By William Hall
I’m starting to dislike the term ‘progressive’. What are we progressing towards, exactly? An end to slavery? Hey, don’t worry, we abolished that evil practice back in the 19th century. Perhaps we’re striving for women’s equality under the law? Oops, the suffragettes handled that back in 1920s. I know- gay rights! Surely here we’ve found a minority group for whom to march through the streets, wave placards and chant in unison. Alas, Cameron’s fusty old conservatives passed the equal marriage act in 2015. If one adopts the identity of ‘progressive’ or, better yet, builds a career in progressive activism, can that identity and/or career survive in a truly egalitarian society? What comes of the soldiers when all the wars are won?
The American presidential visit on the 13th of July saw thousands descend upon central London for a day of recreational activism. The processions came together like a somewhat lazily-attended carnival, with cheery young families and squinting old couples contrasting strangely against flamboyant LGBT agitators and bleary, iPhone-pawing socialists. Really more of a stroll than a march.
And of course crowds flocked to the main event. One tries to remain relatively impartial, but when an inflatable caricature of the American president attracts adults in their hundreds, one can’t help but endure a certain national embarrassment. The Europeans greet Trump as the critically important ally he is, while the Brits erect a puerile balloon effigy of the man and parade it through the streets like some looted bronze-age god-idol. It was an impeccable portrait for the times- a cartoon villain incessantly mocked in the heavens while the beleaguered masses sigh, shrug and get on with their grinding commutes in the shaded streets. However, for me the festivities reached their climax during a brief, open-air reading from the performing poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan.
Manzoor-Khan’s recital began predictably enough. Her preamble claimed that ‘we are living in a racist, sexist, homophobic, violent, colonialist world,’ an assertion that I, and I’m sure the majority of the British public, would seriously dispute. From her pulpit she went on to preach of a world in which ‘women are living in genocidal times’, and that virtuous women should ‘look for more than representation, though, and call for reparation.’ Comparing women living in our societies to slaves? Poetic licence, perhaps. Perhaps. But one statement stood out in this sermon as uniquely delusional and brazenly anti-intellectual:
‘Ask the questions that scare you. Ask if the liberals are really different from the fascists. The liberals will surveil the Muslims, the fascists will remove us, but what’s the difference when both techniques dehumanise and destroy?’
It’s likely that the organisers of this event booked Manzoor-Khan as a speaker because they admired her anti-colonialist message or became enamoured with her paradoxical Muslim-feminist identity. It’s possible that they had no idea she would do something as flat-out insane as to equate liberals with fascists. Just another fringe activist, I thought. Another lone radical booked by lazy left-wing organisers who can’t be bothered to interrogate the axiom of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But the most curious and disturbingly climactic moment came when she concluded her poem. The crowd erupted into applause.
Liberals are fascists. Could that be the standard now? A crowd of little more than one hundred anti-Trump demonstrators is hardly representative of public opinion, left-wing opinion or indeed whatever is currently fashionable within the labour party, but the last decade has shown that, on the left at least, fringe ideas are capable of migrating to the centre ground. Over the years we’ve been persuaded to accept that race should be an important factor in BBC recruitment drives; that parodying the Nazis should land you an £800 fine for hate speech; and that Islam is a race and therefore above criticism. If Manzoor-Khan’s message is found to be progressive, could her ideas make their way into the popular left-wing chants? Could those who liberated Europe become the real Nazis?
A few months ago the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, in the midst of a televised debate, said something that still resonates through my skull to this day. Peterson was asked to argue against the resolution of ‘Be it resolved, what you call political correctness, I call progress.’ He made the point that, in general, right-wingers find it easier to identify and cut off their radical fringe than left-wingers. And when discussing left-wing extremism, he stated that he’d “like to figure out exactly how and when (the left can go too far) so that the reasonable left can make its ascendance again.”
Peterson’s quote found me again amid the whistles and clapping following Manzoor-Khan’s absurd poem. Call me alarmist or a prophet of doom, but something is very wrong in our culture when the insinuation that there is no difference between liberals and fascists may go un-booed and wildly cheered. Where is the publicly visible distinction between the centre-left and the far-left? When does the progressive become pathological? Perhaps anything goes when we’re protesting Donald Trump.
We cannot surrender the left-wing of politics to censorious radicals and theocratic thugs. Regardless of whatever political label you happen to have adopted, it is in the interests of society as a whole to maintain a political voice for the poor and disadvantaged- those who find themselves throwing their vote at the Tory party in the vain hope of reducing immigration to manageable levels, -those millions of working people who find themselves routinely repulsed by manifestations of the modern left’s obsession with race and gender.
We must identify the anti-enlightenment wherever it rears its ugly head- be it in the internet-dwelling, white-identitarian alt-right, the sharia-enforcing Islamic world or the plague of progressive politics currently infesting the left-wing thought bubble. Perhaps the propagation of the ‘Liberalist’ label could popularise the adoption of liberal principles over progressive dogma, allowing the left to recalibrate as a derivation of classically liberal axioms and distance itself from the creeping, beguiling totalitarianism of its fringes. Or perhaps we should simply scoff at and dismiss any call for a return to principles, slipping ever further into polarisation and social-media echo chambers.