The other week I read Nick Cohen's 'What's Left' back to back with Ian McEwan's 'Saturday'. Though I can admire the skill, I never warm to McEwan's novels, but this one seems to have become a cultural reference point beyond the usual literary quarters. The thoughts of Henry Perowne, whom it follows through the Saturday of the huge 2003 anti-war march, provide a starting point for George Monbiot's 'Heat'. Meanwhile, Cohen's polemic against the anti-war left is like having Perowne's opinions stripped of all ambivalence and shouted through a megaphone from six inches in front of your face.
It's not just that Cohen quotes and elaborates on the passage in which Perowne recoils at the levity of the march:
All this happiness on display is suspect. Everyone is thrilled to be together out on the streets - people are hugging themselves, it seems, as well as each other. If they think - and they could be right - that continued torture and summary executions, ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide are preferable to an invasion, they should be sombre in their view. [p.69]
More than this, so many of Perowne's preoccupations are reproduced at length in Cohen's book. I want to look at one of these in more detail, but it may be worth saying that I'm not suggesting Cohen is somehow piggybacking on McEwan's work. Rather, both reflect the opinions of their generation of leftish, intellectualish writers and high-end journalists, which like most such generations has undergone a middle-age spread to the right - but which, unlike most, has done so with a tone of self-righteousness more familiar to adolescence, which finds (not unreasonable) justification in the excesses of their bêtes noires on the illiberal left.
But back to the thoughts of Henry Perowne. Like Cohen, he draws a connection between what disturbs him in the anti-war movement and the legacy of postmodernism:
Waiting at red lights, he watches three figures in black burkhas emerge from a taxi on Devonshire Place... He can't help his distaste, it's visceral. How dismal that anyone sould be obliged to walk around so entirely obliterated... And what would the relativists say, the cheerful pessimists from Daisy's college? That it's sacred, traditional, a stand against the fripperies of Western consumerism? [pp.123-4]
The thing about 'cultural relativism' is that people take such absolute positions on it. Criticism of it generally leads to the kind of black-and-white, us-and-them attitudes around which Perowne swings according to mood and on one side of which Cohen lands with the nuance of a tonne of bricks. In his terms, "You have to choose which side you are on, and those who don't usually end up as the biggest villains of all."
Once someone is thinking in such terms, any attempt to persuade them that the world is (in important ways) more complex than their description of it tends to be heard as an appeal to exactly the thing they are attacking. So I was pleased to read a post from Anthony McCann (he of the long breakfasts) yesterday which offers a critique of cultural relativism from someone who recognises its uses. What provoked Anthony's thoughts was a post from an academic colleague expressing a familiar attitude:
Our job is to document, study, and put in context cultural phenomena, not to judge it. We may as persons have opinions about appropriateness of certain phenomena, and as sensitive individuals we may forgo studying materials that we find personally offensive, but that is as far as it goes. Everything human is there for a reason and if we understand it, then we can come to terms with it.
For Anthony (and for me) this is not good enough:
I think as professional thinkers and academics, with the financial luxuries and political privileges that entails, there is an onus on the likes of us to work as hard as we can to craft more respectful attitudes, more politically appropriate positions, more personally accountable understandings, to make our crafting visible, and to invite others to engage in similar work.
Nevertheless, he acknowledges, the practise of cultural relativism can play a (limited) part in this process:
Cultural relativism works, for me, merely as a position of critique, whereby people who assume privileged, unassailable positions of 'Truth' are reminded that there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies.
To Perowne or Cohen, that may sound like such common sense as to be trivial - but my impression is that it's when we think of this as trivial that we are most likely also to treat our own "privileged, unassailable positions of 'Truth'" as common sense.