Right-wingers are rarely open about their disdain for individual rights. AfriForum’s deputy CEO, Ernst Roets, is.
We should welcome the assault on liberal democracy from the pen of Ernst Roets, the deputy CEO of minority rights lobby AfriForum.
He has nailed his illiberal, paleo-conservative colours to the mast, and made it clear that people like him can never be allies of those – like classical liberals – who defend the people’s rights and freedoms against the tyranny of the majority and the depredations of the oppressive state.
Paleo-conservatives, broadly speaking, support nationalism, ethnic homogeneity, traditional Christian family values, and a decentralised, protectionist, anti-immigration government. (See the description of paleo-conservatism in the words of Britannica, in the words of Wikipedia, and in the words of Conservapedia.)
I have long argued that classical liberals should not, merely because they share a common enemy in socialism, tolerate nationalism, conservatism, or the religious right (not to be confused with religion in general).
Illiberal collectivism is a curse on both the left and the right, as Roets amply demonstrates in his broadside against liberal democracy.
He quotes Ryszard Legutko, an obscure Polish academic and politician who is popular on the far right, to the effect that ‘liberal democracy eventually leads to socialism’.
Legutko is somewhat notorious for his belief that homophobia is ‘a totally fictitious problem’ and that ‘Christians are the group that have been discriminated against, not the homosexuals.’
For the record, homosexuals never criminalised Christian worship, never condemned Christians to prison or death, and never physically attacked Christians, unlike Christians, who declared homosexuality to be a sin, criminalised homosexual intercourse, hounded homosexuals out of jobs, and beat homosexuals in the streets.
The belief among Christians that they are victims of persecution is largely a case of projection. The refusal of non-Christians to be subjected to Christian law is not persecution. This persecution complex is quite ironic in light of the Christian reluctance to acknowledge the victimhood claims of groups that Christians historically discriminated against, and sometimes still discriminate against.
Legutko not only does not believe in equal rights for homosexuals, but he does not believe anyone has any inalienable rights, or any rights whatsoever. He rejects both natural rights and human rights.
Likewise, he does not believe in the inherent value of any form of freedom, other than an ‘inner freedom’ achieved through religious piety. He therefore argues that political systems based on individual liberty are nonsensical.
His main objection to liberal democracies is that, like communism, they restrict his freedom of expression.
Almost by definition, liberal democracies do not restrict freedom of expression, except sometimes at the extreme margins.
So it must be that Legutko is miffed either that some liberal democracies do not allow him to discriminate against, or whip up hatred for, people of other races, people with religious beliefs other than his own, or people who practice sexual behaviours of which he disapproves, or that he is being criticised, ostracised or denied private platforms because of his extremist views.
His rather odd notion that ‘liberal democracy leads to socialism’ appears to be based entirely on the observation that both share the goal to secularise society. Legutko considers liberalism an attack on his religion.
Again, for the record, while communists did criminalise Christian worship, liberal democracies have never attacked Christians, repressed them, closed their churches, or banned their worship. Even strident opponents of religion, like myself, would not dream of doing so, and accord believers the same liberal rights and freedoms that accrue to anyone else.
Legutko opposes the tyranny of communism but seeks to replace it with the tyranny of religion and cultural homogeneity. He considers toleration in a multicultural society to be ‘stifling’, particularly of his desire not to tolerate non-Christians and people who look or act differently.
That Roets quotes him approvingly is, perhaps, no surprise.
Legutko (and by approval, Roets) argues in defence of ‘the ideas that formed the foundation of Western civilisation over millennia’, by which he means ‘old ideas, stemming particularly from Jerusalem, Athens and Rome’, and which, he says, both socialism and liberal democracies reject.
Since liberal democracies certainly do not reject the legacy of the Greeks, who made great advances in mathematics and philosophy, or the legacy of the Romans, who made great progress in architecture, engineering, government, and military power, the point of contention must be the legacy of Jerusalem, which is limited to the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Roets believes that one of those religions was central to the development of Western civilisation, and no prizes for guessing which one.
