What is liberalism to you?
So, what makes liberalism, or at least my interpretation of it, different to the likes of Communism and national socialism? Well, liberalism may be popular, even if no one seems to know exactly what it is but given the unreasonable and often rabid criticism directed at liberal democracies the world over, in spite of their very many, various and frankly unparalleled achievements, one cannot easily make the case that any of them are good at presenting liberalism as “just”. As for shutting out competing narratives, liberalism, perhaps, makes being bad at that its defining feature: Liberalism enables people from vastly different ethnic, religious, linguistic and ideological backgrounds (and so on,) to come together, talk and change things for the better, as centuries of progress attest to, even in spite of the participants often having very little time for each other indeed!
Given that the kind of plurality I allude to above is central then, for most commentators on the subject, I feel more comfortable defining what liberalism isn’t rather than what it is: It most certainly is not the ideological intolerance of mind-reading and it really doesn’t matter whether such comes from the left or the right; not least because both seem to have become more akin to tribal identities than coherent political positions. As John Stuart Mill famously observed, if you think everyone on the other team is evil or stupid then you probably haven’t spent enough time thinking about how those on the other team think. Liberalism also means charity then, finding out your opponents’ arguments in their best form, not least because you probably have something to learn from them and likewise, they have something to learn from you.
Who are you?
I’m not entirely sure; which is likely no small mercy. I suppose my first answer would probably be nobody of much consequence. My second would be that I am a misfit, which is one good reason for me to cherish liberalism, as it allows for people like me to carry on relatively unmolested. I think I’ve evolved much more as a consequence of having been so lucky as to have benefited from interacting with others who, crucially, challenge me, both in person and via the medium of stories, articles, chapters and books. Even entirely fictional misfits count, too, especially Doestyevsky’s Zossima & Underground.
I try my very best not to be overly grandiose, which is a coping mechanism sadly all too common among those who, like me, lack the social wherewithal to adequately fit in. I also hope I am capable of changing my mind when, as is common, I am confronted with reasoning and evidence superior to my own. Further, I want to be able to see the worth in others, as well as their ideological backgrounds, even illiberal ones. Most of all, I try to understand that while I think I am out to try to stop bullies who would attempt to coerce conformity to narrow and illiberal ideological agendas, I share many of the same psychological traits they do and so am easily capable of behaving in exactly the same way. At all times, then, I worry that I might end up becoming the very thing that I set out to oppose in the first place, if not worse than that. I am, after all, human: I get cross, make mistakes, feel embarrassed about the various silly things I’ve done—or good things I should have done, but haven’t; I even try to post-hoc justify my transgressions by trying to convince myself they were somehow virtuous. They aren’t, of course. I can only hope then that people will be tolerant of me and my mistakes and so promise to be tolerant of them and theirs in return. This underlines, first, the importance of another concept—tolerance—widely understood to be foundational to liberalism and a second less commonly articulated but equally important one—forgiveness.
Oh, I suppose I ought to say a thing or two about the thing that I research, which is the threat posed by Critical Social Justice (CSJ) ideology to the national security of the United Kingdom and the United States, with a particular focus on the intelligence communities of both. I also look into how CSJ, as well as its right-wing rivals, are being exploited by the Chinese Communist Party and the Russian Federation in order to push divisiveness in liberal democracies, which is to serve as a means to cause all the many horrible consequences that follow in societies wherein people become less able or willing to tolerate and forgive one another. I have recently completed an MPhil on this topic and am currently working towards the completion of the associated PhD.
What do you do?
I’m a university lecturer, a podcast host (with my friend Elizabeth Spievak), an author (Elizabeth and I are working on a book), a researcher and a fellow of ILV. Other than that, as little as is humanly possible and absolutely no busy work whatsoever, thank you very much!
Favorite drink: Whatever you’re having?
Favorite food: Vindaloo (British Curry House version); a hangover from a misspent youth.
Favorite animal: Mothman
Favorite color: BLACK!
Favorite books: Karl Popper “The Open Society and its Enemies”; J.R.R Tolkien, “The Lord of The Rings”; Lao-Tse, “The Tao Teh King” (James Legge translation); Friedrich Nietzsche, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra; Edmund Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France”; Roger Scruton, “Thinkers of the New Left”; Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The Brothers Karamazov” & “Notes from Underground; anything by M.R. James; anything by H.P. Lovecraft. Oh, and everything by Terry Pratchett!
Favorite music: Wagner, Bruckner, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Mussorgsky, Tallis.
Favorite place to visit: The Cotswolds, England.
Favorite TV series: Twin Peaks, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, Sharpe, A House of Cards (UK version)
Favorite movies: Lawrence of Arabia, Dune, Mississippi Burning, The Twilight Samurai, A Ghost of a Chance, The Exorcist
ILV Selected Publications
ILV Selected Presentations
(With Elizabeth Spievak) “What Progress Really Looks Like: Weighing in for a Liberal Approach to Social Justice”. Heterodox Academy 2022, Denver.
Burke, M. “Postmodernism and the Challenges it Poses to the National Security of Western Liberal Democracies”, The Association of Sociopolitical Heterodoxy Conference, Kyoto.
Burke, M. “Critical Thinking and Critical Pedagogy: Education and Indoctrination”, Heterodox Academy Conference 2019, New York.
See also my work with Elizabeth Spievak on The Dissidents Podcast and The Counterweight Podcast for a whole host of interviews with leading figures as well as deep dives into the academic literature related to CSJ and cancel culture.