How might one define a liberal? A simple answer could be someone who believes in individual rights, civil liberties, democracy and (arguably) a ‘free’ market. But then how might one explain the ways that ‘liberal’ is placed on the political spectrum in different contexts? In the US, for instance, it appears to be synonymous with ‘left-wing’, but in Australia the Liberal Party is politically right-wing. It seems that contradictions are part and parcel of the term ‘liberal’.
Here’s another conundrum – is it possible to be a liberal and a dictator? According to some admirers of the founding father of independent Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015), the answer would be yes. The island city-state has apparently shown the world that it is perfectly possible to sacrifice democratic politics, civil liberties and human rights to achieve capitalist prosperity, consumerist power, and cultural prowess. A nation that can shop and eat well is a happy nation – the jailing, harassment, and torture of political dissidents and activists notwithstanding. In pursuing his political ambitions for Singapore, Lee famously championed ‘Asian values’ – the idea that Asians are inherently more collectivist and deferential to authority than their individualistic European counterparts. According to this ideological framework, human rights are simply not part of Asian values.
The love-hate relationship that Lee had with Western observers points to another paradox – can liberalism have universal application, or is it and will it always be Western and Eurocentric? ‘Liberalism’, as a concept, seems to be part of a family of concepts that are predominantly associated with the ‘West’ – democracy, human rights, freedom, civilisation, and equality, to name a few. But, surely, these aspirations and achievements can and do exist in non-Western societies. Or do they? And, if they did, would they or do they go by other names?
Taking these considerations into account, this list probes ten contradictions associated with what we commonly think of as liberalism – in no particular order. We’ve applied analysis, speculation and eye-rolling in liberal doses.
On 6 April 2022, the UK government sanctioned Moshe Kantor, the president of the European Jewish Congress (EJC) and vice president of the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), over his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. This was part of the UK’s larger package of sanctions in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. Earlier sanctions imposed on the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea football club, also hogged the headlines.
Sanctions in times of war are not unusual. But some of the targets of these sanctions seemed questionable, at least according to some interest groups. After all, Abramovich and Kantor are high-profile Jewish philanthropists whose CVs include efforts to combat antisemitism, racism and xenophobia in the UK and Israel – impeccable liberal credentials.
Jewish umbrella bodies have had mixed reactions. The EJC said it was ‘deeply shocked and appalled’ at the ‘misguided’ sanctions against Kantor. According to the Jewish Chronicle, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl – who also chairs the EJC – said very little, apart from claiming that she had not seen the EJC’s statement before it was released. The JLC merely announced that Kantor’s term of office came to an end in May and would not be renewed.
Perhaps this ambivalence about sanctions is tied to the Board of Deputies’ vehement opposition to specific organised responses against what Amnesty International has labelled Israel’s ‘apartheid’ in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. When Amnesty’s report was released in January, before the invasion of Ukraine, the Board of Deputies wasted no time in calling it ‘preposterous’ and retorted that ‘Israel is a vibrant democracy and a state for all its citizens’. These sentiments carry great political weight, especially in the UK and US where they form the basis of intensifying moves to ban calls for boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel.
Perchance the rightfulness of sanctioning a regime is in the eye of its liberal military allies?
Speaking of rogue regimes, it is undeniable that Putin is a megalomaniacal dictator who has not hesitated to poison, jail, torture and murder his political opponents. He has bombed hospitals and maternity clinics and used chemical weapons in Syria, and now Ukraine. But how exactly is Putin different from, say, the Egyptian military dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who, barely a month after seizing his country in a coup d’état in 2013, massacred more than 800 civilians in a single day? Or from Saudi Arabian crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, who was personally linked to the assassination – through decapitation – of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and has orchestrated the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen since 2015?
Perchance the definition of a dangerous dictator is in the eye of its liberal oil-and-gas-guzzling benefactors and beneficiaries?
Ah, the Enlightenment. Did it not gift us liberté, égalité, and fraternité in France as well as the American Declaration of Independence? Did it not enable the passage of the great nineteenth-century reform acts in Britain, the mother of parliaments? Did it not enshrine fundamental liberties, the rule of law and democratic governance as the ideals of statecraft and citizenship?
If he were still alive, perhaps we could refer this question to Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran who was deposed in a 1953 coup d’état – there’s that phrase again – orchestrated by the intelligence services of the UK (MI6) and the US (CIA). Or with Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president of Chile who was ousted in a CIA-engineered – you guessed it – coup d’état on 11 September 1973, which perhaps should be known as The Other 9/11.
