Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Some enraged squirrels and something more on tolerance

Somewhat randomly, I've run across a couple of worthwhile bits of prose since returning from Britain.

In the Guardian, George Monbiot vents some well-justified anger and frustration at September 11th conspiracy nuts, whom he compares to enraged squirrels:

The 9/11 conspiracy theories are a displacement activity. A displacement activity is something you do because you feel incapable of doing what you ought to do. A squirrel sees a larger squirrel stealing its horde of nuts. Instead of attacking its rival, it sinks its teeth into a tree and starts ripping it to pieces. Faced with the mountainous challenge of the real issues we must confront, the chickens in the "truth" movement focus instead on a fairytale, knowing that nothing they do or say will count, knowing that because the perpetrators don't exist, they can't fight back. They demonstrate their courage by repeatedly bayoneting a scarecrow.

In The Spectator, John Gray has some good words for 'tolerance' (access requires registration):

The radically plural society we find ourselves in today is not a transitional phase leading to a point, some time in the future, when we will have the same fundamental values. It is the way we can expect to live from now onwards. There may be nothing intrinsically good about this sort of diversity but it is a fact, and teleological liberalism is a poor guide to negotiating the difficulties it brings. Luckily there is another liberal tradition in which the goal of toleration is not agreement, still less truth, but peace.

This is the sort of viewpoint - which has the avoidance of violent social conflict rather than the achievement of fundamental consensus as its central goal - which I think motivates Ian Buruma's perspectives on tolerance and integration in Murder in Amsterdam and elsewhere. Obviously, it sets the bar rather low as far as social integration and universal rights go. But I think their argument is more a practical one concerned with what is possible rather than what would, ideally, be desirable.

Which is not always a satisfying position, perhaps. But it may be all we can realistically hope for.

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