Jim Kalb on Robert Spencer’s apologia for unrestricted freedom
Spencer replied at Jihad Watch
to my criticism
of him over his statement that Muslim countries that bar “Lady Gaga” from performing fail the test of moderation (see my and readers’ replies to Spencer in the previous entry
), he expanded his reply into an article
that was posted at Atlas Shrugs
as an “Atlas Exclusive.” In neither the blog entry nor the article did he mention me or VFR by name, but it’s clear he’s replying to my argument. Here is his article (with some interspersed comments by me), followed by Jim Kalb’s reply.
Is Freedom Worth Defending?
By Robert Spencer
Muslim threats last week led Lady Gaga to cancel her planned concert in Indonesia. Because of their disapproval of Lady Gaga, some conservatives in the West have applauded this, noting that Christians there opposed her as well, and asserting that any non-Muslim society with a healthy regard for decent values would not allow to her to perform, either. Society, some argued, should hold the good, not freedom, as its highest value.
Left unexplained, however, is how a commonly accepted understanding of “the good” is to be arrived at, and particularly how such an understanding could be restored in 21st-century America without imposing an authoritarian regime of some kind. Also, one wonders if proponents of such ideas would object to the intimidation and particularly to the death threats that ultimately led to the cancellation of Lady Gaga’s Indonesian show.
Sharia states are oriented toward the good, not freedom, as their highest value. How would the ideal state of these authoritarian Western “conservatives” be different? A young Saudi imam said it a few years ago: “Your leaders want to bring your freedom to Islamic society. We don’t want freedom. The difference between Muslims and the West is we are controlled by God’s laws, which don’t change for 1,400 years. Your laws change with your leaders.” Jihadists routinely deride Western freedom as libertinism: “In essence,” one explained, “the kufr [unbelief] of Western society can be summed up in one word which is used over and over to justify its presence, growth, and its glorification … Freedom. Yet what such a society fails to comprehend, is that such ‘freedom’ simply represents the worship and enslavement to desires, opinions, and whims, a disregard for what is (truly) right, and a disregard for the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth.”
While many of us might deplore the depravity of today’s pop culture, we should not let Islamic moral critique put us on the defensive. In reality, the freedom at which the jihadists sneer is an essential component of any genuine morality. “Australian law guarantees freedoms up to a crazy level,” remarked the controversial former Australian mufti Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hilali—but without freedom, even “up to a crazy level,” morality is hollow. The secular West, with all its irreligion and debauchery, provides the only authentic framework for genuine virtue. Without the freedom to choose evil, choosing good is not a virtue. It’s nothing more than submitting to coercion. Islam’s moral critique likewise founders on the divine sanction given to violence in the Qur’an and Islamic tradition. [LA replies: So according to Spencer, a society that bars a “Lady Gaga” from performing cannot have genuine morality. According to Spencer, the America of 1960, in which a “Lady Gaga” would not have been able to perform, was a society that lacked genuine morality. Having made this radical liberal statement, having said that the entire pre-1960 Christian West was non-moral, and that genuine morality only began with the Sixties Revolution and the subsequent destruction of traditional moral norms, will Spencer still deny that he is a liberal?]
Violent coercion is a fundamental element of Sharia law, with its stonings and amputations. Ayatollah Khomeini admitted this without apology: “Whatever good there is exists thanks to the sword and in the shadow of the sword! People cannot be made obedient except with the sword! The sword is the key to Paradise, which can be opened only for the Holy Warriors!” Dinesh D’Souza wrote eloquently on this point in 2004: “Consider the woman in Afghanistan or Iran who is required to wear the veil. There is no real modesty in this, because the woman is being compelled. Compulsion cannot produce virtue; it can only produce the outward semblance of virtue.” He mocked those who imagined that a cleanup of American pop culture would lessen the force of the jihad: “Some Americans may be tempted to say, ‘The Muslims have a point about Jerry Springer and Howard Stern. If they will agree to stop bombing our buildings, in exchange for us sending them Springer and Stern to do with as they wish, why not make the deal? We could even throw in some of Springer’s guests.’”
Yet by 2007 D’Souza had joined those he had earlier derided, claiming that the failure to throw Springer and Stern to the wolves was creating more jihadists: “When you make America synonymous with permissiveness, when you dismiss serious moral offenses with a no-big-deal attitude …you are driving the traditional Muslims into the arms of the radicals.”
