On January 7, 2015, I apparently became a conservative. I did not know it at the time, and still resist the label. All my life I have ferociously defended liberalism from the malicious attacks of conservatives. I still embrace a host of traditional liberal positions – socialised healthcare, investment in mass transit, public funding for the arts, gun control. Libertarianism, with its faith in laissez faire economics, seems as destined as communism to fail; the libertarian utopia is as ephemeral as its Marxist twin.
This embrace of traditional liberal values and political positions extends back to my youth. I came out as gay to my parents at age 16, the year of the Stonewall Riots, and memories of being a high school outcast remain extremely painful. My home state of Wisconsin, United States, was the first to pass gay rights legislation, and I had been there, testifying before the legislature in our effort to repeal the state’s sodomy laws. I had grown up in an environmentally conscious family, so when US Senator Gaylord Nelson organised the world’s first Earth Day, I wasted no time organising a supportive march from my high school to City Hall. At 18, I moved to Milwaukee’s South Side, splitting college time with manual labour. The neighbourhood was largely Latino, and for three years close friendships with Mexicans and Puerto Ricans became the norm. Later, I moved to an integrated neighbourhood that balanced the poor and the middle class, the white and the black. Living in areas where whites were often the minority took me far from my suburban upbringing. I found myself attending Juneteenth Day celebrations and sharing candies with African-American neighbours at Kwanzaa. I participated in anti-war, open housing, and civil rights demonstrations. You might have called me a progressive.
On January 7, 2015, the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris was attacked by gunmen intent on murdering cartoonists. It was an event that struck particularly close to my self-identity. As an artist I saw the attack as a threat to the freedoms of expression those of us who have grown up in the West take for granted: the right to opinions at deviance from the norm; the right to be outspoken even if the things being said might be outrageous. By this time my career had taken me to India, where I had secured a bit of a name as a foreign artist. Once again, I was living as a racial minority in a culture far different from the one into which I was born. I had made a large network of friends in the Indian art scene who accepted me as one of their own. The day of the Paris attack there was an outpouring of support among these friends for the murdered cartoonists, but as images of various cartoons circulated on social media, the mood rapidly changed. Strict policies in India forbid speech and imagery deemed offensive to religious groups. As a person from the West I could only try to explain the satirical tradition of French cartooning, but, to my Indian friends, the offensive imagery spoke for itself. How this shifted blame from the terrorists to the cartoonists was beyond me.
Risking the legacy
Freedom of Speech is something we Americans tend to write with capital letters. For us, it is a holy maxim, one of the sacred commandments of our ethos. It allowed abolitionism and the civil rights movement to gain traction, suffragettes to win the vote, and was our powerful defender while the Vietnam War was protested to taunts of being traitorous. It was the gay rights movement’s fallback in the days even the mention of homosexuality was met with demands for silence. At 64, I still remember the days the American Civil Liberties Union was the fledgling gay rights movement’s only friend.
If at one time my Indian and America friends had come to the defence of both MF Husain and Salman Rushdie, they now began to embrace an idea of Muslim fragility. Departing from secular ideals, criticisms of Islam’s conservative biases were simply not tolerated. As someone who had spent my youth struggling against the rhetoric of the Christian Right, this was incomprehensible. Maajid Nawaz coined the term “Regressive Left” for this new brand of illiberal thinking. As mainstream pundits such as Bill Maher embraced the term, I was certain that traditional liberalism would soon win what seemed a minor skirmish in the culture war.
As 2015 unfolded, and the Syrian War brought thousands of refugees into the spotlight, this new “progressivism” began to police world immigration policy. Using the good-willed response to take in people displaced by war, the activist Left quickly blurred the meanings of words. Syrian refugees became all refugees, and economic migrants were conflated with refugees. Abetted by a host of NGOs, accusations of xenophobia or Islamophobia became a smokescreen for demanding borderless societies. Those who would mourn the loss of indigenous identity by the influx of consumerism into the Third World failed to have any concern for European cultures as they endlessly pushed for transformative mass immigration. For the more radical, deconstruction of the West seemed a primary objective in itself. “Whiteness” became a target for attack. This was not the liberalism Martin Luther King dreamed would foster a colour-blind society. It was a new Left, self-righteous, blinded by identity politics, and demanding moral hegemony.
In India, the forces of intolerance came from the Right. While the Western Left morphed with intolerant new sets of dogma, I watched the ascendancy of the Narendra Modi regime, the banning of films and books, and outright assaults upon Muslim and Dalit communities. What was happening in India horrified me. The Hindu Right was as frightening as the West’s illiberal Left. Both embraced a terrifying disregard for traditional liberal values.
In the fall of 2016, I rather reluctantly endorsed Hillary Clinton for US president. On the morning I awoke to the Donald Trump presidency, I was not surprised. Even before Brexit, I had left my liberal bubble to listen to the discontent within the other side, many of whom were, like me, defectors from the increasingly unbearable Left. Since the election, the unending and embarrassing antics of Trump have only been matched by the activist Left’s ever shriller strain of mob mentality. The notion I first encountered in India, that freedom from offence held supremacy over freedom of speech, has become an accepted norm among the mainstream Western liberal elite. The concept that people of European descent can be forced to repetitively atone for their original sin of “whiteness” has become entrenched. Maajid Nawaz still lambasts the “Regressive Left” on his radio show, but to all intents and purposes the Regressive Left is now the majority stakeholder in the politics of Western liberalism. As in India, the far-right is on the rise in Europe. My liberal friends have veered in directions unknown, and they risk the very things for which we traditional liberals once fought.
Waswo X Waswo is an artist based in Udaipur.