Yet, for a thousand years, the people and institutions who advanced this religion were incapable of replicating the technology – the great roads, the monumental architecture, the city walls, the aqueducts, the marble statuary, the mosaicked floors, the water-borne sewerage – of the ancient Romans.
They instead built their great halls out of wood, with holes in the roof to let the smoke out. They built their homes with thatch on wattle-and-daub. Their main roads were Roman roads, because their own roads were muddy cart tracks. Their cities were stinking, disease-ridden agglomerations of hovels. The overwhelming majority of their people, outside the small minority lucky enough to be born into nobility, lived short, brutal lives in serfdom, poverty, or slavery.
For a thousand years, their advances on Greek science and philosophy were meagre. They burnt books and art and people. They restricted reading and writing, suitably emaciated by censorship, to a small elite whose job it was to impose authoritarian rule at every level of society. They invented grotesque tortures and cruel execution methods to punish anyone who did not show the appropriate degree of respect for their religious authority.
For a thousand years, they imposed their anti-scientific, regressive, racist, prejudiced and superstitious fetters upon society, by force of violence.
Actual civilisation was advancing far from ‘the West’. Arabs, Persians and Indians preserved and advanced much of the ancient Greek knowledge that Roets now praises. The Chinese had a civilisation far more advanced than anything the Judaeo-Christian West could muster for a millennium.
It wasn’t until Gutenberg’s printing press broke the Church’s monopoly on knowledge that Western society became sufficiently free and tolerant to embark on what we today call the Enlightenment.
Not all Enlightenment thinkers were atheists, rejecting any authority churches had over their freedom of thought and expression. All, however, supported freedom of religion and the peaceful co-existence of different churches, denominations, religions and beliefs, including non-belief.
The entirety of what we today call Western civilisation followed from the separation of church and state, and the establishment of individual rights and freedoms against the arbitrary exercise of power by the state and the repression of knowledge by the church.
Later, in the 19th century, the principles of individual freedom brought further progress and extraordinary prosperity as the collectivist ideologies of imperialism, colonialism, and mercantilism gave way to liberal democracies, free trade, and free markets. Those principles, which we today call classical liberal principles, continue to lift people from poverty and oppression even today.
Roets gets very confused when he says that ‘any form of democracy that doesn’t comply with the criteria for liberal democracy in particular is regarded as “undemocratic”’.
No, it isn’t. It is regarded as illiberal, not undemocratic. A constitution is intended to protect the liberty of individuals against the tyranny of the majority. A liberal constitution is what makes a liberal democracy liberal.
It is entirely possible to have illiberal democracies. In fact, in the previous paragraph, Roets himself defended the illiberal democracy of Victor Orbán, which ‘put God, the nation and the family at the center [sic] of Hungarian identity’.
He is equally confused about American democracy, which he claims is not based on individualism but on ‘a strong sense of community’. Americans will be stunned to hear that.
Individualism is a core element of American ideology and identity. The US Bill of Rights is a landmark in the codification of individual rights and liberties, which it protects against the will of the majority and the violent power of the state. It also codifies church-state separation.
Roets proceeds to cite the Bible: ‘In the New Testament, for example, the Apostle Paul clearly links the notion of freedom to responsibility and to sacrifice, particularly self-sacrifice. To be free is not to “indulge in the flesh” (Galatians 5:13), but rather to live in the fruit of the spirit, i.e. to do good in obedience to God, and not to promote your own interests at the expense of others.’
Roets and the Apostle Paul are clearly unable to distinguish between libertinism (indulging in ‘sin’, hedonism, the pleasures of the flesh) and liberalism (a political system founded upon the political autonomy of the individual, governed under the rule of law by the consent of the governed with guaranteed civil liberties against the exercise of arbitrary authority).