It is true that the jihadists’ presentation of themselves as holy warriors fighting Western blasphemers and libertines is a potent recruiting tool. But the proper response to their critique of the West is to challenge them on their own ground: to point out that the Judeo-Christian tradition, with its principle of individual freedom as a prerequisite for virtue, offers a superior vision of God and the world than that offered by Ayatollah Khomeini and his sword as the key to paradise. Yet it necessarily involves tolerating some who exercise their freedom in ways to which some might object—even Lady Gaga. [LA replies: So according to Robert Spencer, true Judeo-Christian morality has only been in force in the West since the 1960s, since it’s only since the 1960s that the West has had radical freedom, including the freedom of a “Lady Gaga” to perform. According to Spencer, the West from 500 A.D. to 1960 A.D. did not have the true Judeo-Christian morality, because it lacked such radical freedom.]
[end of Spencer’s article]
Jim Kalb’s reply to Spencer
He’s seriously out of his area, but it’s the sort of thing people say, so here are some comments:
- end of initial entry -
1. We don’t need to be ashamed before the Moslems, and we don’t have to take our cues from them either. So the fact they don’t like libertinism doesn’t mean we should accept it. We should decide our own issues on our own grounds.
2. Freedom is indeed part of virtue and morality, but it’s not the whole. Man is social, so leading a good life, like doing anything else well, is something we mostly learn from other people and carry on in cooperation with them. For that reason general social support for the good is an obvious good. It’s like knowledge: compulsion doesn’t go well with knowledge, but general social support for knowledge is a good thing.
3. Nobody really disagrees with that. Every society has a ruling understanding of what life should be like and what sorts of things make sense to do. That is its understanding of the good. Does Spencer really believe that America has no such thing? If that’s so, what are all the government policies and programs for?
4. Having a social understanding of the good doesn’t mean that it’s compulsory in all respects. For example, in America career is considered part of the good life. That understanding does mean lots of compulsion: people get taxed to pay for schools, which are justified on career grounds, children get forced to go to them, it’s illegal for school guidance counsellors to suggest to girls that they might want to be homemakers instead of having careers, etc. On the other hand it’s legal to be a ne’er do well.
None of this means that all understandings of the good are correct. Some are obviously defective. So Spencer’s “Sharia states are oriented toward the good” shows as much about the good as “Mao was oriented toward liberation” shows about freedom.
The usual problem with defective understandings is that they’re obsessed with some one thing so they leave out goods that are important. Islam and liberalism are examples of the problem. Islam looks at the Koran and hadith; liberalism looks at giving people what they want, as long as what they want can be provided equally within a stable, efficient, and manageable system. Neither takes other legitimate human concerns into account. Since both are imperialistic, they both tend to crush what they don’t pay attention to.
Each maintains its irrational position by foreclosing discussion, Islam by rejecting rationality outright in favor of the commands of a willful God as revealed by the Koran, liberalism by claiming it doesn’t have a conception of the good but just gives people what they want so there’s nothing to talk about. (The liberal claim can’t possibly be true—if it were, no one would reject liberalism.)
Daniel S. writes:
Further reflection on Spencer’s article reveals several other issues that warrant comment:
Left unexplained, however, is how a commonly accepted understanding of “the good” is to be arrived at, and particularly how such an understanding could be restored in 21st-century America without imposing an authoritarian regime of some kind.
While often presenting himself as a conservative Catholic, here Spencer retreats to the realm of the moral relativists and postmodernists, in essence saying that we can arrive at no authoritative understanding of the good. The understanding of the good found in the Occidental tradition from Plato and Aristotle to Cicero and St. Thomas Aquinas and other thinkers, both pagan and Christian, is to be disregarded, and, worse, is suspected of being “authoritarian.” In the mind of Spencer (if we are to take his words seriously), to declare an actual, concrete social good based on transcendent principles is to broach the draconian penal punishments commonly found in most interpretations of the Islamic shariah. [LA replies: Which of course is the standard left-liberal take on conservatives: that they are the same as jihadists and the Taliban—irrational primitives who want to impose their anti-life moral dictates on everyone.]
He further writes:
Sharia states are oriented toward the good, not freedom, as their highest value. How would the ideal state of these authoritarian Western “conservatives” be different?
