A group of British leftist intellectuals have come up with a document called The Euston Manifesto, a statement of principles for what they’re calling a “fresh political alignment.”
Now, when I hear the term “democratic progressive alliance” I normally cringe, but the Euston Manifesto is a liberal document, but one deeply rooted in the classical liberal tradition. What makes this manifesto so different is that it categorically rejects the doctrine of cultural relativism:
We decline to make excuses for, to indulgently “understand”, reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy â€” regimes that oppress their own peoples and movements that aspire to do so. We draw a firm line between ourselves and those left-liberal voices today quick to offer an apologetic explanation for such political forces…
We hold the fundamental human rights codified in the Universal Declaration to be precisely universal, and binding on all states and political movements, indeed on everyone. Violations of these rights are equally to be condemned whoever is responsible for them and regardless of cultural context. We reject the double standards with which much self-proclaimed progressive opinion now operates, finding lesser (though all too real) violations of human rights which are closer to home, or are the responsibility of certain disfavoured governments, more deplorable than other violations that are flagrantly worse. We reject, also, the cultural relativist view according to which these basic human rights are not appropriate for certain nations or peoples.
Cultural relativism has always been a doctrine which is at odds with universal human rights. One can’t argue that women deserve the right to vote in America, but not in the Middle East just because one set of women happened to be born in a different set of circumstances. Human rights are an absolutely critical first principle towards any kind of coherent sense of social justice. The argument that those born in other cultures either cannot grasp or somehow are less deserving of the same rights we enjoy has always struck me as a deeply odious argument.
The Manifesto also explicitly condemns the anti-American and anti-Semitic sentiments that have found a home within the left, most notably with avowedly Stalinist organizations like International ANSWER:
We reject without qualification the anti-Americanism now infecting so much left-liberal (and some conservative) thinking. This is not a case of seeing the US as a model society. We are aware of its problems and failings. But these are shared in some degree with all of the developed world. The United States of America is a great country and nation. It is the home of a strong democracy with a noble tradition behind it and lasting constitutional and social achievements to its name. Its peoples have produced a vibrant culture that is the pleasure, the source-book and the envy of millions. That US foreign policy has often opposed progressive movements and governments and supported regressive and authoritarian ones does not justify generalized prejudice against either the country or its people.
This statement is a direct attack against the left as represented by International ANSWER, Noam Chomsky, and others who have blamed the events of September 11, 2001 on a litany of American sins, real or imagined. The meaning was clear: at some level we deserved to be attacked. It was as Ward Churchill called it “chickens coming home to roost.” The Euston Manifesto explicitly rejects such logic and sees the case of terrorism for what it is: a direct assault on our shared values. Places like Bali, Jakarta, and Amman that have no connection to the war on terrorism have been attacked by terrorists associated with al-Qaeda. As easy as it is to dismiss the idea that “terrorists hate our freedom” the reality of the situation is that it is largely true.
The fact is that our shared culture is under attack. It is beyond question that radical Islam seeks to subjugate the entire world under a strict interpretation of shar’ia law. It’s easy for us to argue that the threat isn’t real, but the reality of the situation is that these agents of radicalism have already won. They silenced the voice of Theo Van Gogh in an act of brutality. In liberal Holland Ayan Hirsi Ali is forced to live like a criminal for the crime of speaking out against the treatment of women by Muslim men. American newspapers will uphold freedom of speech, except when it comes to republishing the images of Mohammed first published in the Jyllands-Posten. Comedy Central, which had no problems with a defecating Christ, wouldn’t dare show Mohammed on South Park despite the fact that years before they had done exactly that. The message that these actions send is that our values of cultural dialogue and freedom of speech end once we’re threatened with violence. Is it any wonder that the forces of radical Islam continue to use violence and intimidation as their primary tool?
The Manifesto also strikes the right tone when it comes to the situation in Iraq:
The founding supporters of this statement took different views on the military intervention in Iraq, both for and against. We recognize that it was possible reasonably to disagree about the justification for the intervention, the manner in which it was carried through, the planning (or lack of it) for the aftermath, and the prospects for the successful implementation of democratic change. We are, however, united in our view about the reactionary, semi-fascist and murderous character of the Baathist regime in Iraq, and we recognize its overthrow as a liberation of the Iraqi people. We are also united in the view that, since the day on which this occurred, the proper concern of genuine liberals and members of the Left should have been the battle to put in place in Iraq a democratic political order and to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, to create after decades of the most brutal oppression a life for Iraqis which those living in democratic countries take for granted â€” rather than picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention.
This opposes us not only to those on the Left who have actively spoken in support of the gangs of jihadist and Baathist thugs of the Iraqi so-called resistance, but also to others who manage to find a way of situating themselves between such forces and those trying to bring a new democratic life to the country. We have no truck, either, with the tendency to pay lip service to these ends, while devoting most of one’s energy to criticism of political opponents at home (supposedly responsible for every difficulty in Iraq), and observing a tactful silence or near silence about the ugly forces of the Iraqi “insurgency”. The many left opponents of regime change in Iraq who have been unable to understand the considerations that led others on the Left to support it, dishing out anathema and excommunication, more lately demanding apology or repentance, betray the democratic values they profess.
This is the position that is most consistent with our shared values. It is possible to argue that the war in Iraq was the wrong war at the wrong time, executed poorly, etc., but that doesn’t at all mean that the world community should not do everything in their power to ensure that Iraq does not fall into anarchy. It seems that the vast majority of energy spent on Iraq is spend debating the issues of three years ago. We have an obligation in the here and now to ensure that the Iraqi people have the rights of self-defense, self-determination, and are not condemned to live in a failed state. If the US and its coalition allies pulled out tomorrow, does anyone really think that the situation in Iraq would get better? What would be the true human cost of such an action? What would be the effect to the region and to the world.
The framers of the Euston Manifesto deserve much credit for focusing not on what they oppose, but the bedrock principles they support. That certainly doesn’t mean that one must act in lockstep with the Bush Administration, but at the same time they are right in pointing out the lack of condemnation of terrorism in Iraq coming from the left. When a suicide bomber blows up a group of Iraqi children, how is that an act consistent with liberal values? How is that an act which supports the people of Iraq? If just half the energy spent on excoriating the actions of three years ago were spent on making the lives of the Iraqi people better, real progress could be made. Is not the concept of social justice a hallmark of liberal political thought? If so, then there is no greater cause for social justice in this world right now than the fight for a democratic, pluralist, and tolerant society in Iraq.
American liberals and American conservatives differ on many things, tax policy, the war in Iraq, social issues, etc. However, if we cannot stand together in common cause against a radical agenda that professes enmity against our most fundamental values, then we cannot survive as a nation. As Abraham Lincoln said, a house divided cannot stand. The Euston Manifesto gives some important first principles for rational discourse in defense of our common values. The question is raises is how many on the left will follow suit?