John Keane | Reply by A.C. Grayling to John Keane’s Reflections on A.C. Grayling’s Liberty in the Age of Terror. A Defence of Civil Liberties and Enlightenment Value
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Reply by A.C. Grayling to John Keane’s Reflections on A.C. Grayling’s Liberty in the Age of Terror. A Defence of Civil Liberties and Enlightenment Value

  |   Democracy in the 21st Century   |   1 Comment

This reply was published in the March 2010 issue of The Monthly

John Keane’s comments are rich in a variety of points, all meritingresponse, but I shall focus on their main thrust only in the short space offered me here.

I am unable to infer from them Keane’s own views about liberty of the individual and its central place in civil liberties generally, of the kind that permit people to seek and make lives worth living according to their own talents for doing so. But I detect a worrying suggestion in his remarks that collective rights might trump them sometimes. If so, this draws a sharp line between us, not least because it reflects an old confusion on Keane’s part between collective interests to which free individuals might sign up, and collective rights that trample on consequently unfree individuals who get in the collective’s way. As someone who writes from the liberal left of the political spectrum, I am firmly of the view that collective action in the interests of individuals has to be asserted against collective action that sees individual interests as a potential nuisance. The case for this is made unequivocally clear in Mill – Keane offers it no rebuttal – and it is reinforced by lessons from all history.

My book is about the pressure on civil liberties in the UK with side glances at the US.  I take it that, mutatis mutandis, other polities and dispensations might hear echoes for their own case. This responds to two points in Keane’s remarks. First, my book is about civil liberties, not about democracy, nor is it a treatise on the concept of ‘the West’. I have written about both a number of times elsewhere, and although both are certainly relevant to questions of civil liberties, they are not the target here. Most readers will know perfectly well what I mean by allusions to them, though of course they make excellent targets for off-the-point cavils.

Secondly, Keane’s point that matters might be different in South Africa and Taiwan is entirely obvious; it would have been a vast book that detailed the circumstances in every individual country. But unless Keane seriously wishes us to be radical relativists, let us have the common sense to see that there are general principles at stake which readers in countries not the UK or the US might infer and apply to their own cases.

My antennae prick up when I find myself being called, as Keane in his ad hominem manner calls me, and with no sense of the paradox, a ‘dogmatic fundamentalist’ for defending individual liberties. That is at least amusing! It makes me wonder what different dogmatisms prompt Keane’s opposition to the idea that our long-fought-for freedoms in ‘the West’ (does he really not know what I mean?) are worth defending.

John Keane’s Review‘s abstract:

The latest book of essays by the English liberal philosopher A.C. Grayling confronts readers with a disquieting thought: we are living in times in which the tried-and-tested-and-true precious principles of liberty are endangered by various types of ‘fundamentalism, reaction, and their militant expression’. Grayling’s Liberty Principle (it can be called) lends his liberalism a strong sense of urgency and rightness that leads him to condemn the ‘self-harm’ that he thinks is weakening the spirit and fact of liberty in ‘the West’. Grayling’s approach seems unobjectionable; citizens with a feel for questions of civil liberty might even think his case obvious. Yet in his reflection on Grayling’s approach John Keane argues that tough objections can and should be made to the way he frames his defence of liberty; each reveals the parochialism of Grayling’s book and the defects of John Stuart Mill-style liberalism in the entirely different circumstances of the 21st century.