This is an entirely logically fallacious. In Spencer’s syllogism, the shariah is oriented toward what Muslims consider the good, therefore to orient oneself toward the good is to be shariah-like. Furthermore, he quotes several Muslim radicals attacking the idea of freedom. But what do these figures have to do with us?
While many of us might deplore the depravity of today’s pop culture, we should not let Islamic moral critique put us on the defensive. In reality, the freedom at which the jihadists sneer is an essential component of any genuine morality.
And what, pray tell, is this genuine morality? Are “Lady Gaga” and other freaks who blaspheme Christianity and promote every sort of vileness and filth displaying this genuine morality? And what traditionalist (and the buffoonish neocon Dinesh D’Souza doesn’t count) is using Islamic moral critiques to criticize Western moral decadence? Were not the traditionalists criticizing the cultural revolution long before anyone heard of Osama bin Laden or Ayatollah Khomeini?
Again, underlying all of this is the passivity that is a trademark of Spencer and his crowd. Just as he has no proactive position of ending Muslim immigration to the West, beyond sporadic and contradictory remarks, he likewise has no response to the cultural rot that is destroying our civilization; and indeed he encourages us passively to accept it in the name of “freedom.”
LA to Daniel S.:
Very good! I had lacked the energy to write a full response to Spencer myself, but you and Mr. Kalb and others are filling in the gap.
Daniel S. replies:
Thank you for posting my remarks. As Jim Kalb said, Spencer is way out of his area on this one, but humility does not seem to be one of his virtues. He spends more time fuming at Muslim countries for acting, well, for acting like Muslims and not accepting liberalism, than he does calling on Western countries to restrict Muslim immigration. He once held very high regard in my eyes, but now I see that he offers nothing but a dead end.
Here’s an index of where “conservatives” are at. If we were to send this entry and the parallel entry to, say, Michelle Malkin, Robert McCain, AllahPundit, Ed Morrissey, Lucianne Goldberg, Jonah Goldberg, “Rich” Lowry, David Horowitz, Frank Gaffney, the Powerline guys, and on and on, would they have any idea what we were talking about?
Irv P. writes:
I would just like to add to this thread by reminding readers that before the “modern age” of freedom trumping the good, we had in the U.S. and in much of the Western world,what Francis Schaefer called the “Christian consensus.”
It was that consensus that guided our culture to aspiring for the “good.” The loss of the Christian consensus has led us into moral chaos, confusion and rot. Our only hope for the future is the restoration of the Christian consensus. That is what we “conservatives” are trying to preserve and bring back.
Obviously you’re an American Taliban. I thank Robert Spencer for showing me the truth about people like you.
Mark P. writes:
It’s not enough that I need to tolerate the ugly imagery and music of a Lady Gaga. It’s not enough that this degenerate makes millions of dollars a year pumping her filth into the world. No, I have to regard her as a beacon on the “shores of freedom.” Why, if Lady Gaga’s light goes out then all of our freedoms are doomed … DOOMED, I tell’s yah!
What mad genius asserted such rubbish and how did it come to pass that society actually accepts this? I’m supposed to believe that the freedom of a Lady Gaga to do what she wills is somehow a measure of my freedoms? The more freedom she has implies that the more freedom I have, when, in practice, the state chokes the very freedom of ordinary people whenever it can? [LA replies: It’s exactly like saying that all discrimination is indivisible and equally bad, so that if we discriminate against, say, Muslims by keeping them from immigrating into America, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump before we start mass murdering Jews. This is the way liberalism operates and maintains its tyrannical power—by convincing people that the slightest deviation from the most radical liberalism means we are Nazis.]
I’d like to pose a hypothetical situation to the Robert Spencers of the world. This hypothetical should test the strength of the “freedom” doctrine.
Let’s assume that Islam took over America and America became a full-blown Sharia state. Let’s also assume that I converted to Islam to avoid the more serious depredations of being a non-Muslim in a Muslim society. Exactly what “freedoms” does Spencer think I would lose?
I ask, because I see a lot of benefits. Islam would get rid of all of the infidel illegal immigrants. It would establish a true patriarchy with the man as the head of his family. It would end the system of female-driven divorce. It would probably end offshore-outsourcing. It would throw women out of work and raise the salaries of working men. Of course, it would viciously remove the entire progressive apparatus currently in force.
These are all “goods” that would conceivably benefit a white, heterosexual male like myself. What freedoms would Spencer suggest would I lose in this scenario? What are his assertions of the good that would offset the gains in my hypothetical situation?
