On Žižek on Charlie: Chicken soup for the liberal democratic soul

Slavoj Žižek has penned a response to the Charlie Hebdo attack in the New Statesman. It purports to be a view, from the “radical Left,” of the psychology of fundamentalist violence and the failure of liberal democracy to confront this meaningfully. Denuded of its eloquent language and erudite references, however, Žižek provides us with nothing more than a few trite clichés that fit well within the liberal democratic paradigm.

Žižek opens his argument with an “unambiguous” condemnation of the attack, “without any hidden caveats.” He does, however, assert that we need “the courage to think” in response to the attack. There have been other responses to the attack that one might consider thoughtful; Žižek, presumably, considers them otherwise. One wonders how he comes to this conclusion. Perhaps because they do not come to the same conclusion as he does.

So what is his conclusion? Žižek summons Horkheimer’s critique of Fascism into the modern era: “those who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.” As “hidden caveats” go, this is a doozy. We must, apparently, condemn the Charlie Hebdo attack without any caveats, but can only do so if we are also willing to criticize liberal democracy.

Žižek wants us to believe that liberal democracy on its own is insufficient bulwark against religious fundamentalism; it needs “the brotherly help of the radical Left.”

The heart of Žižek’s argument is that the fear that liberal democrats have of religious fundamentalism is misplaced because the frequent contrast between the soft contentment of democracy and the “passionate intensity” of the religious fundamentalist is likewise misplaced.

Žižek wants to convince us of two related claims. First, “authentic” fundamentalism does not preach violence or hate; it has benevolent indifference towards non-believers. Secondly, and consequently, the Hebdo attackers must have lacked true faith. Žižek of course expresses his arguments much more elegantly than this, but stripped of cultural references to Nietzsche, Yeats, Horkheimer and Tibetan Buddhism, this is what remains. It is fatuous, and it is wrong.

There is much serious psychological research on the psychology of violent extremism, and while existential concerns certainly play a role in the account they give, there is far more to it than this. Indeed, Žižek’s claims here look more like a trite liberal democratic platitude than any thoughtful radical alternative. Real faith is peaceful and tolerant; people who preach violence lack real faith.

This would be nice, but there is little evidence to support it. Of course there are certainly “fundamentalist” religious movements that preach “indifference” towards non-believers, but this is really insufficient to claim that all violent fundamentalists hence lack faith. Short of offering a radical leftist critique, this is steeped in a contemporary liberal Christian ethic that wants to convince us that all faiths are, in essence, united by peace, tolerance and harmony.

There is no need here to rehash the extensive exhortations to violence against non-believers in the scriptures and theologies of many of the world religions. Žižek points us to Tibetan Buddhism as an example of the kind of tolerant fundamentalism he considers “authentic” and he does well to attach the Tibetan qualifier: in Myanmar, some Buddhist monks have been central to a coordinated campaign of religious violence against the Muslim Rohingya. Žižek might arrogate to himself the ability to pronounce of the respective “authenticity” of these two varieties of Buddhism, but his grounds for doing so seem little more than a desire to sneer at those we fear. “The problem with fundamentalists is not that we consider them inferior to us, but, rather, that they themselves secretly consider themselves inferior.” All bullies are really cowards; all religious extremists lack real faith.

Žižek solution to the problem of violent extremism points to the necessity of engaging with a “renewed Left.” Yet his own analysis is little more than the “smug self-satisfaction of a permissive liberal” that he derides. If all the radical Left has to offer is cheap platitudes dressed up in cultural references and erudite language—Chicken Soup for the Liberal Democratic Soul—then I think liberal democracy can do quite well without it.


This is a guest post from Graham Brown, who shares my DNA and, apparently, ranty infuriation with posturing old pseuds. Unlike me, however, he gets paid to use big words, and actually seems to know what he’s talking about too.

Cultured ignorance

Our eminent Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, has written to The Times (paywall) to decry the horrendous slaughter of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, and amen to that. However, he closes his letter with the following comments:

We have come a long way since the Ancient Greeks, who were so appalled by the views and opinions of Socrates that they forced him to drink hemlock. Thousands of years have passed since the Gadfly of Athens died, yet his writings—work that the authorities of the day tried to suppress as dangerous and subversive—continue to be some of the most widely read and influential in the world.

We should not, I suppose, be surprised that our Culture Secretary is spectacularly ignorant of a basic, rather well-known cultural fact—that Socrates wrote nothing. This is, after all, the government that gave us an Equalities Minister who voted against gay marriage, and a Defence Secretary whose idea of national security clearance included the criterion of being his best mate. It is not this that particularly preoccupies me.

What I find rather more problematic is the bemoaning of the treatment of Socrates. Socrates had the benefit of being tried in an open court. Socrates was granted the privilege of knowing who his accusers were—even two and a half millennia later, so do we. Socrates was permitted to know the charges and the evidence against him. Socrates was permitted to conduct his own defence. None of these basic freedoms are available under Javid’s government’s secret courts. Javid, the medium notwithstanding, is correct that the Athenians sought to suppress the speech of a man they considered dangerous—and we are to take it that he faults them for it. Hemlock may no longer be the preferred method, but this is exactly what his own government seeks to do.

Our Culture Secretary’s ignorance of culture does not anger me much. His stinking hypocrisy, however, rather more substantially does.

Good British fun

It’s been a wet weekend in São Paulo, and as I don’t really know anyone here, and the much-needed rain has been a decided discouragement to exploration, I’ve been largely at a loose end, just going to the gym, moseying around shopping centres, and chowing down on awesome mineiro food. Not a great many opportunities for fun.

I was delighted, therefore, to find that the United Kingdom Independence Party has offered its members the chance to not only have fun, but even win prizes, by rating how much they hate—sorry, “feel close to”—different social groups. Groups like “Eastern Europeans,” “Blacks,” “Muslims,” “Asians.” Give ’em a score from 0 to 10! What fun! What good, British, fun.

Alas, the survey has either been taken down or is in a members-only part of the site, so I could not fill it in. But even with the few examples from the screen shots, it turned out to be a perplexing rather than a fun task. For some reason—some hideous, progressive, rational reason—I found myself totally incapable of asserting how close I felt to such large and heterogenous groups.

So, simple-minded man that I am, I decided to have a go at version of my own, using individuals. I know, I know. Such a failure of abstractive ability. I decided to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, how utterly, irredeemably, loathsomely vile I found the following detrita of humanity:

Turns out they all got a 10. But then I had to go and allow an 11 for the man who defends, in part or whole, all these people; who aligns his party with a Holocaust-denier so far-right that the French National Front will not associate with him; who happily co-chairs an EU Parliament group with a man who thinks that Anders Breivik has “ideas … in defence of western civilisation”; who feels awkward when he cannot hear English being spoken in a train carriage; who selects the war-mongering autocrat Vladimir Putin as the statesman he most admires; who would ban migrants with HIV from entering the UK; who thinks that his party only “possibly” should not accept funds from a man who denies the existence of marital rape; who sought the endorsement of Enoch Powell, and twice asked him to stand for his party; whose election materials slam funding of Eurocrats but boasts of having received £2m in expenses, expenses which repeatedly look like they have been fiddled; who thinks breast-feeding mothers should sit in corners and not be “ostentatious”; who poses as a man of the people yet considers his £79,000 salary (before expenses, fiddled or otherwise) makes him “poor”; and who is “proud” that former BNP voters now vote for him.

I think I must have got something wrong though. I didn’t, in the end, find this exercise in hatred any fun at all. I just found it terribly, terribly, terribly depressing.