Reading Judith Shklar
I’ve just been re-reading Judith Shklar’s 1989 essay ‘The Liberalism of Fear.’ It’s good stuff.
Skepticism is inclined toward toleration, since in its doubts it cannot choose among the competing beliefs that swirl around it, so often in murderous rage. Whether the skeptic seeks personal tranquility in retreat or tries to calm the warring factions around her, she must prefer a government that does nothing to increase the prevailing levels of fanaticism and dogmatism.
I read it the first time several years ago. I liked it – but certain resonances are even more resonant now than they were then (let alone than when she wrote the article, which was for instance before Yugoslavia fell apart).
To call the liberalism of fear a lowering of one’s sights implies that emotions are inferior to ideas and especially to political causes. It may be noble to pursue ideological ambitions or to risk one’s life for a ’cause,’ but it is not at all noble to kill another human being in pursuit of one’s own ’causes.’ ‘Causes,’ however spiritual they may be, are not self-justifying, and they are not all equally edifying.
No, they’re not.
The consequences of political spirituality are, moreover, far less elevating than it might seem. Politically it has usually served as an excuse for orgies of destruction. Need one remind anyone of that truly ennobling cry: ‘Viva la muerte!’ – and the regime it ushered in?
Viva la muerte – it’s back.
Unless and until we can offer the injured and insulted victims of most of the world’s traditional as well as revolutionary governments a genuine and practicable alternative to their present condtion, we have no way of knowing whether they really enjoy their chains. There is very little evidence that they do…The absolute relativism, not merely cultural but psychological, that rejects the liberalism of fear as both too ‘Western’ and too abstract is too complacent and too ready to forget the horrors of our world to be credible. It is deeply illiberal, not only in its submission to tradition as an ideal, but in its dogmatic identification of every local practice with deeply chared local human aspirations.
Madeleine Bunting, please note.
Too great a part of past and present political experience is neglected when we ignore the annual reports of Amnesty International and of contemporary warfare. It used to be the mark of liberalism that it was cosmopolitan and that an insult to the life and liberty of a member of any race or group in any part of the world was of genuine concern.