Sunday, 3 May 2009

For compromise

In his LRB review of Ben Wilson’s What Price Liberty? Terry Eagleton weighs in against the idea of moderation.

“The moderate path between authority and freedom—the true meaning of liberty,” [Wilson] tells us rather sanctimoniously, “had not yet been discovered: that was the achievement of enlightened modern men [sic}.” When in doubt the English think of an equipoise … Those who believe, astonishingly, that middle ways are always to be preferred (what is the middle way between tax havens and coughing up, or Nazis and Jews?) should recall that the British taste for compromise is itself amongst other things the fruit of a bloody sectarian conflict in the 17th century about which threw was nothing middling or moderate.
I suppose ‘…should recall…’ is rhetorical shorthand for ‘people who believe such things are ideologically blind and if they considered the history of “compromise” they would no longer believe so blithely in it.’ But that’s bollocks. I’m quite prepared to believe that the structural political commitment to compromise (‘the politics of consensus’) originate the C17th—although not ‘compromise’ itself, which is surely as old as human communication—without thereby losing faith in the enormous pragmatic socio-political virtue compromise embodies. That it had a bloody birth is neither surprising nor disqualifying in this regard.

As for Eagleton’s ‘astonished’ dismissal of ‘middle ways’, I’m not sure whether to take it seriously: ‘what is the middle way between tax havens and coughing up, or Nazis and Jews?’ Is he really asking this? (I mean: is it anything more than a not-very-well-thought-through rhetorical question?) If he is asking it, then the answer is: well, the middle way between paying no tax at all! and forking out 90% of your income is: paying a moderate amount of tax. I’d say precisely that most nations have found, empirically, this to be the best tax policy. And the middle way between the beliefs of millions of German Nazis that Jews should be annihilated, and the lives of millions of Jews, is that the German Nazis should modify their views, such that they no longer pursue genocide, and that Jews should—the demands of specific justice aside—forgive the German Nazis sufficiently so as not to spend their lives seeking revenge.

And this, again, is what has happened. Nazism was, of course, a great deal more than simply an ideology of race hate (although it was, of course, that too); and I daresay nobody, not even Eagleton, would consider the eradication of all the beliefs associated with that movement from the hearts and minds of an entire nation possible. Or even, perhaps, desirable. The moral objection to Nazism is not that German Nazis subordinated their personal lives to the good or the whole, that they worked hard, that they were patriotic and so on (similarly: the moral objection to Italian fascism is not that it made the trains run on time). The moral objections to Nazism had to do with other aspects of the Nazi Weltanschauung. And the ‘solution’ to the problem is a middle way precisely in the sense that German popular beliefs were modified (to become, broadly, less racist, militaristic and expansionist); and that Judaism has contented itself with coexistence (as opposed to pledging a war of annihilating revenge). The alternative—that the only solution to this problem is the eradication of Nazism (or Judaism)—is it itself a Nazi solution: a final solution.

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