1979 was a watershed. Being a first year undergraduate at the London School of Economics, it did not feel a significant year. There was none of the revolutionary fervour of the 1960s of which older people spoke with varying degrees of affection, but it was the year that saw the breakthrough of neo-liberalism in the victory of Margaret Thatcher in the British General Election and the triumph of Islamic fundamentalism in the revolution in Iran.
The political texts we studied were still in the English liberal tradition. There seemed no reason why John Stuart Mill’s ideas of liberty should not be the basis of the ordering of world affairs, an individual being allowed to exercise his or her freedom up to the extent that it did not infringe the freedom of others. The idea that small groups, or even large groups, should presume to impose their codes upon everyone else was alien to such thought of liberty. Yet even in 1979 there were lecturers warning of change – totalitarianism in 1979 meant Soviet Communism but one academic was persistent in his warning of the totalitarianism that would come with theocracy.
Perhaps neo-liberalism caused us to miss what was coming, it seemed to represent the triumph of individualism. There seemed nothing that could trump free market economics, but the changes that began in 1979 continued.
Visiting Vancouver in 2008, I bought a copy of Mark Steyn’s “America Alone.” Steyn is an openly Right wing polemicist and I expected the book to be provocative. He argued in the prologue to his book,
The refined antennae of Western liberals mean that whenever one raises the question of whether there will be any Italians living in the geographical zone marked as Italy a generation or three hence, they cry, “Racism!” To agitate about what proportion of the population is “white” is grotesque and inappropriate. But it’s not about race; it’s about culture. If 100 percent of your population believes in liberal pluralist democracy, it doesn’t matter whether 70 percent of them are “white” or only 5 percent are. But if one part of your population believes in liberal pluralist democracy and the other doesn’t, then it becomes a matter of great importance whether the part that does is 90 percent of the population or only 60 percent, or 50, or 45 percent. Which is why that question lies at the heart of almost any big international news story of recent years-the French riots, the attacks on Danish embassies and consulates over the publication of cartoons of Mohammed, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, Turkey’s membership in the European Union, Pakistani riots over Newsweek’s Koran-down-the-toilet story. Whenever I make that point, lefties always respond, “Oh, well, that’s typical right-wing racism.” In fact, it ought to be the Left’s issue. I’m a “social conservative.” When the mullahs take over, I’ll grow my beard a little fuller, get a couple extra wives, and keep my head down. It’s the feminists and gays who’ll have a tougher time. If, say, three of the five judges on the Massachusetts Supreme Court are Muslim, what are the chances of them approving “gay marriage”? That’s the scenario Europe’s looking at a few years down the road.
Steyn’s scenario is still only one possibility; the old fashioned liberty of Mill is not dead. But the events of this week emphasize a need for liberalism to be vigorously defended.