What am I missing here…

Did you read this article at Dissent by Nadia Urbinati? I find it a little baffling…because she’s a professor of political theory at Columbia, but the article seems to me to be just startlingly bad. It reminds me of several I read the other day at Comment is Free. It goes like this: first a lot of straw man stuff, then a lot of pointing out the obvious, then mixing the straw man stuff with the obvious stuff, then it winds up with a resounding contradiction.

Am I missing something?

(Probably not, actually, because Michael Walzer in his reply says much the same thing except far more politely, but then Urbinati is a friend of his.)

[O]n the one hand, there are those who, questioning what they regard as a naive liberal ideal of toleration, acknowledge the existence of cultural and religious differences within a democratic community, but with one exception—Islam. On the other hand, there are those who question this exception insofar as they suggest we should be careful to articulate our judgment on the Islamic culture and think it is a mistake to regard it as a whole, as if it were a homogeneous world with no internal differences.

That’s your strawman stuff, along with a lot more like it. Complete nonsense. Who on the Left thinks it’s not a mistake to regard ‘the Islamic culture’ (whatever that is) as if it were a homogeneous world? No one. Then she makes an inane comparison with the Cold War, then goes on to say how much cleverer about these things European intellectuals were during the Cold War – thus talking about European intellectuals as if they were a whole, and she does the same with other large groups.

As a matter of fact, once the Italian Communists agreed to discuss their doctrinal principles with a liberal theorist according to the method of “arguments and counter-arguments,” they were actually agreeing to put their dogmatic system on trial, and to risk acknowledging its limits and flaws.

‘The’ Italian Communists? Hardly! She’s talking about the leadership there, not all Italian Communists, who of course didn’t agree to any such thing.

Dilip Gaonkar and Charles Taylor…emphasize, correctly, the important implications that [this theoretical contribution] has today in the face of the rebirth of new Manichean attitudes amidst Western reformist intellectuals…[I]t assumes that within each culture there are minorities (which the liberal rights of the “exist” and “voice,” as elucidated by Albert Hirschman, should guarantee)—in other words, that no culture is monolithic.

That’s the mixture of straw man and obvious. No culture is monolithic – gee, no kidding! Who knew?

The philosophy of dialogue is based on these premises, both of which Manichaeism radically rejects.

No doubt, but there is no such Manichaeism; that’s an invention, a fantasy.

Then she charges Paul Berman with ‘Manichean Occidentalism,’ which is more straw, then she recommends internal criticism and contextual criticism, which is more banging on an open door. Then she identifies two visions of democracy, one being the politics of the will: “ideological, quasi religious in kind, based on a nucleus of values that are identified with the West as an organic whole (it corresponds, more or less, to a Wilsonian conception of democracy as a mission and that not only many American neo-conservatives but also some revisionist liberals such as Berman identify with.”

While it acknowledges democracy as the highest value and peace as its corollary, the politics of the will betrays the democratic principle of self-determination, which is the necessary condition for the creation of democracy, and violates the principle of sovereignty without which neither democracy nor peace can exist…The other vision is identifiable with a politics of judgment. It is better rooted than the other one in the idea that citizens’ consent is the fundamental requirement for a democratic political order.

Well there’s some block thinking for you, and it’s block thinking that makes a complete nonsense of what she seems to want to say. What is this self-determination? What is this sovereignty? The politics of the will is clearly enough another name for liberal interventionism, so the subject is apparently why democracies should not force non-democracies to become democracies. There certainly are arguments for that view (although I think they’re stronger in some cases than in others – she said, stating the obvious herself) – but self-determination and sovereignty? Self-determination of whom, by whom? What does self-determination mean in the case of an authoritarian regime? Not much! If the people aren’t asked, then it’s determination by an elite or an autocrat – in an authoritarian regime, self-determination is a cruel oxymoron. And the same goes for sovereignty. If the ruler is there by force, what’s the sovereignty worth? Not much. Who cares about Hitler’s sovereignty, or Pinochet’s, or Mugabe’s? Yet Urbinati cites them as if they should make us choke up with emotion. Of course it’s true that people generally don’t like being invaded, but that has to be spelled out; just calling it self-determination and sovereignty fails to do that. It’s blocky.

Then in the last para there’s the contradiction. The first sentence says X, the second and last says not-X.

Now, too, we are witnessing perhaps the need to emancipate the individual from the identification with the culture and/or the religion she or he belongs to. The issue here is not a conclusion that culture and religions are fictions and illusions, but the emphasis that culture and religion are expressions of—and originate in—the individual search for meaningful life.

I see. [wanders off, scratching her head]

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