Thursday, March 02, 2006

A herd of sacred cows

Timothy Garton-Ash links the issues of animal rights, Danish cartoons, Livingstone and Irving:
"If the intimidators succeed, then the lesson for any group that strongly believes in anything is: shout more loudly, be more extreme, threaten violence, and you will get your way. Frightened firms, newspapers or universities will cave in, as will softbellied democratic states, where politicians scrabble to keep the votes of diverse constituencies. But in our increasingly mixed-up, multicultural world, there are so many groups that care so strongly about so many different things, from fruitarians to anti-abortionists and from Jehovah's Witnesses to Kurdish nationalists. Aggregate all their taboos and you have a vast herd of sacred cows. Let the frightened nanny state enshrine all those taboos in new laws or bureaucratic prohibitions, and you have a drastic loss of freedom. That, I think, is what is happening to us, issue by issue. These days, you can't even read a list of the British war dead in Iraq outside the gates of No 10 Downing Street without getting a criminal record. Inch by inch, paragraph by paragraph, we are becoming less free."
Hear that nail being struck on the head? And Garton-Ash's argument should remind us of the historical reality behind the secular state. Its development is sometimes presented as a sort of straight win for atheism and scepticism over religion. But this fails to account for the way in which the secular state developed more as a mechanism for coping with conflicts between religions. It is no accident that both the Netherlands and the United States have particularly well-developed secular constitutions - both countries have a history of being religiously heterogeneous for longer than most liberal democracies and a state that acts as an umpire, as it were, rather than a player, was the only sensible solution.

Given that the alternatives have been either religious wars where the winner controls the state and enforces religious conformity or the Soviet model, which attempted the elimination of religion, I think a greater appreciation of the human benefits of a state that makes the crucial distinction between a crime and a sin is called for. Because although they profess to hate each other, those who are currently touting "security" as the "real" liberty and accuse anyone who opposes this repressive nonsense in the name of the WoT of being soft on terrorism are working in unconscious concert with those sneering at the very suggestion that the Danish cartoons touch apon an issue of genuine liberty and who scoff at the secular state as if it were merely some dispensable bourgeois contrivance that allows the uneven publication of race-hate. Perhaps future generations will wonder how quite so many people came to be so careless with our freedom - and conclude that liberty in this age, like so many before it, often faces its most severe challenge from the well-meaning.

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