Bill Maher 1, Ben Affleck 0

The Real Time host’s spat with the Gone Girl star gets to the heart of a major and longtime problem within contemporary Western liberalism

10.05.14 10:10 PM ET

Every once in a great while, something happens on television that you know while you’re watching it: Well, this is unusual. Those old enough to know what I’m talking about when I say “Al Campanis”  will remember that that was one of your more extreme cases. The exchange between Bill Maher and Ben Affleck on last Friday’s Real Time wasn’t a Campanis moment, but I knew instantly—watching it in, well, real time, as it were—that this was going to spark discussion,  as indeed it has.

In case you missed it, the two—both committed and thoughtful liberals—got into it on the question of whether Western liberals can or should criticize Islam. Mentioning freedom of speech and equal rights, Maher said: “These are liberal principles that liberals applaud for, but then when you say in the Muslim world, this is what’s lacking, then they get upset.” Sam Harris, the atheist author, agreed with Maher and said, “The crucial point of confusion is that we have been sold this meme of Islamophobia where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people. That is intellectually ridiculous.” Affleck, as if on cue, challenged Harris: “Are you the person who understands the officially codified doctrine of Islam?” And then: “So you’re saying that Islamophobia is not a real thing?” Right after, Affleck said that such criticisms of Islam were “gross” and “racist” and “like saying [to Maher] ‘you’re a shifty Jew.’”

It was cracking good TV, but it was more—it hit home because they were describing one of the most important debates within liberalism of the last...10 years certainly, as pertains to Islam, but 40 or 50 years as relates to arguments between the developed and the developing world, and close to a century when it comes to discussions of how culture should affect our understanding of universal, or as some would have it “universal,” principles. Reluctance to criticize the failures of other cultures has been a problem within contemporary liberalism, with negative consequences I’ll go into below. So this liberal is firmly on Maher’s side, even as I recognize that his rendering is something of a caricature.

Here’s some quick history for you. First, the Enlightenment happened, and humankind developed the idea of universal rights. ’Round about the 1920s, some scholars in the then-newish field of cultural anthropology started to argue that all rights, or at least values, were not universal, and that we (the West) should be careful about imposing our values on societies with traditions and customs so removed from our own.

A big moment here came with the debate over the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which asserted the universalist position without apology and which was pushed mostly by mainstream political liberals (Eleanor Roosevelt most notably). There were many critiques of the declaration from what we would today call “the left,” but those voices had little juice in those days, and when the UN adopted the declaration, it was a great victory for liberalism.

Fade in, fade out. Then came the anti-colonialist uprisings of the 1950s, Frantz Fanon, postmodern political theory, Vietnam, the Israeli occupation, the intifada, et cetera et cetera. All of these and many other kindred events seeped into the liberal bloodstream, still rich in universalist cells but now also coursing with the competing cells of cultural relativism (invariably a pejorative these days, although it wasn’t always).

And so, yes, we have seen in recent years from liberalism, or at least from some liberals (a crucial distinction, in fact), an unwillingness to criticize the reactionary aspects or expressions of other cultures, expressions that these liberals would have no hesitation whatsover in criticizing if they were exhibited by, say, Southern white Christians.

The most obvious example that comes to mind is that of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Muslim-African-Dutch-and-finally-American feminist intellectual. She of course is famous, now mostly for some of her more incendiary comments, but recall how she first became so: She and her collaborator, Theo van Gogh, had made a film critical of the oppression of women in the Muslim world. He was murdered, and she received death threats. She fled to the United States.

Now, here was a key moment: When she came to America in 2006, where was Hirsi Ali going to plant her flag? As she tells the story in her book Nomad, she met with liberal and conservative outfits. She says the liberal ones were “tentative” in their support for her and her ideas, but the conservative American Enterprise Institute embraced her totally, even though on certain issues (like abortion rights) she’s no conservative.

Hirsi Ali, of course, has subsequently gone on to say, quite controversially, that not just radical Islam but “Islam, period” must be “defeated.” But here’s the question: Before she started talking like that, why was she unable to find a home within American liberalism? It should be, and should have been, a core part of the mission of liberalism to support secular humanists and small-d democrats from all over the world, but from the Muslim world in particular. Most of these people are themselves liberals by Western standards, and they are desperate for the United States to do what it can to oppose the theocracies and autocracies under which they’re forced to live. 

Maher, and certainly conservative critics, overstate the extent to which liberals fail to make common cause with such folks. Christian evangelicals who do work on, say, genital mutilation (which Hirsi Ali suffered) get a lot more attention in the media, because it’s more “interesting” that white conservatives give a crap about something happening to nonwhite women halfway across the world. But as the writer Michelle Goldberg pointed out in a review of Hirsi Ali’s Nomad for the journal I edit, Democracy, numerous women’s organizations and feminist groups do work to advance women’s rights in the Muslim world. 

Goldberg wrote: “A few years ago, I visited Tasaru Ntomonok, which is the kind of place Hirsi Ali would probably love—it’s a Kenyan shelter that houses and educates girls fleeing female genital mutilation and forced marriage. Among its supporters are the high profile feminist Eve Ensler, the feminist NGO Equality Now, and the United Nations Population Fund, a bête noire of many conservatives. There are similar grassroots organizations working toward women’s liberation all over the world.”

Even so, Maher has identified a problem within Western liberalism today. Debates about multiculturalism are appropriate to a later stage of development of the infrastructure of rights and liberties than one finds in some other parts of the world. That infrastructure has existed in Western countries for a century, and it is the very fact that it was so solidly entrenched that opened up the space for us to start having debates about multiculturalism in the 1970s and ’80s. 

But in much of the Arab and Muslim world, that infrastructure barely exists. So—and how’s this for a paradox?—to insist that our Western standards that call for multiculturalist values should be applied to countries that haven’t yet fully developed the basic rights infrastructure constitutes its own kind of imposition of our values onto them. A liberated woman or a gay man who lives in a country where being either of those things is at best unaccepted and at worst illegal doesn’t need multiculturalism. They’re desperate for a little universalism, and we Western liberals need to pay more attention to this.