Could it be that it’s only the Brits and the Americans who have diverged from the supposed Enlightenment ideals of democracy? What about the French? After all, it was the Algerian military, not former colonial master France, that cancelled Algeria’s 1991 elections when it appeared that the Islamic Salvation Front was on the brink of victory. France stayed aloof and merely remarked that the cancellation was ‘somewhat abnormal’, angering the army and the Islamists. The military coup that followed sparked off a bloody civil war that had complex repercussions in both countries. All the while and to the present day, however, France has continued to meddle in the affairs of its former African colonies. This is in contradiction to President Emmanuel Macron’s declaration, during his 2017 campaign, that the country’s colonial history in Algeria was a ‘crime against humanity’.
Perchance democracy is in the eye of liberal ex-colonial overlords?
Sajid Javid. Priti Patel. Alok Sharma. Rishi Sunak. A few years ago, one would be forgiven for wondering if this was the new cast of the latest Bollywood blockbuster. When Boris Johnson became the UK’s Prime Minister in 2019, he appointed them to his cabinet as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, International Development Secretary, and Chief Secretary to the Treasury, respectively. They have since become heavyweights in the British political landscape. (Sunak is now Chancellor of the Exchequer.) Alongside Johnson’s other appointments – James Cleverley as Minister Without Portfolio and Kwasi Kwarteng as Minister (now Secretary) of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – this was hailed as one of the country’s most diverse cabinets.
How have they been good for liberty, equality, diversity, inclusion and all that jazz? Let us count the ways.
Demonising and deporting refugees and asylum seekers. Blocking demonstrations against the murder of women, racism, and climate breakdown. Economic policies that have worsened inequality during a crippling pandemic. Paying lip service to environmental legislation whilst the extraction and burning of oil and gas continues apace. You decide.
Tina Turner adopts Buddhism and it becomes an iconic part of her legacy as the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Madonna dabbles in Kabbalah and it becomes trendy. Bob Dylan converts from Judaism to Evangelical Christianity and it’s now seen – alongside his deconversion a few years later – as an understandable part of his biography. But Sinead O’Connor becomes a Muslim and she is labelled a ‘civilisational traitress’. Actually, the full quote, from the English Anglican theologian John Milbank, reads: ‘Sinead O’Connor’s conversion suggest that [French author and enfant terrible Michel] Houllebecq has it right. Liberals will embrace an authoritarianism to escape their own contradictions if it is respectably other and non-Western. She is a civilisational traitress. And has no taste.’
Burn! Bam! Mic drop! These may or may not have been the thoughts that went through the head of Milbank, the self-styled arch-defender of Western Christendom, with his takedown of sister Shuhada Sadaqat. It’s hard to tell and, unfortunately, Milbank’s original Tweet has been removed. But it has been captured for posterity in the British analyst Hisham Hellyer’s response – a link can be found in the Citations at the back of this issue.
6. Refugees and asylum seekers
‘They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. Ukraine is a European country. Its people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts, vote in free elections and read uncensored newspapers. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations.’
So wrote Daniel Hannan in The Telegraph regarding the suffering of the people of Ukraine under the Russian invasion. By now, this and other similar reactions in Western media outlets have been recognised for what they are – ‘racist exceptionalism’ (according to Kenyan political cartoonist Patrick Gathara) and ‘racist coverage’ (according to Egyptian-American academic Moustafa Bayoumi).
In case you were wondering if Hannan’s framing was merely an isolated incident, how about Phillipe Corbé’s take on behalf of France’s BFM TV: ‘We’re not talking here about Syrians fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime backed by Putin. We’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives.’ Or Charlie D’Agata, from the US’s CBS News, who quipped that Ukraine ‘isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades … This is a relatively civilised, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city, where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.’
Many European countries have since flung their borders open to Ukrainians fleeing the country. Those same doors remain barely semi-open for African and Indian students and workers trying to escape the carnage in Ukraine. Meanwhile, at the time of writing, the UK government is considering deporting all asylum seekers to Rwanda.
An American president who opposes women’s sexual and reproductive rights insists on bombing a Muslim country to liberate its women. You’re probably hard pressed to guess which one, because doesn’t this describe more than one US Commander-in-Chief? But just to jog our memories a wee bit – before the menace of Donald Trump, there was George W. Bush. This is why you can’t remember the good old days – there weren’t any.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the liberation of Afghan women from the Taliban and the burqa really was one of the justifications for the War on Terror and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Spearheaded by an anti-abortion, homophobic president who could hardly be described even by the most generous commentators as a feminist.
Dubya is not the first to betray this ‘liberal’ contradiction. Lord Cromer, the British controller-general of Egypt in the nineteenth century, believed that Christianity gave women respect, while Islam only degraded them through the practices of veiling and segregation. Cromer, too, wanted to ‘liberate’ Muslim women from the veil. But back home in Britain, he founded and was for a time president of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage.
