The title of Roger Scruton’s latest book, The West and the Rest, is deliberately offensive. It loads meaning onto the two terms that internally rhyme, cleaving the world into two camps: on the one hand, the ‘West’, which has a name and is therefore legitimate; and on the other, the ‘Rest’, worthy only of a negative status, the surplus of the first category.
Whilst the true thesis of The West and the Rest is no more diplomatic than its title implies, it is a shade subtler. Roger’s absolute faith in the superiority of liberal democracy is no justification for its exportation to the ‘Rest’. In essence, he comes down against the globalisation phenomenon; on the grounds that the projection of the values of tolerance and plurality to parts of the world that respond only to sacred and non-negotiable axioms is an act of aggression, and one which has directly led to an insurgence of terrorist activity against the West.
The anti-globalisation movement is not all No Logo. Indeed, Ms Klein may well balk at Roger’s argument that, to guarantee its own security, the West must cease trying to shine the light of civilisation around the globe, shore up its borders, break up multilateral institutions and revert to the nation state. Most of all, it must dismantle the perniciously relativist practice of ‘multiculturalism’ – a toxic product of postmodernism that dissolves the ties that bind society together and provide communities with what all humans quest after: a sense of membership. Indeed, between the fraternity of Islamism and the fragmentation of Western culture, Roger’s argument betrays a perverse admiration for the former.
This is the paradox, or downright contradiction, of Roger’s thesis; the flipside of which is his contention that the superiority of Western culture derives from its ‘disinterested pursuit of truth’ and its ‘willingness to embrace secular loyalties that deprive the world of absolutes’. Yet at the same time relativism – the logical consequence of rejecting the absolute – is severely criticised for disenfranchising its adherents of their own culture. Roger criticises multiculturalism, yet the monoculturalism of Islamic society is, according to The West and the Rest, precisely what makes it so inferior to its Western counterpart.
‘If I were to mean that then of course the whole thing is unstable’, is Roger’s response. This is an idea that he emphatically rejects, preferring to believe that the Western decision to abandon the principle of the absolute is an absolutely good principle.
So what does this mean in the context of contemporary geopolitics? The West and the Rest was written ‘post-9/11’ but we spoke in March 2003, whilst bombs were falling over Baghdad. The American neo-conservative project to democratise the Middle East is one which he believes is ‘an admirable thing to want to do, in the sense that the motives are entirely good ones’. Roger is deeply sceptical of its likely efficacy, however, just as he is on the question of whether Turkey can ever be truly ‘Westernised’, since ‘the emergence of secular democracy in Europe is a construct of the Christian religion, there’s no doubt about that. The Christian religion actually in conjunction with Roman law. These are the two great in-puts into secular democracy. Whether the kind of secular jurisdiction that we enjoy can be propagated in the Middle-East is one of the great questions of our time.’
Despite his doubts, faced with the ‘existential choice’ of what to do about rogue states and the terrorist threat, Roger believes Tony Blair was right to side with the Americans, judging it the first time the Prime Minister has ‘acted like a statesman rather than a spin doctor’. By contrast, he remains profoundly suspicious of the United Nations, which, as an institution, ‘actually makes things worse’, by giving legitimacy to tyrants and allowing them to dress their envoys up as the voices of the people.
Roger Scruton’s attacks on multilateralism would be more powerful if he addressed some of the inconsistency of his own logic (why does he support the war in Iraq if he does not believe it can lead to secular democracy?), as well as the impossibility of his proposed remedy – the notion that the globalisation process might somehow be abandoned seems unlikely. Perhaps the answer is to accept, and not to rail against, the fact that ‘the whole thing is unstable’, and to come up with some kind of a strategy in the face of that frightening reality.