Robert Spencer as a neoconservative
(As I note further down in this discussion, I think I have overstated the idea of Spencer as a neoconservative, and therefore I now regret the title of this article. It would have been more accurate to say that Spencer is a type of right-liberal who frequently uses traditionalist-sounding rhetoric but invests it with liberal content. The problem, of course, is that neocons are also right-liberals who use traditionalist-sounding rhetoric but invest it with liberal content. Nevertheless, there are specific rhetorical and ideological markers of neocons that Spencer does not display, while from his own pen comes a ready stream of almost UN-ish sounding ideals and turns of phrase such as “equality of dignity of all people,” “secular values,” and so on. Also, as I noted in the article, Spencer is of course not a neocon in the sense of someone who promotes the use of American power to spread democracy. So, wherever in this article I call him a neocon, it might help to translate that into “right-liberal,” or “traditionalist-leaning liberal” or something of that sort.)
In connection with Ayaan Hirsi Ali and with Robert Spencer’s support for her, something I have always intuited about Spencer, but had never fully articulated or had clear evidence for, turns out to be correct. He is a neoconservative. Indeed he fits my definition of neoconservatism to a “t.” As I explained in my article, “Is the Pope a Neocon?”, neoconservatism is a combination of conservative form and liberal substance. It is conservative in that it claims to uphold a particular nation or civilization or an ideal of higher truth. It does not, as liberalism does, reduce the good to abstract individual rights and equality. But it is liberal in that it defines its vision of civilization or of higher truth in strictly liberal terms. In the following passage, for example, written yesterday at his website Jihad Watch, Spencer nobly defends a vision of our civilization, which makes him sound like a conservative. But this vision is actually liberal, having to do with such liberal shibboleths as “freedom of conscience,” the “equal dignity of all people,” and so on.
But Ayaan Hirsi Ali spoke today about “issues related to Islam—such as impediments to free speech; refusal of the separation of Church and State; widespread domestic violence; honor killings; the repudiation of wives; and Islam’s failure to condemn genital mutilation.” I still believe in the vision of human dignity that Judeo-Christian civilization gave the world strongly enough to believe that those things should be resisted. And I still believe that the heirs of that civilization, although they have largely cast it off, have a chance to recover it enough to fight back against the jihad, and to find that fighting back an occasion for a new flowering of that civilization.A person reveals himself most clearly when he speaks from the heart, and Spencer here speaks from the heart. He sees himself as a defender of a besieged Judeo-Christian civilization which he hopes to save and restore. These feelings and allegiances make him a conservative; certainly they make him one in his own eyes. But what does this civilization to which Spencer the conservative is devoted consist of? It consists of a “vision of human dignity,” of “principles of the equality of dignity of all people, the freedom of conscience, and the other principles that are derived ultimately from Judaism and Christianity.” These are all liberal principles, as Spencer himself makes clear when he says of them, not that they are Jewish and Christian, but that they are derived from Judaism and Christianity. Liberalism is, of course, the secularized offshoot of Christianity. And it is to this liberal ideal that Spencer has given his heart, even as he romantically models himself after an embattled medieval Christian leader who stood against the Muslim overlords of Spain.
Spencer’s neoconservatism/liberalism explains why he has often spoken, not in terms of defending the West from Islam, but of defending “secular values” from Islam. He has said that the criterion of whether Muslims could fit into the West was whether they would “accept the parameters of secularism.” He wrote that “multiculturalism and secularism are on a collision course,” an odd formulation, since multiculturalism is not opposed to secularism, but to Western culture and to the majority cultures of the respective Western nations. He even said that the key to social peace in “a secular society” is “freedom of speech—particularly the freedom to question, to dissent, even to ridicule.” Instead of describing America as One Nation under God, he describes it as a secular society. And of course, he warmly takes the part of Hirsi Ali, a secular liberal former Muslim who wants to shut down conservative and Christian opposition to the Islamization of Europe.
His neoconservatism also explains his response to me in November 2004 when I criticized him for defending secular values instead of Western culture. After he initially replied and I challenged him on his idiosyncratic definition of secularism, a concept he promoted as the essence of America while giving it a definition not found in any dictionary and never used before in American history (namely that the non-establishment clause meant that America was a “secularist” society), he replied dismissively, said that I was creating differences where there were none, and cut off the discussion. He saw no substantive issue between us, because he sees himself as a conservative. But his conservatism is the illusory conservatism known as neoconservatism, which presents itself and imagines itself as conservative, but is not.
And this neoconservatism is one of the greatest dangers of our age, because it allows untold thousands of self-described conservatives to think that they are engaged in a great battle against liberalism and other forces of darkness, when in fact they are themselves liberals. When push comes to shove, as in the confrontation with expansionist Islam, these pseudo-conservatives, instead of defending our concrete civilization and peoplehood from the Muslims, all too often defend abstract liberal values such as secularism, pluralism, and inclusion, which ultimately has the effect of giving the Muslims more power over us. But the neocons never understand that they are doing this. Their closed-circle mentality tells them that everything they are doing is conservative, even when it is liberal.