Lawrence, you are absolutely right that liberalism is not some neutral system of freedom railing against authoritative systems. Liberalism is, in itself, an authoritative system. And, like any such system, it does not create freedom. It creates winners and losers and everything in between. In the absence of both the good and freedom, why should anyone miss the current system if it is replaced with Islam?
Paul T. writes:
So according to Spencer, a society that bars a “Lady Gaga” from performing cannot have genuine morality. According to Spencer, the America of 1960, in which a “Lady Gaga” would not have been able to perform, was a society that lacked genuine morality. Having made this radical liberal statement, having said that the entire pre-1960 Christian West was non-moral, and that genuine morality only began with the Sixties Revolution and the subsequent destruction of traditional moral norms, will Spencer still deny that he is a liberal?
This is a great example of the kind of definitive, magisterial retort that you do better than anyone else. Bravo!
Also, speaking of universal freedom and all those other good liberal ideals that Spencer professes to believe in, such as open discussion and debate, please note that he did not cite or link the VFR articles to which he was responding in his original Jihad Watch blog entry and in his Atlas Shrugs article expanding on it. Though he was responding to my critique of him, he did not mention me by name. From which we can expect that he also will not cite or link our more recent replies to him, in this entry and this. He will not give his and Pamela Geller’s readers the opportunity to see the traditionalist conservative response to his arguments. Thus Robert Spencer, who speaks the word “freedom” as if a wedding vow, conceals from his own readers the existence of the writers who disagree with his position.
Paul K. writes:
There have been a lot of insightful comments on this topic.
One of Spencer’s points that brought me up short was this: “The secular West, with all its irreligion and debauchery, provides the only authentic framework for genuine virtue. Without the freedom to choose evil, choosing good is not a virtue.”
As I understand him, Spencer is saying that the ideal society would make available to its citizens the greatest number of temptations, so that by resisting them they can prove their virtue. Las Vegas would be the model, with prostitution, pornography, gambling, and alcohol freely available. It could perhaps be improved with the legalization of drugs and child pornography to give visitors even greater opportunities to choose good over evil.
On the other hand, an example of a society that has no authentic framework for genuine virtue would be a Christian monastery. There, men dedicate themselves to a Christ-like life of prayer and contemplation in an environment from which every possible temptation has been removed, making virtue meaningless. Of course, there are still some temptations even in the monastery, and monks have been known to succumb to them.
Demonstrating a much clearer understanding of human nature than does Spencer, the Catechism warns us to avoid “occasions of sin.” Here are some of its questions and answers on the subject:
Q. Why are we bound to avoid occasions of sin? A. We are bound to avoid occasions of sin because Our Lord has said: “He who loves the danger will perish in it”; and as we are bound to avoid the loss of our souls, so we are bound to avoid the danger of their loss. The occasion is the cause of sin, and you cannot take away the evil without removing its cause.
Q. How many kinds of occasions of sin are there?
A. There are four kinds of occasions of sin: 1. Near occasions, through which we always fall; 2. Remote occasions, through which we sometimes fall; 3. Voluntary occasions or those we can avoid; and 4. Involuntary occasions or those we cannot avoid. A person who lives in a near and voluntary occasion of sin need not expect forgiveness while he continues in that state.
Q. What persons, places and things are usually occasions of sin?
A. 1. The persons who are occasions of sin are all those in whose company we sin, whether they be bad of themselves or bad only while in our company, in which case we also become occasions of sin for them; 2. The places are usually liquor saloons, low theaters, indecent dances, entertainments, amusements, exhibitions, and all immoral resorts of any kind, whether we sin in them or not; 3.The things are all bad books, indecent pictures, songs, jokes and the like, even when they are tolerated by public opinion and found in public places.
The fact is that men are weak and for that reason traditional societies support the individual in choosing virtue by stigmatizing or minimizing occasions for sin. In the 1970s, a man who wanted to watch a pornographic movie had to go to a seedy part of town and sit in a dirty theater surrounded by unsavory characters. Now he has merely to push a few keys on his computer keyboard or TV remote and it’s piped in to his office or living room. Has this new accessibility, this ever-ready opportunity to resist temptation, resulted in a moral revival?
