October 18, 2006

NeoCons defence strategy- Attack: A Neo-Conservative Diagnosis of the ills of Liberalism.

So Douglas Murray, seconded by his reviewer in the Weekly Standard Peter Berkowitz, has decided the time has come to defend neo-conservatism by attacking any other option to for governing the country. Berkowitz's elaboration of Murray presents neo conservatism as a medium via- on the one hand conservatism offers a shaky confidence in Western norms, on the other hand liberalism is contaminated by a relativism and distrust of America resulting from a failure to understand the weaknesses of democracy as well as its strength.

I consider this thesis, that Liberalism is drowning in a sea of relativism and needs help from the likes of Murray to stay afloat, to be flawed. Liberalism is not drowning in a sea of relativism at all. Moral vitality is not lacking in liberal thought. For example Ronald Dworkin today explained on Radio 4 a liberalism based upon principles of individual autonomy and self realisation. Both of those principles stand central to the thinking of many less sophisticated liberal thinkers than Dworkin. So Murray's attacks on liberalism fail- but they fail for an interesting reason. They fail because Murray like many conservatives, like indeed Islamic fundamentalists themselves sees the principle of individual autonomy- that I have the right to live in the way I choose to fulfill my own objectives- as an abandonment of morality rather than as an affirmation of it.

Neo Conservatism was primarily a movement about foreign policy. One of the classic statements of British foreign policy, from a statesman deep in the conservative and even neo-conservative tradition, was William Pitt's speech at the Guildhall in 1805. Pitt, offered the garland of being the man who saved the world from Napoleonic despotism, replied,

I return you many thanks for the honour you have done me; but Europe is not to be saved by any single man. England has saved herself by her exertions, and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example.

Pitt's statement is fascinating to this viewer because it seems that Murray has forgot one half of the statement- he is ready to save the Middle East by the exertions of US troops but not by the example of US statecraft. It is to that second exemplifying character that many liberals turn- the criticism of Michael Moore and others is that the United States does not live up to its ideals- that foreswearing wars of choice, it began a war of choice against Iraq. That is the issue that Murray will not live with or understand and it is that problem that undermines Bush's foreign policy and is the lifeblood of the liberal critique of it (not to say that there aren't problems with the liberal alternative).

Murray's failure to understand liberalism undermines his claims about neo-conservatism: he and Berkowitz posit that neo conservatism is good because it succeeds in doing what liberalism and conservatism fail to do. I have only dealt with liberalism but we have seen that liberalism is not what they say it is, consequently their offered neo-conservatism is not the cure of West's problems because the illness is not what Murray and Berkowitz have diagnosed.


edmund said...

where's hte evidence murray denies the right of pepole to live in ways he personally disapproves of? Rather it's the moral vacutiy of many so called liberals that he is criticinsg-and the failute to be willing to defend liberal values from islamists

Gracchi said...

No but in what does that moral vacuity consist of. That moral vacuity consists of not having a moral line but what Murray doesn't realise is that a moral line that says that individuals have a duty to make their own minds up is a moral line. That is the problem- the failure to defend the values of liberalism from Islamic fundamentalists is something that isn't happening just look at Christopher Hitchens. People like Noam Chomsky would argue that they are holding up the West to its own standards and defending morality that way.

edmund said...

I think murray's point would be a large % of the elite aren't willing to fight for it, hence the lack of concern over the creeping islmaist censorhsp in this coutnry eg over the Danish cartoons affair

The idea that all morality can be held int he right of people to have their own morality is an obvious absurdity, but the belief in the right of conscence is one that he does affirm.

Gracchi said...

Just because some liberals have been stupid doesn't imply that all liberalism faces a moral vacuum

What Dworking and Murray are both talking about is a moral line from government. And no therefore it is not pathetic to advocate individual autonomy and a respect for that as a line that government ought to take- remember J.S.Mill if you want your reasons why it isn't pathetic. The point that Murray is making is that something and somehow we have to go beyond that- government must be morally tough in a way that liberalism isn't- I fail to see the evidence for the truth of that as a governing philosophy. Advanced as a solution to the problems of modern liberalism it fails in my view because it doesn't pin point any difficulties within modern liberalism.

(I should point out that it is the Murray of this book review I am concerned about- I haven't read his book so don't know if he does make other points)