Your description of Robert Spencer as a neoconservative, as far as I can tell, is sadly apt. I wonder if we might say that his antipathy for jihad, and his willingness to see it as something intrinsic to Islam, is an unprincipled exception. He seems, on your showing, to argue from principles derived from J. S. Mill’s notion of the “open society,” where all expression is to be tolerated; and thus his criterion for judging jihad is not its wickedness (which wickedness he does not deny, but even wicked ideas, under this doctrine, must be protected) but its intolerance. Like Ali, Spencer opposes Islam not primarily because it is a hostile force, motivated by a horrible and evil heresy (though again, I don’t doubt that he recognizes its evil) to destroy or subjugate us, but because it is ineradicably illiberal.Reader Lars takes issue with my criticisms of Spencer:
You have criticized Spencer for his propensity to stress secular liberal values as the dominant themes of modern western life most worth trying to preserve, whereas you wish that he would instead emphasize the traditional backbone of Christianity. I would argue that both aspects are important defining attributes of our civilization and that both are equally unique and specific to the West. I don’t believe that liberal secularism, for all its good things and bad, is quite as generic and universal as you frequently claim; I think that it is unique to the western way of life—and to western PEOPLE—no less than life is unique to planet earth. I don’t think that Spencer’s emphasis on secular liberalism is necessarily any less authentic or “conservative” than your preferred emphasis on traditionalism and faith.I’ll now quote each of Lars’s comments one by one and reply to them.
Lars: You have criticized Spencer for his propensity to stress secular liberal values as the dominant themes of modern western life most worth trying to preserve,LA: I don’t feel this is exactly correct. My criticism is of Spencer’s tendency to define the West as secular values, basically substituting the word “secular” for more substantive words such as America, Western culture, and so on, and making secularism the ruling value of the West. Thus he didn’t say that Muslims must adapt to Western culture; he said that Muslims must adapt to secular values. But if Muslims must adapt to secular values, then we also must adapt to secular values. When has such a thing ever been said before? When have political leaders, editorialists, teachers, parents, writers said that the mark of being a good American is that we “accept secular values”? Modern liberals such as Spencer are using the confrontation with Islam to redefine the West as secular in a way than has never been done before.
Whether the intention is to advance secularism as such, or to define ourselves as the opposite of our adversary, it is still destructive. Thus in World War II, because our enemy had the most murderous race ideology in history, we defined ourselves as the ideological opposite of that, adopting an extreme anti-racist ideology which is now destroying us, as seen in our inability to control our borders because of our fear of seeming “racist.” Similarly, in the Cold War, because our adversary represented ultimate state control, we defined ourselves as the ideological opposite of that, as an ideology of pure freedom, which also had the effect of undermining our own culture. And now that we’re in a conflict with Islam, the most rigid and repressive religion on earth, people like Spencer define us as the ideological opposite of that, as secularism, which also undermines us. Each of these three redefinitions of ourselves reveals the liberal and neoconservative disposition to see our civilization as an ideology instead of as a substantive society. And it is also to be noted how a global conflict with an ideological adversary perfectly fits the neocon agenda of redefining America as an ideology instead of a country. (Which is not to say, as paleocons say, that all such conflicts must be avoided. We had to fight Hitler, we had to resist and turn back Soviet Communism, we have to resist expansionist Islam. But in fighting these wars, we should be defending our civilization, not spreading a universalist ideology. Thus in World War II, our leaders said that we were standing for civilization against barbarism. That was the right way to approach it. But after the war liberals and neocons retrospectively turned it into a war to spread liberal anti-racism.)
Again, while secular trends have been a part of our society for centuries, Americans have not in the past described their society as secular, a term that denotes the removal of God and of all higher values. Such usage in ordinary political speech is an extremely recent development, and I have criticized it consistently whoever has used it. I am not trying to eliminate the term secular; I am saying that Spencer and others are making a much bigger claim for it than has been done in the past, and this needs to be opposed.
Lars: whereas you wish that he would instead emphasize the traditional backbone of Christianity.LA: Certainly the Christian aspect of the West is key and needs to be brought out more. But I do not criticize Spencer for a failure to emphasize Christianity as such. I criticize him for his frequent failure to use any substantive, non-liberal descriptions for our society, whether “Christian,” or “Western,” or whatever. Furthermore, as I argue in the main article above, when he does use such substantive, non-liberal expressions, he always defines them in liberal terms. Using non-liberal symbols while giving them a liberal content is the hallmark of neoconservatism. (However, as I look over this discussion, I’m thinking that I may have overstated the idea of Spencer as a neoconservative; it may be more accurate to say he is a liberal who occasionally uses traditional sounding rhetoric. After all, neocons are not the only liberals who use traditional rhetoric; regular liberals frequently do so as well.)
Lars: I would argue that both aspects are important defining attributes of our civilization and that both are equally unique and specific to the West.LA: Leaving aside quibbles, I agree.
Lars: I don’t believe that liberal secularism, for all its good things and bad, is quite as generic and universal as you frequently claim; I think that it is unique to the western way of life—and to western PEOPLE—no less than life is unique to planet earth.LA: I have never said that liberal secularism is universal. Quite the opposite. I have constantly repeated that if the West dies, secular liberalism will die with it. What I do say is that liberal Westerners define the West in terms of universal secular values, and that by doing so, they kill the sense of being part of an organic society or people. They thus deconstruct their respective nations and their civilization. This is bad both in itself and in relation to the Islamic challenge. Islam is an organic society and people, a self-defined “nation,” with aggressive intentions toward us. We can only defend ourselves by responding as an organic society, whether we call it Christendom, European civilization, America, the West, or Western civilization. If we are to defend ourselves from the concrete thing that Islam is, we also must be a concrete thing, and not just an “ism,” and especially not “secularism.”
Lars: I don’t think that Spencer’s emphasis on secular liberalism is necessarily any less authentic or “conservative” than your preferred emphasis on traditionalism and faith.LA: I don’t know what you mean by authentic, but by definition liberalism is not as conservative as traditionalism.
Jeff in England writes:
Your follow up to the reply to your Spencer criticism was as always insightful and well written. There is this assumption by many (seemingly Spencer) that the West lives in what is called a “liberal secular” society. That is not accurate.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 17, 2006 11:21 AM | Send