Lady Gaga delivers a decadent show, but I suspect she’s motivated more by marketing than by any commitment to her “message.” She knows that the best way to get attention today is to push the few remaining boundaries of exhibitionism and outrageousness, and to embrace leftist politics, sexual license, and homosexuality. However, I suspect that if she were operating under the constraints that existed 50 years ago, she would have tailored her act to the mores of the day. According to Spencer, what a blow to freedom that would have been!
Another good answer to Spencer is Jesus’ “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Life already presents us with plenty of temptations to sin; we don’t need to seek out more.
However, I want to point out the inadequacy of the usual understanding of sin. “Sin,” as in the above passage from the Catechism, is almost always used in the sense of sexual indulgence or taking alcohol/drugs etc. But that’s just one part of sin. Sin is that which separates us from God. And that includes all kinds of things—much of the content of ordinary human life in fact—that have nothing to do with the obvious sins of sensual indulgence and the traditional kinds of moral disapproval of such indulgence. From the point of view of the Gospels, all of human life, short of the kingdom of God, is a life in sin. The original meaning of sin is “missing the mark.” The mark, the thing being aimed at, is the kingdom of God. Everything that causes us to miss the kingdom of God is sin.
Daniel S. writes:
The issue of sin is an important one, and one sadly forgotten by most contemporary Christians. I would here recommend The Concept of Sin by the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper to anyone seeking further illumination on this issue.
As for Robert Spencer’s comment about needing an ever increasing amount of temptation in order to validate virtue, I must confess that I find such a claim incredible (I certainly don’t remember reading that in the writings of St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas). [LA replies: Please note that Spencer himself did not say that. That was Paul K.’s logical inference from what Spencer did say, which was: “The secular West, with all its irreligion and debauchery, provides the only authentic framework for genuine virtue. Without the freedom to choose evil, choosing good is not a virtue.”] In traditional Christian theology, evil is an absence of good, a parasitic state in man’s soul, and good certainly does not need or depend upon evil. According to Spencer, though, goodness and true virtue needs evil in order to have validation. Of course, I doubt that Spencer has fully thought through the theological implications of his claim; rather he is to busy performing every sort of intellectual gymnastics in order to justify his liberalism. [LA replies: Agreed. I don’t think he thought this through; I think he was just seizing opportunistically on any argument that could help support his position that conservatism requires the freedom of a “Lady Gaga.”]
Another issue that stands out to me after further consideration is that at least as far as this issue is concerned he is acting out of compulsive need to take the position opposite of that taken by the Muslims. If the Muslims of Indonesia reject “Lady Gaga” then Spencer must by default support her. If Muslims believe in placing the common good above individualistic freedom then Spencer must take the opposite position. But he doesn’t stop there. He makes the issue either\or, so that one must either be objectively on the side of the Muslims or on the side of Spencer and Gaga, as if there were no other way to approach the issue. As for me, I have no problem in acknowledging that the Muslims are sometimes correct in their instincts, though I still believe that they should not be allowed into Western countries.
Mark L. writes:
I’m delighted to see this critique of Robert Spencer’s libertarianism. What a tired and yet damaging philosophy. As if we have to tolerate the pornofication of our society in order to “prove our virtue” (to quote Paul K.) by fighting against the temptations we’ve made it a virtue to tolerate!
People like Spencer are rationalists who think they’re so clever and dispassionate, but in reality are intellectually shallow. They don’t understand the power of sin, which scripture describes as bondage. They think people are completely rational beings, who can simply turn on their free will and choose not to sin when presented with some logical argument about the good life being a virtuous life. Nor do they understand the leavening quality sin has, how it extends beyond individuals to affect entire groups and ultimately whole societies.
On a related note, would you make a distinction between “freedom of speech” and “freedom of expression?” And where would you place Lady Gaga? It seems to me that, although a singer-songwriter who deals in words, she represents something beyond mere free speech (which I’m happy to support). I see her as riding the wave of free expression, serving up her noxious ideas through a blend of video imagery and music that has a much greater tendency to corrupt than would those same ideas if merely expressed on paper. Certainly, she’s not what Milton had in mind when he wrote Aeropagitica.
Basically, what I’m saying is we can still get behind supporting free speech while curtailing the liberty of depraved artists to express themselves any way they jolly well please.
Freedom of expression is a very significant and iillegitimate expansion of freedom of speech, turning the First Amendment into, basically, the right to engage in any behavior, so long as its described as “expressive.” I’m sure I’ve written about this before, and will try to find a past entry on it.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 02, 2012 05:03 PM | Send