And they were dissenting from the admiration for communist totalitarianism that was widespread on the left. In the words of Irving Howe, who edited the magazine until his death in 1993, they "wanted to speak for the spirit of democratic utopianism that runs like a bright thread through America's intellectual life."
"Dissent," says the philosopher Richard Rorty, "is the most useful political magazine on the U.S. left." Recent issues have featured the work of Shlomo Avineri, Seyla Benhabib, Paul Berman, Sheri Berman, David Bromwich, Todd Gitlin, Michael Ignatieff, Michael Kazin, Lucy Komisar, Gordon Lafer, Kanan Makiya, George Packer, Samantha Power, Jim Sleeper, Michael Tomasky, and Ellen Willis.
Ophelia Benson has just noticed that some time ago, in response to this post of hers, I suggested it was just ahistorical to deny that liberal conceptions of equality have Christian antecedents. Having digested my remarks, she now says this:
I don't deny, in the passage [from Locke's Second Treatise] Jonathan quotes, that the Christian 'view that all have equal worth before God, and the idea of democracy and equality' were around; what I deny is that it's possible to know that that particular source was an inescapable source. Maybe it was. Maybe every single person born after Locke's Second Treatise was steeped in it and had no other source for the idea of equality - but I don't quite see how anyone could be sure of that.
I made a straightforward point: that the concept of equality in one of the key -if not the key- texts of liberal political theory is grounded theologically (and, incidentally, the Second Treatise is not, as Ophelia goes on to say, just "one book by one philosopher", among many others). I did not say that there was "no other source for the idea of equality". That, too, would be implausible - but I didn't argue that.
It is somewhat mysterious to me why Ophelia should want to expend so much energy trying to deny what simply is the case. Moreover, just because the idea of equality has Christian antecedents, that doesn't mean that now there isn't a perfectly satisfactory secular use of it. The same is true of lots of moral and political concepts, which have been thoroughly secularised.
I don't know what got inside me that I wanted to write this book. I suppose I was trying to work out something about Jews, because if I could get that figured out, I might understand something about myself, about why I behave this way and not that ... and to be honest, because I like stories and the Jewish story seemed to me, and still does, the story to beat them all.