On Irony and Forgiveness

On Irony and Forgiveness

Ben Gidley: On Irony and Forgiveness

?A sure sign of advancing years,? Ian MacWhirter writes, ?is when you find yourself agreeing with Roger Scruton.? Scruton–the conservative movement?s leading living philosopher, a blood sport enthusiast, and darling of the tobacco lobby–has won me over too. In his new book, The Uses of Pessimism, he argues that freedom is not the “freedom to believe anything at all, provided you feel better for it,” but “a precious achievement that human communities have arrived at through many sacrifices.?

The book develops points made in an essay in City Journal entitled ?Forgiveness and Irony: What makes the West strong.? There Scruton argues that a ?culture of repudiation? has gripped the West, making it unable to defend the values that make secular Western civilization worth defending, leaving it unable to offer the meaning and fulfillment that its great rival, Islamism, is able to offer its adherents. At the heart of Western civilization are the freedoms of citizenship, which can be contrasted with the consoling submission to brotherhood offered by faith, and specifically by Islam (a word whose literal meaning is precisely ?submission?). Underpinning the freedoms of citizenship, Scruton argues, are forgiveness and irony, which constitute our greatest weapons against Islamism and offer the possibility of a reconciliation with Islam.

Naming the values of forgiveness and irony as core to our tradition is a novel and inspiring move, and in this post I want to reflect on Scruton?s argument.

The legitimacy of secular government, and the guarantee of freedom offered by secular government, are, Scruton notes, the foundational questions of Western political philosophy. This is right, of course, but what it obscures, perhaps, is that they have also been the sites of concrete struggle within the history of Western society.

The history of the Greek city-state is the history of the fragility and resilience of aristocratic democracy in the face of would-be tyrants and oligarchs; the story of the exclusion of women, slaves, and barbarians from the polis; and the story of the demands of the demos, the ordinary people, to have their voices heard in the agora. Between the lines of Aristotle?s writings, we can hear the clamor of the demos, those with no voice, those who have not counted, insisting on being heard. As the contemporary philosopher Jacques Rancière puts it, politics begins when those who have no part become a party, when those who have no share claim everything. The community that is thereby instituted is by definition divided; politics is by definition struggle.

The story of Rome, too, can be seen as the story of the antagonism between the patricians and the plebs. Discussing a tale told by Livy of plebs on Aventine Hill, as retold by Pierre-Simon Ballanche in 1829, Rancière talks of the plebs claiming the human facility of speech (in the sense that, for Aristotle, while all animals have voice, only humans have speech). ?They [the plebs] do not speak because they are beings without a name, deprived of logos–meaning, symbolic enrollment in the city. Plebs live a purely individual life that passes on nothing to posterity except for life itself, reduced to its reproductive function. Whoever is nameless cannot speak.? Just as Plato called the people a ?large and powerful animal? in Book VI of the Republic, the Roman patricians heard the sounds of the plebs as–in Ballanche?s words–?only transitory speech, a speech that is a fugitive sound, a sort of lowing, a sign of want.?

The story of this struggle is a thread that runs through Western history: the demand for the right to doubt in face of the stern orthodoxy of the Catholic church, the English revolution of 1649, the American revolution of 1776, the French revolution of 1789, the movement for the abolition of slavery, the Chartist movement for the political rights of working class people, the suffragette movement for the political rights of women, the soviets as experiments in participatory democracy, the dissent of the workers and intellectuals against the Stalinist regime, the velvet revolutions of the 1980s and 1990s.

Kenan Malik makes a similar point when he notes that Scruton criticizes the French revolution for its utopianism, but fails to understand why they revolted: ?The mob stormed the Bastille because pre-Revolutionary tradition meant the immiseration of the poor, the incarceration of thousands, and the tyranny of an immovable feudal order. It was the refusal of the ancien regime to give up power that meant that such power had to wrenched away by force.? Even in England, Malik adds, it took a civil war and the beheading of a king to take the first steps towards democracy. Consent to government is not a given in the Western tradition.

And, as Scruton only implicitly recognizes, the principle itself is fictive, an abstraction. The ruled again and again make demands, often violently, before granting consent. It is this antagonism, and not some abstract principle of consent, that is the motor of politics in the West, and which is the real foundation of the freedom of which we must be, in the Biblical sense, jealous. Accounts of citizenship that are not attentive to this struggle are empty and meaningless.