In Paul’s case, this is, perhaps, forgiveable, because he was a primitive fellow with no knowledge of modern political theory. Roets really ought to know better.
To be ‘free’, ‘in obedience to God’, is an obvious oxymoron.
One is, of course, entirely free to choose to be obedient to God. However, that freedom also means one should be free to choose not to be obedient to Roets’s personal preference in gods.
Roets appears to expect such obedience of others and seeks to establish a government subject to such obedience. Since he would never tolerate a government subject to obedience to any other god, or no god at all, this violates the freedom to choose that he seeks for himself.
If Roets wants to ‘put God, the nation and the family at the centre of identity’, and proposes this as a basis for government, he violates the freedom of anyone who does not share his collectivist ideology, or his God, or his nationalism, or his conservatism, or his definition of ‘family’ and ‘family values’, or his identity.
Roets must rely on Legutko’s rejection of the very notion of ‘rights’ in order to make this offence against liberty vanish. Yet once you deny people natural or human rights, as Legutko does, you open the door to any and all forms of oppression, including arbitrary deprivation of property, slavery, rape, and murder, in the name of, and sanctioned by, the (religious) state.
In short, you would return society to the Dark Ages, when the Church exercised absolute rule over a world in which individual rights did not exist and individual freedom did not matter.
Roets likes to think that his people, the Afrikaners, have ‘rights’, and that his organisation, AfriForum, defends those rights, but his paleo-conservative ideology cannot stand if those same rights were universal.
Roets mistakenly characterises the free individual as ‘disengaged’, as if association with families or communities or religions cannot occur, or be valid, unless it is imposed and encumbered by external rules and obligations.
Yet he seems to support disengaged enclaves, in which people govern themselves in association with those who share their culture, language, religion, or other characteristics, and keep out those who do not share their values.
On the face of it, this sounds great. Want to be an illiberal society subject to some set of constraints on individual rights and liberties, go right ahead! Orania, or your favourite Anabaptist colony, awaits!
There is a reason such enclaves rarely work in practice, however. It is largely impossible in the modern world to geographically sort people into homogeneous communities and keep interlopers out.
The Apartheid government tried to do this. So did the Nazis.
In fact, Roets really ought to be careful what he wishes for. His illiberal democracy based on God, nation, and family values is a government of crude majoritarianism. He forgets that he and AfriForum agitate for minority rights, so assailing individual rights and defending majoritarianism might not be the wisest approach.
In his conclusion, the internal contradiction of Roets’s beliefs becomes clear.
‘In as far as liberalism means that we should respect differences of opinions and not try to enforce our will on others, this is indeed something that should be cherished and preserved,’ he says.
Great, I agree. ‘But in as far as liberalism has become ideological, disengaged individualism at the expense of the bigger picture, and in as far as it has become a rejection of the basic foundations of the West, it is something that needs to be resisted indeed.’
So, he actually does want to enforce his will upon others, in as far as that will is in pursuit of an undefined but clearly implied ‘bigger picture’, or his quite flawed conception of ‘the basic foundations of the West’.
The only limits on liberal individualism are the identical rights and freedoms of others. ‘The bigger picture’ will take care of itself.
Under limited government that establishes the basic democratic institutions needed for a free and peaceful society, the ‘bigger picture’ emerges not from the imposed dogma of an autocrat, or tradition, or nationalism, or an ordained elite, as Roets seems to believe, but from the expressed choices and amicable co-existence of all individual members of society.
I have long sought to distance my own classical liberal views from those of the religious right, conservatives, and the populist alt-right. I therefore welcome Roets’s effort to clarify how his paleo-conservative values stand in opposition to classical liberalism, individual freedom, and basic human rights.
It is now clear that the enemy of my socialist enemy is not my friend.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
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Image: Reading of Voltaire’s tragedy, Orphan of China, in the salon of Marie Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin in 1755, by Lemonnier, c. 1812. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.