There’s a name for this double standard. Egyptian-American scholar of Islam Leila Ahmed calls it ‘colonial feminism’, while Indian postcolonial feminist scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak describes it as ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’. We’d like to think the liberal democratic West has moved on, especially in the wake of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, but we’re not holding our breath.
8. Censorship and free speech
If the UK government has its way, the controversial Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill will make it a crime to ‘damage memorials’. This particular provision in the Bill – in the ping-pong stages in Parliament at the time of writing – is in response to ‘widespread upset about the damage and desecration of memorials with a recent spate over the summer of 2020’. This, of course, includes the spectacular toppling of the statue of the slaver Edward Colston in Bristol at the peak of the British Black Lives Matter protests. The Colston Four – anti-racism campaigners Jake Skuse, 33, Rhian Graham, 30, Milo Ponsford, 26 and Sage Willoughby, 22 – were found not guilty by a Bristol crown court. But at the time of writing, the attorney general has referred the case to the Court of Appeal.
Were we to take the government’s argument to its logical conclusion, we might conclude that even in liberal societies, there is a limit to free speech and protest. Even though statues are symbolic and are not living entities – and are possibly offensive to some people – causing ‘damage and desecration’ to them is off limits because it could cause ‘widespread upset’.
Enter the Labour Member of Parliament Naz Shah, who drew parallels between the proposed law and how it could also apply to the ‘emotional harm’ that offensive caricatures of Muhammad could cause Muslims. Shah was immediately vilified and pilloried by the who’s who of the British secularist, libertarian and conservative Christian establishment for allegedly calling for an anti-blasphemy law. Was she? Or was she just asking whether it was one rule for colonial relics and one rule for living, breathing members of religious minority communities?
9. Surveillance and restrictions
The majority of Australians seemed to rejoice when tennis star Novak Djokovic was deported and prevented from defending his Australian Open title in January 2022 for not complying with the country’s Covid vaccination protocols. But wait, said his supporters and anti-vaxxers – was this not a contradiction in a liberal society? Did Nole not have the freedom of choice to oppose ‘someone…forcing me to put something in my body’? Barely a month later, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act to quash protests and blockades against Covid-19 vaccine mandates in Ottawa.
These are merely two of the many Covid-related government interventions – including lockdowns and mask-wearing – that have provoked the ire of those who oppose them purportedly on the grounds of defending their individual liberty. Government restrictions on our lifestyle choices are unacceptable, the argument goes. They amount to a violation of our right to privacy and choice. They are a chilling example of state surveillance, thought policing, and violence towards our bodies and lives.
What salutary liberal principles to defend!
But where were many of these protesters when innocent Muslims were being watched, interrogated, arrested, shot, or jailed under existing counter-terrorism provisions in many Western liberal democracies? Where were they when the many Black men and women were violently stopped and searched – and killed, in the US – by the police?
Perhaps there is a rational, logical way to think about all these issues. This is also an eminently liberal approach to take, since one of modern liberal thought’s main assumptions is the centrality of the human individual as a rational actor in social interactions. As rational actors, individuals will always act in their own self-interest to achieve specific, reasonable goals. A liberal society is therefore one in which rational individuals can come together to negotiate, deliberate and decide on the ways that they are to be governed collectively – the democratic ideal.
This narrative of political liberalism often traces its origins to Classical Athens through the birth of the very concept of ‘democracy’ – from dēmos (people) and kratos (rule) – primarily in the thought of Aristotle (384-322 BC). But Aristotle is not the only Greek philosopher whose legacy continues to shape current liberal thought in the West.
It would be messy and beyond the scope of this List to spend too much time complicating the assumed connection between ‘rationality’, ‘liberalism’ and Greek civilisation. For brevity, let’s just look at Pythagoras (c.570-c.495 BCE). We can all probably recite Pythagoras’s theorem by heart – the square of a triangle’s hypothenuse is the sum of the squares of its other two sides. Foundationally mathematical and eminently rational, right?
But Pythagoras also believed in reincarnation, which is why he and his followers were religiously vegetarian. You would not want to eat a cow because it could have been someone’s uncle in a previous life. It is also said that Pythagoras died at the hands of his enemies when he and his followers were pursued to the end of a bean field but refused to cross it. Why did they refuse to cross the bean field? We’ll never know, because Pythagoreans were also known for keeping to a strict code of secrecy and silence. Entry into the Pythagorean community involved arduous initiation, including undertaking a five-year vow of silence. We do know, however, that Pythagoras and his followers had an intensely esoteric and spiritual understanding of the very concept of numbers.
Such mystical and religiously saturated worldviews are hardly prominent in current discussions about concepts such as liberalism, democracy or rationality. But we might have now strayed from what was meant to be our list of ‘liberal contradictions’, so perhaps we should make like Pythagoras and stop spilling the beans.