At the same time, though, Scruton is right to say that the freedoms guaranteed by this struggle are insufficient for a good life in the ethical sense. He is right to draw our attention to the culture of repudiation that has no values other than the freedom to believe. He is right to argue we need something richer, thicker, and deeper than what is offered by liberal citizenship, which he describes as an empty abstraction that can never inspire the commitment required to defend Western freedom.

Scruton suggests two values, which he describes as gifts of our Judeo-Christian tradition, that might generate a deeper form of fulfilment and meaning than that given by liberal citizenship: forgiveness and irony. Both of these values are carried historically by the West, but are offered universally, to be shared beyond the West?s historical borders. I find his argument powerful but am troubled by the framing in terms of a Judeo-Christian tradition.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, he says, ?the primary act of sacrifice is forgiveness.? In forgiving, we sacrifice resentment, and this is at the heart of our culture. However, it seems to me that forgiveness in this sense is very much a Christian rather than a Jewish value. In the Jewish tradition, Jews are called upon to make a sacrifice, and in this sacrifice is inscribed a covenant with God; Jews are bound to him and his ethical demands as a people. What this act of binding makes possible, in the Jewish tradition, is justice and an ethical life. As Amos Oz says, justice demands that we remember while forgiveness demands that we forget. The gift of the Jewish tradition to the West is precisely justice and the imperative to remember: an uncomfortable gift. (And, I would suggest, it this gift of justice that is carried in the historical sacrifices of those who concretely struggled for the speech of the speechless to be heard in the public sphere.)

Forgiveness, in contrast, is the great gift of the Christian tradition. Christ?s sacrifice redeems Abraham?s sacrifice of Isaac and allows us forgiveness and forgetting. Like the Greek heritage of freedom, the ?Judeo-Christian? heritage of forgiveness and sacrifice contains a tension, a struggle, between two irreconcilable values: justice and forgiveness. The Western, Judeo-Christian heritage contemporary conservatism seeks to celebrate is a creature of our own projections, not something we have been given. If it means anything, it means living out the impossibility of a forgiving justice and a just forgiving. It is this impossibility that we must defend and insist upon in the face of all forms of certitude, not least in the face of those who invoke the sparingly merciful God of the Koran.

It is for this reason that Scruton?s second value, irony, is so important. An ironic disposition is the disposition capable of recognizing this impossibility and still carrying on trying. As Samuel Beckett said, ?Fail. Fail again. Fail better.?

A question arises for me from Scruton?s values. He argues that the West?s democratic inheritance stems from our habit of forgiveness. ?To forgive the other is to grant him, in your heart, the freedom to be.? He argues that forgiveness and irony underlie our conception of law as a means to resolve conflicts by finding a just solution. But what would a robust defense of the West against Islamist terror look like if it really enacted our putative habit of forgiveness? The picture Scruton paints of a forgiving, ironic West sits at odds with the way we have fought the war on terror to date.

And here we reach another impossible necessity: the impossibility of fighting a war in a spirit of forgiveness and irony. Defending–and defending militarily–the gifts of the Western tradition (however contradictory those gifts might be) is necessary. But can we do that without mirroring the all too sparingly merciful way of the Wahhabi death cult?

Finally, it seems to me that the Western tradition offers two other values that make it worth defending, and that constitute potentially powerful additional weapons against the forces which seek to obliterate the West.

The first of these is solidarity. This value is not Judeo-Christian, but modern, arising in the struggle of the speechless to assert themselves. While the Ikhwan, brotherhood of Islam, is a brotherhood in submission, solidarity is a form of kinship which arises amongst strangers in the act of insubmission. That is, solidarity is a concrete experience of the freedom of citizenship. This value, like forgiveness and irony, is open to everyone, beyond the historical borders of the West, and therefore has the potential to bind others to our tradition. Alongside a greater awareness of the history of the struggle to win our freedoms, the value of solidarity might provide a richer form of affiliation with the freedoms of the secular West than the empty abstractions of the liberal tradition.

Another important value offered by the West is hospitality. This value is most deeply rooted in Jewish history. In the Jewish tradition, the value of hospitality is connected with a biblical memory of having been strangers in the land of Egypt, and is embodied in the open door of the Passover seder, the moment when Jews commemorate their deliverance from exile in Egypt. Thinkers such as Kant and Derrida have carried the value of hospitality into the Western tradition. An insistence on, and defense of, this value is also a potential weapon against the forces which seek to destroy the West: like forgiveness and irony, such an insistence is a sign of our moral strength, not of our weakness.