Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Decent Left (and other Endangered Species)

Over at Diversely We Sail, Peter links to an outstanding article in the Guardian, where a decent leftist takes on “the disgrace of the anti-war movement”:

On 15 February 2003 , about a million liberal-minded people marched through London to oppose the overthrow of a fascist regime.

….A few recognised that they were making a hideous choice. The South American playwright Ariel Dorfman, who had experienced state terror in General Pinochet's Chile, published a letter to an 'unknown Iraqi' and asked, 'What right does anyone have to deny you and your fellow Iraqis that liberation from tyranny? What right do we have to oppose the war the United States is preparing to wage on your country, if it could indeed result in the ousting of Saddam Hussein?'

His reply summed up the fears of tens of millions of people. War would destabilise the Middle East and recruit more fanatics to terrorist groups. It would lead to more despots 'pre-emptively arming themselves with all manner of apocalyptic weapons and, perhaps, to Armageddon'. Dorfman also worried about the casualties - which, I guess, were far higher than he imagined - and convinced himself that the right course was to demand that Bush and Blair pull back. Nevertheless, he retained the breadth of mind and generosity of spirit to sign off with 'heaven help me, I am saying that I care more about the future of this sad world than about the future of your unprotected children'.

….I don't think any open-minded observer who wasn't caught up in the anger could say that Dorfman was typical. Jose Ramos-Horta, the leader of the struggle for the freedom of East Timor, noticed that at none of the demonstrations in hundreds of cities did you see banners or hear speeches denouncing Saddam Hussein. If this was 'the left' on the march, it was the new left of the 21st century, which had abandoned old notions of camaraderie and internationalism in favour of opposition to the capricious American hegemony. They didn't support fascism, but they didn't oppose it either, and their silence boded ill for the future.

….In Saturday, his novel set on the day of the march, Ian McEwan caught the almost frivolous mood: 'All this happiness on display is suspect. Everyone is thrilled to be together out on the streets - people are hugging themselves, it seems, as well as each other. If they think - and they could be right - that continued torture and summary executions, ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide are preferable to an invasion, they should be sombre in their view.'

Dorfmans are vanishingly rare. The defining, universal feature of today’s ‘left’ is not, as it once was, opposition to fascism, but opposition to American foreign policy, even to the extent where when American foreign policy is to forcibly remove a genuinely fascist, genocidal dictator, the case against America can be presented as black-and-white.

How we came to this strange position is the subject for countless articles, but individuals who took this line pre-war could only do so by being intellectually dishonest – that is, by refusing to acknowledge the consequences of their own arguments.

If you opposed the invasion, you necessarily accepted that the consequences of leaving in power arguably the most brutal dictator in the world were morally and materially less bad than the consequences of war, either in terms of political stability or casualties. That takes some serious arguing. Black-and-white isn’t in the equation. Waving banners and blowing whistles and popstars are just not appropriate.

Out of the many anti-war people who harangued me post-war, virtually none were capable of admitting this obvious truism. They talked about oil, George Bush’s psychology and ‘international law’ instead. The only other path would be to explain how Saddam could be practically removed without an invasion. Even now, nobody is interested in doing that.


Peter Burnet said...

But, as with Hitchens, the flutter of hope that intelligent dialogue would be possible is semi-dashed when you come across "fascist", as if the word was any use at all in making critical judgments. You sense that, even for the decent ones, the bad guys have to be pegged in the right abstract ideological holes. What was fascist about Hussein? Why isn't maniacal, menacing, murderous, genocidal b--t--d good enough for these people?

Brit said...

They needed it pre-Kuwait invasion when Saddam was a greater enemy of the left than the US was. Saddam didn't get better in the meantime.

Let's take 'fascism' to mean, as per Wikipedia, broadly, a political ideology "that seeks to place the nation, defined in exclusive biological, cultural, and/or historical terms, above all other sources of loyalty, and to create a mobilized national community. Many different characteristics are attributed to fascism by different scholars, but the following elements are usually seen as its integral parts: nationalism, authoritarianism, militarism, corporatism, collectivism, anti-liberalism, and anti-communism."

In fact, any non-communist dicatorship would normally be described as 'fascist' by the left, so on any definition Saddam would qualify.

What's interesting is that anti-fascism, which used to be perhaps the rallying point of all leftist strands, is now weaker than anti-Americanism. In fact, they use the term for various US policies.

Anonymous said...

I don't think you need to explain how to have removed the Iraqi Ba'ath from power to oppose the invasion of Iraq. Even you note that one could instead argue that the costs of not invading, while high, would be less than the costs of invading. I disagree, but again as you noted it's hardly a black and white issue. Do not we frequently make the same sort of argument about the Cold War and the USSR?

Brit said...

Yes, as I said in the post - there are two paths: either argue that leaving him there is less bad than removing him, or explain a better way of removing him.

Hey Skipper said...

...either argue that leaving him there is less bad than removing him, or explain a better way of removing him.

Exactly. Not only is the Left not decent, it is vacuous. Having attempted, and failed, many times to get anything like a squaring of this circle, it seems to me the Left has become completely vacuous.

Advocating a null hypothesis amounts to achieving escape velocity from reality.